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Humanism, Art, and Technology

by Robert D. Finch


1. The Story so Far

This is intended to be one of a series of open discussions on the main themes in Humanism.  Thus far we have covered philosophy, history, religion, ethics, social issues, economics, politics and law and science.  My introductory talks are being published in the Houston Humanist Newsletter and I am also trying to convert this and the previous series on Humanist Ethics into books for publication by the ASA.  Today our subject is Humanism and Science and we are asking such questions as: What is Beauty? What is Art? What is Technology? Are Science and Technology the Same? Are Art & Science Opposed? What are the Roles of Imagination and Creativity? How do Art, Science and Technology Fit into Humanism?

Systems and systems theory have been big deals in my life.  The reason for this is that I was educated as a scientist — as a physicist to be precise.  Now the task of the physicist was always clear to me: namely to discover the laws of nature. For example for several years I did research aimed at finding what nucleated cavitation, the formation of bubbles in liquids under pressure reduction.  But then I got involved in another research project whose objective was to detect cracks in railroad wheels.  We had to develop a system which would warn the railroad personnel that there was a defective wheel under a train.  But there is no law of nature which tells you how to do this.  We had to design our system from scratch, using state of the art knowledge, and then evaluate it by testing.  Such systems are always susceptible to improvements and indeed they evolve over time and may change completely after a while.  Thus it was that I got involved in some philosophical speculations on the meanings of the words “system”, “science” and “technology” and I wrote an essay on the subject over ten years ago.  Eventually I realized that there is a component in all three of these concepts which could be called “art” and that is what I am trying to explain in this essay.  All of Technology comprises systems, some simple and some complex.  Humanism is itself a system of knowledge and beliefs and the point here is that there is Art which underlies both Humanism and Technology.


2. History of Art

Art began to develop in prehistoric times with paintings such as those on the walls of the caves of Lascaux.  We also have the ancient steatopygous female cult-objects which are sometimes thought to be fertility figures.  Archeologists have also discovered pipes similar to flutes in prehistoric excavations and so it is presumed that music also originated very early.  Activities such as painting and music do not have direct and obvious survival value and we wonder what motivated their creators.  Once mankind had a spoken language it could be used not simply for communication but also for story telling, poetry, song and drama.  And in those activities we recognize the beginnings of literature or the art of words.  The Gilgamesh and the Odyssey tell strange and wonderful tales of a world still being explored.  Primative art can still be found in various parts of the world and even on the jaded tastes of those of us who consider ourselves civilized it still casts a wild and startling spell.  Consider for example the wonderful collection illustrated in Judith Miller’s (2006) “Tribal Art”.  An interesting point here is that early  art was not accurately representational.  Even the animals at Lascaux, while certainly recognizable, were not exactly photographic images.  Historians originally conjectured that they may have had the purpose of instructing their viewers about hunting.  The ancient Egyptians used art in stylized forms in pursuit of their religion.  It was not until the time of the Greeks that artists began to produce statues that were anatomically accurate and it was the Greek philosophers who first began to think about art and gave us a vocabulary for the subject.

Sheila and I recently sat through a very interesting course on aesthetics and the philosophy of art given by Fernando Casas.  It strengthened my conviction that art is very relevant to Humanism. In one sense I believe it is closer to the heart of the matter than many other topics we have covered thus far.  As we went through the course following an historical approach I fancied that I saw how the philosophers of art had uncovered the various elements of a modern viewpoint on the subject.  We started by posing the ancient questions “what is beauty?” and “what is art?” which lie at the center of aesthetics and the philosophy of art and art criticism.  As we progressed we received the original references to the major sources in the subject and I will cite some of these again as we get to them, but to start with I should mention the book edited by Stephen David Ross (1994) “Art and Its Significance” which provides an overview of the complete journey.  One of the interesting observations that can be made about the early periods of art history is the way in which art-works retain similar forms for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Thus the art of Mesopotamia has recognizable characteristics which change only slowly with time.  Then there are many similarities between that ilk and the art of Egypt and again between that of Egypt and early Greek work.  There is an evolution in works of art.


3. Philosophy of Art

It was Plato and Aristotle who offered the first theories of Art.  They saw the production of beauty as the objective in any work of art.  Beauty is the most extreme form of pleasure and it might be revealed in various ways: by line, color, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone etc or by behavior, attitude etc.  They described the ways of accomplishing beauty as technique or “techne”.  They saw art as “mimesis” or representation and explained its production as due to the human urge to imitate nature.  In his book “Poetica” Aristotle (c 336) wrote: “Just as color and form are used as means by some …. and the voice is used by others …. so also …  the  means with  them as a whole are rhythm, language and harmony ,,,, either singly or in certain combinations.”  Plato and Aristotle both believed that the living human possessed a soul which left the body at death and that these souls belonged to a realm  of the divine presided over by the gods.  Their views were given their ultimate embellishment by Plotinus, a transcendentalist and mystic who lived in the third century and is often referred to as the last classical mind.  In Plotinus’ scheme God is the highest level of the transcendental, and is referred to as the “One”.  It was only a hundred years or so later that that these ideas entered the Christian world through the teaching of St Augustine in his two books “De Ordini” and “De Musica”.  The coming of Christianity saw a radical shift in the foundation of art, its evaluation, and in what was perceived as beauty.


4. The Renaissance

For a thousand years the philosophy of art remained under this Christian domination while sculptors and painters poured out the stylized versions of the Virgin with child and Christ and his apostles which filled the churches of Europe.  In the middle ages prosperity returned to Italy and under the Medicis Florence became a center of trade and civilized learning.  The Medicis were themselves innovators in finance who used to the fullest extent the new coinage of Florence and the invention of double entry accounting with meticulous bookkeeping. After Ficino translated Plotinus in 1492 and wrote “De Amore” matters began to change in the art world. The focus shifted from God and religion back to the human.  The Medicis sponsored architects (Brunelleschi), sculptors (Donatello, Michelangelo), painters (Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi and Leonardo da Vinci) and scientists (Galileo Galilei).  Perhaps the greatest artist of this time was Michelangelo who was accomplished in painting as well as sculpture.  According to Vasari (1568), Michelangelo, when still a boy of fourteen was taken to the garden of Lorenzo the Magnificent where he sculpted the head of a fawn, never having held a chisel in his hand before, and it was so good that Lorenzo took him into his own household. Michelangelo was an innovator and actually dissected bodies to understand the disposition of blood vessels and muscles under the skin.  But he was not a “scientific” artist in the mold of da Vinci.  In other words he was not a realist: he wanted to represent “ideal” beauty.  His figures, for example his David, were frequently out of proportion.


5. Hume’s Theory of Art

We have already discussed Hume’s version of the acquisition of knowledge in earlier installments of this series.  Hume supposed that our knowledge of the world comes from experience and is registered in the form of “outer” impressions or sensations.  But we also have “inner” sensations which he termed emotions or passions. The essential task of Art is to address the emotions. The mind is then the total collection of impressions.  Hume saw a fundamental distinction between facts and values.  Plotinus had not made such a distinction.  Hume’s theory of art follows similar lines to his theory of ethics and was set out in his essay “On the Standard of Taste” (1757).  He argues that we all support a variety of values such as elegance, simplicity etc but that there may be a thousand different sentiments all of which may be excited by the same object.  We would have to say that they are all right because no one sentiment represents what is really in the object.  This seems to support relativism BUT then Hume’s story takes a different turn.  He argues that there is another species of common sense which modifies the conclusion.  “Who?” he asks “would assert an equality of genius between Ogilby and Milton”.  That would be as absurd as saying that a pond is equal to an ocean.  The true rules of composition do not exist a priori like rules of mathematics but are found by experience, as with all practical sciences.  The rules of art have their foundation on what has been found to please in all countries and in all ages.  Homer pleased in his own time and still pleases.  Hume argues that the requirements of a high standard for taste are: 1) a healthy mind, 2) normal circumstances, 3) a delicacy of imagination, 4) perception of exactness, 5) practice, and 6) freedom from prejudice.  If these requirements are met then the principles of are the same for all men of all ages.  However Hume concludes that there are few people who meet the qualifications.  Hume and his successors saw that morality is not purely relative because it is actually arrived at, as Habermas would say, by a discourse among the ethical community.  We surmise that this discourse arrives at what is called a utilitarian position.


6. Kant’s Critique of Judgment

Kant and Hume are often referred to as the two great philosophers of the Enlightenment.  Kant’s theory of philosophy and art is set out in three works which he termed “Critiques” of “Pure Reason”, of “Practical Reason” and of “Judgment”.  About one half of the third of these was devoted to Art.  Kant’s theory of neurophysiology starts out like that of Locke and Hume with the arrival of sensations from the external world (which exists in space and time and is populated with “things-in-themselves”).  The sensations of physical objects he called phenomena and he regarded these as the province of science.  He referred to our ability to detect these physical signals as our sensibility and he regarded the entire process up to that point as fully deterministic.  But then Kant diverges from the British philosophers to discuss how we achieve understanding.  He suggests that the human brain recognizes certain categories, much as in Aristotle’s scheme.  He maintained that we have some “categorical imperatives” which Hume might have called instincts.  Darwin’s theory of evolution in fact provides an explanation of how these instinctive urges to act in altruistic ways actually came about.  In addition Kant postulates that there is a world of “noumena” or non-determined i.e. free systems.  The self, the soul, and God are all noumena.  And according to Kant our morality operates at the level of the noumena.  Now Hume had pointed out that we make sense of the world by recognizing constancies in our observations.  It was much later that Rapoport (1986) suggested that these constancies be called “systems”, and there is a case for supposing that  there are systems which exist over and above our basic neural circuits.  Kant believed that we have a faculty of judgment which provides the link between Nature and the Noumena, and on our reinterpretation this link would have to be regarded as deterministic.  Very complex systems, such as the human mind, may seem to be ‘free’ and so it is convenient to ascribe to them ‘wills’ of their own.  The teleological explanation of the action of noumena is as free moral agents which can have intentionality.  Thus we might explain a clock in deterministic mechanics or alternatively as a device designed to tell the time.  Kant discusses fine art and genius; the difference between art and the beauty of Nature; and the difference between fine art and craft.  He writes about fine art being an end in itself and he also talks of human beings as ends in themselves.  He maintains that the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good.


7. Collingwood asks: What is Art?

Even though these musings by philosophers through the time of Kant give us an inkling of the issues involved in aesthetics there still remains the question: what exactly is art?  Tolstoy famously asked this question and answered that Art is an expression of emotion.  Tolstoy gave us the example of a boy who, having experienced an encounter with a wolf, describes the scene vividly wishing to evoke his own feelings in others.  Art must therefore call forth the artist’s feelings in the spectator.  The argument is that to evoke a feeling one must first have experienced it.  The artist must be sincere.  Some similar ideas were expressed by Collingwood (1938) in his “The Principles of Art” which opens by stating: “The business of this book is to answer the question: What is art?”  Collingwood then takes us through four chapters in which he argues that art does not reside in craft, in representation, in magic nor amusement.  Then he gets to discuss the characteristics that art proper really entails: 1) emotional expression, and, 2) creativity and imagination.  He concludes that the work of art is actually an imaginary object.  He argues that both thinking and feeling are involved in the act of imagination.  He goes through the history of the philosophy of art showing how it leads up to the conclusion he has reached.  Conscious experience is the necessary correlate of art.  Finally he argues that art is language.


8. John Dewey – Art as Experience

Now while Collingwood argues that art is language, Dewey (1934), on the face of things appears to take a contradictory tack by claiming that art is experience.  But when we begin to think about it we realize that matters are not so much at variance as they first appear to be.  It is clear that both Collingwood and Dewey are denying that art is the physical manifestation of the artist’s effort: the painting, sculpture or the sounds of the symphony.  They are both arguing that art is something within the artist’s mind.  Dewey was famous for his philosophy of instrumentalism and he claimed that thought was an instrument in the relation between a living organism and its environment.  The process of doing and undergoing an interaction with the environment is what Dewey defines as an experience.  He differs with Collingwood in that his experiences cover the realm of the everyday although he does allow that such experience comes to its fullest fruition in the aesthetic.  He states that it is meaningfulness which provides the aesthetic experience.  He makes the point that it is not the physical object itself which is the art but its functioning with the artist and spectator.  For that reason he objected to the isolation of art-work in museums.  Similarly he argued that to understand a building such as the Parthenon we need to understand the cultural context of Athens.  Nowadays art can reside in movies, jazz, comics and newspapers.  He wondered why people regard the attempt to link everyday things with high art as betrayal.  And he answers his own question by speculating that it is because of dualism.  But he says that many things are experienced but do not amount to an experience.  An experience only occurs when an interaction runs its course to completion.  Dewey sees life as a collection of histories, each with its own plot and movement towards closure.  In an experience all the elements are integrated by a pervasive emotion which he calls the aesthetic quality.  The enemies of the experience are the humdrum, but there is no clear separation between the aesthetic and the intellectual.


9. Late Twentieth Century Thinking

There are of course many other authors of work on the philosophy of art who should be mentioned. An interesting figure who I would like to have more time to study was Susan Langer, a musicologist and philosopher of art.  In her book “Philosophy in a New Key” she expounded the view that music bears a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling.  In her opinion music is a tonal analog of emotional life, but she disagrees with Collingwood and denies it is a language.  She argues that sounds are easier to produce than feelings.  She pointed out that music is an articulated form i.e. its parts fuse together to yield greater unities.

We have not remarked very much on the institutions of the world of art: the museums and other housings for paintings and sculptures, the books, libraries and schools often with substantial numbers of people in routine employment. We may probably ascribe the persistence of art-styles to the conservatism of systems where initiates learn their techniques through apprenticeships to established masters.  And there are the concert halls and infrastructure created for the enjoyment of music.  Nor have we said very much about the role of society in art.  For all of this perhaps we should pay heed to Theodor Adorno whose magnum opus “Aesthetic Theory” was first published posthumously in German in 1970 but not until 1984 in English.  Adorno studied philosophy and music composition as a student in Germany but was expelled by the Nazis in 1934.  He went to England and then the USA where he worked with Max Horkheimer as part of the Institute for Social Research on what became known as critical theory. Adorno and Horkheimer were horrified by the commercialization of art and indeed all of life in the USA when they arrived from Germany.  Critical Theory appears to be very similar in its concept to the evolutionary epistemology outlined by Karl Popper in connection with science.  Adorno wrote several books and became the mentor for Jorgen Habermas.  Adorno wrote in an interdisciplinary style, which fact, together with his intricate German made his work difficult to read and translate, which probably accounts for why he is still relatively unknown in the English speaking world.  But many of his devotees see him as the pre-eminent philosopher of aesthetics to the present time.


10. Art in All Disciplines

How may we summarize this excursion through the philosophy of art?  Ever since thinking about art began there has been a discussion on the meaning of form, how representation should be done and on the role of beauty.  We have seen how Hume described “impressions” as being the first results of sensations arriving at our brains.  Hume also emphasized the importance of emotion in art.  How the artist tries to capture a certain emotion and how we may regard his work as successful if that same emotion is engendered in the mind of the spectator.  But then Hume himself points out that there is more to the story than that.  There is an important cognitive function at work as well when we exercise our taste.  We recognize constancies or systems. We judge art work in various ways: in terms of the technical skill of the artist as well as the impression it leaves in our minds.  We perform this judgment each according to his own standards (tastes).  We have also been through a discussion of where the “art” itself resides, coming to the conclusion along with Collingwood that the vital contribution of the artist is his acts of creativity and imagination.  And we have seen how Dewey extends the idea to the proposition that art resides in the minds of both artist and spectators who have to have meaningful experiences as a result of viewing art.

If art consists of creativity and imagination then it must reside in other activities.  As Dewey says, “when we say that tennis-playing, singing, acting, and a multitude of other activities are arts, we engage ….. in saying that there is art in the conduct of these activities”.  There must be art in mathematics, science, technology and numerous other disciplines.  All of these human activities are systems and show the characteristics of adaptive systems: they evolve. We might elaborate much more extensively on any of these subjects than there is room for here. There are several parallels between the ways science and art grow, but perhaps the most important is that the formulation or modification of theories in science is as much a creative and imaginative process as the germination of a work of art in aesthetics. In Ethics, there is a call for the invention of new theories, and thus we conclude that Ethics must include Art.  Adorno saw art as a significant factor in the economic and hence the social world and believed that to understand the human world we have to discourse on history, social theory, ethics and aesthetics as interacting systems. Such a discussion may provide us with a basis of a theory of the financial value of art.  We also see the advisability of having an ethic whereby we conduct our lives using the best practices in each of our human systems.  Adorno seems to have supported the idea of one unified and critical theory for all of human science and art, as its critical element is then the key to understanding all civilization.  Thus we reach our final conclusion: that Art and Ethics must both be partners to Social Theory, and, Humanism is that Social Theory whose goodness must depend on Art and Ethics.




Adorno, Theodor, (1970), “Aesthetic Theory”.  English translation, 1984, Routledge &

Kegan Paul.

Aristotle, “Poetica” (c 336AD) Chapter 1.  see “Introduction to Aristotle” Ed. Richard

McKeon 1992, Modern Library Edition.

Collingwood, R.G., (1938), “The Principles of Art”, Oxford University Press.

Dewey, John, (1934) “Art as Experience”.  Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Hume, David, (1757), “On the Standard of Taste” in “Essays Moral, Political and

Literary”, Liberty Fund, Inc 1985.

Kant, Immanuel, (1790) “Critique of  Judgment”,  Oxford University Press Ed., 1952

Miller, Judith (2006) “Tribal Art”, Dorling Kindersley Limited.

Ross,  Stephen David (1994) “Art and Its Significance”, State University of New York


Vasari, Giorgio ( 1568) “The Lives of the Artists”, Penguin Edition, 1965