1. Gregory Minissale (2009). Enacting Higher Order Thoughts: Velazquez and Las Meninas. Journal of Consciousness Studies 16 (2-3):165-89.
    This paper bridges art history and consciousness studies and investigates the network of gazes and frames in Las Meninas and how this engages with a system of higher-order thoughts and reflexive operations.
    Direct download (2 more)  
    My bibliography  
    Export citation  
Back    All discussions

Higher order thoughts and art
We have many framing devices in the arts, and one thing that is consistent in their use is a metacognitive process which they seem to stimulate. We see the contents of a picture, and while we are occupied with processing these details we might come across another picture inside it, or we might see an artist painting a picture (as we do in Velazquez's Las Meninas); or there might be a mirror in the depicted space, all of these framing devices allow us to step out of our current thought process, and become aware of it, or self aware of our viewing. How fair is it to say that visual experience can be ordered in the form of HOTs as framing devices in the visual field, or that HOTs can be visualised in this way? 

Higher order thoughts and art
Hi Gregory

I'm not quite sure I follow your thinking so just a couple of questions that might help me:

(1) How exactly would you define "higher order thought"?  (And, I guess, what is its connection with art?) 

(2) What comment might you have on art that appears to do without frames - such as prehistoric art, various Buddhist frescos etc?


Higher order thoughts and art
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek,

Thanks for your posting.  I have defined what I mean by a HOT in the essay posted at the top of this thread in connection with Las Meninas.

Generally, higher-order representation (HOR) theories of consciousness maintain that a mental state M is conscious by virtue of the fact that it is the target of another mental state M*. Higher-order thought (HOT) theories represent M* as an actual, occurent thought. Different versions of HOR theory arise because there are varying disagreements not only over the contents of M* but also concerning the relationship between M and M*. Higher-order perception (HOP) theories maintain that M* should be construed as a kind of perception linked to sensations. There are theories that depict M and M* as less distinct, making them intrinsic to larger mental contexts. This may be seen with the wider intrinsicality view (WIV) and in higher-order global states (HOGS). Thus, in the literature concerning HOR theory, there are various metaphors and images referencing spatial categories and structures that are used to clarify the relations and boundaries between these mental states. The essay I refer to above is an attempt to provide a theoretical construct—the frame-in-a-frame—which allows us to rethink this fundamental intrinsicality/extrinsicality dualism by appealing to conceptions of space and representation found in art.

A framed picture contains within it a framed picture. The internal frame is both internal in relation to the outer frame and external in the sense that it, too, has contents. This more flexible and multivalent concept of space allows us to appreciate that some objects possess properties that appear to contradict each other. The picture-in-a-picture is both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, both nested and nesting. Significantly, this superpositionality makes it  possible to understand what it is like to be ‘in’ or outside a mental state. There are various theories in the philosophy of mind that try to explain whether having a thought about being in a mental state actually involves having two mental states: being in a lower-order thought and knowing you are in a higher-order thought, which is ‘about’ the lower order thought. These are intrinsicality or extrinsicality arguments; the former attempts to show that higher-order thought is part of the lower order thought it makes conscious (part of a broader mental event), while the latter argues that these are distinct mental states that accompany each other in order to produce aspects of consciousness.

In Velazquez's famous painting Las Meninas, we see a number of framed areas, including a mirror and a doorway which 'interrupt' our flow of perceptions and make us conscious of our own looking, a lot of this 'stepping outside' of the narrative flow, which I would associate with lower order perceptions ('it's a door, a man, a mirror etc'). We become aware of how the painting is constructed as we might become aware of another person's thoughts or our own thoughts, this kind of awareness is what I would associate with having a number of higher order thoughts. We are engaged in many kinds of HOTs or sometimes we swtch to lower order thoughts while visually examining the painting, and while one would could argue that Velasquez's HOTs were responsiblie for the complex visual composition which allows us to weave in and out of these thoughts, one would not exactly say thatthe HOTs are IN the painting, would we? And yet, they are visual notations which allow us to become aware of our looking and our perceptions of things in the same way that words on a page can make us think about what we are reading.

There are lots of framing devices in Buddhist art and I have analysed a prominent example in my 'Framing Consciousness in Art: Transcultural Perspectives' (New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2009), where I also look at framing devices in South Pacific art, Yoruban art, Islamic art, Japanese art, film, and sculpture. I didn't manage to do prehistoric art, I'm afraid, and I understand what you are getting at. I don't know whether our ancestors had HOTs (thoughts about thoughts, or concepts about how perceptions work); they probably did. Whether they were able to engage them while painting on walls is an interesting question. They probably did, but used a series of different visual structures (obviously not frames in frames) but it is interesting to see how they used the stone 'background' as a part of the representation. The animal or human depicted as an outline is a kind of frame in which one can 'see' the object depicted AND the stone 'inside' the outline (the binocular rivalry between seeing in/seeing as may also be charactherised as hovering betweeh lower order and higher order thought). I hope this answers some of your questions. And thank you again for taking an interest.


Higher order thoughts and art
Hi Greg

Thanks for your explanation.

What would you say in the case of a scene, more or less the same as the Velasquez, sketched by an amateur of no particular talent? Would HOT's still arise? In other words, does the process you describe have any connection with a painting being, or not being, a work of art (assuming you think that such a category exists)?

On the broader issue of the frame in the history of art, my account would, I suspect, be very different from yours. I see the frame as arising from certain specific developments in Western art (from around 1600 onwards) and dying when they ceased - with modern art.

Of course, all visual images have to end somewhere (at the end of the wall, the edge of the scroll, where the next one starts, etc) just as a novel or a symphony has to end at some point too. But that is a different matter from the frame as it came to be known in the West. For this reason, I think the focus on the frame by writers such as Derrida (and Merleau-Ponty, I think?) reveals a rather parochial knowledge of, and response to, art - and is therefore something of a red herring.


Higher order thoughts and art
Hi David,

Yes, your approach is quite rigourous and you are right to ask such questions. But I am not, as you guessed, interested in defining art or amateur activities.

My concern can be seen as quite parochial in tte same way that taking a motif in a certain period and tracing its origins in art history might seem to be parochial and uninteresting to some. However, it is quite a large period that you mention from 1600s although the kind of framing I am talking about can actually be seen in the Renaissance period and much earlier and in many other cultures. Of course you are right that any old frame can be used in a basic functional way but coupled with reflexive devices such as mirrors, paintings in paintings, scenes in scenes where the artist is embedding one narrative insdie another so that you ahve a split narrative shows a certain amount of deliberation, a certain amount of self-consciousness which is qualitatively distinct mental state or states that art in these cases and with these devices seems to stimulate in very interesting ways.

It involves the viewer/artist thinking about representation and its means, rather than just the story, and sometimes helps to engage us in reflection on how one sees. You could say that there are many ways art does this, but I am only looking at one particular way to illustrate a point about how some visual devices encourage HOTs -- I can't do a comprehensive analysis of all the ways, although somebody could. But it's important, I think to show philsophers that HOTs are not merely lexical devices or mental constructs detached in the mind, that they are also visually experienced engaging in painting a picture and visually enjoying it, sometimes instantly, yet also in a sustained way in rather intricate patterns which often seem to reference each other. In a way they are enacted in art rather than just mentally detached.

The fact that deliberate framing devices are found in many cultures to enhance various narrative strategies is important because it stops us from privileging western art as the only kind of reflexive art. Indian miniatures, for example, are not naive childlike pictures -- some of them use narrative devices in very complex, reflexive and self aware ways, we shouldn't just credit Velazquez and Vermeer as 'intellectual' painters. 

In a small way I am only trying to move the rather dry debates we have in philosophy about the qualities of self-consciousness into the visual world. I am an art historian interested in directing some (not all) philsophical issues to some, not all, kinds of art because I believe that there is an interesting, mutually illuminating relationship that sometimes occurs. It doesn;t always work, it sometimes may not get us closer to defining what art is, but sometimes it is important to be able to demarcate a large field in order to focus on some specific areas.

Higher order thoughts and art

Hi Greg

You write: “But I am not, as you guessed, interested in defining art or amateur activities.”

I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that defining art is an “amateur activity”. If you are, there seem to have been some fairly highly qualified and impressive amateurs in the field.

But I was not really asking you to define art (no easy task, as we know). I was just asking if a scene similar to Las Meninas roughly sketched by someone of no artistic talent (me, for instance), would generate what you call “HOTs”.

It seems an important question. If HOTs can be generated by Velasquez or by Joe Blow, then we don’t really need to be talking about Las Meninas, do we? Any (framed) picture, good or bad or even woeful, with a frame in it would do the trick.

Derek A 

Higher order thoughts and art
Hi Derek,

I will add a few more thoughts why many art historians and philosophers are interested in frames, particularly frames-in-frames.

You seem to keep claiming that frames are ordinary things to be found anywhere, maybe they are, but I haven't come across framing devices in amateur art or non art that have fascinated us so much as those used in Las Meninas. Much of the vast literature on Las Meninas is directed at how its framing devices cause there to be many levels of meaning and engagement.

The artistic context in which such frames are found add to our understanding of how we can visually demarcate space in order to achieve rather special reflexive thoughts that can enhance the overall meaning of a work of art. And yet the context of the work of art upgrades any assumption that frames-in-frames and HOTs are always just ordinary, mundane things. We could take some framing devices in amateur contexts to see how they are used and how they enhance the meaning of a scene but I doubt they would generate as much interest as those used in Las Meninas, neither would they be coordinated with the other ways in which we enjoy and interpret art, ways which add significantly to the sophistication of frames-in-frames.

Las Meninas remains one of the best examples to show how sophisticated and interesting cognitively and philosophically frames-in-frames can be, and because I am an art historian I use the examples from art I am naturally most interested in. One could look at the painting using many other models of thought, technical, cultural, aesthetic (and I hope all of them and more), I am only suggesting that those interested in cognition and philosophy of mind might also try and see some art works as examples of rich cognitive relationships rather than some of the dumbed down ones often used to explain mechanisms of mind.

As you might be able to see, I am not averse to using amateur examples of frames or frames-in-frames but I am doubtful that, coupled with the other strategies we can use to understand a work of art (social, aesthetic, cognitive, historical, technical) that we would sustain much interest, unless of course you would like to offer an example which rivals Las Meninas?


Higher order thoughts and art
hi derek,
yes you are right I am not suggesting that those interested in defining art are amateurs! It is just something that i am not intending to do in this thread, especially given the great interest generated in the other thread devoted to this subject.

The literature in philosophy on HOTs is clear, we all have them whether we are amateurs or not, but we don't have the same ones--we are not self-conscious in the same ways! I was merely trying to show that Las Meninas uses some recognisable devices to achieve levels of self-consciousness, or critical distance achieved similar ways by a large number of other art works in many cultures but that is not the reason why they are artworks. I leave that definition to the experts. As I wrote earlier, I think it is interesting to see that there are types of framing, visual framing instead of the lexical kinds used by Barsalou, Falconnier etc and Rosenthal's HOTs can be understood better by extending them to art and across cultures. It's mainly a cognitive philosophical issue, I guess. It may have some interest to some art historians who are interested in how the mind works or the particularly skilful ways in which some artists use these frames for achieve qualitatively different kinds of self-conscioiusness both culturally mediated and shared.

Thank you for you replies btw. I guess, given that we are the only ones in it, I should give it a rest! Although I've enjoyed this correspondence.



Let me ask you a question, how does 

Higher order thoughts and art

Hi Greg

Thanks for your replies.

Just a point of clarification. I was not claiming that “frames are ordinary things to be found anywhere”. Rather the reverse. I was claiming that the use of the frame for visual art is associated with a specific period of European art history (very roughly, 1600 to 1900) and that it is not a general feature of art worldwide, or even of European art before and after that period. Where the frame is concerned, Europe has been very much the exception, not part of a general rule. That’s why I said that those theorists (Derrida etc) who place such emphasis on the frame (and sometimes batten on Las Meninas as a result) are, whether they know it or not, being very parochial in their approach to art.

I think it’s possible to give a persuasive explanation of why the frame emerged when it did, and died when it did, but I won’t launch into that here.

On the general question of “higher order thoughts” I must confess to a certain scepticism – both about what they are (I think any definition is likely to be very questionable) and also about whether frames might generate them. 


Higher order thoughts and art
I hope it will provide good help for everyone.

Higher order thoughts and art
Hi Greg and Derek,Thank you for your quite technical and nuanced discussion of HOT and aesthetics.

I am quite interested in the way Friedrich Nietzsche appeals to art and the artist, and the way some of his thinking has been colonised by moral theorists such a Iris Murdoch and Raimond Gaita under the guise of 'moral transcendent'  or 'moral responsive approach' in ethics. I notice Michael Leunig in a recent speech at the DAN (Dialogue Australasia Network) in Brisbane also makes mention of 'art' 'spirituality' and 'innocence' (David Tacey tells me Leunig is well read in Nietzsche's philosophy).

Is this a thread we might be interested in pursuing?