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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A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’

Full review here.

“According to Prinz, moral emotions are those triggered by the detection of a conduct that violates or conforms to a moral rule. Prinz distinguishes between reactive moral emotions (namely, moral anger, disgust and contempt for someone transgressing a norm) and reflexive moral emotions (the varieties of guilt and shame felt when you are the transgressor).”


He claims that it is possible for the emotionist to be a (internal) realist about moral properties: “They are made by our sentiments, and, once made, they can be perceived”.

We can have moral progess, we just can’t derive that progress from any universal law, (or as the utilitarians would have it, perhaps just a sufficiently abstract moral law). 

But aren’t these theories about the emotions, theories that rely ultimately on epistemologies and disciplines (let’s choose chemistry) which are much more humble about the claims they make? (Chemists don’t claim knowledge of universal moral laws in their work, just universal physical laws that must correspond to experiment and observation, and better laws should they come along).      

I think Prinz may eventually succeed in his own statement and steer the disciplines he’s interested in back toward Hume:

I work primarily in the philosophy of psychology, broadly construed. I am interested in how the mind works. I think philosophical accounts of the mental can be fruitfully informed by findings from psychology, the neurosciences, anthropology, and related fields. 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.

See Also: Bloggingheads Discussion Of Moral RealismMore On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre DameJesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.From Bryan Magee’s Talking Philosophy On Youtube: Geoffrey Warnock On Kant

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Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”

Here’s Jesse Prinz’s page.

Prinz’s book here.

Full diavlog here.

This is the last post on Prinz I’ll put up that isn’t a more direct response to Prinz’s theory.

After David Hume and the British empiricists, William James and others, Prinz forms his theory of “constructive sentimentalism.”  Yet in Hume, all knowledge is born out of experience and perception.  I think this is likely the deepest point of Prinz’s theory.  Beyond this, he seems to rely on the cognitive sciences (psychology and neuroscience especially) to provide empirical evidence to support his ideas.


A:   Prinz may be knowingly ignoring the obvious debt the cognitive sciences owe to the hard sciences.


B: He has simply not tackled the difficulty of epistemologically grounding the cognitive sciences in the depths of the hard sciences, and thus had to confront some of the same problems that rationalist philosophers have regarding the hard sciences, mathematics, and the possibility of having knowledge beyond experience.

I think much rational (and thus much transcendental moral philosophy) was born of the attempt to explain how it is that mathematical knowledge, especially when united with close empirical observation (this is a gross oversimplification from a scientific point of view) yields the kind of knowledge that it does…

So while the I find the “Constructive Sentimental” theory deep and interesting, I’m more concerned about what it doesn’t include.

See the previous posts for a little more backgroundMore On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre DameJesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

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Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

Full diavlog here.

Prinz’s book here.

Generally, I haven’t been too friendly toward theories of morality based in feeling nor the idealism that can attend them.  However, this discussion offers some deep ideas to think about:  Jesse Prinz merges David Hume with current anthropological and psychological research.

More on Hume here (wikipedia).

After Hume, Prinz accepts the idea that our experience is primary, our knowledge comes after…or that all of our deepest thoughts have their roots in perception.  We simply have no claim to knowledge beyond this.

Prinz extends this to morality; suggesting that there is no universal basis for morality and that within morality our ability to feel is primary and that our thinking…comes after.

The emotions, then, are the seat of morality, and the only way to have moral thinking is to first have moral feelings.  He who extends his feeling (compassion?) to a person, or groups of people…is the only person who can legitimately claim to have moral thoughts about those people, or groups of people.


So how are moral judgments based in feeling? Prinz appeals to:

1.  Common sense-most people will assume that if you don’t seem to have any emotional interest in a subject, idea or pursuit, then you’re not really invested in it.

2.  Neuroscience:  Parts of the brain associated with emotion become active when involved in making moral judgments.

3.  Causation:  During psychological experiments in which people were put in disgusting environments, i.e. bad smells, unclean conditions, they were more likely to make harsher moral judgments, Prinz suggests this is because they are instrospecting their feelings.

4.   Pathologies:  People who kill and commit acts of brutality like serial killers demonstrate a reduction or elimination of emotion…and this leads to a corresponding reduction of moral competence.


A few brief responses:

Prinz is relying on causal arguments to support his position (no #3 especially), and Hume casts some important on the relation between cause and effect.  Hume also casts doubt onto not merely cause and effect, but also the sciences, and especially the disciplines Prinz cites here in support of his positions.

Hume is incredibly deep, but there is a Kantian dispute with Hume (which has it that if you keep following Hume’s ideas, you will come to deny the possibility of even scientific knowledge…the possibility of knowledge that doesn’t arise out of experience).   I’m most concerned with what Prinz and cognitive scientists are leaving out.

Needless to say, I find it very interesting.  More to come later.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  I think it’s fair to say that Hume makes the argument that all knowledge arises from experience.  Now whether or not this necessarily makes a case for sentimentalism is up to Prinz.

See Also On This Site: A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’

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