Aesthetic Cognitivism is a school of thought in film theory, literary theory and similar fields about the value of the arts that approaches them not simply (or not even) as sources of delight, amusement, pleasure, or emotional catharsis, but, instead, as sources of understanding. As philosopher Nelson Goodman put it in Ways of Worldmaking (1978), "the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding."
Cognitivism is a departure from methodologies that have dominated studies of art in the past, particularly in literary theory and film theory, which have not employed scientific research. In some cases, particularly since the rise in the 1970s of psychoanalytic, ideological, semiotic, and Marxist approaches to theory in humanities research in Western academia, cognitivism has been explicitly rejected due to its reliance on science, which some scholars in those schools believe offers false claims to truth and objectivity.
Within aesthetic research, cognitivism has been most successful in literary and film studies (in the forms of cognitive literary theory (as proposed by Mary Thomas Crane and Alan Richardson) and cognitive film theory (as proposed by Noël Carroll) respectively, where it generally aims to explain audience comprehension, emotional elicitation, and aesthetic preference. Although some cognitivists, such as Torben Grodal, also employ ideas from evolutionary psychology in their work, there is no necessary connection between these approaches, and many cognitivists do not agree with conclusions made by evolutionary psychologists.
Cognitivism is considered to have been introduced to film studies by David Bordwell's 1985 book Narration in the Fiction Film. Cognitive film studies is now prominent enough in film studies to be included in textbooks that survey film theory.
Cognitivism is considered a naturalistic discipline in that it discusses concepts it believes are ultimately grounded in observable evidence.
Rooted in aesthetic cognitivism, Art Seeking Understanding is a program strategy funded by Templeton Religion Trust. Launched in 2019, it is being followed by Closer to Truth. According to the Request for Proposals, "Projects in this area would bring together writers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers - artists of all kinds - as well as art historians and musicologists with philosophers, theologians, and scientists from a variety of sub-disciplines within the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences to conceive and design empirical and statistical studies of the cognitive significance of the arts with respect to spiritual realities and the discovery of new spiritual information."