Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How much is art like philosophy or philosophy like art? Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe

I was eager to read Alva Noe's new book Strange Tools since I had read a previous book of his:  Out of Our Heads:  Why You Are Not Your Brain, which I found wholly convincing.  I even used it
as a text in my Introduction to Philosophy Class, as a contrast to Descartes. Strange Tools did not disappoint.  It continues with the thesis that we are not our brains, but then applies this to the arts. Thus, exclusively neuro-scientific approaches to the arts get well criticized.  I suppose I was predisposed to like this book since it is clearly in the tradition of John Dewey.  It even starts with an epigraph from John Dewey's Art as Experience on how the existence of works of art has become an obstruction to a theory about such works.  Noe explicitly agrees with Dewey that seeing is a transaction of whole animals with the environment, a transaction of doing and undergoing. (78)  Since Noe is one of those philosophers who is cognitive science-oriented he tends to focus on the evolutionary scale of art, thus neglecting the history of culture aspect...but that's alright..one can't do everything.  My only other complaint about the book is that it is too loosely written and popularizing in style:  it would be interesting to see a tight followup that is more engaged with the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. 

Evolutionary approaches to aesthetics are popular these days.  Noe therefore spends some time discussing such writers as Stephen Davies and Ellen Dissanayake, but oddly not Denis Dutton who's Art Instinct was a major contribution.  One could say that Noe is anti-evolutionist in that he rejects the idea that art is adaptive, but he engages with Davies and Dissanayake because he is basically in the tradition of Darwin, as was Dewey.

For me, the most valuable aspect of the book is its advocacy of the controversial dual idea that philosophy is closer to art and that art is closer to philosophy than traditionally thought. Dewey of course advocated such a view, but his position on this has been largely ignored.  In support of the thesis that art is like philosophy Noe says such sensible things as "it is a striking and abiding feature of art that it makes us argue.  It is a domain of dispute.  We argue about whether this or that is a good, as art, and also whether it is art in the first place." (139)  He even argues that "aesthetic disagreement is a kind of philosophical disagreement..." This reminds me of the argument in my own paper "The Socratic Quest in Art and Philosophy" published several years back in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Noe then, in the same sentence, says that "philosophy is, in effect, a domain of aesthetic dispute," backing this up with the idea the "there are no proof procedures in philosophy" since the problems of philosophy do not havng on facts or logic but rather on "getting clear about where we find ourselves and what we think given what we already know."  (139)  So, both art and philosophy are sub-species of something larger, which sounds an awful lot like what Hegel is saying when he says that they are both domains of Spirit.  I entirely agree when Noe says that "art and philosophy share a common aim: self-transformation and the achievement of understanding."  Few readers of this book or of this post will recognize both how true this is and how controversial. The claim should be a starting point, almost a given, for all philosophers and artists. 

Noe goes on to say that artists who make pictures are "using picture-making technologies to put pictures and the role that pictures play in our lives on display in order to call them into question."  It is the self-reflective, or dare we say it, philosophical nature of art that distinguishes it from entertainment, and distinguishes art picture-making from all the other sorts of picture-making.   And thus he talks about artworks as "philosophical objects" and of "doing philosophy with pictures."  I admit that there is something too pat about a philosopher finding the essence of art as doing philosophy, and it would be wrong to take Noe's story as the whole story since being philosophical or even reflective is only part of  what art is about, and maybe mostly part of the kind of art philosophers tend to like.  But the main point is that this is just a really good way to look at art, and it is.  There is a textbook in which each of the chapters goes by way of a metaphor for art's essence "art as imitation," "art as expressive" and so forth.  Noe's book would go in as "art as philosophy."   It is one more good metaphor for art, and one that is particularly useful today. 

As an aside, it is noteworthy that Noe's view of pictures is specifically designed to capture and make central the works of certain kinds of painters, in this case Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Al Held.  (It is odd that he chooses a trio of similar painters who were dominant in a very specific period, i.e. the 1950s and 60s, and that that period is most importantly, not now.)   

A further controversial point:  "we can speak of change and history and even evolution in philosophy and in art, but we cannot speak of progress.  This has to do with the fact that there aren't breakthroughs or discoveries or results or findings in these fields..."  (136)  Again, I think this is absolutely correct.  An interesting corollary is that unlike in science "a philosophical abstract is always dubious" since it is the piece of writing that is philosophy, not the report or summary.  This is exactly right, and it makes one wonder about the increasing prominence of abstracts in philosophy.  Further:  "to read a philosophy text is to participate in the performance of the ideas and feelings and puzzlements it traces out."  

In his review of Noe's book Mohan Mathen says that "philosophy is investigation, just as chemistry is" but this misses the entire point since obviously both are forms of investigation just as art is a form of investigation.  The point is that philosophy is much closer to art than to chemistry in its mode of investigation.  If Mathen wants to say it is not then he needs to say so clearly and then back up his position.  Of course it could be argued that philosopher is more like chemistry in that it uses arguments and is written usually in prose, whereas painting provides no real arguments and is not written. But the question remains whether these are the most important similarities... perhaps these similarities are superficial.  The arguments of lawyers also have these features but may not be investigations in the way that chemistry, art and philosophy are.  In short, Mathen's response is crude at best.

Mathen also praises Noe saying that he insightfully distinguishes between "wild seeing" and "aesthetic seeing" where the first is "an openness to our world" and "a contemplation of the world" but does not involve deliberative acts of looking and inspecting, whereas aesthetic seeing is more like entertainment of thoughts about what we are looking at.  Animals therefor on Noe's view are not able to reflect on the world in this way and thus not able to perceive aesthetically.  What strikes me here is how this is contrary to the spirit of Dewey.  Dewey stresses the continuities between the human and the animal, not the discontinuities.  Of course there are both continuities and discontinuities, but the stress may be important.  Wild seeing might be seen as what we often refer to as everyday aesthetics.  Everyday aestheticians, that is, following in the tradition of Dewey, see a continuity between what Noe calls wild seeing and this other kind which he calls aesthetic, and so everyday aestheticians would call both aesthetic, not just one.  I am a bit disturbed also by us of the phrase "entertainment of thoughts about what we are looking at."  Contrary to Noe I would not require entertainment of thoughts for any aesthetic experience.  Also, on the other side, I do not like the term "wild seeing" which implies seeing by creatures that are not in any way encultured.   Humans are encultured and thus do not engage in the seeing of wild animals. But neither am I happy with the idea that animals other than humans are incapable of aesthetic perception simply because they do not entertain thoughts while looking at things.  Why not just say that there are two forms of aesthetic seeing:  aesthetic seeing that is engaged and aesthetic seeing that is disengaged, or maybe three types, since he also incorporates seeing that involves associated thoughts.  What marks off the aesthetic in my view, by the way, is the experience of aura, as I describe that in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  That experience can be found in a variety of different kinds of contexts, both in contemplative perception and in perception with attendant thoughts:  so that distinction is not a distinction that makes much a difference for me, unlike Noe.  To be a bit more blunt, the idea that aesthetic seeing is entertainment of thoughts about what is looking at is just plain wrong.  At best you can say that aesthetic seeing can happen with or without the background experience of entertaining thoughts at the same time.  

None of this is against Noe's central point that "pictures shape our conception of seeing," (52) a point that my old teacher Marx Wartofsky made with such force over his many writings (see my article on Wartofsky in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics ed. Michael Kelly, 2015.)  I might also complain that Noe seems unaware of Wartofsky's work, although he is aware of a similar position offered by Whitney Davis.

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