Evolutionary theory cannot give a satisfactory account of such distinctive facets of human life as the quest for knowledge, moral sense, and the appreciation of beauty. In these we transcend our biological origins. It is our rationality that allows each of us to go beyond not only our biological but also our cultural inheritance. That is to say 'we are prisoners neither of our genes nor of the ideas we encounter as we each make our personal and individual way through life'

A new perspective emerged with the work of Charles Darwin, offering evolutionary insight into the relationship of aesthetics and human consciousness. The art historian Ellen Dissanayake asserts that there is an evolutionary component to human aesthetic activities whenever humans create objects that they ‘make special.’ She explores various arguments describing how aesthetic objects function as evolutionary selectors.

In our half-awakened states of relatively ordinary human adult consciousness, it is art and the momentary sublime experiences of nature that pull us into new pathways of consciousness, new modes of awareness. Such encounters invoke previously unfelt or dimly felt resonances of communication with objects around us. They take us beyond words by catalyzing such resonances and then sustain and reinforce them until they become the growth tips of a new branch of perception. Carl Jung neatly encapsulated this in his phrase: “Sometimes a tree can tell you more than can be read in a book”.

Macphail suggests that ‘consciousness’ is difficult to define, rather like ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’. He goes on to distinguish between two forms of human consciousness, namely ‘self consciousness’ and ‘feeling-consciousness’. The former reflects the fact that humans can distinguish their own selves from other selves, and that ‘we know that we know things’. The latter includes such feelings as love, pleasure and pain. The author suggests that whereas the existence of self-consciousness in animals is debatable, most people would accept that most, if not all, animals have feeling-consciousness.

In the final chapter of his book, Macphail summarizes his main arguments about materialist philosophies of consciousness, and attempts to reach a synthesis. Two main conclusions are that there is no proof that any non-human organism is conscious, and that only humans possess language. The essence of language is that humans can form what Macphail calls ‘aboutness’ relationships, where an internal representation (the predicate) is about another representation (the subject). This functionalist brand of materialism with the human capacity to form ‘aboutness’ relationships, then, is crucial for the formation of a self-concept. This aptly summarises the process that goes on all the time in museums, real or imaginary.

When an individual can distinguish between self and non-self it has in fact a ‘self’: ‘a novel cognitive structure that stands above and outside the cognitive processes that are available to organisms without a self’. Macphail goes on to argue that feeling-consciousness is in some sense a by-product of self consciousness, with feelings being nothing more than ‘functionless epiphenomena’. For humans, a visit to the museum, indoors or outdoors, is a quest of the consciousness to discover ‘aboutness’ relationships between cultural objects on the verge of art and human habitats.


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