Art and the Apophatic Horizon

An art history perspective on aesthetic cognitivism.

Posted Jan 25, 2021

 Photo by Thesupermat, from Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
St. Denis of Paris holding his own head (Notre-Dame de Paris).
Source: Photo by Thesupermat, from Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

We conclude this series of comments on aesthetic cognitivism with reflections by the art historian Matthew Milliner, Associate Professor of Art History at Wheaton College. Aesthetic cognitivism refers to the philosophical claim that aesthetic engagement advances knowledge and enhances understanding. Is this claim true? How would we know?

This post was written by Matthew J. Milliner.

To suggest that neuroscience must be reductive is like suggesting that art history must be elitist. These are merely outside perceptions that dissipate upon engagement. In my exploration of aesthetic cognitivism as an art historian among scientists (and professionals from other academic fields as well), I have come to understand that “reductive” is not a dirty word. It is instead the limitation of focus required to make isolatable observations that need not be reductionist.

Which is to say, there have been no premature closures in the discussions in which I have been involved. Instead, aesthetic cognitivism has brought the words of Marilynne Robinson to mind:

A difference between a Newton and a Comte, between science and parascience, is the desire in the latter case to treat scientific knowledge as complete, at least in its methods and assumptions, in order to further the primary object of closing questions about human nature and the human circumstance (129).

Assured that aesthetic cognitivism is not parascience, I have come to realize that my horizons need to be stretched from a robust but somewhat defensive posture from within the threatened humanities to welcome more points of view beyond them. 

Anjan Chatterjee’s book The Aesthetic Brain was especially helpful in this regard. He moved beyond the facile “art instinct” rhetoric with new biological metaphors. Art is simply too complicated to be explained as a mere fulfillment of instincts. “Contemporary art is formed in local environmental niches made by humans, and rather than being controlled tightly by an instinct, it blossoms precisely because it is untethered from these instincts” (175).

Prompted by Chatterjee to see value in such investigations, I was delighted to discover that my field of art history has been pursuing them for some time. John Onians’s ambitious project has recently come to fruition in European Art: A Neuroarthistory. One of the strengths of the book is Onians’s attempt to overcome a bias toward conscious mental activity in favor of “types of mental activity of which the artist may never have been conscious” (331).

But if this is where neuro-art history is headed, we do well to remember that tracking unconscious activity is itself contested terrain. How, for example, would neuroscience capture an aesthetic experience that has met what is often its stated goal: that of attaining some kind of transcendence? Indeed, as part of an interdisciplinary discussion group trying to formulate a vocabulary to measure aesthetic experience, this question is what I kept returning to in my hunt for the right terminology. After we have assessed artistic objects descriptively, after we have tracked our response to art, perhaps charting the new emotional and cognitive horizons that art makes possible, further horizons remain.

And this lands aesthetic cognitivists in the territory of the neuroscientists who, in the last several decades, spearheaded in part by the Dalai Lama’s “Mind and Life” dialogues, have attempted to track religious experience. Of course, few within these discussions are prepared to argue that tracking meditative practice can package, let alone replicate, satori (“sudden enlightenment”). Can anyone really measure Dzogchen (“objectless awareness”)? In the final analysis, should not questions such as what an advanced Buddhist brain is doing while meditating be met with the same answer that Zhaozhou gave to the disciple who asked whether a dog has a Buddha-nature—namely, “Mu” (a deliberate non-answer)? 

In her survey of recent meditative research, Cynthia Bourgeault has complained that some who have attempted to track the Christian form of meditation known as "Centering Prayer" have faced the same dilemma. Researchers, in her estimation, have completely failed to take into account “the kenotic epicenter with its signature gesture of release” that is the heart of this ancient meditative practice (105-106). In other words, conscious measuring tools seem to come with conscious biases attached.

This objection would not be so troubling to aesthetic cognitivism were it not for the fact that an enormous amount of religious material culture has been generated with exactly this “kenotic” (emptying) or “apophatic” (the way of negation) aim in mind. In the case of Abbot Suger’s 12th-century efforts at St. Denis that generated the Gothic style, such an apophatic experience was even his express aim, “transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial.” Yet such a horizon goes underexplored in Onians’s excellent overall treatment of the Gothic style. In other words, one can only measure Suger’s apophatic aspiration (which he learned from the Victorine mystics) by indicating its immeasurability. 

The historian of mysticism, Bernard McGinn, suggests that “in picturing the Trinity, theological iconographers were not really trying to depict what is by essence unimaginable and unportrayable” (202). They were instead trying to induce an experience with the unimaginable and unportrayable. “Happy is the spirit that attains to complete unconsciousness of all sensible experience at the time of prayer” (75), claimed the 4th-century desert father, Evagrius. If a great deal of art is intended to lead to that kind of experience, is it really trackable by anyone, whether theologian, art historian, philosopher, or scientist?

None of this invalidates good investigation, as much as it reminds us that there are times when, like the statue of St. Denis, we investigators should be prepared to calmly remove our heads. Forgoing any desire to close the question, aesthetic cognitivists might see the transcendent experience induced by art less as a limitation to be overcome than as the limitless horizon under which all of their investigations take place.


Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Anjan Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Boulder: Shambhala, 2016).

John Onians, European Art: A Neuroarthistory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981).

Bernard McGinn, “Theologians as Trinitarian Iconographers” in Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Anne-Marie Bouché (eds), The Mind’s Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).