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Catherine Wilson – The Doors of Perception and the Artist Within

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Third Annual Marc Jeannerod Lecture

March 20, 4-6pm, Centre for Philosophical Psychology, University of Antwerp

Discussions of aesthetic experience from a naturalistic perspective have almost always begun from the standpoint of a perceiver confronting the external world of people, places, and things. Ever since Darwin discussed the peacock’s tail, attempts have been made to explain the aesthetic sense in terms of the advantages beauty and the attraction of the beautiful confer on organisms by way of advertising biological fitness or selecting it in a mate. Even the production of decorated crafts by the skillful artist has been held to function as a fitness indicator.

There is much however that this hypothesis leaves unexplained. The beauty of shells, flowers, feathers and other patterns in nature is unrelated to signals of biological fitness and desirability. As Kant insisted the beauty of a horse or a woman is quite unlike the other kind. But there is another line of empirical explanation that is ripe for exploration and that is the notion of the artistry arising from our own neural architecture and the processes of the brain when it is ‘offline” with respect to the external world.

In this talk I will discuss beauty and aesthetic emotion as it pertains to the offline experiences of hypnagogic imagery, hallucination, and other visionary experiences. These experiences often cluster around a common core of phenomena: vivid colours, jewel-like forms, lattices and spirals, complex buildings, and ‘oriental carpet’ effects. Empirical investigation suggests that our visual system is preadapted to the perception of certain forms and that it generates them in the absence of external stimulation. These recent hypotheses suggest that Kant was on the right track in suggesting a kind of harmony between our perceptual systems and certain natural forms. They also suggest certain radically new ways of thinking about consciousness, perception and the role of dreaming.