The philosopher Alva Noë recently gave a talk at Google HQ about art and human nature. Here’s Google’s description of the talk:
In his new book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë raises a number of profound questions: What is art? Why do we value art as we do? What does art reveal about our nature? Drawing on philosophy, art history, and cognitive science, and making provocative use of examples from all three of these fields, Noë offers new answers to such questions. He also shows why recent efforts to frame questions about art in terms of neuroscience and evolutionary biology alone have been and will continue to be unsuccessful.
Early on Noë talks about breast feeding, making the point, new to me, that humans aren’t particularly good at it. The infant needs the mother to help it along. So breast-feeding becomes a back and forth dialog between mother and infant. He suggests that the dialoguing may well be as important as the nutrition. He then calls this, simply, organized activity, and makes the larger point that human lives are replete with organized activity, of which art is one kind.
He chooses dance as his paradigmatic art and talks about its various uses. In particular, he uses the case of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, pointing out that he lives for Friday night dancing at the disco (see my brief post: Saturday Night Fever, It’s worth thinking about – and it is). That’s what makes his life meaningful. He then goes on to talk about choreography. Starting at about 41:06:
The choreographer is, in a way, investigating the place that dancing has in our lives already. The choreographer is exhibiting that we are dancers to ourselves. Two points about that: One is, if organized activities have this link to biology, and if dancing is organized activity, and if choreography is exhibiting or investigating dancing in something like the way I’m suggesting, then we begin to see a way of thinking about how choreography is meshing with biology, meshing with the investigation of ourselves thought of biologically, or thought of naturally. It’s grappling with our nature – just a little thin slice of it, the dancing slice of it.
Secondly, I said before that we’re lost in these nests of organization. My thought is that by choreography putting dancing in our lives on display in the ways that it does, choreography is, if you like, enabling us to get found. […] It is orienting us, or disclosing to ourselves this fact about ourselves; and thus helping us be what we are, but if you like, without feeling lost. […] Dancing gives us a perspicuous representation of where we are. Heidegger once said that philosophical problems are bringing what’s concealed into the open. And I’m suggesting that choreography brings something that’s concealed about us, that we are organized by dancing, into the open.
So, the work of choreography is both philosophical and relevant to biology. It makes a contribution in that sense to some kind of an account of ourselves biologically understood. This goes back to the thought I shared with you at the beginning, that maybe far from it’s being the case that scientists and neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists are going to explain art, maybe art is going to help us frame a more adequate conception of our nature.
Noë goes on to suggest that dancing is a first-order organized activity and that choreography is a second-order organized activity. But of course, he goes on to say, choreography changes the way people dance. The second order activity “loops back down” and influences the first order expression. And this just cycles through and through down through history. Our first-order experience of dancing is already shaped and influenced by artistic grapplings (2nd order) with the place of dancing in our lives.
On the role of art in teaching us about our nature, see the two posts I did on Mark Changizi's idea of the telecom: Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description, and Description and the Teleome, Part 2. To a first approximation, works of art require that we exercise a full range of mental capacities and are thus an idea vehicle for investigating how the mind works in full, rather than the piecemeal investigation of individual capacities typical of the psychological sciences and necessitated by the strictures of experimental observation.