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2006 Faculty Awards: Robinson's Arguments Resonate In Major New Book on Art and Emotions

UC Professor of Philosophy Jenefer Robinson has poured 20 years of theory-building into what some reviewers are calling her "masterpiece" -- a 400-page synthesis of science and philosophy that explores why humans have such strong emotional reactions to the arts. The book is having an impact across a number of disciplines, and also helped earn Robinson UC's top research honor, the 2006 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Creative or Scholarly Works.

Date: 5/5/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   The arts enrich our lives.

But why do they evoke the deep responses from us that they do?

That’s the kind of question that a lot of researchers from a lot of disciplines could take a run at. But a professor at UC from a field you may not expect has been gaining a lot of attention for her theories.

Jenefer Robinson is a professor in UC’s Philosophy Department who has earned wide acclaim for her new book, "Deeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art," (Oxford University Press, 2005). Arguing from her background as an aesthetics philosopher, she has taken more than 20 years worth of theory-building and multidisciplinary work and combined it into a treatise that cuts across disciplines.

Jenefer Robinson with her book
Jenefer Robinson's acclaimed new book is

The book has helped her to earn UC’s top research honor, the 2006 George Rieveschl, Jr., Award for Scholarly and/or Creative Works. It also has further boosted her profile as an international figure in her field.

"In the last 20 years, there has been a huge burgeoning of interest in the emotions in fields like philosophy, psychology and biology," says Robinson. "So the idea for the book came from the realization that now that we have a better understanding of what the role of the emotions are, perhaps we can say something more exact about how that works in the arts."

Robinson has always been enthusiastic in pursuing interdisciplinary partnerships in the classroom at UC. Through the years, she has taught courses along with members of the faculty from Psychology, CCM, English, DAAP, Classics and French.

Particularly central to the work that led to the book were her collaborations in teaching courses on the psychological side of emotions with the prominent psychologist, retired UC Distinguished Research Professor Bill Dember.

To try and answer the question of how an artist evokes emotion through a work, Robinson decided that the theories she was considering needed to be informed by the knowledge of just what emotions really are from a physiological perspective.

The more that question was explored, the more Robinson came to believe that emotional response to a work of art is actually a two-stage process – an initial very fast ‘affective’ appraisal registered in bodily/physiological responses, followed by a slower cognitive appraisal that assesses whether the affective appraisal was appropriate.

Jenefer Robinson in her office
Jenefer Robinson in her campus office.

"Most psychologists and philosophers studying emotions think it’s a mistake to draw sharp distinctions between cognition and emotion. They think emotions involve lots of cognitive activity, such as believing and judging," says Robinson.

"I can’t logically be angry, for example, unless I believe I’ve been injured in some way and I can’t truly be afraid unless I judge that I’m in some kind of danger. But, in fact, psychologists and neuropsychologists have discovered that emotions can occur too fast for the cerebral cortex to be involved at all."

Robinson’s theory accounts for this by allowing "that we respond instinctively to what really matters to us or our loved ones. So I suggest physiology plays a much more important role in emotions than cognitive theories acknowledge: an emotional response is a physiological response that’s automatically induced by something very important to our survival or well-being."

Her book then goes on to analyze how this specifically plays out with a number of great works, including compositions by Brahms and literary works by Shakespeare, Henry James, Tolstoy and Edith Wharton (from whose work, "The Reef," is drawn the title of Robinson’s book).

She also lays out a detailed theory of how the impact of emotion reflects back upon the artist in the creative process.

"Robinson has written a fascinating study of the role of emotions in the arts that will be highly attractive to both serious students of philosophy, emotion theory and the arts, as well as educated lay persons," praised reviewer Juneko J. Robinson in the journal "Consciousness, Literature and the Arts." She adds that "Robinson deftly illustrates the historical landscape of aesthetic theory, and emotion theory from philosophical, psychological, behaviorist and neuro-physiological perspectives, and the book is surprisingly ambitious in the sheer number of thinkers whose works are discussed."

Hers is not an isolated reaction – Robinson’s book has caused a stir as one of the major works published in the last year from the field of philosophy. And it has proven to have broad interest – already the book has been reviewed by three journals of philosophy, a music journal, a journal in the field of neuroscience and cognitive science, and an English literature journal. (Robinson, who earned an undergraduate degree in English, is frequently lauded for her clear, accessible writing style).

In addition, in a sure sign that a book is finding an audience, Robinson was invited to sit for two author-meets-critics sessions at recent meetings of the American Philosophical Association and the American Society for Aesthetics.

It is the nature of philosophers to discuss and make arguments, and Robinson says she has enjoyed the ability to defend and discuss her book in public with her peers. ("They typically stand up and start with, "I really enjoyed the book, but… " she laughs).

Yet it is clear that Robinson’s theories are garnering serious respect within the academic community. Malcolm Budd, professor emeritus at the University College London and president of the British Society of Aesthetics, calls Robinson’s latest work "her masterpiece" and says of Robinson herself that she is "an extremely powerful philosopher, with both a penetrating and a creative mind."

Derek Matravers, the head of the Philosophy Department at the Open University in Great Britain and a member of the panel for Robinson’s session at the American Society for Aesthetics, wrote in his review in the "Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism" that "the book will, I am sure, be seen as a landmark in which psychological work on the emotions is applied in a serious and thoughtful way to problems in aesthetics."

Jenefer Robinson teaching a class
Robinson teaches philosophy at UC.

Even someone self-described as her "intellectual opponent" – Robert C. Solomon, a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas and the past president of the International Society for Research on Emotions – offers strong praise.

"I expect Jenefer’s new work will continue to cause quite a stir both in philosophy and in the social sciences and other fields as well," Solomon says. "Most notably, it provides an extremely plausible and valuable resource in explaining one of the most debated and misunderstood topics in aesthetics, the question of the "emotional meaning" of music."

Robinson herself used the book for the first time in winter quarter for a graduate seminar she was leading, and she found that because of its accessibility, it stimulated lively discussion among a class that included, besides philosophers, students from a number of DAAP programs, a musician from CCM and a retired literature professor.

Her colleague, Cynthia A. Freeland, the chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston, also just implemented the book in her graduate seminar on the philosophy of art. "I clearly remember one day when a particularly bright (master’s) student walked into class beaming and said, ‘I just love Robinson!’ That was a nice example of how well the class responded to her book."

Adds Freeland: "I have enormous respect for Robinson’s achievement in this work, which represents the highest standards of philosophical argumentation and, beyond that, is really very interesting and a pleasure to read."

That type of reaction might be the praise most likely to please Robinson – she has created a work that is serious, accessible and readable, all at the same time.

"One of the nice things about this topic is everyone is interested in it," she says. "Everyone has an interest in emotions and music or literature in some form or another. So to reach this point, it’s satisfying."

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