The Aesthetic (Five)

If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed. Tolstoy, War and Peace (Epilogue, Chapter One).

I still have some more features of the aesthetic that I want to enumerate and discuss.  But this post will return to the feature considered in the last post to make some further observations on that feature’s consequences.

The burden of the last post was that art is understood to communicate something.  That understanding is not completely inevitable or obligatory.  The art work could offer a simply perceptual or sensual experience.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  But we humans are often inclined to take bodily experiences—eating, sex, walking—and imbue them with significance.  Such things are taken to “say something” either about the character of the person who performs the activity or about the nature of life itself.  Furthermore, actions, events, and experiences are not only endowed with “meaning,” but they are also (almost inevitably) subject to judgments of value.  Was this experience a good or bad one of its kind?  And was this experience worth having in light of the other possible experiences I might have been having instead?

Three immediate consequences:

  1. There is rarely any chance to have experiences that are purely corporeal. It is not just the aesthetic that partakes of the non-corporeal, but just about everything. Meaning is not bodily.  Just what meaning is remains a bit of a stumper, one this whole project hopes to unravel.  But meaning cannot be sensed by the five senses—and if it is embodied in the material of the art work or in the experience, it is still not identical to that material, but something that is inferred from it by acts of interpretation.  Still, we are going to have to come to terms with the nature of the incorporeal (even if we agree, with Dewey, that the corporeal and incorporeal are inextricably mixed).
  2. It is very difficult, close to impossible, to avoid ranking experiences. There can be different standards for ranking: does this poem work, i.e. is it a better poem qua poem than that one?; does this experience or art work provide more pleasure than that one?; does this art work or experience seem more meaningful than that one?; is this experience or art work morally superior to that one?  Judgments of better or worse are, I believe, generally comparative; absolute judgments are rare, if not impossible.  But judgments of better or worse are inescapable (it seems to me).  We should not pretend in our classrooms or in our reception of art works to neutrality.


  1. There are multiple paths toward the communication of meaning. In the academic world, those paths yield the different disciplines.  In ordinary experience, there is assertion as contrasted to anecdote, as well as how one describes one’s own intentions and how those intentions might be understood by those who observe one’s behavior. (Just two examples of different modes–hardly mean to be exhaustive). Those invested in the arts will (in many cases) a) be interested in the specific modes of communication that are deployed by artists and b) often argue vehemently that artistic modes are superior to other possible modes.


Let me say a little bit more about this second point—which gets me to the Tolstoy epigraph to this post.  Those committed to the arts are often defensive, thinking that art’s modes of perception and communication are undervalued in a world that seems to prefer “hard” (often coded as scientific) knowledge.  What the arts communicate is fuzzy, messy, open to conflicting interpretation, and non-definitive.  If the arts have cognitive value, it remains unclear how to harvest that cognitive offering since agreement about what exactly the art work says is hard to reach.

In response to such widely held objections to art’s communicative obscurities, artists are prone to insist that more scientific, more rational, more straight-forward knowledge (and meaning) claims miss essential features of life as we humans live and know it.  For example, a novelist might claim that the word “grief” hardly gives us enough or adequate information about how one human might respond to the death of another.  We need an elaborated story that tracks the grieving person over time to really gain some understanding of “grief.”  There is a welter of emotions, a variety of moods and thoughts, that comprise the experience of grief.

At its extremes, this apology (I am thinking of the classic “apologies” for poetry) for artistic modes approach mysticism—both in the insistence that indirect, a-rational modes of thought and expression are required to fully express vital facets of experience, and in a tendency to claim some of those facets (complex emotions for example, or certain states of “harmony” such as the ones that interest Dewey) are close to, if not entirely, “ineffable.”  The arts struggle to express that which defies expression.  That is why the arts must resort to indirection—and why art works are so often “difficult” to understand and interpret.  The artist ventures into the unknown and doesn’t always come back with a clear account of what her exploration has revealed.

Apologies for the arts as “another way of knowing” often entail considering the status of the emotions.  The arts, it is said, appeal to the audience on an emotional, as contrasted to a rational, level.  Aristotle’s pity and terror.  So then questions get raised about the status of “emotional knowledge,” with someone like Martha Nussbaum claiming that non-emotional, disinterested knowledge is inferior to the kind informed by the emotions.

In James and Dewey, the emotional investment that underwrites “inquiry” is taken for granted and as inevitable.  With James, this immediately becomes very complicated since he sees emotion as grounded in a purely corporeal reaction to a situation, with the naming of the emotion the coming to consciousness of that bodily response.  (Unlike Nussbaum, who would see the emotion as the combined body/mind assessment of a situation.)  James, similarly, thinks most knowledge claims and rational justifications are secondary—layered on top of the primary temperament or sensibility that actually governs our assessments (with the term “assessment” covering everything from our naming of the situation, our attitudes toward it,  and our judgments about values and  possible courses of action).  Thus, James appears (as we might expect from a psychologist) to give “reason” a very small role to play in the determination of human beliefs, values, and even interpretations of the environment.

Dewey, with his commitment to “intelligence,” is more of a “rationalist” than James.  But, as we have already seen, in Art As Experience (at least), he seems to agree that emotional appeals are more rhetorically powerful and effective than reasoned arguments.  He seems close to accepting the James (and later Rorty) claim that “sensibility” (or “temperament”) more fully determines one’s way of being in the world than the kinds of arguments that philosophers deploy in hopes of persuading their readers to one set of beliefs or another.

I think the artistic sensibility tends towards the mystic, toward the assertion that “there are more things under heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy”—and that sensibility is committed to the arts as a mode of access to and a way to communicate about those “things.”

A final, quite different, point.  Technically, the arts are difficult—and require a fairly single-minded obsession.  The pianist and the ardent golfer alike can think, live, and breathe playing.  Marx was, it seems, very wrong (at least about a certain subset of humans) when he imagined the denizens of his communist utopia fishing one day and philosophizing the next.  Instead, many people hunker down into one pursuit which they find endlessly fascinating as they struggle to master all its intricacies–and neglect most other possible ways of spending their time.

This fact presents a problem to what I have called the almost inevitable tendency to make judgments of better and worse.  How do we avoid labeling some people’s obsessive pursuits as trivial?  Here is the world going to hell—and someone devotes his life to breeding and training show dogs.  Yet how do we distinguish that activity from the person who devotes his life to becoming a virtuoso on the piano?  And doesn’t pluralism entail not just a tolerance for the varied activities in which people find meaning (that term again!), but also a recognition that life would be diminished if we didn’t have pianists and entomologists and obsessive chefs and adepts at various games?

I could never in a million years devote my life to identifying 10,000 different varieties of beetles, but I hardly feel inclined to condemn the person who does.  I am even willing to acknowledge that that person is as entitled to a university position and its support for her research as much as I am.  And yet: I have more trouble making that concession when it comes to the person teaching golf on my campus—and to university athletics altogether.  This reluctance to extend university support bleeds into a reluctance to think a life devoted to golf a life well lived.  Harmless I suppose (although the environmental harms done by golf courses are not insignificant), but really worth this one life you are given?

Such questions are inevitably raised by the arts because it is hard to explain how the arts are necessary.  Perfectly admirable lives can be led by those totally indifferent to the arts, while a devotion to the arts can preclude one contributing to what appear more pressing social needs and concerns.  On the other hand, how far do we want to take a kind of Peter Singer type puritanism that would condemn every activity that doesn’t redound directly to benefit of our fellow humans?  “O argue not the need” pleads Lear.  Life would be awfully grim if we only attended to necessities.  Yet how to we justify these luxuries when some people are denied those necessities, leading lives even more grim than those lives which can only focus on the daily struggle to get what’s needed?

Well-worn worries here, but ones (I am arguing) that will inevitably arise once the question of “meaning” is on the table.  And since the arts seem to be entangled (in many instances) with questions of meaning (including what makes one way of life more “meaningful” than another), “the art of our necessities” (Elizabeth Bishop) and the arts of transcending the compulsions of necessity will arise in most considerations of aesthetics.  And such considerations are definitely ethical (how to live a life), pretty directly moral (what do I owe others, both human and non-human), and possibly political (what political consequences do my ethical and moral commitments entail).

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