What Does Aesthetic Cognitivism Really Mean, Anyway?

Reflections from a psychologist.

Posted Jan 05, 2021

"Othello's Lamentation" by William Salter, from Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: "Othello's Lamentation" by William Salter, from Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

We start this series of comments on aesthetic cognitivism with reflections by the psychologist Ellen Winner, author of the book How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration. Aesthetic cognitivism refers to the philosophical claim that aesthetic engagement advances knowledge and enhances understanding. Is this claim true? How would we know?

By Ellen Winner

In his book, Ways of Worldmaking, philosopher Nelson Goodman makes the bold claim that “the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding” (Goodman, 1978, p. 102). Painter György Kepes said that both the artist and the scientist “reach beneath surface phenomena to discover basic natural pattern and basic natural process" (Kepes, 1960, p. 6). 

These statements have a “feel right” quality to them, particularly when we talk about works of art we consider great. We talk about such artworks as deep; we interpret them and argue with others’ interpretations; we feel that they give us insight. All of this kind of talk sounds very cognitive. But what exactly do these kinds of “aesthetic cognitivism” claims mean? One thing that they do not mean is that the meaning of a work of art can be translated into one or more propositional statements or moral lessons. We cannot translate Shakespeare’s Othello with “Jealousy may be based on a false belief, so beware of acting on your jealousy or it may lead to something you will regret.” One needs the full experience of the play—the words and ideally also the action—to get a gut, empathetic feeling for the depths of jealousy one can feel, as well the depths of despair that comes from recognizing that one’s deadly jealousy was based on a falsehood.

Deep and sustained experience of works of art can enlarge our understanding of human nature (that of others and of ourselves) and alter our visual perceptions of the world. Art makes us think in multiple ways, but these two broad outcomes leap out at me as particularly central, as I try to describe here.

Expanding our understanding of human nature, including our own

Literature (fiction and poetry) and the narrative arts of film and theater allow us a close-up view of human nature. Often they confront us with the worst aspects of human nature—evil, hypocrisy, rage, self-destruction, cruelty. Paradoxically, we seek out these aspects of human nature in art yet turn away from them in our actual lives. But we can explain this because art worlds do not demand any practical action on our part. They are make-believe. Therefore we are free to savor these negative qualities without dangerous consequences for ourselves and others—and in so doing come to better understand them.

When we watch Othello being performed, we come face to face with jealousy and with its destructive, deadly effect on both Iago and Othello. We may then bring this understanding of jealousy to our own life, thereby understanding ourselves better. This might be the same kind of understanding reached in psychotherapy. Experiencing Shakespeare also helps us understand others better: After we experience the many cowardly sycophants of autocratic rulers in Shakespeare’s plays (as brilliantly discussed by Stephen Greenblatt in Tyrant), we can better understand these same kinds of people in our own world (and Greenblatt shows how accurately Shakespeare “nailed” the many sycophants of Donald Trump). We don’t just bring our own experience to bear on interpreting literature; we also use literature to better understand our own experience. 

In the case of music, the writings of the philosopher Susanne Langer have helped to clarify my thinking. Langer argued that the dynamic structure of a piece of music mirrors the structure of our feeling life. The tension and release, conflict and resolution, excitement and calm, motion and stasis, joy and sorrow, expectation and fulfillment that we hear in music can prompt us to reflect on and thereby better understand our own emotional life.

There is also evidence that feeling moved by art experiences leads us to look inward: The default mode network of the brain, which has been linked to introspection, is activated during feelings of being moved. And introspection can lead to self-understanding.

Understanding the structure of our perceptual world

Certainly visual representations of brutality, war, or kindness and love can prompt us to think about these aspects of human nature, much like literature does. And contemporary visual (and performance) art is often quite explicitly engaged in provoking us to think about social issues like racism, poverty, climate change, and the like. It is easy to see these kinds of works as enhancing understanding.

But what about art that is not obviously about any kind of social issue or political issue? What about a Cezanne still life, an abstract painting by Joan Miró, a centuries-old battle scene by Eugène Delacroix? Here I turn to the writings of the Gestalt psychologist of art, Rudolf Arnheim. Arnheim believed that at the heart of every work of visual art (whether representational or abstract) are basic abstract visual concepts—like order vs. disorder, attraction vs. repulsion, activity vs. passivity, striving vs. defeat. Images reveal what is most essential about our perceptual world—in the form of these visual concepts. Visual art helps us see beneath the surface of our world to these basic structural principles. Grasping these visual concepts is itself a form of knowledge and orders how we perceive the world.

Children’s art functions in the same way. Arnheim shows us a child’s drawing of a fir tree—vastly simplified, but retaining the hierarchical structure of the tree—with branches radiating out from a central vertical structure, smaller branches radiating out from each primary branch, and even smaller branches radiating out from each secondary branch, and so on. We look at a fir tree differently after seeing this drawing—we see right through the myriad surface features of the tree to its basic stripped-down structure. This kind of perception is a form of knowledge.

Could these kinds of understandings be tested empirically? Yes, but most likely not with any standardized or already existing tests. With valid and reliable measures of the kinds of understanding outcomes I have described, and with appropriate control conditions, we could assess people before and after exposure to works of art to determine whether art experiences actually lead causally to these outcomes. Exposure should not be brief and superficial, but rather sustained and in-depth.

Outcome measures could be behavioral (in the form of verbal reports). We could also investigate these understandings at the neural level, as has been done with research on feeling moved and default mode network activation. But it would be critical to correlate brain activation with behavioral findings, determining, for example, whether people report introspective thoughts during these episodes of activation. Another example might be to look for increased activity in the visual cortex when we look at visual scenes in the world after looking at paintings. These kinds of demonstrations, when correlated with behavioral ones, would provide powerful evidence for the claims of aesthetic cognitivism.