Aesthetics is about feeling. Touch is about feeling. Love is about feeling. Dread…
I am saying this because in this post I want to express some thoughts and notions about the word aesthetics and some of its threads in social, community and conceptual realms of human life. These threads will not always form a stable fabric even though they are directly helpful to human life and human understanding. In part, this is possible because human life and an understanding of its diverse placements in existence, are usually only superficially comprehended and fleetingly glimpsed. And this is so, even after the physicists’ reductionist ploy.
This meandering review could easily be transferred to other words than ‘aesthetics’ and languages than English, although I will constrain my wandering. My purpose is twofold.
Firstly, I want to recall my earlier post’s preoccupation with the many aspects of human life and learning, called sensing and feeling. Additionally, I am also recalling the posts whose focus was the interface of clay with human physicality: how potters’ hands feel and shape plastic clay for example. Secondly, I feel bound to keep the thread of the interconnectedness of all things alive and sentient in our minds. And, by alive, I mean ‘alive – living’, a slippery but solid concept, if ever there were one.
Be aware, that not knowing all the limits, extent and richness of a concept, an idea or the words which seem to capture it, is not a good ground for avoiding it. Often, these ‘not-knowings’, are good bases for using the words and ideas regularly and putting them into action in the real world of physical, human life, in community.
Ambiguity and uncertainty allow space for thought movement and new vision—grounds for myth construction and fabrication as well, so we must keep our eyes open and judgement acute. As if this were new!
Many people think aesthetics is related to beauty, a not unreasonable thought, although very inadequately understood. After the notion of beauty, people guess it’s related to certain range of feeling(s) such as harmony, richness, fullness, and cohesion, intuitively perceived, etc.
In general, the word ‘aesthetics’ touches perception or feeling in one of the realms of value, like experience of something good or something bad, something sensed as right or wrong, or true or false, beautiful or not, and so on.
It is useful, however, to recall that the word aesthetics is itself rooted in an older Greek word, αισθητική – aesthetiké, pertaining to sense perception, the body’s sense of something in the world (a relatively basic picture of naïve realism is at play here and we will return to it often). Until the early to mid-18th century the idea most deeply rooted in aesthetics was the notion of sense/bodily perception, but which was thought to have no strong cognitive value. In this time period, Baumgarten introduced the subtle but challenging idea that aesthetics, sense perception, was able also to notice and be aware of a certain form of cognition and value. Humans could be aware of a value in some realms of sense perception, and this conceptual step on his part, introduced the modern idea of aesthetics as a form of knowing and not only of sensing or feeling. A reasonable question which followed was, what is this realm, this reality of which humans could be aware? His interest was to begin a science/logic of sensing just as there had been developed a science/logic of thinking – reason, deductive and inductive thinking, the rational organizing of the mind.
When a person is anesthetized, their conscious state is in no way present to them: they are gone from themselves. That is, no feeling, imagining, thinking, planning, worrying, agitating, laughing, or eating, etc. Some would say, as if dead to the world—much more so than a sleeping baby. From this ‘no’ sensing/thinking state we see a hint of the deeper meaning of aesthetics which Baumgarten wanted to study (esthetics, but not in a beauty salon).
Being anaesthetized is not, however, being not alive — i.e., being dead.
When anaesthetized, we do not feel or think. Each word here is key to subtle and difficult-to-fully-understand realms of meaning and reality. When I speak like this, I do not mean that the brain and the body stop; and if you were to talk like this, you would not mean that either. We have no conscious awareness of anything, nor of these state themselves. We say in the vernacular, ‘dead to the world’.
When not anaesthetized, however, we do feel and think, etc. To live as a human is to have aesthetic experience.
After all, what does it mean to ask, “What sense did your question make?” when that question is asked out of context? Or what is the feeling you are trying to put into language, i.e., not what happened, but what you feel? Or what is going on, when discussing a fleeting, impending sense of disaster, even though there appears to be no sign? Or what does the surface of the table feel like, and how is that feeling different than the sensing a potter feels while caressing and shaping smooth, plastic, wet clay? Or, how is feeling a gentle evening breeze different that a subtle muscle spasm in your face or shoulder? Or does the skin actually feel? And how would we know that, anyway? Or what is the feeling of awe or beauty at being confronted by remarkable painting, poem, aria or sung dynasty bowl? These direct questions are queries about the functioning life of language, expressed indirectly. What is a feeling? Aesthetics? Drive? Obsession? Awe? Marvel? Need? Fun? Do we feel ‘being alive’?
Human pregnancy seldom (never?) occurs without a complex of interrelated and interdependent modal contingencies. It, pregnancy, is primal instance of a general notion — that occurences are all contextual! Language is no exception.
So, what is aesthetics all about anyway?