Cognitive Penetration and the Perception of Art (Winner of 2012 Dialectica Essay Prize)

Dialectica 68 (1):1-34 (2014)
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Abstract

There are good, even if inconclusive, reasons to think that cognitive penetration of perception occurs: that cognitive states like belief causally affect, in a relatively direct way, the contents of perceptual experience. The supposed importance of – indeed as it is suggested here, what is definitive of – this possible phenomenon is that it would result in important epistemic and scientific consequences. One interesting and intuitive consequence entirely unremarked in the extant literature concerns the perception of art. Intuition has it that knowledge about art changes how one aesthetically evaluates artworks. A profound explanation of this intuitive fact is that perceptual experiences vary with artistic expertise. Cognitive penetration provides an explanatory mechanism for this latter effect. What one knows or otherwise thinks about art may affect, in one of two ways sketched below, how one perceives art. Differences in aesthetic evaluation may follow, either because high-level aesthetic properties can be perceptually represented or because they causally depend on low-level perceptible properties. All of this lends credence to the hypothesis that the expert better judges art because she better perceives art. And she better perceives art because she better knows art.

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Dustin Stokes
University of Utah