MAN DOES NOT live by bread alone, as Jesus reminded
Satan before offering his
own answer to the question,
what else does he live by? More pertinently, how else does he live? In
what other ways does he maintain his dialogue with reality—that is,
not only with the environment outside his skin but anything whatsoever
that present itself to him? One
of these ways can be named aesthesis.
The celebrated example of aesthesis
is of course a man’s encounter with an art object, an art object’s
impact on man’s consciousness. But
the celebrated example is of course
the special case-the art object is also a work of
art, a piece of someone’s work that qualifies in a special way. But there are other objects as well that are
simply given to man or that
are man-made with out qualifying as art objects-and yet these do figure
in aesthetic impacts. All
art objects are aesthetic objects, but not all aesthetic objects are
One can, of course, stretch the coverage
of the term ‘art object’ so as to make it refer to all aesthetic objects.
One can do so, for example, by arguing that even these other
objects are the works of the Supreme Artist, God.
But this is not a very useful manoeuvre even for someone who
believes in God. Such a person will simply have to invent another term for what others
agree to distinguish by calling them art objects. Others have argued (perhaps more ingeniously)
that the act of selecting a natural object, for example, is it self
an artistic act. First painters
make landscape paintings and then others begin looking at landscapes
in the light of these paintings.
This argument is open to the same terminological objection
as the previous argument. But is does help to bring home to us the previous argument. But it does help to bring home to us that a
man’s participation in aesthesis, that is, his being an aesthete,
is liable to be governed by culture, that a group’s artistic culture
is a focal part of that group’s aesthetic culture as a whole, and
that the aesthesis in which the future landscape painter saw some
actual landscape as an aesthetic object must have had something to
do with that aesthete’s coming eventually to paint a landscape painting.
But there is no excuse for confusing aesthetic impact with
artistic creation. When a single object is involved in both we
speak of artistic communication:
the artist creates a work of art which then impresses the aesthete
an aesthetic object. (Of course
the artist may himself play the aesthete to his own work).1
Aesthesis may also lead to a non-aesthetic
act instead of artistic creation—namely, the aesthetic judgement that
x is such that it is
fit to figure in aesthesis in which we figure as aesthetes. This is something like the moral judgement with respect to a moral
judgement with respect to a moral act—but with this difference. In order to pass an aesthetic judgement as
to whether the object in question deserves or does not deserve aesthesis
one must have direct acquaintance with the object in question; knowing
that object by description is not enough.
In passing a moral judgement it is not necessary to know the moral act directly—the author of the judgement need not
ordinarily be the author of the act.
Indeed it is reputedly rather difficult to combine the two
roles! In spite of this intimate connection, however,
between aesthesis and aesthetic judgement, one must not confuse the
two. An aesthetic judgement
is not even a report of aesthesis (of the type ‘A
finds x beautiful’), though
it implies one. Nor is it
an aesthetic exclamation which betrays aesthesis.
‘How beautiful!’ or ‘I find it beautiful’, for example, point
in their somewhat different ways towards an instance of aesthesis
in which the person saying these has participated.
The exclamation may turn out to be insincere or the report
mistaken. Testing such a report is a question of fact.
‘It is beautiful’ is not a report but a judgement whose validity
or otherwise is not a question fact. If we find, however, that a person uttering
this judgement has not in fact undergone aesthesis, we shall say that,
in that case, it does not lie in the mouth of this person to pass
this judgement and that the putative judgement is neither valid nor
invalid, but simply null and void.
If, on the other hand, the judgement is not so voided, we shall
take it seriously—that is, we shall consider its invitation to assent
and either accept or reject the invitation. Consider , in this regard, the use of ‘we’ in the schema for an aesthetic judgement proposed above—“x
is such that it is fit to figure in aesthesis in which we figure as
aesthetes.” The exact interpretation
of this ‘we’ in a given case in a measure
of the social involvement of the author of that aesthetic judgement.
(The possibility of a regal ‘we’ is not to be ruled out!)1a
have chosen to refer to the event reported by aesthetic reports as
an instance of aesthesis. The
terms ‘aesthetic emotion’ or ‘aesthetic experience are at least
question-begging; whether there is any distinct kind of emotion
to be suitably identified as aesthetic emotion is rather questionable. Even if we show that this is the case or even
if we choose a more neutral tem like ‘aesthetic response’, we still
need a term to refer to the event from a point of view that is not
psychological and that is neutral as between the aesthetic object
and the aesthete. This could have the advantage of letting us
take note of the social and the cultural dimensions of that event
as well. As well, that is, as the psychological dimension. It is not for nothing that the word ‘aesthesis’
is etymologically related to the word ‘anaesthesia’ and that the word
‘aesthetics’ when it first came into use
defined as the “science of perception”.
A person under anaesthesia is ruled out for participating in
aesthesis. The aesthetic object
is such that it can be the object of perception, of direct acquaintance
or discernment. An electron
cannot be an aesthetic object; the perceivable effects or the entertainable
theory of electrons could be. (I
am thinking here of the popular use of the word ‘perceive’—if somebody
says he perceives a trap only the context will give us a clue as to
whether the trap is of the hardware kind or of the metaphorical kind.)
piece of behaviour on someone’s part can offer itself as an
aesthetic object to us but then we are not responding to it as behaviour. The impact of the behaviour, namely, the transformation
of a potential aesthete into an actual one, is not the impact of behaviour
a behaviour. The relation
of the person so behaving to the aesthete is not a social relation
of the person so behaving to the aesthete is not a social relation
of the kind, for example, obtaining between two playmates or between
a playing team and the cheering side.
Aesthesis is not play in spite of the close resemblance.
(Note, however, that in the contemporary West spectator sports
are coming more and more to resemble ordinary
show business-the game in the field is coming to [like the
circus act] an aesthetic object.) In true play2 there is noting corresponding
to the absolute distinction between artistic creation and artistic
aesthesis and to the fundamental incompleteness of artistic creation.
If aesthesis is not play, neither is
it gnosis in spite, again, of their close resemblance. (We shall return to this point later.)
What can be an aesthetic object?
It can be a piece of human activity or the product controlled
by such activity—aesthetic performances or artistic artifacts or artistic
texts are obvious examples, but so could be a piece of cricket-playing,
a scientific theory, a surgical operation, a flag design, a type face,
a piece of handwriting, a garment, a meal, a well-executed photograph,
a selection of letters. An
aesthetic object can also be a piece of animal activity or the product
of such activity or any natural event or object—the flight of a bird,
a spider’s web, the bird or the spider itself, a landscape, a rainbow,
a pebble, a dream image, a hallucination, a piece of someone’s biography,
even a well-rounded personality.
What differentiates these two large groups is the room for
perceiving style in the first and its absence form the other.
Art objects form a sub-class of stylized objects the other
sub-class being sub-artistic objects.
Stylized objects form a sub-class of aesthetic objects,3
the other sub-class being quasi-stylized objects. Quasi-stylized objects seem to be characterized
by some analogue to style proper: let us call is quasi-style.
To go back to an
earlier point, the plausibility of the proposal to make ‘art object
and ‘aesthetic object’ synonymous terms derives from the presence
of style r quasi-style in aesthetic objects other than art objects.)
| (animals, nature)
art objects sub-artistic objects,
(artists) (artisans, etc.)
Kinds of Aesthetic
The body of customs governing the incidence
and nature of aesthesis in a group-especially the norms of style and
quasi-style constitute the aesthetic culture of that group. The norms governing the aesthetic judgements
in a group constitute the aesthetic ideology of that group and is
a part of the cognitive activity
in that group. The invitation
to assent is inherent in an aesthetic judgement and constitutes the
very foundation of aesthetic ideology and aesthetic culture as well. I prefer the rather clumsy circumlocutions ‘aesthetic culture’,
‘artistic culture’, and ‘literary culture’ (to proceed from the more
inclusive to the less inclusive)
to the more traditional expressions
‘taste’, artistic taste’, and literary taste’ for two reasons: (1)
taste though and important ingredient of aesthetic culture is not
the whole of it and 2. culture’ with the appropriate adjective
points more explicitly to the wider base of culture in general—the
totality of customs (whether refined or barbaric) through which a
group lives, adjusts to the environments, maintain its dialogue with
reality, and passes on the insights from one generation to the next
(thus maintaining itself as a group).
This attention to the wider base gives us a new perspective.
Animals have quasi-style undoubtedly,
but they have no style and no aesthetic ideology. Philosophers are naturally fascinated by aesthetic
disagreements. But aesthetic
agreements and the expectations for such agreements are also important. Aesthetic disagreement about a specific object
within the framework of a shared aesthetic ideology is fundamentally
different from aesthetic disagreement across different aesthetic ideologies.
What place, if any, aesthetic culture,
especially its most important subdivision, namely, artistic culture,
occupies in the life of the group is another matter.
If we can convince ourselves that a given
group lacks aesthetic culture, then
whatever ‘style’ that we may find in its religious or
magical or technological or mercenary or other activities or artifacts
is not style but quasi style—exactly the sort of quasi-style we detect
in a spider’s web or in our own dreams. What is more likely to be the case is that
aesthetic culture occupies a very subordinate position in the life
of that group. The group simply
does not believe in objects whose only business, only raison d’etre
is to be aesthetic objects. A
group may lack all the arts or some of the arts.
Subartistic aesthesis may appease most of the aesthetic hunger
of that group. At the other extreme we can conceive of a group
for which art may occupy the center of the stage—especially if that
group is not the whole of a society but only a segment of it (say,
its bohemia or its salon-Society).
Indeed some social philosophers maintain that the health or
ill health or atrophy (as the case may be) of aesthetic culture and
its artistic, sub artistic, and quasi-stylistic components is an effect
(or cause)—at least an index—of the state of health of the total culture
of the society (or the social segment) in question.
An aesthetic object, especially an
art object, may be an aesthetically complex object-that is, something
which is an aesthetic object and whose parts or some of whose parts
are themselves aesthetic objects.
The quality of the aesthesis need not be the same in each case.
To take a rather homely example, the deeds and speech of a
fool may make us laugh; the deeds and speech of the Court Fool may
make us laugh as well as admire—laughter at the make-believe fool
he creates an admiration for the skill with which he does so; the
deeds and the speech of the stage Court Fool may make us… you know
I mean. A more recondite example
will be the whole Shakespeare oeuvre, which is often claimed
to be an aesthetic object of some distinction over and above the separate
works of art that go into it. Then
there is Kant’s puzzle about our response to a nightingale’s song
before and after finding out that it was in fact being sung by a man. We should probably think also in this connection
of the Aesopian fable of the peasant with the squealing piglet who
was booed and the mimester squealing like a piglet who was applauded;
of the case of the Van Miguerin forgeries; and of the case of Anant
Kanekar, the Marathi writer, playing a practical joke on critics by
passing off quite successfully his own pieces as Marathi translations
of some newly “discovered” pieces of Kahlil Gibran.
Unfortunately our evidence is all anecdotal; there is room
for controlled experiments. My hunch is that the concept of complex aesthetic
objects may help us in solving puzzles in this group.
We have spoken of the characteristic quality of an instance
of aesthesis and used expressions like ‘make us laugh’, ‘make us admire’.
‘make us exclaim, How beautiful!’ to distinguish between different
qualities. This quality is, to use a popular mathematical
metaphor, a function of the aesthetic object and the community of
aesthetes who are backing the resulting aesthetic judgement. The description of this ‘function’ (in so far
as this is possible) is the description of style (or quasi-style,
as the case may be). We have
used the plural different qualities’, but this should not be taken
seriously. You cannot count aesthetic qualities. It is logically much more comfortable to say
that aesthetic quality is one or that each aesthetic object has its
own quality. But this is taking
the line of least resistance. People
have counted just noticeable differences (jund’s in the laboratory
jargon) of colour or vowel quality.
We should be more cautious but not timid.
The problem of aesthetic disagreement will create complications
but will not pose insuperable difficulties in the way. For if two aesthetes structure a population
of aesthetic objects differently, what we are after are the normal
relations characterizing the field that persist through varying substances.
We can begin with a couple of preliminary observations. First, we notice that aesthetic qualities lend
themselves to pairings of opposites.
Zero- aesthetic quality predications implying the announcement
that no aesthesis has occurred should be construed as neither beautiful
nor ugly nor ridiculous, etc., etc.’ The objection against letting
the adjective ‘beautiful’ monopolize aesthetic discussions is well
The second observations is that we get greater variations in
aesthetic quality by varying the factor of the
aesthetic object than
by varying the factor of the community of aesthetes.
True that the aesthete would be expected to have greater scope
for free play with respect to quasi-stylized objects whose selection
itself is said to be comparable to an artist’s activity than with
respect to stylized objects which bring in the control of another
human being—the artist or the artisan.
Even so the observation just made about closer covariation
between aesthetic quality remains as much true about quasi-stylized
objects as about stylized objects. When all is said about the mutability of taste
in various times and climes, the fact remains that we take aesthetic
disagreement over a given object to stand in need of explanation and
not aesthetic agreement over a given object.
A disagreement of the type x is beautiful (or ugly)’
versus x is zero- aesthetic in quality’ is much less surprising than
one of the type x is beautiful’ versus x is ugly’.
If weset ourselves the task (as psychologists) of predicting
the adjective of aesthetic quality that will appear in a given instance
of aesthesis (in doing which we can even include ‘zero- aesthetic
quality’ as a limiting case), we shall probably find that the factor
of the community of aesthetes is just a corrective factor.
The trio of aesthetic object, the community of aesthetes, and
aesthetic quality can be described as a trio of input, filter, and
output. Consider in this connection the common use of ‘melodramatic’ in
the vocabulary of literacy specialists in this sense: ‘dramatic’ to
the hoi polloi, zero- aesthetic in my book’.
It will be noticed that we have side-stepped the problem of
repeated impacts of the same object on the given aesthete. Aesthesis may come off every time in the same
way or may come off with varying aesthetic qualities or may stop coming
And variation of this sort
is not necessarily taken to mean a change of taste in that aesthete. We shall from now onwards take reports and
judgements to be based on a conflation of a series of impacts on the
same aesthete—‘constantly beautiful’, ‘initially comic but later pathetic’, ‘hauntingly ugly’ and the like are examples
in which such conflation is made explicit.
One advantage of this would be that it will enable us to rather
neatly take care of the whole world of fashion and decoration and
of show business (from the theatre to the circus arena) or entertainment
and of light literature—both when these amount to art and when they
do not. In either case these are a part of aesthetic
culture. The lack of lasting
aesthetic impact will enable us to weed out a number of objects from
the pale of art but there is no denying the essential continuity between
art objects and subartistic objects (witness the influence of modern
art on textile design or of film entertainment on film art and witness
the observation, disquieting to many, that Shakespeare was regarded
by many of his time [including perhaps himself] merely as an inspired
entertainer). Whether this
continuity amounts to an essential graduality in the distinction is
a moot question.
We shall now diagrammatically present the relative placement
of some aesthetic qualities—more truthfully, of a representative sample
of English aesthetic adjectives much as we may map the geometry of
English colour adjectives—placing ‘green’ between ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’,
‘grey’ between ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘pink’ between ‘red and
‘purple’ between ‘red’ and ‘blue’, ‘slate’ between ‘purple’ and ‘grey’
and so on.
The adjectives are in capital letters,
the parameters in small letters.
Above the curve stand the positive “intrinsically satisfying
poles and below the curve stand the negative intrinsically repellent”
poles. Below the angle is zero- aesthetic quality
which is neither of the two. All the qualities above the angle are possibly
encompassed by the possible pole of discreteness.
The diagram should possibly be three-dimensional
like the map of color adjectives; but as a first approximation is
should do. An adequate theory
of comparative aesthetics must not put all its eggs in the Beauty
basket. ‘Beautiful’ with a
small b has of course is
rightful, even prominent place in a family of aesthetic qualities.
It is possible of
course that English does not have readymade adjectives for all the
possibilities that could be illustrated from one’s own fund of aesthetic
experience. (Consider the gap artificially filled by “confined”
in Figure 2.) The diagram
of course does not exhaust even the relatively simpler aesthetic adjectives
in English—‘majestic’ and ‘dainty’ readily come to mind. A good parlour-game will be finding a place for these as well as
mapping adjectives in other languages in terms of the three parameters. My own suggestions will be plentitude and infinitude
for ‘majestic’ and perfection and finitude for ‘dainty’. One can and
possibly may have to modify the game by adding other parameters. Before one does so, one must remember though
that the terms ‘perfection’, ‘plentitude’ and ‘infinitude’ together
with their respective opposites could be first stretched to their
full capacity. For example, ‘perfection’ can subsume ‘harmony’,
‘plentitude’ can subsume ‘variety, novelty, liveliness’, ‘infinitude’
can subsume ‘greatness’, ‘imperfection’ can subsume ‘incogrutity’,
‘economy’, ‘simplilicity’ can
be defined as ‘perfection in finitude’, ****************etc.
etc. More ambitiously, the game will have to be played on a larger
scale using techniques analogous to Charles Osgood’s ‘semantic differential’
and factor analysis. My present
aim is a modest one to show that there is here a fruitful area for
linguistic and psychological analysis.
Such an analysis of the family of aesthetic qualities could
not of course take the place of and therefore would not compete with
the analysis of the problem of aesthetic scaling (‘this is more beautiful
than that’ or ‘sublime is more rewarding than dainty’ or the like)
and of the problem of the validity of aesthetic judgements.
We may note in passing at this point
that artists seem to agree on making the most inclusive aesthetic
object in the complex objects they make always intrinsically satisfying.
No artist wants to make his art object ugly or ridiculous when taken
as a whole. He may of course make use of ugly objects (e.g.
gargoyles) or ridiculous objects (e.g. ridiculous characters) as components
of the final aesthetic object of his making.
A task closely related to the analysis
of aesthetic qualities would be the establishment of the most general
categories of style (and quasi-style) especially as they apply to
most routine art and to all non-artistic aesthetic objects.
The implied exclusion of high art is intentional –that high
art can flout rules of thumb and get away with it being a notorious
fact. But that does not mean that we should give
up the search for rules of thumb—even high style has use for them
if only for asserting its quality of plentitude by flouting them!
At the same time these rules of thumb of style should not be mistaken
for definitions of beauty. Making an aesthetic judgement does not
amount to the attribution of empirically ascertainable and measurable
characteristics to the object in question any more than the specification
of wave lengths Aongstrom Units would define ‘red’ adequately
to a blind person or to anybody for that matter. Even at the empirical level this will not be
justifiable unless we are prepared to first define a standard aesthetic
or a standard European aesthete or the like.
Having explained these necessary reservations hinted at in
selecting the term ‘rule of thumb’, we can concede the usefulness
within limits of laboratory work on aesthesis.
After all there is every indication that even great artists
are not above calculating the effects possible in the chosen material
and medium precisely with the help of such rules of thumb.
Further, ordinary language uses adjectives like ‘monotonous’,
‘curvaceous’ that connote aesthetic quality in combination with stylistic
A word about the important distinction
between material and medium, which we have borrowed form B.S. Mardhekar
(Arts and Man, London: Mortiboy’s 1937; reissued with additions, Bombay:
Popular, 1960). While paint
and canvas constitutes the material of some paintings, the medium
of all paintings is line and colour and tone.
Similarly language is merely the material of poetry, the true
medium of which is the total contouring
of human experience that the language of a poem lets loose in the
reader of that poem.5 how far the distinction in question is applicable
to sub-artistic and quasi-stylized objects is question worth investigating.
The discussion of complex aesthetic
objects at the end of section II has already indicated the sort of
stylistic investigation called for to solve some aesthetic puzzles. But perhaps a more extended illustration at
this point will be useful. Let
us sketch possible empirically ascertainable correlates of the perfection-and-harmony
pole of the perfection-imperfection parameter in the various media.
(It will be evident though that different
media lend themselves in different degrees to the exploitation of
a given correlation of this kind.
One does not normally associate humour with music.
While vision, hearing, kin aesthesis, and imagination have
been harnessed to art, the senses of smell, taste, balance and the
tactile senses of pressure, temperature, and irritation have been
condemned to the ‘cheaper’ aesthetic pleasures of the kitchen, interior
decoration, and the fair ground—and to providing metaphors like taste,
rasa, and texture to aesthetic discussion.)
the following may be set out as the
stylistic (and quasi-stylistic) correlates of the positive pole of
the elegant-uncouth line (in Figure 2):
(3) Congrutiy of the immediate to the remote
(a) of replica to the
to type (typicalization)
of means to end (functionality)
of effort to effect (skill)
to context (appropriateness)
Out of these the kinds of eurthythmicity
and symmetry have been illustrated from the visual field in Figure
3. Commonly associated with symmetry is the property of
contrast. Matching and contrast
matching so beloved of fashion
oracles essentially belong over at the sparseness-plentitude axis. Balanced contrast (as opposed, say, to variegated
contrast), broken symmetry, and proportion are probably to be interpreted
as ways of reconciling plentitude with perfection (especially congruity).
of Eurthythmicity and Symmetry
Since the term ‘rhythm’ has been used
in so many different senses—not to say without any sense at all-we
have chosen the term ‘eurhythmicity’ for the particular sense we have
in mind. Eurhythmicity’ (whether of the linear or the
textural kind) seems to involve at least the following properties:
temporal perception of recurrence,
the possibility of an infinite number of alternate cuts in establishing
the recurrent unit (whence the need for continuity and for the recurrence
of at least three linear or four textural units), and—
the selection of one cut as the dominant and obvious one since the
recurrence is recurrence with a difference (whence the need for khāl
ī along with tāl ī to establish the tāl ī cycle
or the need for interruptions or curvatures in a line).
Another general problem of style (and quasi-style) is the problem
of material and medium in relation to each other and to the major
modes and sub-modes of art. One
interesting solution that has been offered is Susanne K.Langer’s concept
of Illusion. She points out, for example, that the similarity
between mobile sculpture and dance in that both use as material moving
visible solids in free space is superficial, the respective illusions
of virtual space and virtual power being different. Similar considerations have led others to distinguish between filmed
drama and film art proper. Distinctions
such as that between visual, auditive, kinaesthetic, and imaginative
art7 or that between prop-dependent and performance-dependent
arts, valuable as they are, are secondary to deeper considerations
are relevant to non-artistic aesthetic objects is another question.
Time and again we have been suggesting
the possibility of extrapolating concepts developed primarily in connection
with art objects and the underlying act of artistic creation to non-artistic
aesthetic objects and the underlying human activity, if any. But of
course this should not be pushed too far and the reverse possibility
should not be overlooked. Sub-artistic
activity when it is not merely artistic failure is broadly of two
kinds—either playful and casual like doodiling, prancing, humming,
strumming, mimicry or workmanlike and deliberate like decorative craft,
entertainer’s craft, copywriter’s craft.
Artistic creation proper seems in a sense to transcend this
great human dichotomy between play and honest work—it seems to partake
of both and be rooted in both. Correspondingly artistic aesthesis has kinship
with sub-artistic aesthesis like which it too affords stylized relief
from loneliness and involvement extremes, from the monotony of routine
time, from the monotony of routine space, from the monotony of service
communication. No consideration of style can effort do ignore these therapeutic rewards
of art and sub-art.
The remaining problems of style are probably specific to
different kinds of aesthetic objects, though some of them may be partially
shared by two or more such kinds—examples of this latter sort are
the problem of story or the problem of the Persona (the ‘I’ in a lyric,
the ‘he’ or ‘she’ in a story, and so on).
If this essay seems to be going round the central problems of aesthesis rather than tackling them
directly, the procedure is deliberate.
It is my feeling that the prevailing exclusive pre-occupation
with the so-called fundamentals of artistic aesthesis to the neglect
of non-artistic aesthesis (which is left to biologists, anthropologists,
folklorists, and culture historians), and of the analysis of actual
critical discourse (that is, the interpretation and evaluation of
works of art and together aesthetic objects
by critics, town planners, students of mass media, and other
s) is seriously suffering from diminishing returns.
A determined attack on the peripheral and applicatory problems
will yield a harvest of new insights and-new
problems. Meta- aesthetic discussions by analytic philosophers and amateurs will then have more interesting items than the shop-worn
‘x is beautiful’ to chew upon.8
This final section
of the essay will return to the centre by high-lighting two problems.
(a) What is the relation between aesthesis and its two
participants-the aesthetic object and the aesthete-on the one hand
and things like ‘plentitude’, ‘infinitude’, ‘virtual time’, ‘story’,
‘persona’, ‘the tragic condition of man’, and the like on the other? Perhaps we should be saying: What are the respective
relations? Does the aesthetic
object assert, exemplify, bring home ‘plentitude’ to the aesthete?
If ‘to be sublime’ is, as Kant says, ‘to be an adequate symbol
of infinity’, why precisely is “∞” not sublime, not an ‘adequate
symbol of infinity’? If a particular view of Mount Everest is such a symbol (i.e. is
sublime), why is it not an object of art?
What additional kind of semiosis or symbolization9 does an
object of art involve?
This brings us close to the other problem that I wish to broach. The
symbolic character of aesthetic objects, the semiotic elements in
aesthesis raises the possibility that aesthetic objects especially
art objects, may also turn out not only to be the objects of cognitive
activity like aesthetic judgements and interpretative criticism but
also to be themselves and/or vehicles of cognitive
activity (like the celebrated ‘criticism of life ‘ through
poems claimed by Matthew Arnold).
The twin processes of aesthesis and gnosis10 may thus exhibit
a three-fold relationship:
(i) Gnosis even in its typical manifestations
(e.g. science) may embody aesthetic elements. We
have already spoken of the elegance of scientific theories; but then we must also heed Einstein’s summary
in junction to fellow scientists ‘Leave elegance to the tailor!’ There
have been elegant but unacceptable theories (e.g. Ptolemaic astronomy)
as well as inelegant but acceptable theories (e.g. the currently accepted
account of sub-atomic particles).
Nobody will seriously suggest de gustibus non disputandum
as a motto for scientists. One
way of reconciling the two views of science is of course to say that
aesthesis is merely a possible by-product in scientific cognition.
But this is surely not the whole story-there is something to
Nisbet’s observations that the great social theorists of the 19th
century were not just solving finite and ordered problems, just processing
data but like the artists objectifying internal and only partially
conscious of the mind and exhibiting a profound imaginative grasp.11
Aesthesis in all its manifestations is a fit object for gnosis.
Some thinkers have questioned this; even take a certain amount
of delight in pointing out the failures of cognitive activity in respect
of aesthesis (especially of artistic aesthesis). In any case we shall have to establish distinctions
between different kinds of gnosis in respect of aesthesis; the distinctions between different kinds of
gnosis in respect of aesthesis; the distinction established earlier
between reports and judgements is a case in point.
Aesthetic objects even of the typical sort (e.g. art) may afford their
human perceiver an experience in which are embedded gnostic elements. These latter may range from the obviously extrinsic-the
philological or archaeological history12-through
the less clearly extrinsic-the study of style and content of stylized
objects as an instrument of biography and history-to the clearly intrinsic
symbolizations through which the aesthetic object explores experience
(the credit for which may or may not go to the artist). This exploration brings to the aesthete, it
has been claimed, the benefit of ‘virtually direct’ acquaintance with
feeling as opposed to mere descriptions or mere symptoms of feeling. Some of these explorations may have close relations
with the moral and political ideals of man, relations with self-realization
as well as with social involvement. In finding a function for art (and make honest work of artistic
activity!) social philosophers have fallen back on the gnostic as well as the therapeutic rewards of art,
on instruction as well as amusement (to recall the baldest formulation
of this problem known to history).
An earlier version of this essay was read before the Literary
Group at the Centre for Indian Writers, Poona, in September 1968. The present version has benefited from the
discussion there and from comments made in personal communication
by other friends.
It will be noticed that I have taken the liberty to use the term ‘aesthete’
mean “the human participant in aesthesis, aesthetic subject”. Ordinarily, of course, the term refers to someone
who readily assumes the aesthetic subject’s role even in a situation
in which others are apt to attend to its other aspects.
1 (a) This whole analysis of an aesthetic judgement
is in a way an extrapolation from G.E.Moure’s analysis of moral judgements
(see the opening pages of the principia ethica, Cambridge 1903). Such
an extrapolation of on my part was anticipated, as it turns out, E.F.carritt.
For very suggestive analysis of play and games see Roger Caillois’s
papers (The Structure
and Classification of Games, Diogenes No.12, Winter 1955; Unity
of Play: Diversity of Games, Diogenes No. 19, Fall 1957)
In fairness to the reader, I should point out that the term ‘aesthetic
also been used
in at least two other senses-for Paul Weiss it means a non-artistic
aesthetic object (sub-artistic or quasi-stylized in our grouping);
for Stephen Pepper it is the art object token as it figures in a given
instance of aesthesis as distinct from the thing that persists from
one instance of aesthesis to the next.
The alleged immunity of some art objects to the law of diminishing
probably a myth.
The ubiquitous and round-the-clock electronic piping of music
in the contemporary West (much of it being classical and/or hi-fi)
is a potential threat to music as art.
This point is pursued a little further in my earlier essay “The Being
of a Poem
of Language 5:1, Amsterdam, 1969).
Since we have not specified the prototype, imitation covers verisimilitude
as imitation of
other aesthetic objects. Indeed,
Artistoele’s mimesls of human life and nature was amplified
in modern European poetics to
include imitation of classical (Greece-Roman) poetry.
Imagination is of course involved
in all art; but poetry and other forms of
and film are probably dependent on imagination in the special way
in which, say, sculpture and music are dependent on vision and audition
It is high time that the philosophers realize that judgements of the
scheme ‘x is beautiful’ play a very minor role, if at all,
in contemporary critical discourse.
It will be safer to use the wider term’ semiosis’ than use ‘symbolization’
which one may
wish to assign a more restricted and specific coverage.
Again, it will be safer to use the wider term ‘gnosis’ than use knowledge’
or ‘cognition’. Gnosis may
be made to cover both prehension, insight, perceptual knowledge and
conceptual knowledge in a non-committal fashion.
Robert A. Nisbet, “Sociology as an art form”, Pacific Sociological
1962; cf. also
his the sociological tradition, New York: Basic Books, 1966; London:
Heinemann Educational, 1967, pp. 18-20.
Cases are not unknown, however, where a failure to respond aesthetically
led to a historical misinterpretation. A successful literary scholar must also be something of a literary
This was published in the short-life and
Humanist review no.2 April-June 1969, 21-228.