Research

I work on the arts and their relation to cognition. I have written on film, fiction, photography and painting. I have more recently taken an interest in the aesthetics of the Old Stone Age.

My current big project is a book, Signs of Agency, under contract with Oxford University Press. Here is a brief account of the idea:

It is uncontroversial that artists, crafts people and the rest of us make things which are pleasing or displeasing to the senses, valuable or dis-valuable aesthetically. But what bearing do these actions have on the nature of aesthetic qualities and on our experiences of them? I argue that there is an important class of aesthetic qualities which carry information about those actions, and about the personal qualities which are exercised in performing them. This perceptually encoded information contributes significantly to the experience of those qualities and to the value of the artefacts which possess them. To a considerable extent, we may say, aesthetic cognition is social cognition. I develop this idea within a theory of aesthetic activity which is naturalistic: it aims to cohere with the claims and methods of the empirical sciences.

Part One lays the philosophical foundations by advocating a functionalist account of aesthetic properties that allows us to identify each aesthetic property of an object with some naturalistically acceptable property. Aesthetic artefacts are those which have been so fashioned as to have properties which occupy certain functional roles; it is occupancy of these roles that makes them aesthetic properties. Part Two places the activity of creating and responding to aesthetic artefacts within a theory of human cultural evolution; the theory explains the deep connection between aesthetic pleasure and the signalling and gathering of social information. Part Three develops a view of truth, value and intersubjectivity in aesthetic matters that is responsive to the best evidence we have of actual aesthetic practices. Part Four presents and analyses a range of ways in which predominantly visual aesthetic artefacts serve to convey information about their makers. It explains some of the cognitive and perceptual mechanisms by which this is done and shows how these various mechanisms modulate the qualities of aesthetic experience and the contents of aesthetic judgements.

My book Imagining and Knowing: the Cognitive Power of Fiction, will appear with Oxford University Press in 2019 or 2020.

My paper Pictures and their surfaces is now out in a volume of essays on the aesthetics of painting edited by Jerome Peletier and Alberto Voltolini, The Pleasure of Pictures, Routledge.

In September 2018 I began a three-year research project funded by the Leverhulme Foundation entitled Learning from fiction. Co-investigators are Heather Ferguson (Psychology, Kent) and Stacie Friend (Philosophy, Birkbeck). The project funds two doctoral students (Kayleigh Green, Jacopo Frascaroli) and a research assistant in psychology (Lena Wimmer). Here is a brief statement of the aims of the project:

Critics and philosophers claim that fiction is a source of truth or insight; others in the same fields deny this. The debate has, however, rarely been informed by the kind of evidence that current psychology is producing on this topic. And while psychological work in this area is welcome, much of it so far does not address the claims in the critical and philosophical literature. The project brings these strands of research together. Combining state-of the-art experiments with a philosophical framework for thinking about learning from literature, it will strengthen existing evidence in ways that address the concerns of humanistic scholars.