‘Neuroaesthetics’, Gombrich, and Depiction

British Journal of Aesthetics 56 (2):191-201 (2016)


For philosophical readers, a review of biology Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel’s Age of Insight historical thesis, that today’s ‘neuroaesthetics’ is a continuation of Vienna’s great contributions to modernism from 1900 on, becomes a ‘critical study’, by closely examining Kandel’s valuable account of E.H. Gombrich’s psychology, then, broadly, his own case for the validity of ‘neuroaesthetics’. The article much credits Kandel for recognising and explaining—unlike most philosophers, with their epistemological and metaphysical perspectives—why Gombrich’s Art and Illusion is subtitled ‘Psychology’, since it is about what its author termed throughout ‘convincing’ depiction. But, while holding that Kandel’s case for ‘neuroaesthetics’ is, at least in tone, superior to Ramachandran’s, the study broadens still further into a critical examination of it, with at first standard—since Aristotle—arguments against reductivism, as a materialism that neglects first formal then final causes or purposes. Original to the critique is an additional argument, that so-called ‘neuroaesthetics’ is not only inconsistent with the ‘reductionist’—not reductivist—principles of Kandel’s own science, as explained in his earlier account of them, In Search of Memory, but also contradicts a basic Darwinian principle underlying all modern biology, that genuine novelty can arise from rearrangement of older materials. The conclusion is that although neuroscience may make important contributions to aesthetics and appreciation, there is as yet no basis for holding that it could produce an aesthetics.

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Patrick Maynard
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