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Durham University

Department of Philosophy

Towards an Aesthetic Psychology

The research project's general aim was to delineate the concerns and tasks of aesthetic psychology conceived as a branch of philosophical aesthetics.

More specifically, it set out to examine questions to do with aesthetic perception, representation, emotion, and cognition as explored in other disciplines (including psychology; cognitive science; anthropology) in order to establish whether, and if so how, philosophy can benefit from it.

The approach adopted was inter-disciplinary, and principally aimed to strengthen the accounts that have been and are being developed in philosophical aesthetics.

Related disciplines of interest include:

  • (Social) Anthropology;
  • Biology/Darwinian theory;
  • Cognitive and developmental psychology;
  • Cognitive science;
  • Developmental psychology of perception and emotions;
  • Evolutionary psychology of perception and emotions;
  • Neuro-science;
  • Psychiatry.

Examples of concerns include:

  • Does (i) creating and (ii) appreciating art have an evolutionary function to do with our emotional responses?
  • What emotional and/or intellectual deficits (e.g. autism) inhibit the use and/or understanding of aesthetic/artistic representation?
  • In what way(s) is the use of our imagination significant for the development of aesthetic assessment?
  • How do normal children learn to appreciate art?
  • How, if at all, can pretend-play contribute to the way in which we learn to refine our aesthetic experiences?
  • How can neurological models of visual perception be applied to the case of aesthetic perception?

Towards an Aesthetic Psychology: Questions

The questions that we address can be seen to fall into four main categories:

Aesthetic perception and cognition

What psychological dispositions, abilities and processes are involved in aesthetic perception, cognition and judgement? To what extent do differences between individuals’ dispositions and abilities affect their aesthetic perception, whether it be the perception of an artwork or of a natural object? What kinds of reasoning do we employ in making aesthetic evaluations? Is it the case that in aesthetic cognition we use the same psychological abilities as in non-aesthetic cognition, but that we simply put them to a different use? What roles do imagination and narrative understanding play in aesthetic perception, cognition and judgement?

Aesthetic awareness

What sort of account can be given of the development in humans of an aesthetic awareness? What role does consciousness and self-consciousness play in the development of aesthetic awareness? How, if at all, can our emotional experiences influence our aesthetic relations with the world? Is drawing on our emotional experiences a necessary part of what it is to be an aesthetic agent? What exactly is it that distinguishes the aesthetically aware person from the aesthetically unaware one? What might such a distinction actually amount to?

Aesthetic education

How are children taught to perceive and make aesthetic judgements? How does the development of their emotions influence this perception, if at all? Can we learn anything from autistic children endowed with considerable representational skills? What is the role in aesthetic education of ostension, particularly of paradigmatic examples? Analogously to the moral question, are there ‘stages’ of aesthetic development; and moreover, how, if at all, can a child make aesthetic discernments and judgements prior to a full understanding of what the aesthetic is?

Aesthetic expertise

What perceptual and cognitive dispositions and abilities does an aesthetic expert have that enables him or her (better than others) to perceive and make judgements about more or less descriptive (or ‘thicker’ and ‘thinner’) aesthetic properties? To what extent, if at all, are non-experts able to make fully-fledged aesthetic judgements on the basis of an expert’s assessment? Precisely what perceptual skills influence our aesthetic awareness?