Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (1)

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art

Enough of this election anxiety.  Back to the airy heights of theories of the aesthetic.

My four posts on cognitive theories of the aesthetic were really just a prelude to considering non-cognitive theories.  And I am going to start with Martha Nussbaum (although she can be seen as just the latest in a long line that would include David Hume and George Eliot).

Basically, Nussbaum believes that art works activate sympathy.  A novel can portray the sufferings of Oliver Twist and children like him.  Such a novel may serve to bring to our attention facts about orphans and workhouses, thus adding to our knowledge.  But more crucial is the way the story inspires fellow-feeling, a new sympathy for the plight of orphans.  It is one thing to know that orphans are often underfed; it is another thing to respond to that fact feelingly, to experience it as something that should be rectified.  The moral emotions of indignation and sympathy are brought into play through the power of the story, a power that a simple recitation of the facts does not have.

Such a way of explaining what is going on rests on a fairly stark fact/value divide, Hume’s worry about deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  One can see that an orphan does not have enough to eat.  But that seeing does not entail the judgment that the orphan’s hunger is “wrong” (or “unjust”) and that it should be rectified.  Rationalist theories of moral value (Kant or Mill, one deontological, the other utilitarian) believe that reason provides the basis for moral judgments.  But the Humean school hands that job over to feelings.  Our moral judgments come from those moral emotions, from our indignation at suffering felt (perceived?) as unnecessary or cruelly inflicted, from our sympathy with those who suffer.  

Some may be able to see the hungry child and feel no sympathy, may even be able to claim the child is getting what he deserves.  Those seeking to convert such a person to their sympathetic view needs to find a way to pull on the heartstrings, to call forth the needful feelings.  Arguments and reasons will not do the trick.  We don’t know something is heinous simply by looking at it.  Thus it is unlike knowing something is red.  We don’t need some particular “feeling state” to judge the thing is red.  But we do need the appropriate feelings to judge something is unjust, should be condemned and, if possible, rectified.

This is philosophy, so of course it gets complicated.  My own theoretical and moral commitments mean that I really would like to avoid such a sharp fact/value divide.  There are, as far as I can see, two pathways to lessening the gap between fact and value.  Neither, I think, closes that gap completely.

The first path is one I think Nussbaum takes.  She is very committed to the assertion that feeling and cognition are not distinct—that, in fact, a feeling-less cognition is monstrous and mostly impossible.  For her, sympathy enhances understanding.  The story of Oliver Twist increases our understanding of the plight of orphans. (George Eliot would make this claim as well.) If we define “empathy” as the ability to get a sense of another’s experience, then sympathy is the gateway to empathy.  We know more about others when we are able to sympathize with them—and that ability is feeling-dependent.  No amount of simple or “rational” looking will do the job.  The feelings must be activated for the most adequate knowledge to be accessed. 

Thus, Nussbaum (ultimately) is a cognitivist when it comes to (at least) literature. (What she would have to say about non-literary artistic forms is not clear; she seldom writes of them.)  But there still lingers the difference between explanation and understanding, or determinative and reflective judgment.  To know that the house is red is a determinate judgment (in Kant’s terms).  We don’t claim to “understand” the house; we just state what its color is, and would presumably “reduce” that judgment to the physics of wavelengths and the semantic facts about English if we had to explain to someone the basis for the judgment. 

[A digression: I continue to struggle with the possibility that there is a significant difference between “explanation” and “understanding.” To “understand” the orphan’s plight is not to “explain” it; to understand can mean either I now see that he is hungry or now empathize with, have a sense of, his suffering. To explain his hunger would, presumably, be to trace its causes, what factors have deprived him of enough food, or what physiological processes lead to hunger. Since Dilthey (at least) there has been an effort to see “explanation” as characteristic of the sciences, and “understanding” as characteristic of the humanities. My problem–shared with many others–is not being able to work out a clear distinction between explanation and understanding. Plus there is the problem that making such a clear distinction threatens to create another gap similar to the fact/value divide. Do I really want to see the sciences and the humanities as doing fundamentally different things, with fundamentally different goals and methods? How drastic a dualism do I want to embrace–even when a thorough going collapse of all distinctions between the science and humanities is also unattractive? The trouble with many aesthetic theories, in my eyes, is their desperate commitment to finding something that renders the aesthetic distinct from every other human practice and endeavor. I don’t think the aesthetic is so completely distinctive–and I don’t see what’s gained (in any case) if one could prove it unique. So my struggle in this long series of posts on the aesthetic is to find some characteristics of the aesthetic that do seem to hold over a fairly large set of aesthetic objects and practices–while at the same time considering how those characteristics also operate in other domains of practice, domains that we wouldn’t (in ordinary language as well as for analytical reasons) deem aesthetic. And, to name once again the golden fleece I am chasing, I think some account of meaning-creating and meaning-conferring practices is the best bet to provide the theory I am questing for.]

To return to the matter at hand: The judgment that the plight of orphans is unjust or outrageous is a reflective judgment in Kant’s sense.  Reflective judgments have two features that distinguish them from determinative judgments:

1. The category to which this instance is being assigned is itself not fixed.  Thus, for Kant, “beauty” is not a stable standard.  A new work of art comes along and is beautiful in a way we have never experienced before and/or had hardly expected.  But we judge that the term “beauty” is appropriate in this case, even though it is novel—and even though our judgment revises our previous senses of the category “beauty.” 

2. Kant is also very clear that reflective judgments originate in subjective feelings.  He is concerned, of course, to find a way to move from that subjectivism to “universal validity” and “universal communicability.”  But the starting point is individual feeling in a way that it is not for determinative judgments.  My feeling about the house plays no role in my assertion that is red.  But my feelings about the Matisse painting are necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, to my judging it “beautiful.” (not necessarily sufficient because my judgment also takes the sensus communis into account. I judge, as Arendt puts it, in the company of others. Reflective judgment is neither entirely personal nor entirely social. Its public character comes from the fact that it will be stated for/to others.)

Thus, even if we (as Nussbaum wants to do) say our aesthetic and moral judgments count as knowledge, as assertions that we make with confidence and expect others to understand (at least) and agree with (at best), those judgments still arise from a different basis than judgments of fact. (N.B.: I am following Arendt here in taking Kant’s aesthetics as a more plausible basis for morality than Kant’s own moral theory.)

To summarize: aesthetic judgments (“this is beautiful”) and moral judgments (“this is unjust”) would still be seen as “cognitive.”  Such judgments are assertions about how some thing in the world (an art work, an orphan’s hunger) should be understood, should be labeled—and purport to say something substantial about that thing in the world.  But the process by which that judgment is reached—and the process by which I would get others to assent to it—is distinct (in certain ways) from the processes that underwrite statements of fact. A key feature of that difference is the role feelings play in reaching the two different kinds of judgment.

So maybe Nussbaum’s approach is not non-cognitive; instead, it is committed to their being different forms/processes of cognition.  Then we would just get into a fight over what we are willing to label “cognitive.”  How capacious are we willing to let that term be? Is calling the Matisse painting “beautiful” a knowledge claim or not. The positivists, of course, pronounced aesthetic and moral judgments non-cognitive in the 1930s–and philosophers (of whom Nussbaum is prominently one) have been pushing against that banishment ever since. The only stake (it seems to me) would be whether being deemed “cognitive” is also seen as conferring some kind of advantage over things deemed “non-cognitive.”  Nussbaum certainly seems to think so. She is very committed to expanding the realm of the cognitive and the rational to include feeling-dependent judgments—and seems to believe that enhancing the status of such feeling-dependent judgments will increase the respect and credence they command.

But the alternative would be to say credence does not rest on something being cognitive; that we should look elsewhere for what leads people to make judgments and to assent to the judgments that others make. Standard understandings of cognition are just too simple, too restrictive, to account for the complexities of how people actually judge and come to have beliefs. Better to abandon the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction altogether–and provide an alternative story about how we come to think and feel about things.

I am going to leave it here for today—and discuss in my next post an alternative way to lessen the fact/value gap, one that does move toward ignoring characterizing judgments and beliefs as either cognitive or non-cognitive.

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