My research interests range across issues in philosophy of mind and especially perception, aesthetics and the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Currently, my research focuses on developing a unified approach to perception, visual art and beauty in a book on perception.
I believe that philosophy of perception and aesthetics need to work together if we are to develop adequate understanding in any one area – art, beauty and perception. But I am also interested in each of these in their own right because of their significance and the fascinating challenges they pose. My research in all these areas is informed by attention to the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and it draws increasingly on the work of Immanuel Kant.
Book ms on Perception
Currently, I am working on a book Perception, Understanding and Aesthetics that will offer an account of perception that is both ‘realist’ and ‘conceptualist’ – perception engages us with objects and properties and our engagement is secured in part by our understanding. The second hallmark of the book is that it takes aesthetic experience into account. My objective is to explain how conceptual understanding helps secure our perceptual relationship with the world and how such understanding enters into the ever-present aesthetic dimension of our experience.
I will argue for a holistic approach to our mental life, according to which perception, understanding and bodily skill mutually depend on and enable each other. This goes against the prevailing tendency in philosophy of perception to argue that some capacity – for example, sensation, bodily activity or understanding – is basic for perception. Rather, my view is that no capacity is basic. Human perception is an activity of the whole person that is informed and transfigured by our capacity for conceptual understanding. Similarly, skillful activity is informed and transfigured by our capacity for conceptual understanding. This part of the project will develop new models of conceptual understanding and bodily skill and their interrelations to show how they enter into securing engagement with spatially located individuals and properties. This will counter the charge that conceptualist approaches ‘intellectualize’ or ‘over-intellectualize’ perception. The aim is to explain how perception is a genuine relation to our surroundings, and how our understanding contributes to securing that relation. This is critical for appreciating that perception is both representational and relational – that perception places us in a representational relation to the world.
My approach in this book will be distinguished by examining the aesthetic dimension of perceptual experience from the outset. I will argue that anything we see from complex configurations to simple shapes or colours may be present to us as noteworthy or valuable in its perceptual character. I will draw on work in philosophical aesthetics as well as art history to show how the aesthetic dimension of perceptual experience makes a difference to theories of perception. One key argument is that focusing on aesthetic properties of artworks shows that conceptual understanding needs to enter into perceiving them. This is because some aesthetic properties of artworks depend on the historical categories to which works belong so that one needs some historical understanding to perceive even seemingly ‘basic’ properties such as colours.
2016 Book in Aesthetics
My previous book, Beauty and the End of Art provides support for explaining perception by arguing that we need to rethink art, aesthetics and perception in a unified way. Beauty and the End of Art argues for a unified approach by demonstrating the important role of a Wittgensteinian realist framework and conceptual realist theory of perception for resolving key problems about the nature of art and beauty. In part, my aim was to make a novel case for a broadly Wittgensteinian realist framework and for conceptual realism about perception – which emphasizes that conceptual understanding is necessary to secure our perceptual relationship with individuals and their properties – by taking these debates about perception to the domain of art and aesthetics.
But this is not to suggest that aesthetics plays an instrumental or secondary role in this book. Beauty and the End of Art is primarily a work in aesthetics. It focuses on two contemporary issues about art that have broad cultural significance to motivate a new approach to both art and beauty. The first issue is whether Western art ended in the second half of the twentieth century – which raises the question of what art is such that it might or might not end. The second issue is whether we have mistakenly set beauty aside as a value or aim of Western art – which raises the question of what beauty is such that it might really be a value, a value that fits with the pluralism of art. Wittgenstein’s later work and contemporary philosophy of perception provide theoretical resources for new accounts of art and beauty that resolve these issues. I argue that art is (i) a variety of endeavours governed by constitutive rules or norms specific to their broader historical and cultural eras; and that (ii) these endeavours have something in common which is also a source of their diversity – they allow us to explore, extend and manipulate our perceptual engagement with the world. I argue for understanding beauty as the value of the world’s perceptible presence. I show how Wittgensteinian realism helps explain that beauty is an objective value that becomes available and compelling in broader historical circumstances. The book includes detailed argumentation about the individuation of art, and the nature of aesthetic value and aesthetic properties.
Edited Collection on Kendall L. Walton
I have just finished editing a collection of 21 newly commissioned essays Art, Representation, and Make-Believe: Essays on the Philosophy of Kendall L. Walton (Routledge, 2021).
Walton is acknowledged to be one of the most significant aestheticians in the ‘analytic’ tradition in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His work shapes numerous debates about the arts. This is because he provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the arts in terms of the human capacity or make-believe and shows how different arts – visual, photographic, musical, literary or poetic – can be explained in terms of complex structures of pretense, perception, imagining, empathy and emotion. His detailed explanations are sensitive to the particularities of different art forms or media, yet also unified in emphasizing imagination and pretense. For each kind or ‘medium’ of art, Walton details how imagination or empathy allow us to engage with a work with pretense that engenders analogues of caring and belief. Walton’s ground-breaking work about the extent of human make-believe has been taken beyond aesthetics to address foundational issues concerning linguistic and scientific representations – for example about the nature of scientific modelling or to explain how what we say is mostly quite different from the literal meanings of our words. Moreover, his early essay “Categories of Art” (1970) provides a landmark argument for the historical nature of artworks and aesthetic properties that continues to inform current research.
Current Papers – Recently Published or Forthcoming
“The Puzzle of Make-Believe about Pictures: can one imagine a perception to be different?” Forthcoming in Art, Representation and Make-Believe: Essays in the Philosophy of Kendall L. Walton (Routledge, 2021).
Kendall Walton explains pictures in terms of games of perceptual make-believe. Pictures or depictions are props that draw us to participate in games of make-believe where we imagine seeing what a picture depicts. Walton proposes that one imagines of one’s perceptual experience of the coloured canvas that it is a different perceptual experience. The issue is whether perception and imagination can combine the way Walton suggests. Can one imagine a perception to be different? To get a clearer understanding of the unified perceptual-imaginative experience Walton posits, the paper turns to competing theories that explain perceptual experience in terms of contents, relations to objects, or both contents and relations. Walton appeals to theories of perceptual content and cognitive penetration. But it is also important to examine whether his view fits with recent theories that explain perception only in terms of relations or in terms of both contents and relations. The paper argues that Walton’s view is compatible with content theories of perception and can be defended from some objection once we look at the detail these theories offer. Walton’s view is not compatible with pure relational theories of perception but it can be explained by hybrid content-relational theories of perception that posit de resenses.
“Aesthetic Properties, History and Perception” British Journal of Philosophy: Art, History and Perception. 58:4 (2018) 345-362. doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayy039
This paper argues that the principal development that has shaped philosophy of perception in the last thirty years—explaining perceptual experience in terms of contents that represent that such-and-such is the case—is directly relevant to key arguments for the historical nature of art because contents can represent complex kinds and properties. Conceptual realism is especially well-suited for explaining perception of artworks and aesthetic properties because it emphasizes that forms of understanding—in the sense of capacities, abilities and techniques—are involved in perceptual engagement with individual objects and instances of properties. To make this case, the paper examines influential arguments for the historical nature of art and aesthetic properties by Arthur C. Danto and Kendall L. Walton; and examines art-historical discussions by Michael Baxandall, Linda Nochlin and T. J. Clark.
“Disjunctivism and Realism: not naïve but conceptual.” New Issues in Epistemological Disjunctivism edited by Casey Doyle, Joseph Milburn, Duncan Pritchard, 153-168. New York and London: Routledge 2019.
This article argues that conceptual realism offers an important alternative to naïve realist, purely relational approaches with which ‘disjunctivism’ has come to be readily associated. I argue that John McDowell’s account of perception as both contentful and relational tends to go unnoted when the options for disjunctive theories are laid out. But McDowell’s approach is important because it comes up the middle between ‘intentional’ and ‘relational’ views of perception. In doing so, it offers theoretical resources for explaining perceptual experience and its epistemic standing that purely relational views associated with naïve realism do not have. McDowell’s work opens a unified approach to perception and its epistemic potential that turns on the claim that it is contents and the broader context of capacities in which such contents figure that secure the perceiver’s relation to what she sees. I call views of this kind conceptual realism, though commonsense realism might be more apt. I use aesthetics to criticize some of the detail of McDowell’s approach.
“Beauty and Aesthetic Properties: Taking Inspiration from Kant.” On Beauty, edited by Wolfgang Huemer and Íngrid Vendrell Ferran. Munich: Philosophia Verlag. In Press Fall 2019.
This paper argues that perceptible aesthetic properties of an artwork are integral to what the work conveys or expresses. Simply, aesthetic properties are connected to and not independent of a work’s content. To develop this view, I draw on Kant’s account of pure judgements of beauty and his view that beautiful artworks express aesthetic ideas through aesthetic attributes.
“Danto and Wittgenstein: Historicity, Essence and Generality” The Blackwell Companion to Danto, edited by Jonathan Gilmore and Lydia Goehr. Wiley Blackwell. Forthcoming 2021..
This paper argues against the standard narrative of Arthur C. Danto’s relationship to Wittgenstein. Danto understands his core position that art has an essence that we can discover and define as a repudiation of the Wittgensteinian view that in some cases definitions may be distorting or so broad as to be nearly vacuous. Yet he is also deeply sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s historicism. To understand the nature of their disagreement, we need to be clear about the agreement made explicit in Danto’s later work: we need to understand how their shared historicism about the contextual nature of meaning divides into distinct approaches to the relationships between history and essence and generality.
Papers in Progress
“Aesthetic Properties and Philosophy of Perception”
Can we see aesthetic properties of artworks that depend on the historical category to which a work belongs? A few recent discussions in the debate over what properties we can see or visually experience consider aesthetic properties. I pose a more specific question – whether we see aesthetic properties that depend on the historical category to which a work belongs. I have two aims. First, I want to show how detailed argumentation for the historical nature of art and some aesthetic properties is relevant for evaluating these theories and can provide counterexamples to them. Second, I aim to challenge two influential relational theories of perception, by Charles Travis (2004) and John Campbell (2002), that explain perception in terms of an ‘acquaintance-like’ relation that is independent of what one understands. I focus only on some aesthetic properties of artworks – those that would typically be considered perceptible. The central task of the paper is to argue that experience of some aesthetic properties of artworks requires grasp of the historical categories on which those properties depend and to show how this makes a difference for explaining perception. I use Kendall Walton (1970) and Arthur Danto’s (1981) arguments for the historical nature of artworks and at least some of their aesthetic properties to suggest that if these views are on the right track, then the approaches from Travis (2004) and Campbell (2002) cannot explain experience of such historical aesthetic properties.
Recent Project – Art, History and Perception Workshop and Special Issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics
In 2017 I organized a workshop Art, History and Perceptionat the University of Toronto to examine how works of art and visual culture stand at the intersection of history and perception. Artworks are imbued with their historical situation and with historical relationships to other works. Yet it is through their perceptible properties that such works have their impact. They are specifically designed and valued for the way they elicit perceptual experience and impact on us. The workshop was unprecedented (as far as I know) in aiming to study works of art and visual culture by bringing art history together with the philosophy of perception as well as philosophy of art and aesthetics. The objective was to initiate fully three-way collaborative research that would build on pair-wise collaborative work between art history and philosophy of art, and between philosophical work on perception and on art. Using different methodologies, all three areas strive to explain how pictures in the broad sense, including depictions and photographs work. The main goal of the workshop was to create bridges between these fields of study to produce integrated, multi-dimensional research into works of art and visual culture.
Several papers from the workshop served as a basis for a special issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics 58:4 (2018) of the same title: Art, History and Perception.