Engineered Niches and Naturalized Aesthetics

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 75 (4):465-477 (2017)
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Recent scientific approaches to aesthetics include evolutionary theories about the origin of art behavior, psychological investigations into human aesthetic experience and preferences, and neurophysiological explorations of the mechanisms underlying art experience. Critics of these approaches argue that they are ultimately irrelevant to a philosophical aesthetics because they cannot help us understand the distinctive conceptual basis and normativity of our art experience. This criticism may seem plausible given the piecemeal nature of these scientific approaches, but a more comprehensive naturalistic framework can help us understand the conceptual basis and normativity of art. In particular, the ecology of art, an understanding of how individuals interact within particular environments, can help us understand the engineered art niches in which we create and experience art. Each niche is associated with a particular deme, or set of individuals that interact within that niche, and a set of cognitive, epistemic, and pedagogical technologies that form the conceptual basis of a niche-dependent normativity. This is to be contrasted with the niche-independent normativity revealed by many of the scientific approaches. This framework, and the conflicting streams of normativity it reveals, allows us to better understand conflicts in normativity and the implausibility of unequivocal and universal normative principles.

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Richard A. Richards
University of Alabama