“Guilt by (Word) Association?”
In the first two chapters of his fascinating and innovative book Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film, Murray Smith sets out the case for a triangulational approach to issues in the aesthetics of cinema and for a “cooperative naturalism” whose goal is “a genuinely integrative [strategy], where the knowledge and methods of the natural sciences come to complement rather than replace or eliminate those of the human sciences” (Smith 2017: 3). In Chapter 3, Smith turns to the concerns of two “neuroskeptics,” Jerry Fodor and Raymond Tallis, who have offered principled reasons for resisting such an approach. Fodor “question[s] whether the mind can be illuminated by evidence about the brain” because the brain is merely one way in which the mind might be “implemented” (2017: 85–86). Tallis, on the other hand, targets “naturalism,” which is conceived as “the project of explaining human behaviour based on the assumption that the human species is a part of the natural world, and that consequently the methods and knowledge of the natural sciences will play a central role in such an explanation” (87). He thinks that naturalism fails to “acknowledge and accommodate the gulf – cognitive, behavioural, and existential – between humans and other animals” (87). Crucial to this gulf is what Tallis calls the “normativity” of human behavior: “It is a response involving recognition of a standard or norm that some event or state of affairs fails to match, rather than simply a response to that state of affairs” (89).
Smith returns to these themes at the end of the chapter:
David Davies … highlights two ways in which neuroscientific research on art may miss its mark. First, in an echo of Fodor, Davies argues that brain research may provide nothing more than an “implementation story” about already acknowledged features of aesthetic or artistic experience; on this view, learning that, say, the seat of some emotional response is the insula rather than the amygdala does not enrich our understanding of the aesthetic phenomenon. Second, noting the contrast between descriptive questions about the nature of our actual responses and normative questions about “merited” responses, Davies stresses the centrality of the latter in the philosophy of art and queries the ability of empirical research to address them. Things rather work in the other direction, according to Davies: experimental work must make normative assumptions which, if they are acknowledged and defended at all, will be on the basis of conceptual argument. Here Davies’ argument joins with Tallis’ in playing up the strongly normative character of human behaviour – another dimension of our uniquely “uncoupled” existence.(2017: 92)
Since I think my “skepticism” regarding the promise of work in neuroscience for the philosophy of art in general, and for the philosophy of film in particular, falls well within the scope of Smith’s own “cooperative naturalism,” I am a little surprised to find myself in the company of Fodor and Tallis, thinkers with whose views on these matters I have little sympathy. I want to try to correct this characterization of the kind of skepticism to which I subscribe, not so much to set the record straight as to my own views but, more significantly, to map out the relevant philosophical terrain and to voice some concerns that Smith does not address regarding the scope of, and principles that should govern, the philosophy of film and art pursued in a “cooperative naturalist” spirit.
In these ways neuroscience … furnish[es] important evidence of the existence of a psychological process, as well as a nuanced picture of the character of that process. Together these contributions afford an answer to the worry, articulated by Davies and others, that neural evidence might amount to nothing more than an “implementation story” – the view, that is, that all we will learn from neural evidence is that certain types of cognition depend on this or that part of the brain, without learning anything about the character of those types of cognition, or the value that we attach to them in our theories of art and the aesthetic. The blunt answer to this worry is that cognitive architecture is shaped by neural architecture; or to put it more circumspectly, it is methodologically unwise to rule out the possibility that cognitive architecture is importantly shaped by our brain anatomy and chemistry. The way we think is shaped by the kinds of brain we have; the kinds of mind that we possess arise from our evolved physiology.(2017: 103)
I have elsewhere described my own view of the potential contributions of neuroscience to the philosophy of art as moderate pessimism, but each of these terms is equally important (Davies 2013). I am a pessimist about the significance of work in neuroscience for the philosophy of art (including film) because I think it unlikely that attention to such work will resolve (or sometimes even speak to) many of the most significant problems that engage us as philosophers of film or philosophers of art more generally. These problems for cinema would include the following:
- 1)Ontological: What kind of thing is a work of cinematic art? What are the identity and persistence conditions for such works? What distinguishes cinematic artworks from other works of cinema?
- 2)Epistemological: What kinds of artistic and aesthetic properties bear upon the appreciation of cinematic artworks? What kinds of cognitive and other capacities are required if a perceiver of a cinematic artwork is to grasp such properties? To what extent is knowledge of the history of the making of a film necessary for film appreciation?
- 3)Axiological: What kinds of artistic values do cinematic artworks realize? How do these relate to the values to be found in the other arts?
Those who hold out the hope that neuroscience may play a larger, or much larger, role in aesthetic inquiry are what I term optimists. But there are moderate and extreme versions of both optimism and pessimism. Graham McFee (2011), for example, is an extreme pessimist, while Semir Zeki (2001) is an extreme optimist. William Seeley (2011) and, perhaps, Smith himself are what I term moderate optimists. I think both Vincent Bergeron (2011) and I are moderate pessimists. Moderate pessimists and moderate optimists are in agreement that philosophical inquiry concerning the arts should be informed by our best understandings in those sciences that bear upon the cognitive and perceptual capacities exercised in the generation and reception of artworks. They also agree that empirical work in neuroscience may correct our folk understandings of what is going on in artistic creation and reception. This differentiates moderate pessimists like myself from an extreme pessimist such as McFee, who does hold the kind of view that Smith ascribes to me. Writing about the philosophy of dance, McFee holds that what matters for the latter are the kinds of human capacities exercised in executing and appreciating dance performance. The evidence for such capacities, he maintains, is manifest in what dancers and observers of dance can do. All that empirical inquiry in cognitive neuroscience can tell us is how these manifest capacities are physically realized. But, McFee maintains, the questions of interest to philosophers of dance depend only upon the manifest “personal level” capacities themselves and their employment in dance performance and appreciation, not upon their “subpersonal” implementation (McFee 2011: 185–206).
The moderate pessimist, however, rejects such reasoning. In appealing to the “personal–sub-personal” distinction, McFee assumes that we can tell just from ordinary observation what specific capacities we “personally” exercise in participating in and appreciating dance practice. But, as Seeley (2011) has rightly noted, our common-sense assumptions about the kinds of cognitive abilities exercised in engaging with artworks are “theories” that are open to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. McFee, then, does indeed think that neuroscience can only give us, at best, an “implementation model.” As a moderate pessimist, on the other hand, I share with Bergeron (2011) the concern that what we gain from cognitive neuroscience may not speak to the normative dimensions of many philosophical questions.
Vincent Bergeron and Dominic Lopes (2009) offer a nice example of this concern in an article that looks at some recent empirical research on music reception. They cite psychological studies that show that the observation of a musical performance strongly influences the expressive qualities ascribed to the music performed. The perception of musical expression is thus a function not only of auditory information but also of visual information received about the performance. But, as Bergeron and Lopes note, the empirical evidence in no way resolves one of the crucial philosophical issues here. Even if aesthetic judgments do indeed differ in this way according to the circumstances of engagement with the music, we must still ask in which kind of circumstances the work is rightly appreciated—that is, under which circumstances the expressive qualities of the work are properly grasped. This essentially normative question is untouched by our reconception of the empirical facts.
Another related example that I have discussed elsewhere (Davies 2014) is the work of Beatriz Calvo-Merino and colleagues (2005, 2006) on neurological differences in dance reception between those with dance training in a given kind of movement and those lacking such training. More recent work in the same vein has been carried out on the neurological and behavioral differences, when subjects look at paintings with evidence of facture, between those with experience in producing marks in the way they were produced by the painter and those who lack such experience (Ticini et al. 2014; see Davies 2018 for critical discussion). In both cases, these studies contribute to our understanding of the actual reception of artworks, but do not answer philosophical questions about what enters into the right appreciation of these works. Does training give one a deeper experiential appreciation of the work, or does it hinder one’s proper aesthetic engagement? It is in this context that the moderate pessimist will speak of the normative nature not (as in the case of Tallis) of human beings but of the questions that concern us as philosophers of art who seek to provide a fruitful conceptual framework for thinking about our artistic practices. And, as already noted, it is only extreme pessimists like McFee who share Fodor’s belief that the most we can get from neuroscience is an implementation model.
Empathy: Its Value in Film Experience
Empathy plays a central role in Smith’s account of the nature of film reception and of the ways in which neuroscience can illuminate our understanding of the latter. He rightly points to the different ways in which film makers seek to produce affect of various kinds in the viewers of their films. This is something explored in detail in some recent papers by Amy Coplan on the affective implications of lighting effects and cinematography (2008, 2015). These kinds of insights into the ways in which artworks move us, and into the ways in which artists draw on at least a tacit knowledge of this in emotionally shaping the experience of receivers, are invaluable aids to those of us who take the workings of artworks in virtue of the intentional activity of their makers to be a crucial part of their artistic value.
Smith’s point about empathy is a different one, however. He takes our responses to the portrayal of “extreme” situations in human life to be an important part of cinematic experience and an important value of cinema. Speaking of United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), Smith asks: ‘Is it really such a stretch to say that the film helps us imagine what being on that flight was like for its passengers (or even, to a lesser degree, its hijackers)?” (2017: 190). He further claims that “to know what it is like to be a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation is something that we value for its own sake” (194). Generalizing, he asks:
In what ways might empathy, then, be stretched and refined through its engagement by the narrative arts? In scope and intensity. Our ability to empathize is extended across a wide range of types of person and situation, and sustained and intensified by virtue of the artificial, “designed” environments created by narrative artefacts.(191)
In each of these passages, we might ask whether the claim is merely about the value of exercising certain imaginative capacities per se, or about such exercises as ways of gaining knowledge. The wording suggests the latter, as does the claim that “artistic narratives giv[e] us resources … to realize in imagination just what it would be like to be caught up in extreme or unusual circumstances” (190).
I assume that Putnam’s point here is not merely about the “objective facts,” but about how those facts would have been experienced by those involved.
It cannot be said that after reading [Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook], one has acquired knowledge of what it was like to be a communist in the 1940’s, unless one has some independent source of knowledge that Doris Lessing’s account is factually true. You may feel convinced upon reading The Golden Notebook; you may say to yourself, this is what it must have been like; but unless you want to substitute subjective plausibility … for answering to the objective facts … you have no right to say “I know that this is what it was like.” You do not know; and the very next week you may be convinced by an equally plausible novel that it must have all been entirely different from Doris Lessing’s description.(1978: 87)
Does the empirical work on the neurological basis of empathy cited by Smith speak to this kind of skepticism? Let me suggest why a positive answer may not be forthcoming. For Smith, empathy is not some kind of magical act of transcending one’s own embodied situation, but an imaginative achievement whereby one simulates in one’s own experience not merely the situation of the other but also the other’s “traits, states, and history” in the interest of achieving a “personal” imagining of the other’s perspectives and experiences (183). Empathy of this sort is characterized as a much more engaged version of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. If Smith’s account is to speak to Putnam’s concern, we need to point to aspects of the neurological story about empathy that provide good reasons to think that our perspectives and experiences when we empathize with others track their perspectives and experiences. But all we get from the neuroscientific account is a story about some of the shared neurological mechanisms that engender experiences that, as Smith puts it, “scaffold” our empathetic experience (180). The work of taking on the other’s “traits, states, and history” is part of what is built on the neurological foundations, not something given in those foundations themselves. It is part of our conscious imaginings. But then Putnam’s concerns about the ability of artists to persuade us that they have got it right remain, since this is precisely a concern about the reliability of our conscious imaginings.
Empathy: Its Neurological Basis
And, describing this as the key point about mirror neurons for his own account, Smith also endorses the following quoted claim by researcher Marco Iacoboni: “[W]e empathize effortlessly and automatically with each other because evolution has selected neural systems that blend self and other’s actions, intentions, and emotions … Our neurobiology … puts us ‘within each other”’ (qtd in Smith 2017: 100).
Mirror neurons are neurons which fire both when a subject executes and observes an action. They were first discovered, in the early 90s, in macaque monkeys, but subsequent research has revealed that humans possess an even more active and extensive mirror neuron system. By revealing its neural underpinning, the discovery of the mirror system provides further evidence in support of the existence of motor and affective mimicry.(180)
This, it is claimed, involves “activation of the same brain region during first-and third-person experience of actions, emotions and sensations.” However, one of the responsibilities of the triangulator is that they must take account of what is judged within each of the disciplines they are triangulating to be the best current theoretical work in that domain. It is not clear that this standard has been generally met by those making philosophical claims in the name of the Parma school, and I am concerned that Smith may be open to this charge. Let me conclude, therefore, by briefly mentioning three kinds of concerns to be found in the relevant cognitive neuroscience literature.
has shed light on the ways in which we empathize with others by emphasizing the role of implicit models of others’ behaviors and experiences—that is, embodied simulation. Our capacity to pre-rationally make sense of the actions, emotions and sensations of others depends on embodied simulation, a functional mechanism through which the actions, emotions or sensations we see activate our own internal representations of the body states that are associated with these social stimuli, as if we were engaged in a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation(2007:198)
First, the most fundamental challenges are to the interpretation of the original work on macaques. Gregory Hickok (2009), for example, claims that there is no evidence that mirror neurons support action understanding in macaques, given that the ability to understand actions seems unimpaired by damage to the relevant area, F5, of the macaque brain. Hickok further argues that other evidence offered for the idea that mirror neurons in macaques code for the meaning of action can be explained purely in terms of priming and associative connections.
Second, there are challenges to the supposed evidence for the existence of a mirror neuron system in humans analogous to the one identified in macaques. Luca Turella and colleagues (2009), for example, question whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) studies have demonstrated within reasonable doubt that exactly the same brain area is activated in human subjects when they observe and execute a given kind of action.
And third, if humans do indeed possess neurons with mirror properties, there remains the question whether those neurons are properly viewed as part of an adaptive system whose function is to facilitate action-understanding or imitation, and thereby to serve as the biological basis of empathy. Turella and colleagues, again rejecting an adaptive account, suggest that “mirror neurons may thus acquire their properties in the course of ontogeny as a side-effect of the operation of general associative learning, and motor control mechanisms that led to their formation evolved in response to much more general adaptive problems” (2009: 18). And Cecilia Heyes (2010) grants that there are mirror neurons in humans, but discounts the evidence for “neonate imitation,” which supposedly shows that we have an adaptive mirror neuron system whose function is to facilitate imitation and social cognition. She also cites research showing that neurons supposedly having mirror properties can be “retrained” so that they fire when an agent performs an action of one type and observes an action of a completely different type.
These kinds of concerns suggest that triangulation that takes mirror neuron research as one of its foundations may be unstable. But these local issues do not undermine the importance of Smith’s very timely defense of cooperative naturalism, even for those of us who are more pessimistic about its philosophical yields.
Calvo-MerinoBeatrizDaniel E. GlaserJulie GrèzesRichard E. Passingham and Patrick Haggard. 2005. “Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An FMRI Study with Expert Dancers.” Cerebral Cortex 15 (8): 1243–1249.
Calvo-MerinoBeatrizJulie GrèzesDaniel E. GlaserRichard E. Passingham and Patrick Haggard. 2006. “Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation.” Current Biology 16 (19): 1905–1910.
CoplanAmy. 2008. “Form and Feeling in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.” In The Thin Red Line ed. David Davies65–86. London: Routledge.
CoplanAmy. 2015. “In the Mood for Thought: Mood and Meaning in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In Blade Runner ed. Amy Coplan and David Davies118–134. London: Routledge.
DaviesDavid. 2013. “Dancing Around the Issues: Prospects for an Empirically Grounded Philosophy of Dance.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71 (2): 195–202.
DaviesDavid. 2014. “‘This Is Your Brain on Art’: What Can Philosophy of Art Learn from Neuroscience?” In Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind ed. Gregory CurrieMatthew KieranAaron Meskin and Jon Robson57–74. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DaviesDavid. 2018. “Evidence of Facture and the Appreciative Relevance of Artistic Activity.” In The Pleasure of Pictures ed. Alberto Voltolini and Jerome Pelletier286–302. London: Routledge.
FreedbergDavid and Vittorio Gallese. 2007. “Motion, Emotion, and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (5): 197–203.
HickokGregory. 2009. “Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21 (7): 1229–1243.
TiciniLuca F.Laura RachmanJerome Pelletier and Stephanie Dubal. 2014. “Enhancing Aesthetic Appreciation by Priming Canvases with Actions that Match the Artist’s Painting Style.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (391). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00391.
TurellaLucaAndrea C. PiernoFederico Tubaldi and Umberto Castiello. 2009. “Mirror Neurons in Humans: Consisting or Confounding Evidence?” Brain and Language 108 (1): 10–21.