Empathy for objects1

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Empathy for objects1

We think of empathy as an intimate, feeling-based understanding of another’s inner life. We do not think of it as a way of understanding inanimate objects. Yet, a century ago, talk of empathy for objects would have seemed very natural; it was the theme of a group of thinkers whose writings helped to found the notion of empathy itself. They were particularly interested in empathy as a means of attending to the aesthetic properties of things. That earlier program will be my starting point, and I’ll call the participants in it the Empathists. I will move on quickly to see what light can be shed on their idea of empathy for objects by current research in the sciences of mind. I identify a class of processes which, I claim, underlie empathy for objects as well as personal empathy; these processes are often called simulative in a special sense that I will try to explain. I then have two questions to which I seek answers of at least a preliminary sort. What sort of access to things is it that we are given by these simulative processes; is it, in particular, a perceptual form of access? Second, what role if any does awareness of these processes play in our aesthetic encounters with things?

1 Einfühlung

The work of the Empathists has now largely disappeared from view, and the contemporary research which supports some of its claims owes little to it.2 In some respects it represents a Golden Age in the philosophy of art. Aesthetics, now displaced from the centre of intellectual life in the sciences and humanities, was then a core theme for thinkers of every kind, and especially for those who walked the scarcely differentiated territories of philosophy and psychology. For forty or so years across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a flowering of research into the arts, and the appearance of multi-volume psychological treatises on the perception of visual form was then an everyday occurrence. At the centre of this endeavor, crossing disciplines, traditions and continents, was the program I’m concerned with here: the examination of the empathic basis of human aesthetic responses. It was never focused exclusively on art, and it was very variably pursued, both in methods and in doctrines. It’s then most visible advocate, Theodor Lipps, is now merely a name in historical footnotes.3 Perhaps Lipps deserves the seclusion he currently enjoys; his theory of empathy was obscure and unsatisfactory, as we shall see. But the movement in which he was a leading figure gave us the term “empathy”, and, given the healthy survival of that concept, it is surprising that its historical roots have so far disappeared.
The term “empathy” began life as a translation of the German Einfühlung, the word used by Lipps.4 The verb einfühlen had been used by Herder to mean “to understand sympathetically” (literally “feel into”) the situation of an historical agent.5 That agent-based conception of empathy is the one that has survived. But einfühlen was, for the Romantics, a general means of knowing. Novalis said that one who understands nature is one “who almost without effort recognizes the nature of all things and…in an intimate and manifold relationship mixes himself with all of nature by means of his feelings…who so to speak feels himself into them” (1802: 105). The view survives in the more sober, academic philosophy of Lotze, for whom a capacity to “feel ourselves into things”--including inanimate objects--is the basis of our understanding of and connectedness to the world. It is thus that we enter into the “narrow round of existence of a mussel-fish”, and, through a sense of bodily contortion and effort, into the “slender proportions” of a tree, or a building (1856). No form is so unyielding”, Lotze said, “that our imagination cannot project its life into it” (Ibid, p.584.).
Fifty years later, these ideas were applied by Lipps and the Empathists to the aesthetics of visual form. Their views shifted over time in ways that are sometimes hard to associate with compelling arguments; understanding the complexities of this evolution of thought requires an historically nuanced paper that I am unable to provide. But my aim is to take up some of the philosophical issues arising from the Empathists’ program, and for this a fine grained historical account is not helpful. Instead I identify three tendencies in Empathist thinking, the third of which points us in the direction of some contemporary research.
Lipps held that we know another only by bringing about some sort of union, by means of projection, with that other; his concept of empathy correspondingly involved an act of personal projection wherein we feel the dynamic properties of the object--an architectural column, say--as our own.6 While an aesthetic encounter with an object is a case of experiencing aesthetic qualities within ourselves, this self is an objectified self, a self which is “ideal” but also “real”. There are naturalizing tendencies in Lipps’ thought--he claimed that symmetry in the body is found to be beautiful because of its relation to the body’s capacity indifferently to turn left and right. But Lipps rejected attempts to ground the empathic relationship in awareness of our own bodies (1903:105-6).
The sharpest contrast to this within the Empathists’ project is found in a view held at one time by Vernon Lee: our aesthetic sense of an object is provided by episodes of sympathetic resonance within our own bodies, which we can, with effort, attend to and analyze as part of the project of aesthetic inquiry.7 Lee had a somewhat mechanical approach to this, and there are passages which have been held up to ridicule: in viewing a jar, she tells us, I feel the pressure of my feet on the ground when I see the base, a feeling of lift as I view the body, and downward pressure on my head as I view the rim at the top.8
Lipps’ view leaves much unclear--the union of self with the work/other, the status of the self as both objective and subjective, both real and ideal. Lee, on the other hand, threatens to reduce aesthetic appreciation to callisthenic exercises. But a third tendency is evident in such writers such as Karl Groos and Herbert Langfeld, who talked of “inner mimicry” and of “motor imagining”.9 Langfeld, a Harvard psychologist speaking against the background of Jamesian sensory-motor theory, made an important point here: “when we notice the smooth curves of a marble torso, we can probably, if we observe carefully, get a fleeting image of our hands moving in imagination around the figure” (1920: 109). Such an image of movement he calls a motor memory: a pattern of nerve activation like that which would produce the actual movement remembered. To do their work, these images, he says, do not need to be conscious--an important point to which we shall return.

2 Empathy and bodily simulation

Seeing empathy this way avoids the idea that it requires a Lippsian act of personal projection into the object; it also avoids Lee’s idea of a motor response to an object which is literally body-involving. Rather, the object of attention generates a range of motor images. Langfeld described these in terms of activation of nerve systems that would otherwise produce the very movements in question. If we speak instead of neural systems we have something suggestive to a modern reader of simulative processes, the evidence for which is now very strong within psychology and the neurosciences.
The term simulation is currently used in distinct ways by different groups of researchers and I need to be clear about how I am using it here. In philosophy, and in some areas of developmental psychology, the term names a theory about how it is we come to understand people’s reasons, the idea being that we imagine ourselves in their position and then reproduce the reasoning which lead to their own decision or conclusion. This is an hypothesis at the personal level, an hypothesis about how the agent herself comes to understand another’s reasons.10 But here I am using “simulation” to name a different theory, indeed a theory of a different kind. The theory in question is at the subpersonal level: it is a theory about ways in which certain aspects of human performance are implemented in systems that operate within the person, are not directly under personal control and the workings of which may inaccessible to consciousness, though they may at the same time give rise to conscious experiences, about which. The flagship example here--and one central to our discussion--involves the production of simulated movements. When we ask people to make judgments about the handedness of a visual display, they seem to answer by “mentally rotating” their own hands into the orientation of the display, taking about as long to do it as they would take actually to move their hands. Their imaginative performance is, it seems, constrained by the same biomechanical factors that constrain actual bodily movement. The neural basis of this is not fully understood but on one view these imagined movements (which may or may not be conscious) are constituted by the activation of an inner model we all possess of our own bodies: a model which has evolved so as to obey the constraints that govern bodily movement, because it evolved as an aid in the planning and control of those movements (Clark and Grush 1999). There is evidence that this model shares neural resources with systems which activate real movements; people who are impaired in movement are often comparably impaired in their capacity to simulate movement.11
I indicated at the beginning that we now think of empathy as a process that involves a response to another agent rather than to an inanimate object. Personal empathy also, it seems, involves simulative processes. In thinking about the biological basis of interpersonal empathy, much is currently being made of mirror neurons, which are activated both when the subject performs an action, and when she observes someone else perform an action of that type; it has been suggested that these activations underlie processes of simulation of another’s action.12 There are also canonical neurons, which may be of relevance for understanding empathy for objects. These neurons fire both when one makes a grasping movement towards an object and when one simply sees the object; a simulation of grasping accompanies the looking, whether or not there is an intention really to grasp.13
Empathic understanding of emotion in other agents is also driven by a comparable sort of simulation. While disgust evolved, presumably, as an encouragement to us to avoid the noxious, its mechanisms are implicated in the recognition of disgust in others; sight of someone with a disgusted facial expression activates brain areas used in the generation of our own feelings of disgust (Wicker et. al. (2003). And people who have damage to one of these areas--the insula--and which prevents them from feeling disgust, are impaired in their recognition of disgust in others (Adolphs et. al. 2003; Calder et. al. 2003). It seems that we detect the emotions of others by having them trigger comparable responses in us. This triggering in us need not count as our having the emotion itself--we need not be made angry by the sight of someone who is experiencing anger. But there is, in us, a simulation of the emotion, and this contributes to our recognizing the emotion which they feel.14 Some simulative processes are recruited to both personal empathy and empathy for objects. The secondary somatosensory cortex, once thought only to respond to physical touch, is strongly activated by the sight of other people being touched. Seeing objects collide generates the same activity (Keysers et. al. 2004).15
All these simulative processes are ones which may be activated by art works, and by other kinds of objects, in ways that conform to, and sometimes extend, the claims of the Empathists. There is the sense of having your body disposed in a way which resembles (perhaps minimally) the geometry of the object viewed, and the dynamical relations to other things its position suggests, as one imagines standing upright supporting a heavy load, in response to the sight of a load bearing column, or imaginings swaying in the wind like a tree. You might have a sense of engaging with the object, perhaps through reaching and grasping, or passing your hands over the surface—recall Langfeld’s observations about the torso.16
It is also plausible that motor imagery is involved in our sense of art works as artifacts (Langfeld 1920: 121-2). There might be an empathic reproduction of the actions which produced the object or shaped its properties; this is often reported for paintings by Jackson Pollock (Freedberg and Gallese 2007). But we do not always respond in ways which correspond closely or at all to the ways in which the object really was made, or even could be made. We may imagine squeezing the stone of a Henry Moore sculpture into its finished shape, an activity which does not correspond at all to how the object was made but which might, nonetheless, constitute the basis of an appropriate aesthetic response.17 The same applies to the simulation of pressure induced by the sight of a load-bearing column: the column feels no pressure, but my simulation of pressure contributes to an appropriate aesthetic response to the structure, and informs my appreciation of the way the column joins the entablature.
It will be clear from the examples above that the Empathists’ concern was with what looks now a rather gerrymandered class of operations, only some of which we would count as empathic: there is the (by our lights) recognizably empathic process of imagining one’s self in the position of the maker of the object, doing various things to shape or construct it. But note two things. First, this is empathy with the maker, and not with the object; secondly, as indicated above, some of this might consist in a wildly unrealistic yet aesthetically productive enterprise—imagining squeezing a piece of metal or stone into its current shape. Does this kind of fantasy activity count as empathy at all? We should avoid making heavy weather of the labeling issue, but there does seem to be a natural grouping of activities here: the class of motor simulations which have as their target a person’s activity, whether that activity is correctly or incorrectly understood, or even conceived within an imaginative project which makes no claim to verisimilitude—empathy in a broad sense, we might call it.18 Then a further broadening that also uses the idea of empathy-as-imaginative-exploration allows us to count as empathic the response we have, or might have, to a load bearing column, with this time a simulation of pressure or constriction rather than action. This is the best sense one can make, I think, of the idea of empathy for objects themselves. When it comes to the simulation of movement around the torso as in Langfeld’s example, we seem to slipped the boundaries of what we would now call empathy altogether, since one is not here empathizing with the object in any sense, though the simulation may count as imagining doing something with or to the object; nor is it in any obvious sense a case of empathizing with the maker, or with anyone else. The same applies with a whole range of “Gibsonian” simulations: simulated sitting on a chair, or grasping a handle, or any other simulation which depends upon awareness of an affordance. To all this we should add those cases of empathy—genuine, but within the scope of an imaginative project—provoked by representational art, as when we response to artistically represented rather than to real people. We may, as we see the bodily dispositions of the various persons depicted in Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, undergo bodily simulations which mirror aspects of those dispositions. And if we need to simulate emotions ourselves in order to detect emotions in others, the same will apply to recognizing the emotions of people whose faces and/or bodies are depicted in painting and sculpture.
There are, it would seem, a range of (bodily) simulation-based activities which are directed towards works of art or aesthetic objects more generally and which may contribute to aesthetic engagement with those objects, and these activities do not constitute a natural class of relationships to objects or works except in so far as they are simulation-based, and in so far as all of them may, on occasions, contribute to an artistic engagement with the object or work.19 Some of these relations are empathic in a sense we would recognize, while others are perhaps legitimate extensions of that notion; yet others really fall outside the scope of that concept altogether, and are simply cases of imagining doing various things. But my interest in them concerns the ways in which these simulative relations may be said to put us in contact with works of art and other sorts of objects; this was also a concern of the Empathists. So we may turn directly to that question, without worrying more about what we should or should not call “empathy”.

3 Experience of the work

This brings me to an important problem, which will force us to clarify the relationship between the simulative processes to which I have appealed, and the aesthetic properties of works. Take the case of visual art--painting and drawing. These are works in visual media because seeing them is required if we are to make the right sort of contact with them. Vision focuses us on the work--the right object. But simulation of bodily movement or exertion of pressure focuses our attention on ourselves, distracting us from the work.
Lipps was aware of this problem, and this is one reason he avoided a specification of bodily processes in giving his account of empathy. Langfeld, also worried by the difficulty, insisted that we only attend aesthetically to the object when we are unaware of these bodily processes; to become aware of them is to be distracted from the work.20 But we should not follow Langfeld here; an aesthetically legitimate exploration of the work often involves awareness of our own conscious states. Tragedies give rise to pity and terror (or, if not precisely to these things, then to phenomenological states of some sort), while ghost stories cause fear, sometimes of a very salient kind. And we don’t think of these as merely incidental effects of the tragedy or the ghost story. Works which did not move us in these ways would not be good works of their kinds.21
But this is not the end of the argument. Not every qualitative state caused by a work counts as a way of making aesthetic contact with the work. Pity and fear (of some kinds) count as respectable responses, because they help us achieve the right kind of relation to the work; they focus us on its pitiable and fearful aspects. If Hamlet gave you tooth-ache, this would not enrich your understanding of the play.22 A worry we might have about the relation between works of art and our own states of motor simulation is that this relation is not sufficiently intentional; that there is no real sense in which the motor simulations are directed towards the work.
One response to this claims that the simulation of movement itself constitutes a form of perception of certain properties in the picture; thus the motor simulations provoked by a viewing of Descent from the Cross would be ways of perceiving such things as the sense of effort and muscular tension felt by the mourners as they lower the body of Christ.23 Generalizing, we could say that mechanisms which simulate state or process S, and which are activated by another person’s being in S, or being depicted as being in S, constitute states of perceiving the other’s state of being in S. I reject this view. Simulation mechanisms are too precariously related to the state of the other to count as ways of perceiving the other’s state. Take the case of emotion-perception. According to the story already outlined, recognizing your expression as one of disgust involves the activation of my own disgust response. But is it true that the activation, in these circumstances, of my disgust response itself constitutes a perception of your disgust? We all agree, I take it, that on many, perhaps most, occasions, the activation of my disgust response does not constitute perception of anyone’s disgust; rather it is simply what happens when I am disgusted by something. At best, activation of my disgust response counts as perception of your disgust in special circumstances and only in conjunction with uncontroversially perceptual access to you by other means (I need to see your facial expression). So the operation of the purported “organ of emotion perception”, namely our suite of emotion-responses, is only very irregularly correlated with the presence of emotions in others, and depends for its effective operation on other senses. Neither of these things are true of sight, hearing, etc, which are very highly correlated with the things in the external world they are apt to detect, and do not operate via the operation of other senses. Further, it ought to be possible, for any mode of perception, to make a distinction between the veridical and the nonveridical case: between, say, seeing things as they are and merely being presented with certain visual appearances. Take the visual perception of faces, and grant that we normally see a person’s disgust rather than merely seeing signs of disgust from which we infer the mental state. Still, an actor may fool us, in which case what we see are mere signs of disgust. But how are we to retain this distinction for the case of emotion-simulation as (purported) perception of another’s emotion? In the case where our emotion-simulation is triggered by the sight of the actor, what mere appearances does the simulation expose us to? There do not seem to be any ready candidates for these appearances, other than the visual appearances. But the availability of the visual appearances makes out the case for a distinction between veridical and nonveridical visual perception; they can’t be double counted and support a further distinction between veridical and nonveridical emotion-simulation-perception.24
But we need not say that simulations are perceptions in order to avoid the difficulty that troubled the Empathists. The objection was that simulative processes are not related in the right ways to objects of our aesthetic attention for those processes to count as genuinely aesthetic responses to them. And we may say that these simulative processes do have the right kinds of relations--though they are not directly perceptual relations--to objects of aesthetic attention. These processes provide information which is accessed by the visual system, and which contributes to a visual experience in which various properties of the work, or of that which is represented in it, are made manifest. When I look at Rubens’ Descent from the Cross with the right kind of attention I am made directly, non-inferentially aware of the heaviness of Christ’s represented body, and of the sense of strain represented in the bodies of the mourners as they lower the body. And these things are given to me in visual experience itself, as that experience is enriched by its connections with simulative processes; they are not given to me by a combination of vision and a set of distinct, simulation-based perceptual systems.25 I may, in addition, have experiences constituted by the coming to consciousness of motoric simulations of bodily strain, but I think we do well to distinguish these from perceptual states. The properties I perceive in the picture are the properties I see there.26
This account makes bodily simulations part of our canonical responses to pictures, but it does not make pictures multi-sensory objects, accessible through more than one sense modality; they are not available to vision and to a supposed motor simulative perceptual sense. What is made accessible in a picture by way of bodily simulation is seen in the picture.
This is a hypothesis about causal connections between certain mental systems: not something on which a philosopher can safely pronounce from the arm chair. Is there some independent evidence to which we can appeal for support? There is. In experiments on biologically realistic motion, the movement of a light-point tracing a closed path, in this case an ellipse, looked uniform to subjects in the experiment as long at the motion corresponded to the motion that would be produced by a human hand tracing the ellipse. Presumably subjects were relying on a motor simulation of the motion as they would draw it, using subpersonal systems which mimic the operations, and respect the biomechanical constraints, of the hand and arm; when the motion matched that inner simulation, it looked uniform.27 Similarly, it is probable that the marks we see on a page of handwriting look like letters and words (though their shapes do not correspond at all closely to the canonical forms of those letters) because of inputs to the visual system from the subjects’ own motor representations of the movements that would be made in order to produce those marks, these motor representation providing a clue to the letter that is intended to be written.28 Both these results strongly suggest that how things look is partly a function of inner motor processes, which must in that case have some causal connection to the visual system. Consider, finally, patient NK in the study, mentioned earlier, on the relation between impaired disgust response and impaired recognition of disgust in others (Calder et. al 2000). NK’s recognition of faces is normal, as is his recognition of most emotions, but he is poor at distinguishing visual displays of disgusted faces from ones displaying anger. His own emotional reactions are in the normal range, except again for disgust. (His conceptual understanding of disgust is intact.) A plausible hypothesis is that his impaired disgust response compromises his ability to simulate disgust on seeing a disgusted face; as a consequence, a face that looks disgusted to others is much less likely to look so to him.
I have emphasised that these vision-relevant simulative processes need not be conscious to play their causal part in making us aware of aesthetic or aesthetically relevant properties of the work. We may have a conscious visual experience of the picture, including a conscious awareness of the strain in the bodies of the represented characters, and have all this partly as a result of simulated motor processes of which we are not conscious. After all, we are not, it seems, generally conscious of the motor simulations provoked by the moving pointer in Viviani’s ellipse-drawing experiment, though those simulations nonetheless contribute to our (illusory) conscious visual experience as of uniform motion. But there is another question we can ask about conscious awareness of motor simulations. Supposing, as seems to be the case, that we are sometimes conscious of motor and other bodily simulations, is there anything in our aesthetic encounter with a work of art to be gained by encouraging consciousness of these simulations? We have seen that the Empathists were divided on this, some thinking there is merit in training ourselves to be more aware of these generally rather recessive states than we normally are, while others suggest that we need to suppress consciousness of them.
I have said that these processes are not themselves perceptual processes; that effectively denies me access to one line of reasoning about this, which is the following. Suppose we are persuaded by the doctrine of the transparency of experience: that “introspection of one’s perceptual experience reveals only the mind-independent objects, qualities and relations that one learns about through perception”.29 Then we will say that, when we try to focus on aspects of our own experience, we always end up focusing on some aspect of the world experienced: the colours and shapes and distances of things in the case of visual experience. If we thought of motor simulations as perceptual states, we could say that attending to them really amounts to attending to aspects of the world to which those simulations are related. This is not a move that is available to me. Anyway, transparency is implausible as a doctrine applied to bodily simulative states--another reason, perhaps, for denying that such states belong to the class of perceptions proper. Focusing on a simulative state presents itself as a case of focusing on something that is going on in me. In this respect, bodily simulations seem to be more like emotions than they are like perceptual states, though there are those who argue that emotions are, after all, perceptual states.30 Focusing on an emotional state is not accounted for, without remainder, as focusing on the state of the world of which the emotion informs us, though I grant that it is partly this. There is, in addition, such a thing as focusing on how you feel about that state of the world. Of course with vision we can sense a discrepancy between how things look and how they are, between the colours they seem to have and the colours they have. But in doing this, and focusing on how they the colours seem, we are, once again, focusing on how things in the external world seem to be.31 When we note that we feel afraid of something we have good reason to think is not dangerous, we are doing more than simply noticing that the thing in question seems more dangerous than it in fact is; we are noting in ourselves responses of fear which we take, in the light of other evidence, to be excessive.
Now the emotions are relevant here not merely as a case analogous to but better understood than the case of motor simulation. Emotions, as I have indicated, are themselves subject to simulative reproduction; we simulate the emotions of others when we encounter signs of their sadness or joy. And we do this also, as I have again indicated, when we see people represented in works of art. And here, focusing on our own states of (simulated) emotion may contribute to a proper engagement with the work. As Kendall Walton suggests, there are situations in which we need to respond to a work of art by experiencing depicted characters as feeling thusly--where “thusly” demonstratively picks out a way of feeling instantiated in my own case.32 This argument applies with equal force to the case of motor simulations: part of an aesthetically aware response to Descent from the Cross is a vivid sense of the bodily strain experienced by the mourners as they lower the dead Christ. And my capacity to think, of one of the figures, “He feels thusly”, where “thusly” picks out a feeling of bodily contortion and strain which I am currently simulating, gives my thought about the figures a specificity and a vividness that they would have if I had to rely on using a descriptive concept such as “feels some unspecific tension in his arms and shoulders”.33
There are other ways in which consciousness of motoric simulations might play a role in engagement with art. Consider again the case of emotional responses. The emotions we feel in response to narrative art are not merely a series of unstructured affective eruptions, but episodes which take shape in response to and in anticipation of the events of the unfolding drama, and we may sense a harmony or appropriateness in the relation between the course of the emotion and the course of the narrative; the same thing happens with music.34 There might be a similar relation between, say, a developing motoric imagining of strain and effort and my viewing of Descent from the Cross, with its variously represented postures. Attention to the phenomenology of bodily simulation might find pleasing and appropriate congruences of this kind, deepening, perhaps, my understanding of the work.
Still, a note of caution is required. It does seem to me that these motoric imaginings are somewhat unstable, difficult to control and with the potential to distract us from the work; to that extent I agree with Langfeld. I don’t think we know much about the circumstances in which, or the ways in which, consciousness of these states will deepen our experience of the work rather than detracting from it. I claim only that we should not think of them as necessarily a distraction.

4 An aesthetics based on empathy?

Despite these reservations I grant that bodily imaginings, above and below the threshold of consciousness, accompany, and sometimes inform, our engagement with art objects and other aesthetic things. But while we undergo a motoric response to many art works, mentally simulating the contortions of shape, the straining of our limbs, or the imagined activity of the maker, the same goes for our responses to things that are not art works, and which may not have any very striking aesthetic properties, or which, whatever their aesthetic merits, we happen to have no aesthetic interest in. We need not be looking at a chair with aesthetic attention in order to activate a motor simulation of sitting on it. We might say that empathic responses are of special relevance to understanding our relations to the aesthetic, because these responses become particularly salient when we are in the presence of aesthetic things. But it is hard to see why this should be. If we do regularly have these responses, would they not be very salient in, for example, situations of sexual arousal, or danger, or other forms of heightened stimulation, not all of which count as aesthetic all of the time? Nor can empathy provide us with a standard of aesthetic excellence, as Berenson is close to suggesting when he says that Giotto’s greatness in comparison with Cimabue was to have satisfied “the first condition of painting as an art…. to stimulate our tactile imagination”.35 We should not construe the claim of the importance of bodily imagining in terms of “the more the better”; representation is important in art, even though a painting is not better simply because it represents more. Bodily simulation is a subtle and complex process that contributes to pleasures and interests at many points along its many dimensions, and generally in conjunction with other qualities; these conjunctions create harmony, tension or dissonance, in ways that may be good or bad, and which defy the formulation of rules. There is little to say in general terms about the relation between these motoric processes and the aesthetic beyond noting, unhelpfully, that these processes play an aesthetic role when they play a role in the generation of a response which is an aesthetic one.
But motoric responses of this kind are not irrelevant to art and the aesthetic, any more than sight is. And if aestheticians had somehow forgotten or never noticed that colour, and the perception of colour, are relevant to painting, it would be an urgent obligation to point out their relevance. That is what I am doing with respect to motoric responses. And in addition to that, I have offered some hypotheses about the ways in which these motoric responses connect us with objects, art works or not, to which we want to attend in an aesthetic way.
Gregory Currie

University of Nottingham


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1 Versions of this paper were read to the Claremont Philosophy Colloquium at Pitzer College, and at conferences and colloquia at the Universities of Barcelona, Durham, Geneva, Illinois Urbana-Champagne, Nottingham and Otago. Aaron Meskin, Jerome Singer and Kathleen Stock commented on the paper at Durham and I am grateful for their criticisms and suggestions. Thanks also to Noel Carroll, Paul Harris, Henry Kripps, Patrizia Lombardo, Michele Miozzo, Margaret Moore, Kevin Mulligan, Jenefer Robinson and Kendall Walton. Comments from Rae Langton caused me to rethink Section 2, while Matthew Kennedy and Murray Smith were especially helpful in reformulating the claims of Section 3. Discussions with Michael Mack helped me to find my way through some of the history.

2 Kevin Mulligan brought to my attention Melchior Palágyi, an intriguing figure whose work, contemporary with that of the Empathists but not so far as I know related to it, is suggestive of the direction empirical recent work has subsequently taken. William Boyce Gibson wrote an appreciative, two-part account of Palágyi’s work, the second part of which describes his theory of the imagination (1928).

3 The otherwise extremely comprehensive Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (edited by Michael Kelly in four volumes, Oxford University Press, 1998) carries no account of his ideas. It does not mention Lee or Langfeld; Vischer and Groos are noted in passing.

4 See Tichener (1909), p.21. Einfühlung was first given currency in the Dissertation of Robert Vischer, (1873).

5See Herder (1778), especially pp.7-8

6 Max Scheler noted that Lipps’ theory leaves it unclear how an act of empathic projection can amount to anything more that re-acquaintance with your own self (1970: 242).

7 “Vernon Lee” was the pen name of Violet Paget, whose early book on eighteenth century Italy was much admired. She was also the author of some effective ghost stories.

8 Lee and Anstruther-Thompson (1897: 554, 681). For critical comment see Mitchell (1907). Berenson (to be mentioned further on) claimed that Lee and Anstruther-Thompson had plagiarized his ideas for their essay. Lee’s view is modified in her (1913). She strongly denied Berenson’s claim. On the relation of empathy with art objects and its relation to bodily activity see Richard A. Etlin, Aesthetics and the Spatial Sense of Self, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter, 1998): 1-19; see especially pp.6-7. But I have not understood Etlin’s contrast between “patterns of sentience” and “projection of an actual bodily condition”.

9 See eg Groos (1892). Groos was the author of important work on animal and human play. Lee denied that empathy could be understood in terms of inner mimicry (1913: 67).

10 See the essays in Part I of Heal 2003. I am simplifying here for the sake of an instructive contrast; there are versions of the theory of simulative reasoning which do not adhere quite so rigidly to the personal/subpersonal distinction. See Goldman 2006, Chapter 6.

11 For a summary of relevant work see Currie and Ravenscroft (2002), Chapter 4.

12 For one view of the relations between mirror neurons and mechanisms of empathy see Marco Iacoboni’s contribution to this volume.

13 These neurons were detected in monkey premotor cortex (F5) by Murata et. al. (1997).

14 Adolphs et. al., whose patient (B) showed a remarkable inability to detect even the most obvious signs of disgust in others (describing an episode of vomiting as “delicious food was being enjoyed”), say that “our unpublished observations with Patient B. suggest that he appears unable to feel disgust”.

15 While simulative processes underlie empathy for objects and for persons, a variety of other tasks involve simulation, including, it would seem, language processing. The motor homunculus is a region of the brain that controls voluntary movements of various body parts, so called because its shape is a distorted but recognizable model of the body within which adjacent areas control adjacent parts of the body. When people read action-related words the motor homunculus is activated in appropriate ways, moving its feet at the sound of the word “feet” (Hauk et. al. 2004). Even words rather indirectly related to action have this effect: simulated hand movements can be generated merely by naming tools intended for hand-use (Martin et. al. 1996). Work by Pulvermuller et. al. (2005) suggests that this is not an incidental connection; stimulation to the relevant motor areas speeds lexical processing. The picture here is, however, far from clear. It is reported, for example, that motor activation is significant when words are heard in isolation, less significant but still present when heard in a literal context and not present when words are heard in a nonliteral context (Raposa et. Al. 2009). I am grateful to Anezka Kuzmicova for discussion of this issue.

16 The capacity for certain motor simulations presumably depends on prior experience and habit, as with horse riding or skiing. Motor responses to a seen object are likely to vary widely across persons for some cases, and proper motoric engagement with some works may depend on unusual skills or experiences. Thanks here to Peter Goldie.

17 These are by no means exclusive hypotheses about how we respond to art works; we might respond in all or any of these ways, depending on the sort of object that confronts us.

18 Sometimes, as Kendall Walton points out, our empathic response to the making of the object combines with our recognition of representational features to give us psychological insight into the character represented in the work. Nervous-seeming brushwork can, through its simulative resonance, cause us to feel nervous and hence to attribute properties to the mind of the sitter that would not otherwise be available (1999).

19 I am grateful to Henry Kripps, Rae Langton and Kathleen Stock for pressing me on this point.

20 Langfeld (1920: 117). Palagyi held that motor imaginings could be unconscious (1924: 142). Lee offers the implausible hypothesis that, while our sense that a seen mountain is rising comes about because we raise our eyes to it, the fact that we are engrossed in the mountain makes us attribute rising (a general notion, distilled from our manifold experiences and imaginings of rising) to the mountain and not to ourselves.

21 Going somewhat further, Sherri Irvin has recently argued that “one’s qualitative experience can itself be the object of legitimate aesthetic attention” (2008: 25).

22 One of the concerns about the recent installation by Carsten Höller at London’s Tate Modern (October 2006-April 2007) is that the experience of going down the slide is one that does not help to give us a significantly better understanding of the slide itself; the slide is more like a brute cause of the experience. There ought to be a stronger degree of intentional relatedness between the experience and the slide itself for it to count as an art object.

23 Barbara Montero argues that “one proprioceives what is at the end of the mirroring system’s causal path” (2006: 238). See also the discussion of “the transparency of bodily experience” in Dokic (2003).

24 I am indebted here to Millar (2000). I have put the point in a way that will, I hope, be acceptable to a disjunctivist about perception.

25 Sometimes a similar view is taken about the role of emotions in allowing us to perceive, say, danger. According to Peter Goldie, my feeling fear as the toboggan rushes towards my child enables me to see the toboggan as “being frightening” (2004: 253). He does not suggest, and nor would it be plausible to suggest, that the emotions give us perceptual but non-visual access to the frighteningness of the toboggan.

26 There is evidence that, in very unusual cases simulative processes may generate perceptual illusions. Blakemore et. al. (2005) report the case of a subject “C” who has experiences as of being touched when she sees someone else being touched. But Blakemore et. al seem not to distinguish between a subject who becomes conscious of the simulation of touch as a simulative experience and--as in the unusual case reported--a subject who becomes conscious of (what appears to her to be) touch on her own bodily surface. Thus the problem with C is not merely that, as they put it, “In most people, this system would be active below a certain threshold, resulting in no conscious perception of tactile stimulation”, for conscious experience of such simulative processes--as simulative ones--is common. The distinction needed here is analogous to the familiar distinction between having a conscious visual mental image of something, and having a conscious visual hallucination of the same thing. C’s case is unusual in that her experience is analogous to the second category.

27 Viviani and Stucchi (1992). The actual variations in motion which are capable of seeming uniform are very large indeed; when the same motion is shown as movement along a straight line, subjects immediately recognise the highly variable speed and refuse to believe that this is the same variation as was present in the movement along the closed curve.

28See Knoblich, G. et al. (2002) As Paolo Viviani puts it, “motor competence makes it possible to extract from a static trace information relating to production” (Viviani 2002).

29 Martin 2002, p.378.

30 See Damasio 1999, Chapter 2; Prinz (2006: 202). In Currie and Ravenscroft (2002), Chapter 9, we argue that emotions are like perceptual states in significant ways, and I continue to hold this view.

31 Perhaps there are occasions on which experience makes us aware of properties of the experience itself. Tim Crane argues that we are sometimes aware of aspects of our visual experience: when I take my glasses off things look blurry but it need not seem as if the objects themselves are blurry (Crane 2006:130). This is always the case, I claim, with (felt) emotions and with (felt) bodily simulations.

32 Walton (1999). Walton acknowledges a debt to Jane Heal’s work on indexical predication (see essays in Part III of her 2003).

33 These considerations narrow the gap between the experience of sculpture and that of painting, which one tradition insists are entirely distinct, with painting being “made for the eye” and sculpture for the tactile imagination (for a statement of this view see Herder 2002).

34 The episodic, and in some cases “narrative,” shape of emotions is emphasised by de Sousa (1990) and by Robinson (2006).

35 Berenson (1909). Berenson said that Giotto’s work amounts to a kind of tactile caricature, stimulating the tactile imagination more than a comparable real object would. He valorized not merely sensory imagining in the modality of touch but also movement and muscular effort: see his discussion of Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nudes, ibid, pp.98-9. Lipps was well aware that empathy was a concept with too general applicability to found the notion of the aesthetic.

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