Knowledge, Perception, and the Prospects of Criticism

The underlying aim of the project seeks to develop and field arguments and evidence for aesthetic cognitivism about art. We aim to increase acceptance of the philosophical thesis and common sense view that our encounters with works of art, including paintings, literature and music, yields knowledge that is valuable to individuals and their cultures and societies. To this end, we intend to argue that:

  1. This knowledge is sometimes of a kind that resists easy expression in propositional terms, and that its expression through or exemplification in works of art is in some cases necessary.

  2. Our aesthetic experience of the works of art is responsible, in part, for both allowing access to and realizing this knowledge.

  3. An important means of articulating this knowledge takes the form of art criticism (understood in the wide sense of critical discourse around art, thus including but not limited to newspaper criticism and academic scholarship)

  4. Understood in this way, art criticism does not merely evaluate and describe works of art, but exists in an active and symbiotic relation such that the content of the critical text becomes part of what is realized in our aesthetic encounters with works of art, and vice versa.

  5. Art criticism and the knowledge it yields is indispensable to our understanding of the aesthetic experience of art and indeed to art history.

The implications of our research would be to increase the philosophical robustness of the underpinnings of aesthetic cognitivism, and of the reasons to protect and promote the practice of art criticism, and of valuing art more generally.

Kickstart meeting

Project presentation

A further implication would be to fine tune discussions of transcendence in relation to aesthetic experience, in shedding light on the way it is the transcendence implicit in the concept of aesthetic experience which is central to the way in which the moral and epistemic value of art is manifest.

While the primary methodology of our study will be philosophical argument and conceptual analysis, a significant focus both of the initial 16-month study, and to a larger extent the ensuing project in the event that funding for this is granted, will be on empirical methods. Here we intend to use natural language analysis technology (sometimes called “distant reading”) to examine large quantities of historical and contemporary source materials, in order to trace and trace the way in which art critical themes and concepts emerge in response to works of art and attach themselves to them, becoming part of the epistemic substance of the works of art they relate to. In the initial phase, we hope to develop a pilot project, looking at the way a particular body of criticism has interacted with a particular work of art, with a view to better understanding the conceptual transfer involved.

Project publications

"Aesthetic Understanding and Epistemic Agency in Art"

Dammann, Guy and Schellekens, Elisabeth.

Disputatio, vol.13, no.62, 2021, pp. 265-282.


Recently, cognitivist accounts about art have come under pressure to provide stronger arguments for the view that artworks can yield genuine insight and understanding. In Gregory Currie’s Imagining and Knowing: Learning from Fiction, for example, a convincing case is laid out to the effect that any knowledge gained from engaging with art must “be judged by the very standards that are used in assessing the claim of science to do the same” (Currie 2020: 8) if indeed it is to count as knowledge. Cognitivists must thus rally to provide sturdier grounds for their view. The revived interest in this philosophical discussion targets not only the concept of knowledge at the heart of cognitivist and anti-cognitivist debate, but also highlights a more specific question about how, exactly, some artworks can (arguably) afford cognitive import and change how we think about the world, ourselves and the many events, persons and situations we encounter. This paper seeks to explore some of the ways in which art is capable of altering our epistemic perspectives in ways that might count as knowledge despite circumventing some standards of evidential requirement. In so doing we will contrast two alternative conceptions of how we stand to learn from art. Whereas the former is modelled on the idea that knowledge is something that can be “extracted” from our experience of particular works of art, the latter relies on a notion of such understanding as primarily borne out of a different kind of engagement with art. We shall call this the subtractive conception and cumulative conception respectively. The cumulative conception, we shall argue, better explains why at least some insights and instances of knowledge gained from art seem to elude the evidential standards called for by sceptics of cognitivism.