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aesthetic experience in the evolutionary perspective

On the Epigenesis of the Aesthetic Mind. The Sense of Beauty from Survival to Supervenience

Fabrizio Desideri
p. 63-82


What is the origin and meaning of our aesthetic sense? Is it genetically encoded or is it culturally inherited? The aim of the essay is to answer to such issues by defining the emergent and meta-functional character of the aesthetic attitude. First, I propose to include the faculty of desire in the free play of the cognitive faculties at the center of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The following step is given by a brief analysis of Darwin’s controversial remarks on the pre-human birth of aesthetics and its relationship with sexual selection (§§ 1-2). The point of discontinuity between a mere animal aesthetic sense and a proto-human one is then found to become indeterminate of desire in the correlative diversification of aesthetic attractors (§§ 3-4). Successively, I deal with the supervenience character of the aesthetic and its anticipatory value. After a short genealogy of the notion of supervenience, I then develop its affinity with that of epigenesis (§§ 5-6). Afterwhich follows a review of two contemporary evolutionary perspectives on aesthetics: T. Deacon’s essay on the “aesthetic faculty” and J. Tooby and L. Cosmides thesis on the evolutionary meaning of the aesthetic-fictional activities (§§ 7-8). Conclusively, the epigenesis of an aesthetic mind is considered as the unity between the breath of aísthesis and the breath of linguistic sign (§§ 9-10).

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1. The origin of the aesthetic attitude and the relevance to it of desire. A proposed revision for the Kantian model of aesthetic experience

1What is the origin and meaning of our aesthetic sense? Is it innate, i.e. genetically encoded, or is it culturally inherited and historically derived? What kind of connection is there between the aesthetic attitude developed in various contexts and at different stages of life (towards faces and bodies, artworks, music, landscapes, flowers, animals and many other kinds of objects), the cognitive working of our minds and our moral life? Does the aesthetic attitude simply denote an accessory, and maybe even residual, function of the human mind, as opposed to something central to cognition, or is it a unique feature, relevant to the definition of our identity?

2Such issues are crucial to the foundation of aesthetics and to how we imagine the place and role of the aesthetic in our lives, its social relevance and its inner connection with the way we understand reality and live ethically. Among the most consistent philosophical answers to such issues there is that provided by Kant in the Critique of Judgment, where aesthetic experience is thought as a bridge connecting the theoretical realm of knowledge with the practical realm of action. It is a bridge based on the subjective foundation of aesthetic judgment – the feeling of pleasure and displeasure – considered as the exemplary form of reflective judgment. The structural articulation of aesthetic judgment in four moments is addressed in the First Book of the Critique of Judgment: the Analytic of the Beautiful. Here, Kant not only avoids the traditional opposition between an emotivist conception of the aesthetic (e.g. that developed by Hume) and a cognitivist one (e.g. that defined by Baumgarten), but he also manages to break the deadlock between a purely naturalistic and a mere culturalistic characterization of the faculty of taste and more generally of the aesthetic sense, as we can see in § 22 (Kant 1790). The explanatory power of Kant’s conception of aesthetics lies essentially in his theory of aesthetic judgment, considered as the effect of free play between the cognitive faculties, intellect and imagination. This effect expresses itself in the harmonization of faculties in relation to an object of perception and is therefore greeted with a feeling of pleasure. Our ability to formulate aesthetic judgments thus assumes the role of anticipating a favorable cognitive relationship with the world and envisioning an ethically good life. Nevertheless, Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment shows a significant limitation in that it is able to explain the anticipatory character of the aesthetic (the fact that aesthetic judgment anticipates the form of knowledge in general), but not its genesis. The price paid by a strictly Kantian model of the aesthetic is therefore twofold: 1) the free play between the cognitive faculties is limited to a purely transcendental effect, while the question of its anthropological genesis is not taken into account; 2) the faculty of desire does not participate in the free play harmonizing the faculties and therefore the relationship between the will and the sphere of the impulses is left aside.

  • 1 See Desideri 2006a: 43-54.

3We can ride out some difficulties inherent in the Kantian model referring to Schiller’s Letters on The Aesthetic Education of Man. Here, Schiller defines the impulse to play as a real aesthetic impulse that represents the expression of the dynamic trade off (a commercium dynamicum) between the impulse towards the differentiation of matter and that towards the unity of form. The play impulse can thus appear as structurally inscribed in human nature, from which it generates the original principle of subjectivity1. Unlike the Kantian model of the free play between the cognitive faculties, Schiller’s model of the relationship between the three kinds of impulses includes the horizon of desire. Therefore, through Schiller’s Letters the genesis of the aesthetic attitude may be outlined according to an explanatory model that is conceptually plausible and consistent. According to Schiller, in fact, the play dynamics comes from a naturally constitutive impulse and, contrary to Kant, is not a mere effect of the play between the cognitive faculties. Long before Schiller, Plato himself, in Socrates’s speech in the Symposium, had illuminated the knot binding together eros, desire and beauty.

4Our task is now to figure out whether the genesis of the aesthetic attitude in the human context can be found in the relationship that ties the beautiful, as well as any other aesthetic quality, to the faculty of desire and, consequently, to our ability to express preferences and evaluate all sorts of objects.

2. Darwin: aesthetic function and sexual selection

  • 2 Darwin 1871.
  • 3 See Dissanayake 1992; Kogan 1994; Thornhill 1998 and 2003; Miller 2000 and 2001; Dutton 2003.
  • 4 See Menninghaus 2003; Thornhill 2003; Voland 2003; Welsch 2004; Dutton 2009; Bartalesi 2012.

5The question thus is whether desire, and in particular its original bond with sexual impulse, can be considered the very origin of our aesthetic attitude, i.e. of typically human sense of beauty. In relation to this topic, in recent years much attention has been paid to the passages Darwin dedicated to the aesthetic problem considered from an evolutionary viewpoint, especially those contained in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex2. Darwin’s claims have recently been discussed not only from a psychological and socio-biological perspective3, but also from a philosophical and, more specifically, an aesthetic one4.

  • 5 Welsch 2004.
  • 6 See Welsch 2004: 4. Here, Welsch considers not only the statements contained in The Descent of Man, (...)
  • 7 Darwin 1872: 162.
  • 8 Darwin 1859: 199.
  • 9 Darwin admires the development of parts of the body fulfilling the sole function of ornamentation, (...)
  • 10 In this respect, Amotz Zahavi (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997) has suggested to apply the principle of hand (...)

6The main Darwinian thesis on the pre-human birth of aesthetics are well summarized in Animal Aesthetics, an essay by German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch5. They include: 1. the idea that, although the «sense of beauty» (a Darwinian wording) is set in an utilitarian context (that of the choice of a mate for pairing), it is not «in itself a sense of utility or reducible to the utility»; 2. the theory of co-evolution or co-emergence of aesthetic sense and physical beauty in certain animal species; 3. the defense of the claim that there is a basic continuity between animal and human aesthetics, notwithstanding their development and differentiation through cultural transmission. Going back to some self-critical observations made by Darwin, Welsch seeks to challenge a fairly widespread stance in the field of sociobiology, according to which the aesthetic criteria of mate choice for reproduction should be definable in terms of simple indicators of fitness. Contrary to this position – Welsch notes – Darwin’s own concerns in which he speaks about having given too much relevance «to the action of natural selection or to the survival of the fittest» and to the «complementary strategy» of sexual selection in relation to natural selection6. According to Darwin, it is in particular «a very obscure subject», «how the sense of beauty in its simplest form – that is, the reception of a peculiar kind of pleasure from certain colours, forms, and sounds – was first developed in the mind of man and of the lower animals»7. This statement should be considered in the light of the many problems Darwin encountered with the arguments he put forward in The Descent of Man, especially because there emerged a divergence between the needs of sexual selection and those of natural selection. Moreover, already in the first edition (1859) of The Origins of Species, Darwin writes that «the effects of sexual selection, when displayed in beauty to charm the females, can be called useful only in a rather forced sense»8. The theme is widely developed in The Descent of Man. On the one hand, the growth of certain parts of the male body (such as the tail of the peacock or the horns of the deer), strengthens the male’s aesthetic appeal, which is good when females choose sexual partners9, but has too high a cost when it comes to the survival of the fittest10. On the other hand, the co-evolving in females of a sense capable of making aesthetic distinctions and choosing according to them exceeds the biological function of this very sense, originally destined for sexual selection. To the excessively high cost of the aesthetic differentiation developed in males there thus corresponds in females the development of an energetically uneconomic aesthetic sense, which can be exercised in ways that go far beyond its first functional destination.

  • 11 See Bartalesi 2009.

7Between natural selection and sexual selection there is, therefore, a gap: those ornaments that increase success in the struggle between the sexes are often a burden in the struggle for life. At opposite ends of the same spectrum we find, then, aesthetic competition (among males of the same species) and the opening up of a range of opportunities in the aesthetic choice of the partner. The result Welsch draws, consistently with Darwin’s observations, is that this is where the aesthetic function in the context of animal life first emerges. It is still a function with utilitarian profile, since it emerges within the context of sexual selection. However, because of the high costs and energy expenditure it involves, its realm is broader than that of the utilitarian context in which it emerges. We may also interpret this emergence of an aesthetic sense in the animal kingdom as embryonically meta-functional and, therefore, as the premise or nucleus of a semantic, or almost semantic, «bootstrapping» that precedes language. It is likely that the critical point of discontinuity between a mere animal aesthetic sense and a proto-human one is to be located at the point when desire is released from its biological bond with sexual impulse and the process of correlative diversification of the environment where aesthetic preferences are expressed starts out11. Moreover, this is a context (although not the only one) where a plastic form of intelligence can be developed.

3. Indeterminate desires and aesthetic choices

  • 12 According to Winfried Menninghaus, this is the «real highlight of Darwin’s theory of sexual aesthet (...)

8There emerges, then, a new connection (which it would be reductive to interpret in terms of a Freudian sublimation) between desire, released from its link with sexual objects, and diversified environment, and there occurs a recurrent dynamics of surprise, confirmation and disappointment, which we could represent by means of a vector function. This kind of experience makes human expectations towards the world increase further and further. So conceived, the faculty of desire becomes indeterminate and at the same time selective, triggered as it is by a rewarding attentional involvement. The first appearance of taste (or aesthetic sense) as «generator of the objects that it prefers»12 is then linked to the development and diversification of aesthetic attractors in the environment. Therefore, it seems most reasonable to hypothesize that the two poles of the relationship co-evolve. Gradually, a peculiarly human aesthetic attitude emerges in this scenario, retaining a few aspects of continuity with the aesthetic attitude of other animals. This attitude grows and stabilizes with the exercise of ever more complex forms of aesthetic preference. The pleasure of aesthetic selection itself thus reinforces and confers rewarding character to an experience that assumes the features of a free play.

9What is interesting about this account of the development of an aesthetic attitude in humans is that it can be pursued in other directions differing from the proposal that the hidden reason of aesthetic choices is given by indicators of fitness. The latter does not help us to understand an attitude, which is in some respects shared by human beings and animals and is at the same time crucial in order to see the human and the animal realm as discontinuous.

4. The supervenience character of the aesthetic and its anticipatory value

10With the emergence of an aesthetic dimension, unconstrained by specific functions, the meaning of life changes, departing from the perspective of mere survival. A new, wider and indeterminate horizon is opened, that of fertility and productiveness, related to the experience of beauty. A horizon well represented by the great speech Diotima delivers in Plato’s Symposium.

  • 13 Ernst Cassirer discussed the concept of “aesthetic space” in relation to the “mythical space” and t (...)

11Aesthetic supervenience, then, tells us something about how life acquires value in our eyes and the meaning of our life flourishes. The supervenient character of aesthetic experiences reveals indeed new dimensions of reality experience to those accessible to purely cognitive strategies. The significance of the supervenient character of the aesthetic attitude, then, consists in the fact that it anticipates new forms of production of meaning, which are capable of reshaping our way of knowing and acting, both at the individual and at the social level. The anticipatory value of the aesthetic – as supervenient and emerging meta-cognitive and meta-functional attitude – therefore consists in its ability to offer a space for the generation of symbolic relationships (which transform objects into signs). Human beings show the peculiar traits of symbolic animals insofar as they begin to take the shape of animales aesthetici. In the landscape of the human mind, the aesthetic space13 of analogical affinity (a network of elective affinities capable of metabolizing the relationship with what is “other”) precedes the semantic space of symbolic connection and representation and paves the way for it. This is why the anticipating function of the aesthetic is inextinguishable.

5. A brief genealogy of the notion of supervenience

  • 14 In a similar direction goes a remarkable essay by American anthropologist and neuroscientist Terren (...)

12What supervenes is also what, unexpectedly, appears. The supervenience of aesthetic properties has then proved inseparable from the emergence of an aesthetic attitude in the human world, and it shows certain evolutionary peculiarities, even when it is compared with some of its phylogenetic antecedents (especially with the linkage between sexual selection and aesthetic preference in some animal species). Certainly, aesthetic experience in human beings is also related to the utilitarian context of sexual selection, but this is not its most important and distinctive feature. This is why I have stressed the notion of the emergence of specifically “human” aesthetics and the fact that it seems irreducible to its antecedents and constituents14.

  • 15 On the supervenience topic in the Philosophy of Mind and in Aesthetics see: Davidson 1970 and 1995; (...)
  • 16 Desideri 1998: 234-238.

13The debate on supervenience in aesthetics is – as it is well known – tightly related, albeit in a peculiar way, to the discussion of the same notion in the context of the mind-body problem debate15. In a previous publication16 I have suggested that the notion of supervenience could be even traced back to the Commentaries on Aristotle’s De Anima, where we find a discussion on the origin of the intellect, which «arises from the outer» (tyrathen: De Gen. An. II.3, 736 b 27), in relation to the autonomous articulation of the soul into different faculties. In one of the Commentaries, by Themistius, the addition of the intellect to the structure of the soul is defined as prosghenomenos, with the medio-passive present participle of the verb prosghignomai, from which there derives the noun prosghenesis (a “new genesis” or “a further generation”, “a generation that is added”) and the Greek term was translated into Latin by William of Moerbeke, who chose the term «superveniens». His translation was destined to play a decisive role in the medieval debate on the nature of the intellect. In the term “supervenience”, then, there also resonates a sense of genesis and contingency.

  • 17 McLaughlin 1995: 50-51 n. 3.
  • 18 It is Robert Grosseteste who translated the term «epighinomenon», that we find in this passage, wit (...)
  • 19 See Lloyd Morgan 1923.
  • 20 Nicomachean Ethics: X, 1174b 31-33.
  • 21 Ibidem: X, 1174b 34.

14Brian McLaughlin makes similar observations on the genealogy of the concept of supervenience17. Leaning on a suggestion by Peter Geach, McLaughlin confirms that the term “supervenient” entered Oxford philosophical jargon through Latin translations of Nicomachean Ethics, X, 1174b 31-3318. McLaughlin, although skeptical about this usage (he prefers to refer to Lloyd Morgan’s use of “supervenient” in the context of the theory of emergentism)19, in order to confirm Geach’s suggestion quotes David Ross’s translation of a passage from Aristotle, where pleasure is considered «as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of age». Although words such as “beauty” or “grace” do not appear in the translation (Ross translates hora with “bloom of youth”), the notion of “supervenience” is introduced in such a way that it appears interwoven with aesthetic references. Aristotle’s passage, in fact, concerns the pleasure generated by an object in a subject who has a sensory perception of it (aísthesis) and pleasure – Aristotle writes – «completes the activity not as the corresponding permanent state does, by its immanence, but as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age [hos epighinomenon ti telos, oion tois akmaiois hora20. The example has paradigmatic value: what supervenes is beauty (“the bloom of youth”) and all the rest follows. There is pleasure in feeling and thinking, in fact, as long as «both the intelligible or sensible object» (the aesthetic and the noetic object) «are as they should be»21.

6. Supervenience and epigenesis of the aesthetic sense

  • 22 In this sense, I propose to extend the notion of “aesthetic supervenience” developed by Jerrold Lev (...)
  • 23 Levinson 2010: 203.

15Qua «superveniens» in the attentional space of perceptual life, the pleasure we feel while realizing that an object in the perceptual world “is as it should be” expresses a rewarding relationship between the human mind and the world. The relationship may be defined “aesthetic”, since it is triggered by perception and characterized by an expressively dense experience of pleasure. The appearance of the aesthetic relationship between mind and world changes the human landscape. This is why I suggest that we should understand the notion of aesthetic supervenience as expression of the co-emergence of aesthetic properties and aesthetic attitudes22. The ontological dynamics of this unity between an object’s properties and a subject’s attitudes toward it confirms that it is impossible to separate realism and expressivism in aesthetic matters. Paraphrasing Jerrold Levinson, who claims that for the artwork and its future «there is no question of change of content but only of a postponed revelation»23, I am rather inclined to attribute to aesthetic supervenience the character of an anticipatory revelation.

  • 24 This hypothesis relies on the idea that «the development of the human brain is fundamentally charac (...)
  • 25 Changeux 2003: 210.
  • 26 Ibidem: 213-214.

16Coherently with this reconfiguration of the concept of supervenience (and not just of that of the aesthetic), the aesthetic sense shows its epigenetic character. Following the theory put forward by Jean-Pierre Changeux about the acquisition of reading and writing skills in children and the transmission of knowledge in an epigenetic way24, it could be argued that even aesthetic competence, with the implications so far considered, uses the «epigenetic abilities of the brain to store new skills in the course of development»25. This happens in correlation with «the “epigenetic” opening of brain connectivity to the outside world», Changeux explains, with the formation of habitus or rather of «a “medium” of intermediate stability between genes, whose mutability is expressed through the generations, and the conscious space, whose transience and versatility are manifested in psychological time»26. The medium Changeux writes about is the expression of regular attitudes, which are highly variable and context sensitive and are thought as capable of being activated and constantly renewed thanks to the stabilization of neuronal traces related to aesthetic experience and, therefore, thanks to the fact that our minds store rules of selection and preference such as those incorporated into highly flexible and indeterminate schemes or patterns. These are the aesthetic schemes: patterns of aesthetic orientation, capable of capturing very heterogeneous phenomena by recognizing an aesthetic affinity between their salient features.

7. From the aesthetic faculty to the aesthetic device. On an essay of Terrence W. Deacon

  • 27 Deacon 2006.
  • 28 Ibidem: 25.
  • 29 Ibidem: 26.
  • 30 See Deacon 1997.
  • 31 Pievani 2006: 258-264.
  • 32 Ibidem: 47.

17To better understand the evolutionary significance of the birth and growth of the aesthetic habitus in human behavior it is interesting to consider the hypothesis of American anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon, put forward in an essay on the “aesthetic faculty”27. According to Deacon, the aesthetic faculty is species-specific and is in close connection with the development of the ability to deal with «objects or actions as signs (icons, indexes or symbols) for something beyond them»28. The specificity of human aesthetics, in other words, can be compared to the specificity of the human language. As such, it demands both an evolutionary and a neuronal explanation. In this regard, Deacon formulates two questions. First, he asks whether the aesthetic propensity is to be considered a primary adaptation or a side effect of some other selected cognitive traits (for example, adaptations related to the exercise of language skills). Second, he asks whether the aesthetic propensity can be considered an acquired feature, dependent on the development of linguistic and symbolic skills, or alternatively «an expression of predispositions that are in some way developmentally antecedent to any cultural symbolic overlay»29. Deacon’s answers are part of a broader anti-innatist thesis that aims to define the human species as a symbolic one. He claims that the human species, considered as a symbolic species, is the product of a co-evolutionary process of brain and language development30, i.e. of an «exponential and self-powered» process, the consequences of which have gone well beyond its «original selective purposes»31. In the emergence of the symbolic species Deacon assigns therefore a decisive role to the settling of a mental space, identifiable as aesthetic cognition and, earlier, as an aesthetic experience powered by the juxtaposition of emotional spaces. If I understand Deacon’s complex and sometimes jagged argument, it is in the process of cognitive integration – or blending – of mutually exclusive, primary emotions, that there emerges the faculty to establish a semiotic correlation within this «emotional juxtaposition»32.

  • 33 Ibidem.
  • 34 See Dennett 1989.
  • 35 See Deacon 2006: 30. His debt with Peirce’s semiotics is quite obvious.

18The blend of the emotional and the conceptual represents hence a synthesis capable of producing new emotional patterns and therefore a «new cognitive space»33. The premise of this argument is offered by what Deacon – in analogy with Dennett’s Intentional Stance, i.e. the disposition to consider other people, most of the animals and some animated objects as capable of having intentional states34 – calls a «Representational Stance»: this is the disposition to deal with anything in the world as a sign or as something that stands for something else35. This disposition in turn has been radically transformed by the use of symbols and by human adaptations designed to ease human communication. To conclude, according to Deacon, human aesthetic experience is

  • 36 Deacon 2006: 38.

both a function of an intrinsic shift in motivational structure favoring combinatorial associative exploration – a reflection of adaptation to ease the mnemonic difficulties of symbolization – and a function of the increased combinatorial freedom for manipulating mental representations and their emotional correlates with respect to one another36.

  • 37 Ibidem: 37.

19Since neither a «human neural “essence”» nor a specific language module explain the symbolic capacity, then neither a certain region of the brain nor a specific neural module can explain the aesthetic faculty. Since «emotion cannot be dissociated from cognition» and the emotional tone acts as a marker of priority attached to an object involved in a cognitive relationship, allowing for selecting it over other objects37, aesthetic experience makes it possible to recombine cognitive-emotional substrates and express them in ways before unknown. In proto-aesthetic experience, then, we find the very origin of art, based on practices of conventionalization, simulation and representation inherent in the play structure that is so crucial to learning processes and knowledge transmission.

  • 38 For the idea of “aesthetic mechanism” see Desideri 2013.

20I believe we should overall agree with the model of aesthetic experience outlined by Deacon. However, I have two remarks to make about his proposal, one of terminological matter, the other more substantial. First, I suggest to replace the term «aesthetic faculty» with the term «aesthetic device»: a device that, for sure, has paradoxical features, since it defines a meta-functional mechanism (the “aesthetic mechanism”), which lies at the boundary between natural dispositions and the acquisition of cultural skills38. Secondly, and relatedly, I am skeptical that the model of the mind of the “symbolic species” (i.e. the human mind) is essentially a cognitive one, even if equipped with an aesthetic faculty. As an alternative, I suggest that the human mind should be rather defined, from a species-specific perspective, appealing to the emergence of the aesthetic as an unmodular device, a device, that is not tied to perceptual modules and rigidly defined functions, but is characterized by degrees of freedom and by a native and indeterminate plasticity. It is exactly because of these features that we should be able to characterize the aesthetic as the expression of an original synthesis, a blending or harmonization between emotional and cognitive layers of experience.

21When compared to its premises, this synthesis, in the anticipatory mode proper of aesthetic experience, has the character of a supervening blossoming. In order to understand the emergent or supervening nature of this harmonizing synthesis we need to look at the way in which the aesthetic device works as an active link between mind and world. This activity can be briefly defined as the filtering, tuning, modulating, processing and transforming of perceptual markers, so as to produce dynamic configurations of meaning, expressing a new aesthetic bond as an output. Thanks to this characterization we can stress again that the work of the aesthetic device is not related to a specific domain, but has general effects of meta-functional kind by virtue of its unmodularity. This is what its paradoxical function or meta-function amounts to.

8. The evolutionary meaning of the aesthetic-fictional activities. The neo-Darwinian thesis of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides

  • 39 Tooby and Cosmides 2001.
  • 40 Ibidem: 6
  • 41 Ibidem: 8.
  • 42 Ibidem.
  • 43 Ibidem: 9.

22In order to deepen our analysis of the paradoxical function of the aesthetic, i.e. of its meta-functional character, it is worth discussing the ingenious proposal, of strict neo-Darwinian observance, put forward by anthropologist John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides39, which concerns the evolutionary meaning of human aesthetic experience. According to Tooby and Cosmides, all the features of the neural or cognitive architecture of a species are «either adaptations, by-products or genetic noise»40. In this framework, all adaptations occur in that they are selected to perform functions that are, ultimately, useful to genetic propagation. This concerns the features of the human mind expressed in typical and recurring behavior, such as cooperation, aggression, sexual desire, love for one’s children and one’s family, and so on. Many of these features and kinds of behavior are continuous with those of other animal species. There are, however, areas of behavior that are typically human and experiences that seem to resist a simple and direct explanation in Darwinian terms. Tooby and Cosmides refer to phenomena relevant to the so-called “Humanities”, and especially to the attraction human beings feel towards fictional experiences and, more generally, towards all sorts of «aesthetically-driven» activities. These are widespread cross-cultural phenomena, quite typical of the human species; they are «an intrinsically rewarding activity, without apparent utilitarian payoff»41. A feature of the involvement of human beings in fictional worlds is that these «engage emotion systems while disengaging action systems»42. The well-organized nature of the fictional activities and the complex responses activated in the emotional channels suggest that «the machinery that permits pretense» is «the product of a specialized subsystem, and not simply a byproduct of general intelligence»43. It remains to understand what are the benefits of these adaptations and, therefore, what is the evolutionary meaning of the aesthetic-fictional function, characterized by the suspension of the semantic relations of truth, existence and reference.

  • 44 Ibidem: 13.
  • 45 Ibidem: 25.
  • 46 Ibidem: 16.

23The answer lies in the adaptive changes produced by aesthetic experiences and activities in relation to the outer world and the body of the agent, and in the changes concerning the whole brain-mind complex44. Arguing «that the socially recognized arts are only a small part of the realm of human aesthetics»45, Tooby and Cosmides ask how humans have been able to evolve motivational systems or systems of aesthetic preferences designed to find rewarding types of action and experience, which would have had an adaptive character for their ancestors. In the case of the changes due to the perceptual trade between the outer world and one’s body, the evolutionary significance is clear and direct. More difficult, however, is the identification of the adaptive advantage of neurocognitive changes induced by aesthetic activities and experiences. In order to account for the latter, Tooby and Cosmides distinguish between a functional kind of neurocognitive adaptation (which relates to the performance of certain functions, such as the inspection of a scene by the visual system or the generation of expressions by the language system with communicative purpose) and an organizational kind (the one designated to build adaptation, providing it with correct evaluations, information or representations). In the latter they see an aesthetic component. What, at first, might seem aimless behavior, might instead be guided by adaptations operating in an «organizational mode». The non-utilitarian character of aesthetically driven behavior would thus be only apparent, since its purpose would be to produce «adaptive changes in the immense and subtle internal world of the mind and brain»46.

24I strongly disagree with the neo-Darwinian utilitarianism of Tooby and Cosmides. Transformed into an hidden function, the aesthetic device loses its meta-functional value and its power to express the sense of human identity. The reality principle of adaptiveness neutralizes the good intuition about the performative character of aesthetic-fictional practices.

  • 47 Ibidem: 21.

25At least two examples can be mentioned in support of my criticism, taken from the evocative and insightful collection offered by Tooby and Cosmides. First, the perception of the beauty of invariant properties of natural phenomena (stars, fire, faces, landscapes, etc.) or of harmonically resonant, acoustic phenomena (produced by wind, rain, flowing water, etc.) is explained in functional terms, as a matter of testing and tuning our perceptual machinery. Second, the adaptive reason of our involvement in the worlds of fiction is found in the acquisition of skills for decoupling from reality sets of representations whose truth value is suspended. Storing fictional representations as information decoupled from the reality principle, an individual would use these representations in order to solve problems and cope with several situations, with the advantage of not having to rely only on one’s own experience, but «reasoning counterfactually» instead. Decoupling and re-coupling the information acquired in fictional narrative contexts would have, in other words, «a powerfully organizing effect on our neurocognitive adaptations»47.

26I have no objection against the claim that in this way the context of human experience is noticeably expanded. However, I am not persuaded by the rigidly functionalist axiom of closure that characterizes this proposal, which interprets the unfolding of the aesthetic device exclusively in an economic sense and disregards the surplus of energy that distinguishes the aesthetic device and the degree of meaning that it generates. After all, aesthetic experience does nothing less than attest that the human mind is not completely defined by problem-solving, although without problem-solving skills there would not be a mind

9. Aísthesis and aesthetic judgments. The breath of the perception and the breath of the linguistic sign

  • 48 The adage is taken up with a significant twist in a famous passage from Hume’s essay Of the Standar (...)
  • 49 Symons 1995.
  • 50 Tooby and Cosmides 2001: 17.
  • 51 On this point I find it hard to disagree with Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli Palmarini, when, re (...)
  • 52 Tooby and Cosmides 2001: 17.

27There remains to be discussed a significant statement made by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, concerning the difficulty of unifying those that are very different objects of aesthetic experiences, as for the categories they fall in. The very title of Tooby and Cosmides’ paper asks a question relevant to this point: “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?”. The authors seem to be sympathetic with relativistic positions such as that expressed in the old maxim «beauty is in the eyes of the beholder»48, which has found an updated formulation in the words of anthropologist Donald Symons: «Beauty is in the Adaptations of the Beholder»49. Moreover, as already seen, Tooby and Cosmides are well aware that the meaning and the variety of aesthetic experiences and their relationship with what, in different contexts, is called “beautiful”, are much wider than the adaptive advantages related to sexual attraction. As a consequence, they are also aware that «the class of beautiful entities is immense and heterogeneous» to the point that it does not allow for any «general theory of the properties of things found beautiful»50. On the one hand, it seems that our psychological architecture – designed51 to motivate sustained attention towards beautiful entities «through making the experience [of them] intrinsically rewarding»52 – offers the only unifying principle for aesthetic experiences. On the other hand, there seems to be «a heterogeneous set of subsidiary theories»: an open series of aesthetic theories relating to specific domains (from landscape aesthetics to phonological aesthetics etc.), each one characterized by different principles.

  • 53 As Richard B. Onians points out, the Greek verb «aísthomai, “I perceive” (with the resultant substa (...)
  • 54 «Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – When it lives. Has in itself the breath of (...)

28This explosion of aesthetic theory in specific domains, corresponding to different perceptual modules (from the acoustic to the visual), does not only make the idea of a general aesthetics look unlikely or, at least, very weak, but it also leaves a crucial issue neglected, namely the fact that the aesthetic device works at a social level and not segregated in the brain of each subject of experience. There is, to put it briefly, a constitutively social dimension of the exercise of the aesthetic attitude, which finds expression and fulfillment in the linguistic form of our judgments. If the aesthetic attitude, as we have argued so far, is not born linguistically, but in the space of perceptual trade-off, it is in the medium of language that it carries out its communicative instance and the cultural patterns of its transmission. For this reason, the performative value of aesthetic judgments, as linguistic articulation and expression of a relationship that supervenes between mind and world, is a constitutive element of human aesthetics. As a result, we can talk of a continuous passage and, ultimately, of a unity – rooted in our forms of life and in the necessary interplay between the different contexts our forms of life belong to – between the breath of perception, i.e. of aísthesis53 and the breath of the sign that “lives” in our language use54. Kant’s intuition, developed in the Critique of Judgment, and Wittgenstein’s intuition, at work in the Philosophical Investigations, should be put together here, as if they were one thing, expressing the unitary core of our aesthetic experience.

10. The aesthetic mind as an unforeseen consequence (a by-product) of attentional processes

  • 55 Desideri 2011.

29As I have argued elsewhere55, the development of an aesthetic attitude can be considered an unforeseen consequence of the exercise of attention and of the intensification and modulation of perceptual processes triggered by events or objects with certain features. The starting point can be located in episodes of joint attention where dialogue between an adult (especially the mother) and a baby provides a fertile ground for the development of a symbolic mind. In the melodic modulation of maternal language (the motherese typical of baby-talk) the attentional scene already presents playful characters. A symbolic mind, then, arises from a mind that by chance discovers its aesthetic attitude. A functionalist and reductive explanation of this phenomenon and its epigenetic transmission does not take into account the surplus of sense from which it arises and the pleasure that it expresses. As a by-product of perceptual processes modulated by a kind of attention that is prior to the exercise of intentionality, the aesthetic attitude looks more like an exaptation à la Gould than an adaptation. Rather than fulfilling the function of a survival-related goal, then, the aesthetic attitude expresses the gratuity of a meta-functional kind of supervenience, where things “are as they should be”.

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1 See Desideri 2006a: 43-54.

2 Darwin 1871.

3 See Dissanayake 1992; Kogan 1994; Thornhill 1998 and 2003; Miller 2000 and 2001; Dutton 2003.

4 See Menninghaus 2003; Thornhill 2003; Voland 2003; Welsch 2004; Dutton 2009; Bartalesi 2012.

5 Welsch 2004.

6 See Welsch 2004: 4. Here, Welsch considers not only the statements contained in The Descent of Man, but also a lecture given by Darwin to the Zoological Society on April 18th, 1882 (a few hours before his death), where he defended the principle of sexual selection (Darwin 1882).

7 Darwin 1872: 162.

8 Darwin 1859: 199.

9 Darwin admires the development of parts of the body fulfilling the sole function of ornamentation, albeit in the context of purely utilitarian sexual selection: “Nevertheless I know of no fact in natural history more wonderful than that the female Argus pheasant should appreciate the exquisite shading of the ball-and-socket ornaments and the elegant patterns on the wing-feathers of the male. He who thinks that the male was created as he now exists must admit that the great plumes, which prevent the wings from being used for flight, and which are displayed during courtship and at no other time in a manner quite peculiar to this one species, were given to him as an ornament. If so, he must likewise admit that the female was created and endowed with the capacity of appreciating such ornaments. I differ only in the conviction that the male Argus pheasant acquired his beauty gradually, through the preference of the females during many generations for the more highly ornamented males; the æsthetic capacity of the females having been advanced through exercise or habit, just as our own taste is gradually improved.” (Darwin 1871: 400-401) The remark at the end of this passage is also important, since it brings out the belief that aesthetic capacity has developed gradually via exercise or habit.

10 In this respect, Amotz Zahavi (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997) has suggested to apply the principle of handicap, according to which the development of sexual ornaments should be considered as a test of fitness. The ornaments, in other words, are seen as a signal developed on the basis of their costly features: since they have a high cost for their carriers, they should count as more «reliable» and «honest» signals. Zahavi, then, reformulates the Darwinian distinction between natural selection and sexual selection in terms of the one between “utilitarian selection” and “signal selection” (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997: 40). For a discussion of this thesis see Menninghaus 2003: 143-153.

11 See Bartalesi 2009.

12 According to Winfried Menninghaus, this is the «real highlight of Darwin’s theory of sexual aesthetics of evolution» (Menninghaus 2003: 200). In relation to this argument, see also the comparison Menninghaus traces with the complementary perspective offered by Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, in particular with the hypothesis concerning the original cultural character of human beauty (ibidem: 199-215).

13 Ernst Cassirer discussed the concept of “aesthetic space” in relation to the “mythical space” and the “theoretical space” in a short, but important essay (Cassirer 1931). Aiming to distinguish between different concepts of space in relation to different symbolic forms and attitudes, Cassirer noted that «the aesthetic space is no longer, as the mythical, a plot and an interplay of forces that clutch the man from the outside and overwhelm him by virtue of their emotional violence – but is instead a set of possible configuration modes in each of which opens a new horizon of the objectual world» (ibidem: 106).

14 In a similar direction goes a remarkable essay by American anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon: The Aesthetic Faculty (2006). I do not agree, however, with Deacon’s claim that the uniquely human trait of what he calls “aesthetic cognition” is to be framed in terms of emotion (ibidem: 37). I shall come back to this below.

15 On the supervenience topic in the Philosophy of Mind and in Aesthetics see: Davidson 1970 and 1995; Kim 1978, 1984a, 1984b, 1993, 1994; Horgan 1984; Levinson 1984, 1994, 2001, 2005; McLaughlin 1995; Mulder Eaton 1994 and 1998.

In this respect, Brian P. McLaughlin rightly warns about the difference between the current philosophical use of “supervene” (“occurs”) and its vernacular use, gravitating around the sense of coming or occurring «as something additional, extraneous, or unexpected» (McLaughlin 1995: 16-17). Compared to the latter – McLaughlin notes – the technical philosophical meaning of “supervene” seems rather to hint at an identity relation (between what supervenes and its base), or at the issue of the relationship between sameness and difference. The core of the philosophical idea of supervenience would be that of a «dependent-variation, where the dependency is of a purely modal sort» (ibidem: 18). Property A is compared to supervening property B if and only if there is a difference or variation in A without there being some difference or variation in B. The problem of the supervenience, of course, would not arise even if the relationship with its basis or subvenience would be purely analytic (in the Kantian sense of the term, i.e., if the supervenient property were already conceptually and/or ontologically involved in its basis). This, however, is not how supervenience should be understood. It should rather be thought of as a kind of new synthesis. Therefore, the Parmenidean conception of a purely static ontology should be abandoned. Renouncing, in a Wittgensteinean fashion, to the separation between semantics and ontology, we would commit a patricide analogous to that which Plato, in the Sophist, claimed to be necessary.

16 Desideri 1998: 234-238.

17 McLaughlin 1995: 50-51 n. 3.

18 It is Robert Grosseteste who translated the term «epighinomenon», that we find in this passage, with «supervenire».

19 See Lloyd Morgan 1923.

20 Nicomachean Ethics: X, 1174b 31-33.

21 Ibidem: X, 1174b 34.

22 In this sense, I propose to extend the notion of “aesthetic supervenience” developed by Jerrold Levinson since his 1984 crucial essay (Levinson 1984).

23 Levinson 2010: 203.

24 This hypothesis relies on the idea that «the development of the human brain is fundamentally characterized by this “opening of the genetic context” to the epigenetic variability and to the evolution by selection, both made possible by the incorporation in the synaptic development of an aleatory component within the assemblages of cascade synaptic growth ranging from early embryo-genesis until puberty» (Changeux 2003: 212). Epigenesis – according to the theoretical hypothesis of the French neuroscientist -«enables the development of culture, its diversification, its transmission and evolution.»

25 Changeux 2003: 210.

26 Ibidem: 213-214.

27 Deacon 2006.

28 Ibidem: 25.

29 Ibidem: 26.

30 See Deacon 1997.

31 Pievani 2006: 258-264.

32 Ibidem: 47.

33 Ibidem.

34 See Dennett 1989.

35 See Deacon 2006: 30. His debt with Peirce’s semiotics is quite obvious.

36 Deacon 2006: 38.

37 Ibidem: 37.

38 For the idea of “aesthetic mechanism” see Desideri 2013.

39 Tooby and Cosmides 2001.

40 Ibidem: 6

41 Ibidem: 8.

42 Ibidem.

43 Ibidem: 9.

44 Ibidem: 13.

45 Ibidem: 25.

46 Ibidem: 16.

47 Ibidem: 21.

48 The adage is taken up with a significant twist in a famous passage from Hume’s essay Of the Standard of Taste, “Beauty is not a quality of things: it exists only in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty” (Hume 1757).

49 Symons 1995.

50 Tooby and Cosmides 2001: 17.

51 On this point I find it hard to disagree with Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli Palmarini, when, referring to a claim made by Steve Pinker, they claim that “The human mind wasn’t created, and it wasn’t designed, and there is nothing that natural selection cares about; natural selection just happens.» (Fodor and Piattelli Palmarini 2010: 215 n.). In Desideri 1998, I have already argued that the paradigm of «reverse engineering» favored by Dennett was configured as teleological judgment in the sense defined by Kant in the third Critique and, ultimately, as reflective judgment which had its exemplary model in the aesthetic judgment.

52 Tooby and Cosmides 2001: 17.

53 As Richard B. Onians points out, the Greek verb «aísthomai, “I perceive” (with the resultant substantive aísthesis and the lengthened form aisthànomai, our aesthetics’ etc.), is the middle of Homeric aístho, “I gasp, breath in”» (Onians 1988: 75).

54 «Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – When it lives. Has in itself the breath of life? – Or is the use its breath?» (Wittgenstein 1953: § 432)

55 Desideri 2011.

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Fabrizio Desideri, «On the Epigenesis of the Aesthetic Mind. The Sense of Beauty from Survival to Supervenience»Rivista di estetica, 54 | 2013, 63-82.

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Fabrizio Desideri, «On the Epigenesis of the Aesthetic Mind. The Sense of Beauty from Survival to Supervenience»Rivista di estetica [Online], 54 | 2013, online dal 01 novembre 2013, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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