Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception

As a method of documenting and archiving the ideas that I want to explore further from the books that I read, I am sharing my highlights from Nanay’s book about aesthetics and the philosophy of perception.

I’ve been always fascinated with ways of seeing the world, art, ourselves. Somehow I always connect these ways of seeing to the collage art technique, therefore the Schwitters reference which you can see in the gallery.


“Aesthetics is about ways of perceiving the world, I told the barber. This is almost true, but not quite. The aim of this book is to get clear about the intricate connection between aesthetics and perception. I am not exactly unbiased in this question. I have been doing research on both philosophy of perception and on aesthetics. This apparently sounds bewildering to most of my philosopher friends and colleagues. The bewilderment nor- mally takes the following form: Philosophy of perception is a very respectable subfield of philosophy, even hip these days. It is part of philosophy of mind, which, in turn, is part of the ‘core’ philosophical disciplines. Aesthetics, in contrast, is as fringy as it gets, at least within contemporary analytic philosophy. My well-rehearsed answer is that the questions I am interested in within aesthetics are really philosophy of perception questions. I had this conversation many times. Once someone asked a surprising follow-up: are there questions in aesthetics that are not really philosophy of perception questions? And I had to say: well, not many. So a tempting conclusion to reach would be that questions in aesthetics are really philosophy of perception questions.”

“The seemingly provocative title of the book, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception, should be interpreted in the light of this: I do not for a moment want to suggest that aesthetics is philosophy of perception. Who am I to pronounce on what aesthetics is or should be? Nor am I trying to conquer, in true imperial manner, aesthetics or suggest it ought to be annexed to philosophy of perception. But what I am doing in this book is aesthetics as philosophy of perception. I am trying to tackle various questions in aesthetics by using the conceptual repertoire of philosophy of perception. I am not claiming that this is the only way, or even, all things considered, the best way, to do aesthetics; there are clearly others. My aim is to convince the reader that it is a promising way.”

“The Greek word ‘aesthemi’ means ‘perception’ and when Alexander Baumgarten introduced the concept of ‘aesthetics’ in 1750, what he meant by it was precisely what we would now call philosophy of perception: the study of sense perception (scientia cognitionis sensitivae). My claim is that, regardless of etymology, this connection can still be made today (although our ‘study of sense perception’ is very different from what it was in 1750 and, no doubt, the most important questions in aesthetics are also different).”

“To make this point more vivid, here are some classic questions in philosophy of perception: What is the difference between perception and belief? What is the difference between sensation and perception? What is the connection between perception and action? What are the similarities and differences between perception and imagination? What are the similarities and differences between perception and emotion? How does perception justify belief? All of these questions are genuine questions in philosophy of perception, but, together, they seem to also cover much of philosophy of mind.”

“Sensory imagination (imagining seeing something, imagining hearing something, etc) is to be contrasted with propositional imagination (imagining that x is F). Propositional imagination is a propositional attitude, like belief, whereas sensory imagination is by definition ‘sensory’: perception-like. Some philosophers of perception even refer to sensory imagination as a quasi-perceptual process (Prinz 2007, Tye 1996, Carruthers 2005, see also Kind 2001), and rightly so—perception and sensory imagination have very similar phenomenology: seeing an apple and visualizing one have a similar feel (Perky 1910, but see Hopkins 2012a’s worries and Nanay 2012e’s response) and they also share very similar neural circuits (Kosslyn et al. 2006, see also Nanay 2015h) and very similar patterns of cortical activation (Page et al. 2011). For these reasons, mental imagery and sensory imagination have been considered to be part of the domain of philosophy of perception. Philosophy of perception is not only about perceptual, but also about quasi-perceptual processes.”

“Philosophy of perception is about experiences. Aesthetics is about some special kinds of experiences: not just, and not primarily, about aesthetic experiences, but also about the experience we have when looking at pictures, the experience we have when we identify with Hamlet, the experience we have when we engage with fiction, etc.”


“The traditional distinction between focused vs. distributed attention we know from vision science is a distinction between two ways of attending to entities. But we can make a similar distinction between attending to properties in a focused or distributed manner. Suppose that I am attending to one object only (say, because there is only one object in my visual field).”

“But thinking of aesthetic attention as distributed attention does cap- ture the original Kantian importance of disinterest in our aesthetic experiences. Practical interest in an object, which is supposed to exclude aesthetic experience, could be described as attention focused on a limited number of its features—the ones we are interested in from a practical point of view.”

“Emphasizing the importance of aesthetic attention in thinking about aesthetic experiences captures some of the oldest platitudes about the difference between aesthetic and non-aesthetic experiences. When I look at a Giacometti sculpture while being attacked by a burglar and looking for a defence weapon, I am unlikely to have an aesthetic experience. But when looking at it in a museum, undisturbed, with a lot of time on my hands, admiring its composition, then I am in a better position to have an aesthetic experience. “


“The question then is this: how does my mind work if I see an apple in a picture? And how is this mental state different from my mental state when I see an apple face to face?

It seems that when we are looking at a picture we see not one but two things: the depicted apple and the picture of the apple. The two- dimensional picture surface (which is the actual object in front of you) and the three-dimensional object depicted in the picture. So one crucial question any account of picture perception needs to clarify is whether we really do see both of these things and if so, how it is possible to see two things at the same time (at the same region of my visual field).

There seem to be only three options here:

i. We only see the picture surface, not the depicted object

ii. We only see the depicted object, not the picture surface

iii. We see both the picture surface and the depicted object”

“The aesthetic appreciation of pictures is often characterized as the appreciation of pictures as pictures. The aesthetic appreciation of pictures is clearly a subcase of picture perception. Not all instances of picture perception count as the aesthetic appreciation of the perceived picture. More often, indeed in the vast majority of cases, we see some- thing in a picture but we do not appreciate the picture aesthetically—we do not appreciate the picture as a picture. When you are watching a sitcom or commercials on TV, when you flip through the in-flight magazine, or when you look at the drawings on the emergency procedure leaflet, you see things in pictures. But you are unlikely to appreciate these pictures aesthetically (although, of course, it is not impossible to do so). One may appreciate what is depicted in a picture without appreciating the picture as a picture.”

“A key element in any appreciation of a pictorial work of art is the awareness of design-scene properties (this is what Budd suggests when he says that ‘the interrelationship between the marks on the surface and what is depicted in them’ is ‘the crucial characteristic of pictorial art’ (Budd 1995, p. 58, the second emphasis is mine)). When we are admiring a Miró drawing and the way two simple curved lines somehow manage to depict an expressive human face, what we are attending to is exactly a design-scene property: the relational property partly determined by the shape property of the two-dimensional curved line on the canvas and partly determined by the three-dimensional depicted face. And when we are appreciating Cézanne’s landscapes, one thing that enhances our aesthetic appreciation is to see the interrelationship between the three- dimensional depicted fascicles of pine needles and the two-dimensional single brushstrokes on the canvas.”


“When we engage with an artwork, we invariably ignore some of its features and focus our attention on others. When admiring Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a young girl, we ignore the cracks in the paint and focus our attention on other features of the painting’s surface. We abstract away from the cracks.”

“I hope to show that it may be a good idea to replace the concept of aesthetic properties with that of aesthetically relevant properties in at least some classic debates. Philosophers of science often talk about progressive and degenerative scientific research programmes (Lakatos 1970, Lakatos 1974). A scientific research programme is a temporal sequence of a set of scientific theories. A progressive research pro- gramme does not contradict any new data and makes new predictions and new explanations. A degenerative one sometimes does contradict new data and makes no (or hardly any) new predictions and new explanations. If a degenerative research programme contradicts new data, this does not falsify the research programme: there are many ways of modifying the research programme in such a way that the contradiction disappears.”

“A good point to start this discussion is the debate about whether aesthetic properties are perceived. I argue that we have no principled way of answering this question. But if we ask a parallel question about aesthetically relevant properties, then the answer will be simple, straight- forward, and opens up the possibility of asking even more fundamental questions about the importance of perception in the aesthetic domain.”


“Some formalists (notably, Bell 1914) make some other (much stronger and much more problematic) claims about formal properties, for example, that attending to formal properties is the right way of enjoying (great) art or that formal properties can be used to define what art is. The formalist claim I take to be theoretically interesting is the much weaker (F)—so I will ignore extra formalist assumptions of the kind Bell makes.”

“Formalism could be taken to attack two views at the same time. First, it denies that what is depicted in a picture (its content) is relevant to our aesthetic evaluations—see the Bell quote above: ‘the representative elem- ent in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant’ (Bell 1914, p. 27). Or, as Oscar Wilde says, ‘What is a picture? Primarily, a picture is a beautifully coloured surface, merely, with no more spiritual message or meaning for you than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from the wall of Damascus. It is, primarily, a purely decorative thing, a delight to look at’ (Wilde 1879, p. 112). Second, it also denies that the picture’s non-observable properties (such as the artist’s intention or its social context) are relevant to our aesthetic evaluations.”


“The first traditional way of understanding uniqueness in the aesthetic domain is that works of art are unique entities (Macdonald 1949, p. 192; Hampshire 1954, p. 166; see also Elton 1954). The most famous version of this claim comes from John Dewey:

Identity of mode of production defines the work of a machine, the esthetic counterpart of which is academic. The quality of a work of art is sui generis. (Dewey 1934, p. 108)”

“My claim is that the importance of the concept of uniqueness in the domain of aesthetics is not to be found in the ontology of works of art or in the nature of critical principles, but it has to do with the way our mind works when we have some kinds of aesthetic experiences. So the unique- ness in aesthetics is not strictly speaking about the uniqueness of art—as we have seen, experiences of art and aesthetic experiences come apart.”


“The general idea behind the history of vision claim is that visual experi- ence has changed in various ways during the course of history. We should, therefore, not assume that people in ancient or medieval times perceived in the same way as we do now. Further, one important aspect of understanding the art of earlier times is to understand the way people perceived artworks then.

The most explicit statement of this claim comes from Heinrich Wölfflin, in one of the best-known passages in the history of art history:

Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history. (Wölfflin 1915/1932, p. 11)”

“Benjamin’s main interest, however, is not the late Roman art industry, but the change in art and perception that happened at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. And Benjamin’s claim is that modernity is a change in ‘sensorium’ and this idea has become one of the guiding principles of theorizing about modernity. For Benjamin, this change in ‘sensorium’ was brought about by techno-logical changes. Not just the changes in the streetscape around us: the speeding cars and the skyscrapers that Malevich and Baudelaire like to emphasize, but also the technological changes in art itself. As Regis Debray summarizes, ‘Photography has changed our perception of space, and the cinema our perception of time (via montage)’ (Debray 1992, p. 178).”


“A good entry point to the distinction between distributed and non- distributed attention is the set of results about how we attend to moving pictures. When you are looking at a painting or a drawing, there is no strict limit on how thoroughly and for how long you are attending to various features of the picture. But in the case of moving pictures, there is such a limit—the images you are looking at change. Thus, this medium is especially important for the purposes of under- standing how our attention changes as the images we are looking at change.”

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.