From The Washington Post: A Few Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer’s Review Of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Full review here.

Lehrer perhaps sympathizes with Dutton:

“There’s an alluring logic to such arguments, which promise to rescue aesthetics from the fog of post-modernist theory…”


“Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science.”

but finds much of his thinking lacking; occupying a kind of no man’s land:

“…Dutton’s ideas are ultimately undone by what they can’t explain. This is the irony of evolutionary aesthetics: Although it sets out to solve the mystery of art, to explain why people write poems and smear paint on canvases, it ends up affirming the mystery. The most exquisite stuff is what we can’t explain. That’s why we call it art.”

Lehrer argues that the weakness of Dutton’s theory is not really meeting a standard of science and thus doesn’t allow it to plumb the depths of art nor even aesthetic theory as well as it could…


Lehrer, of course, has his own dog in the art/science hunt as a writer and popularizer of neuroscience and the cognitive sciences (formerly an editor of Seed Magazine, his own page here):

“It really is time that art critics learn about the visual cortex, musicologists study the inner ear and evolutionary psychologists unpack Jane Austen.”

Perhaps.   Though watching his Colbert interview as he discussed his new book “How We Decide,” I realized I had heard some of those ideas before in the following Bloggingheads episode:

Jesse Prinz discusses his book ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals

Prinz, in my opinion, is a deeper philosophical thinker, and as his site suggests:

My theoretical convictions are unabashedly empiricist. I hope to resuscitate core claims of British Empiricism against the backdrop of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science”

So Lehrer is likely getting some of his ideas from Prinz, and I would point out the contradiction that Prinz potentially omits in depending on the sciences (as the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science depend on the sciences)…but then only relying on British empiricism to philosophically justify these claims to knowledge. 

As for me, I’m trying to defend Kantian transcendental idealism yet again.

I’m not sure that anyone (Dutton, Lehrer, nor Prinz)  has convinced me that one can make a successful theory that covers both art and science…as such a challenge has baffled even the greatest philosophers.


As for the art, there’s also Nietzsche at work here too , and anyone in the last 120 years with any contact to nearly all recent works of art, art theory, existentialism, postmodernism etc (most, if not all, of us) bear such influence:

Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…

Addition:  I should add that I think Lehrer’s review is quite thorough, but that I wanted to piont out some of the other questions that may arise from his own arguments.

Also On This SiteFrom Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’A Few More Thoughts On Denis Dutton’s New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

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