Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

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.

Cognitive Theories of Art (3)

One last post about cognitive theories before moving on to non-cognitive theories. Cognitive theories, it seems to me, are committed to the assertion that art works transmit information.  It is that information that the audience cognizes.  And usually there will be an accompanying assertion that art works either uniquely or at least more effectively transmit that kind of information they are seen (by the theorist) as transmitting.

Here’s three examples.  Heidegger states that poetry illuminates Being.  The heightened, non-ordinary uses of language that we find in Holderlin open us up to information/knowledge/apprehension that is not available to us (or, at least, not as readily available to us) by other means of transmission.

Jameson tells us that postmodern art works inform us about the condition of late capitalism; specifically, they make apparent the inability of selves in late capitalism to “cognitively map” the world in which they live.  Hence, the information we receive from such works is the failure of cognition to grasp the conditions in which we are constrained to live. 

Finally, Nussbaum argues that novels (in particular) are a privileged avenue toward sympathetic understanding of other people.  Stories are especially powerful in getting us to realize (to recognize) the reality (thoughts, feelings, desires, anxieties, susceptibility to pain and joy, the selfishness or selflessness) of others. 

A number of theoretical questions immediately arise when we consider these three examples.

  1.  As I worried in my last two posts in discussing Langer and Massumi, is it really true that the audience for postmodern works walks away with the recognition of our inability to map the whole?  Or do we need Jameson to tell us this?  And what is the difference between Jameson telling us this and the art work that transmits that message?  How is one mode of disclosure different from, more effective than, or more replete than the other (i.e. the critic’s discourse vs the art work’s discourse)?  Nussbaum’s answer is that the novel makes us feel the fact of other lives in a way that assertive statements cannot.  The novel uses story to bring the truth home in a visceral way that makes a more powerful impact. 

It is not clear that Jameson would go that route—especially since the Jamesonian harvesting of information requires an additional interpretive step.  A George Eliot novel in Nussbaum’s view (and she can point to Eliot’s own understanding of what she was doing) aims to do exactly what Nussmaum tells us it does: i.e. awaken and develop sympathetic understanding.  But the postmodern art work, in Jameson’s account, does not consciously set out to tell us about cognitive failure.  It requires the intervention of the critic, making a hermeneutical move that owes a fair amount to post-Freudian techniques for uncovering unconscious thoughts/feelings, to articulate the information embedded in those postmodern works.  Would the works transmit that information without the critic’s interpretive intervention?  That is like asking if the patient would come to recognize his unconscious thoughts/feelings without the intervention of the analyst.  Those unconscious thoughts/feelings manifest themselves in symptoms, dreams etc., but still require interpretive work for their meaning to become clear (if it ever does become clear). 

In short, the theorist will need some kind of account of indirect communication, some way of explaining why the critic’s own bald statements of the information the art work transmits are not equivalent to the art work’s own communication of that information.  And, generally speaking, the theorist will try to explain why the art work is a more effective communication, one that impacts audiences more powerfully than the critic.  (Although it is not clear to me that Jameson takes this stance.  Since he sees postmodern works as cognitively impaired, his own clarifying account might be considered preferable to the passivity inducing befuddlements of the postmodern.)  Heidegger’s response to this problem is interesting.  I would claim that he tries to erase the distinction between poetry and philosophy; by melding the two, his discourse is not radically different in kind or technique from that of Holderlin, thus sidestepping the problem of judging the critic’s statements against that artistic ones. 

The Heidegger strategy points to another issue with cognitive theories: why art? Many cognitive theories will try to establish that not only is art the best way to transmit certain cognitive contents, but also the only way. Art provides access to certain information that would never be revealed to us otherwise. We can call this the “strong” cognitive theory, the ones that says there is no alternative pathway to the insights art provides.

2. Cognitive theories are going to have a much tougher time with non-verbal arts.  We have seen how Massumi and Langer address this problem by insisting that visual arts and music (respectively) display (make manifest) forms of perception (in Massumi’s case) and of feeling (in Langer’s case).  To make something apparent is a mode of transmitting information.  What was not perceived before is now apprehended.  Something is cognized.  But we need an account of how that manifestation is done.  Langer works hard to do this for music, building on her earlier account of non-discursive symbols.

3. I keep claiming that I am moving toward an account of meaning.  But these reflections on cognitive theories of art have a problematic relation to questions of meaning.  On the one hand, we can say that any account that talks of “transmission of information” has to include a theory of meaning.  How do the particular elements of the art work come to “mean” the information that is received from that work?  Nussbaum can rely on a fairly straight-forward faith in ordinary language’s ability to communicate.  There is nothing mysterious going on in a George Eliot novel if we are reading it for the story and for its portrayal of the interior life of its characters.  But Jameson has to provide a fairly complex account of how an art work both reflects and misreads the socio-economic conditions of its production—and how that simultaneous reflection/miscognition is expressed in artistic form and content. 

On the other hand, if “meaning” points us toward what is significant, what has import for us, the cognitive approach appears to need a further step.  We are back to my pay-off question from the last post.  If music reveals the form of feeling, that doesn’t show that this revelation is particularly “meaningful.”  Billions of people lead full lives without that kind of second-order information.  What changes if I do possess that knowledge? 

Nussbaum has a more direct case to make that an expansion of sympathetic understanding would lead to beneficial social effects.  In Jameson’s case, it is harder to tell.  He clearly bemoans the passivity connected with the cognitive inability to grasp the whole—but he just as clearly thinks it is important to alert us to the pervasiveness of that cognitive inability.  If that implies there is something we should care about—and then act to remedy—, the proposals for action are not going to be found in the postmodern art works he analyzes.  Instead, the remedies will have to be imported from elsewhere, presumably from Marxist works of political and economic theory.  Art, for Jameson, is symptomatic of a benighted social order, but not the source of meaningful information about 1) why we should care about that benighted order or 2) what we should do about it.  (I may be wrong about #1.  Maybe the art works display deformed lives that make us recognize how blighted contemporary lives are.  But mostly Jameson seems to see postmodern art as displaying a numbed “what me worry” incoherence, not some outraged or even conscious indictment of that benumbed condition.)

4. Finally (for now): a cognitive theory of art is committed, it seems to me, to the notion that we learn something from our encounter with the arts.  And that suggestion provides one way of explaining why the arts are part and parcel of most educational curricula.  What we can be said to learn varies widely, from the Nussbaumian notion of an ethical expansion of our sympathies to enhancement of our communicative/interpretive skills to more concrete information about how the world works.  Balanced against this need for cognitive theories to specify just what it is that art works transmit are two alternative possibilities: 1) that art works are not cognitive at all, and should not be yoked to any imperative to transmit information or to mean anything at all, or 2) that art works do not transmit specific bits of information but can be connected to the development of certain sensibilities, certain sensitivities, that render one more likely to attend to certain features in the world.  It is to these two possibilities that I will turn in my next posts.  If #1 (no meaning or information) is accepted, it is not at all clear why the arts would be part of an educational program; if #2 is the case, then aesthetic education would be aiming at something rather different than Jameson would advocate.  Nussbaum’s position is more ambiguous (or maybe ambidextrous): she wants to bridge cognition and feeling, so the information receive about the other’s reality fosters a sensibility that cares more for what others experience.