Panel Proposal: Cognitive Science and the Arts
for American Society for Aesthetics
Annual Meeting, Santa Fe, Oct. 30 - Nov. 1,1997
Organizer: Cynthia Freeland

Panel Rationale

Cognitive science is revolutionizing our understanding of ourselves by providing new accounts of human rationality and consciousness, perceptions, emotions, and desires. This revolution is already having an impact on aesthetic theories of the different art forms. However up to this time the impact is unfortunately rather piecemeal, in two senses. First, there is often surprisingly little communication among scholars developing the cognitivist agenda for any one medium. In film theory, for example, although Tan's 1996 book and Currie's 1995 book (see Freeland panel blurb, below) are both based on cognitive science, they have little in common in either subject matter or approach. Tan's book defends an illusionistic account of film, and Currie's book attacks this approach‹but their arguments do not seem to meet on the same ground. The situation in literary theory is similar; scholars employing a cognitive approach seem to be working individually on specific topics, without much contact or intersection (see Richardson's panel abstract below).

More importantly, there has been little interaction among scholars trying to build upon cognitive science so as to develop aesthetic theories for the diverse art forms or mediums, and hence, no general aesthetic theories with a cognitive grounding. For example, there is little ongoing dialogue about the broader implications cognitive science has for familiar and important theories of art like Nelson Goodman's. Currie's book on film theory attacks the Goodmanian account of film as a language, while Raffman's book on music theory concludes that cognitivism dovetails surprisingly well with Goodman's views. Is one or the other scholar right, so that cognitive science supports or refutes Goodman's approach, or does this disagreement show simply that film and music are different? Interestingly, recent books on the visual arts seek a kind of middle ground on this dispute (see Rollins' panel abstract below); what, if anything, would these newer accounts of visual representation tell us about filmic, musical, or literary representation?

Similar kinds of questions arise about the general implications of cognitivism for other traditional issues in aesthetics such as the nature of expression or interpretation. For example, can (or should) Tan's analysis of film emotions, based on experimental psychological studies, suggest an analysis of expression and emotion in other art media like music, literature, or dance? Or, if we can say what recent experimental studies of attention tell us about standard aesthetic theories like Wollheim¹s theory of "seeing-in," how might this be generalized into a broader account of audience perception and interpretation of media like theatre?

This panel is interdisciplinary and "inter-arts," reflecting the conviction that exploring these intersections and mutual implications will be both interesting and fruitful. The panel should serve two purposes. First, it will provide a general introduction to key developments in recent cognitive studies of four important artistic mediums: film theory, the visual arts, literary theory, and music theory. Second, it will open up dialogue across mediums among proponents of a cognitive approach who have not yet begun such a conversation.


Panel Participants and Brief Abstracts

Freeland (Film Theory, Organizer)

For full text, see here (added June 1999).

I will summarize new approaches to film theory in three recent books: Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine; Gregory Currie, Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, 1995); and David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (eds.), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Wisconsin, 1996). All propose to ground film in recent perceptual psychology and cognitive science. I focus on their sometimes conflicting approaches to two topics: (1) how film evokes emotions, and (2) whether film is a language. On (1), Tan argues that film narrative evokes authentic emotions in response to the illusions it creates. Tan employs empirical research that treats emotions as (in part) behavioral and physiological occurrences, and he criticizes Carroll for relying only on "introspection." Carroll (and others in Post-Theory, e.g. Flo Leibowitz) use current functionalist theories of the emotions to analyze emotional responses to various film genres. I suggest that neither of these approaches has yet grappled with (a) the question of how films themselves express emotion, or (b) implications of recent work on emotions in the cognitive neurosciences (i.e. brain-based analyses). On (2), Currie argues against the illusionistic account of film and bases his account on a theory of imagination as simulation. While he disputes the "semiotic assumption" that film is or communicates like a language, and holds that pictures "appeal to basic perceptual skills," he acknowledges we need an active, complex account of the activity of film interpretation. I will sketch how recent work on perception and reference in visual arts might bear on Currie¹s difficulty, so as to support a more Goodmanian (conventionalist) approach to film.

Diana Raffman (Music)

I will focus on one example which concerns the apparent fact that the compositional structure of at least some atonal music is not "perceptually real". For example, it appears that we are unable to recognize at least some 12-tone structures in music when we hear them. Following some remarks by Richard Taruskin in a review of piano music by Donald Martino, I'd like to consider what the "unreality" of such musical structures means for the performance and understanding of them. After discussing this example, I will sketch more general conclusions about the implications of perceptual research for musical aesthetics and music theory.

Alan Richardson (Literature)

Literary critics and theorists have scarcely begun to explore the powerful new paradigms offered by the cognitive sciences for rethinking the relations among culture, linguistic activity, and agency. I will provide a brief overview of how the "cognitive revolution" and recent work on the brain has been received within literary studies, with special attention to the multiple (and not always compatible) paradigms offered by the cognitive sciences (or cognitive neurosciences) and to the suprising lack of communication among those few literary scholars interested in cognitive theories and in the brain. I will then describe in more detail a few of the most promising attempts to date to bring literary studies into productive contact with cognitive theory and neuroscience. Finally, I will discuss the likely causes for resistance to cognitivism and neural models on the part of literary scholars, proposing nevertheless that the present time is an exciting and propitious one for new interdisciplinary intitiatives bridging the study of literature, cognition, and the brain.

Mark Rollins (Visual Arts)

I summarize recent work in vision science and possible applications to aesthetics. New theories of perception are the successors to earlier psychological theories (e.g. of Gregory, Gibson, Arnheim) which have provided the basis for theories of pictorial representation. I describe three particular points of contact where recent vision science will test the cogency of aesthetic theories. (1) Explanations citing pictorial attitudes occur in both aesthetics and psychology (J.J. Gibson, M. Wartofsky, Gombrich, Arnheim); such notions can be updated and grounded in current theories of perception in cognitive science, whether in terms of connectionist computational models (Churchland) or mental imagery research (Kosslyn, Rollins). (2) Discussions of "attentional capacities" such as "seeing-in" have grounded analyses of pictorial representation (Wollheim); recent research on attention in cognitive neuroscience bears on such issuses and tests Wollheim¹s hypothesis. (3) ³Conventionalist² theories of visual art, like Goodman¹s, which treat visual art as a language, are challenged by perceptual theories emphasizing psychological laws; I consider receny attemptd to bridge this gap (books by D. Lopes, V. Goel). All three issues have cross-genre significance: (1) Issues about pictorial attitudes can be expanded to include "spatial" attitudes, relevant in dance, theater, and architecture; (2) Attention has also been discussed as relevant to theatrical performances; (3) There are also current controversies about whether film or music are languages, also involving conventional and perceptualist rivalries.

Information about the Panelists

Cynthia Freeland is co-editor of Philosophy and Film (with Thomas Wartenberg, Routledge, 1995). Her articles on film theory include ³Realist Horror² in Philosophy and Film; "Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films," in Post-Theory, ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (Wisconsin, 1996); "The Sublime in Cinema," in Passionate Views, ed. Greg Smith and Carl Plantinga (Johns Hopkins, forthcoming); and "Feminist Film Theory," for The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (Oxford, forthcoming). She has also published articles and reviews on topics in the aesthetics of ancient tragedy, literature, and photography. Freeland is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Communication at the University of Houston, where she is also a member of the Cognitive Science Initiative. She developed and maintains the World Wide Web site "Cognitive Science and the Arts: A Collaborative Bibliography," at http://www.uh.edu/~cfreelan/cogsci.

Diana Raffman is author of Language, Music, and Mind (MIT, 1993) and of various articles in the philosophy of music, including ³Goodman, density, and the limits of sense perception,² in The Interpretation of Music: Philosophical Essays, ed. M. Krausz (Oxford, 1993) and "On the Persistence of Phenomenology,² in Thomas Metzinger (ed.), Conscious Experience (Schoningh Verlag, 1996) She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University and has beenVisiting Fellow at the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University (1994-95).

Alan Richardson is author of Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832 (Cambridge, 1994); A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age (Penn State, 1988); and editor of Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture 1780-1834 (with Sonia Hofkosh, Indiana, 1996). His articles include "Romanticism and the Unconscious," in Non-Fictional Romantic Prose, ed. Virgil Nemoainu (Amsterdam: Benjamins, under contract) and ³Toward a New Interdisciplinarity: Literary Studies and Cognitive Science,² (with Mary Crane, forthcoming in Mosaic). He is Professor of English at Boston College.

Mark Rollins is author of Minding the Brain: The Perceptual Encoding of Mental Content (under contract, MIT); Mental Imagery: On the Limits of Cognitive Science (Yale, 1989); and editor of Arthur Danto and His Critics (Blackwell, 1993); Begetting Images: Studies in the Art and Science of Symbol Production (with M. Capbell; Peter Lang Inc., 1989). His articles include "Pictorial Attitudes² and ³Picture Perception," in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (forthcoming, Oxford); "Philosophy, Perception, and Cognitive Science," in Philosophy, Perception, and Cognitive Science, ed. J. Hochberg and J. Cutting (Academic Press, in press); "Deep Plasticity," Philosophy of Science, March 1994; and "³Re: Reinterpreting Images," Philosophical Psychology, vol. 7, 1994. Rollins is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of University College at Washington University, where he also holds an appointment in the Philosophy-Psychology-Neuroscience Program.


Send questions or comments to cfreeland@UH.edu,

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Updated June 1999 from October 1997 original.