Setting aside, for a moment, associative responses (e.g., cultural, nostalgic), I would like to briefly explore the question of whether our pure aesthetic experience is in response to mental representations per se or, rather, to the physical stimuli correlated with those mental representations (in which case, the stimuli are responsible—or are the external-to-the-body beginnings, to characterize things a bit more precisely—for both for the aesthetic experience and the mental representation). Perhaps aesthetic experience isn’t possible without some cultural, historical, biological (e.g., when a guitar mimics human sobbing) associations—in other words, without meaning. I’ll get to that in a moment. But for now I’ll think in terms of aesthetic experience without these associations. I’ll use music as a reference point.
Our usual intuition is that our aesthetic responses to music are in response to the way that music sounds; that is, are in response to the experience of music.1
An illustration will clarify what I’m getting at. When you strike the A4 key on a piano, two events take place. One event is a physical process: air molecules and other materials vibrate at 440 Hz per second, resulting in your neural machinery firing in sympathy with that frequency (I’ll use note to refer to a frequency in this sort of context; so the note A4 refers to the frequency 440 Hz in a musical or similar context); the other event is mental: you have an experience, the content of which is—or, perhaps better put, the identity of which is—the pitch A (notice that I use pitch to denote the mental event correlated with the note A; also notice that the pitch A is a term we use to refer to an experience possessing a certain quality: a quality present whether the correlated note’s source is an oboe, human voice, singing bird, and so on).
Our intuition is that our aesthetic experience results from the qualities residing in the mental events; that is, the qualities of those pitches and the structures they form—i.e., harmonies, melodies, and other musical mental events. In short: We have, it seems, an experience of beautiful music because the music-oriented mental events themselves are beautiful.
Intuitive, yes. But this strikes me as quite probably wrong. Continue Reading