Workshop: Animated Objects in Make-Believe

An especially curious subset of prop-oriented make-believe involves animating, or pretending to give agency to, objects in service of narratives. We see this with children who play with their dolls. We also see this with storytellers who tell tales with their puppets. This workshop brings together a psychologist and a philosopher to discuss the experience and perception of animated objects in make-believe.

Thursday, May 15th, 2014
1:30pm (Welcome)
1:35pm Brian Fiala [early career speaker]
2:30pm Louise Bunce
3:45pm Jim Hamilton

Leeds Humanities Research Institute
29-31 Clarendon Place
Leeds, West Yorkshire LS2 9JT

The workshop is free and open to all. Please register here, especially if you are considering attending the workshop dinner.


James Hamilton (philosophy, Kansas State University)

“Spectating Animated Objects”
There are a number of puzzles about spectating animated objects. One puzzle is that it seems spectators should not, at least when talking “seriously,” attribute mental states to them. And yet we do. A second puzzle concerns how spectators ascribe agency in performances featuring animated objects, specifically to puppets and puppeteers, and whether they perceive the relationship between puppet and puppeteer differently from that between an animation and an animator (or team of animators), and a robot and its engineer(s) and programmer(s). A third puzzle concerns how the information delivered in a performance involving animated objects, such as a standard Punch & Judy show, is actually processed in time by the performance’s spectators. A fourth puzzle concerns the apparent fact (which, if true, should be troubling not only to puppeteers and scholars of puppetry but also to those working on human-robot interactions and video animations) that the closer to human features an animated object is–in movement, sound, and appearance–the more responsive the human participant in the exchange is until, that is, the so-called “uncanny valley” is reached, at which point human participants become frightened, distrustful, and even disgusted by the animated object. This puzzling phenomenon, if it were real, would be both a practical concern to makers of animated objects but also a theoretical concern for those who wish to understand how animated objects are experienced and understood by spectators.

Louise Bunce (psychology, University of Winchester)

“Is It Real? Learning to Navigate Reality”
Our ability to make real/not-real judgments is an important skill that we use everyday, enabling us to reason about, and behave appropriately towards, a variety of objects and entities. This is a complicated task, not least because we can judge real/not-real status on the basis of reality-as-ontological status or reality-as-authenticity. For example, a child might believe that Father Christmas is ‘real’ (exists) but that a particular representation of Father Christmas is not ‘the real one’ (authenticity). This talk will present research to demonstrate how and when children learn to judge a range of objects and entities, from toys to taxidermy, on the basis of their real/not-real status.

Brian Fiala (philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, Washington University in St. Louis)

“Person-Perception and Puppets: Why It’s so Easy to See Inanimate Objects as Animated”
We see mentality everywhere, even in ordinary objects such as Roombas and burnt toast, and especially in aesthetic objects such as puppets. How do we do it? Using three children’s puppets as examples, I will sketch a psychological answer following Thomas Reid, who argued that god endowed us with a special pre-rational faculty for perceiving the mental states of other people. Sesame Street’s Grover illustrates the basic principles well. Grover has eyes, a biological body, and a sing-song voice. These simple cues cause us to attribute mentality to an object that we know to be a puppet. Shari Lewis’s Lambchop illustrates principles of cross-modal binding. Lewis’s ventriloquism is less than virtuosic, yet sufficient for us to perceive her voice as emanating from her sock-puppet. Finally, the more realistic-looking puppets from The Dark Crystal appear uncanny (creepy), because their faces fail to display the subtle emotional cues that are normally present in real people and animals. In short, puppets are effective aesthetic tools because they easily engage our natural mechanisms for person-perception.


This event is a part of the Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics and Human Nature project workshops, supported by Marie Curie Action Grant PIIF-GA-2012-328977.

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Workshop: The Language of Aesthetics

How do people use language to communicate their aesthetic judgments to one another? What can philosophers learn from analyzing the language used to communicate aesthetic judgments? This workshop brings together linguistics and philosophy to discuss the nature and significance of the language of aesthetics.

Saturday, March 15th, 2014
1:30pm Kevin Tobia [early career speaker]
2:30pm Alex Plakias
3:45pm Louise McNally

Leeds Humanities Research Institute
29-31 Clarendon Place
Leeds, West Yorkshire LS2 9JT

The workshop is free and open to all.


Louise McNally (language sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

“Decomposing Aesthetic (and Other) Adjectives”
In this talk I discuss some work I have been carrying out with Isidora Stojanovic and Berit Gehrke. As a prelude to a discussion of what makes a judgment aesthetic, we have asked what potentially subject-dependent meaning components adjectives have and on the basis of an analysis of these components divide adjectives into various subclasses. The resulting classification is rather more fine-grained than what we have seen in the aesthetics literature. While the question of what is involved in an aesthetic judgment is somewhat orthogonal to the specific words (in this case adjectives) used to make such a judgment, we consider it methodologically important to ensure that any philosophical discussion properly controls for possible confounds from the nuances of the linguistic data, and indeed we might hope that a clearer picture of the data might result in clearer answers to the philosophical questions.

Alexandra Plakias (philosophy, Northern Institute of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen)

“A Little Less Conversation: Relativism and Data”
In the debate over relativism about aesthetics and morality, much is made of our intuitions regarding whether two people ‘really’ disagree, or are ‘really’ contradicting one another. I argue that, as typically used, appeals to such intuitions are problematic, since there is good reason to doubt whether our intuitions track semantic features of these discourses. I suggest an alternative route to relativism, one which is empirically informed but does not rely on intuitions about dialogues or utterances. Along the way, I raise some methodological issues regarding philosophers’ use of empirical data.

Kevin Tobia (philosophy, Oxford University)

“The More You Know, The Less It Matters: Mystery, Wonder, and Value”
Can knowing less about something make it seem more valuable? In the case of art, it might appear that just the opposite is true; the more we are told about a piece of art, the more we appreciate and value it. Linguistic or textual accompaniment to art often, in addition to other functions, aims to achieve such an effect. But perhaps knowing less about an object also invokes a sense of mystery, one that inspires wonder. Might this even lead to greater aesthetic appreciation and valuation? In a field study conducted at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford I tested this hypothesis, that in at least some cases, knowing less about a work of art or an object increases its perceived mystery and felt feelings of emotional wonder towards the object, resulting in greater attributions of aesthetic value to the object.


To make the workshop more family-friendly, childcare has been arranged for participants who need it. Please contact us for more details.

This event is a part of the Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics and Human Nature project workshops, supported by Marie Curie Action Grant PIIF-GA-2012-328977.