On Aesthesis


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 art objects.


            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


        We 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

was 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.)


            A  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.)


aesthetic objects



|                                                                          |

                                    stylized objects                                     quasi-stylized objects

                                           |                                                       (animals, nature)



                          |                                      |

                 art objects                           sub-artistic objects,

                   (artists)                                    (artisans, etc.)        


Figure I

Kinds of Aesthetic Objects

(with their sources)



            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 taken.


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 off.4
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

‘white’, ‘purple’ between ‘red’ and ‘blue’, ‘slate’ between ‘purple’ and ‘grey’ and so on. 

(see Figure 2.)




















            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’, sufficiency ‘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 implications.


            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):


            (1) Eurhymicity


                  (a)  linear

                  (b)  textural


            (2) Symmetry


                   (a)  rotatory          

                   (b)  gyratory         

       (c)  oscillatory       

                   (d)  cycloidal


            (3) Congrutiy of the immediate  to the remote


(a)  of replica to the prototype (imitation)6

(b)    to type (typicalization)


(c)    of means to end (functionality)

(d)    of effort to effect (skill)

(e)    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).












Kinds 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:


(a)    recurrence,

(b)    temporal perception of recurrence,

(c)    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—

(d)    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?


(b)      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


(ii)          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.


(iii)         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.


1.             It will be noticed that I have taken the liberty to use the term ‘aesthete’ to simply

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.


2.             For very suggestive analysis of play and games see Roger Caillois’s two

papers (The Structure and Classification of Games, Diogenes No.12, Winter 1955; Unity of Play: Diversity of Games, Diogenes No. 19, Fall 1957)


3.             In fairness to the reader, I should point out that the term ‘aesthetic object’ has

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.



4.             The alleged immunity of some art objects to the law of diminishing returns is

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.


5.             This point is pursued a little further in my earlier essay “The Being of a Poem

(Foundations of Language 5:1, Amsterdam, 1969).


6.             Since we have not specified the prototype, imitation covers verisimilitude as well

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.


7.             Imagination  is of course involved in all art; but poetry and other forms of

literature, drama and film are probably dependent on imagination in the special way in which, say, sculpture and music are dependent on vision and audition discourse.


8.          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.


9.             It will be safer to use the wider term’ semiosis’ than use ‘symbolization’ to

which one may wish to assign a more restricted and specific coverage.


10.      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 comprehension,  problem-solving, conceptual knowledge in a non-committal fashion.


11.         Robert A. Nisbet, “Sociology as an art form”, Pacific Sociological Review Fall

1962; cf. also his the sociological tradition, New York: Basic Books, 1966; London: Heinemann Educational, 1967, pp. 18-20.


12.      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 critic.




        This was published in the short-life and Humanist review no.2 April-June 1969, 21-228.