Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
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A philosopher makes the case for thinking of works of art as tools for investigating ourselves
In Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë argues that our obsession with works of art has gotten in the way of understanding how art works on us. For Noë, art isn't a phenomenon in need of an explanation but a mode of research, a method of investigating what makes us human--a strange tool. Art isn't just something to look at or listen to--it is a challenge, a dare to try to make sense of what it is all about. Art aims not for satisfaction but for confrontation, intervention, and subversion. Through diverse and provocative examples from the history of art-making, Noë reveals the transformative power of artistic production. By staging a dance, choreographers cast light on the way bodily movement organizes us. Painting goes beyond depiction and representation to call into question the role of pictures in our lives. Accordingly, we cannot reduce art to some natural aesthetic sense or trigger; recent efforts to frame questions of art in terms of neurobiology and evolutionary theory alone are doomed to fail.
By engaging with art, we are able to study ourselves in profoundly novel ways. In fact, art and philosophy have much more in common than we might think. Reframing the conversation around artists and their craft, Strange Tools is a daring and stimulating intervention in contemporary thought.
were, in their own image. * * * Some thinkers believe that the aesthetic sense is universal among humans. “Who among us,” writes the University of Auckland philosopher Stephen Davies, “has never taken aesthetic delight … in a sunset, a rainbow, a kitten’s playfulness, a story, a song? And this kind of pleasurable response seems to be characteristic of humans generally across historical periods and cultures.” Davies may be right about this. Pictures belong to our prehistoric technology and
ways it matters. A work of art is not merely a trigger for a feeling or a perceptual response or anything else. In that sense, it is not merely a thing. It is a work. Art is a topic. Actually, it is a mistake to think of seeing (or perception) in general according to the trigger-experience conception. As if things just cause the lighting up of experiences inside our heads. This may be a traditional way to think and talk; it’s the British way. But it’s a straitjacket. The world acts on us and
generation of philosophers confronts this question and does so with urgency. It has seemed impossible to take for granted that we know what we are doing or know what we are learning when we learn philosophy. This is why philosophers write histories of philosophy not merely as a way of reporting facts, of telling a story, but as a way of doing philosophy. And this is why philosophers, now and two thousand years ago, question philosophy and call its value into question. Philosophy is continuously
Constraints.”) For a general discussion of this broad range of phenomena, see Shockley, Richardson, and Dale, “Conversation and Coordinative Structures,” where the citations above, and many others, are given. According to one promising line of investigation, what explains this convergence and coordination when people talk is that the speakers, together with their environment, in the setting of whatever task it is that they are performing, come to form one single “dynamical system,” one amenable
something like the way philosophy is related to natural science. Philosophy, however closely tied to science in the framing of its concerns, is not just “more science.” It does something else. Something more or something less. Crucially, something different. (Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, wrote (§4.111): “the word ‘philosophy’ must mean something which stands above or below, but not beside the natural sciences.”) * * * Choreography and organization: my claim in the text is that