Much of Hutton and Kelly’s unfortunate review of Shimamura’s Experiencing art rests on a biased and misguided image of the current cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics. The reviewers’ first grievance is that the book fails to “play a critical role in establishing neuroaesthetics as a subject worth taking seriously”. Such an expectation—unreasonable for a clearly introductory book—only reveals the extent to which they disregard a large body of work on the neural basis of aesthetic and art appreciation whose worth has long been taken seriously, from Burke to our days.
As the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics has gained momentum, scientists have engaged philosophers, artists and art historians in lively arguments. Contrary to Hutton and Kelly’s hyperbolic caricature of “territorial squabbles”, such encounters have mostly taken the form of enriching scholarly discussions. They make their case by overlooking recent collaborations between artists, architects, philosophers, art historians, psychologists, and neuroscientists to understand the nature of artistic and aesthetic appreciation. They even neglect to mention the book Aesthetic Science, a volume coedited by Shimamura himself, the first third of which is devoted to philosophical perspectives.
Finally, Hutton and Kelly support their views with philosopher Alva Noë’s reproach of neuroaesthetics for not having shown anything interesting or surprising about art. But why should neuroaesthetics be judged on the basis of how well it answers philosophical questions about art? Art poses a wealth of different questions. Some are philosophical and others are historical. Yet, others have to do with the biological underpinnings of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in the creation and appreciation of art. And these are the questions the cognitive neuroscience of art has set out to answer. Some philosophers may find such issues uninteresting, but does this mean that they are less worthy of scientific research?
Hutton and Kelly call for responsible advocates for the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics, but there is an equally pressing need for responsible commentators, who keep up to date with the field’s progress, who are able to make their case without building straw men, and avoid judging the whole field based on unrepresentative hand-picked instances. Shimamura’s volume constitutes another stepping-stone for the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics. Its service is to be improved upon, just as William James thought of his own book The Principles of Psychology: “A great chance for some future psychologue to make a greater name than Newton’s, but who then will read the books of this generation? Not many, I throw. Meanwhile they must be written”.
Marcos Nadal & Helmut Leder