The highly emotional language used by some to describe neuroesthetics, of which I gave a selection in my previous post, suggests a fear – and an irrational one at that – of neuroesthetics. Fear is an interesting state, to which I will return in a future post. But here I want to examine one of the arguments used to trash neuroesthetics by those who fear it so much – “trash” being their word to describe neuroesthetics.
The charge is that even a very detailed study by neuroscientists of the brain’s reaction to an artistic work – or a very detailed study of its creator – will not “explain” the work. The columnist in The Scotsman article gave the example of Finnegan’s Wake. A friend of mine told me of the complaint of a philosopher about neuroesthetics, that no amount of studying the brain response to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isoldewill “explain” it. I wrote in my previous post that it is not the aim or mission of neuroesthetics to explain works of art. On the contrary, neuroesthetics is inspired by works of art and debates in the humanities to learn something about the brain. Let me emphasize that we do not try to “explain” the brain either, but just to gain some insights into its functioning.
However, since one of the chosen terrains by those who wish to “trash” neuroesthetics is that of explanation, it is worth reflecting briefly on who are they who have been trying throughout the ages to “explain” works of art and music and literature.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles written on Hamlet. The number of books and articles on the Tristan chord alone exceeds 2000. Many books and articles have been written to “explain” TS Eliot’s poetry [An interesting point here: Eliot reputedly once told a man who tried to explain some lines of his: “Thank you for explaining it to me. I didn’t understand it before” – or words to that effect]. Untold thousands of articles and books have been written trying to “explain” the works of some painter or another. And the list goes on!
Who has written these books and articles? Not neurobiologists, but art critics, literary critics, etc. If they try to “explain” these works, it must mean that they think that there is something explicable about them. And if so, why should they restrict to themselves, or to humanists in general, the privilege of explaining them? Why should a neurobiologist not have the same privilege, even if in the end his or her explanation turns out to be “trash”? Would it not be worth reading their “explanations” (assuming them to have given any) before dismissing in emotionally charged language that what they write is “trash”?
I may add that I often read the explanations provided by art and literary critics of art works with profit and pleasure. Some may seem far-fetched, others are sober and level-headed, many are interesting and inspiring in terms of new ideas and connections. It would never cross my mind to dismiss their collective efforts as “trash”.
I have here used the word explain in quotes throughout, partly because I am quoting those who dismiss neuroesthetics and partly because I do not understand what is meant by “explaining” a work such as Tristan und Isolde or Hamlet. One may want to explain something about the work – many articles have discussed whether Richard Wagner destroyed tonal music in Tristan – but I am not sure that any article succeeds in explaining so complex a masterpiece as Tristan. Where an attempt is made to explain a whole work in a few lines, the result is often unsatisfactory. I once heard an historian trying to explain the whole of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by saying that it can be summarized thus, “That all power corrupts”. Well, that is not quite the “explanation” that I would read into that work. My explanation, if I had to reduce it to a few words, would be: That good and evil reside in most men, and that they come especially to the fore when men have power, though only momentarily, because men, like the empires they create, are ephemeral and ultimately all are crushed by history and destiny. My explanation, too, is unsatisfactory and does not provide an explanation of the whole of Gibbons’ masterpiece, nor would I claim that it is better than the one given by the political historian. Indeed, I am not sure that there can be a simple explanation for Gibbons’ subtle and brilliant masterpiece.
To sum up – once it is acknowledged implicitly, through the many articles written about works of literature, art and music, that there is something explicable in them, the terrain of explanation on which those who want to dismiss neuroesthetics plant their dismissal simply vanishes. They should try hard to find better grounds.
As I have argued on this site before, science is reductionist by its nature. It cannot study a complex system as a whole; rather, it isolates its constituents first and tries to build a picture of the whole from studying its parts. This is true of the study of matter by physics and chemistry – to study the particles constituting matter in terms of atoms and electrons and neutrons, and then the sub-atomic parts, and so on. It is true of biology and medicine, which tries to isolate, for example, the constituents of a cell to study their chemistry, or molecular biology, and to learn how these constituent parts interact. Yet this kind of necessary reductionism is, rightly, never criticized. Any perceived reductionism by neuroesthetics is, on the other hand, roundly condemned, at least by those who see it as having the imaginary powers to “flatten our culture”.
But let us forget chemistry, physics, and biology and delve into the humanities, and into the arts, that is to say into the territory from which the vociferous critics of neuroesthetics come. How certain is it that artists and art historians and philosophers of aesthetics do not indulge in the same kind of reductionism that the critics of neuroesthetics find so odious?
When the English art historian, Clive Bell, asks in his book Art what “Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne” have in common because “either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber”, is he not being reductionist?
And when Immanuel Kant writes in The Critique of Judgment of asensus communis which gives universal validity to the aesthetic judgment of an individual, is he not being reductionist?
How do these differ, in terms of reductionism, from the quest of neurobiologists to learn what kind of brain activity is common to the experience of all beauty in all humans, regardless of the source of the beauty (i.e. whether it is a portrait painting, or a landscape or a musical excerpt) and regardless of the cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds of those experiencing beauty?
And when Piet Mondrian, in his artistic exploration of form, asks what is the essential constituent of all forms and settles on the vertical and horizontal straight lines, is he not being reductionist?
And how does this differ in terms of reductionism from the quest of neurobiologists to learn whether orientation selective cells in the visual brain (cells which respond specifically to straight lines) are the physiological building blocks of form in the brain?
Is the neurobiologist more reductionist than the artist in this instance?
And when kinetic artists emphasize motion and de-emphasize colour and form, are they not being reductionist?
And when Paul Cézanne considers all the variety of the natural world in terms of the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, is he not being reductionist?
Is abstract art not reductionist?
And this is only a brief list. There are many more examples of reductionism in the humanities.
In light of the above, it is interesting to ask why some single out neuroesthetics to stigmatize it with their hate word “reductionist”?
What exactly are they so afraid of?