Philosophy of the Arts


Polymodality is of the essence

Polymodality, the synchronous perception of the world through several of our senses, is of the essence of many things. Perception is by an embodied agent, and what is perceived is a reality an embodied agent can move in (Gibson, McDowell). Through it the reality of the perceived is proven (Locke and Hacking). The principle of acquaintance says that works of art, though they address a limited amount of our senses, and address it without implying the addressed to be morally required to interfere, are to be perceived by yourself (Kant, Wollheim): but why?


It has seemed that the reproduction of music (digitally, preferably) has emancipated music from the importance of performance: you do not need to see the musician to appreciate their music. Or, at a concert, performers may divert you from listening properly.
Yet, music might also be approached differently: from the point of view of sensuous synchronicity. Seeing a musician produce the sounds that make up the music teaches one exactly the visual, processual nature of sounds. Scruton argues for the importance of performance via an circuitous argument about the ontology of sound. According to Scruton we cannnot hear in the sound the event that caused it, because sounds are not in the space where the visual things are—such as the ones that cause sounds. (I have argued against this.)


Hearing the sound of a hammer, means hearing someone hammer something in something—small nails in thin wood, large nails in massive wood, bumps in metal, what have you. The sound informs us of the events that cause it. And listening to music while watching it being performed, teaches such synchronous connnections.

Farmed Out Perception

When we perceive, we perceive polymodally. When we farm out our perceptions to the world, we do it polymodally. When we retrieve what we once farmed out to the world, in a memory, in our associations, we do it polymodally. Only real-life polymodal perception, of course, proves reality. But the synchronicity of real-life polymodal perception is retained in our conceptions, in our blueprints of the world, those that we fill in with the details received through our sense organs.


Polymodality explains the difference between our reciprocal understanding of another’s facial expression (as opposed to that of a depicted one, which is not perceived polymodally, but non-egocentrically), and, hence, it explains its crucial role in the evolution of a species.

Global Scepticism

We can be sceptical about our cognitive powers with regard to reality, but that is because cognition is conceived of as off-line, i.e. a processing of data, disconnected from the polymodally perceived. There is no similar need to be sceptical about polymodal perception. Our doubts should be asymmetrical.
Descartes argued that we cannot know for sure whether or not we are dreaming, perhaps he is right here. Yet, we can make out whether we are perceiving, because perception is polymodal, and the data provided by each of the senses synchronously fit those of the other.

Molyneux’s Problem

William Molyneux (1656-98) responded to Locke’s theory of primary and secondary qualities by sending him a puzzle about a man born blind gaining sight:
A Man, being born blind, and having a Globe and a Cube, nigh of the same bigness, committed into his Hands, and being taught or Told, which is Called the Globe, and which the Cube, so a easily to distinguish them by his Touch or Feeling; Then both being taken from Him, and Laid on a Table, let us suppose his Sight Restored to Him; Whether he Could, by his sight, and before he touch them, know which is the Globe and which the Cube? Or Whether he could know this by sight, before he stretched out his Hand, whether he Could not Reach them, tho they were Removed 20 or 1000 feet from him.
Locke’s response is disappointing: he argues that the man cannot visually distinguish the two because vision works with two dimensional flat patches of light which must be correlated to tactile forms, and without touch he would have no clue how to do that. Berkeley argues that since “the ideas of sight and touch are radically heterogeneous, connected only by contingent correlations known through sense experience.” (Lievers) the man cannot see the forms.
Leibniz argues how the man can work out which is which by comparing the geometrical forms.
Leibniz is phenomenologically more correct than Locke, it seems to me, but he seems not to say much about how he reconciles the distantial differences. (Of course, I would have to check his text to make sure). Apparently, the now seeing man would be troubled making sense of the measure of the objects if they were put in a far distance. He could not quickly deliver the reconciliation that comes with a distnatial sense such as sight. How would he know that the tree at the end of the lane is approximately as large as the one he is leaning against? Surely, he would perceive an immensely small tree?

Extended Mind

This is the tip of the iceberg of how our mind is an Extended Mind. Extended Mind is not the use of utensils and artefacts that might be built in in some near future, such as calculators or notebooks (to be built in in the near future by implanting chips in the brain) (Clark). Extended Mind is not just the use of external vehicles of meaning, it is the expanding of whatever happens in our minds into reality, but in such manner that the expanding is no added on contingency, but an integral component of what we might conceive of as happening in the mind. More to follow.

Budd, Malcolm. 2003. “The Acquaintance Principle.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 43:386–392.
Clark, A., and D. Chalmers. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” The Philosopher’s Annual XXI:10–23.
Gerwen, Rob van. (in press). “Performers’ Personae. On the Psychology of Musical Expressiveness.” In Improvisation in the Arts, edited by Gary Hagberg.
Gibson, J.J. 1986. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. London, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hacking, Ian. 1983. Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1987 (1790)a. Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft). Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (orig: Berlin und Libau: Lagarde und Friederich).
Livingston, Paisley. 2003. “On an apparent truism in aesthetics.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 43:260–278.
McDowell, John. 1998. “The content of perceptual experience.” In Mind, Value, & Reality, 341–58. Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press.
Scruton, Roger. 1997. The Aesthetics of Music, chapter 1. “Sound”. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wollheim, Richard. 1980. “Art and Evaluation.” In Art and its Objects. Second edition, 227–240. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

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