Strange Tools

Art and Human Nature

Dr. Alva Noë
University of California at Berkeley

7 pm Thursday
October 29th, 2015


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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. (Oliver Sacks)


University of California at Berkeley

Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also serves as a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. A graduate of Columbia College, he holds a BPhil from the University of Oxford and a PhD from Harvard University. He previously was a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been philosopher-in-residence with The Forsythe Company and has recently begun a performative-lecture collaboration with Deborah Hay.
The focus of his work in recent years has been on the nature of mind and human experience, with particular emphasis on perception and consciousness. In addition, he is a weekly contributor to National Public Radio's science blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. Noë is a 2012 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. He is the author of Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004); Out of Our Heads (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009); and most recently, Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012).

This is a presentation about art. What is art? Why is it so important? What does art tell us about ourselves? There three animating 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 to 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 in which our practices, techniques, and technologies, organize us and it is, finally, a way to understand that 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—however surprising this may seem—is an artistic practice. This is because both art, and philosophy—superficially so different—are really species of a common genus whose preoccupation is with the ways we are organized and with the possibility of reorganizing ourselves. 

A third and final animating idea is one that will only itself acquire meaning after we have advanced considerably: art and philosophy are practices, as I put it, bent on the invention of writing. Art, according to the conception developed here, turns out to have a great deal to do with biology, that is to say, with human nature, for organization, so central to the account I offer, is, finally, a biological notion. In Strange Tools I also explain why scientific approaches to art—both neurobiological and evolutionary biological—have failed to be successful, despite so much fanfare.
This book is a work of philosophy. It is my hope that it will engage readers of very different backgrounds.

Reviewby Paul Guyer, Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy, Brown University: "Organisms organize their interaction with their environments. Human beings can consciously organize and reorganize that interaction. Making, appreciating, and talking about art are among the ways that human beings do this, and are thus characteristic of human life itself. On these simple but undeniable truths, gleaned from a career in philosophy and a lifetime in the arts, Alva Noe builds a devastating critique of contemporary 'neuroaesthetics' and an illuminating account of the role of art in the human conversation. This is a work in the grand tradition of John Dewey's Art as Experience and one of the most important books in that tradition since Dewey's own."