Danto on perception

In Jonathan Gilmore & Lydia Goehr (eds.), Blackwell Companion to Arthur Danto. Oxford: Blackwell (forthcoming)
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Jerry Fodor wrote the following assessment of Danto’s importance in 1993: “Danto has done something I’ve been very much wanting to do: namely, reconsider some hard problems in aesthetics in the light of the past 20 years or so of philosophical work on intentionality and representation” (Fodor 1993, p. 41). Fodor is absolutely right: some of Danto’s work could be thought of as the application of some influential ideas about perception that Fodor also shared. The problem is that these ideas have turned out to be false. Both Danto and Fodor are modularist: they both think that perception is an encapsulated process that is in no way influenced by any kind of non-perceptual processing (see, e.g., Fodor 1983, Pylyshyn 1984). Many of Danto’s famous and influential arguments rely very directly on this modularist assumption. There is now, however, a wealth of evidence against modularism of the strong kind held to by Danto and Fodor. We now know that perceptual experience is not determined entirely by the retinal input: our visual processing is influenced at various point in a top-down manner. What we know and what kinds of visual stimuli we have encountered previously deeply influence how the retinal input is processed. The empirical literature on this is vast and conclusive (for an overview, see Teufel and Nanay 2017 but see also the references in the last section of this paper). What does this mean for Danto’s views on art and perception? While one of Danto’s premises may turn out to be false, the history and examples he gave are valuable and bear repeating. Even more importantly, Danto’s aesthetics can in part be separated out from his modularism, leading us to draw slightly different but arguably even more interesting conclusions from famous thought experiments such as the Gallery of Indiscernibles.
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