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Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature Hardcover – September 22, 2015
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“With incisive arguments and in crisp and engaging prose, Strange Tools brings the discourse on the function of art and beauty to a different level.” ―Giovanni Frazzetto, Science
“A stimulating and wide-ranging investigation of the meaning of art . . . A searching and learned response to vexing, long-debated questions.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Noë offers a unique analysis on the role of art, and also philosophy, in our lives. Readers with an interest in philosophy, aesthetics, or art will find this an accessible and engaging read.” ―Scott Duimstra, Library Journal
“As a neurologist, confronted every day by questions of mind, self, consciousness, and their basis, I find Alva Noë's concepts both astounding and convincing.” ―Oliver Sacks
“Alva Noë's Strange Tools challenges some of our preconceptions not only about art and human nature, but also about philosophy and science. The book shows how bad ideas about each of these subjects support bad ideas about the others. It is passionately argued, and readers will want to argue back at various points; that is true too of the best philosophy and the best writing about art.” ―Hilary Putnam, Cogan University Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Harvard University
“As Alva Noë gracefully dispatches one reductionist account after another (the neurological, the sociobiological, the evolutionary, and so forth), his subject-the very nature and provenance of art-just keeps expanding outward. And every page seems to open onto fresh vantages, crisp aperçus evocative of how art endlessly affords us all new ways not just of seeing, but of being” ―Lawrence Weschler, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees
“In his new book, Alva Noë spiritedly suggests that, at their best, art and philosophy are practices of inquiry into the human condition. He defends, convincingly, the idea that the value of those practices derives from the questions they pose and the pleasure we experience when we glean a workable, reorganizing answer. Along the way he argues, advisedly, against reductive accounts of aesthetics. A stimulating read.” ―Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and director of the USC College Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California
“The projects of philosophy and of art-making cross over in this remarkable book. Read it, and whatever you thought about both will be radically challenged.” ―Alexander Nagel, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
“Organisms organize their interaction with their environments. Human beings can consciously organize and reorganize that interaction. Making, appreciating, and talking about art are among the ways that human beings do this, and thus are characteristic of human life itself. On these simple but undeniable truths, Alva Noë builds a devastating critique of contemporary 'neuroaesthetics' and an illuminating account of the role of art in the human conversation. This is a work in the grand tradition of John Dewey's Art as Experience, and one of the most important books in that tradition since Dewey's own.” ―Paul Guyer, Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy, Brown University
“Inspiring as well as useful.” ―Deborah Hay, director of the Deborah Hay Dance Company
“Many have told us, passionately, that art shapes human nature in ways science alone cannot explain, but Noë doesn’t just tell; he shows how many insights flow from an open-minded understanding of both art and science combined. He walks the tightrope between reductionism and mysterianism with panache, and part of the fun of reading this book is watching him recover from his narrow escapes, almost abandoning naturalism in favor of a romanticized vision of science as poetry, and almost giving some ideologues more respect than they deserve.” ―Daniel Dennett, author of Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking
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I was startled by the artist’s reply. Nonesense! he scoffed. That’s not the question we should ask. The important question is this: Why are we so blind, why do we see so little, when there is so much around us to see? –Alva Noë
The quote above is from the Preface of Alva Noë’s latest book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. Noë is a philosopher at UC-Berkeley who focuses his research on mind and cognition. I have been a fan of his work for the last year or so, so I was excited when he came out with this latest book which deals with a subject that I concern myself with in my own work. His work initially caught my attention because he already does very well what I seek to do to some degree: blurring boundaries between disciplines and shattering harmful ideologies. After all, is this not necessary if we are to advance thought?
It turns out that there is a lot that Noë and I agree on concerning art, and there was even more for me to learn concerning the relationship between art and philosophy more generally. He argues that both art and philosophy are transformative in that they force us to look at the world in different ways. As he explains in Chapter 8, a good work of art carries the message “See me if you can!” One cannot understand it with one simple glance.Read more ›
I especially appreciated Noë's nuanced arguments -- his own and others' that he cited -- against what I consider the delusion that consciousness is something that occurs as neurochemical events in people's brains -- in favor of a far more integrated conception. Paraphrasing Daniel Dennet, Noë writes: "We shift back and forth from what the animal does and achieves to what happens in the brain, and so we tell a story about how what is going on in the brain belongs to and is part of the story of the animal's life. Importantly, we don't reduce that life to the brain." In the notes to the chapter in which his explanation of Dennet's ideas appears, he writes: "'Brain, body, and world make consciousness happen' is the central idea of Evan Thompson and Fracisco Varela's article 'Radical Embodiment: Neural Dynamics and Consciousness.'"
The book requires careful attention. I had to read a couple of the chapters twice. But Noë's voice is clear, genuine and warm even at its most exacting, and the book is pitched to a far wider audience than academic philosophers.