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Open Access The Gap Between Aesthetic Science and Aesthetic Experience

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For over a century we have attempted to understand human aesthetic experience using scientific methods. A typical experiment could be described as reductive and quasi-psychophysical. We vary some aspect of the stimulus and systematically measure some aspect of the aesthetic response. The limitations of this approach can be categorized as problems on the Y axis (what we measure) and the X axis (what we manipulate). The most enigmatic components of aesthetic experience include inclination to cry, aesthetic rapture, a sense of the sublime, and intense fascination. However, we cannot evoke these 'hot' aesthetic emotions in the lab, at least not with well controlled stimuli on multiple trials. We thus resort to measuring cold, cognitive preference ratings. There are also problems on the X axis. The reductive psychophysical approach explicitly assumes that there are lawful relations between different stimulus dimensions and preferences. It also tacitly assumes that these dimensions are independent and orthogonal. The second assumption is implausible. Whatever stimulus-preference laws we discover are likely to be twisted and modulated when another dimension is added to the stimuli. This 'gestalt nightmare' has long been recognized, but never resolved. This matters, because human aesthetic faculties are probably tuned to the balance and relationship of parts which make up a whole and are indifferent to the parts presented in isolation. I conclude that the future of scientific aesthetics depends on how successfully we can transcend reductive, quasi-psychophysical approaches.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2017

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