Elliot and Experimental Psychology

Posted: January 24, 2018 in Uncategorized

Nervous System Angelus

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw
the nerves in patterns on a screen.

–T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917)

• • •

If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination (acting perhaps in conjunction with understanding) we refer the representation to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic-which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective. Every reference of representations is capable of being objective, even that of sensations (in which case it signifies the real in an empirical representation). The one exception to this is the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. This denotes nothing in the object, but is a feeling which the subject has of itself and of the manner in which it is affected by the representation.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), SS 1. The judgement of taste is aesthetic.

Now, I would argue that the same applies to intelligence. To the extent that we believe in such a thing as a “beautiful mind,” the very last way we should ever expect to identify one would be by means of IQ testing or neurological analysis. Of the many areas of research in which the writings of Kant enjoy an enduring influence, one of the most significant is the field of Phenomenology, a branch of philosophy which (along with the Pragmatism of the American psychologist William James) first arises as a critique of Experimental Psychology. Though the very same could be said of Freud: psychoanalysis arose a critical rebuke to the brilliant inanity of Helmholtz, Fechner and Wundt.

But does anyone write today on this stuff, and in a way which combines the very best of Art History and the History of Science? Yes.


Or, if you were prefer to read the classic text I mentioned in class the other day, have a look at William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, considered by Modern Library to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century. (Pay no heed to the readers’ list, which has been hijacked by morons and zombies.)

  1. Emily Seang says:

    This is my first time hearing about phenomenology, and it is cool to see how humans structure consciousness and how that can affect our decision-making and social interactions, whether intentional or unintentional. This reminds me of how T.S. Eliot viewed the metaphysical poets. There is more interest in experiencing a poet’s stream of consciousness rather than viewing the poet’s product.

    Also, it’s interesting that the phenomenology and new technologies try to make sense of our responses to “value laden,” or “loaded” words such as beauty or intelligence. These words are usually seen as subjective, but there was a shift in making them objective and measurable. As shown in the Beauty Micrometer, humans will go to any extent to measure beauty or standard perceptions of beauty. Once defined (or in this article says, “perfected”), society, especially Hollywood, will use that image to establish “traditional beauty,” which leaves little room for varying faces on the big screen. According to Elliot, the artist should not be seen in his/her/their art and the medium should speak for itself, but in casting actors a director can fall into their biases and pick actors with more “traditional beauty.”

    • There’s been a lot of discussion of late regarding ideals of beauty. The media’s search for the ‘ultimate’ face, has tended more often than not to produce monotony.
      This is undeniably true of Hollywood and its need for ever more superlative discoveries of ‘impossible’ beauty. Still, I think we see this even more starkly in broadcast news, where the beauty of female anchors has become more important than the news itself. Also, you’ll notice that female anchors and commentators looks ever more identical – something which is especially evident on particular network, where ever woman has become just another version of the same blonde prototype. While Eliot’s criticism is not necessarily concerned with the physical beauty of women, we can see that his poetics focuses on a delicate position. He insists that the aesthetic quality (I don’t know that he would use the word ‘beauty’) of a poem should be determined by objective standards, but that these objective standards have little or nothing to do with conforming statistical averages. My point in invoking William James was to show a contemporaneous view that statistical average only reveal to us human nature, or poetic expression, at their most mediocre. More important than identify and conforming to and ‘golden mean’ – as was recommended by Samuel Johnson – James and Eliot are fascinated by whatever is unique and eccentric. Hence, James production of The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s the saints and heretics who show us what religion – and, by extension, human nature – really are. While this might look like a celebration of the personality of the poetic ore religious genius, it’s important to note that the saintly life is dedicated largely to the ‘extinction of the individual’, to itself absorption into something larger, God.

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