NOË (2000) – Experience and experiment in art


NOË, Alva. Experience and experiment in art. Journal of Consciousness Studies, v.7, n.8–9, p.123–35, 2000.

  • The central thought of this paper is that art can make a needed contribution to the study of perceptual consciousness. The work of some artists can teach us about perceptual consciousness by furnishing us with the opportunity to have a special kind of reflective experience. In this way, art can be a tool for phenomenological investigation. p.123
  • experience as a mode of interactive engagement with the environment p.124
  • What matters is not how the world is, but how it presents itself to us in experience. p.124
  • For to capture in a picture how the world presents itself to us in experience — to make a picture of how things truly appear — is just to make a picture of that which is experienced, of that which appears, namely the world. The subject matter of art-making, then, is not experience itself, but the experienced world, and so art must direct itself to the world.  p.124
  • When we try to make perceptual experience itself the object of our reflection, we tend to see through it (so to speak) to the objects of experience. We encounter what is seen, not the qualities of the seeing itself.  p.124
  • To describe experience is to describe the experienced world. And so experience is, in this sense, transparent. p.125
  • The transparency of experience, it should be clear, poses a problem for any attempt to make perceptual experience itself the object of investigation in the way that has interested philosophers. But it is important to recognize that this problem of transparency arises no less for the empirical (psychological, neuroscientific) study of consciousness.  p.126
  • The puzzle of the transparency of experience results from thinking of experiences as like inner pictures and from thinking of reflection on experience as like turning one’s gaze inward to those pictures. But this is a false characterization of experience. In experience we are aware not of inner pictures, but of the things around us in the environment.  p.126
  • Consider an example from touch that illustrates this established problematic.(6) Suppose you hold a bottle in your hands with your eyes shut. You feel it. You have the feeling of the presence of the whole bottle even though you only make finger-to-bottle contact at a few points. The standard account of this phenomenon proposes that the brain takes the little information it receives (at the isolated points of contact) and uses it to build up an internal model of the bottle (one capable of supporting the experience).
  • But consider: this positing of a process of construction of an internal representation may be an unnecessary shuffle. For the bottle is right there, in your hands, to be probed as occasion arises. Why should the brain build models of the environment if the environment is present and so can serve as its own model, as an external but accessible repository for information (as has been argued by Brooks, 1991; O’Regan, 1992)? p.127
  • The basis, then, of the feeling of perceptual presence of the bottle is just this skill-based confidence that you can acquire the information at will by probing the world (O’Regan, 1992; O’Regan and Noë, under review). p.128
  • The upshot of this discussion is that perceptual experience, in whatever sensory modality, is a temporally extended process of exploration of the environment on the part of an embodied animal. This is the key that unlocks the puzzle of transparency and so the problem of phenomenology. If perceptual experience is in fact a temporally extended process, then to investigate experience we need to turn our gaze not inward, but rather to the activity itself in which this temporally extended process consists, to the things we do as we explore the world. p.128
  • I now propose that to study some works of art is to undertake precisely this sort of investigation. The study of such works of art can serve as a model of how to study experience and can also reveal how art can be, in the sense of Irwin’s quote given at the outset, not only concerned with the making of objects, but more significantly with the investigation of perceptual consciousness. p.128
  • What I shall argue is that Serra’s work (and also the work of these other artists) enables us to catch ourselves in the act of perceiving and can allow us thus to catch hold of the fact that experience is not a passive interior state, but a mode of active engagement with the world. p.128
  • The process of exploring the piece is a process of exploring the place. It is likewise a process by which we come to understand how experience can be, in this way, a form of openness to the environment. In light of the foregoing discussion of perceptual experience as a mode of active exploration of the world, it should be clear that the process of exploring the art work (and thus the environment in which it is situated), is at once a process of exploring one’s experience of the world. And the knowledge one thus attains is knowledge of the character of one’s experience. p.132
  • Perceptual experience is transparent to the world precisely  because experience is an activity of engagement with the world. To attend to the exploration of the world is thus to attend to the quality of experience. p.132-33
  • Dance improvisation is a first-person phenomenological investigation.


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