Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities


It is hard, but not impossible, to disentangle the aesthetic from the meaningful.  Clearly, aestheticism tries to drive a hard boundary between what is aesthetic and what conveys meaning.  But since the aesthetic always entails a relationship between a perceiver and the thing perceived, it seems “natural” (i.e. to occur almost automatically and seemingly of its own accord, unwilled) to ascribe some significance to that relationship.  When the thing perceived it itself “natural” (i.e. not human made, but—for example—a mountain landscape), we get the kinds of “oceanic” sensations of harmony or of the self melting into the non-self that are associated with romanticism.  When the thing perceived is human made, an artifact, it is difficult not to view it as an act of communication.  This thing is offered or presented by one human to another—and we presume that the offering has some meaning, is thought of as being significant.

Meaning and significance are not exactly equivalent.  I can discern the meaning in a banal sentence, but deem it insignificant.  When the artist presents something to an audience, she (it would seem) is making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of significance.  This is worth paying attention to.

On what grounds can that claim to significance, importance, be made?  Either the artist claims to have something important to say, some message we need to hear.  Or the artist is offering a valuable experience.  Now that word “valuable” has snuck in.  “Meaning” and “significance” are synonyms when they refer to sense (i.e. what does that sentence mean; what does that sentence signify); but then both words move from reference to the sense something (a sentence, an event) makes to intimations of “worth,” of importance, of value.  Something is meaningful as opposed to trivial or meaningless; something is significant as contrasted to not worth paying any mind. 

The aesthetic, then, seems pretty inevitably engaged in pointing to something or some event as worthy of our attention—and then has to justify that pointing in terms of importance or significance or meaningfulness.  It seems a very short leap from that kind of justification to making claims about what does or should hold value for us as humans beings living a life.  It seems difficult to avoid some kind of hierarchizing here.  These activities or these insights are valuable; they contribute to leading a good or worthwhile life.  Those activities and beliefs are, at best, a waste of time, or, at worst, pernicious. 

Yes, certain modern artists (although far less of them than one might suppose) wanted to get out of the value game.  But it was awfully hard to present your art work in a “take it or leave it” way, utterly and truly indifferent as to whether anyone found it worthy of attention.  A sense of grievance, a denunciation of the philistines, is much more common when the artist fails to find an audience.  People have bad taste, have a misguided sense of what is valuable and should be valued. 

I suspect that even as the arts were trying in the early 20th century to escape meaningfulness, to simply offer experiences that were their own end and carried no message, that the humanities were going in the opposite direction.  The humanities are devoted to uncovering the meanings of cultural artifacts and events.  This is partly because the humanities are an academic pursuit—and thus tied to models of knowledge that were developed in reference to the “hard” sciences.  Just as science should explain to us natural events, the humanities should explain cultural ones.

But, as people (like Dilthey) quickly noted, scientific explanations were causal.  It was not very clear how the explanations offered by the humanities could (or even should) be causal.  You could say that, as a communicative act, the art work causes the audience to receive a certain meaning.  And certainly that kind of approach to the problem of meaning has figured fairly prominently in the philosophy of language and in certain forms of literary theory.  So, for example, the philosophers struggle mightily with metaphor and irony because it undermines any kind of direct mapping of semantic sense to conveyed meaning.  And then someone like Wayne Booth, a literary theorist, comes along and tries to provide a list of the textual markers that allow us to see when irony is being deployed.  Vague terms like “tone,” “implication,” and “connotation” are trotted out—and interpretation (even when given a jargony, snazzy name like “hermeneutics”) quickly begins to seem too seat of the pants, too ad hoc, to really qualify as science.

The alternative is to try to explain how and why “interpretation” is different from “explanation.”  For starters, interpretation is not trying to explain how this thing we are perceiving was produced.  (There are other branches of humanistic inquiry that do try to answer that question.)  Interpretation is trying to suss out the meaning conveyed to the perceiver.  The movement, we might say, is forward not backwards.  The interest is not in the causes of this artistic artifact or event, but in its effects. 

I don’t want to get into the tangles of trying to differentiate “explanation” from “interpretation.”  This is mostly from cowardice.  I do think there is a methodological distinction to be drawn between the sciences and the humanities, but I have not been able to draw that distinction in a way that is even minimally plausible or satisfactory.  So I have nothing ready for prime time on that topic.

Instead, I want to end this post with two observations.  The first is that the humanities, I think, are always pulling art works back into the realm of the meaningful even in cases where the artists themselves are determined to escape the nets of meaning.  In such cases, the humanities will often then give us the meaning of the attempt to escape meaning.  And it is worth adding here that history is one of the humanities when it considers the effects of events as opposed to trying to trace the causes of events.  That history is pulled both toward causes and to effects is why it is often considered one of the social sciences.   But, then again, it would be silly to say the natural sciences don’t, at times, pay attention to effects as well as causes.  And, as I have already said, some branches of literary criticism (although not very prominent) do attend to causes.  So the difference here can’t be grounded on whether causes or effects is the focus.  (This is a taste of the muddle I am in about these things.) 

Instead, perhaps the key difference is meaningfulness itself.  The natural scientist tracing causes and effects of a natural process does not have to assign that process meaningfulness apart from what transpires.  But the humanities, it seems to me, always consider the further question: how is this event or object meaningful for some group of humans?  The “uptake” by some human community is almost always part of the humanities’ account of that event/artifact; that community’s paying attention to and its ways of elaborating, playing out, its relationship to the event/artifact and to the humans involved in the making of that event/artifact, is a central concern for the humanities.

The second point need not be belabored since I have already made it above.  It seems to me only a short step (and one almost impossible not to make) from considering the meanings that people have made of an event or an artifact to considering what things are or should be valuable.  At the very least, the humanities declare: this is what these people valued.  But to look at what they valued is to think about what can have value, and to consider what I value.  Furthermore, for many devotees of the humanities, that reflection on values is precisely what is valuable about novels, historical narratives, anthropological investigations. 

This interest in questions of value can be formal or substantive.  I think most teachers of literature (just to stick to that limited domain for the moment) pursue both.  They are committed to what usually gets called “critical thinking,” which means a mode of reflection on received ideas and values, a way of questioning them in order to examine what I will still believe after doing that reflecting.  The examined life and all that.  But literary works often advocate for specific substantive values: sympathy, justice, the alleviation of suffering and/or of inequalities (or, on the conservative side, reverence for tradition and established authority).  And teachers often choose to have students read works that promote values the teacher values. 

I don’t think the humanities can get out of the values business (even if some of the arts can).  There is no fact/value divide in the humanities—and, thus, the humanities are going to be embroiled in endless controversies so long as values themselves are a site of dispute.  You can’t, I believe, wipe clean the substantive bits of the humanities, leaving only a formal method that has no concrete implications.  As current controversies demonstrate, “critical thinking” and “open-mindedness” are themselves deemed threatening in certain quarters because they imply that various sacred cows are not sacred, are open to dissent.  Any approach that refuses to take things on authority is suspect. The arts may (although usually don’t) sidestep issues of authority by just saying this is one person’s take on things—and you can ignore it as you wish.  But the humanities don’t have that escape route; they are committed to the view that only things and beliefs that have been examined are worthy of authority and credence—and they, in their practice, are inevitably involved in considering what things/activities/beliefs about what is meaningful, what is valuable, one should adopt. Every formal methods, in other words, has substantive consequences, so formalism of any sort is never going to be value-free.

Sound and the Furious Podcast

My latest venture, in an effort to join the 21st century, is a podcast. Through the generosity of Elizabeth Stockton and Andy Crank, I have been taken on a third voice on their show, The Sound and the Furious. Elizabeth and Andy started the podcast five years ago, with a focus on bringing a humanities perspective to current issues.

Covid and other complications led to the podcast suspending operations in February 2020. But now it’s back, with yours truly added to the cast.

The inaugural show–46 minutes long–is now up. Here’s the link:

Also available on Apple Podcasts, and Spotify. I hope you’ll find it of interest.

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.

Cognitive Theories of Art (4)

I had thought I was at the end of cognitive theories and ready to move onto non-cognitive ones.  But then, in thinking of these matters over the past few days, realized that one could plausibly claim I had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely.  My discussion in the previous three posts assumed a representational understanding of knowledge, cognition, and art.  That is: art was cognitive insofar as it gave us a representation of some fact (some content) that the audience could now grasp through the medium of the art object.  The goal was to use the art object as the means toward some insight.  And that way of understanding the matter also seemed to imply that the insight could be articulated.  The critic (Jameson or Nussbaum) could tell us in words what the art work had taught us. 

But a more radical cognitive theory (and clearly Langer and Massumi are trying to give us this kind of radical theory) would argue 1) that the art work does not represent some content which the audience is given the means to cognize; 2) that the art work instead presents (or is itself the embodiment of a fact or content) what is to be grasped; 3) that our grasping of that content is immediate in the same way that perception is immediate; and 4) that what we grasp is not translatable into another vocabulary.  In short, the art work’s value resides precisely in its doing something that cannot be done in some other way. 

The art work functions as an entirely different mode of knowledge, one that does offer important insights (or illuminations) about the world and about humans in the world.  Those insights are not available through any other means and are not reducible to expression by any other vocabulary.  The heresy of paraphrase.  Any translation of the art work into other kinds of statements inevitably misses (at least) part of its point even if it doesn’t misunderstand that point entirely.

This kind of heroic theory of art is everywhere in modernism and in the avant-garde sensibilities that still persist even in the postmodern disillusionment with modernism.  A few observations are in order—and these observations suggest that we are entering some fuzzy border land between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of art.

Why fuzzy?  Because to insist art yields insights but through an entirely different, non-representational and non-mediated, process is to commit the theorist to a revisionary account of what knowledge is and how it might be gained. Thus, the theory can go two ways: expand our understanding of cognition or celebrate the powers of and capacities enabled by non-cognitive modes of interaction.  Which path the theorist chooses is mostly inconsequential.  The real pay-off is in the details of how art is understood to enact its powers, not in whether those powers are deemed cognitive or non-cognitive.  The key is to move beyond a hard-core realist or empirical understanding of cognition, and it is not of much importance whether that move is seen as an expansion of our concept of cognition or as introducing process of non-cognition.

The Langer/Massumi approach resonates with all of those modernist attempts to side-step mediation and representation, to be the thing itself rather than some imitation (Aristotle) or representation (Locke) or sign (prison-house of language) of the thing.  And there is a very strong desire to nullify any and all attempts at reduction, of claims that this appearance is really (au fond) an expression of this underlying fact.  A denial of surface/depth dichotomies in favor of a metaphysics of appearances (as all there is) runs from Nietzsche through to Foucault, from Wilde through to Ad Reinhardt.

The cognitive/non-cognitive split does seem a bit more consequential at this point.  Basically, the desire to emphasize that the art work is the thing itself, not some representation of some truth or underlying non-manifest reality (as in Jameson), can go one of two ways: 1) a fierce denial of meanings, of putting the work in service to any kind of “take-away,” any kind of transformation of the audience.  The work is just a mute thing, which is a glorious achievement in our over-signed world, where (in William James’s words) “the trail of the human serpent is over everything.”  Art “dehumanizes” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase)—and thus offers us a liberation from our over-cultured existence. Ad Reinhardt chooses this path. 

2) The thing itself is seen as numinous.  This is the Kandinsky route.  The painting does not represent anything other than itself, but what it presents is shot through and through with spirituality, with an energy or aura that is lost in the materialistic modern world.  The painting puts us in touch with, helps us come to know (hence cognize), spiritual realities.  It seems to me that for every Ad Reinhardt, insisting that his paintings as just mute objects, there are four Kandinskys (Mondiran, Malevich, and Rothko among that number) in this debate about the aims and meanings of modernist non-representational art.  It seems fair to say Reinhardt is non-cognitivist while Kandinsky is a cognitivist.  Knowledge is not at issue with Reinhardt (something like pure perception divorced from knowledge is the aim), while getting to know something modern culture obscures is the whole point for Kandinsky.

I am, despite my attachment to meaning, much more attracted to the Reinhardt stance than to the Kandinsky one.  That fact probably reflects my resolute secularism and atheism.  I am that odd mixture: a positivist with a life-long interest in and engagement with the arts.  I suspect that the humanities are absolutely and irrevocably tied to meaning.  What the humanities do is to ponder, probe, speculate about the meanings of things, including art works.  But that probing and speculating occurs because the meanings of art works, historical events, ordinary language, political actions, social interactions etc. are neither self-evident nor stable.  So I don’t need—or perhaps even want—art works that come laden with pre-determined meaning(s).  Give me the thing itself and then let me go to work on it.  Don’t come selling me your spiritual claptrap. Or predigested political message(s).

I suspect therefore (although I haven’t worked this through entirely for myself) that I would prefer to retain a fairly rigid positivist definition of what counts as knowledge.  Instead of a revisionary understanding of what counts as cognition, I think I’d prefer allowing for different modes of interaction with the world that would then be understood as non-cognitive.  A simple example is any habitual action.  A trained tennis player or pianist will perform a series of actions that are so instantaneous that thought does not intervene.  In fact, if the player allows thought to intervene, he will almost invariably perform the action less well.  Is the tennis player cognizing that the incoming serve is going to swerve to the left and that he should hit it with his backhand and in such a way that the ball will go down the line rather than cross-court in its flight over the net?  That just seems a bad description of what is taking place.  Cognition, as the metaphors we use about it seem to suggest, requires “distance,” “reflection”—and hence time (some kind of stepping away from action and event after their transpiring).

This dichotomy between practice/action (the heat of the moment) and reflective distance troubles our understanding of art’s relation to cognition.  If art is another way of knowing, then who gets to experience that “other way”?  The artist or the audience? I am attracted to seeing the artist as akin to the tennis player or the pianist.  The practice of the art is a process of discovery in the moment; oh, this is how I react, this is how I interact (with the media of my art) and what unfolds from that interaction.  The unexpected arrives—and can be deeply satisfying and feel like a discovery, an achievement, a new understanding of oneself and the world.

But the difference is that the artist gets to revise.  The time pressures that make irreversible the actions of the tennis player during the game and the pianist during the concert do not apply to the artist.  She gets to revise, to wipe out what now seems to her a mistake.  There is reflection built into the process of artistic creation in a way that is not true of the “real time” unfolding of a game or concert. “Real time” in quotes because the time of games is artificial in lots of ways; but that time is real in the sense of being irreversible, unrevisable.

Plus there is a deep asymmetry between the position of the artist and of the audience.  The artist is engaged in an action of making and of discovery through the making.  The audience perceives what the artist has made.  True: much art since 1900 has worked hard to overcome this divide, to make the audience “work,” to render the audience less passive.  But there remains the gap between the process of making the work and the brute fact of the finished (inert) product that is displayed.  Again, much modern and avant-garde art has struggled mightily to elevate process over product.  We might say that “the product” is defined by having entered into irreversible time. Once in the museum, the painting is beyond revision. (Think, however, of all the poets who keep revising their poems for subsequent re-printings; Yeats and Auden are only particularly notorious examples.)

I would still say (just as a matter of common-sense) that what the artist experiences (and whatever cognitive contents emerge from that experience) are different from what the audience can and might experience.  This would follow self-evidently from the fact that the artist and the audience are doing different things.  Thus, any cognitive (and, most likely, any non-cognitive) theory of art is also going to have to account for the different experiences of artist and audience. 

I still think it comes down to the question: what do we learn from a work of art?  The artist learns about her craft and about her capacities for working with the materials of her media.  That engagement might very well also tell her something about herself (a gain in self-knowledge) and about the world (meanings emerge as she struggles to create a work that she thinks others will find interesting or compelling).  The audience learns about what is possible in a particular medium when it is shaped by a distinctive talent and, maybe, sees the world illuminated in unexpected and delightful (or depressing) ways.  To see things with new eyes, from a different perspective.  To have the world opened up, made anew.  The strongest claim for the aestheticist is that what is learned by both artist and audience could not be learned in any other way—and that what is learned is valuable, is life-enhancing, is an attainment we would not want to have to do without.