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Consciousness in the Arts and Humanities

In a provocative essay that is still relevant today, the English scientist (physical chemist, actually) and novelist C.P. Snow lamented what he saw as a yawning gap between those intellectuals who worked in the arts and humanities and those who work in the sciences and engineering.  In his view, many in the arts and humanities were, simply, scientifically illiterate, while may in the sciences and engineering had no interest in the arts and humanities, and failed to consider the social and ethical implications of his work.  This had not always been the case, in his view.  Intellectuals once comprised a common culture, and this was no longer the case.  There are reasons to think that the situation that Snow described in the 1950s still obtains today.

Which raises the question: how does a scientific approach to consciousness relate to other approaches to consciousness, which are characteristic of the arts and the humanities.  Let's ponder this question, setting aside the discipline of philosophy, which is usually considered a humanistic discipline, but which is also a component of cognitive science -- and thus, a willing if sometimes critical participant in the scientific approach.

What we really want to know is what writers and artists have to say about consciousness, that may complement what scientists have to say. 

David Lodge's Thinks...

David Lodge's novel, Thinks..., is in no small degree animated by the kinds of concerns expressed by Snow.  Lodge is an important English writer (and former English Literature professor), famous for academic satires like Changing Places and Nice Work, and for novels about modern Roman Catholics like The British Museum is Falling Down and Therapy. I suppose that Thinks... belongs in the former category, as its set in the fictional University of Gloucester, a newer "redbrick" university (as contrasted with ancient institutions like Oxford and Cambridge), and features a bunch of academics  

Lodge holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Birmingham, and taught there for many years, retiring as Professor of English Literature in order to devote himself to writing full-time.  Still, he continues to publish scholarly works on literature, among which is a collection of essays entitled Consciousness and the Novel.
  • Ralph Messenger, a cognitive scientist, is the director of the Holt-Belling Centre for Consciousness studies at Gloucester.
  • Helen Reed, an up-and-coming novelist, is visiting Gloucester as a writer-in-residence. leading a group of scientists working on consciousness.

They meet, and Ralph explains that the goal of his research is to provide an objective, "third-person" account of consciousness.  Helen offers a quote from The Wings of the Dove (by Henry James, brother of William -- a nice touch!) to demonstrate that  this, indeed, is just what novelists do.  Ralph replies that what James does is fiction based on "folk psychology", and that novelists merely "pretend" to know about consciousness. 

I suppose that Lodge could just as easily have chosen another James novel, What Maisie Knew (1897), told from the perspective of the titular child, as she tries to make sense of her family's complicated arrangements: divorced parents, and step-parents who are engaged in an affair with each other. 

Helen, for her part, argues that novels actually constitute "thought experiments" in how to represent consciousness.  And that without this representation of consciousness, novels wouldn't be novels, and wouldn't be satisfying for anyone to read.  (In fact, her description of what a novel would be like without representations of consciousness closely resembles what some cognitive scientists call the "functionalist" approach to behavior -- descriptions that don't stray from "behaviour and appearances", without saying anything about the characters' inner lives.)

Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity, and Point of View

Helen's dissertation project was on point of view in Henry James.  In literary studies, "point of view" refers to the way the story is told -- that is, whose consciousness is being described.  We can identify three different points of view, or narrative stance, with some variants.  For a fuller discussion, see The Rhetoric of Fiction by C. Wayne Booth (1961).

  • In First-Person point of view, the narrator is also a character in the story, and reveals his or her own internal mental states.
  • Second-Person point of view, in which the narrator addresses the reader, is rarely used.  One function of second-person point of view is to allow comparison between the mental states of the narrator and the reader.
  • In Third-Person point of view, the narrator is not a character.  This is perhaps the most frequently employed perspective encountered in fiction, and it comes in a number of varieties.
    • An omniscient narrator describes the actions and mental states of all the characters in the story.
    • A limited narrator describes the mental states of some (often just one), but not all of the characters.
    • An unreliable narrator is just that -- while the narrator may describe the actions and mental states of various characters, these descriptions may prove to be wrong or misleading.

If, as Helen claims, fiction wouldn't be satisfying without some representation of the conscious mental states of the characters, narrative stance is related to intersubjectivity.

  • As noted earlier, in the lectures on Introspection, subjectivity has to do with one's own private subjective experiences.  subjectivity is a characteristic of a first-person narrator.
    • I can say that I believe it's raining, or that I feel miserable, or that I want to be alone.
  • Intersubjectivity has to do with our perceptions of other people's mental states -- that is, with social cognition (the topic of another series of lecture supplements).  In the present context, intersubjecivity is what a third-person narrator has.
    • I can think that someone else believes that it's raining, or feels miserable, or wants to be alone. 

Intersubjectivity is higher-order intentionality.  And perhaps this is the time to remind ourselves of the two quite different meanings of the word "intentionality".

  • In English, intention has a motivational sense, referring to the goal-directedness of behavior. 
    • When English philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1780) or G.E.M. Anscombe (1957) discuss "intentionality", they mean the word in this motivational sense.
  • But in German, intentionality has an epistemic sense, and refers to the "aboutness" of mental states.
    • When the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano discussed "intentionality", he meant the word in this epistemic sense - -that mental states are always "about" something other than themselves.
    • In particular, intentionality in the epistemic sense has to do with a person's beliefs about the world.  These beliefs are subjective.
    • But we can also have beliefs about someone else's beliefs -- and this is what intersubjectivity is all about.


  • Subjectivity entails 1st-order intentionality -- what Person A believes, perceives, remembers, feels, wants, etc.
  • Intersubjectivity, at the very least, entails 2nd-order intentionality -- what Person B believes that Person A believes.
  • And there are even higher-order levels of intersubjectivity, entailing higher-order levels of intentionality.
    • At the 3rd order, what Person C believes that Person B believes about Person A's belief.
    • At the 4th order, what Person D believes that Person C believes that Person B believes about Person A's belief.
    • And so on.

Robin Dunbar (2000; Kinderman et al., 1998) has calculated that we can keep track of only about five levels of intentionality.  This is consistent with what we know about the limited capacity of short-term memory (e.g., George Miller's "Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two") or the capacity of working memory (closer to 4 or 5 items).

Interestingly, there can be more than two levels of intentionality, even if only two people are involved -- as illustrated by this New Yorker cartoon.

I go through all this because Lisa Zunshine (2006, 2012), a literature scholar who has been greatly influenced by psychology and cognitive science, has argued that intersubjectivity plays a big role in the English novel.  In fact, she argues that intersubjectivity in the novel was essentially invented by Jane Austen, whose novels are full of narratives in which A believes that B believes that C believes X

This is different from the intentionality in earlier (English) novels. 

  • Other early novels in English, like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), or Henry Fielding's Joseph Andres (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) are, mostly, fairly straightforward narratives of (somewhat improbable) events.
  • First-order intentionality in the novel really begins with Samuel Richardson, in Pamela (1740-1741), an epistolary novel presenting the narrative from the individual points of view of each of six characters.  In particular, Pamela is focused less on the events in the protagonist's life and more on her interior life.  According to some literary scholars, the English novel as we know it today really begins with Pamela.  
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, most narrators were omniscient, in that they knew everything about all of the characters (what is sometimes called "the author as God")..
    • Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great literary scholar as well as a first-rate novelist, identified a variant of the omniscient narrator as the "sifting agent", who takes the perspective of one character at a time.  But throughout, the thoughts and emotions are those of the narrator.
  • In the 20th century, we get modernism in literature, with its emphasis on depicting one individual's consciousness.  Zunshine argues that Austen's technique presages the modern novel in this sense.
  • Recently, Elliott Holt has argued that omniscience is making a comeback ("The Return of Omniscience", New York Times Book Review, 09/11/2016).
For example, there is an important episode in Persuasion (1818) in which Elizabeth and Anne, encounter Wentworth, to whom Elizabeth had once been engaged, but who had been persuaded (hence the title) to break it off.
  • Anne saw that Wentworth saw Elizabeth.
  • Anne saw that Elizabeth saw Wentworth.
  • Anne saw that Wentworth saw that Elizabeth saw him, but pretended not to do so.

Episodes like this proliferate in Austen's novels -- much more so than in her 18th-century predecessors, like Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding.

Interestingly, an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death discussed a computational analysis of Austen's works by Franco Moretti, founder of the Stanford Literary Lab and a proponent of computational criticism, a branch of digital humanities (DigHum, in Stanford parlance) which seeks to bring the techniques of "Big Data" to bear on the analysis of works of literature ("The Word Choices that Explain Why Jane Austen Endures" by Kathleen A. Flynn & John Katz, New York Times Book Review, 07/16/2017).  For example, Moretti employed principal components analysis to plot a number of modern English novels, published between 1710 and 1920, on a pair of axes.  Austen's work was nearly isolated from the others, for its reference to time markers and states of mind and avoidance of "muscular" prose.  Another analysis, essentially a word-count, found that Austen tended to use "intensifying" words like very, as well as more words referring to women.  And so it went, with its word-counts and contingency coefficients, leading to the conclusion, in the words of Flynn and Katz, that Austen was preoccupied with "states of mind and feeling, her characters' unceasing efforts to understand themselves and other people".  OK, but that's a lot of computational firepower to pick up what Zunshine noted with her naked eyes, which was Austen's invention of free indirect narrative and multiple levels of intentionality.  So much for DigHum!

Which is not to say that there aren't predecessors.  As Robin Dunbar (92004) has noted, Shakespeare's Othello depends precisely on multiple levels of intersubjectivity.
  • Shakespeare desired that
  • The Audience understand that
  • Iago intended that
  • Othello would believe that
  • Desdemona loved another man.

And there are similar episodes in homer's Odyssey, such as when Odysseus and his men are held captive by the cyclops Polyphemus.
  • Odysseus knew that if Polyphemus were blinded
    • he would not be able to detect his men escaping the cave by clinging to the bellies of his sheep.
  • Odysseus knew that when Polyphemus cried for help,
    • no one would come if Polyphemus said that "nobody" had harmed him.

Link to a reading of Book IX of Homer's Odyssey (the "Cyclops Episode").

And, for that matter, there are similar episodes in the Hebrew Bible:
  • Rebekah knew that Jacob could fool the blind Isaac by pretending to be Esau (Genesis 25: 29-34).

Or, for that matter, after Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3, 5-12),

  • they realized that they were naked (which is to say, they manifested subjectivity) and
  • they believed that God would not see them if they hid in the bushes (which is to say, they manifested  intersubjectivity).

But of course, intersubjectivity is essential to the novel, as Helen Reed argues in Thinks....  Zunshine's claim is more interesting: that higher-order intersubjectivity in the novel was essentially the invention of Jane Austen.

Zunshine goes on to argue that much modern literature, of the 20th and 21st centuries, is full of multiple levels of intersubjectivity.  Zunshine has estimated that Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (1925), involves 6 or 7 levels of intersubjectivity -- far in excess of what Dunbar has estimated most readers can handle. 

Moreover, Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in  what literary scholars call free indirect discourse.  She rarely uses quotation marks to indicate dialogue, so that it is difficult to make a distinction between what people think and what they say.

No wonder we need CliffsNotes!

Wordsworth's The Prelude: Or, Growth of a Poet's Mind, An Autobiographical Poem (1850)

Perhaps the single most important poem in the English Romantic tradition, The Prelude is about nothing less than consciousness -- specifically, Wordsworth's consciousness.  Begun in 1798, and essentially finished in 1839, the poem went through several different versions, as befits an autobiographical work, and in fact received its title by Wordsworth's wife only when it  was published posthumously.  As a young man, Wordsmith had been an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution -- a stance he came to regret during and after The Terror.  In trying to understand how all of this came to pass, Wordsworth reviews his life in one long epic poem (14 books!), which was intended to be only a part of an even longer one, portraying the various episodes in his life that influenced the shaping and re-shaping of his mind. 

  1. Introduction--Childhood and School-time
  2. School-time (continued)
  3. Residence at Cambridge
  4. Summer Vacation
  5. Books
  6. Cambridge and the Alps
  7. Residence in London
  8. Retrospect--Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man
  9. Residence in France
  10. Residence in France (continued)
  11. France (concluded)
  12. Imagination and Taste; How Impaired and Restored
  13. Imagination and Taste; How Impaired and Restored (concluded)
  14. Conclusion

In an extensive analysis of The Prelude, see  by Helen Vendler, reviewing a new edition of the 1805 version of the poem (containing 13 of the 14 books of the final version), calls the poem "a unique document of modern consciousness in its constant mobility -- of times, thoughts, feelings, prospect, and retrospect" and "a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being".  Vendler further notes that "Wordsworth's momentous -- and surpassingly expressive -- document belongs in any account of the evolution of modern secular consciousness in all its frailty, its tenacity, its bitter self-reproach, its existential doubt, its exaltation, and its stern accommodation to the vicissitudes of life" ("'I Heard Voices in My Head'", New York Review of Books, 02/23/2017).

The Stream of Consciousness in Joyce and Faulkner

Woolf also wrote in a style known stream of consciousness (also known as interior monologue; they're not exactly the same thing, but this isn't a course in literary techniques!), which was essentially the invention of James Joyce (yes, Joyce had his predecessors, but we've really got to give him credit).  The goal in this style is to replicate the features of William James's stream of consciousness, with little or no punctuation and apparent leaps from one thought or image to another. 

The classic example is Joyce's Ulysses (1922), a novel inspired directly by Homer's Odyssey, which traces the thoughts and actions of its main character, Leopold Bloom, as he moves through Dublin in a single day (June 16, 1904, a date still celebrated in literary quarters as "Bloomsday".  And within Ulysses, the classic example is Chapter 18 ("Penelope"), which records the thoughts of Bloom's wife, Molly, as she goes to sleep at the end of the day.

Link to a reading of Molly Bloom's soliloquy from James Joyce's Ulysses.

A somewhat different example is found in Joyce's last work, Finnegans Wake (1939) which, famously begins and ends in the middle of a sentence, and is littered throughout with puns and logical leaps.  That includes the title, which lacks the usual apostrophe to indicate possession: it could refer to "Finnegan's wake", or funeral; or it could be a pun on "Finn is again awake".  Actually, the traditional interpretation of this book is that it is an attempt to represent dream-consciousness -- and, in fact, not just the dreams of a single dreamer, but rather the dreams of a fairly large number of dreamers, all intermingled.  And somewhat like a Mobius strip, the first line picks up where the last line left off, so that the "dream-process" (if that's what it is) starts up all over again.

Link to a reading of the first pages of Finnegans Wake.

Link to an annotated online text of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

On this side of the Atlantic, William Faulkner employed the stream-of-consciousnes technique in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  Tracing the decline of a Mississippi family, the Compsons,the story is told mostly through the voice of Benjy, the youngest son, who is either brain-damaged or mentally retarded, and whose perceptions and memories come out in a disorganized flow -- to which other family members also contribute, so that we get constantly shifting perspectives and locations in space and time.

Of course, neither Joyce nor Faulkner invented the interior monologue.  Soliloquies, in which a character speaks his thoughts out loud, go back at least as far as Shakespeare's Hamlet ("To be or not to be, that is the question...") and Macbeth ("Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time...).  Soliloquies are different from monologues, in which the actor is really speaking to another character, or to the audience.  In the soliloquy, the character is speaking to him- or herself. 

In the 20th century, the soliloquy was developed further by Eugene O'Neil's Strange Interlude (1923; also a 1932 movie starring Normal Shearer and Clark Gable, and a 1988 television adaptation starring Glenda Jackson and David Dukes).  In this play, the actors will occasionally step out of the action and speak their thoughts out loud to the audience -- thoughts that may be quite different from those conveyed by the dialogue or action.  In the film version, the soliloquies were done as voiceovers.  As of 2016, Strange Interlude had not been released on video, but you can watch it on YouTube.  The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1928, the year it was first produced.

Recollective Experience in Proust

Another literary exploration of consciousness is to found throughout Marcel Proust's massive, seven-volume, 1925 novel, Remembrance of Things Past (that's the title of the original English translation, and still my preference; the new translation is entitled In Search of Lost Time).  The series is an extended meditation on involuntary memory, when some object or event unexpectedly stirs up a memory.  The classic example, from Swann's Way, the first volume, is the "madeleine episode", in which the first taste of a cookie dipped in tea brings back a rush of memory of the protagonist's childhood.

Link to a reading of the "Madeleine Episode" from Marcel Proust's Swann's Way (Vol. 1 of Remembrance of Things Past).

Jonah Lehrer, a prominent popular-science writer, wrote a book titled Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007), in which he argued that many modern scientific discoveries about the mind and brain were anticipated by Proust and other literary, musical, and artistic figures.  But Proust wasn't any kind of neuroscientist, or even a psychologist.  That's Lodge's point in Thinks...: that you don't have to be any kind of scientist to have interesting, valid things to say about consciousness.

Edward Rothstein, reviewing "Marcel Proust and Swann's Way: 100th Anniversary" an exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City, comments on Proust's depiction of conscious recollection ("Proust, for Those with a Memory", New York Times, 02/15/2013).

"Perhaps I am as thick as two short planks," reads one [prepublication review], "but I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep."

But anyone who reads that first volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, translated as Remembrance of Things Past, has no problem understanding how 30 pages might be required to capture the turnings of self-consciousness and their cascades of recollection.

Somewhat ironically, Rothstein notes that the exhibit makes clear that the "Madeleine Episode" didn't start out thta way.  In a draft from 1909, the narrator dips toast in his tea; in a 1910 version, he dips biscottes.  So much for the reliability of memory! 

For more, see "Cognitive Realism and Memory in Proust's Madeleine Episode" by Emily Troscianko, Memory Studies, 2013.

Notes on Lodge's Thinks...

The structure of Thinks... reflects some of these literary trends.  First, the book alternates among three different points of view: Ralph (speaking into his tape-recorder), Helen (writing in her diary), and an omniscient narrator.  It strikes me that Ralph's exterior monologues (exterior because they're spoken into a recorder) are something of a parody of Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses.

There are some breaks in this plan.

  • Chapter 20 is a record of email correspondence; but that's objective so it doesn't really violate the 3rd-person narration.
  • Ralph's Chapter 26 is written, not oral.
  • Helen's Chapter 27 is written in the 3rd person.
  • Samples from Helen's writing assignments to her seminar, which were directly inspired by her conversations with Ralph.
    • What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"
    • Mary, the Color Scientist
      • "Mary Comes Out" is a take-off on the Henry James quote that Helen offers to Ralph.
      • Query: Do you find the denouement of "Mary Sees Red" convincing?
Along the way, Lodge manages to hit most of the salient ideas in contemporary consciousness studies.  But there also appear to be a couple of major topics missing.  Hmm, I wonder what they might be.  Wait! That might make a good exam question!

Although the University of Gloucester is fictional, there actually exists something like the Holt-Belling Centre: the Sackler Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Sussex (which hosts a great psychology department).  The architecture doesn't seem to be as symbolic, but hey, you can't have everything! 

And I don't know whether the Sackler Centre has anything like the Karinthy Mural, but Olga Tymofiyeva, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at UC San Francisco who is a talented artist, sat in on this class a couple of years ago and was inspired to do her own version, entitled "A Dream About Psychology".  See if you can identify the various images.

Link to the full-size version of "A Dream About Psychology" by Olga Tymofiyeva.

Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem (2015)

Tom Stoppard, the English playwright famous for exploring philosophical and social commentary topics in his work: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) was inspired by the Gulag archipelago, while Arcadia (1993) dealt with chaos theory, among other things (including landscape architecture).  The Hard Problem (2015) takes its title from David Chalmers's analysis of the mind-body-problem: Why do we have subjective experience, and how does subjective experience happenI saw its West Coast Premiere at the American Conservatory Theatre, in San Francisco, in 2016, where the stage set reminded me a little of the architecture of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, a famous center for the study of the mind-body problem (if that was intentional, then someone was doing their homework). 

But the play also deals with the Prisoner's Dilemma (in fact, it begins with a scene in which two main characters, Spike and Hillary, try to solve the problem), altruism vs. egotism, and -- wait for it -- the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009.  Hillary is an English university student seeking a post-graduate fellowship at the Krohl Insitute for Brain Science.  While waiting for her appointment, she learns from Amal, another applicant, that the head of the Institute is mostly interested in "The Hard Problem"; Hillary, at first, doesn't even know what that is.  Once she finds out, she discusses the problem with Spike, a die-hard materialist, insisting (alluding to Morton Prince and others) that there is a difference between mind and body, and there must be some "mind stuff that doesn't show up in a scan" (as I say, Stoppard does his homework).  But like most everyone else, Hillary finds The Hard Problem unsolvable: "Every theory proposed for the problem of consciousness has the same degree of demonstrability as divine intervention".

Amal, for his part, proposes to study Libet's "unconscious readiness potential" while people are solving the PD.  Amal eventually abandons brain science for high finance, and gets caught up in the Financial Crisis.  I won't tell you what happens to Hillary (or Spike) -- except to say that I found the ending to be a completely unconvincing and unnecessary coincidence.

I will tell you, though, that Stoppard doesn't stick with The Hard Problem very long.  The play, while entertaining, is sort of a mishmash: it's telling that, in the ACT playbook, Stoppard tells us that he originally intended to write a play about the Financial Crisis.  The Guardian, reviewing the English production (02/01/2015), criticized Stoppard for seeming to promise, but not delivering, a serious exposition of and commentary on The Hard Problem.  Reviewing the ACT production, the San Francisco Chronicle called the play "a string of nonevents".Somehow, consciousness slipped in, but the play si really more about morality and altruism - -which is probably why it begins with the PD.  But maybe that's Stoppard's point: for all the attention to the mind-body problem, maybe the real hard problem is how to behave morally in a materialist universe.

For my money, Lodge did a much better job of dealing with thee issues, and with putting them into literature.

Link to a YouTube video of Stoppard and Nicholas Hyntner, director of the London premiere, discussing "The Hard Problem" -- and The Hard Problem.

Consciousness in Painting

Representations of conscious mental states may lie at the heart of the novel (and other forms of fiction), but other art forms have also gotten in on the game.


The most obvious of these is Impressionism, which got its start in France in the mid-19th century.  Prior to this time, at least from the Renaissance onward, up through the Realism of Daumier, Courbet, David, and others, paintings were supposed to be realistic representations of people or scenes from history, the Bible, or mythology -- as the viewer were looking through a window out onto a scene. 

  • To take one example out of thousands: "The Death of Leonardo Da Vinci" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1818), in the Musee du Petit Palais, Paris. 
The impressionists had other ideas: they sought to paint the momentary impression of a scene as it would be perceived by a viewer in a momentary glance -- a representation of the viewer's perception, not of the stimulus.  And, unlike the earlier studio-based artists, the Impressionists preferred to paint in natural light, which lent their paintings a further degree of "optic realism" -- that is, how things really look to the eye. And they didn't outline their figures first, before adding paint, because we don't see outlines either -- what we see are contrasts of color, brightness, and saturation.
  • The classic example: "Impression: Sunrise" by Claude Monet (1872), the very painting which gave the movement its name.
  • Monet continued to pursue the Impressionist theme in his series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral (begun in 1870), each one capturing the light at a different time of day.


In some respects this trend continued with a movement known as post-impressionism.  The post-impressionists maintained the impressionists' emphasis on momentary perception, but they attempted to give their art a more deliberate, finished look.  An excellent example is "A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", by Georges Seuat (1886), the jewel in the crown of the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (if you ever get to Chicago, don't miss it!).  Seurat himself was greatly influenced by the psychological theory of color perception dominant at the time, proposed by Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmholtz, who showed that any color could be produced by an appropriate mixture of just three "primary" colors -- red, green, and blue; this suggested that we have receptors in the eye tuned to short, long, and medium wavelengths of light (we now know that this theory isn't quite right, but that makes no difference to the story)In making his painting (and many others afterwards), Seurat applied pure color in tiny drops (a technique known as pointillism) -- and just to make it clear what he was doing, he painted a frame around the picture consisting solely of those same dots of paint.  Previous painters mixed their paints before applying them to the canvas.  But Seurat understood that, to paraphrase, color is mixed in the eye, not on the palette


A related movement, which arose in Northern Europe and the Nordic countries, was Expressionism, which had the goal of depicting the artists internal emotional, rather than perceptual, state.  .  The classic example, and by many accounts the painting that got the whole movement going, was "The Scream", several versions of which were painted by Edvard Munch from 1893-1910 (this one hangs in the National Gallery, Oslo, Norway).  Other expressionists were the artistic groups known as Die Brucke ("The Bridge"), led by Ernst Kirchner; and Die Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider"), inspired by a 1903 painting by Wassily Kandinsky.

  • A good example of Expressionism, though by a French rather than a Northern European painter, is Woman With a Hat (1905) by Henri Matisse, a leader of a group of French Expressionists known as Les Fauves ("The Wild Beasts").  The colors are defiantly unrealistic, and they're not even the colors that would appear in an Impressionist glance rather than the considered gaze of the Realists.  Rather, the colors are chosen intuitively, not rationally, to express emotion.

The Expressionists were influenced by Benedetto Croce, an Italian philosopher of aesthetics who argued that art reflected an intuitive synthesis of image and feeling.  Artists are not representing reality: they are representing emotion.  They were also influenced by the emerging theories of Sigmond Freud, whose treatise on The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, became an international best-seller.  To make a long story short, argued that dream imagery, was the product of unconscious affects and drives.


Freud, and especially his dream theory, was an even greater influence on another artistic movement, known as surrealism.  The surrealists, led by Salvatore Dali and Henri Magritte, rejected the notion of art as any kind of representation of the external world (that it was just such a representation was an assumption shared by both the Impressionists and the Realists).  Instead, they asserted that art should represent the internal world, the world of the mind, and especially that of the unconscious mind.  (The surrealists were also influenced by C.G. Jung's theory of the collective unconscious.)

  • The surrealist ethos is perhaps best represented by Dali's The Persistence of Memory (1931), with its melted watches symbolizing the suspension of time, and the inconsistent lighting and shadowing.  This is not an image of something that could exist in the real world outside the mind.
  • But it's also there in Magritte's famous "word-painting", La trahison des images ("The Treachery of Images", 1929), with its famous inscription, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe").  Of course it's not a pipe: it's a representation of a pipe.  (Magritte produced another version, with the text in English, in 1935.)

A variant on surrealism was surrealist automatism -- an artistic technique inspired by automatic writing, the Ouija Board, and other "mediumistic" methods -- and, of course, William James's own description of the stream of consciousness.  In automatic drawing, the artist allowed his or hand to move, apparently randomly, around the canvas or paper, so that the resulting image reflected the operation of unconscious processes. 

  • Doodling is an excellent example of automatic drawing.  
  • Joan Miro, a Spanish artist, often incorporated into his painting repetitive shapes and lines that appeared in his doodles -- as in Catalan Landscape (1923-1924).
Automatic drawing has its verbal counterpart in the work of such poets as Gertrude Stein -- who, in fact, as a Radcliffe undergraduate, performed experiments on automatic writing under the supervision of William James himself (see "as Gertrude Stein a Secret?", a famous essay by B.F. Skinner; also Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science by Steven Meyer, 2001).  Think of her famous aphorism, "A rose is a rose is a rose"; or the line from her 1928 opera collaboration with Virgil Thompson, Four Saints in Three Acts: "Pigeons on the grass, alas'.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from Stein's book-length poem, "Tender Buttons" (1914):



A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.

There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.


The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.

What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.

A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.

A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.

The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.

What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.


Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.


More of double.

A place in no new table.

For a survey of the role of dreams in 20th-century art, see Dreams 1900-2000: Science, Art, and the Unconscious Mind, edited by Lynn Gamwell.  The "science" is mostly psychoanalysis, so you have to take it with a grain of salt.  But even if the science is bogus, there's no question that the psychoanalytic theory of dreams was a great influence on 20th-century art.  The book includes "The Psychology and Physiology of Dreaming: A New Synthesis"an essay by Ernest Hartmann, a psychoanalyst who was also a leading dream researcher.

Abstract Expressionism

Automatic drawing, in turn, may have inspired the techniques of another movement, abstract expressionism.  However much they sought to depict the artist's internal perceptual or emotional state, the paintings produced by the impressionists, post-impressionists, and expressionists were still representations of external reality -- a sunrise, a social gathering, a person screaming, whatever.  Abstract art, of course, isn't a representation of anything at all -- that's why it's called abstract.  But one movement within abstractionism does intend to represent something -- that is, the internal feelings, and especially the actions, of the painter.  A prime example of this action painting is Jackson Pollack, as in his monumental "One: Number 31" (1950).  As the art critic Harold Rosenberg noted in a 1952 essay that gave this movement its name, for Pollack and others the painting is a representation of the painter's actions.  Hans Namuth made a famous film in which Pollack discussed and demonstrated his technique -- most notably, by painting on glass, with the camera recording the action from below.

Psychedelic Art

No presentation on consciousness in art would be complete without at least a mention of psychedelic art, a movement which arose in the 1960s (of course!) to depict, and sometimes enhance, the experience of those who took psychedelic drugs such as LSD.  Psychedelic art used bright, contrasting colors, often arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns.  Psychedelic artists were also attracted to paisley patterns, and fractals. 

Consciousness in Music

These trends in painting have their counterparts in music -- the "impressionist" compositions of Ravel and Debussy, for example, or the expressionism of Schoenberg (who was also an expressionist painter)And, of course, there's psychedelic music -- think of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Cub Band" by the Beatles (1967), or "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly (1968).

A more interesting musical representation of consciousness, perhaps, is provided by the Russian late-Romantic composer Alexander Scriabin, who had tone
-color synesthesia.  That is, each tone on the diatonic scale was, for him, associated with a different color, and he saw those colors when he heard those tones.  Although this synesthesia was a private experience for Scriabin, he attempted to share it with his audiences in his Symphony #5, subtitled Prometheus: Poem of Fire (1915).  For this work, Scriabin added a part for a 'Luce", or color-organ: when certain keys were depressed, corresponding colors would be displayed in the performance space.  Unfortunately, given the technology at the time, the best that performers could do was to project the various colors on a screen behind the orchestra.  Occasionally, orchestras substituted modern art for Scriabin's color scheme.  But in 2010, Anna Gawboy, a graduate student in musicology at Yale, together with Justin Townsend, a lighting designer, reconstructed Prometheus more along the composer's original intentions, complete with a full color-organ, and presented the piece in Yale's Woolsey Halal, in a performance with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada.

Link to a reconstruction of Prometheus by the Yale Symphony Orchestra, including Scriabin's clavier à lumières  or tastiéra per luce" (keyborad with lights).

Link to an performance of Prometheus by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra illustrated with modern paintings.

Consciousness and the Two Cultures

Helen Reed, in her keynote speech to the International Conference on Consciousness Studies ("Con-Con"), rightly called consciousness the modern equivalent of the Philosopher's Stone.  Discovering the Big Bang gave us the key to the Universe; discovering the structure of DNA gave us the key to life; uncovering the nature of consciousness will give us the key to the mind, what Morton Hunt has called "The Universe within".  But, as Helen (and Lodge) would have it, this discovery is not solely the province of science -- psychology or neuroscience.  The arts and humanities to play a role here, too.  Or so we can hope.

This page last revised 08/28/2017.