Alva Noë

Philosopher, professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley



The Entanglement: How Art and Philosophy Make Us What We Are
recently Published
The Entanglement: How Art and Philosophy Make Us What We Are
About Noë

Alva Noë is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is a member of the Center for New Media, the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, and the Program in Critical Theory. His many books include Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature and Learning to Look: Dispatches from the Art World.

The Entanglement: How Art and Philosophy Make Us What We Are

In The Entanglement, philosopher Alva Noë explores the inseparability of life, art, and philosophy, arguing that we have greatly underestimated what this entangled reality means for understanding human nature.

Life supplies art with its raw materials, but art, Noë argues, remakes life by giving us resources to live differently. Our lives are permeated with the aesthetic. Indeed, human nature is an aesthetic phenomenon, and art—our most direct and authentic way of engaging the aesthetic—is the truest way of understanding ourselves. All this suggests that human nature is not a natural phenomenon. Neither biology, cognitive science, nor AI can tell a complete story of us, and we can no more pin ourselves down than we can fix or settle on the meaning of an artwork. Even more, art and philosophy are the means to set ourselves free, at least to some degree, from convention, habit, technology, culture, and even biology. In making these provocative claims, Noë explores examples of entanglement—in artworks and seeing, writing and speech, and choreography and dancing—and examines a range of scientific efforts to explain the human.

Challenging the notions that art is a mere cultural curiosity and that philosophy has been outmoded by science, The Entanglement offers a new way of thinking about human nature, the limits of natural science in understanding the human, and the essential role of art and philosophy in trying to know ourselves.

[Reading] Dancer From the Dance

by Alva Noë

When she dances, a young child already moves her body with a sensitivity to what is expected of her. Perhaps she has seen videos of Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift; she has danced with her mom; she has a bank of personalities and images that supply her with a sense of what feels right. Remarkably, what feels right has everything to do with what would look right to others—with her sensitivity, however unarticulated, to how others would respond to her. What she actualizes is nothing less than the embodiment of choreographic ideas of which she is not the author. This is a distinctively human form of intelligence at work.

The child’s dancing is the location of what I want to call an entanglement between her native impulse to move and an artistic representation of what movement is supposed to be. We come to embody choreographic ideas when we dance. We do so naturally, and we cannot avoid doing so. And this in turn gives more and new information to choreographers who, through their art, investigate what it is we are doing when we are dancing. This dynamic process loops down, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Ian Hacking, and repeats itself over time, across generations. This circular, generative recursion gives us resources, and in fact is likely to compel us, to be different going forward. The representation changes what is represented. The act of dancing and the art of dancing become entangled.

What is characteristic of aesthetic experience is that by looking, describing, thinking, and interrogating artwork, we make ourselves new. Works of art—whether pictures or writings or dances or songs—rework the raw materials of our default organization. The engagement with an artwork is an engagement with oneself that tends to alter us, to reorganize us. This is why artworks offer something like emancipation: they free us from the ways that we happen to find ourselves, organized by habit, by culture, by history, and even by biology.

This entanglement is the key to understanding our true nature. Or rather, it is the key to understanding why nature—the idea of a fixed way that things just are, once and for all—loses its application to creatures like us, bringing into focus the limits of positivist science and the inescapable need for other forms of reflective exploration.

This is because the aesthetic is much more widespread and abiding than even art and art-making; it is as basic and as original as the fact of consciousness itself. The aesthetic is a live possibility, an opportunity, and a problem, wherever we find ourselves. We are not fixed, stable, defined, and known; the very act of trying to bring ourselves into focus reorganizes and changes us. We are an aesthetic phenomenon.

Many people are—not always, but a lot of the time—blind to all but the most immediately practical features of their surroundings. Yogi Berra once said, “You can see a lot by observing.” The joke is that observation is not easy. It requires effort and curiosity; it requires looking and interrogation. Typically it also requires other people—that is, the natural setting for aesthetic encounters is a social one. A friend calls your attention to the various shades of green in the foliage and remarks on this having to do with the age of the leaves and the onset of spring, and voilà! Now these different shades are salient to you; or someone mentions the canvas tarp forming the covering of the vintage VW bus, and now you can see it too, and appreciate what a difference it makes to the character of the vehicle. To learn to see is to learn to take an interest in things, and the world is full of different families of things to take an interest in. This may be what Maurice Merleau-Ponty had in mind when he wrote, “Nothing is more difficult than knowing precisely what we see.”

Aesthetics is not the task of evaluating an object. It is the task of achieving the object. Aesthetic experience does not consist in coming to know, as it were, that a work has a property such as beauty or that it carries a certain significance. If that were what the value of aesthetic understanding consisted, then it would be possible for you to learn this by simply reading about an artwork, or by being told so by some putative authority.

Aesthetic experience refers instead to the temporally extended practice of engaging with oneself and one’s environment, with the goal of moving from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing differently. It is the experience itself, or the labor of achieving the artwork, that is key. It unfurls in the setting of engaged thought and talk—that is, in the setting of criticism. And criticism itself—engagement with the demands of art, with the task of trying to find the words to say what we see and to articulate our aesthetic response—is for this reason creative. We make aesthetic experience. It doesn’t simply happen in us.

While the aesthetic is a general feature of our lives in the world, it is also true that art has a special tie to the aesthetic. Art targets the aesthetic; it works with it and makes it a problem. By this I mean: artworks stage occasions for that distinctive passage from not seeing to seeing that is the very hallmark of the aesthetic. And they typically do something else too. Artworks afford an opportunity for us to catch ourselves in the act of bringing the world itself into focus. Art makes the aesthetic into an opportunity for investigation and at the same time it makes us into such an opportunity: aesthetic experience holds out the possibility of self-discovery. We are ourselves like artworks, beings whose nature refuses to be known but unfolds in the activity of working to know and see. Which is just to say that we are an aesthetic problem.

Psychologists and neuroscientists interested in art take for granted that the aesthetic response is a fixed data point, and they try to understand its causes and conditions. Why do people like x? Or why don’t people like y? Or what happens in us, or to us, when the aesthetic experience occurs? But what people like, and why they like it, changes through caring: it changes through reflection, through conversation, through criticism, as well as through the historical counterpart of these, through shared practices of reflecting on, discussing, or evaluating artworks. It is this unfixed character of aesthetic experience that provides the biggest reason why empirical approaches to aesthetics have been, by and large, such a failure.

To think that the world of our everyday life is somehow an unreality, and that what is true is the stuff revealed by scientific theory, may be a crude mistake, but it is one to which many of us sometimes fall prey. It is comparable to the misguided idea that since a soldier targets his weapon by looking through the scope, it is the image in the scope that is his true target, and that the enemy combatants, or the warlike movement of troops all around, are mere figments. Which is of course not to deny for a second that the scope lets us see better, for certain purposes. Here the contrast is not between appearance and reality, or illusion and truth, but between different techniques of access.

To say this is not to denigrate science. It is only to acknowledge that there are genuine questions, important ones, that are not for science to answer. There has never been, in psychology, any breakthrough comparable to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule. Psychology has done an amazing job collecting facts and data, but it has never quite established foundational principles. And as a result, consciousness, subjectivity, and value remain open questions, even mysterious, even now, after so long.

The problem is not that psychology is young and immature, or that natural science is itself just achieving its full adulthood. The problem is deeper than that, and more interesting: it is because human being is an aesthetic phenomenon. It is not, in any sense that we can take for granted, a natural phenomenon. And humans are creatures of entanglement. When it comes to perception, consciousness, love, sex, memory, there are no fixed points, no settled places to begin or ways to move forward. Here is another way of putting the problem: in the would-be sciences of the human, in contrast with, say, physics, we never quite know how to stabilize the subject matter. The problem is not with science itself, which is in good order just as it is. The problem, rather, is that we have not yet come to grips with the fact that we ourselves are not a subject fit for science.

Our lives are shaped and reshaped by art and the aesthetic. There can be no serious engagement with ourselves—whether in natural science, cognitive science, or whatever—that tries to sidestep this awesome and potentially liberating fact: that we are ourselves aesthetic phenomena who are always in the midst of becoming.