What Scientists and Philosophers Get Wrong about Art
Whether it's bacteria or consciousness itself, science and philosophy examine a specific object that stands apart from the observer. Art is more collaborative, says Alva Noë. It changes us as we change it.
Alva Noë is a writer and a philosopher who lives in New York City and Berkeley. His work focuses on the nature of mind and human experience. He is the author of Action in Perception (The MIT Press, 2004), Out of Our Heads (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009), Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012), and Strange Tools (2015). Noë, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1995, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. He has been Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been philosopher-in-residence with The Forsythe Company and has recently begun a performative-lecture collaboration with Deborah Hay. Noë is a 2012 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a weekly contributor to National Public Radio's science blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture.
The construction of sophisticated tools has long distinguished the human species from those still content with sticks and rock — or nothing at all. We are creators of things in our essence, says UC Berkeley philosophy professor Alva Noë. But artists are a category of creator apart. They do not make tools useful in the sense that a hammer is useful; nor are their works subject to scientific investigation — insofar as science, and philosophy, strictly distinguish between the observer and that which is observed. Noë says that to create art is to create a "strange tool" — one that actively collaborates with us as we create and examine it. Art unveils who we are as people alive at this moment in history, not merely as objective observers standing outside time.
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