Part 3: Is art a spandrel?

This post follows directly from the last:

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.  Art as a symbolic form is a complex intellectual function.  While it may seem to lack the everyday utility of linguistic abstractions, forms, and communication, it nonetheless is an abstraction based upon vital felt experience and serves some communicative and cultural functions.  While it may seem to serve the signaling function seen in other species, e.g., bird displays both in plumage and behavior like songs and nests, its symbolic nature distinguishes it as a human endeavor.  Like any feature of Homo sapiens, it has precursors and derives from earlier adaptations, but it is clearly more complicated that what is evident in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Art may still be considered an evolutionary spandrel, though if so, it seems a very special one, one that contributes importantly to human culture and life.

Ellen Dissayanake in her book Homo Aestheticus (23) documents the ubiquity of art in various cultures and everyday life.  Art, she asserts, is “making special,” analogous to the display and signal behaviors of other animals, e.g., a workman adds individual touches to his tools, a family decorates their home in their particular way and style, a worker sings a song with an individual voice, even a dancer carries on a traditional dance with distinctive flair.  In this view, the inception of art both historically and today lies in each individual’s vision of who they are in relation to the rest of the group.  The more institutionalized art of recent times, such as religious art, concert music where the audience does not participate in the making, and more modern styles are, in her analysis, an extension of our impulse to “make special” shaped by (perhaps even perverted by) commodification for institutional and commercial purposes.  Dissayanake makes the puzzling assertion that art, so conceived, is not symbolic.  I can only make sense of this by understanding her to mean art does not partake of mythic or psychological, e.g., Freudian or Jungian archetypes or symbolification (what might be called cultural or secondary symbol-making) but this overlooks the prior and more basic neuropsychological stage that a symbol stands for something else, an idea generally accepted since C. S. Pierce propounded his theory of semiotics (59) and forward into modern thought with Ernst Cassirer’s (one of Langer’s mentors) great work on symbols.

That art is, however, ubiquitous across cultures in everyday life and not just in ‘fine art’ so conceived is important because it points to its importance in the human world.  Art is not just a signal in the mating game nor even just a cultural marker of social cohesion. It is not just seasonal nor tied to institutionalized structures.  Rather, art is a distinctive feature of and contribution to the human world.  It is a feature of our umvelt as conceptualized in the 1900s by Jacob von Uexkull.  He and others understood that each species, even though they share the same environment, lives in a different world by virtue of their different perceptual and motoric capabilities with their distinctive needs and that these then yield biological meaning, i.e., not machine information, in hedonic and motivational terms associated with worldly features.  The umvelt has historically been conceived as the organism’s interpretation of the world around, but somewhere along our evolutionary path (and no doubt the paths of other species as well including other primates and cetaceans) the world around became subsidiary to the world within.  The umvelt of Homo sapiens includes much that is not objectively, i.e., perceptually, available to other human individuals now or ever.

However this developed over the course of our evolution, a key feature of our success as intellectual creatures has been our symbolic capacity to control and contribute such information to our umvelt.  Reading Langer one comes to realize that even a relatively simple sensory act, i.e., response of sensory organ to stimulus impingement, is one controlled by the organism.  She cites a 1914 lecture by a German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald arguing this point, that the organism expends much more energy acting on the stimulation than the stimulus itself brings, and further, she reports that the great Karl Lashley in 1942 postulated that both perception and motoric action were “superimposed” (a problematic conceptualization—imposed from above?  Where is that?  Agency arises and mobilizes from within) upon the ongoing neural activity.  This autonomous vitality is a key feature of life that has been and is all too often relegated to the less scientific realm of discourse, yet it is the stuff of life itself.  Langer’s great insight is to understand that symbolization is ‘simply’ another way neural activity organizes itself, sometimes in response to ambient conditions but oftentimes only in response to the ongoing matrix of autonomous neural actions and embodiment.  It is in this way, then, that symbolization facilitates the composition and ordering of mental actions so that they are available for conscious deliberation and social communication.

That our linguistic capabilities accomplish these twin feats, conscious deliberation and social communication, is readily understood.  Language does, after all, facilitate the rapid coordination needed for social utility, and its specifics are localized in the brain so that we have discovered much about the neural substrate, e.g., Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, the arcuate fasciculus, etc.  The utility of art is not as obvious and its localization is not as easily found.  (This is one clue as to the nature of artistic import and how we formulate it).  The task is even more complicated by the various genres of both performative arts, e.g., dance, music, and those more artifactual ones, such as painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.  In addition, we have an aesthetic appreciation of much of the world, e.g., clouds illuminated by the sun, the colorful forms of plants and animals, the graceful movements of leopards and seals, the majesty of the night sky, etc.  Going still further into our aesthetic mind, we also appreciate the aesthetic in our own abstractions, e.g., the forms of geometry, the equations of physics such as those from Paul Dirac (31).  We recognize beauty and we produce beauty in diverse ways throughout our lives.  Spandrel or central?

My central hypothesis here is that, just as we use language to capture and communicate a segment or portion of our mental life, we use art in an analogous manner.  Langer says language functions more for objects and objective events along with our discursive considerations of such while art functions more for our felt experience.

“What discursive symbolism—language in its literal use—does for our awareness of things about us and our relation to them, the arts do for our awareness of subjective reality, feeling and emotion; they give inward experiences form and thus make them conceivable” (45: p. 71)

Art is an expressive form that lets us envisage the vital movement of our minds’ experience.  Art renders the “idea of a feeling” in a communicable form and so carries out important social functions necessary for the delineation of individual perspectives otherwise hidden in each one’s subjective realm and for the social composition of those subjective forms to be culturally shared among group members.  Art is not a spandrel so long as you hold that our cultural bonds are an important facet of our evolutionary adaptation (with the caveat that some cultural forms are maladaptive, e.g., Shakers on procreation, Mayans on human sacrifice or Atargatis priests on psychotic limits).  Art forms might be more aptly characterized as buoys mapping the cultural seascape, shifting as it does with different individuals transmuting the forms and different generations transmitting these forms according to their circumstances.  An artwork signals an individual’s particular place at a particular moment in the cultural seascape.  Seen from this perspective, understanding how art ‘works’ this way in the biological domain involves deeper understanding of the neuropsychological functions that promote both an individual’s awareness of life experience and the way sharing such an experience works socially.  Some key concepts help us frame this more clearly.

First we find Endel Tulving’s idea of autonoesis: the ability to know one’s self in relation to past, present or imaginal, e.g., future, experiences (71, 2).  This is initially dependent upon our episodic memory, i.e., our memory for autobiographical narrative.  Tulving contrasted this form of memory with semantic memory that we have for words and other abstractions.  Autonoesis is our primary means of knowing.  Jean Decety calls it the “neural default”, meaning that one’s brain first operates based upon one’s own subjective perspective (17).  Thus, developing empathy beyond the mirroring stage requires that we inhibit our particular perspectives in order to consider another’s.  Art, as conceptualized by Susanne Langer, conveys some import based on our autonoetic knowledge of our individual lived experience.  While its composition derives from such knowledge and feelings, its reception depends upon the audience’s inhibition of their own autonoesis, though identification will play some role in their appreciation, in order to grasp the artist’s import.  Thus, Aristotle in his Poetics posits that drama, and by my analogy any art, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Or as Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth” (55).

Second, Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh distinguish between the unitary subject of one’s autonoetic experience and the several selves that operate distinguished by and originating in one’s social roles.  This allows us to focus on the distinction between one’s own subjective sense of consciousness and how we structure that to form identities, i.e., selves, as defined by those roles, e.g., family, social or hierarchical and work relationships.  The concept of a subject, more often referred to as the self, is not yet clearly defined through neuropsychological research.  Antonio Damasio in his book, Self Comes to Mind, admits that initially he did not find the concept of a self a viable neural construct but changed his mind over his years of research (10).  While he gives a reasonable description of how the self is composed based upon evolutionary divisions of the brain, i.e., proto-self, self, and conscious self, these derive from the horizontal divisions in Paul MacLean’s tripartite brain: brainstem, midbrain or limbic system and neocortex.  To understand the unitary subject as described by Lakoff and Johnson and keeping with more recent ideas about neural systems, consider two simple functions based upon vertically integrated systems that contribute to the subject’s formation.

The first has already been mentioned, the processing of experience that results in episodic memory, the mnemonic retention especially for place, actions, objects and social others.  Explicating this system is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is already well known as the hippocampal memory circuit that stores information for comparison with new data to see what is old and new, significant and insignificant (25).  The second system is less well defined or understood, but it is the sense of agency that comprises the development of contextually relevant intentions, their motor plans, and finally the volitional energy for behavioral enactment.  These two systems, episodic or autobiographical memory and agency, lay the foundation for the subject to develop as the animal matures.  Per Lakoff and Johnson, selves then develop as social roles become established and compartmentalized.  We may think of our subjective sense of ‘I’ and awareness of our roles as conscious operations, but in fact, much more of them operate below consciousness in a realm often called the intuitive.

This brings us to a third concept of how art works because we can now understand a bit more clearly Dissayanake’s view of art as ‘making special’ and other forms of art that are less personal.  Art as making special is an action by the subject about a self’s identity.  The workman marks his tools to show his particular brand of workmanship, a dancer moves through traditional steps with his or her own special flair, i.e., a manifestation of the subjective self and identity, a person decorates their house to express their autonoetic notion of home.  However, art can also be an action by the subject expressive not of identity but about experience.  The subject then takes on the role of artist, quite different from the other utilitarian roles and identities, and composes art to make sense of some human experience.  Here the artist has inhibited, selectively to be sure, her own autonoetic identity or self to convey some otherwise inchoate experience relevant to others.  The artist uses his artistic composition to make sense of that necessarily autonoetic experience, maybe within a tradition or maybe pushing the inherited cultural boundary, that is relevant (hopefully) to others.  This art is a cultural buoy in the mapping of the group’s experience.  To quote Sperber as cited in Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow, “Cultural phenomena are ecological patterns of psychological phenomena” (2).  Art, then, becomes an expression of an individual’s subjective experience in accord with a group’s cultural patterning of their lives.  Again, so conceived, is art a spandrel or a central support?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.

Part 2: Is art a spandrel

This follows directly from the 9/19/19 post:

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

This was the intellectual challenge Susanne Langer set herself beginning in 1942 with Philosophy in a New Key (44), continuing with 1953’s Feeling and Form (45), and finalizing her project with three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (47-49) in 1967, 1972, and 1979.  The first two developed a broad theory of aesthetics based on a theory of symbols and the last presented her view of the biological underpinnings of mind and art.  Rarely cited today, her work seems to have been eclipsed by two developments that took the field by storm during the latter part of her career.  The first began in 1948 with Shannon and Weaver’s book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (67), and Weiner’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (61).  The ensuing developments in information theory and technology revolutionized our thinking in virtually every area of scientific studies and most areas in humanistic studies broadly defined.  The second development was the transformation working in the life sciences with the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1952.  Three important milestones here would be Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (53) in 1971 and Richard Dawkins two books, The Selfish Gene(13) in 1976 and The Extended Phenotype (14) in 1982.  Later would come E. O. Wilson’s work promoting a sociobiological approach (77, 78).

The first development, information sciences, gave us powerful tools for studying the brain and its processes and a powerful metaphor of that brain as a machine of logic and information processes epitomized by servomechanisms.  The second development furthered the notion that genes are central to life and its evolution.  This reinforced the view of an organism as a machine, a rule governed series of chemical processes instigated and ultimately controlled by the genome.  More importantly, the gene-centered view of evolution motivated a keen focus on adaptive success.  If a biological feature did not contribute to future adaptiveness, it was at best a spandrel and more likely just noise in the signal.  This led, for example, to the sociobiological study of animal, including human, behavior.  Here beauty and aesthetics, if important, signaled mate robustness, thereby helping to shape the hereditary flow into the gene pool.  To be sure, both developments have contributed mightily to our understanding of human nature.

Yet each had theoretical and so also empirical limits to the furtherance in our understanding human nature and these in the last decade or two have been elucidated in important ways (56). Information machines process symbols regardless of their meaning. Their symbols are abstract enough to be governed by Boolean logic, and that leaves them without particular meaning or import.  In short, they are disembodied and while this abstraction is a powerful tool, it is not commensurate with biological processes.  Such a realization can be found in Lakoff and Johnson’s two books, Metaphors We Live By (42) and Philosophy in the Flesh (43), Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s landmark, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (72), and the writings of Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giuliani Tononi, e.g., A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (24), who used computer simulations powerfully in their research while maintaining the distinction between brain and machine.  Machine and biological (e.g., human) information and meaning, especially when given that the former is derivative of the latter, are distinctly different.

Similarly the limits of the gene centered view of evolution and life have been delineated by those who, once again keeping their theoretical efforts grounded in embodiment, find that a broader and more adequate perspective includes ecological considerations.  This is perhaps most cogently explicated by Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information (56).  She articulates a much different view of life through her wide ranging polemic on various theoretical perspectives and research endeavors focused on understanding the nature of life, and so of human nature, that highlights the error of assuming one way control of life by its genome.  She shows, instead, that life is more aptly conceived as a developmental system, e.g., what is inherited is not just a set of chromosomes but also an ecology and, quite importantly, the history of the genome-environment interaction.  Deeply embedded in her view of biological processes is the understanding that life qua organism is autonomous and, though quite responsive to both external and internal information, engenders its own activity and course of actions.  Oyama as well argues that machine metaphors are both helpful and misleading; the search for mechanical processes such as found in servomechanisms in the brain is one example of how this assumption has both helped and misled research endeavors.  Again, organisms use feedback to guide their actions but their impulses are based more on feedforward and other sorts of autonomous and endogenous processes quite consistent with Edelman and Tononi’s idea of reentrant processing for constructing mental operations (24).

With this review we can see that the two large theoretical developments that eclipsed Susanne Langer’s work to construct a theory of aesthetics consistent with our biological nature have shifted enough for some of her light to shine through.  Art is, she explains, abstracted feeling, or better, abstracted felt experience.  These abstractions are different from what we usually refer to as ‘abstract’; they are ideas of feelings.  Thus, her two modes of symbolization are discursive, exemplified by language, and presentational, exemplified by art. They differ largely in their compositional elements, language’s lexical units of independent meaning and art’s arbitrary bits of no independent meaning, e.g., notes, colors, lines, etc., and their structure, language’s linearized syntactic open-ended constructions and art’s gestalt forms upon which elements are dependent for their contributions to the work’s import.  Language, she says, carries semantic meaning; art conveys aesthetic import.  This last is an important difference, because while the surface or public structures of both discursive and presentational forms are just that, surface and objective, it is in their deep structures where important differences in their symbolic processes of abstraction are to be found.  Presentational symbols, i.e., art, are vital forms; their deep structure, i.e., import, is a virtual (Langer was one of the earliest to use the word ‘virtual’ in this way) representation of felt life.  This idea is articulated by her early books, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and very concisely in Problems of Art (45).

From this perspective, our understanding of thought and feeling seems enfeebled.  As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono wrote, “Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.  Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason” (1). (Written in 1954 and cited in Aho in Existentialism: An Introduction 2014). Perhaps this is what William James referred to when he said humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals (34).  Such a view is decidedly in line with preeminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s view that emotion is as important as cognition in our neural operations, as he has explained now in several books,  Descartes’ Error (9) and The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (11).  And this no doubt motivated Langer to entitle her 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  (As an aside, the research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (37) and others shows that even trained academic minds operate more based upon heuristics than logical rules. We feel our way forward even and especially in our intellectual endeavors).

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.

Next section to appear soon.

 

Let’s talk doxa, science, and humanity

Recall from my 6/7/17 post on Pierre Boudrieu’s writings that the doxa comprises the entire realm of possible discourse; anything outside the doxa is difficult to discuss—it is ineffable or inchoate. Within the doxa the dominant paradigm or pattern of beliefs and knowledge is orthodoxy, which mostly controls the domain of discourse, while deviant thinking would be heterodoxy. In religion heterodoxy may become heresy, e.g., the Pelagian heresy that one can attain salvation through good works. In science heterodoxy can fall by the wayside if it fails to account coherently and productively for the subject phenomena, or it can replace orthodoxy because it eventually is found to provide a more robust explanation. The classic example is Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolution in the shift from the Ptolemaic earth-centric universe to the Copernican heliocentric one.

A more modern example comes from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, about a small group of scientists who act to obscure the valid findings about hot issues, such as tobacco’s carcinogenic effects or the human contribution to global warming. The question they raise is how to tell a fraud from a crank, who may or may not be on to something wrong in the orthodox realm of discourse (see post 3/7/16). Oreskes has discussed the eventual acceptance of plate tectonic theory, 50 or more years after Alfred Wegener proposed it in his 1912 book. Evidently the theory was accepted in Europe long before it was accepted in the USA, where Wegener was seen as a bit of a crank; here in the USA they could not imagine a meteorologist like Wegener developing a valid theory about earth’s geology, so Wegener was seen then as a crank whom we now understand had a good idea. And the climate change deniers are still the same old frauds from the tobacco scam.

Now the study and understanding of our humanity has likewise undergone some great shifts; some of the most profound transformations from heterodoxy into orthodoxy came with the Enlightenment and science’s assertion that humans were a proper subject of study outside of religion, Darwin’s assertion that man was just an earth-bound animal, Freud’s assertion that conscious life is a construction of non-conscious processes, etc. More recently Norbert Weiner’s initiation of cybernetics revealed the structural similarity of control systems between biological man and machine, a gap that grows increasingly smaller as science progresses. I would also include Jacques Monod’s assertion that our biology in its foundation of molecular genetics can account for life without any recourse to supernatural creators, thank you very much, so that his understanding of spirit looks to the generations of life over the past 4 billion years on Gaia. That would be his mystic beyond, not Olympus or heaven or whatever (see post 3/25/17).

I would like to think that one particular heterodoxical idea is also usurping some of the orthodoxy in cognitive psychology, but alas, I do not see a tectonic shift happening here. I do remember when cognitive psychology was heterodox, back in the days of behaviorism’s puritanical orthodoxy, and then psychologists had the good sense to admit that we had minds, that we actually thought and that our thoughts had purpose and effect. Now cognitive psychology seems to exert its orthodoxy through control of the doxa, especially through its alliance with information science and focus on algorithms. Everything mental is thinking more or less logically, you know, in the cortex, while affect and emotion are lower. Thus the predominant and errant metaphor of ‘hard-wired’ as we neglect intuition, feelings and emotion.

But consider some seemingly disparate ideas. I first caught a glimpse of an alternative seeping into the doxa when I read Susanne Langer all these years ago. The title of her last work gives us a hint, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in its last word, ‘feeling.’ She arrived at her examination of mind as biological through her study of art, understanding that art is a different kind of symbol, i.e., presentational, than language, i.e., discursive. Its structure is different because its elements of composition are different, and while both types of symbols have surface and deep structures, the latter for art is better termed aesthetic import in contrast to linguistic meaning (see post 11/10/17). Peruse some books addressing the evolution of our minds and see how often art is considered as an important phenomena in its own right of our humanity. Daniel Dennett’s recent one briefly addresses Bach and his music not so much as art but as an example of cognitive design. Patricia Churchland’s 1989 Neurophilosophy mentions music twice, art and symbols not at all. Trying to expand my own doxa is one big reason I read books like Kandel’s on art (see post 7/23/17) and plan on reading one by Ramachandran soon. This is why I think the development of an instrument to reliably study our emotional response to art, Aesthemos (see post 10/31/17), is an important step forward.

Consider also how maybe 50% of an important neurotransmitter, dopamine, is synthesized in the gut, how even more serotonin is found there, and how our gut microbiome affects mood and thinking. Consider the work by Tversky, Kahneman and others showing that our minds are not clean cognitive operations but filled with heuristics that generally satisfice in most circumstances but lead us astray in some important others and emotions play no small role in that. Consider Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear underlining the importance of paying attention of our feelings of danger. Consider how disrupted attachment, you know that basic emotional bond, affects thinking in the social realm, hindering social perspective and empathy, and in cognitive realm, hindering understanding of cause and effect, sequencing, etc. Consider how the Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman, sought medical help repeatedly when he felt something was wrong with his mind because murderous thoughts were so prominent and intrusive, how doctors dismissed his concerns any number of ways, e.g., just depressive feelings, and how autopsy revealed a fast growing tumor on his amygdala, an emotional control center affecting thinking and behavior. All of this suggests that feeling is coequal with thinking, or at least, that both are important functions in the nervous system responsible for our mind. This idea is what Langer promoted at the end of her career.

I have just finished Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Cognition, following up on my reading of his book on human morality (see post 7/31/17). Both books compare simians and humans to see wherein we are different, i.e., what makes us human. This one hypothesizes how we developed more or less objective thinking over the past 100,000 years of our evolution. It is interesting and thought provoking, albeit written in an academic and somewhat tedious style. He focuses pretty exclusively on human cooperation, which is assuredly distinctive in the animal realm, and how our thinking developed “collective intentionality and agent-neutral thinking”, going from an individual perspective taking to group perspective taking to thinking objectively, i.e., valid from any perspective. (Yes, I have foreshortened his arguments terribly but I want to get on to another point).

Tomasello does not really address very directly the issue of human feeling, but he comes close several times. And to be sure at the end he makes a strong statement that our cognition is socially based and that our culture, including art, is based upon the development of human cognition with some semblance to his outlined hypothesis. Before that we read statements hinting at the importance of relationships (and feelings?).

  • As distinct from other great apes, early humans began mating via pair bonding, with the result that nuclear families became newly cooperating social units.
  • [Other great apes do not have] human-like joint goals; there is no cooperative communication for coordinating actions.
  • Great ape cognition and thinking are adapted to this social, but not very cooperative, way of life.

Tomasello argues that this cooperative way of life, developed in response to ecological variations, led to “Thinking for cooperating”.

To be clear, I think Tomasello’s arguments are quite robust as far as they go albeit with one caveat, and that is reflected in his statement, “Humans have thus constructed learning environments within which their own offspring develop”. That we have learning environments is true, to be sure, but that we ‘constructed’ them elevates our ability of rational control above rational limits. Even our modern child rearing arrangements are based upon cultural evolution by historical accident, and while we think we know what we are doing, we also know that unforeseen consequences are unavoidable and that much of our success in promoting child development comes from attending to the basics of emotional attachment, group relationships and play. Yes, cognitive skills are important there, both to develop and for developing, but the contextual process is not one of ‘construction’; our rationality is quite limited in its intentional power because so much is unconscious. (Consider Daniel Kahneman’s quote in Thinking Fast and Slow from Herbert Simon, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition” of what rises for conscious presentation from subliminal processes and feelings play a larger role in those processes than some might expect or include in their discourse).

With that caveat expressed, I want to expand on what I think the context is, i.e., what lies beyond where Tomasello’s argument falters, or more to the point, what our current orthodoxy seems to neglect in its discourse. Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the early 20th century, before information theory and molecular biology transformed biological, including psychological, science, some intellectuals focused on symbols. As I hinted above, topics like feeling, art, and symbols are not well represented in more recent books, and there we have lost something. I came of age appreciating C. S. Pierce’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiotics, Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and his notion of man as a symbolic animal, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Noam Chomsky’s theory of mind and linguistic structure, and of course, Susanne Langer’s keen and profound insights on presentational and discursive symbols.

When Tomasello writes that children and apes have “very similar cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world” but that even very young children already have “more sophisticated cognitive skills [than apes] for dealing with the social world,” the question arises why? How is it that humans have developed a more cooperative umvelt along with symbolization? I would argue that our empathic abilities motivated concerned, prosocial action, but the key issue for me here is how the powerful relationships between surface signals and deep structures, e.g., semantic meaning for discursive symbols and artistic import for presentational symbols, developed. My intuition over the years has repeatedly presented for my recognition the idea that human intimacy and symbolic forms are indeed related and that between the two, intimacy is primary. Here’s the deal:

To progress from signs and signals with their isomorphic referents to symbolic surface and deep structures requires a more powerful sense of what exists in another’s mind. Consider these distinctions:

  • between a raven’s caw when chasing a hawk and a person shouting fire
  • between the raven’s roosting at evening and a person watching the colors fading at dusk
  • between skipping a rock across a lake and cracking a nut with a rock
  • between a green light at an intersection and the green light on the dock at Daisy’s house Gatsby sees across the bay.

In each case the first example involves a signal with acutely circumscribed significance and the second involves a metaphorical vehicle with a tenor of deeper significance. (Consider that Lakoff and Johnson develop a useful epistemology through symbols and metaphors in their book, Metaphors We Live By.)

Consider now the ontogeny of human relations in the important basic development of attachment and emotional regulation that leads to adaptive prosocial relationships. This is primarily a function of the right side of the brain, as the research summarized by Alan Shore shows, and it is here that a sense of self initiates hopefully to become one of empathic cooperativeness. With further development a neural center serving the higher or extended functions empathy in the right hemisphere around the OTP (occipital-temporal-parietal) junction (what I call Empathy Central or EC and the orthodox call Theory of Mind or ToM—see post 10/31/16). This is analogous to the left sided OTP area known as Wernicke’s area that serves semantic meaning, so the right-sided OTP would analogously serve empathic or social-emotional significance. That would serve as the basis for aesthetic import that arises, I think, in a much more complicated manner through a more widely organized system. Humans have a highly developed sense of self and empathy with another self, and while this enables cognitive perspective taking, it remains a function based on feeling, just like the left sided grammatical functions are based upon grammatical feelings of fitness, e.g., this feels right and that doesn’t as in Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is grammatical but meaningless and Yoda’s “A jedi will you be never” is not grammatical but meaningful. (Compare also phenomena of handedness; cross your arms right over left and left over right and one will feel more comfortable or fit. Same with clasping fingers with right or left thumb on top or throwing a ball with right or left hand.)

The idea here is that human attachment paves the way for intimacy and a keen sense of another’s mind, that this is primarily a right sided function that matures before the left sided language and that the two sides communicate with each other in the coordination of communicative behaviors. Consider next the arcuate fasciculis, a long fiber tract that on the left side connects Wernicke’s and Broca’s area and is a part of the mirroring system. The arcuate fasciculus facilitates verbatim repetition of what was just heard, i.e., it helps connect the auditory signal constituting the surface structure to the motoric plans for saying that same surface structure (see post 4/24/14). No meaning is required, but here is the catch. Remember a time when you heard someone say something but did not quite catch the total message. You probably rehearsed silently using the arcuate fasciculus what you heard until you were able to decode and complete the surface structure and so glean its meaning using both your analysis of the communication signal and your composition of context, including knowledge of the other person and the situation.

This example demonstrates, I think, a basic insight into the development of human symbols. A signal, i.e., surface structure, carries its deep structure through our empathic apprehension of another’s mind and its presumed contents; we ‘know’ more is there and can even surmise what it might be through EC. Without that evolutionary step symbols could not develop. (Hey, what a perspicacious title for my blog, eh?) That deep structure may be conventionalized and carried by lexical items as in discursive language or not conventionalized, its formal or aesthetic import carried by the presentational art symbol. Without the active inclusion of both symbolization and empathy in our doxa, orthodox discourse will have difficulty bridging the gap between, as Tomasello quotes Donald Davidson, human evolution “from ‘no thought’ to thought’.” The heterodoxical statement, “No thought without feeling” may be heretical but should still be part of our discourse as we strive to bridge that gap.

And now travel on with feeling. Happy New Year.

Aesthemos? I like it.

I really do like Aesthemos, a newly constructed self-report measure for aesthetic feelings about a work of art. The authors, mostly European (no surprise), published an extensive report on PLOS about their development of this instrument, the Aesthetic Emotion Scale  (see: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178899). They reviewed much of the literature on this topic and then gathered questionnaire items from other questionaires and some theoretical considerations, then tested the items to find which ones were most valid and tapped into what they thought was pertinent. This is a brilliant, rigorous and important piece of work, no small undertaking, and one that will help move our understanding forward.

They came up with questions assessing an art consumer’s responses (what word would be better here? Art appreciators?) in several areas: A) Prototypical Aesthetic emotions, e.g., feelings of beauty, fascination, being moved, awe; B) Pleasing emotions, e.g., joy, humor, vitality, energy; C) Epistemic emotions, e.g., surprise, interest, challenge and insight; and D) Negative emotions, e.g., ugly, bored, confused. They worked hard to develop an instrument that could be used across many types of art, visual, dance, music, literary, etc., and that was manageable, i.e., not too long or difficult for ease of administration.

These areas and the specific questions are quite interesting and I am sure I will write more about them later, but for now I want to note what a great literature review they offer, what a cogent theoretical basis for their analysis they have, and one place where I think they could learn from Susanne Langer (you knew that was coming, right?).

Oh, to be young and a library rat (analogous to gym rat) again. One of the great joys in my earlier life was to find a good article or book and then immerse myself in the stacks reading select items from the reference list. Being distant from academic pursuits I must find sources wherever I can these days as I work the farm, and I did not know about many of the journals and books they cite. I had better get busy over the winter when my farm task list shrinks and read about emotion and empathy in aesthetic experience, reactive and reflective models thereof, the pleasures of the mind and sense-making, and how this all relates to our sense of beauty. Lovely, isn’t it?

The first sentence of the abstract says much about their theoretical approach: “Aesthetic perception and judgment are not merely cognitive processes, but also involve feeling”. I knew this was going to be a great read. The introduction starts, “How does beauty feel? The notion that aesthetic appeal is more felt than known has a substantial tradition in philosophical aesthetics.” My variegated readings in psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience suggest that such a tradition has not carried forward very far into aesthetics as a biological phenomena, though the authors here have found some. Indeed, their development of Aesthemos is intended to facilitate the inclusion of a consumer’s emotional responses to art into more experimental paradigms, and that is very exciting.

Reflecting on this article I realized two things. First, that Aesthemos and the theory underlying its development is based upon art appreciation and not art creation, and that the emotional processes serving artistic creation are bound to be very different and more difficult to understand. This is natural because the response of the art consumer is much more amenable to study than is the creative intuition of the artist inspiring the work and its crafting thereafter. How to study that is a challenge for the future (probably, but we should keep it in mind).

Second, Aesthemos is based upon emotions and feelings as a counter-balance to more cognitive approaches, but it still relies on a vocabulary from those latter restrictive ones. Here is where Langer can help with the discussion. Aesthemos found one area of emotional response the authors noted as ‘epistemic’, i.e., “emotions that have been connected to the search for meaning and insight”. They rightly point out that art is not utilitarian; it is not a means to accomplish an end (unless you count symbolic communication and the sharing of vital experience as the goal) but is more of an end in itself. The essential importance of art is its symbolic communication of the artist’s experience, necessarily personal, somehow intimately parsed from the self’s vital life that then inspires the creation of the art work.

The problem with “meaning and insight” is that these terms are loaded with other philosophical, psychological and religious connotations. We gain meaning and insight into how our life has progressed and how we want to live it into the future in many ways, not all of them aesthetically based. Plus, the label of ‘epistemic’ and use of the word ‘meaning’ comes from the discursive realm of knowledge as more or less logically abstract and impersonal (like declarative memory more than episodic) and to this old linguist, that relies on the deep and surface structures of language because meaning there is a conventionalized and internalized system of sematic units expressed by and recoverable through syntactic transformations between deep and surface.

Langer recognized the difference in the deep and surface structures between the two types of symbols, discursive, e.g., language, and presentational, e.g., art, in her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key, and she continued to develop the notion of artistic ‘import’ as analogous to linguistic meaning in 1953 Feeling and Form. I like her very succinct presentation of the term in her 1957 Problems of Art. Over the 4 years of this blog I have written about this several times (for example see 9/23/17, 9/13/2016, 2/17/16, and 11/4/2015). Briefly, from a previous blog, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements that bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

Going further, presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, the elements of which depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically). In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’, following ideas set forth by Ernest Nagel and other philosophers.

This distinction between meaning and import carries two implications about the issues Aesthemos explores. The first, more theoretical than empirical, is the basic difficulty of verbalizing about a work of art; translating a work of art from one medium to another or giving a rendition of it in the context of critical appreciation or even a literary work from one language to another ranges from fraught with difficulty to impossible. Thus, Aesthemos uses words, i.e., discursive symbols, to report feelings about a artistic work, i.e., presentational symbol. These feelings are part of the process of apprehending and understanding the art work, but are not the import, which is really conveyed when the expressive form is gathered in in its entirety. Langer says the import is an idea of felt experience that “gives us the forms of imagination and the forms of feeling, inseparably; that is to say, it organizes and clarifies intuition itself” (Feeling and Form, p. 397). The artist does this intuitive work in his art production, and the import which the consumer manages from the artwork must likewise follow the intuitive processes of a presentational symbol, its form expressing a complex synthesis of vital experience. I take from this that understanding art is or rather will be an important aspect of understanding the non-conscious processes of intuition, difficult on both the expressive and receptive ends.

The second issue is directly addressed by the authors as they cited the known difficulties of self-report measures, the reliability from one moment to the next for any individual and the necessity of assaying an experience once it is over and when the consumer’s emotions and understanding changed continuously during the artwork’s performance or reading or viewing and then change afterwards with the integration of many past experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This is especially so, I should think, in exploring our aesthetic feelings, but such measures can be very useful in studying human minds and I hope Aesthemos has a long and happy career as a useful measure helping us understand how we produce and receive art.

I have much more to say here; their article started me wandering down several paths of thought. Next up I think will be a reflection on the nature of critical appreciation and artistic import, using a review of a beautiful movie as the platform. I hope everyone has seen or has a chance to see (take it) The Red Turtle.

Travel on, of course, and remember Mammalian Heritage Day on November 2. After that I plan a series of posts as I celebrate the fourth anniversary of this blog on December 5. The farm is frosted and I have time and energy.

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We are the champions, my friends.

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A rousing tune but champions? All of us? I just don’t know how I feel about that.

 

 

WP on art and the brain

So we have a wonderful audiovisual piece on art and the brain from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/your-brain-on-art/ . I think it gives a good accounting of how our brains do art, though of course I have some quibbles. This work gets right its emphasis that art connects us to something larger, that it uses the mirror system, that narrative is important, that key elements serve to evoke emotions and that when those elements are congruous, the emotions are evoked more strongly, and that art serves a shared consciousness.

They understand that empathy is an important component to this process. We mirror emotions just like we mirror the ballet dancer’s movements and the quality of those movements convey different emotions. Though cited without any explanation or hint as to its complexity, metaphor is deemed critical to art. They understand that we feel more strongly (by some measure—I could carry on about this a bit but not now) with tragedy. They even speak about how a “performer’s separate motions [are] one psychologically rich phrase”, which is a dim echo of Langer’s discussion of art and rhythm. Perhaps the strongest message here is that while art is “the domain of the heart” science can and should help us understand the phenomena. And I would add that understanding only increases appreciation.

Being quite prejudiced, I noticed several instances where acquaintance with Susanne Langer’s philosophy would have clarified and emboldened their explication. In a silly pique I took exception to the phrase “wordless language of symbols” when Langer gives us plenty of conceptual support to talk about presentational symbols apart from discursive linguistic ones and I think the difference is important, as you know if you have followed this blog much at all. Likewise Langer talked about artistic import (vs. linguistic meaning) emphasizing the rhythmicity of the artistic gestalt and its elements, the interplay among different artistic forms, e.g., why happy dance and sad music might not kindle the same strong emotion as sad dance and music would but then art is not about purity of emotion, is it? Perhaps most importantly she emphasized the unity of the artistic piece and the rendering of personal experience into a vital experiential gestalt; the artistic form regardless of the medium must be unified, coherent and luminous. Oh, how I wish we would understand how our scientific understanding of the roots of our humanity is traveling towards what Langer has already elucidated; progress would be surer if we followed her guidance.

One more quibble, and please remember that I do appreciate this report more than almost any other I have seen for a long time, is that this story brings forth the notion of ‘neuroaesthetics’. Yes, neuro stuff is all the new sexy rage, but I am old school, really old school and a bit cranky at that, and so make two points. One is that ours is an embodied mind, as in my basic concept here on this blog of soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN, and so art, as a symbol of vital experience, is also embodied in its operations. Sure, our brain and MEMBRAIN are mighty conductors of communal experience but that experience is lived in the soma, i.e., the body. Watch dance, ballet, modern, flamingo or otherwise without body awareness and you will have missed the point.  Parsing the soma out of art is just another example of cognitive distortion towards the discursive and rational excluding emotion and irrationality.  This brings me to my second point which is that we never should have segregated aesthetics from its biological role in the first place; then we would never have the need to for it to be neuro because of course it is—it is biological. So, just ‘aesthetics’ will do nicely, thank you very much, because I understand the biological context of human culture and its roots in empathy and symbolization. Travel on (and look at the Post piece).

Garden thought

I have been spending a lot of time in the garden this summer. Sometimes I think about what I am doing and sometimes my thoughts wander. Sometimes they wander someplace interesting but sometimes not. I believe research shows that the mind’s negativity bias grows stronger with age. My defense against that is to think about what I have been reading and what I might write about when I get time and energy enough. Our weather turned hot and dry about 2 weeks ago so I have had to water every few days for the first time this summer, and when I water, I put on my ipod. It is the perfect activity for music listening. I can get our gardens watered during Dvorak’s 9th and one more movement of another symphony or it takes around 2/3 of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Yesterday I finished in the time it took to listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the first two movements of his 7th. Great stuff for communing with your plants, monitoring the water flow and enjoying our beautiful farm.

My mind wandered during the 5th symphony. My 8th grade music teacher in Minot, N.D., introduced me to this piece and used the trope of ‘fate knocking on the door’ for the opening notes. I found that distressing as I listened to this fabulous work. First of all, the knocking notes are an all too effective ear worm and tend to distract from the beautiful later movements, but my mind came to rest when considering the difference and interplay between the music and the verbal trope, between the art form and the verbal label, between Langer’s presentational and discursive symbols.

Briefly, because I have discussed this so much before, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements which bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

So the artist’s work is not really ‘translatable’ to the work of art educators and critics. Art appreciation is more the apprehension of artistic import, though given the creatures that we are, we try to supplement this through discursive thought.   The boundary between art and the critical, i.e., talking, effort to express thoughts about it, is, I think, impermeable, and that was the real source of my distress when thinking about fate knocking while listening; the trope interfered with my appreciation of the import (and also while I find most critical efforts uninteresting).

Suppose those opening notes are not fate knocking (and what about fate? Not exactly a modern meme except in literature and drama, and oh yes, the theology of John Calvin). Suppose the notes are any number of things, the sounds the fetus hears made by the uterus’ first contractions of birth or the flap of sails in the first gust of a storm or the banging of an anchor being raised to the deck or the Western Union man at the door or well, you get the idea. The notes signal an opening literally of the musical piece and then symbolically of some experience. These are all suppositions and music is music, the lovely symbol of time and vital experience as a complex flow, multidimensional, and human and available only for direct apprehension.

So I have to go water the garden again and practice listening to music while forgoing the intellectual fog of talking about it even to myself. The plants know all about it but can only model it, not teach it.

Re-read 4.0: Susanne Langer on Music

If you have followed this blog the past few months, you know that I have been reading and thinking about the neuroscience of music. If you have followed this blog for a bit longer, you know that one of the best benefits of my retirement is to re-read some books I read long ago. And many also know that I revere Susanne Langer in this regard.

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As a child her family called her “Waldhexe” or ‘witch of the woods’ for the time she spent wandering there.

So last week with a snow storm in progress I re-read 3 chapters on music in Susanne Langer’s 1953 book, Feeling and Form, in which she developed a theory of art, basing it really upon the aesthetics of music, from her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key. The key here is symbolism. She would later in the 1960s and 70s carry her philosophical ideas towards biological realms. In Feeling and Form she developed the concept of virtual images into a highly potent philosophical concept, this before the age of computers and at the dawn of modern neuroscience. As it turns out, she was helped by a 1920s essay by Basil de Selincourt, “Music and Duration” in which he “distinguished, clearly and explicitly, between the actual and the virtual,” i.e., we listen to music both physically and mentally. Seems an obvious beginning for a path to understanding.

What a flood of memories rushed upon me when I read the following passage as she discussed the organizing principle of rhythm in life and music: “The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm. All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are really lost life cannot long endure. This rhythmic character of life permeates music, because music is a symbolic representation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings.”

This struck me in 1970, as it strikes me now, as profoundly true and obviously so. Ah, I was younger then and naïve; I am older now and less naïve and so can hope that we can raise our appraisal of art to match that of what might be considered our colder activities, and indeed, current neuropsychology increasingly demonstrates that even these ‘colder’ intellections are based upon feelings, upon intuitive impulses arising from our mind’s depths. This is my motivation for repeatedly discussing here Langer’s distinction between discursive, e.g.,language, and presentational, e.g., art, symbols and to pursue further understanding of how empathy and symbolization contribute to our humanity, e.g., the neuroscience of music. In 1970 Chomskyian linguistics was replacing the sterile paradigm of behaviorism and cognitive psychology was participating in the incipience of information sciences, its algorithms, modules, etc. Art then, as it had often been and is still viewed by many, was considered ‘messy’ and less of an intellectual product (and to reflect the chauvinism then and now, a feminine thing), but Dr. Langer’s writings, her intellectual life’s work actually, demonstrated the opposite, that art is one of humanity’s highest intellectual achievements and one with deep biological roots. Thanks again, Dr. Langer. Some will travel on from here now, but I will rest and enjoy the glow (and watch the snowpack melt).

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