Neuroesthetics aims at explaining esthetic experience, especially that of the reception of the visual arts, with the concepts and tools of neuroscience, particularly neuroimaging techniques. One of its chief proponents, neurobiologist Semir Zeki, sees the field as “dictated by a truth” he considers “axiomatic – that all human activity is dictated by the organization and laws of the brain; that, therefore, there can be no real theory of art and aesthetics unless neurobiologically based.” Zeki’s axiom embodies the ideological core of neuroesthetics. Like some other “neuro” areas born since the Decade of the Brain, neuroesthetics institutionalized rapidly and attracts considerable funding. Like those areas, and like both esthetics and the neurosciences, it is pursued in a variety of locations and from different methodological perspectives. Now, although neuroesthetics largely derives from the neurobiology of perception, it is not ultimately concerned with perception per se, but with general questions, such as What is art? What is beauty? How does esthetic judgment work? and, of course, How do they all emerge from the brain? I will here examine the internal logic of two varieties of neuroesthetics, one focused on perception, the other on empathy, and argue that, whatever else they do, they elucidate neither art nor esthetic experience.
Fernando Vidal, born and raised in Buenos Aires, was an undergraduate at Harvard, and then went on to do graduate work in developmental psychology and the history and philosophy of science at the Universities of Geneva and Paris. He received his PhD from Geneva, and a habilitation from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. As a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as an Athena Fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation, he has worked on various topics in the history of the human sciences, including the early development of psychology and anthropology, sexuality in the 18th century, psychoanalysis and psychiatry in the early 20th century, the progressive education movement in the interwar years, and miracles as epistemic things in the early modern period and the Enlightenment. His publications include Piaget Before Piaget (1994), Les Sciences de l’âme, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle (2006); an edition of Jean Starobinski’s writings on the history of the body (Las razones del cuerpo; 1999); The Moral Authority of Nature (co-edited with Lorraine Daston; 2004); Believing Nature, Knowing God (a thematic issue of Science in Context, co-edited with Bernhard Kleeberg; 2007); and “Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity,” History of the Human Sciences 22 (2009). His current work deals with the cultural history of the “cerebral subject” – from film and science fiction to neurobics and neurophilosophy. He is interested specifically in the emergence of the belief that the brain is the only part of the body we need in order to be ourselves, and more generally in a longue-durée history of the relations between notions of bodily continuity and personal identity.