Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (2): Sensibility Formation

A quick follow-up to the last post.  Nussbaum’s project is to show how the reason/feeling divide misrepresents how we actually come to know things.  Judgments are guided by feelings.  There is no way to separate out feelings when we come to “cognize.”  Rather, feelings are an indispensable component in our acts of knowing.

Still: kindness, grievance, tolerance, sympathy, envy, hatred, and the like are not themselves “knowledge.”  They are better characterized as “dispositions,” as feeling states that influence how we judge situations, people, ourselves, and events.  Because different people have different sensibilities, different sensitivities, they process the world differently.  They come to different conclusions, different judgments, not only abut the significance of what they deem to be the case, but make different assertions about what is the case.

That different dispositions can lead to radically different assertions about the facts of the matter has become very apparent in 2020 America. 

The Trump cult has been created not simply by the man himself but by a right-wing media (led by Fox News) that has inculcated a sensibility best described as combining a perpetual sense of grievance with an openness to believing the worst about designated enemies.  (Immigrants are criminals, Democrats steal elections, liberals are socialists, and leftists are pederasts who are kidnapping massive numbers of children.) 

If cognition is so dependent on disposition, then it is no surprise that one theory of art would say that art is more directed to creating (fostering) certain sensibilities, certain predispositions, in its audience, than in making concrete assertions about what is.  The success of Fox News, or of the “lost cause” narrative in the American South, testify to the power of word, image, story, anecdote, staged emotions (outrage, condemnation, fellow feeling for those on one’s side), ceremony, and ritual to shape how people understand the world and their place in it. 

In our day, “culture” appears more and more intractable.  More than 150 years after the American Civil War, and the set of shared feelings and grievances that ignited that war still shape the American political and social landscape. 

The creation of culture, of shared dispositions across a group of people, is, it can be argued, aesthetic.  It is a matter of shaping feelings, of shaping how we “sense” things, and what “sense” they have for us (to go back to the root meaning of “aesthetic.”)

Thus, one non-cognitive theory of art would look not at any knowledge art might convey, but (instead) to the ways art fosters sensibilities.  If a novel, as Nussbaum claims, makes me more “sympathetic” with the sufferings of orphans, it is not primarily because it has given me new information about orphans.  It is because it has changed my general disposition toward suffering by making me “see” it, experience it, differently—and in a way that moves me beyond just responding to this particular case, this particular orphan, to a more general care for suffering orphans in the plural. 

I want to say more about “sensibility” and what that term might mean in subsequent posts.  And that discussion would connect up with Nick Gaskill’s interest in “aesthetic education” (a concern he shares with Joseph North).  Is the goal of aesthetic education to create certain kinds of sensibilities—and how might that creation be achieved?  I am inclined to think (as a teaser for where I think I am heading on this topic) that Kenneth Burke’s focus on “attitudes” will prove useful here.

But, first, I want to return to the effort to overcome (or, at least, mitigate the fact/value divide)—and that will be the subject of my next post.

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