Art, Aesthetics, and Origins

cave painting © Lodewijk MunsThe question of the origins of language and music held great fascination for philosophers in the eighteenth century. Their theories could only be speculative. But asking how music and language may have come into being is still a sensible way of asking what kinds of things they are, and how they shape the human mind.

When the question of music and language origins was revived in the 1990’s, chances of finding an irrefutable answer were no better. But biology, palaeontology, cognitive science and linguistics are narrowing the window of probabilities. Speculation is becoming at least informed speculation.

Language is a definable, universally human feature, that distinguishes us from other species. It presumably depends on a likewise definable set of mental capacities or “faculties”. The question of its evolutionary origin is clearly a sensible one.

Music differs from language in many respects. It comprehends a diverse range of activities, rather than a special communication system. It is significant that in scientific debate the question of the “origin of music” has more recently been replaced with the question of the “origin of musicality”.[1]

The fact that grammatically “musicality” is derived from “music” should not trick us into believing that there is something like “universal music” that explains our musicality. Biologically it is the other way round. Being musical explains the fact that we make music. And musicality is not one narrowly defined “music faculty”, but a range of capacities which together may contribute to the broad range of activities that we call “music”. There is music that is strongly language-like, or not at all. There is music that exploits most of these capacities, or just a few of them. Together they form the complex music faculty.

How old is “art”?

Art and aesthetics have more recently been added to the quest for origins.[2] Enlightenment philosophers did not discuss the origin of art – they didn’t have the concept, which has come into being surprisingly late, between 1750 and 1800. They did, mostly, recognize the then fairly recent category of “fine arts” (in the plural), which shared the quality of “representing” something. Music too is thought to be representative: above all, of the emotional-expressive qualities of speech.

“Art” is a category much more heterogeneous than “music”, which is one of its components. The question What is art? is a notorious philosophical conundrum. The question about the evolutionary origin of art might therefore not be a sensible one.

Both the concept of the “fine arts” and that of “Art” (as the ensemble or common denominator of “the arts”) are historically bounded. The first came in vogue around 1700, the second around 1800. And arguably “Art” is approaching its end around the year 2000, competing with categories such as “entertainment” and “media”.

There are things that were there before there was a word for them. Such as food, hunger, satisfaction. Other phenomena depend upon language and a cultural framework for their existence. Such as “peace treaty”, “museum”, and “absolute music”. In which category does art belong? Did cave painters unwittingly produce “art”?

Some philosophers think they did. I suspect they’re imposing an anachronistic framework on the distant past.

As for “aesthetics”, this too is a concept invented in the eighteenth century. Its definition is still contentious: one philosopher simply takes for granted that aesthetics is “theory of the arts”, another maintains that the arts have no privileged position among aesthetic phenomena, which involve a particular kind of judgment and value. Anyhow, those values usually involve the two standard categories of eighteenth-century aesthetics:  the beautiful and the sublime (“awesome”).

But what we call “beautiful” comprises a great diversity of phenomena, and presumably, corresponding sensations. We may find a face beautiful, a landscape, a vase, the sound of wind in the leaves, a mathematical formula. In a certain context it may be convenient to call all of this “beautiful”. But is it all the same thing – the same mental operation or faculty at work? Relevant factors may be very different: a preference for symmetry; for health; for half open spaces; for sedatives; for rational control. And so on.

The origin of aesthetics is, therefore, the origin of many things that cluster into a category only within a certain cultural framework.


It is different with representation, or what Plato and Aristotle called mimesis. Clearly, the capacity for representing things, making static or living pictures of them or referring to them in a more abstract way, is a very peculiar faculty. It’s not like imitative behaviours found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

According to Aristotle (Poetics IV), the capacity for mimesis is an innate instinct that is linked to our desire for learning. He points out a cognitive element: recognizing the representation as such, and recognizing the qualities of its realization.

Cognitively, mimesis is no doubt still further analysable into more basic mental operations. But it is a concept that, I think, should be central in any evolutionary theory of human cultural behaviour.

(This is a modified extract from Shifting Paradigms: Music, Rhetoric and Aesthetics in Eighteenth and Twenty-First Century Perspectives, presented at The Making of the Humanities VII, University of Amsterdam, 17 November 2018.)

[1]^ Wallin, Nils L., and Björn Merker, eds. The Origins of Music. MIT Press, 2000; Honing, Henkjan, ed. The Origins of Musicality. MIT Press, 2018.
[2]^ e.g. Davies, Stephen. The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2012; Høgh-Olesen, Henrik. The Aesthetic Animal. Oxford University Press, 2018.