Alva Noë’s “Strange Tools. Art and Human Nature” – A Review

venerdì, settembre 23, 2016

41JQ4E+lh6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Strange Tools is a book on art and artistic practice. But since the topic is framed in a more general theory of  human practices and (aesthetic) experience, it is also a book on perception, the human mind, and our nature  as embodied beings who are embedded in a social and technological world.

Noë starts stressing how our lives are characterized by several organized activities, from breastfeeding to  talking, from dancing to driving. Such activities shape ourselves, our way of thinking and acting: in other  words, we get organized by means of them. According to the author, organized activities are primitive and  natural[1]; they are ways of paying attention, looking, listening, doing, undergoing; they exhibit a structure  in time; they are emergent and not deliberately controlled by any individual; they have a social, biological or personal function, and they are (at least potentially) pleasurable.

But there is another group of activities that are quite different from the ones just described. If dancing is an  organized activity, choreography is not. Choreography is not dancing: choreography puts dance on the stage,  it focuses and acts on it to show what dancing can be and how it can be worked on and re-organized. In this  sense, if dancing is an organized activity, choreography is a re-organizational one. Indeed, according to Noë,  we can think of there being two levels of activities. Level 1 is the one of organized activities (e.g. talking,  moving, dancing, singing). Level 2 is the level on which “the nature of the organization at the lower level gets put on display and investigated” (Noë 2015, 29): in this sense, Level-2-activities re-organize the lower-level ones. Among such Level-2-activities we can find choreography, as well as art and, interestingly, philosophy.

Coming to the main topic of the book then, art is not technology and the artistic practice is not a technical activity. Activities such as dancing, singing, making pictures or sculptures are organized activities that can require very specific skills but they are not artistic practices by themselves – let us think, for example, of children’s dancing, our singing to ourselves, or our making non-professional photos at a birthday party among friends. But such activities can be re-organized, that is they can be put on the stage and investigated as a means of investigating ourselves and our nature as technological beings. Art puts our practices under focus and shows how new and unfamiliar they can be. In this sense, works of art are strange tools: if technical activities produce different kinds of tools aiming at serving several different ends, art does not serve ends. It investigates what our Level-1-activities produce (e.g. songs, pictures, utensils, dance movements, and so on) and tries to make us see them under a new light: in this sense, when they become works of art, objects lose their practical utility. They do not serve aims and so they appear as strange (Noë 2015, 49-71).

Philosophy is a Level-2-activity too. Like art, philosophy investigates the mode of our organization and the way we are embedded in different organized activities. More particularly, it is the re-organizational practice that investigates and puts on display Level-1-cognitive undertakings such as reasoning, argument, belief formation, the work of science, and so on (Noë 2015, 29). This characterization of philosophy leads Noë to maintain that “art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an aesthetic one” (Noë 2015, 134).

Noë’s book is engaging and provoking. It proposes a broad theory of human practices that tries to make sense not just of all different artistic productions but also of other human activities such as the philosophical work. Moreover, it frames the overall analysis of art in a specific theory of mind which criticizes the neuro-(aesthetic)-approach and has its background in the enactive theory of perception and cognition that the author had proposed in previous works (Noë 2004, 2009). The result is a wide overview that spans from a theory of art, to a theory of human practices, to a theory of mind in a very captivating way. However, even if different topics are interestingly dealt with, many of them are not elaborated on and some criticisms can arise to the main claims of this book.

First, Noë’s analysis of artworks as strange tools and art as a Level-2-activity is intended for all forms of art and for art of any age (Noë 2015, 104). This is a very strong claim, which the author does not properly defend with argumentative reasoning. Rather, the author presents several examples: many of them are contemporary works of art – which are particularly suitable for an analysis in terms of strange tools (from Duchamp’s Fountain to Newmann’s room, to Serra’s sculptures (Noë 2015, 77-90, 136-137)). Some other examples are from Italian Renaissance’s sculptures and paintings. Here Noë’s analysis is more tentative and the author himself admits that if these works of art do not show up as challenging and provocative to us – i.e. as strange tools – this may be because they are from a remote age or culture and people from that historical period might have been actually struck by these artworks (Noë 2015, 104-112). This seems to be a too weak defense for a strong thesis such as Noë’s one and it sounds just like a supposition. Moreover, as previously said, the reader is left with an interesting set of examples but no real argument to buy the author’s theory.

Sometimes the author refers to the idea of art experience as an enactive engagement with the work of art. This points back to his enactive theory of perception and helps Noë arguing against the neuroaesthetic accounts of aesthetic experiences and responses. Noë maintains that even though it could be fruitful to know what happens in our brains while having such experiences, this does not tell us anything about what aesthetic experiences (not to mention works of art) are. Aesthetic experiences are not events or reactions in our brains: they are the result of an ongoing engagement and exploration (i.e. enaction) of the artistic work (Noë 2015, 120-133). However, this idea should have been more developed by the author. Some of Noë’s examples fit perfectly with the enactive account of aesthetic experiences. Let us think for instance at the analysis of Serra’s sculptures. More than sculptures, these works are cityscapes that the observer needs to enter in and actively explore to really appreciate. In this case, the aesthetic experience is very well described by the author’s enactive theory. But what about the enactment of a musical piece or a painting? Could this be the same kind of sensorimotor enactment we perform in the case of Serra’s sculptures? If not, what kind of enactment would it be? Noë does not focus on these issues, making the interesting and potentially very fruitful notion of ‘enaction of aesthetic experience’ a too general – or, conversely, too limited – one.

Another challenging and debatable topic of this book is the relation between art and philosophy. Noë maintains that both art and philosophy are Level-2-activities. As we said, just as art investigates organized activities such as dancing, singing, making pictures and tools, philosophy puts on display and investigates cognitive activities such as reasoning, argumentation, scientific analysis, and so on. But, one can argue, cannot philosophy investigate also the world itself, as in the case of ontology? If so, it seems philosophy wouldn’t be a Level-2-activity putting some of our organized activities on display. On the contrary, it would have the world as an object to investigate (Matthen 2015). Would it still be a Level-2-activity or not?

But there is also another issue here. Let us suppose that philosophy really is a Level-2-activity. As we know, Noë maintains that both art and philosophy are re-organizational activities because they put ourselves and our Level-1-practices on display. This seems to lead him to maintain that “art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an aesthetic one” (Noë 2015, 134). But one thing is to say that 1) both art and philosophy are Level-2-activities, another one is to say that 2) the former is a particular occurrence of the latter and vice versa. Is Noë allowed to go from 1) to 2)? This is highly debatable. Indeed, a better description of the relation between art and philosophy seems to be needed here.

This very short review aims at showing that Strange Tools is a very provoking and ambitious work. As we said at the beginning, it does not deal just with art and aesthetic experience but also with the nature of the mind, the human being and his activities in the practical and social world. This book also treats contemporary topics in a very original way – as in the case of the nature of music and musical experience (Noë 2015, 168-190). But it also lacks some core issues when it comes to art and aesthetic experience – namely, an analysis of aesthetic values (do they exist? If yes, what are they and how are they experienced? If no, why do we generally consider art as valuable?).

I believe the main merit of this book is to present an overall theory that, because of its strong as well as original theses on the one hand and its debatable passages on the other, can be a promising candidate to open a new field of discussion at the interface between aesthetics, the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of action.



Matthen, M. (2015), “Strange Tools. Art and Human Nature” (Review). Notre Dame Philosophical Review.

Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Noë, A. (2009). Out of Our Heads. Why You are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from The Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang.

Noë, A. (2015). Strange Tools. Art and Human Nature. New York: Hill and Wang.

[1] Noë underlines that “natural” is not to be intended in opposition to “learned” or “technological”. The idea is that natural organized activities are those activities that, even if learned on the background of new settings and technologies, once acquired, can be carried on in a smooth and natural way. See Noë 2015, 7.

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