María G. Navarro holds a PhD in Philosophy and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (Spain). Prior, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands). She is the author of Interpretar y argumentar (2009) and one of the editors of Claves actuales de pensamiento (2010). Her research interests include hermeneutics, argumentation theories, and epistemology. One of her latest articles is “On Fuzzines and Ordinary Reasoning” in Enric Trillas, Rudolf Seising, Claudio Moraga, Settimo Termini (eds.) On Fuzziness. A Homage to Lotfi A. Zadeh, published by Springer.
Conjectural Paradigm and Empathy as Embodied Mechanism
Noemi de Haro García & María G. Navarro
Abduction is described as a useful mechanism for explaining knowledge acquisition in areas where empirical methods for testing hypotheses are not available. This includes, for example, hypotheses about past or unique events. As Hintikka affirms, this is an inferential process that is irreducible to other types of inference. Abduction has been used to describe the cognitive processes that intervene in scientific discoveries in experimental sciences. Walton has affirmed that abduction is a process of hypothesis formation that is used at the discovery stage of scientific investigation. Although the link between this reasoning model and experimental sciences is unquestionable, we think that it has been overvalued. This is evident if we take into account the fact that scientific discovery and the logic of invention are not exclusive of experimental sciences. All kinds of evidences have been justified and documented about the relationship between abductive reasoning and disciplines such as philosophy, legal reasoning, artificial intelligence, cognitive sciences, narrative reasoning, decision making, emotional cognition, etc. We think that abduction is also a source for a better understanding of both the theoretical and practical dimensions in the study of the humanities. If abduction is a particular type of argument or epistemic process that attempts to model the incorporation of new beliefs, as Aliseda maintains, this process would be one of the principal characters in other kinds of research. The idea of ‘abductive cognition,’ that is: the idea that cognition in all living beings manifests a clear abductive mark, which is one of the main contributions of Magnani to the vast and complex history of abduction studies, breaks the exclusive bound that linked abduction and experimental sciences and situates it in a broader and more complex context.
Here we will analyze the presence of abductive cognition in a field of the humanities that has not been explored sufficiently: the disciplines that study visual culture. In the long tradition of art history, research has been centred on certain cultural objects, including some objects of visual culture, which have been selected according to aesthetic criteria. As Dikovitskaya has shown, the ‘cultural turn’ provoked important changes in the study of the visual, such as the marriage between art history and cultural studies that led to the appearance of visual studies. The interdisciplinary field of visual studies examines the role of all images in culture, trying to go beyond the limitations imposed by aesthetic criteria on the object of the discipline of art history and claiming that the study of the experience of the visual has to be contextual, ideological, and political. Thus it can be said that visual culture is (in whole or in part) the object of study both of art history and visual studies. Therefore, in order to analyze the reasoning process used to think about this object, examples from both disciplines will be taken into account.
The conjectural paradigm of art history and visual studies can be used to understand the epistemic problems associated with abduction. Topics, inquiries, and controversies in these disciplines could not exist independently from the three types of hypothesis identified by Peirce. In any case, the study of visual culture refers to facts or entities unobservable when the hypothesis is formulated but observable later; or to entities or facts that someone could observe in the past even though it is not possible to repeat the observation now, because they are facts of the past; or to entities unobservable in practice. But our analysis of studies of visual culture in the light of abductive cognition is not only based on the Peircean definition of the types of hypothesis. Peirce also stated that all thinking is in signs, and signs can be icons, indices, or symbols. All inference is thus a form of sign activity, where the word sign includes feeling, image, conception, and other representation. Taking into account that Peirce considered any cognitive activity whatever to be inferential, some researchers have introduced the concepts of theoretical and manipulative abduction which refer to two kinds of abduction: sentential, related to logic and to symbolic inferences; and model-based, related to the exploitation of models such as diagrams, pictures, etc. Therefore, following Peirce, perceptual knowledge and subconscious cognitive activity can also be said to be based on abduction (and not only conscious abstract thought). The authors Kohlas, Berzati, and Haenni affirmed that abductive explanations are in general neither complete nor sound, and that, for this reason, they are not fully appropriate for model-based diagnosis. Nevertheless, model-based diagnosis has been used in combination with abductive reasoning in many research projects that deal with medical diagnosis. We share to some extent the scepticism of these authors, and propose the potential of the analysis of disciplines that study visual culture to analyse model-based abduction.
In this paper, art history and visual studies, the disciplines that study visual culture, are presented as a field whose conjectural paradigm can be used to understand the epistemic problems associated with abduction. To explore this tentative hypothesis, analogies between the field of art history and visual studies, and abductive cognition will be presented. The parallelisms between both fields will shed a new light on both research fields and show the appropriateness and potential fruitfulness of our proposal. We think that establishing a more complex relationship between both fields of study, would help to make a full theoretical development of some of their key concepts which, thus, can be presented as interplay between disciplines and open the path for interdisciplinary research.
The presence of abductive reasoning in scientific practices related to the arts has been clearly identified in studies that were oriented towards the establishment of a relationship between the interpretation of the arts and semiotics. Ginzburg included the method of the connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, along with those of Freud and Sherlock Holmes (or better, Conan Doyle’s method), in his essays about how in the late 19th century a theoretical model for the construction of knowledge emerged in the sphere of the social sciences: the conjectural paradigm. The methods of Morelli, Freud, and Doyle had something in common: they were based on taking marginal, irrelevant details as revealing clues to forge their conclusions, and they shared the model of medical semiotics or symptomatology. But the roots of the ‘semiotic’ approach were deeper: Ginzburg traced them back to forms of explanation and divination that could be oriented towards past, present, or future (jurisprudence, medicine, and divination proper). Furthermore, his hypothesis was that the origin of the diagnosis from signs or symptoms lay in the practices of long-ago hunters and the ‘reading’ of animal tracks.
This kind of knowledge, based on conjecture and speculation (born of experience, of the concrete and individual), responded to a paradigm that differed from the more prestigious scientific one, but it was used by all kinds of people. In the 18th century, the situation changed when the bourgeoisie appropriated for itself much of the knowledge of artisans and peasants. The Encyclopédie is signalled by Ginzburg as the symbol and chief instrument in this offensive, with the novel and the literature of imagination as a substitute and reformulation of initiation rites, giving access to experience in general. Because of all this, the conjectural paradigm enjoyed an unexpected success. In addition, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the constellation of conjectural disciplines changed and many new ones were born, with medicine assuming a preeminent position among them. All the ‘human sciences’ attempted to relate themselves to it explicitly or implicitly, and they did so by accepting the medical conjectural paradigm of semiotics. Medicine, and thus symptom deciphering, was well known by all the three authors mentioned by Ginzburg, as well as by Peirce. This knowledge probably helped them to formulate their methods according to the conjectural paradigm of medicine in a more accurate and convincing way. In so doing, their contributions to their disciplines gained a better ‘methodological reputation’.
Many of the controversies related to authorship identification of artworks (the main issue addressed by connoisseurs like Morelli) use the two types of hypothetical reasoning referred to by the historian of science Lipton. He distinguishes between inference to the likeliest and to the most attractive explanation. It is not clear whether the inference about the question of authorship precedes explanation or not. The use of inference to the best explanation (IBE) in the case of authorship identification and, more generally, in the study of visual culture, inverts the usual point of view about the relationship between inference and explanation. According to the natural point of view, or to common sense, inference would precede explanation. In spite of this, the reasoning model implicit in the ‘Morelli method’ consists of analyzing to what extent the evidence can explain a set of hypotheses. In this model, therefore, IBE, and thus the explanation, comes before the inference.
Perhaps because of the impact of Ginzburg’s essays, the ‘Morelli method’ is usually the only one mentioned when abductive reasoning is used in relation to art history. Moreover, Morelli is generally the only reference cited to the studies on art when the influence of Peirce on contemporary thought is debated. The abductive reasoning model is also present in the research of the founders of art history, decades before many art historians and other scholars analysed the visual. Authors like Michael Ann Holly have noted that some of the issues that were addressed by early semioticians were already being explored at the same time by art historians like Riegl and Panofsky. According to Holly, Panofsky was a keen student of semioticians’ works and shared certain epistemological predispositions with semiotics. For Argan, Panofsky’s method, iconology, confronted the problematic nature of art as that of linguistic structures much more than the formalism of Wölfflin. Perhaps that is why Argan affirmed that Panofsky was the Saussure of art history. Although, as Hasenmueller has noted, there are problems in simply calling Panofsky’s work semiotic: semiotics and iconology have a common interest in uncovering the deep structure of cultural products. Iconology, like early semiotics, “was devoted to exposing the existence of the conscious and unconscious rules of formation that encircle a language and make possible its sudden emergence—both visual and linguistic—on the surface of human history.”
But what interests us here is that Panofsky’s writings can be taken as an index of how he reached his conclusions. Panofsky’s objective remained the value judgment he called ‘re-creative synthesis.’ For him, the definition of an artwork as a “man-made object demanding to be experienced aesthetically” confronted the researcher with what he considered was the “basic difference between the humanities and natural science.” The scientist dealt with natural phenomena and could at once proceed to analyze them. In contrast, the humanist dealt with human actions and creations and had to engage in a mental process of a synthetic and subjective character. Humanists had “mentally to re-enact the actions and to re-create the creations,” and it was by this process that the real objects of the humanities came into being. According to Panofsky, the object of the humanities, and more precisely that of art history, was the result of this re-creative synthesis which was always in process. That is why he explained that the art historian did not constitute his object through a re-creative synthesis first, followed by archaeological research. For him, these two stages did not occur successively, but took place rather in an interwoven manner: the re-creative synthesis served as a basis for the archaeological research, but the latter served in its turn for the process of re-creation. Both stages were only conceived separately in theory (as a way to explain his method), but in practice they were recognised and used to qualify and correct each other in a reciprocal relationship.
This process is analogous to the abductive reasoning model described by the Ducth linguist Gorleé (1996) as a method in inter-linguistic translation. The necessary application of this method is manifest in the case of descriptive translation, whose objective is translation as a product. As an example, she mentions within this category translation understood as transference. There similarities are recognised that justify a translation which is considered valid in a transitory or derived way because words refer to specific cultural activities. In this sense, the explanatory hypothesis used in previous steps affects to further research and interpretation procedures. That is why some authors, such as Richard Tursman, consider that the use of abductive processes in this kind of studies is better described with the explanatory metaphor of the figure of the helicoid than with a linear figure. This is because there would be always something to go back to, something that could, in some way, be rediscovered. Gorleé affirms that Peirce’s logic-semiotic method can be fully applied to the identification, description, and analysis of translation as a mental experiment in the generation of meaning, where a hypothesis generated by abduction is verified in a reiterative way.
The helicoid figure referred to by Gorleé can help us to evaluate the significance of abductive reasoning in the cases of Panofsky and Morelli. On the one hand, the affirmations of the latter are based on an abduction process that goes from effects to possible causes. On the other hand, abduction in Panofsky is linked to belief revision. In other words, it has to do with an understanding of abductive reasoning as ampliative and non-monotonic. It is evident that in both authors the use of abduction led them to infer hypotheses that could not be classically deduced from the given facts. In spite of that, Morelli used abductive reasoning to make irrefutable statements on the authorship of artworks, just as if they were the result of deduction. So, even if both Morelli and Panofsky used the same type of reasoning, they did not evaluate in the same way the impact of their statements on the discipline of art history. Morelli was deeply fascinated by the power of apodictic demonstrations of objects whose meaning, in fact, is partially veiled as are the objects themselves. In contrast, some of Panofsky’s affirmations indicate that he was more aware of the always-in-process nature of interpretations of cultural objects.
The paradoxical situation of objects whose meaning is always partially veiled can be better understood if we turn to computational studies. According to Paul Thagard, this field provides a model for a better understanding of the hidden meaning of the data themselves and of the hidden meaning given to them by the producers of those data. Thagard distinguished four types of abduction: simple (which produces hypotheses about individual objects); existential (that postulates the existence of previously unknown objects); rule-forming (that produces rules that explain other rules); and analogical (that uses past cases of hypothesis formation to generate hypotheses similar to existing ones). But it would be difficult and inconsistent to classify the use of abduction in the construction of interpretation of cultural objects (by Morelli, Panofsky, or any other writer) in just one of these four types.
Empathy as embodied mechanism
Elements in the style of paintings were considered by Morelli, his “heir” Bernard Berenson, and other connoisseurs, as unconscious marks that identified their authors. The idea behind the assumptions of these connoisseurs was, as Friedländer pointed out, that creative individuality had an unchangeable core and that the artist remained fundamentally the same. Something, therefore, that could not be lost revealed itself in his very expression. In spite of this, just as experience has shown (a well known example of this being the development of the Rembrandt Research Project), this assumption has to be taken carefully, as nothing prevents an artist from switching consciously between different styles in a way similar to the choice of high or low style of a rhetorician, according to the particular occasion of his speech.
In the writings of the scholars known as formalists, style was important not because it was considered characteristic of an individual artist, but because it was understood as the specific expression of an age. If, according to Ginzburg, Morelli took a prestigious model such as medicine to support his attributions, the formalist authors and their interest in physiology and psychology can be said to respond to a similar aspiration to gain theoretical authority.
The authors and ideas that influenced formalist art historians the most were the German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, the psychologists Joahnn Fredrich Herbart, Theodor Lipps, and Wilhelm Wundt, the aesthetic theory of the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand, and Konrad Fischer. Their views formed the basis of the way Riegl and Wölffling understood art and its changes over time. They thought that the development of art through history responded to a process of development of vision that was analogous to the development of psychology of perception in individuals. By studying vision and the history of perception these authors focused on the relationship that people had to their environment. For them, physical involvement in artworks provoked a sense of imitating the motion seen or implied in the work, and this enhanced the spectator’s emotional responses to it. This idea was the result of the influence of empathy theory on the work of these art historians. The fundamental doctrine of empathy theory was that aesthetic experience depended on the experiencing subject’s projection of bodily sensations and emotional memory on fundamental formal elements of experience, such as lines and colours, and thus justified the interest in and need of formalist analysis. Robert Vischer was the first to employ the term ‘Einfühlung’ in a doctoral thesis, meaning the physical responses generated by the observation of paintings. Afterwards, Theodor Lipps promoted this term and empathy theory in works such as Die ästhetische Betrachtung und die bildende Kunst. Lipps was the supervisor of Wölfflin’s dissertation Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur where the latter gave an a-historical account of how architectural forms are perceived. Following Lipps’ ideas, Wölffling stated that forms had no expression by themselves. In reality, this only happened when the viewer read the proportions and relations of forms according to his own physiological and psychological constitution, endowing them with something of his own body’s posture and mood.
In spite of the early influenceit had on his work, Wölfflin would progressively move away from empathy theory in order to explain stylistic changes through time. In Rennaissance und Barock, he affirmed that changes in style and in other spheres of life as well occurred because of changes in bodily feeling. Later on, in Classic Art, he maintained that styles are conditioned by the combination of two independent factors: changes in purely artistic forms of vision, and changes in feelings and states of mind. Finally in his most famous book Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principlesof Art History), he proposed a general set of descriptive terms to capture the artistic visual forms of an age without proposing any further explanation. In the introduction he criticised empathy theory, arguing that when forms are read as expressions of states of mind, we make the false assumption that the same expressive methods are always available.
Following a process opposite to Wölfflin’s, another important formalist author, Alois Riegl, rejected the application of empathy theory to art history in Stilfagen (Problemsof Style). His later work, however, would show implicitly that he had come closer to it. For example, in Spätromische Kunstindustrie (Late Roman Art Industry), where he adopted the distinction between tactile and optical perceptions, he accepted the assumptions of empathy theory when he made the analogy between the apprehension of individual objects in the early haptic stage, and the sense we have of our own bodies. His last major work, Das holländische Gruppenporträt (The Group Portraiture of Holland), focused on the painting’s implicit viewer which approached him with empathy theory. For Riegl, Dutch paintings achieved coherence only when the viewer involved himself with the psychic sphere represented in them. According to this author, art in Holland was objective because it was concerned with the psychological relationship between figures that were independent from each other and from the viewer, a relationship that took place at a particular moment in a particular place in the absence of the artist’s subjective point of view.
Empathy was also among the interests of another major figure in the study of the arts, Aby Warburg. He thought it was possible to demonstrate, for specific conditions of time and place, how the visual arts expressed the perceptions and experiences of man. He analyzed the representation of the movement of the body, hair, and garments in artworks of 15th century Florence and traced back those movements in ancient art and also in contemporary images. For Warburg, the borrowing of artistic forms from antiquity had to do not just with forms, but was justified in terms of an affinity of expressive need. The intensified imitations of antiquity, of its postures and gestures, were interpreted by Warburg as traces of violent passions experienced in the past, which were used by following generations as a repertoire to represent specific states of action and psychological arousal.
Warburg called these Pathosformel (“pathos formula” or “emotive formula”), a name that emphasized the stereotypical and repetitive aspect of the imagined subject the artist had to use to give expression to “life in movement.” This term appeared for the first time in his essay on Dürer and Pagan Antiquity where Warburg traced back the iconographic theme of Dürer’s etchings, Orpheus, to the “pathetic gestural language” of the art of antiquity. He discovered and traced this Pathosformel by scrutinizing all relevant evidence: archives, family diaries, psychology, folklore, mythology, religion, philosophy, ethnography, opera, astrology, etc. He even travelled to New Mexico to witness the “living paganism” of the Pueblo Indians. All these interests gave form to the collection of his library, with the Greek inscription MNEMOSYNH above the door. The objects he named after Mnemosyne, the mother of all muses, would play a fundamental role in the development of his thought.
The question of the relations between inner and outward movement, and between movement and emotion, is part of the tradition of history of art and aesthetic research. Acknowledging the relevance of the above mentioned authors among others, at the present some researchers have engaged in investigations of empathetic response to artworks that are not purely introspective, intuitive, or metaphysical. This has been possible also in combination with the tradition of the interest in the arts in neuroscientific research.
In The Power of Images, Freedberg described some of the recurrent symptoms of emotional responses to paintings and sculptures throughout history. He intended to draw attention towards the lack of interest that the history of art had taken in doing any research on the subject. In that book, Freedberg referred to two kinds of responses: direct and indirect, or unmediated and mediated. The first type of response seemed to be automatic and to be predicated on immediate or felt bodily responses, and the second type was mediated by concept, reflection, and recollection. The first one was said to be common to all humans, being the other influenced by social, cultural, and historical conditions.
To acknowledge the hermeneutic potential of the relationship between the neuronal bases of response and their historical and cultural inflection, Freedberg has engaged in interdisciplinary work with neuroscientists. The objective of this collaboration is to find physical evidence of how art engages with the body and what the emotional responses that may ensue are. Freedberg’s intention is to discover the neuroscientific resolution (or at least refinement) of some of the older intuitions, hypotheses, and theories. His current work, therefore, deals with the neural bases of empathy and the relationship between emotional and motor responses to works of visual arts.
Freedberg has collaborated with neuroscientists such as Gallese who coined the term ‘embodied simulation’ to refer to a common functional mechanism that is the basis of both body awareness and basic forms of social understanding. One of the results of this collaboration is a paper on the neural basis of motion, emotion, empathy, and aesthetic experience. In addition, his work with neuroscientists Battaglia and Lisanby examines the corticomotor networks involved in responses to the sight of particular gestures in artworks.
This collaboration between art historians and neuroscientists has challenged the primacy of cognition in responses to art. They propose a theory of empathetic response to artworks that is not purely introspective, intuitive, or metaphysical, but has a precise and definable material basis in the brain. They maintain that a crucial element of aesthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions, and corporeal sensation. These mechanisms are mirroring mechanisms and embodied simulation for empathetic responses to images in general, and to works of visual arts in particular. This gives importance not only to context and meaning in art but also looks for a response to works of art that is the same for all humans.
If the studies mentioned above are concerned with artworks only, the analysis of the broad field of visual culture as something that is interwoven with the body is one of the recent incorporations in the interests of many researchers. We can see the emergence of this matter in relation to what Moxey signalled as the introduction of the problem of the “presence” of the objects of visual culture (of their power as agents) when carrying out research on them. This author affirms that visual artifacts are embedded in mediums and that neither images nor mediums can be studied separately. This idea of medium is a metaphor for the human body: visual artifacts are inscribed in mediums just as inner images are inscribed in the human body. The medium is thus a figure necessary to the agency of visual objects that are conceived as something more than plain representations.
It can be said, however, that a full theoretical development of concepts such as embodied simulation would be possible if a more complex relationship between visual studies and abduction studies were established. This relationship should be established from a philosophical point of view, and also from that of cognitive sciences, psychology of perception, and visual argumentation. To some extent this means that concepts like ‘embodied simulation,’ ‘empathetic response,’ or ‘Pathosformel’ can be presented as interplay between disciplines and, by extension, that both art history and visual studies are a cognitive niche of interdisciplinary research.
The interpretation of visual culture can be analyzed as a cognitive process that can be applied to an individual, a collective, a group, or a historical period. The activity of interpretation can be presented both as a process and as the result of a process. In both cases, cognitive abduction is constantly present and may appear either as theoretical abduction (related to logic and to symbolic inferences), or as model-based related to the exploitation of models (pictures, photographs, diagrams, collages, etc.), or even as manipulative abduction. Perception is a limited process. This implies the use of this type of reasoning, also understood as epistemic change, for modelling the incorporation of new beliefs.
The interpretative process and product, the bodily involvement in visual culture experience, and even visual culture itself, can be understood as products that have an inferential structure or that even imply an inferential play. Hence studies in abduction cannot be indifferent to visual studies. The total evidence principle referred to by Eco (that it is impossible to register all the potentially relevant information) transforms perception into an abductive activity in itself. There is evidence for the consistency of this approach. The development of ‘image-based hypothesis formation’ has led authors like Magnani to consider abduction in terms of visual abduction. But the integration of visual abduction in the study of visual culture invites us to explore a path where there is still much to discover.
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2. For further details see, Rivadulla, A. (ed.), 2004.
3. Walton, D. (ed.), 2006.
4. Magnani, L. (ed.), 2009.
5. Aliseda, A., 2006.
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15. Quoted in, Ibid., 38.
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