A new conversation about artists and their craft

A new conversation about artists and their craft
Published: Nov 18, 2017
In the book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë argues that our obsession with works of art has gotten in the way of understanding how art works on us. We encountered Noë at a lecture this week, and he led us to some of his work that helps show why and how he's plowing new terrain — mixed with soil, he suggests, from both art and philosophy.

Alva Noë presenting new work in Toronto this week.


Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë
Paperback, 2016 — 304 pages
Hill & Wang (
Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Introduction: Seeing Alva Noë

I recently attended a lecture by Alva Noë, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, who took part in World Philosophy Day at the University of Toronto.

Titled ‘Three Ways of Seeing', Noë’s lecture presented the argument first developed in his book, Action in Perception (2004), that "perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do."

The moderator introduced Noë as “a rock star of philosophy”. I later discovered that the great Oliver Sacks said, “As a neurologist, confronted every day by questions of mind, self, consciousness, and their basis, I find Alva Noë's concepts both astounding and convincing.” As well, when I searched online for a copy of Noë's most recent book Strange Tools in my local library system, I discovered that nine different branches had copies of it. The rock star status was beginning to make sense.

In person, Noë, who is 53, struck me as humble and calmly inquisitive — ready and willing for anything to pop up and surprise him. He was also very sensitive to the dynamics of the packed room of about 70 students and faculty, and to his surroundings. When asked a question, he took time to consider the exchange, as if someone was presenting him with a gift and he was figuring out how to respond appropriately.

Rock star or not, there was little of the turbo-driven defensive or offensive stance that some thinkers take (and I don’t say that they should be any different). Instead, Alva Noë appeared to be someone outside the culture of philosophy. Someone looking in, or a just true original?

When we met later for an informal, wide-ranging conversation, I felt as if he was a person all my friends knew and that he and I were meeting for the first time. The connection was open and easy. When I asked how he came to be so interested in art and seeing, he said he grew up in Greenwich Village around many artists, and that his father was in awe of artists as others might be in awe of saints. He then directed me to the preface and afterward of his book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. The preface plus the first chapter from the book are published here.

I welcome you into the conversation with this versatile thinker.

— Whitney Smith





Preface to Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature

Some years ago I was talking to an artist. He asked me about the science of visual perception. I explained that vision scientists seek to understand how it is we see so much — the colorful and detailed world of objects spread out around us in space — when what we are given are tiny distorted upside-down images in the eyes. How do we see so much on the basis of so little?

I was startled by the artist’s reply. Nonsense! he scoffed. That’s not the question we should ask. The important question is this: Why are we so blind, why do we see so little, when there is so much around us to see?

This exchange took place when I was a graduate student. The artists remark stayed with me. It brings out sharply the position between two different ways of thinking about visual experience.

In one way, the scientist’s way, seeing happens in the brain, thanks to the way the brain manages to make sense of information available on the retina.

In the other way, the artist’s way, seeing isn’t something that happens automatically, or for free; we are too liable not to see even what is there. Seeing is an achievement, our achievement, the achievement of making contact with what there is. We can fail to see.

I have spent the last two decades studying perception and perceptual consciousness. I have sought to develop a new way of understanding perception. Seeing, according to the enactive or actions position that I have been working out, is not something that happens in our brains, or anywhere else, for that matter; it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment.

It dawned on me only recently that my research these last years has aimed at vindicating precisely the perspective of the artist in my anecdote. He had it right all along. The brain is necessary for experience, to be sure. But it is not the whole story. The scientist’s conception is impoverished, and it gets in the way of our appreciating that it is not brains that perceive, but active animals or people. Seeing, I have come to realize, and so I’ve been urging in my writing, is more like climbing a tree, or reading a book, than it is like digesting what you’ve eaten.

Both art and philosophy — superficially different — are really species of a common genus . . . 

But this anecdote suggests something more. The artist was right. Science and philosophy, to the extent that they concern themselves with art, tend to do so from on high. They seek to explain art, to treat art as a phenomenon to analyzed. Maybe we’ve been overlooking the possibility that art can be our teacher, or at least our collaborator. Not because art is cryptoscience, but because it is its own manner of investigation and it’s own legitimate source of knowledge. This is what is suggested to me as I think back on this conversation with the artist.

This is a puzzling if attractive possibility. It’s attractive, for it offers, right off the bat, some clue to why art is so important. But it’s puzzling, too, because art looks very different from science, which is explicitly concerned with the production of knowledge and understanding. What might the character of the knowledge at which art aims be?

Here’s part of the answer: art provides us an opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of achieving our conscious lives, of bringing the world into focus for perceptual (and other forms of) consciousness. And so art is a field in which we can take seriously the artist’s question posed above: not, how do we manage to see so much? but rather, why do we see so little? Even as it also gives us an opportunity to move from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing more or seeing differently.

This book is animated by three ideas. First, art is not a technological practice; however, it presupposes such practices. Works of art are strange tools. Technology is not just something we use or apply to achieve a goal, although this is right as a first approximation. Technologies organize our lives in ways that make it impossible to conceive of our lives in their absence; they make us what we are. Art, really, is an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us, and it is, finally, a way to understand our organization and, inevitably, to reorganize ourselves.

The job of art, its true work, is philosophical. This is the second animating idea. Art is a philosophical practice. And philosophy — artists will like this; I’m not so sure about philosophers — is an artistic practice. This is because both art and philosophy — superficially different — are really species of a common genus whose preoccupation is with the ways we are organized and with the possibility of reorganizing ourselves. I don’t mean that this is what artists think or say they are doing (although some will). I mean that this is what they are and have always been doing. And this is what philosophy does.

The third and final animating idea is one that will itself acquire meaning only after we have advanced considerably: art and philosophy are practices, as I put it, bent on the invention of writing.





Chapter 1: Getting Organized

Western art abounds with depictions of the nursing mother. The display of the Mother and Child is central to Christian religious thinking, so this isn't surprising. But it may be that pictures of the suckling infant are important to us for reasons that go beyond our interest in the life of Jesus. Breast-feeding, after all, is basic to our mammalian biology; it is also, for the vast majority of us, our first opportunity for nurturing love. In fact, or so at least I propose, breast-feeding is also a key to understanding the very nature of art; the fact that pictures of nursing mothers are so common may point to one of art's abiding features: art is always concerned with itself.

The connection between breast-feeding and the nature of art is not immediately apparent. This may just show how far we need to go to get a clear understanding of art and its origins in our biology.

When it comes to breast-feeding, the striking thing about human beings is that, alone among the mammals, we do it very badly. It's not just that breast-feeding can be difficult for us — many babies need to learn to latch on, and this can get stressful for both mother and child as the need for food is urgent and dramatic. Our frailty as feeders is more far-reaching than that. With all other mammals, once the infant has latched on, it stays put and sucks until the job is done, until it is sated, or until some external factor (a competitive sibling, for example) drives it away.

But not so the human baby. Our babies are liable to wander during the task. They get distracted by noises. Or they blissfully fall asleep. Or they indulge in the pleasures of biting and chewing to the neglect of the main business at hand, which is drinking. Isn't it? Actually, so inefficient is human breast-feeding that some anthropologists and psychologists have speculated that its primary evolutionary value in humans may not consist in feeding at all, but may lie elsewhere. Perhaps we've got it backward. We don't suckle to feed; we feed at the breast, so that we can touch and hold and embrace. Physical contact induces neurochemical events (such as the release of oxytocin) that are beneficial and necessary. And then there is the fact, perhaps not unrelated to the neurochemistry, that physical contact cements the attachment of mother and infant.

El Greco, The Holy Family, ca. 1585, oil on canvas, 41 3/4 × 34 7/16 in. (106 × 87.5 cm), The Met, New York.

Let's explore this issue more fully by taking a concrete look at the activity of breast-feeding itself. Notice, it has a characteristic shape. Mother cradles infant, placing the breast — or a bottle, for my purposes this difference doesn't matter — to the infant's mouth. Baby sucks; then, let us imagine, it nods off. Mothers respond by gently jiggling the infant and in this way drawing it back to the task; this is a spontaneous reaction of mothers, not something they learn or are taught. Baby resumes sucking. A movement or sound or noise startles the baby. It stops sucking. Mama jiggles. Baby starts sucking again. Soon it nods off. Mama jiggles. And the cycle continues. As the baby grows older, and stronger, and as the mother gains more confidence, the process gets smoother and more efficient. But the basic issue — getting the baby to eat enough before it falls asleep — is something that requires attention and negotiation.

Now, consider this activity of breast-feeding carefully and notice that it exhibits six distinct features.

First, it is primitive. It is basic. It is biological. Breast-feeding is not the achievement of high culture but surely something whose roots lie deep in our mammalian origins. It is natural.

Second, despite being basic, and primitive, it is also obviously an activity that requires the exercise of delicate and evolving cognitive skills on the part of both mother and infant. Doing and undergoing, paying attention and losing focus, feeling, listening, responding to the action or the inaction of the other — the activity of breast-feeding is made up of all these elements. Not to mention conflict — the baby has fallen asleep before it has had enough to eat! The baby won't stop sucking, but it doesn't seem to be drawing milk!

By 'organized activity' I mean any activity marked by the six features I have enumerated. 

Third — and this is obvious — the whole activity has a structure; it is organized in time. Indeed, it has something like the structure of turn taking. Baby acts. Mama listens. Mama acts. Baby listens and responds. This is probably the first example of turn taking in our developmental lives; perhaps it is even the first instance of turn taking in the animal world. Notice that the temporal dynamics of breast-feeding make it a lot like a primitive conversation. It is striking that we alone, the linguistic species, act out this complicated turn taking, conversation-like transaction.

Fourth, neither mother nor infant orchestrates or directs breast-feeding. Sure, Mama is more powerful than the baby; she has more control. She's the one worried about outcomes and seeking the help of friends and midwives. But the activity itself, with its delicate interplay of listening and acting, doing and feeling, and with its distinctive turn taking temporal dynamics, just sort of happens; the demands of the activity as a whole control — that is, they downward entrain — the behavior of the individuals caught up in it.

Fifth, the whole activity has a function. Exactly what the function is, as we have seen, remains somewhat ambiguous. But it must have something to do with feeding and with creating a relationship of attachment between mother and child. Breast-feeding seems to be a relationship-building exercise.

Finally, although breast-feeding, as we have noticed, is an almost worklike source of conflict, a negotiation; it is also, at least potentially, a source of pleasure for both mother and child.

Organized activities . . . "Conversation puts together, integrates, and organizes what we do at a much more basic level as well . . ." [o]

These six features point to ways breast-feeding organizes us. The task itself shapes, enables, and constrains us; we find ourselves put together and made up in the setting of the activity. I'd like to introduce the term "organized activity." Breast-feeding is an organized activity. By organized activity I mean any activity, such as breast-feeding, that is marked by the six features I have enumerated. Organized activities, as I would like to use this familiar phrase, are primitive and "natural"; they are arenas for the exercise of attention, looking, listening, doing, undergoing; they exhibit structure in time; they are emergent and are not governed by the deliberate control of any individual; they have a function, whether social or biological or personal. And they are (at least potentially) pleasurable.

Organization, importantly, is a biological concept. Living beings are organisms — organized wholes — and the central conceptual puzzle life throws up for science is that of understanding how mere matter, and the order characteristic of physics, gets taken up, integrated, and organized in the self-making, world-creating manner of life.

Companies have organizational charts and good bureaucrats may strive to serve the organization (to be "organization men and women"); "organization" may be a term of art in the business school. But organization, fundamentally, is our biological condition, our existential condition. To be alive is to be organized, and insofar as we are not only organisms but are also persons, we find ourselves organized, or integrated, in a still larger range of ways that tie us to the environment, each other, and our social worlds. People find themselves organized by such shared activities as breast-feeding.

It is one of the important ideas of this book that art and its problems have their origin in this vicinity.

We are organized at an intermediate level, at what the roboticist Dana Ballard has called the "embodiment level." 

Here is another example of an organized activity: conversation. At one level, at the level of consciousness, we might say, when two people talk, they express ideas and pay attention to each other. But it is a remarkable fact that conversation puts together, integrates, and organizes what we do at a much more basic level as well. Two people talking tend to take up the same posture, they adjust their volumes to an appropriate level, they look at each other and at objects in their immediate environment in highly controlled ways and, of course, in doing so, they participate in a complicated activity of listening, thinking, paying attention, doing and undergoing, most of which happens spontaneously, without deliberate control. Conversation is obviously natural for human beings — it is basic; we can't imagine human life without it — even if it is also, obviously, a domain for exquisitely refined cognitive attunement to self and other. Conversation has a function, or rather functions, purposes, both locally — whatever interests motivate the transaction between people — and at the species level: conversation is a fundamental mechanism of relationship building and joint living and problem solving. And conversation can be a source of pleasure; it can be fascinating, engaging, challenging, and so on.

I mentioned that breast-feeding may be a sort of primitive conversation. But maybe it would be better to say that conversation is an elaborate or elaborated form of breast-feeding. The same basic organizing structure is in place, however modulated, amplified, and so altered by different skills, interests, and situations.

This example of conversation offers some insight, by the way, into why it is so dangerous to talk on the phone and drive at the same time. Driving is an organized activity; it involves acting and paying attention, responding to what others are doing, and participating in a set of behaviors with its own very specific temporal pattern. When you drive, you aren't just driving, you are locking into and getting organized in relation to a whole space of relationships with others around you and your immediate environment, not only the environment of the car's interior but also that of the roadway. Talking on the phone makes precisely analogous but conflicting demands. You get caught up in a whole different organized activity, with different attentional landmarks and different temporality. Not so when you and I talk to each other as we drive together, or as we walk down the street, for then our conversational activity is embedded in a joint attunement to the single shared space of salience and interest. But when we talk on the phone — that is, when we speak with someone who is at a remote location — we participate in and give rise to a different spatially distributed environment; we use different methods and cues to guide attention. The point is, we dislodge ourselves, crucially, from the setting in which we find ourselves.

The cases of driving, conversation, and walking show that there is no tension between the natural and the learned when it comes to the ways we find ourselves embedded in patterns of organization. Against the different background of acquired skills and novel settings, our ability to carry on and be organized by the activity at hand, to — if you like — lose ourselves in the flow, is natural for us. It is our nature to acquire second natures. From the standpoint of the theory of organized activities, driving, walking, talking are expressions of the same basic human nature that unfolds in suckling.

"When you drive, you aren't just driving, you are locking into and getting organized in relation to a whole space of relationships around you . . ." [o]

Another important feature of organized activities is that they are habitual. Habit is grounded, in this way, in biology. I don't mean merely that we walk, talk, drive habitually, that is, as a matter of routine, although of course that can be true. I mean rather that to participate in these activities, and to do so well, that is to say, with skill or expertise, we need to relax into habits. Watch an experienced mother suckle her older infant. Each of them just sort of collapses into the familiar, almost ritualized activity. By now the mother may be talking on the phone while, with the other hand, she releases her breast and positions the child who now, like falling off a log, latches on. The whole activity — which is in some ways the very model of joint attention, communication, and, indeed, intimacy, of mindfulness — unfolds almost automatically and without effort.

It is worth noticing that you can't understand organized activities — activities that are structured by habit in this way — by considering these phenomena only in relation to what is happening in the nervous system of the participants. Which is of course not to say that you couldn't modify or disrupt the organization of the activity by intervening, if you knew how, in the nervous system of one of the actors. The point is that the level at which activities are organized is not the level of the nervous system, any more than it is the level of the atom. But neither is it the level of conscious, deliberate action. We are organized at an intermediate level, at what the roboticist Dana Ballard has called the "embodiment level." This critical level is not subpersonal — it is not the level of things happening inside us, however we model these. What interests us, after all, is precisely what the person does, what she looks at, what she pays attention to, etc. But it is not the personal level itself either, the level at which the person knowingly and authoritatively decides. The driver doesn't decide to brake or downshift; the pedestrian doesn't choose to shift her weight as she walks. The baby doesn't start sucking again on purpose.

It is not a requirement that organized activities be social. Sometimes the environment itself organizes us individually. Perception is such a case. We need to be careful here because perception can be many things. Just as there isn't only one thing that is conversation — we fight, we exchange information, we whisper sweet nothings, we conduct a business deal, etc. — so there isn't one thing that is seeing (for example). We use our eyes to guide our driving behavior, to cook dinner, to take a shower, to read a book. Even when we watch TV, which seems so passive, so much a matter of just staring at the box (or rather the screen), our attention is to a world put on display that we take an interest in and that we think about. Perceiving is typically caught up with acting. (I examine different ways of thinking about perception, and their significance for our subject matter, art, in chapter 5.)

We are always captured by structures of organization . . . It is the basic fact about us.

But now let's look at seeing at what I've been calling, after Ballard, the embodiment level. Every time you move your eyes or your hands, you produce sensory changes. And as you move around in relation to the environment, how things look changes steadily. We aren't conscious of any of this, for the most part. That is, we don't have the impression that the colors of the clothes we wear change when we go outdoors, even though, in a perfectly straightforward sense, they do. (After all, how they look, with respect to color, is different in bright sunlight!) And things don't seem to swell up in size as we approach them. Psychologists call this perceptual constancy.

What is striking is that we certainly are sensitive to these changes in the apparent size and shape and color of things around us as we move about; indeed, it is our very fluent mastery of them, our familiarity with them, that makes it possible in the first place for us to use this pattern of variability as a means of locking on to a stable world around us. Notice, we don't sit still and contemplate the world visually the way we might contemplate images on a movie screen. We continuously move about and squint and adjust ourselves to, if you like, bring and maintain the world in focus.

Seeing, if this approach is right, is a temporally extended, dynamic exchange with the world around us, one that is guided by principles of timing, thoughtfulness, movement, spontaneity, function, and pleasure, like those we see in operation when we drive or walk or breast-feed, but that are also governed by all manner of learned understandings and expectations and engagements with this or that task (watch repair, typing, driving home, etc.).

Seeing, so long as we pick it out at the right level of description, is an organized activity. It is basic and natural yet cognitively complex. It is temporally organized, but its organization is not the result of our deliberate control or determination. And certainly it serves vital functions, whether for us individually, or for our projects and relationships, or for our species.

In Action in Perception, I argued that seeing is a special kind of activity of exploring the world. In particular, I argued that it is a way of exploring the world making use of implicit practical understanding of the ways our own movements produce and control sensory events. What I would now say, drawing on the ideas presented here, is that seeing (and all kinds of perception) is the organized activity of achieving access to the world around us.

How your brain sees the world, according to Kepler. [o]

The point, thus far, is this: We are organized. We get organized. We are organisms! Our lives are structured by organized activities, in the large, in the small. Our lives are one big complex nesting of organized activities at different levels and scales. Talking, walking, eating, perceiving, driving. We are always captured by structures of organization. This is our natural, indeed our biological, condition. It is the basic fact about us.

And crucially, these structures of organization are not of our own making. We don't direct or orchestrate or invent the dynamic patterns that organize us when we walk, look, listen, breast-feed, or talk. We are not exactly slave to them — for our participation in such practices is, in many ways, precisely the exercise of our agency. It's how we make friends, find mates, get from point A to point B, recognize people in the crowd.

But we are, or are at least liable to get, lost in the complex patterns of organization that make up our lives.

What does all this have to do with art?

The answer, whose real meaning will become clear only gradually as we progress, is simple: we make art out of organized activities.





ALVA NOË is a writer and philosopher and the author of Action in Perception (2004), Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (2009), and Varieties of Presence (2012). As a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, he also serves as a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. He lives in Berkeley and New York.  www.alvanoe.com



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