Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Richard A. Richards "Engineered Niches and Naturalized Aesthetics"

Naturalized aesthetics is a hot topic these days and Richards, in his recent Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism article (75:4 2017, 465-477) gives an impressive (but so far, I think, unsuccessful) defense of it against possible objections.  He begins by reviewing the usual avenues for a naturalized aesthetics:  evolutionary theory, empirical aesthetics, mirror neurons, and so forth, and then he moves on to his own thought that the ecological theory of niches, in which it is argued that animals, especially humans, change their environments to better meet their needs, and then pass these environments down to their progeny, can solve the problem of normativity.  These niches include what he calls "architectural technologies" such as, in art, the buildings that enable artistic practice, for example tango clubs and art studios.  This is all supposed to overcome the age old is/ought problem first raised by Hume:  how are we supposed to get from scientific descriptions to norms either in ethics or in aesthetics?  As George Dickie put it in 1997  "No matter how many data are collected, they still remain descriptions (the is) and no normative principles (the oughts) can be derived from the descriptions alone." (468) 

But does Richards manage to solve this problem?  He thinks he can do it by expanding our conception of science to include the social sciences (including psychology).   The social sciences are perfectly capable of describing the processes used for actual evaluation that occur in the artworld.  So the is/ought problem is solved?   It seems obvious that evaluations happen all of the time in the various artworlds.  But it is hard to see how this in itself tells us what we want to know in philosophical investigation.  And if someone in art or one of the social sciences asks "what justifies this evaluation" or "what really is dance?" isn't that person just doing philosophy, except in an amateur way?  

Richards general response to the is/ought problem is that the opposition relies "on an overly narrow understanding of the science and that we need to look at the ecology of art and how art behaviors are expressed in the engineered art niches that contain cognitive, epistemic, pedagogical, and institutional technologies."  Yet this is just fancy new language for stuff that already happens and has happened for a long time in the sociology of art and the psychology of art.  The expansion of "science" happened a long time ago.

More important: Where does philosophy come in?  I like to put it this way:  what would Socrates say to this sort of solution?   I think that he would not be happy with simply allowing the institutional authority figures to define the concepts whatever they are.  If he met a practitioner of ballet he would want to ask him or her:  "what is ballet?" and would pursue the question through several failed answers. 

Richards says "when we learn the concept of ballet -  what ballet is, for instance - we learn what counts as the proper kind of activity for a ballet niche."  This is true, but limited.  When we learn the concept of ballet in this sense we learn what is ordinarily accepted about ballet, i.e. the dictionary definition and the common sense of the discipline.  But this sounds an awful lot like what one of Socrates interlocutors would have said to him whenever he asked his famous "what is?" questions.  Philosophical questions about concepts seek to push beyond the conventions of a field.  The standard answers just aren't adequate.  This is why philosophical questioning is more associated with revolutionary thinking, whereas mere description of conventions is much more conservative.  

I do not doubt that, as Richards puts it, "a naturalistic, scientific approach to the arts can lend insights into the normativity and conceptual basis of our experience of the arts" (475) but I also agree with the criticism that "science cannot tell us how we should conceive, experience, and evaluate art."  (475)  Of course science, and perhaps even more established teachers in the field, can tell the ballet dancer how he/she is expected to behave in certain contexts.  None of this however can answer the philosophical questions "what is dance?" and "how should we evaluate dance?"   And note that different teachers will have different "philosophy's of dance":  their debates will not be answerable by a survey or a sociology of dance. 

Richards anticipates this sort of objection saying:  "it may be objected that on this account, the normativity is revealed by a philosophical analysis that has just been subsumed into the scientific and that the important analysis is not itself an empirical, scientific activity" and that Dickie and others have already had insight into the role of institutions in generating normativity.  Richards' response is that, again, we should expand the notion of science to include the social sciences and that when philosophical analysis occurs it comes in when we do things like think about the nature of concepts, social causation, value and meaning, and that  the social sciences rely on these analyses.  Well, at least that gives philosophers something to do.  After aesthetics is naturalized, aestheticians can give up on must of what they do but can retreat to these more general issues.  I do not think this really answers the objection raised.  Why should philosophers hold onto analysis of the nature of concepts etc. but give up analysis of the nature of dance?  

I should also mention that Richards distinctions between niche dependent normativity and niche-independent normativity, the second form depending on individual preferences and pleasures, thus pushing to the kind of preference studies we see in empirical aesthetics.  Normative debates and conflicts is understood by Richards in terms of conflicts between these two.  He draws from this that "general critical principles are problematic" thus questioning Hume's solution to the problem of taste.  No matter, Hume himself if fairly conservative in this his gate-keepers, the good judges, are probably the same people as Richards' institutional group, at least for the most part, and Hume also has a problem accounting for the garage band that produces crude works of genius that violate all of the conventions of the artworld institution.  


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