Two film theorists, D. N. Rodowick and Murray Smith, have recently addressed the place of the natural sciences in the study of film and art, and they reach diametrically opposed conclusions. Rodowick argues that natural-scientific explanations have little or no role to play in the study of film and art as “cultural practices,” while Smith advocates a “naturalized aesthetics of film,” which he describes as “an approach that … treats [film] as a phenomenon which is likely to be illuminated by various types of scientific as well as traditional humanistic research.”
In this paper, I argue that, while both views contain important insights, they are ultimately mistaken. Rodowick overlooks the important role the natural sciences can play in explaining the perceptual, cognitive, affective, and bodily capacities that shape and constrain our engagement with art as well as the properties of artworks that elicit and inform this engagement. Nevertheless, this does not mean, I maintain, that aesthetics should be naturalized, as Smith believes, given that the types of explanations standardly proffered in film studies and other humanistic disciplines can be autonomous from those of the natural sciences in the sense of being explanatorily self-sufficient.