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.

4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.


Susanne Langer

I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.

Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.

Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.


William James

In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.


Noam Chomsky 1977

Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history.   This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.

So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.

Movie review: The Red Turtle and some reflections on aesthetic appreciation

The Red Turtle is a 2016 animated fantasy feature from Studio Ghibli by Dutch animator, writer and director Michael Dudok de Witt. It is a beautiful movie and I hope that, if you haven’t already seen it, you see it soon. The film is particularly noticeable because it has no dialogue, just lovely animation with expressive animals, including humans, and scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. I write about it today as a follow-up to my recent Aesthemos post and to consider some issues it raised in my mind, e.g., the difference between aesthetic emotions and those emotions depicted or evoked, aesthetic judgment, and the difference between linguistic meaning and artistic import. Travel on then.

The plot is simple and spare. The movie opens with a man struggling in a stormy sea with no context for how he came to such a dire strait. He somehow manages to land on the beach of an isolated tropical island and frantically discovers that he is all alone and that no other land is in sight. He tries to leave the island several times via a raft and each time something rises up underneath and smashes the raft. He discovers this to be a large red turtle. When it crawls ashore he wreaks his anger on it, killing it, though then the shell cracks open and a beautiful maiden emerges. They join together in a paradisiacal life and have a child, who grows up to befriend other turtles in the sea, help his parents in many things as they age, even saving his father when he is washed away along with much of the island’s forest in a tsunami. Eventually the son swims away with his turtle friends and the couple grow old together until the man dies, and then the woman returns to her turtle form and the sea from which she came.

Other events are important, like the father and later the son falling into a cave, the only possible escape from which is to swim through a narrow underwater outlet to the ocean. Many of the events are witnessed by sand crabs scuttling around the beach with humorous expressions. All told, then, the simple tale stands alone as a symbol with other symbols contributing to its artistic import. I use Langer’s term for the deep structure of artistic communication and not the word borrowed from language, “meaning.” I think there is an important difference between, when after watching this beautiful and somewhat enigmatic movie, you ask what it ‘means’ or what is its artistic ‘import’. Both can be explicated further, but the former presumes a concrete clarity already socially sanctioned and so governed by some semantic standard, while the latter presumes that any linguistic rendering of the emotions, aesthetic, evoked, or depicted, and of the symbols’ compositions and implications, is only an approximation to the vital experience symbolically realized and conveyed. That is the essential difference between Langer’s discursive and presentational symbolic forms.

Aesthetic judgment relies upon, or it should, the feelings and symbolic form expressed. In these modern times, meaning the last 15,000 years, I think the pervading power of our civilizing impulses sometimes clouds these facets. Consider Aristotle’s dictum that art, e.g., drama, depends upon the temporary suspension of disbelief. I have friends who would not bother with this movie because it is a cartoon, which, I presume, places it beyond their suspension of disbelief. I have other friends who focus on the details drawing their critical attention, e.g., it is cartoon and so for kids, it is a realistic live action movie but cartoonish (as if that was a bad thing), the actor did not fit their preconception, or something happens that does not fit together, etc. In the Red Turtle I can tell you the tropical island had a single seal (unreal) and one time the moon set over the ocean facing the wrong way (and the rest of the times its depiction was astronomically accurate), but while noticed, the artistic enchantment held together.

In talking with my more persnickety friends I have come to rely on the phrase ‘critical appreciation’. Some people are so bent on being critical they forget the appreciation and others appreciate without much thought. Most, I believe, combine some level of both, and as naturally happens, when they like something and view or hear it repeatedly, their criticism diminishes and their appreciation dominates until with perhaps too many repetitions, the feelings subside to be recalled again when old and grey.

The Red Turtle (RT), to me, is high art. Using Aesthemos’ taxonomy of aesthetic emotions, RT strongly presents some prototypical aesthetic emotions, e.g., beauty (of several things, events, relationships and nature), fascination with the characters and events, especially the continually composing import of the film as a whole, feeling moved by their isolation and mutual support, awe in the face of nature’s power and beauty, etc. Pleasing emotions are evident with the flippant humor of the sand crabs, the joy of life and their child, and the energy/vitality of their survival. Epistemic emotions also arise with surprises of the red turtle’s changing role in the story, interest in what will happen next and finally, and the challenge to grasp the insight into life offered by this film with no words. Other emotions are depicted, e.g., fear, anger, and evoked, e.g., sadness, isolation, etc.

Aesthetic judgment is a complex process joining aesthetic apprehension and experience of aesthetic emotions, critical appreciation, the comprehension of plot, characters, and emotions depicted and evoked, and above all, the successful reception of the presentational symbol conveying the felt vital experience. Regular readers here know I am fond of Joyce’s taxonomy, drawn from Aquinas, of aesthetical appreciation of beauty: the integrity of the whole, the coherence of its elements, and the illumination the art from provides. Joyce goes further to say high art comes to a static resting place, i.e., nothing else is desired and the consumer rests in the light provided; that is the Joycean epiphany. Lower art is dynamic, i.e., the consumer is left aroused and wanting, as in didactic or pornographic (loosely defined to include car chases, explosions, and scary scenes as well as sex) art. That art, both its expression and reception, is an intellectual endeavor of great scope and depth is, I hope, evident here today. Amidst all the activities of daily life and society’s functioning (maybe over estimating that given our current politics), art as a prominent and essential feature of our humanity is often lost (and some even abandon it) amongst the dynamic welter of what we still call civilization. Remember, though, William Carlos Williams’ lines from his great poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Once again I come to one of the main motivations for this blog: understanding our humanity, especially our art, as a biological phenomenon. I am preparing a series of posts in celebration of publishing this blog now for 4 years; never thought about going this long but I learn too much to let it go fallow for long. Travel on.

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.


We are the champions, my friends.


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).

Conservative, progressive and the habitus

I am reading out of field again, struggling through the complex syntax of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice from 1977. He is an anthropologist-sociologist-philosopher; I saw a brief reference to him a few weeks back, specifically his concept of a habitus, and thought I would like to read about this from the source. The habitus is his anthropological take on culture; it is a group’s set of shared predispositions on how to handle socially defined situations through practiced actions. Now he formulates this concept through his study of marital arrangements in, I think, an Arab culture, where ‘important’ marriages are arranged through a careful process of intermediaries by males and ‘lesser’ marriages by females talking with one another. Of course, the important marriages are made so because they either consolidate property and material within the family or they increase political capital through alliances with other families. All very interesting, I am sure, and I can better appreciate finding myself in a culture where the marital couple determines their own match. We find our way over a landscape of love more than a political terrain, but all humans have their habitus to steer their practices into socially defined and acceptable channels according to their cultural tribe.

While Bourdieu does not, so far as I have read at least, relate habitus to a biological frame other than control of kinship, resources, and genetic pool, he does speak in terms I understand as easily translatable to neuroscientific ones. He says, “The habitus, durably installed generation of principles of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in [the performance in context]. Translated to BRoH speak, culture is an acquired set of learned invariable proclivities, that operate to guide our actions in key situations according to social mores and traditions. Remember the previous post about the natural history human morality and consider how we come to act in accord with our conventional notions of ethics and honor, e.g., sometimes we act humanely according to the golden rule and sometimes we abrogate that rule for strategic purpose and act disregarding the common good. The habitus, Bourdieu asserts, “harmonizes” our experiences and thus our attitudes and actions whether these are marital arrangements, workplace etiquette, hospitality towards strangers, the inclusion-exclusion of the ingroup, the mores of authority, etc.

Remember, now, a couple of things I have often mentioned here before:

  • Susanne Langer posited that society changed through a dialectic between the individual and society, sometimes learning and following the conservative traditions and sometimes creating new ways but always, one hopes, preserving the coherence and integrity of the culture. The individual also experiences a dialectic between the imaginative and practical; again balance is necessary.
  • Since the early days of psychology with Freud and James steady progress has been made in understanding that much of what we think may come from conscious deliberations actually comes about from unconscious processes. See, for a recent and most cogent example, the book, The Undoing Project, about the collaborative work between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human decision making that found our conscious heuristics riddled with biases and errors.
  • Taking this further, several scientists, like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, have found that our political leanings and judgments stem from unconscious automatic processes, i.e., that political attitudes derive from deeper in human nature than from well-considered deliberations.
  • Mind is embodied through the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. We acquire and develop our special competence, e.g., linguistic and cultural, through largely incidental experiences, a largely unremembered history of learning the cultural and linguistic invariant forms needed to act and interact effectively in the social domain.


All of these ideas are commensurate with Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus. He makes a statement that seemingly takes all these factors into account, that generational changes in the habitus, culture if you will, come about because each generation finds different “conditions of experience” and these impose “different definitions of the impossible, the possible, and the probable” and these differences lead one group to “experience as natural or reasonable practices or aspirations which another group finds unthinkable or scandalous, or vice versa”. (For some reason John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ comes to mind). Our parents’ habitus initiated our acculturation, we developed our own habitus as our own current experiences led to different practices and predispositions, and we brought this newly rejuvenated habitus to acculturate our children, and so on into the future.

As I read this I wondered about the changes in visual art affected by photography or scientific progress or in what constitutes ‘appropriate’ content from religious images to natural scenes to abstracted experiences to what some consider obscene. (Oh my, Joyce’s Ulysses is such a case in point). I also remembered something I read long ago in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that a change in paradigm, say from the Aristotelian solar system to the Copernican universe, is never a simple progression based upon consideration of data and the revolution is never complete until the practitioners who maintained the old paradigm have died off. And of course I wondered about my youth in the 60s growing up with the possibility of nuclear war, the upsurge in consciousness resulting from the civil rights struggle, and the changes in the workforce and gender roles engendered by females working more in WWII and then reproductive freedom helped along by birth control pills. Then what about my daughter’s habitus now with computers, internet, rapid cultural change, gender equality and the degradation of our politics along with the earth itself?

So cultural change occurs as each generation encounters new “conditions of experience”, and what one generation finds natural and reasonable is rejected by another, e.g., Elvis and rock and roll, divorce, abortion, the right of all to medical care, the equality of opportunity and justice to all groups regardless of race and gender, or what constitutes an acceptable gap between the rich and the rest of us. While our activities will change the conditions the next generation experiences, our activities are rarely done with that strategic purpose in mind; our actions are rarely that powerful in isolation, and much change comes incidentally or as unintended consequences. That gives me pause as to how I understand human intelligence and action in all domains, e.g., marriage, justice, economic, political, etc.

Finally I have been thinking a good deal most recently about how our minds handle temporal parameters, especially the loops, you know, like feedback, feedforward or feedsideways. Our different political biases, being based more in our human nature than our conscious deliberations, also show the importance of how we handle time and change. The basic division for so very long has been conservative, i.e., slow change and preserve old values, and progressive, embrace change and improve values. We also have reactionary, i.e., go backwards (and sorry that is a strategy of failure), and revolutionary, i.e., enact drastic change (and sorry, that is often a strategy of chaos at least in the short term and a process liable to be hijacked by charismatic miscreants or ruthless reprobates). Cultural change, i.e., change in the predispositions composing the habitus, happens incrementally through an astoundingly large exchange of social quanta that sometimes organizes into social movement. The dialectic underlying human society and culture bespeaks the importance of maintaining integrity and coherence of past practices while developing and incorporating the creativity that serves human progress. In vol. 3 of Mind: An essay on human feeling Langer details many cultures that have failed to sustain this dialectic and so passed out of existence. Somehow, to this ole man, weaving conservative and progressive threads into the social fabric used to seem easier. How and why have our predispositions changed so that pragmatic, grounded action feels so alien? And will our next generation form a habitus that is more viable and if so, how? Travel on.