- Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts by Patrick Colm Hogan
The classic questions of philosophical aesthetics—how and why human beings find certain works of art beautiful or sublime—suffered from something of a hiatus in the twentieth century, but the study of beauty has seen a return in recent years, often calling on rapidly evolving research in cognitive science and neuroscience for assistance. Patrick Colm Hogan's Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts is an important contribution to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of cognitive aesthetics. The book makes a brave attempt to bring together insights from neuroscience, cognitive science, and literature to explain aesthetic response and justification.
Hogan's focus is on the minutiae of personal aesthetic response, which he identifies with the term "private beauty." He contrasts this concept with "public beauty," by which he means the ascription of aesthetic value by a society. This distinction helps Hogan steer clear of the political problems of beauty as well as organize most of the book. Out of the seven chapters, chapters 1 through 4 discuss how "private beauty" and "private sublimity" may or may not be induced in a person, and chapters 5 and 6 consider the relation between personal aesthetic responses and judgments of "public beauty." Chapter 7 turns to the question of what constitutes art with regard to the phenomena of beauty and sublimity, and finally, in the afterword, Hogan responds to what he calls the "aesthetic challenge" to the study of beauty, that is, the disinclination of avantgarde art and artists to have anything to do with beauty or sublimity other than to attack them.
One of the key goals of the book is to provide a "componential" account of aesthetic experience, such that "the greater the number and intensity of these components, the stronger the aesthetic experience" (p. 13). In chapter 1, Hogan discusses two information-processing components that have been prominent in recent cognitive studies on beauty: prototype approximation and nonhabitual pattern recognition. Humans tend to be more attracted to the prototype of [End Page 467] a thing (say a bird, animal, rectangle, or human face) than to things in the same category that are unlike the prototype. But an individual element is also at work here, in the form of the particular prototypes each of us forms and prefers, and these are driven at least partly by emotion: individual memories with their variable emotional forces influence prototype formation, predicting a certain divergence in aesthetic response. Hogan argues that a strong influence on prototype formation comes from the attachment system; he supplements his argument with an interesting rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, which he sees as exploring the various elements that contribute to the experience of beauty, especially emotional attachment. As for pattern recognition, Hogan draws on studies of music appreciation to suggest that both predictability and surprise play a role in aesthetic pleasure: we appreciate predictability in the parts of a musical score that are not focalized and nonanomalous surprises in the parts of the score that are.
The same combination of subjective and intersubjective factors is at work in the case of sublimity. Still drawing on Mrs. Dalloway, Hogan suggests that the experience of sublimity is associated with a feeling of existential loneliness, one that derives, ultimately, from attachment insecurity. (The experience of beauty, by contrast, is one that involves attachment security.) Hogan's understanding of attachment insecurity encompasses not just the transience of life and love—making tragedy, as is natural, a key locus of the sublime—but also the inaccessibility of "the other" and the possibility of "losing" one's own self. Sublimity can therefore be "ecstatic," where one loses oneself in union with one's beloved, or "stoical," where one grieves over the absence of a beloved (p. 120). Hogan's treatment of sublimity is distinctive for the importance he places on individual prototypes for the experience of sublimity, just as he does earlier for beauty: each individual's conception of the sublime is...