Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Art, the Mind and the Brain

Gregory CURRIE

I take the view that philosophical work on the arts needs strength and enrichment from other areas of philosophy. In recent work I have tried to bring ideas from metaphysics and philosophical logic to bear on questions about the nature of the arts (1989, 1990). My current work, or some of it, takes this a step further, by drawing on empirical research in psychology.

Belief in an "affective fallacy" seems never to have been as strong or as widespread as belief in the intentional fallacy, and today such broad-spectrum antidotes to psychologism generate little enthusiasm from analytically-minded philosophers. Most philosophers of art will say that art and the mind are closely linked, that the study of art must be to some extent the study of how the mind creates and is affected by art. This is most obviously true of aesthetic concepts not much attended to these days, like beauty and elegance, which belong to a broader family of concepts recently called "response dependent concepts". They are concepts applicable to things in virtue of the ways that sentient beings respond to those things. It is a fascinating and difficult question to try to decide whether or to what extent the centrality to aesthetics of response dependent concepts of this and of other kinds renders aesthetics a "subjective-relative" enterprise, which is presumably what worried those who announced the affective fallacy. Relativism might be an undesirable thing, but reasoning that leads to undesirable conclusions is not necessarily fallacious (1993).

It is one thing to agree that art and the mind are closely connected, another to agree on what the connection is. Recent work on the connection has been conducted at the a priori level, or at least at a level relatively remote from experimental psychology-I am thinking for instance of Richard Wollheim's deployment of Freudian ideas. My own concern in this area has been with the role of imagination in art, and I confess to finding much of the analytical literature somewhat unilluminating, as least as far as the issue of imaginative responses to fiction are concerned. So I decided to take a different tack. Suppose we take the view that the imagination is a genuine mental faculty, in the old-fashioned sense recently revived by Jerry Fodor. Suppose, that is, that there is an "imagination system" much in the way that there seems to be a visual system. The visual system is something which can be damaged or destroyed, and indeed, much of what we know about it comes from the study of tragic cases in which there is partial or complete loss of visual perception (cases of partial loss are particularly interesting because of (for) what they tell us about the different sub-systems in the visual system). Similarly, the imagination system, if there is one, ought to be susceptible to damage or destruction, leaving intact other areas of mental functioning. And if there were indeed cases of this, they ought to give us important information about what role imagination plays in a normally functioning human mental economy, and in particular what function imagination plays in our responses to art. So naturally I became interested in the question whether there are cases of this kind.

I wish I could report that I have discovered a clear answer to this question. I have not. The most I claim at this stage is that there is some reason to believe that there is a condition, a central characteristic of which is damage to the imagination system. That condition is autism. The difficulty here, or one of them, is that autistic subjects usually suffer from multiple deficits; autism is at least very commonly associated with insult to the brain, and this kind of damage rarely respects functional boundaries. There is even doubt as to whether there is such a thing as "pure" autism rather than a family of related but distinct conditions. Still, it is a widely if not universally acknowledged conclusion that the so-called "high functioning " autistic group display an extreme version of what we are in normal contexts inclined to call "lack of imagination": their interests are primarily and sometimes obsessively mechanical, they are insistent on environmental sameness and adherence to routine, and while their understanding of causal and mechanical processes is often sound, they have great trouble, even at an elementary level, with understanding the motivations, the beliefs and the desires of other people. Very significantly from my point of view, they typically lack an interest in fictional narrative, and one of the earliest indicators of autism is a child's lack of interest in pretend play.

Much of my current work is concerned with trying to establish some kind of framework within which to place the enormously complex and sometimes conflicting data concerning autism, and to see whether genuine insights into the nature and role of imagination can be gleaned from this condition (1995a). One especially interesting issue concerns the nature of autistic perception, for philosophers have from time to time suggested that imagination may play a role in the formation, and in particular in the synthesis, of perceptual experience. While the data here is patchy and inconclusive, both experiment and casual observation suggest that autistic perception (visual and auditory) is often peculiar in emphasising local detail at the expense of the larger-scale pattern of relations. Also, some writers have emphasized the role of imaginative capacities in understanding pictures; it is certainly worth considering whether this idea could be tested by using autistic subjects. In fact, there has been a good deal of work done that involves presenting autistic children with pictures and assessing their understanding of simple pictorial narratives. But while the results suggest that autistic children have difficulty comprehending the psychological states of the characters depicted, this seems to indicate no special failure of pictorial understanding. After all, they do badly at understanding the mental states of real people, and their understanding of what pictures actually depict, as opposed to what they suggest about what is depicted, is about normal for mental age. If this sort of data proves robust, it would suggest that imagination does not play an important role in picture perception. I should add that there is a lot of work coming out now on the development of pictorial understanding in normal children, with some quite surprising results about what children can and can't do at various stages (see e.g. the work of DeLoach and colleagues). This work will have to be taken seriously by anyone offering general hypotheses about pictures and our responses to them; for example, it seems to collide head-on with the idea that our understanding of pictures is anything like our understanding of language.

Autistic people also have difficulties with what are called by psychologists "executive functions". For example, they find it difficult to plan ahead, and to contemplate and take into account the consequences of their actions. One question that interests me a great deal at the moment is whether imagination might play a role in enabling us to be more thoughtful about what we do. In particular, I am interested in whether, through imaginative engagement with fictions, we can learn to plan better, and to adopt and pursue values which will have better medium-to-long term consequences for us and for those we care about. It seems to me that imagination can play a role here, though whether in fact it does so is an empirical question that is somewhat difficult to answer at the moment. But if it does, then we have one interesting sense in which we can learn from fiction. Of course it is relatively uncontroversial that we can learn facts from fiction, because fictions often contain a lot of facts (for example the historical novel). But the knowledge-from-fiction I am interested in is, at least partly, practical rather than propositional knowledge: knowledge of how to do things (1995d).

Much as I should like to describe myself as a clear-sighted system builder, steadily working towards a tightly interlocking set of aesthetic opinions, I have to report that my other current work in aesthetics does not connect in any evident ways with my work on imagination. I am referring to some work I am engaged in concerning the nature of narrative. This interest is connected with my interest in the nature of film, other aspects of which do raise empirical questions about the mind which I shall not have time to discus here (but see 1995c). I have recently been concerned with the question of whether and in what ways filmic narrative and narration is distinct from literary narrative. In particular, I have argued that the filmic medium does not allow scope for a narrator in the same way that a novel does; there can be narrators in film, but there cannot be narrators of film, in the way that there can be a narrator of the novel. Now this has one important implication; there can, I believe, be unreliable narratives in film. But the standard account of narrative unreliability makes appeal to the idea of a narrator; an unreliable narrative is one in which there is a tension or contradiction between the outlook of the (implied) author and that of the narrator. So the standard account must be wrong, and very recently I've been developing a new account (1994). This work forms part of a larger project which attempts to provide a general theory, and not just a taxonomy, of narrative, and to say something also about the role of narrative in the historical and social sciences-a role that I believe has lately been the subject of exaggeration and misunderstanding (see my 1998).

While I think that narrative is a formal concept rather than a response-dependent one in the sense explained above, there certainly is work to be done on our responses to narratives of the fictional kind. In particular there is a traditional philosophers' problem about how we can have emotional or evaluative attitudes towards fictional things. I have offered a general theory about how this is possible (1990, Chapter 5). But one interesting questions that remains is whether and in what ways different kinds of narratives, and different media of narration (film versus the novel, for example) encourage or exploit different kinds of emotional and evaluative responses. Film theorists with a psychoanalytic bent have been investigating this for some time now in connection with "the gaze", but on the whole I am not enthusiastic about their approach. Currently I am thinking about this in connection with a somewhat different psychological paradigm: the idea of empathy as "mental simulation" (1995b).

I hope this gives some indication of the direction of my current work, and also of the rich and fascinating connections between the philosophy of art and the empirical study of the mind.

Gregory Currie
Professor of philosophy
Flinders University
Adelaide, Australia


Works Cited:
(1989) An Ontology of Art. New York, St Martin's Press.
(1990) The Nature of Fiction. New York, Cambridge University Press.
(1993) "Interpretation and Objectivity", Mind, 102, pp. 413-428.
(1994) "Unreliability Refigured", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
(1995a) "Simulation-Theory, Theory-Theory and the Evidence from Autism", in P. Carruthers and P. K. Smith (eds), Theories of Theories of Mind, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
(1995b) "Imagination and Simulation: Aesthetics Meets Cognitive Science" in M. Davies and T. Stone (eds), Mental Simulation. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.
(1995c) Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, New York, Cambridge University Press.
(1995d) "The Moral Psychology of Fiction", Australasian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming.
(1998) "Narrative", in Edward Craig (ed), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London, Routledge.



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