Sensory perception and interart research seems to occur these days in the in-between spaces of art history, literature, media studies, anthropology, neurological sciences, and many more disciplines that contribute to the exploration of a new aesthetics. This new aesthetics very much includes aisthesis or the study of physiologically and psychologically infused perceptive abilities in the human. Whatever happened to the term “psychophysics” in this arena???
A long-out-of-print volume, Sensory Communication (ed. by Walter Rosenblith), based on a 1959 symposium, has recently been reissued by MIT Press. It reminds us of pioneers like Fechner (criticized therein) in the early days of experiential aesthetics and of the nascent fascination with the human-computer interface and AI around the middle of the 20th century. S.S. Stevens poignantly extracts and highlights the ambiguities inherent to research in psychophysics, playing into the qualitative-quantitative divide co-existent with C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”:
“It must be confessed at the outset that psychophysics has often failed to do its part of the job [it tells what the organism can do and it asks those who are inspired by such mysteries … to advance our understanding of how such wonders are performed] with distinction. Its task is not easy. For one thing, long-standing prejudices, derived in great measure from a chronic dualistic metaphysics, have triggered a variety of stubborn objections whenever it has been proposed that sensation may be amenable to orderly and quantitative investigation. You cannot, the objectors, complain, measure the inner, private, subjective strength of a sensation. Perhaps not, in the sense the objectors have in mind, but in a different and very useful sense the strength of a sensation can, as we shall see, be fruitfully quantified. We must forgo arguments about the private life of the mind and ask sensible objective questions about the input-output relations of sensory transducers as these relations are disclosed in the behavior of experimental organisms, whether men or animals.” (1, original edition).
Must we? At a time when “sensible objective questions” have encountered years of questioning, what prevents us from looking at the “private life of the mind” as hard data?