Aesthetics and Cognitive Science

Phil/Psy/SPM 379

W 1:30-4:20: Stager 212


 Margaret Livingstone,


Professor William Seeley

Office: 323 Stager

Office Hours: MW 12:00-1:00

Or email to make an appointment,

(I can generally also be found on the ice at

The Lancaster Ice Rink from 10:00-11:00 a.m. on

 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Bring your skates!)




Course Description:

An examination of philosophical issues surrounding attempts to naturalize aesthetic experience by integrating research in aesthetics and cognitive science. In this context naturalizing refers to attempts to explain aesthetic experiences by reference to the natural psychological processes underlying perception and cognition. The aim of the course is to introduce students to the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, and to investigate the role psychology and cognitive neuroscience can play in explanations of art and aesthetic experience. The first part of the course introduces issues in aesthetics. The second part examines the role an understanding of the perceptual relationship between viewers and works of visual art can play in an explanation of the aesthetic experiences we associate with art in general. This section investigates the general methodology underlying the interdisciplinary study of aesthetics and cognitive science, and the application of current theories of perception to an understanding of aesthetic experiences.


Course Resource Page:






Course Goals:


1.   Provide a general understanding of the objectives and interdisciplinary methods of cognitive science via their application in explanations of art and aesthetic experience.

2.   Evaluate how aesthetic experiences are differentiated from ordinary perceptual experiences in traditional and contemporary philosophical literature.

3.   Naturalizing aesthetics is an instance of a more general philosophical project. The goal of this project is to investigate, and if possible explain or resolve, traditional philosophical problems in terms natural psychological processes. This course will provide students with the philosophical background to evaluate attempts to naturalize aesthetics.






Students will be required to write two papers: a short paper (6-8 pages) on an assigned topic to be assigned at session 7; and a term paper (12-14 pages) on a topic of their own choice due at the end of the reading period. Students must see me to discuss the topic of their term papers no later than Session 10. In addition students will be responsible, on a rotating basis, for preparing a short introduction to the reading for each seminar (as assigned).






   Carroll, Noel (1999). Philosophy of Art, Routledge, New York.

      Course Packet





Session 1. Introductory Lecture:


The goal of this session is to introduce students to the key concepts and basic model for the interdisciplinary study of cognitive science and aesthetics:


a)   the philosophical definition of aesthetics: the study of sensory cognition and the phenomenal character of the experiences associated with artworks.


b)   the definition of an interpretation: the application of background art historical and cultural knowledge in the identification of the content of a work of art.


c)   a basic philosophical conflict between the role of interpretation and the philosophical definition of aesthetics: it has been argued that what differentiates aesthetic from ordinary perceptual experiences is not their phenomenal content, but rather how viewers interpret them relative to background art historical and cultural knowledge, e.g. conceptual art like the "readymades" of Marcel Duchamp.


d)   the definition of a constructivist theory of vision and its implications for the field of aesthetics:


-     expectations and background knowledge concerning the structure and function of scenes and objects play an integral role in the construction of visual appearances;       

-     therefore the conceptual contributions of background art historical and cultural knowledge cannot be so easily separated from the phenomenal content of aesthetic experiences


e)   a solution suggested by a constructivist theory of vision to the conflict between the idea of an interpretation and the philosophical definition of aesthetics: background art historical and cultural knowledge plays a role in the construction of the phenomenal content of aesthetic experiences.




Session 2. Some Background in Aesthetics: Aesthetic Experience and Interpretation:


The goal of this session is to examine in detail: a) the central notion of a theory of aesthetics, i.e. that what individuates artworks from ordinary objects is the unique phenomenal character of aesthetic experiences, and b) a standard objection to theories of aesthetics, i.e. that they cannot adequately account for the role of interpretation in aesthetic experiences.




-  Arthur Danto (2000) "The Work of Art and the Historical Future," The Madonna of the Future, University of California Press, 2001, Berkeley, pp. 416-431. (philosophy)

-  Noel Carroll, "Art and Interaction," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XLV, No. 1.1986, pp. 57-68.



Session 3. The Fry-Ruskin Thesis:


The Fry-Ruskin Thesis consists of three claims: a)visual artists derive the content of their works from a careful examination of the underlying structure of natural appearances, b) viewers reconstruct the representational content of these works from visual cues derived from this examination, and c) as a result an intuitive understanding of the structure of appearances plays a key role in the production of aesthetic experiences. The goal of this session is to evaluate a) the Fry-Ruskin Thesis as a theory of aesthetics, and b) Gombrich's criticism that it rests on a naive view of vision built upon the impossible notion of an innocent, or unbiased, eye.





-  John Ruskin (1857) "from The Elements of Drawing," Dover Publishers Inc, Mineola, New York, 1971 2001, Malden, MA, pp. 27-28. (art criticism)

-  Roger Fry, "The Artist's Vision," Vision and Design, Dover Publishers Inc, Mineola, New York, 1981, pp. 33-38. (art criticism)

-  E. M. Gombrich's (2000) "The Analysis of Vision in Art," Art and Illusion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, pp. 291-314. (psychology and art criticism)




Session 4. The Constructivist Hypothesis:


The goal of this session is to: a) introduce the idea that the structure of appearances is actively constructed by the visual system, b) introduce a general constructivist model for the study of cognitive science and aesthetics which suggests that artists' close examination of the structure of appearances is in fact a close examination of the way the visual system constructs visual representations, and c) discuss a solution this strategy suggests for the problem of interpretation.




-  Diana Raffman (1993) Language Music, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 1-15; 31-35. (philosophy and cognitive science)

-  Ellen Winner(1982) "What's in a picture," Invented Worlds, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 81-111 (psychology of art textbook)

-  Stephen E. Palmer (1999) "Classical Theories of Vision," Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp.47-59. (psychology textbook)



Session 6. Kinetic Art and Calder's Mobiles:


The goal of this session is to evaluate a case study which exemplify the bottom-up approach:

Semi Ski's claim that Alexander Calder's sculpture consciously exploits the receptive field properties of motion sensitive neurons.




-  Anjan Chatterjee (2003). "Prospects for a Cognitive Neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics," Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts, Volume 4. Number 2, pp 55-60 (neuroscience)

-  Semir Zeki and M. Lamb (1994). "The neurology of kinetic art," Brain, 117, pp. 607-636. (cognitive science and aesthetics)

-  V.S. Ramachandran and R. L. Gregory (1978) "Does Color Provide an Input to Human Motion Perception?" Nature, Volume 275, September 7, pp. 55-56. (scientific report)

-  Margaret Livingstone (2000). "Is It Warm? Is It Real? Or Just Low Spatial Frequency?" Science,290, November 17, p. 1299 (neuroscience).




Session 7. Discussion of Zeki's Thesis:


Zeki's theory does not address the issue of interpretation. The goal of this discussion is to evaluate two potential difficulties for Zeki's theory: a) Jennifer McMahon's claim that Zeki's theory is limited by the fact that it can only explain the perceptual content of highly abstract works which exploit formal visual elements in relative isolation, e.g. Calder's use of motion, and b) the claim discussed in Sessions2 and 3 that the value of the formal structure of an artwork is derived from an interpretation.




-  Clement Greenberg (1960). "Modernist Painting," ed. John O'Brian, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, pp. 85-93. (art theory).

-  Noel Carroll (1999). "Form and Function," The Philosophy of Art (excerpts on eDisk), New York: Routledge.

-  Arthur Danto (2000) "Art and Meaning," Theories of Art Today, University of Wisconsin Press,2000, Madison, WI, pp. 130-140. (philosophy)






Session 8. A Top-Down Approach: A Theory of Perceptual Beauty:


The goal of this session is to examine McMahon's claim that the phenomenal character of the experience of beautiful artworks, objects, and natural scenes involves an intuitive awareness of the role of perceptual schema in the top-down processes subserving form perception.




-  Jennifer Anne McMahon (1999) "Towards a Unified Theory of Beauty," Literature and Aesthetics, 9, pp. 7-27. (philosophy and cognitive science)

-  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1684) "Meditation of Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas," Philosophical Papers and Letters translated and edited by Leroy E. Loemker, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, 1989, pp. 291-295. (philosophy)

-  Moses Mendelssohn, "Of the Main Principles of the Fine Arts and Sciences," Philosophical Writings, ed Daniel Dahlstrom (New York: Cambridge University Press).

-  Noel Carroll (1991) "Beauty and the Genealogy of Art Theory," The Philosophical Forum, XXII, No. 4,pp. 307-334.




Session 9. A Top Down Approach: Form Perception:


The goal of this session is to examine evidence supporting McMahon's central claim that viewers can be intuitively aware of key aspects of the perceptual form of a scene or object without being able to appropriately identify them.




-  Stephen Palmer, "Four Stages of Visual Perception," Vision Science, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 85-93. (cognitive science)

-  Jenni A. Ogden (1996) "Vision Without Knowledge: Visual Object Agnosia and Prosopagnosia," Fractured Minds, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 125-141. (cognitive science)

-  Alan J. Parkin (1996) "Visual Agnosia," Explorations in Cognitive Neuropsychology, Psychology Press, New York, pp. 38-57. (cognitive science)



*  (supplemental)Marr, David and H. K. Nishihara (1978) "Visual Processing: Artificial intelligence and the sensorium of sight," TechnologyReview,81, pp. 2-23.

*  (supplemental)Jennifer Anne McMahon (2001) "Beauty," in eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, New York, pp. 227-238. (philosophy)



Session 10. Art and the Imagination:


The goal of this session is to a) introduce a general model for the role of the imagination in the production of aesthetic experiences due to Gregory Currie, b) introduce the claim that viewing a work of visual art involves a "simulated" act of seeing, and c) discuss the relationship between this model and the constructivist hypothesis.




-  Kendall Walton (1992) "Mimesis as Make-believe," Art Issues 21, pp. 22-27. (philosophy)

-  Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft (2002). "Chapter 1, Projections and Recreations," Recreative Minds(New York: Oxford University Press). (philosophy) (on eDisk)

-  Gregory Currie (1995) "Visual Imagery as the Simulation of Vision," Mind and Language, Volume 10, Number 1/2, March/June, pp.25-44. (philosophy and cognitive science)




Session 11. What is Mental Imagery?:


Currie appeals to Stephen Kosslyn's model of visual mental imagery to explain the idea of a "simulated act of seeing." The goal of this session is to discuss a) the top down role of memory and background knowledge in Stephen Kosslyn's model for mental imagery, b) behavioral, neuropsychological, and neurophysiological evidence that supports the claim that mental imagery is in fact a type of visual experience, and c) the resolution that this model suggests to the problem of interpretation.




-  Currie and Ravenscroft, "Chapter 4, Imagery: Capacities and Mechanisms," Recreative Minds. (philosophy)

-  Stephen Kosslyn (1996) "Resolving the Imagery Debates," Image and Brain, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 2-21. (cognitive science)

-  Kosslyn et al (1999) "The Role of Area 17 in Visual Imagery: Convergent Evidence from PET and rTMS," pp. 167-170. (cognitive neuroscience)




Session 12. Imagery Feedback, Attention & Diagnosticity


The goal of this session is to a) introduce evidence for what Kosslyn calls "imagery feedback" in ordinary vision, b) introduce the concept of diagnosticity in object (a feature or set of features are diagnostic if they are sufficient to enable a someone to perceptually recognize an object or scene), c) introduce the idea that the formal structure of an artwork contains a set of diagnostic cues that function to direct/constrain viewers' perceptual and interpretive experiences.


-  William Thompson and Stephen Kosslyn, "Neural systems activated during visual mental imagery," Brain Imaging: The Systems, eds. Toga and Mazziotta, (New York: Academic Press). (cognitive neuroscience) (packet)

-  Marvin Chun and Rene Marois (2002). "The dark side of visual attention," Current Opinion in Neurobiology 12 (cognitive neuroscience) (eDisk)

-  Nancy Kanwisher and Ewa Wojciuk (2000). "Visual Attention: Insights from Brain Imaging," Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 1, pp. 91-100. (cognitive neuroscience)

-  Phillipe Schyns (1998). Diagnostic recognition: Task constraints, object information, and their interactions," Cognition 67, pp. 147-162 (excerpt)




Session 13. Discussion: Art, Imagination, Mental Imagery, and the Problem of Interpretation:


The goal of this session is to evaluate imagery feedback and diagnostic recognition theory as possible mechanisms for a solution to the problem of interpretation: they suggest complimentary roles for the phenomenal content of aesthetic experience and background art historical and cultural knowledge.


-  Arthur Danto (2001). "Seeing and Showing," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59:1, pp. 1-9. (philosophy) (eDisk)

-  Noel Carroll: "Modernity and the plasticity of perception, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59:1,pp. 11-17. (philosophy) (eDisk)

-  Mark Rollins (2004). "What Monet Meant: Intention and Attention in Understanding Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62:2, pp.175-188. (philosophy) (eDisk)

-  Noel Carroll (1988). "Art, Practice, Narrative," The Monist 71:2, pp. 140-156.(philosophy) (packet)

-  Stephen Davies (2005). "Beardsley and the Autonomy of the Work of Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63:2, p. 179-183.




Session14. Art, Aesthetics and the Constructivist Hypothesis


-  Noel Carroll(2002). "Aesthetic Experience Revisited," British Journal of Philosophy, 42:2, pp. 145-171.