In the last couple of days I've chanced to look at three articles which discuss what studies of the brain and evolutionary biology have to say about art and literature. Two were in the London Review of Books and conclude ‘Not much’ (Terry Eagleton’s article [24.9.09] is entitled ‘Darwin is No Help’). The third is an article John Hardcastle sent me about the mutual influence of Vygotsky and Bakhtin and points out that their essential philosophies of science and criticism were poles apart, Bakhtin holding with the neo-Kantians that completely different methods were required for studying the physical world and the arts, Vygotsky that as we know more about the body/brain a unified science will become more and more possible, the key to understanding art lying in a study of the responses it evokes.
Vygotsky, though, wasn’t guilty of a crude reductionism that saw consciousness simply as a biological issue. He was impressed, of course, with the argument that at one level the material is all there is and, along with many others, was looking for ways of accounting for consciousness, will and aesthetic response within a single framework. One way was Gestalt psychology (the whole is different from the sum of the parts), but what they were moving towards was the now influential idea of emergence: while ‘the more complex aspects of reality (e.g.life, mind) presuppose the less complex (e.g. matter)... they have features that are irreducible, e.g. cannot be thought in concepts appropriate to the less complex levels’ (quote attributed to Collier 1994).