In Film, Art, and the Third Culture, Murray Smith articulates and defends a naturalized aesthetics of film that exemplifies a “third culture,” integrating the insights and methods of the natural sciences with those of the arts and humanities. By contrast with skeptics, who reject the relevance of psychology and neuroscience to the study of film and art, I agree with Smith that we should embrace the third-cultural project. However, I argue here that Smith does not go far enough in developing this project. In defending the contribution of the natural sciences to film aesthetics as traditionally conceived in the arts and humanities, Smith focuses on only one side of the equation, unduly limiting the potential contribution of the arts and humanities to the scientific study of film. Using the example of emotional responses to fiction film, I propose that we adopt a more genuinely integrative approach.
In this article, I reply to the eleven commentaries on Film, Art, and the Third Culture gathered here, organizing my responses thematically and seeking to find points of similarity and difference among the commentators as well as with my own perspective. I address arguments on embodied simulation; the analogy between films and dreams; aesthetic experience and the “expansion” of ordinary experience; the relationships between culture and cognition and between fiction and emotion; theories of the extended mind and of niche construction; the place of neuroscience in aesthetics; and the relationship between naturalism and normativity. I conclude with some reflections on naturalistic methodology.
A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film—Précis
In this overview of my recent book, I outline its main themes, questions, and arguments. Part 1 explores the applicability of philosophical naturalism to aesthetics and the arts. Searching for the principles that might undergird a naturalistic or “third cultural” approach to the arts, I defend a model of “triangulation” that seeks consilience among phenomenological, psychological, and neurophysiological evidence and that relates to two further strategies: “thick explanation,” combining personal and “subpersonal” levels of analysis, and “theory construction,” conceived as an empirically oriented alternative to conceptual analysis. Part 2 examines emotion in the arts and in film as a relevant and fertile territory for a naturalized aesthetics, in relation to Charles Darwin’s account of the expression of the emotions, niche construction, and the theory of the “extended mind.”
Triangulation and Third Culture Debates
This article analyzes the unique historical collaboration between the revolutionary Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), the cultural psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), and the founder of contemporary neuropsychology, Alexander Luria (1902–1977). Vygotsky’s legacy is associated primarily with the idea that cultural mediation plays a crucial role in the emergence and development of personality and cognition. His collaborator, Luria, laid the foundations of contemporary neuropsychology and demonstrated that cultural mediation also changes the functional architecture of the brain. In my analysis, I demonstrate how the Eisenstein-Vygotsky-Luria collaboration exemplifies a strategy of productive triangulation that harnesses three disciplinary perspectives: those of cultural psychology, neuropsychology, and film theory and practice.
After expressing my enthusiasm for Murray Smith’s Film, Art, and the Third Culture, I offer a critical discussion focused upon the place of the experiential-phenomenological dimension in Smith’s naturalized aesthetics. I look closely at two films, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), in relationship to Smith’s claims about the qualia filmmakers impart to their creations and the highly specific states of mind, emotional and otherwise, that they manage to express and to evoke in viewers.
These brief comments raise some questions about Murray Smith’s remarks, in his new volume Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film, on the nature of aesthetic experience. My questions concern how we might best draw a viable distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic experiences and focus in particular on possible links between self-awareness and aesthetic experiences. In sum, I agree with Smith in holding that we should not give up on the notion of aesthetic experience, even though aestheticians continue to disagree regarding even the most basic questions pertaining to its nature.
Murray Smith’s proposal in Film, Art, and the Third Culture for a naturalized aesthetics is of interest to both film theorists and psychologists: for the former, it helps to elucidate how films work; for the latter, it provides concrete application cases of psychological theories. However, there are reasons for believing that the theory of emotions that Smith has adopted from psychology to ground his case studies—an extended version of basic emotions theory—is less well supported than he suggests. The available empirical evidence seems more compatible with the assumption that the different emotions are outputs of a single, integrated system.
This article offers a critical discussion of Murray Smith’s proposals regarding the role of science in film theory and the philosophy of art more broadly. I would like to examine the precise role given by Film, Art, and the Third Culture to scientific evidence in understanding film engagement. There are points in the book where scientific evidence is used to considerable theoretical or philosophical advantage. But there are other points where the role of scientific evidence is unclear or where an opportunity is missed for its full deployment in theorizing.
On Value Judgments
Laura T. Di Summa-Knoop
Can naturalized aesthetics contribute to the evaluation of a work? In this article, I consider three ways in which naturalized aesthetics may inform critical evaluation. First, I analyze the role of naturalized aesthetic analysis in the formation of the creative choices made by filmmakers. Second, I assess the relationship between the analysis of empathy provided by Murray Smith’s Film, Art, and the Third Culture and the expression of moral evaluations. And third, I outline what I take to be naturalized aesthetics’ promising potential contribution to the study of genre and contra-standard features. In the concluding section, I instead introduce what I take to be two rather serious difficulties to a cooperation between criticism and naturalized aesthetics.
The Role of (Liberated) Embodied Simulation
The naturalization of the aesthetic experience of film and art can benefit from the contribution of neuroscience because we can investigate empirically the concepts we use when referring to it and what they are made of at the level of description of the brain-body. The neuroscientific subpersonal level of description is necessary but not sufficient, unless it is coupled with a full appreciation of the tight relationship that the brain entertains with the body and the world. In this article, I will discuss aspects of Murray Smith’s proposal on the aesthetic experience of art and film as presented in his Film, Art, and the Third Culture against the background of a new model of perception and imagination: embodied simulation.