Monday, 23 December 2013

Evolution's Greatest Gift

Gifts can arrive carefully concealed or right out of the box. Either way their long term consequences can only be envisaged but never seen.

I recently had a discussion with a philosopher in which he defended the concept of "seeing-in." He argued that an expert talent-scout working for a modelling agency would be able to see - literally perceive - potential in the face of a prospective model. Sadly the discussion was interrupted so I didn't get a chance to challenge him on his view.

Is it possible to spot talent? Do experts see potential in things? And, when we look at artworks do we see meaning in them or would it be more precise to say that meaning and potential are ideas that we project upon the world, i.e. thoughts that we are capable of describing?

It may well be the case that our philosopher was using the term "perception" figuratively as  shorthand for appreciation or evaluation. Potential in this sense then is a notion. Specifically, potential is a notion about the future. It is an anticipatory story, image, account or proposition that we are able to offer. If I say that someone has potential, I do not mean that I literally see anything. If the person in question leaves the room, the potential I see doesn't walk out of the door with them. Seeing of this kind is not a sensory state. It is a mental state. 

So, when an expert looks into the world, her expertise does not endow her with heightened sensory powers. Nor is the world filled with indications of an as yet unrealised future. This may seem counter intuitive, but the universe does not concern itself with indicating anticipated states of affairs. Only brains do that. Indications are things that we are capable of producing or selecting, not things that the universe presents for our edification. When we see dark clouds looming we say "It looks like it's going to rain." But we can only say such things because we recognise some of the many patterns of the universe. We know from past experience that dark clouds often precede rain and we can use this knowledge to inform our judgements about the future.

Expertise is partly a condition of being acquainted with certain causal regularities. Experience and education about these regularities furnishes experts with exemplars that allow them to make more accurate predictions. But these predictions are not properties of the world. They are capacities of thought and this is why even experts are often wrong, especially about long-term events.

So, to say that we see potential in a student is to hedge a bet based upon their previous achievements. It is certainly not a kind of mysterious emanation that only experts can sense. It is not a perceptible thing or energy of any kind. It is a supposition, based upon evidence and supported by experience without which the determination of potential would be impossible.

It might be argued, as our philosopher friend contended, that the expert talent-scout could literally see beauty in the face of the model. That seems perfectly plausible doesn't it? But it would wouldn't it? Philosophers aren't inclined to holding easily refuted ideas no matter how incorrect they might actually be. Let's shift the turf then and see what it exposes. To see beauty in an image, by our philosopher' reckoning then, is to perceive beauty. Moreover, to see meaning in an image is to perceive meaning. If so, then what can we say of all the other potential meanings perceived by other experts? To take this explanatory route leads straight into a 5th dimension of unending meanings, each one neatly and - most tellingly of all - imperceptibly packaged within every image.

The alternative approach - the one I'm advocating - is to deny the perception of beauty, meaning etc. on he basis that these are not attributes but rather attributions. If beauty were a perceptible property of a prospective model then every perceiver - aliens included - would have to be capable of perceiving it. I don't think anyone would be confident of that view. Beauty and meaning etc. are concepts. They are ideas we closely associate with certain kinds and configurations of perceptible attributes and objects.

When we give gifts we often try to conceal their identity by wrapping them. It is never the point of gift giving that the recipient should be able to predict the contents. Such a skill would render the ritual of wrapping meaningless. One of the great pleasures of wrapped gifts is the expectation they elicit, an expectation that reaches its greatest peak in childhood. This has two important consequences. Firstly, it encourages self control; a vital life-skill. Secondly, it encourages powers of imagination that are of inestimable value to us as a species.

When the expert talent-scout sees potential in a prospective model she imagines a possible future. When a teacher sees potential in a student they also imagine, or are capable of imagining, the student excelling. When we receive a present we imagine a future pleasure. These acts of imagination are not properties of things, they are capacities of mind. Strictly speaking they are capacities of representation: evolution's greatest gift.


Thanks to Brian for his contributions to a previous discussion on the subject of talent that was an important prompt for this post.


Brian said...

Jim, if a philosopher argued the case for a 'talent-scout' ("she" or "he") looking for a particular thing, in this case surface beauty in a prospective model, this would be an entirely different thing from arguing the case for 'talent' in art. There is nothing in the assessment of 'talent' (an old-fashioned word which I take to mean a mix of inherited and otherwise acquired abilities and potential) that relies upon "mysterious emanations". Assessing what in old-fashioned politically-incorrect terms was called 'talent', is exactly - as you say - "hedging bets based upon their previous achievements". How else can you assess someone's potential in the 'visual' arts but by looking not at them, but at their work? You may want to try and assess something of their character, based upon your experience, that might help you decide if they are sincere, but that is a little risky, and perhaps not even relevant if their work is good. I think we are agreed on this? I think we differ in our notions of what is meant by 'appearances'. The appearance of a prospective model is exactly what the 'talent' scout is looking for, mainly. That is her or his potential in that business. The appearance of an artwork IS - to a large extent - the artwork (if it is in the 'visual' arts) or at least of significant importance, positively or negatively. But the appearance of the artwork in this sense is not the same as the appearance of the model. You might like to read Adorno's work on "semblance", where he points out that art's semblance is in opposition to the reality it appears to be. A real philosopher would argue from that point, I imagine.

I thought you might have mentioned genes again, in this case what I would call an 'unselfish' gene. That is, a gift given by nature (evolution, and more besides) for us to use for our joy and fulfilment.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I just pulled down Adorno's book from the shelf. I'd forgotten what a thicket it is to stagger through. Adore? No! Not in my case anyway. Another life perhaps.

The genetic angle is definitely important. But, as I've mentioned before, I think the story of representation is going to turn out to be far more extensive than simply "joy and fulfilment" or art and artworks for that matter.

Jim Hamlyn said...

By the way Brian, on the subject of appearances again. Objects don't have "an" appearance. They have an infinitely divisible multitude of possible appearances at any given moment. The only way to make coherent sense of appearances is to recognise that the concept (including looks, as in "looks-like") is a culturally evolved assimilation into language of non-verbal strategies of representation. The next time someone says to you (or you catch yourself saying) that something looks-like something else, make a note of the efficacy of the strategy. It's absolutely extraordinary how we can use language to offer these substitutions. We, not just artists but humans in general, are truly gifted in this skill of representation and we do it near effortlessly.

Brian said...

Well, I'd better let you get on with it then … and Merry Christmas to you, too.

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