Cognitive Science of Philosophy Symposium: Neuroaesthetics

Welcome to the Brains Blog’s Symposium series on the Cognitive Science of Philosophy. The aim of the series is to examine the use of diverse methods to generate philosophical insight. Each symposium is comprised of two parts. In the target post, a practitioner describes the method under discussion and explains why they find it fruitful. A commentator then responds to the target post and discusses the strengths and limitations of the method.

In this symposium, William Seeley (University of Southern Maine) discusses what neuroscience can (and can’t) tell us about how artworks work. Elisabeth Schellekens (Uppsala University) provides commentary about the relationship between scientific and philosophical explanations of art.

Philosophy, Neuroscience, & the Puzzle of Locating Art

William P. Seeley

It is an empirical fact, and a surprising one, that our brain – more particularly parts of our brain – engage in processes that are strikingly like guessing, deciding, believing, jumping to conclusions, etc. And it is enough like these personal level behaviors to warrant stretching ordinary use to cover it. If you don’t study the excellent scientific work that adopting the intentional stance has accomplished, you’ll think it’s just crazy to talk this way. It isn’t.

(Dennett, 2007, p. 86)

Ludwig Wittgenstein once quipped, “Suppose it was found that all of our judgements proceeded from our brains. We discovered particular kinds of mechanisms in the brain, formulated general laws, etc., …The question is whether this is the sort of explanation we would like to have when we are puzzled by aesthetic impressions…” (Wittgenstein, 1967, p. 20). He was right, of course. Still, this doesn’t mean that psychology, neuroscience, or the cognitive sciences more broadly have nothing to offer explanations of our artistic practices.

We are far less skeptical today about the explanatory scope of neuroscience than Wittgenstein was in his own. We’ve had more practice. The range of technologies available to explore the inner workings of the brain has expanded exponentially in the last half century. Magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG) technologies were introduced and developed in the 1970s (Börnert & Norris, 2020; Hari & Salmelin, 2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) followed two decades later. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) emerged sometime in between in the 1980s (Walsh & Pascual-Leone, 2003). Computers with the memory and processing speed necessary to make headway sorting and understanding the vast array of data these machines produce and sleuthing how it might relate to our quotidian cognitive activities are a much more recent development (Bellier et al 2023; Haxby, Connolly, & Guntupalli, 2014; Hoefle et al, 2018). And herein lies the rub. We are new to all of this. It is still an open question how far explanatory the scope of these research tools, or better the data collected with them, will extend. But even the most dyed in the wool Wittgensteinian skeptic would be hard pressed to argue that neuroscience has had nothing to offer our understanding of behavior in the past few decades.

Cognitive science can be defined, broadly, as the interdisciplinary study of how organisms acquire, represent, manipulate, and use information in the production of behavior. Artworks are vehicles of communication that gain their identities via their roles in fairly complex social events (Carroll, 1992; Fodor, 2012). They are artifacts intentionally designed to express some point, purpose, or meaning. They carry information about these expressive purposes. Artistic practice involves the acquisition of cognitive skills and knowledge that enable consumers to recover of this information so that they can understand and appreciate artworks. Stated baldly this entails, contrary to the skeptic’s intuition, that art and cognitive science are natural bedfellows. The question at hand, then, is what neuroscience can contribute to an understanding of how consumers acquire and utilize information carried in artworks in order to understand and appreciate their point, purpose, or meaning.

Research methods in neuroaesthetics are grounded in a set of assumptions about the ways artworks work to mediate the communicative exchange between artists and consumers. Artists working in the fine arts develop sets of formal productive strategies that in essence allow them to reverse engineer perception (Baumgarten, 1735/1954; Mendelssohn, 1757/ 1997; Winner, 1982). Naturalistic painting is often used as a limit case to illustrate the point. Painters utilize drawing, formal studies, and color studies both to distill sets of visual features from perceptual experience sufficient to depict subjects and to develop formal-compositional strategies to render them in paint on a two-dimensional surface. The trick is that there is no one unique, ideal optimal set of visual features for this task. Nor is there an ideal, optimal means to render them. Any of a broad range of strategic choices will do in either regard. An artist has to choose how to render their subject. The systematic strategic choices that artists settle on to express the content of their works are, in turn, constitutive of artistic style. Critically, this entails that the primary constraint on the development of artistic style as a communicative device is the communicative exchange itself. Artistic style is the outcome of an ongoing conversation, a dynamic social negotiation between artists and consumers.

Artists are more often than not trained. They learn to develop their stylistic methods via an association with some school of art or another (or a hybrid combination of a few). The choice of school is a matter of taste. It expresses, among other things, an affinity with the style and conceptual leanings of associated precursors. This is really the key. The communicative exchange between artists and consumers is grounded in a shared understanding of its own history. Stylistic cues carried in the formal-compositional structure of artworks are semantic cues that instruct consumers how to recognize the category of art a work belongs to. A shared understanding of the norms and conventions constitutive of the appropriate category of art in turn provides a recipe for reading what it means for an artist to have chosen to render the subject of their work the way they did. The central assumption of recent research in neuroaesthetics is that we can use our understanding of neuroscience to model how this information exchange works goes in a variety of different media including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, film, & literature. When we do we will have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the range of productive and appreciative practices that define art.

The Wittgensteinian skeptic re-enters the dialog here. Alva Noë has argued, “What is interesting about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results, but rather the fact that no one, not the scientists, not the artists and art historians, have minded, or even noticed” (Noë 2011). The trouble? The methods of psychology and neuroscience are ill suited to bring art into focus in the lab. The reason? They are looking for art in the wrong place. They focus research on the wrong aspects of artistic practice. We might rephrase Noë’s challenge as the puzzle of locating art. The puzzle of locating art is a question of how to locate the artistically salient features of an artifact that explain how it works as an artwork. These aren’t defining features of art in a philosopher’s sense. But they are the features that explain our understanding of that artifact’s identity as an artwork (Carroll, 1993; Danto, 2000).

A great deal of recent research in neuroaesthetics has focused on how consumers perceive works of fine art and how we might account for their preferences for them. These explanations are couched in terms of the ordinary perceptual and affective processes that underwrite our interactions with artworks as perceptual, affective, or cognitive stimuli. The trouble with this approach is straightforward. These neurophysiological processes underwrite our perception, understanding of, and preferences for artworks that are done well and artworks that are done poorly. In point of fact they underwrite all of our perceptual experiences. These studies may reveal fascinating things about the way artworks work as perceptual stimuli. But they don’t help us disambiguate artworks from other non-art artifacts. They don’t provide any traction explaining what is unique about art and the broad range of its associated practices. They don’t provide purchase on the kinds of conceptual questions we set out to sort out when we embark on the task of explaining art.

We aren’t interested, so the argument goes, in how we perceive art per se or how we acquire and utilize information carried in its perceptible surface generally. We are interested in how we recognize what it might have meant for an artist to have rendered their subject in a particular way. We are interested in how what we see embodies the point, purpose, or meaning it expresses – whether this point is the targeted semantic point of a contemporary postmodernist installation, an emotion expressed by an abstract work of German expressionism, or the way some significant quality of a naturalist landscape is represented in the aesthetic qualities with which it was rendered. What we need to recognize these qualities of a painting is an understanding of a range of artistic norms and conventions governing productive and appreciative practices for the appropriate category of art against which to compare what we have perceived. The identity of an artifact as an artwork lies in the role it plays in the set of social practices governed by these norms and conventions, or, to borrow a turn of phrase, how these artifacts are used to organize us into artistic communities (Noë, 2015).

Neuroscience might contribute to our understanding of how artworks work as perceptual, affective, or cognitive stimuli. It might help us understand how we recognize that an artwork belongs to one category or another. It might help explain how an understanding of the norms and conventions that define that category of art shapes the way we perceive, understand, and appreciate that artwork. It might help us understand how we use our knowledge of categories of art to manage the behaviors constitutive of artistic practice. But it won’t help explain why we value those norms and conventions as sources of artistic value. It won’t help us understand what makes these practices artistic practices. The source of that understanding lies elsewhere. This is the core of the Wittgensteinian skeptical objection. It’s a point well taken.

We might, nonetheless, counter that that this flavor of skepticism represents an unduly narrow view of what philosophers and other folks are after when they are after explanations of art. First off, philosophers have always been interested in how artworks work at least since Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics. But perhaps more importantly, our best understanding of art is still, and may remain always, an open question (Danto, 2000; Weitz, 1956). Our best definitions of art are encapsulated in our theories of art, theories about the nature of a loosely described class of artifacts and the roles they play in a range of social practices. Theories rise and fall on whether the models they generate actually match the behavior of the world they describe. Our best empirical understanding of how artworks work as perceptual, affective, and cognitive stimuli should therefore serve as a strong constraint on the acceptability of any theory of art or the arts.

Daniel Dennett, in a discussion of the contribution neuroscience might make to puzzles in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, writes, “…empirical research doesn’t solve them, it informs them, and sometimes it adjusts or revises them, and then they sometimes dissolve, and sometimes they can be solved by further philosophical reflection” (Dennett, 2007, p. 80). The same is true of puzzles in the philosophy of art. A standard philosophical objection to the dance theorist’s notion of metakinesis, or the role of kinesthetic empathy in dance understanding and appreciation, was that sensorimotor perception wasn’t structured in a way that could facilitate the communication of emotionally expressive content in dance (Daly, 1993; McFee, 2011). A broad range of experimental and clinical research on sensorimotor processing has been used to inform this discussion and dissolve the puzzle (Carroll & Seeley, 2013, Jola et al, 2012). Similarly, neuroscientists are partners in an ongoing interdisciplinary discussion about the capacity of music to serve as a vehicle to express emotions (see Robinson, 1995; Seeley, 2020).

Neuroscience need not locate art on its own. It might. But I would imagine that Wittgenstein was right. It is delightful to discover that time-tested artists’ methods map to the basics of the neurophysiology of perception, e.g. Leonardo’s use of sfumato contours to harness the differential spatial resolution of foveal and peripheral vision to render Mona Lisa’s facial expression more realistically or Seurat’s use of Mach bands to harness lateral inhibition in retinal processing in order to enhance figure ground segregation in his compositions (Livingstone, 2002; Ratliffe, 1992). But we would be puzzled by an explanation of art couched solely in neurophysiological terms. Neuroscience doesn’t replace good old fashioned philosophical conceptual analysis in matters of art or anywhere else. Rather, where salient data is available, it informs our understanding of issues that are relevant to the discussion. Of course our concepts are built from a broad range of sources, sources that include our best empirical understanding of phenomena. Sometimes new empirical data adjusts or revises our concepts, And sometimes these adjustments revise the shape of philosophical reflection. The only way to sort out when and to what degree this will be the case is to lift up the hood, roll up our sleeves, and dive in.


Elisabeth Schellekens

Over the last few decades, neuroscientific research has revolutionized our understanding of how our brains engage with the world. The methods and technologies employed in such research (e.g. fMRI, MEG, rTMS) have provided us with truly transformative knowledge of the neural, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms upon which we all rely on a daily basis. Cognitive science has, in other words, fundamentally changed what we know and understand not only about the physical and mental processes at work when we see, listen, or touch the things which populate our physical environments, but also about how we remember, make associations, or imagine objects in the world.

Why would art, or the application of such methods to our experience of artworks, be any different? Or, to put the question in a more targeted way, are we right to think of works of art as both ordinary and unique in this respect – that is to say, both as things which are perceived, liked, or disliked in the same way as other objects we may encounter, as well as entities which somehow transcend their merely material presence (and which, for that reason, cannot be fully explained in scientific terms)? The crux of the matter, as Bill Seeley lays out so clearly, is this: although “[n]euroscience might contribute to our understanding of how artworks works as perceptual, affective, or cognitive stimuli… it won’t explain why we value [them] as sources of artistic value.” That is to say, the empirical methods employed in neuroscience “are ill suited to bring art into focus,” where art is conceived as embedded in a complex network of social and normative practices which mean something to us also in virtue of their history, symbolic significance, and aesthetic value.        

Of course, Seeley is right to point out that philosophers need not take an “unduly narrow view” of what we, academics and non-academics alike, are seeking when we try to understand art better. Surely any fact or insight which results in a better grasp of what art is ought to be welcomed? Also, even if empirical methods might not single-handedly be able to establish precisely which philosophical theories are right or more appropriate than others, they do at least sometimes give us the means to exclude certain accounts of what it is we do when we create, relate to or enjoy art. Neuroscience probably cannot locate art on its own, as Seeley writes, but it can certainly inform philosophy.

Given this, at least two questions call for our attention. First, there is the issue of how different approaches to a phenomenon or problem relate to one another. Can several kinds of explanation really co-exist and feed off each other in this way, perhaps in gentle but not devastating competition; or must one always dominate or subsume the other? To put it in more metaphysical terms, should we be monists (e.g. Nickel 2010; Schaffer 2016; Wilhelm 2021; Woodward 2003) or pluralists (e.g. Cartwright 2007; Mantzavinos 2016; Wilson 2014) about explanation? If we are to be the latter, we buy into the idea that neuroscientific and philosophical explanations of art offer distinct perspectives on the workings and meanings of artworks and our relations to them, and that although distinct, they both (no doubt alongside other kinds of explanation) provide us with usefully different perspectives on the same notion. A strength of such a way of conceiving of the relation between different kinds of explanation is a commitment to the idea that many phenomena or problems are best tackled by being examined from complementary angles, and that several disciplines can cooperate in the pursuit of knowledge. A possible disadvantage, however, is that this diversity is sometimes taken to obstruct genuine progress or dialogue, or indeed that for everything that can be explained or resolved with the help of different approaches there is also a multiplicity of explananda such that there is really very little (if anything) upon which different explanations intersect.

If, in contrast, we are to be monists, two main options present themselves. Either we concede that only one kind of explanation is right (or at least vastly better than the others) and rule out other types of explanation altogether. Or we allow for several explanatory accounts but only in so far as they are ultimately to be incorporated in (or made to work for) the overriding approach. Again, one advantage of this model is the relative simplicity of restricting ourselves to there being only one way to explain some problem or phenomenon. A possible downside, however, is the cluster of difficulties associated with how one is to know which is to be the dominant explanation (not to mention who is to decide which kind of explanation is to have priority).  

A second concern has to do with the goal of explanation, or what good philosophical explanations are designed to achieve. What do we mean when we say that a particular account or theory explains what art is (or indeed why we value it)? Mirroring some of the discussions about what constitutes progress in the sciences, one could claim that explanation in philosophy either seeks to approximate truth (e.g. Popper 1976; Oddie 2019), or increase our understanding of the problem or phenomenon at hand (e.g. Dellsén & Lawler & Norton 2023), or again aim to answer specific questions (e.g. Stoljar 2017). If the explanations of neuroscience cannot ‘locate art’, as Seeley suspects, could that be because the goals of such explanations diverge from those offered in philosophy, and that genuine advance in philosophy must be defined differently than in the empirical sciences?

To be sure, these concerns cannot be properly addressed in the present context. However, even in the light of the ‘locating art’ problem, there seem to be grounds for optimism. If progress in science can be cast in terms of explanations which prompt the asking of new and more refined scientific questions, and progress in philosophy can be similarly conceived with respect to philosophical questions, then it seems reasonable to suppose that if scientific research helps philosophers ask better questions (which in the present case it almost certainly does), and vice versa, then the argument against meaningful interaction between philosophy and neuroscience at the very least seems weaker than some have assumed.


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