This is an ambitious and wide-ranging book. Here are some of its central claims. Human life is pervaded by ‘organized activities’, which are activities in which human agents interact with the environment and other agents, sometimes deliberatively but more typically semi-automatically, yet always intelligently and responsively, exercising the cognitive powers such agents are naturally endowed with or naturally develop (Chapter 1). ‘Technologies’ are patterns of use of a thing, or a ‘tool’, thanks to which organized activities have the structures that they do (Chapter 3). For example, breast-feeding, dancing and perceiving are all organized activities, and the lullaby the mother might sing to soothe the baby, the slings she might use to hold him securely, the body of the dancer, the system of postures and movements, a pair of spectacles, and photographic images are all ‘tools’ the patterns of whose use are technologies that structure these activities. Ordinarily, we do not or practically cannot stop and think about the nature of the organized activities we engage in or of the technologies we deploy in engaging in them. But we can take a step back and ‘investigate’ them, as a result of which they get ‘reorganized’. Art and philosophy are both ‘methods of research’ (17) into them or practices of reorganizing them (Chapters 2, 8 and 11). These second-order practices of critical reflection (this is my own expression) are in some sense parasitic on, and emerge from, the first-order organized activities (and the technologies involved in them), but not only can the former ‘loop back down’ (31, 59) and change the latter, there is a sense in which the former is ‘not ancillary’ (41, 42) to the latter: the sense in which the possibility of taking up ‘the writerly attitude’ (42)—the critical reflective attitude of investigating into and reorganizing spoken language by means of a system of writing it—is already there in the organized activities of language use from the beginning, even at the chronological stage where the language is only spoken and not yet written (Chapter 4; in Chapter 5 Noë argues that a similar relation obtains between the ‘pictorial attitude’ and organized activities of seeing). Thus art and philosophy are both ‘bent on the invention of writing’ (xiii, 36, 43, 47). These chapters are laced with brief excursuses into ecstasy and boredom (Chapters 6 and 9), a piece of art criticism to illustrate Noë’s theoretical points (Chapter 7), and spirited attacks on evolutionary and neuroscientific accounts of art (Chapters 5 and 10). They are followed by three chapters (12–14) on ‘pictures’, understood as models used to represent how things look, then by two chapters (15–16) on music. Noë tries to practise what he preaches. This book is a work of philosophy (which is to say, according to Noë, that it is a work of art; see 208), whose task Noë claims is to ‘put on display’, ‘investigate’, and ‘reorganize’ the workings of our first-order ‘cognitive undertakings’, which we initially and for the most part unreflectively and uncritically engage in, such as ‘reasoning, argument, belief formation, and, crucially, the work of science’ (29). This task is to be carried out characteristically or most effectively, reiterates Noë, by interrupting or disrupting ordinary course of events with all our normal expectations, or the ‘business as usual’ (36, 73, 103, 140, 166). Perhaps, then, if a reader finds the book ‘strange’ in not conforming to the usual expectations of an academic monograph, that may be as Noë intended. ‘To read a philosophy text is to participate in the performance of the ideas and feelings and puzzlements it traces out’, he writes, ‘philosophical writings are no use to someone who is untroubled by philosophical anxieties’ (137). Such self-conscious and performative manoeuvre is not unprecedented in philosophy, but it is difficult to pull off. Noë should be praised for the attempt, which incurs all sorts of risks, but I am not certain how far he succeeds. I shall explain some of my reservations. One general problem likely to frustrate the reader is that so much of Noë’s discussion is too rapidly expansive and inexact. There is much vigour, but not much rigour. Barely five pages into the main text, there is an indication of the level of precision at which Noë operates throughout the book. He introduces the notion of organized activity by way of extracting its six defining features from a paradigmatic example of it, breast-feeding (3–5). The first of the six he describes as follows: it is primitive. It is basic. It is biological. Breast-feeding is not the achievement of high culture but surely something whose roots lie deep in our mammalian origins. It is natural. (4) ‘Primitive’, ‘basic’, ‘biological’, and ‘natural’—are these all synonymous, and so interchangeable? What is it for an activity to be any of these? Noë leaves the reader to divine or decide. Conversing and driving (a car) are two further examples of organized activities (6–7). Are these primitive? In what sense? Is driving basic in the way conversation might be? Basic to or for what? What about ‘biological’? And ‘natural’ (which for Noë seems to encompass everything due to our ‘second nature’ as well as what is due to our first nature (7)—a distinction Noë does not explain, and which anyway raises the question what the contrastive of this inclusive sense of ‘natural’ is supposed to be)? Such lack of discipline allows Noë to make some claims that are unnecessarily and misleadingly provocative, or gratuitously paradoxical-sounding. Some examples of the former are: ‘choreography . . . isn’t in the business of dancing’ (219); ‘a Socratic dialogue is ... a model of a conversation. It is not a conversation. It is philosophy’ (37); ‘the artist [here Noë means the painter] is never in the business of doing any of those things [that picture manufacturers, such as a catalogue designer, an iconographer, or a documentary photographer, do]’ (166). These statements can suggest that a painter qua painter does not produce pictures, or that a philosopher qua philosopher does not produce discourses or texts. But actually this is not what Noë wants or needs to say; his considered view, more precisely put, is that painters may produce pictures, choreographers dances, and philosophers articles and lectures, etcetera, but if they are producing these things as artists or philosophers, then they do not produce them for the purposes for which they are ordinarily produced (see e.g. 20, 140, 167). Even more modestly, one can say that what matters most about a work of art, say a painting, is not that it is a picture, but that it is to be used in a critical reflective manner, drawing our attention to the nature of pictures and the ways in which we ordinarily produce and consume them. This claim is sufficiently interesting, and not implausible, at least with respect to a large class of important pictorial works of art; no need to inflate it into flashy claims. Artists and philosophers do not make mere things, or do not merely make things; it does not follow that they do not make things (not even that they do not need to). A good example of a gratuitously paradoxical-sounding statement is the following: ‘we need art ... to invent the very technologies whose existence is a precondition for art’ (56). As far as I understand Noë, this just means that the first-order organized activities we engage in (e.g. speaking and singing) and the technologies we deploy in doing so already harbour resources which enable us to reflect critically on them; that whatever needs and desires that these first-order activities answer gives rise also to the drive towards second-order critical reflection on them; and that such critical reflection can change or develop them by providing feedback. Few more words added thus, and the whiff of paradox is dispelled. The looseness of Noë’s free-flowing discussion also compromises some of his criticisms, and undermines some of his arguments. For example, his objection to Stephen Davies’ view that the aesthetic sense is universal among humans (54–56) does not convince, since Noë and Davies seem to mean different things by ‘the aesthetic sense’. By this Davies means something like the disposition to take aesthetic delight in things that are beautiful. But Noë uses the expression to refer to something much more culturally and cognitively mediated, something like our need or inclination (or both) ‘to step back and take a look, to detach and disengage, to contemplate rather than carry on’ (51), that is, something like the disposition to take the critical reflective stance. In Chapter 10 Noë criticizes neuroscientific accounts of art as failing to articulate what is distinctive about art. As far as I can see, Noë’s criticism of the view encapsulated in the slogan ‘you are your brain’ (93–98, 120–125) does not add much that is substantial to, for example, Kenny’s attack on the ‘homunculus fallacy’, or M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker’s attack on the ‘mereological fallacy’ (Noë does not cite either). And when it comes to articulating his positive account of the experience of art, Noë’s statements are too vague to be informative. Our responses to art are ‘more like judgements’, he states, and are as such ‘thoughtful’ and ‘shaped by our knowledge and background and experience and the larger culture and shared attitudes’, and a work of art is ‘not merely a trigger’ for a neurological response; ‘It is a work. Art is a topic’ (96–97), while ‘perception is an activity of doing and undergoing, a transaction with the world around us’ (97). There is something in these claims, but the keywords Noë italicizes he needs to explain. For another example of illicit argumentative transitions made at least partly because of lack of attention to details, one can observe how Noë appears to move freely between the idea that art or philosophy ‘puts on display’ some first-order organized activity or its technological underpinning (13–14, 101), the idea that it does this by ‘interrupting’ or ‘disrupting’ the ordinary run of the activity in question (36–37, 73, 103, 115, 140), the idea that this interruption or disruption takes place so that the activity in question can be ‘investigated’, ‘reorganized’, and better made sense of (16–17, 29, 102, 140), and the idea that art or philosophy is meant to do all this, that is, that it belongs to the essence of art or of philosophy to do all this (31, 102, 116, 136, 166). But these ideas need to be linked by argument, which Noë does not provide. He suggests that to put an activity on display is to ‘stage’ or to ‘represent’ it, its agent(s), and its significance (13)—it is to highlight or foreground these things, to make them salient, or to put them in prominence. But one can do this intentionally or unintentionally, and to do this one need not interrupt or disrupt the activity in question. An exemplary or paradigmatic performance of an activity can foreground the nature of the activity, although perhaps less often as arrestingly as an idiosyncratic or deviant performance might. A mother’s near spontaneous lullaby as well as a Gesualdo madrigal may occasion critical reflection on the activity of weaving sounds and silences together. A clumsy undergraduate essay as well as a polished professional article may lead me to reflect critically on the nature of argumentation or of discourse. The next step too is unwarranted: putting something on display, or even doing so in a way conducive to reorganizational investigation, is not putting it on display in order to engage in such investigation. Investigation or critical reflection may well be one’s purpose for putting something on display, but it may not be. One’s purpose may be to engage in pure contemplation, to embarrass someone (‘putting someone on the spot’), to make a statement or express an emotion, or just to have fun (in general, Noë seems to give short shrift to the judgement of the beautiful and the distinctive pleasure consequent upon it); or again one may not have a purpose, as when one unintentionally puts something or someone on display. Again, there is a gap between investigating into something and investigating into it with an eye to reorganizing it. It may be that, as Noë would probably insist, critical reflection inevitably loops back down on its object and reorganizes it (theory may not be capable of leaving practice alone). It would still not follow that such reorganization by feedback is the essential point of the practice of critical reflection. In general, then, there is quite a large gap between the perfectly plausible observation that many works of art can be used, often effectively, to make us take up a critical reflective stance, and the bold assertion that it belongs to the essence of art to do this, with the purpose of reorganising the activities of human life. These various and frequent shortcomings in the argument notwithstanding, Noë makes some sweepingly general claims about the nature of art (and, by extension, of philosophy): ‘The general form of the work of art is: See me if you can! ... Every work of art ... challenges you to see it, or to get it’ (102); ‘[Duchamp’s Fountain] asks: “What is art anyway and why does it matter? . . . all art, always, has been in exactly this sort of way preoccupied with other artists and with the nature of art itself”’ (136); ‘art is always preoccupied with style [which] is the very subject matter of the artist’s investigation’ (177). I appreciate Noë’s enthusiasm behind these claims, but I would have liked to see them supported better. Some works of philosophy have artistic aspects, and some works of art have philosophical aspects. We can and even typically do engage in critical reflection by means of them, and they can be and often are fruits of such critical reflection. These are reasonable claims meriting careful elaboration and examination. I see no good reason to couch them in exaggerated essentialist terms, as Noë does, making them appear as claims about what absolutely all art and philosophy must be. Art and philosophy may not be relevantly monolithic to allow such essentialism; there may not be any one thing that all and only art and philosophy have in common. Noë’s boldness is impressive, but would not convince the specialist, and can mislead the non-specialist. Or perhaps Noë would be happy to say that any practice consisting in what I have been calling ‘critical reflection’ counts as ‘artistic’ and ‘philosophical’. But then the claim that art and philosophy are both necessarily critically reflective practices would become trivial. The concepts art and philosophy would be thinned out so far (unless, perhaps, the notion of critical reflection is suitably restricted); basically anything that occasions (or can be used to occasion) thoughts about what we are ordinarily doing and about what kind of being we are in doing it would count as a work of art or of philosophy. This would include such things as a glove lying on the street, a jammed printer, a shooting star, illness, warfare, or getting dumped by someone. Would Noë be prepared to call these artistic, philosophical works? Noë’s proposal to take ‘See me if you can!’ (whatever this means) as ‘the general form of the work of art’ is particularly striking. Just before making this proposal, he mentions the comparable proposal found in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, that This is how things stand is the general form of a proposition. Noë rightly states that there is something dubious about this idea, and that Wittgenstein himself came later to consider it so. And yet, ‘throwing caution to the wind’ (101), he goes on anyway to make his proposal. Why should one believe him? This is one of these moments at which freedom begins to resemble caprice and agile movement of thought can seem a mere escape from intellectual responsibility. It cannot be right that all artists qua artists necessarily intentionally raise the challenge ‘See me if you can!’ in their work. The claim that they necessarily end up doing this, intentionally or otherwise, is hardly more plausible. Thus, although Noë speaks of what the artist does (102–103), in ‘a crucial caveat’ entered quite late in the book, he declares that his interest is ‘in the work the art itself achieves [and not] in the artist’s self-understanding’ (167; see also 109). But what is the work that art itself achieves, other than what people—creators, critics, consumers—achieve by means of it, by way of engaging in various practices of art? Is it not as fallacious to infer that a work of art does philosophical work, from the (correct) premise that we may do philosophical work with it, as to infer that the brain engages in psychological activities, from the premise that it enables us to engage in such activities? Noë is rightly wary of this ‘mereological fallacy’, when it comes to persons and their brain (see, for example, xii, 98, 102, 124, 162). Why not, then, when it comes to us and works of art? Noë has poured much passion into this book; in reading it, one irresistibly feels the great excitement of its author. And many of the topics discussed in it are genuinely exciting. But I must say I found it difficult to get excited by the treatment. Noë evidently intended to write a work that appeals to philosophers, artists, and non-philosophers and non-artists all alike; I cannot say that the product will definitely satisfy any. It is a shame, as Noë is one of the very few thinkers whose intellectual and cultural breadth, freedom, ambition and passion are equal to the great theme he takes up in this book: the relation between art, philosophy, and human nature. If my criticisms are harsh, that is because of the high expectations I have of him. He has certainly put on display a host of issues and ideas. May other bold philosophers and artists follow suit.1 Footnotes 1 I should like to thank Derek Matravers for his patience, and Sebastian Sunday Grève, Sally Harding, Natalia Waights Hickman, John Hyman, Adrian Moore, and Michael Price for their help in writing this review. © British Society of Aesthetics 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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