According to Aristotle,

…the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

Just as we have quoted this for many years, so have scholars studied it. One of the foremost modern scholars to look at the statement is Leo Strauss, just as wrongly associated by liberals with neoconservatives as he is rightly associated with interesting political thought. According to Wikipedia, Strauss thought Aristotle’s statement a watershed moment in the known history of philosophy: it suggested that philosophers could not simply contemplate a state of nature independent of that existing for man. In other words, if nature, a state of being without pretension or artifice, exists, then man’s fundamental and essential states arise from nature. Aristotle believed that these states were “political.” Aristotle was right, and I think it is consistent with much of Dutton’s The Art Instinct, but I think if we really want to understand the power of the observation, we would do well to reframe his statement.

My interpretation of Aristotle places him as simultaneously the first Manhattanite/Parisian/Londoner as well as a very deep thinker who opened doors for those who would enter economics later. For him, politics is rooted in the conception of the city-state, which has a constitution (a theme? an idea? a soul?) rooted in some good, because people are always acting in favor of some good. This idea is a powerful assumption that underlies useful economics today: that humans are rational because they are always acting in favor of the best good that they can foresee. ( This is usually challenged by statists who seek arguments for government intervention while skipping the best of Coase. ) Of course, Aristotle was not perfect (he thought slavery was a good idea, for example), but he knew enough to challenge many of Plato’s odder conceptions of politics, specifically the idea that a unified polity might be more important than the happiness of the polity’s citizens.

To the contrary, a desire for happiness is what makes women and men such political animals. In a sense, this makes us much less homo sapiens and much more homo economicus, for at every decision, we choose that which brings the most happiness. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes it’s not — and sometimes we regret our decisions, but that does not mean that at the time the decision wasn’t the one that we thought, given our cognitive restraints, would lead us to the most happiness. Aristotle and Adam Smith both vaguely believed in people pursuing their self-interest this way leading to a more harmonious society. Tossing out a bunch of well-known thinkers of the past and associating it with an idea hardly make it so, but I bring it up to make a point.

Sometimes our judgments and decisions are so quick that you wouldn’t think they could be conscious. We look at a painting and instantly know if we like it. Some questions to ponder:

1. Can an aesthetic judgment be said to be reflexive?

2. Are there art works from which we derive such reflexive aesthetic judgments? If so, are there art works from which we primarily, if not only derive such reflexive aesthetic judgments?

3. How do the answers to the first two questions affect Dutton’s criteria for being categorized as an art work?

In answer to the first question, I think that the answer must be yes. There may be reasons, inexplicable but instant for the viewer, that a painting seems beautiful to someone. An aesthetic judgment need not be cast on mere art works, either, for it could pertain to people. When someone sees a highly attractive potential mate, although there may indeed be thoughts going on in the head, and the judgments filter through various considerations (including, apparently, symmetry), these are reflexive in the sense that they require no will power, no volition, no conscious consideration to actually possess them. Dutton seems to make this argument on p. 54 when he argues that “virtually all kmeaningful human activity above the level of autonomic reflexes is carried out within stylistic framework…. Style and culture are virtually coterminous.” And then also argues that the art instinct (and much of our judgments from it) occur cross-culturally.

In answer to the second question, it seems to me that without a solid EEG for frame of reference, we would have a very difficult time separating works in which we form primarily reflexive judgments from those which require deliberation. A Rothko painting, for example, doesn’t really grate on the deliberative parts of the brain. Its primary impact will be swift.

In answer to the third question, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes” especially by Dutton’s naturalist approach. Conditions 2, 6, 10, and 12 suffer the most. Approaching them in order, skill and virtuosity very often can be determined by those with knowledge of a tradition, style, institution, or culture. But if we maintain the existence of an art instinct with various cross-cultural aesthetic universals, then naturalism must reckon with John Stossel’s demonstration of the violence between standards in so-called Modern art and the frivolities of young children. I would not argue that works with more skill will not rise to the top of a market and be appreciated accordingly. I would however argue that skill and virtuosity is not a necessary condition. Condition 6, representation, seems important to art indeed — but again, it does not seem necessary. What is Rothko representing, depicting, telling us about? What practiced skill do we see here? I know I’m an amateur’s amateur when it comes to art, but I primarily see fantastic decorations for a room, not unlike wonderful wallpaper, except wallpaper is dismissed as art in The Art Instinct. Intellectual challenge and imaginative experience, the latter which seems to be included mostly to account for narrative, also suffer from the admission of reflexive judgments. No imagination, no extra thought may be necessary beyond the most rudimentary of perceptions.

Dutton rightly says in his book that we are basically using the best lenses currently available to us to try and explain all of this human nature and human decision-making. He mentions that one day there may be a neural test that does a far better job of doing this, but we’re not there yet. Having attended the neuroscience lecture sessions at AEA meetings, I am in whole-hearted agreement. So are some of the best economists of the 20th century, such as Ludwig von Mises, who stated in Human Action:

Since time immemorial men have been eager to know the prime mover, the cause of all being and of all change, the ultimate substance from which everything stems and which is the cause of itself. Science is more modest. It is aware of the limits of the human mind and of the human search for knowledge.
It aims at tracing back every phenomenon to its cause. But it realizes that these endeavors must necessarily strike against insurmountable walls. There are phenomena which cannot be analyzed and traced back to other phenomena. They are the ultimate given. The progress of scientific research may succeed in
demonstrating that something previously considered as an ultimate given can be reduced to components. But there will always be some irreducible and unanalyzable phenomena, some ultimate given.

All of this means that we can only explain so much. Arguing for an art instinct still leaves us grasping for much of, as Dutton said Pinker writes, “the engineering of the natural world.” Just so, we have precious little understanding how the structure of the brain informs many of our decision and aesthetic weights, let alone our reflexive aesthetic judgments. Perhaps time will tell us more.