The Cognitive Aspects of Aesthetic Experience – Selected Problems

by Andrej Démuth (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 216 Pages
Series: Spectrum Slovakia, Volume 18


The book is a second volume of the project, which is focused on a systematic examination of aesthetic experience by the unification of philosophical and cognitive-scientific approaches to beauty and aesthetic experience. This volume is focused on the analysis of selected aspects of aesthetic experience, especially on methodological problems and aspects of philosophical and scientific research, the question of the complementarity and compatibility of methods, and needs to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Authors of the chapters are considering about diverse areas of perception of beauty, e.g.: pleasure by face perception; the synchronicity by music; the problems of musical chills; the psychosomatic unity of dance; or the problem of development of aesthetic appreciation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Selected Problems in Cognitive Research of Aesthetic Experience: The Examination of Beauty and the Problems of Methodology
  • Aesthetic Perception in the Context of Naturalism, Art History and Contemporary Empirical Aesthetics
  • Explanation and Reduction in the Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to the Musical Meaning Problem
  • On Some Methodological Issues with the Interface of Neuroaesthetics and Philosophy
  • Brain Activity within (Beautiful) Face Perception
  • What Is Music and What Function Does It Serve in Our Lives? Three Forms of Synchronicity
  • Cognitive Science and the Neuroaesthetics of Musical Chills: Embodied Perception and Evaluation of Musical Excitement
  • Thinking in the Flesh
  • Beauty, Science and Spirituality
  • Cognitive Studies as an Orchestra in Search of a Symphony of the Cognitive Aspects of Aesthetic Experience
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

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Selected Problems in Cognitive Research of Aesthetic Experience:
The Examination of Beauty and the Problems of Methodology

Andrej Démuth

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Abstract. The proposed book is a second volume of the project, which is an attempt to provide a systematic examination of aesthetic experience by the unification of philosophical and cognitive-scientific approaches to beauty and aesthetic experience. The previous volume (The Cognitive Aspects of Aesthetic Experience – Introduction) was an introduction to the research, which has been mapping the main areas of possible research. This volume is focused mainly on the analysis and characteristics of selected aspects of aesthetic experience from the different point of view; especially on methodological problems and aspects of philosophical and scientific research, the question of the unity, the complementarity and compatibility of methods, and needs to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Authors of the chapters are considering about diverse areas of perception of beauty, for example, pleasure by face perception; the synchronicity by music; the problems of musical chills; the psychosomatic unity of dance; or the problem of development of aesthetic appreciation. The unifying themes of the book are methodological problems and aesthetic perception of music.

Is it possible for beauty to be analysed? Should not beauty be merely experienced and contemplated? Is there a way to analyse such a subjective, evanescent and indefinable notion as beauty? What is beauty anyway? Is it an objective feature, the quality of an object, story or process which may be subjected to measurement and scientific analyses? Is it the characteristics of a sensation, experience and the subjective inclination of people to their imaginations, ideas and states?

The issue of the essence and character of beauty is a primordial philosophical problem discussed by thinkers, artists and theologians (with a different degree of avidity) for centuries. At the turn of the 18th century, aesthetics was even established as an individual philosophical discipline1 the subject of which was beauty, taste and aesthetic emotion. Beauty has once again become a philosophical issue par excellence2, and thinkers primarily ←9 | 10→directed their attention to the extent of its rationality (Kant), or its irrationality and relationship to emotions (Shaftesbury), but also to whether it is an objective quality of an object (Reid) or the subjective aspect of thinking, evaluation and feeling (Hume), and whether (and under which conditions) an aesthetic judgement may be considered universally applicable and binding. Despite the boom in reflections on aesthetics, the establishment of aesthetics as a standard part of philosophical thought3 and its indisputable (especially terminological and kunsthistorical) development, beauty seems to resist examination by (natural) sciences and remains an entity of spiritual (geistwissenschaftlichen) understanding. It seemed that the scrutiny of beauty would, by definition, remain a fundamentally philosophical and theoretical discipline focused primarily on ideas, experience and evaluation, beyond the scope of empirical and naturalized understanding4. Neither did psychology5, which was established in the meantime, change the situation substantially. The inner qualities of experience remained methodologically inaccessible to science, and introspection was rather subjectivist and problematic6.

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The origination of cognitive sciences and the invention of certain (especially projection) technology led to new opportunities to examine beauty and aesthetic experience, this time even with (natural) sciences, considering the subjectively and individually experienced character. Although previously we had been forced, in particular, to describe and comprehend the inner experience of our feelings when we liked something, the nature of the content structure of aesthetic experience or a statistical evaluation of the subjective preferences, it suddenly became possible to concentrate on the hitherto hidden brain processes that accompanied a given experience and to search for neuronal correlates or bodily and biochemical aspects of aesthetic evaluation and experience. Aesthetic experience essentially became capable of being objectivized both bodily and scientifically, not only allowing for the measure of its intensity but also of its individual constituents, aspects and processes. The bodily experience of beauty became a correlate of the inner experience that could be tracked, a way to reveal its unseen aspects and also a way to better understand individual mechanisms, determinants, reasons and purposes of aesthetic evaluation and experience.

The new possibilities for examination undoubtedly opened doors to new scientific issues and approaches. Scientists are starting to use the potential of the new technology, which involves the establishment of new disciplines and institutions. One of the most important steps made in this field was the creation and formulation of the basic principles of neuroaesthetics. In the words of Semir Zeki, neuroaesthetics is a science examining “the brain mechanism that engages with the experience of beauty” (Zeki in Sriran 2016). His work was followed by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein (1999); Anjan Chatterjee (2014); Arthur Shimamura and Stephen Palmer (2012); Eric Kandel (2012, 2016); Joseph P. Huston et al. (2015); Martin Skov and Oshin Vartananian (2009); and many others. Neuroaesthetics became an important yet disputed part of the research into aesthetics, and its origination allowed for the establishment of numerous institutions, conferences and societies.

Interest in empirical psychological research of aesthetic experience has similarly evolved. Several institutions and laboratories were created to examine the empirical tenets of the origination and experience of aesthetic experience and its accompanying emotions. The scientists at the International Association for Empirical Aesthetics and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics scrutinize, for example, aesthetic emotions and design scales for their measurement, analyse what it means to be touched by beauty and how we are touched by beautiful objects (Menninghaus et ←11 | 12→al. 2016; Wassiliwizky et al. 2015), and even what the role of negative emotions is (fear – Wagner accepted; sadness or grief) within the experience of beauty. They analyse neural oscillations in auditory cognition, music, speech and language, the temporal structure of perceptual experience, predictive coding in perception and cognition and in general the behavioural and neural foundations of aesthetic experience. What both of these approaches (neuroaesthetics and empirical aesthetics) have in common is the indisputable advancement in research of the biological and neuronal correlates and the socio-cultural foundations of aesthetic perception and evaluation. Yet they are frequently criticized by philosophers and other (especially) social-science oriented thinkers on behalf of the extent of reductionism (aesthetic experience is reduced to a mere set of physical and neuronal correlates and tenets), vagueness in terminology and methodological issues (Ball 2013).

One of the most serious issues of the naturalized and cognitive approach is that it does not examine the basic terminology of aesthetics. It does not clarify what beauty is, what creates it, what relationship there is between the individual aspects of beauty and various types of sensory modalities. Similarly, it does not usually grasp the nuances between affection, charm, elegance or other particular aesthetic emotions. The naturalized approach to beauty truly tends to examine the neuronal and biochemical basis for the processes accompanying an aesthetic experience or evaluation. However, the aesthetic experience thus loses its essence, content and meaning for an individual. Numerous philosophers believe that it is impossible to comprehend this content from a mere description of how and what takes place in the brain, but quite the opposite. In order to understand it, we must peek into the inner semantics, the experience and meaning of the experience for the given person. This may only be realized from a first-person perspective and the description of an aesthetic experience from the individual’s perspective.

The methodological issue of the explanatory gap (Levine 1983) between the first-person perspective and the objective third-person perspective represents a classical problem of the philosophy of mind discussed by thinkers from the beginning of the 1980s. Some (e.g., Nagel 1974) reached the conclusion that the two levels may not be overlooked and that subjectively felt individual experiences (such as the feeling of beauty experienced when listening to Bach’s cantata “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” BWV 147) represent qualia which may not be reduced to an account of everything which takes place in the brain over the course of the origination of such feelings. The essence of this experience also involves the meaning of the composi←12 | 13→tion to the subject as a unique individual, what he feels when listening to it, what importance it has for him. The importance is not presumed only by the particularities of his sensory reception apparatus (experiences of music and its perception), but also by his hitherto acquired experience, belief system and convictions, in other words, by what makes him a unique individual. The ability to hear the most minute details of a composition represents only one of the levels of our experience. Another is the ability to understand the meaning of a text (e.g., its religious and transcendental dimension) and its integration into the context of our individual beliefs and experience. Patricia Churchland (Churchland 1986, 292–293) and others are convinced that the explanatory gap may be bridged and that its existence is only an expression of our current incomplete understanding of the mechanisms and processes of our perception and interpretation of CNS information. Perhaps, we will eventually be able to see the whole physical and neurophysiological picture of the processes and thus reveal how the brain creates aesthetic experiences and its specific contents. For now, however, we do not have this knowledge.

The majority of philosophers realize that despite the immense contribution and potential of neuroscientific or natural-scientific knowledge, a number of aspects in our everyday lives, including the values or the existential aspects of experience, cannot be fully described by physics. The reason is that the method of examination determines its scope, and if we attempt to focus on individual aspects or details, we are inevitably forced to renounce addressing other ones. In the course of history, scientists have therefore abandoned a number of (especially normative) domains of research and become resigned to the limits of their understanding.

The approach preferred by many therefore diverts attention from reductionism and directs its focus to inter- and multidisciplinary research. The advantage of such an approach is that it respects the particularities of the individual objects of research and does not attempt to transform or reduce them, quite the contrary – it scrutinizes them from various perspectives (Klein, Newell 1997). However, even this approach has its drawbacks.

One of the most crucial issues of interdisciplinary research is its methodology or rather the compatibility of its methodological approaches (Démuth, Démuthová 2011). It seems that despite the growing popularity of interdisciplinary research, we still do not have a consistent methodology for such research. Certain methods stemming from an identical or similar basis present very compatible approaches which may be easily combined. Others present the subject of their research from various aspects or even functional or organization levels and it is, therefore, necessary to preserve ←13 | 14→the particularities of the given scientific approach. Others seem to be completely disparate and divergent from the given research.

Bohr’s research into the character of light (Bohr 1928) showed us that the method of research is part of the subject of the research itself. Approaching light as waves or as a flow of particles determines what can be observed and how. The optics of the methodology frequently tend to be very limiting. Similarly, if our point of departure when examining beauty is the presumption that beauty is the product of neurocognitive principles and processes in our brain, we may overlook different possibilities in its research. This may be very limiting because beauty is not merely a feeling evoked in our brain when we perceive beautiful objects. It is assumed that it cannot only be reduced to the milliliters of dopamine released by the nucleus accumbens or nucleus caudate into the synaptic loopholes of our reward systems. Neither can it be explained by other chemical substances (oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins etc.) or physical processes that occur in our bodies, even though, evidently, in order to fully comprehend what beauty is and how an aesthetic experience occurs, such understanding is undoubtedly relevant. However, beauty is equally the content of an individually perceived and felt experience. It is the motive for our actions, contemplations, wants or desires, but also the object of happiness, the source of peace and sometimes even the reasons for living. We may not know anything about the neurophysiologies of our bodies, but beauty and aesthetic experience will always be an integral part of our lives, actions and feelings and will be more relevant to us than any other science of the physiology of aesthetic delight or abhorrence. Ignoring this aspect of experience – its subjective meaning and feeling – as an important and inherent element would mean diverting attention from the basis of any, even scientific, experience (Démuth 2018, 2019). Scientific experience also builds on this type of perception and understanding, on an individual experience which is fundamentally individual, yet is often ascribed attributes from an impersonal and objective approach by the diversion of attention from the individual particularities.

Beauty is undoubtedly also a phenomenon of the biocultural and social world. It may be considered from the perspective of history and the formation of human identity. It often shows us with whom and why to collaborate; to whom we should pay attention, who to compete for. Evolutionary psychologists are therefore attempting to discover why the phenomenon even exists in nature and society, what its evolutionary role is and why it even evolved into a state where we invest tremendous amounts of energy to beautify ourselves, our household, products etc. This effect of beauty ←14 | 15→has become so meaningful that every society has a sort of art – something which is purposely devoted to the production of beauty and its contemplation, without having to fulfil any entirely pragmatic purpose. Beauty shapes our feelings, thoughts and values, cultivates human nature, creates bonds and frequently influences other domains in the society (the economy of beauty).

The presented book focuses on several of the above-mentioned levels of beauty and aesthetic experience. We believe that in order to understand the phenomenon correctly, it is necessary to combine all possible approaches and describe them as widely as possible. Therefore, one of the approaches employed will be an attempt at a phenomenological description and hermeneutic analysis of aesthetic experience. We will use them to draw our attention to certain common features of the different modalities of aesthetic experience, what creates and characterizes them. The phenomenological description is understood not only as the description of what individuals feel when they like something, but also what it means to them. One of the essential features of the hermeneutics of aesthetic experience is finding ourselves in it. Whether we like something or not is an expression of the reflection on our own relationship to the perception. This seems to be important in terms of liking.

On the other hand, a large part of the presented texts tries to harmonize bodily (leiblich) experiences and evaluations with knowledge of neuroscientific and cognitive research into somatic mechanisms that accompany or provoke an aesthetic experience. All of this will be performed in the context of reflections on the evolutionary-biological and sociocultural presumptions of the aesthetic experience.

The Cognitive Studies Centre of the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Trnava has recently organized a series of workshops and cycles of lectures on the topic of the cognitive aspects of an aesthetic experience. There, we focused our attention on the issue of sensory perception and its principles (Beauty Is in the Senses of the Beholder, 2 October 2015, with Professor Fiona Macpherson, Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, Glasgow University), as well as to the structure and activity of the processes of aesthetic experience at the level of the brain (Beauty Is in the Brain of the Beholder, 11 May 2016, with Professor Semir Zeki, The Laboratory of Neurobiology of University College London). One of the conclusions drawn at these events (among others) was that an aesthetic experience is a massively parallel experience not only containing inputs of sensory data but also contaminated by previous beliefs and experiences.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (October)
Beauty Philosophy Psychology Neuroaesthetics Methodology Music
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 216 S., 2 s/w Abb.

Biographical notes

Andrej Démuth (Volume editor)

Andrej Démuth is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Centre for Cognitive studies at the Trnava University. He studied philosophy and psychology, and is the author of many books and articles on cognition and the relationship between reflected and non-reflected knowledge. His research focuses on modern philosophy, epistemology and cognitive studies.


Title: The Cognitive Aspects of Aesthetic Experience – Selected Problems