The Relation of Art and Cognition

A perspective from the philosophy of art.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

 "Bust of Plato (Vatican Museum, Rome)" by Dudva/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: "Bust of Plato (Vatican Museum, Rome)" by Dudva/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

We continue this series of comments on aesthetic cognitivism with reflections by the philosopher Noël Carroll, author of Art in Three Dimensions, among other books. Aesthetic cognitivism refers to the philosophical claim that aesthetic engagement advances knowledge and enhances understanding. Is this claim true? How would we know?

By Noël Carroll

My area of expertise is the philosophy of art. Arguably my field began with the debate over the cognitive value of art. As Plato announced in his Republic, there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy (although some commentators suspect that actually Plato started the quarrel).

Basically, Plato argued that art—aka poetry—could not function as a source of knowledge. Plato advanced several arguments on behalf of this conclusion, including the allegation that artists traded in appearances rather than reality and, moreover, that appearances could be deceptive, and, in that sense, false.

Perhaps, Plato was motivated by his envy of poetry and specifically by his envy of Homer. Homer was called the “educator” of the Greeks, whereas Plato thought that philosophers like Socrates should hold that title. Thus, Plato implied that since poetry did not afford knowledge, poets could not be proper educators, since educators—that is, educators properly so-called—had to deal in knowledge in order to teach.

Oddly then, the philosophy of art began in Plato’s writings as philosophy against art.

Aristotle, Plato’s most impressive student, however, disagreed with his teacher. In his Poetics, Aristotle maintained that poetry—in particular tragedy—could impart knowledge, notably knowledge of patterns of human behavior. What happens when strong personalities like Creon and Antigone face off? It’s not pretty.

This argument over the cognitive value of art has continued down to our own day. Some philosophers argue that art cannot provide knowledge, since, especially in the case of fiction, it’s made up, and, in any case, it doesn’t typically provide evidence for the theses it brokers. Of course, this seems empirically false, since people appear to learn all sorts of things from fiction. Yet in the face of this, philosophers argue that even if people do claim to learn from fictions, they shouldn’t—or, rather, looking to art for knowledge is normatively inappropriate. Instead, art is designed to afford aesthetic experience which, by definition, is distinct from cognition and cognitive value.

My own inclination is to regard art as a source of cognitive value—among other sorts of value. In that regard, I’m a pluralist. Moreover, I think that rather than talking about knowledge, it is better to talk in terms of belief. For even if artworks typically fall short of knowledge—understood as justified true belief—it seems incontestable that art can function as a source of beliefs, including even beliefs that once acquired from artworks can be tested by readers, viewers, and listeners against their experience of the wide world outside of art.

Philosophers, I think, can appeal to psychologists for support of this type of pluralism, since psychologists can design experiments that show that subjects acquire beliefs from artworks. Neuroscientists can also add data to this hypothesis by, for example, showing that subjects employ the same neural circuitry in the process of belief formation with respect to artistic stimuli that they recruit with regard to non-art stimuli.

Empirical research, then, can address the issue of whether or not audiences acquire beliefs from artworks—or, at least, from certain artworks.

But what of the normative issue: is valuing art cognitively ever appropriate? Here philosophers of art can undermine conceptual claims that it is not legitimate to value art cognitively on logical, historical, and, in virtue of empirical research, experimental grounds. Thus, working in concert, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers can reinstate the cognitive value of the arts whose claims have been under fire for millennia.