Aestheticians and Museums

Aestheticians and museums do not cross paths as often as you might expect.

Sure, there have been some notable interactions. Richard Wollheim‘s Painting as an Art (1987) resulted from his invited lectures at the National Gallery of Art. (Though I am not aware of anything as high-profile since.) Recently, some aestheticians have done an impressive job integrating their research with events at museums. Nola Semczyszyn curated an exhibit on nature, aesthetics, and technology. Christy Mag Uidhir and Cynthia Freeland hosted a conference on printmaking and aesthetics in association with The Museum of Print History. Hans Maes organized a colloquium on the ethics and aesthetics of erotic art in conjunction with the Shunga exhibit at The British Museum. Nevertheless, compared to art historians, interactions with museums seem to be rarities for philosophical aestheticians.

I wonder why this is.

As I see it, there exist quite a few common interests between aestheticians and curators. Both are interested in the psychology of audience participation. Both want to understand — though perhaps for different ends — how people perceive, how people imagine, how people emotionally react, and how people learn. Both are also interested in the relationship between the artworld and the arts, and their relationships with societal issues such as race, gender, and class. Finally, both are interested in answering — albeit in different ways — fundamental questions about the nature of art and aesthetic value.

Indeed, as the domain of philosophical aesthetics extends beyond the fine arts, there seem to be more opportunities for aestheticians to interact with museums beyond the fine arts ones. Philosophers who scoff at the beautiful might find The Museum of Bad Art or The Trash Museum to be ideal companions. Philosophers who write about photography and film — both of which are now established subjects in aesthetics — might find their match in media museums. Philosophers who work on the intersection between aesthetics, perception, and technology might find the collections in science museums complementary to their own research. Finally, elsewhere I have speculated about the possibility of harnessing the data that museums are making openly accessible to find philosophically-interesting patterns.

Still, none of these possibilities are realized yet, as far as I know. So I am still wondering.

  • Are there other examples of fruitful interactions between aestheticians and museums?
  • Why have philosophical aestheticians been relatively absent from museums?
  • What can philosophers offer curators and other museum professionals, if any?
  • What can working with museums do for philosophical progress, if any?

[x-posted at Aesthetics for Birds; please comment there!]

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Philosophy Paper of the Day

From the invaluable PhilPapers, I discovered a very intriguing paper, “Feedback from Moral Philosophy to Cognitive Science“, by Regina Rini that is forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.

Here is the abstract:

A popular argument form uses general theories of cognitive architecture to motivate conclusions about the nature of moral cognition. This paper highlights the possibility for modus tollens reversal of this argument form. If theories of cognitive architecture generate predictions for moral cognition, then tests of moral thinking provide feedback to cognitive science. In certain circumstances, philosophers’ introspective attention to their own moral deliberations can provide unique data for these tests. Recognizing the possibility for this sort of feedback helps to illuminate a deep continuity between the disciplines.

Our project mainly aims to use cognitive science to illuminate philosophical aesthetics. However, Rini’s paper suggests that the influence can go the other way as well — in our case, it would be from philosophical aesthetics to aesthetic psychology. The core idea, applied to aesthetics instead of ethics, is that aestheticians’ introspective reports of their own thought processes constitute a unique and underexplored kind of data that can help us to better understand aesthetic psychology. In turn, the better understanding of aesthetic psychology can then help us to settle ongoing debates in cognitive architecture.

One assumption in Rini’s proposal that I remain skeptical of is the idea that philosophers can be expert introspectors with respect to narrow and specific hypotheses (p. 6-8 in the onlinefirst version). Nevertheless, Rini’s paper has convinced me that, given the potential payoff, it is not a possibility that can be safely ignored.