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Human Nature: The Human Mind & Human Art

Trevor Pateman

Abstract : A short introduction to thinking about the relation between Human Nature and Human Art by means of thinking about how the Human Mind works, both in response to external stimuli and independently of them. Some implications for understanding the Arts (especially poetry and painting) and Arts teaching are indicated.

What is natural to human beings as a species? At first glance, this appears to be a fairly straightforward empirical question. Yet not only are there rival answers, but these divide people as sharply as conflicting opinions on questions of politics or religion. For some people, a great deal is natural to humans. For others nothing at all - or, at any rate, nothing that matters. And on both sides, the issue is felt to be important, sometimes as an aspect of "political correctness".

Part of the problem is that the question is not so straightforwardly empirical as it seems. The newborn infant may respond in certain ways to sights, sounds, inner sensations of hunger , and so on. But these `natural' reactions are immediately responded to and thereby, it is said, shaped by the infant's caretakers. Without those caretakers the infant would die. So - called Wolf Children (Enfants Sauvages: The Wild Boy of Aveyron; Caspar Hauser; Genie, and so on) have always been minimally cared for and hence socialized before they are abandoned to their fate. They can tell us nothing about human nature, only about the effects of abandonment.

Rather more promising as a source of evidence for claims about human nature are those children who are unable to experience the natural or social world through one or more of the five senses. Blind children make drawings and deaf children seek to communicate through invented signs with hearing and non-signing parents. In these cases we have symbolic `output' without any corresponding symbolic `input'. If blind children produce similar drawings (as they do) and deaf children produce similarly structured signs (as they do), it seems that we have some evidence for how the human mind works as such and independently of cultural shaping. In recent years evidence from the activity of blind and deaf children has been intensively explored, since it has been realized that these children offer us the equivalent of a deprivation experiment, though in their case a naturally occurring one. As an example of an early, and ground-breaking, study, see the long paper by H. Feldman and others, `Beyond Herodotus: The Creation of Language by Linguistically Deprived Deaf Children' (Feldman 1978). What is important here is to note that blind and deaf children are fully involved in "social interaction" but deprived of just one opportunity for symbolic interaction. They nonetheless try to get in on the one symbolic activity from which they are excluded, using their own "native" resources.

To studies like "Beyond Herodotus", one might add the report of a rather unpleasant deliberate deprivation experiment reported in Hochberg and Brooks (1962). Here a child was deprived of sight of pictures and photographs until the age of 19 months. At that age, it was shown pictures and could immediately recognize and name objects in photographs and line drawings, suggesting an unlearnt basis to picture recognition. (In parenthesis, this may well be true. But it may not distinguish humans from chimpanzees, who can probably do the same thing - I don't have any references but I am sure a Google search would turn them up).

More recently it has been claimed that there is a specific genetic basis for the rare ability known as perfect pitch, the ability to identify a musical note from memory without the need for a reference sound.

Less scientifically secure, but still credible to most observers, are the observations of infantile responses which appear to be triggered by a stimulus, yet where there is no basis for supposing that the behaviour is imitative or that it has been shaped. (The difference between "triggering" and "shaping" is central to Chomsky's account of language development. An acorn needs water to trigger its growth; but it is not shaped by that trigger. It will look like an oak tree because of the genetic program contained in the acorn. You won't learn how an acorn is going to turn out by studying the rain water.)

Newborns are selectively attracted to the colour red and show signs of interest and excitement when red objects enter their field of vision, from birth or very shortly thereafter . Infants who are just beginning to toddle will stop and move their bottoms rhythmically if music (of virtually any kind, as far as I am aware) is played in their hearing. Young children being read to will burst into tears over a sad story: my daughter, Mitzi Pateman, did this for the first time - and much to my surprise - at age 2 years 1 month. In none of these cases is there any reason to suppose that the reaction is shaped by or modelled on the reactions of parents and caretakers. The reactions are triggered by the red object, the music, the story.

In his book, The Rationality of Feeling (1991) (reviewed on this website as "Wittgensteinian Aesthetics") David Best regards such innate (native, natural) propensities to respond, common to the species rather than to its cultures or societies, as the basis on which depends the possibility of all later learning and teaching of the arts. For some writers this is not just a point of conceptual or background relevance; it informs their entire approach to the understanding of later learning. For example, in a book entirely indebted to Noam Chomsky's approach to the study of language development, Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff (1983) see our musical development as triggered rather than shaped by our encounters with musical stimuli. They also argue that Atonal music is not learnable as a first music. That is, we cannot become fluent in it on the basis of limited exposure, in contrast to the way we can become fluent in a tonal musical language on the basis of encounters with a restricted sample of tonal music. One might say: Atonal music has to be learnt by rote. It does not develop generatively. Lerdahl and Jackendoff's A Generative Theory of Tonal Music is highly technical; for an easier introduction see Sloboda 1985.

Whereas it is usual to think of the child and adult's later initiation (socialization, enculturation) into the artistic traditions and conventions of its culture as an enrichment of his or her possibilities for expression and response, there have always been theorists of art who have been suspicious of established culture as in some ways cramping and blocking to self expression and authentic response. They have looked for ways of recovering in art the innate, native or natural. And they have equated this with regressing to the infantile as equivalent to the innate or natural. To modify a saying of Virginia Woolf's, they have valued those varieties of art where, in the rhapsody, one can still hear the babble, the chuckle of the infant. (The infantile is not the same as the natural or innate: it is simply the earliest manifestation of the workings of innate mechanisms. As time goes by, those mechanisms may themselves change either under internal or environmentally - derived causation, but they do not cease to be operative: culture does not - or does not simply - replace nature)

There are visual artists who have particularly valued child art (the German expressionists and Mark Rothko are examples). Among contemporary theorists of the arts, Julia Kristeva is a notable example of someone who identifies and values the presence of the infantile in the adult. In her book, The Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), she advances a theory which can be read as a development of Virginia Woolf's insight. Kristeva argues that in numerous experiments with language - such as symbolist poetry, surrealism, Russian futurism, the prose of Celine, Joyce and Beckett, in the theatre of Artaud - what we encounter is language which has heterogeneous sources. In some of its aspects it belongs to the symbolic order of preexisting, conventionalized phonology; syntax and semantics. This is what some call " the language of the Father", and what Kristeva calls `the semantic'. But in other aspects it harks back to and reactivates the rhythmic prelinguistic babble, cries and moans through which the infant expresses its desires, and specifically its (incestuous) desire for the Mother. Kristeva (using the word in its Ancient Greek sense of "symptom") calls this use of sound `semiotic', meaning that it is a symptom (or index - C S Peirce) of desire. Her theory allows us to talk about ways in which in poetry, rhythmic sound may make an independent contribution to sense, yet to sense not as literally, propositionally expressible, but rather to sense as experienced, let us say, psychosomatically. This is a use of language which, for example, the Russian futurist poet, Khlebnikov (1885 - 1922) would have called `transrational language'. Khlebnikov writes, of glossolalic incantations and chants as using words which can bypass `the government of the head' and address themselves directly to the `people of the feelings' (see Cooke 1987, pages 82 - 99. See also on this website the essay "The Erotics of Language")

It is easy to think of other examples of poetry, apart from those referenced by Kristeva, which lend themselves to treatment using her contrast between the semantic and the semiotic. For example, I have taught Sylvia Plath's famous poem, `Daddy', using Kristeva's approach, highlighting the insistent play on the sounds `oo' (as in "you". "who", "through") and `u' (as in German "du", "Jew"). But a distinction needs to be drawn between the semiotic as something at work in our language, whether we wish it or not, and the conscious echoing of the infantile in highly wrought literary works, like the poem by Plath just mentioned.

It is not just as a critical tool that claims such as Kristeva's have implications for teaching. They may also inform approaches to creative work. For example, they can lend support to techniques which emphasize autobiography, regression to infantile states, and exploration of material, sensuous properties of artistic media, whether (say) sound or paint. One way, for example, of understanding the difference between Fine Art and Graphics / Design is to argue that in the former (but not the latter) it is central to the activity that properties of the material basis of the art (oil, pencil, charcoal) are explored and used expressively.


Best, D (1991) The Rationality of Feeling. London: Falmer Press

Cooke, R (1987) Velimir Khlebnikov. Cambridge University Press

Feldman, H and others (1978) "Beyond Herodotus: The Creation of Language by Linguistically Deprived Deaf Children" in A. Lock (editor) Action, Gesture and Symbol. London: Academic Press

Hochberg, J and Brooks, V (1962) "Pictorial Recognition as an Unlearned Ability" in American Journal of Psychology pp 624 628

Kristeva, J ( 1974) The Revolution in Poetic Language New York: Columbia University Press (French original: La revolution du langage Poetique. Paris: Seuil)

Lerdahl, F and Jackendoff, R ( 1983) A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. MIT Press

Sloboda, J (1985) The Musical Mind. Oxford University Press

Website version 2004, revised from the essay "Human Nature (Natural, Innate)" first published in my Key Concepts in Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London: Falmer Press 1991), pages 69 - 71