THE ESTHETIC EXPERIENCE
[For a more detailed view of this subject, see Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 2, Chapter5.](See a little above the place linked to also.)
I said in the preface that what was special about the esthetic experience was that it was based on emotions. From now on, then, we are going to be considering emotions and their implications for objective consciousness.
DEFINITION: An emotion is the conscious aspect of a human drive or instinct. That is, it is the instinct insofar as it is conscious.
Now instinct is one of the organizing functions of the human mind; and it has some peculiar qualities that we will have to investigate in order to understand how an emotion can be, in a rather indirect sense, a reaction to some object.
DEFINITION: Instinct is the organizing function of the brain by which energy is directed from the reactions to motor nerves giving responses appropriate to the body in the condition it is in.
Energy in the brain has a conscious "dimension" to it; and so when some object produces a stimulus, then this appears in consciousness as what I called a "reaction." As energy moves around the brain, it stimulates other nerves, producing various imaginary images. When it finally moves to the motor nerves, it moves out of the brain to various muscles, consciousness no longer occurs, and behavior happens. But the "directing-ness" (the flow along predetermined pathways according to some "program") appears in consciousness as an emotional overtone of the reactions and/or images involved.
What is important here is that instinct monitors the state the body is in and directs energy from the incoming stimulus to the behavioral response depending on the condition of the body.
That is, what the "program" called instinct does is twofold. It is, in the first place, constantly in touch, as it were, with the various systems of the body, so that the various needs the body has to maintain its equilibrium are registered here.
Secondly, built genetically into the instinct's program is a sort of file of images (which, of course, are possible reactions); and based on the particular state of the body, the program matches a given image with a certain behavior-pattern and sends energy to the appropriate motor nerves.
Thus, when your blood-sugar falls below a certain level, then this calls up the image of food, memories of where the food might be, and directs you toward the likely place for finding it. And all this shows up in consciousness as, first of all, the feeling of hunger, then images of various foods (together with the anticipation of satisfaction and a greater hunger-feeling), awareness of acting, and then the feeling of satiety after eating (when the instinct's program indicates that the need is filled). The "desire" for food and the "satisfaction" felt are the emotions involved.
Again, when you are crossing the street and a car suddenly swerves toward you, instinct--programmed to react to any large object moving suddenly in your direction--goes into its "emergency" mode. You either run "without thinking" or you freeze--and in either case, the emotion that comes into consciousness is "terror."
The reason for the two different behaviors is that our instinct's program was built genetically, and so it responds to situations our organism tended to face before we were civilized. A large animal coming toward you might make it more beneficial to run away (if you were far enough from it to escape), or, if it were too close, more beneficial to remain absolutely still so that it wouldn't notice you. Not very helpful for out-of-control cars, but it worked fine with tigers and so on.
3.1.2. Human instinct
In animals, instinct is the highest and directing faculty; they have no control over it, and it controls them. Humans are different. As you can see from concentrating on something, you can control your attention, and keep some things in consciousness as long as you want, and other things out of consciousness. By doing logic, and by deliberately deciding how to act when confronted with various situations, you also see that you can consciously control what response is going to be attached to what stimulus in a given situation, irrespective of the emotion involved.
As you can also see from your own experience, we don't have absolute control over our instinct. It's hard to concentrate when there is some strong distraction (i.e. when the instinct is pulling us in a different direction); and if you have an emotional attraction to candy, say, it might not be easy to refuse an offered piece. Sometimes, if the instinct is very strong, it is impossible in practice to control it.
But the point is that we do have some conscious control over our instinct. And it is the faculty of the mind that I earlier called "the intellect" that does this (except that when we are controlling our behavior consciously, we call this faculty "the will").
This control enables us to "shut off" the program, so that it doesn't automatically operate, and so we can base our behavior on understanding the facts about what will benefit us here and now rather than on some automatic response to a general type of situation. So, if we see a tiger caged up, we might feel fear; but we block our instinct from causing us to run away, because we know that in fact we are in no danger. If we see a strawberry shortcake, we might feel attracted to eat it; but if we know it will make us fat and not actually benefit us, we can avoid eating it.
And since intellectual knowledge is factual, objective knowledge, then in general it is to our advantage to base our actions on understanding what the facts are rather than blindly following instinct.
3.2. The esthetic experience
[From here on, what is in this book is also treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 4, Section 5, including all its chapters.]
Now this fact that we can feel an emotion and prevent the behavior of the particular instinct allows us to use the emotion as a peculiar kind of reaction-consciousness.
An emotion can be considered, not in relation to the behavior it tends to cause, but in relation to the object that caused it.
You are at the zoo, and you look at the tiger there just beyond the pit that keeps you safe. He looks over hungrily at you and roars; and you feel a certain kind of fear.
Now instead of just ignoring the emotion (because you know you don't have to run away), you can pause to notice the fear and compare it, say, with the fear you had when John yelled at you the other day--noticing how the two fears aren't exactly the same, but aren't all that different either.
You have just had an esthetic experience.
And you might express it by saying, "John roared at me like a tiger." Here, notice that John's voice didn't sound anything like the tiger's roar; John didn't look like the tiger when he roared; John's "roar" wasn't as loud as the tiger's--and so on. The more you try to analyze what the image of John has in common with the perception of the tiger, the less you find that they are the same.
Yet you know that he did roar like a tiger. Then what do you mean? That he made you feel emotionally the way you felt when the tiger roared at you. The emotional overtone of the perception of the tiger was similar to the emotional overtone of the remembered experience of John's yelling at you.
Take another example: the typical metaphor of the smiling meadow. Where are the teeth in the smiling meadow? The lips? How can you smile without a mouth? Obviously, there is no perceivable similarity between the sunny field and a smiling face. But when you look out on the meadow, you feel emotionally the way you feel when someone smiles at you. The meadow is emotionally, not perceptually, like a smiling face.
DEFINITION: An esthetic experience is an act of understanding based on the emotional overtones of reactions or images.
It isn't just the emotion, but some relationship understood through the emotion, that constitutes the esthetic experience.
Being frightened when the tiger roars is not an esthetic experience, and neither is feeling happy looking at a sunny meadow. You have to relate the roar with something and the meadow with something based on the way they make you feel in order to have an esthetic experience. Understanding a relation based on anything other than the emotional overtone (say, that the tiger's roar is in the key of e-flat) is intellectual, but is not an esthetic experience.
3.2.1. Its emotionality
It can now be seen, I think, why it is so hard to talk about the esthetic experience. It is not only not a simple reaction to some object, it is not even an act of understanding based on a simple reaction; the "reaction" it is based on is an "overlay," as it were, of another reaction--and there is some question, if this is the case, whether there can be any objectivity at all when we have got so far away from the object itself.
But let us approach the question of objectivity slowly, by first discussing the implications in the fact that the esthetic experience is based on emotions. And to begin this, let me make a definition which is convenient for our purposes.
DEFINITION: A perceptive experience is an act of consciousness that is either a reaction to some existence or is an act of imagining.
Strictly speaking, perceptions are distinguished from images; perceptions are "organized wholes" of reactions (unifications of all the information coming into your mind at any given time--so that you see a complex object, not just a color), and images are "reawakenings" of stored perceptions (so that they aren't as such reactions to anything) or combinations of parts of stored perceptions.
But since it's a nuisance to write and read "perceptions and/or images" to distinguish them from emotions, then it's convenient to have a single term which will mean "the non-emotional type of consciousness." And I have chosen "perceptive" consciousness or "perceptive experience" as that term.
220.127.116.11. Emotions and perceptions
Let us first note about emotions that they never appear in consciousness by themselves; they are always a conscious dimension, or aspect, or overlay, or overtone, of some perceptive experience.
The reason why this must be so is clear when you recall the function of instinct (which is what appears in consciousness as an emotion). Instinct is not a way of reacting to an object, exactly, but is the program that matches the proper behavior to the bodily state-perception complex. So instinct won't operate unless there is some perceptive experience that it can connect with the bodily state and use to direct behavior.
Secondly, let us observe that every perceptive experience will have an emotional overtone. The reason is that, as soon as you have a perceptive experience, the program that connects this experience with behavior has to be operating, or the organism is liable to be destroyed. Instinct is operating whenever we are conscious, precisely because it is the faculty which integrates consciousness into the whole organism for its survival.
Thirdly, notice that the emotional overtone will not always be the same for the same perceptive experience. The reason for this is that the emotional overtone depends on two things: the perception and the bodily state at the time of the perception. If the perception is the same, but the bodily state different, then the emotion will differ. Imagine a strawberry shortcake just before lunch, and you will get one emotional overtone. Imagine one after you have just eaten six of them, and you will get a different emotional overtone.
3.2.2. Objectivity in esthetics
It is this last characteristic which creates a greater problem of objectivity for esthetics than for other aspects of consciousness. Perceptions tend not to be affected by the bodily state of the perceiver, and so variations in perceptions are due to variations in the objects perceived. There are some exceptions to this, which we discussed when talking about error; but the point is that the exceptions are exceptions. When energy of a wave length such as grass emits comes into your eyes, you tend to have the same reaction as you do to grass, whatever your bodily condition happens to be.
Emotions, however, depend on the bodily state at the moment, and vary not only with variations of the objects, but with variations in the bodily state of the perceiver; and that is why they seem so much more subjective than perceptions.
Note, however, that both emotions and perceptions are actually subjective. It is not that the perceptions are "like" their objects, and emotions aren't. You don't see green as if it were very energetic heat (as it is, in fact). It can't be stressed too much that the perception of the object is a form of consciousness, and is not a "mental copy" of the energy that caused it.
The reason that perceptions seem "more objective" than emotions is not that they aren't subjective reactions, or that they are like the object's activity, but that they don't vary with variations in the bodily state of the subject, and emotions do; hence, when you understand a relationship between perceptions, you can almost automatically assume that this implies a relationship outside the body; but with emotions this is obviously not the case.
Is there any way we can circumvent this second level of subjectivity and get at something about the object? We saw how the first level (with perceptions) could be circumvented using relationships. Is the esthetic experience (which also uses relationships) objective, or does it fall down at this second level of subjectivity?
To answer this, consider whether it would mean anything to say that John roared at you like a tiger if he timidly said that maybe you might possibly be mistaken, or whether you could call the meadow smiling if the rain were beating down and the wind were whipping the grass and lashing at the cows. If you think that kind of landscape made you feel the way you feel when a person smiles at you, then you probably need a psychiatrist.
It does seem, then, that certain esthetic statements are objectively true, and others objectively false. So again the question is not whether we can gain objective esthetic knowledge, but how and in what sense we can.
18.104.22.168. First level of objectivity
There are actually several levels of objectivity that can be attained by esthetic understanding. First of all, consider what happens when you are perceiving two different objects at the same time, and you get different emotional overtones from the perceptions. You are talking to Frank and John, for instance, and you feel friendly toward Frank and hostile toward John.
Now your bodily state is obviously the same in both cases, since you feel the different emotions at the same time. Hence, the only explanation for the difference in the emotional reactions must be some difference in Frank and John.
But what is it that makes one of them cause a friendly emotion in you and the other a hostile one? We don't know. It might be something to do with what each of them is saying to you, something about the manner of speaking, their physical appearance, ways you remember of how they related to you in the past, or any number of other things; but probably all of these combined.
The point here is that something about the way Frank as a whole is acting on you (in the bodily state you are now in) makes you react with a different emotion from the way you react emotionally to the way John as a whole is acting on you. There has to be some difference in their actions, or you can't explain the different emotions.
DEFINITION: An esthetic property is a property discovered in an object because of its effect on our emotions.
We are going to discuss esthetic properties in detail in a later chapter. For now, let us table the issue of whether the property is a distinct something about the object, or whether it is the same as a perceivable property (or the same as some combination of perceivable properties).
All we are interested in at this point is that we have discovered through our emotions a difference between Frank and John. And if we go back to the smiling meadow, then we can see that if the feeling you get when looking at the meadow in back of Frank is the same as the feeling you get as Frank smiles at you--and yet you still feel hostile toward John--then it must be that there is some similarity between Frank and the meadow; otherwise, why would you feel the same?
The first level of objectivity, then, circumvents the present bodily condition by comparing similarities and differences in emotions that are occurring at the same time, and arguing that these must be due to similarities and differences in the objects that caused the perceptions which have these emotional overtones.
It is a more indirect way of getting at objectivity, but it works.
22.214.171.124. Second level of objectivity
But this is not the only way you can achieve esthetic objectivity. In the popular song, "Song Sung Blue" there are the lines, "Funny thing/ but you can sing/ it with a cry in your voice/ and before you know it/ get to feelin' good/ you really got no choice."
What the song is saying is that no matter what your mood, the "song sung blue" will make you feel good; evidently, then, there are some things that have pretty much the same emotional effect on us no matter what bodily state we happen to be in.
A second level of esthetic objectivity circumvents one's present bodily condition altogether, when it is observed that a given object has the same effect on us no matter what our bodily state.
So if, no matter when you talk to John, he makes you feel hostile--even when you are disposed to "love the world," as we sometimes are--then there is something about him that always "rubs you the wrong way."
Now that may be just an incompatibility between you and John; whatever John's effect on others, the esthetic property he has creates negative emotions in you; but the fact is that he must have some esthetic property that clashes with your bodily nature, or you wouldn't feel that constant hostility no matter what your disposition as you began talking to him.
Here, then, we have escaped the present bodily state of the perceiver, but not the perceiver's individual bodily nature.
126.96.36.199. Third level of objectivity
Is there any way we can even get around this? Consider what happens when you mention to someone else, "You know, I don't know what it is, but whenever I talk to John, I feel like punching him." The other person answers, "Really? He seems all right to me."
This indicates one of two possibilities. Either the person you are now talking to has not noticed the esthetic property that bothers you, or your individual bodily nature is different from his.
In the first case, you might say, "Have you paid attention to the tone of his voice? He always sounds to me as if he's sneering secretly at me." If the other person says, "I never noticed that," and then comes to you some other day and says, "You know, I think you're right about John. He really is rather disagreeable, isn't he." This seems to indicate that the reason you and he disagreed about John in the first place was that he was unaware of an esthetic property John had.
But If he comes back and says, "I don't know what you're talking about; he doesn't seem to me to be the sneering type," then, presumably, it isn't a question of his not noticing something that was actually there; John's esthetic property is one which affects you one way and your friend another way.
A third level of esthetic objectivity circumvents one's own individual bodily nature, when many people agree on the emotional effect produced by a given object.
Of course, if people disagree, then each person just knows about the esthetic property as affecting himself as an individual. There is a property "out there" in the object in this case, but there is no way to point it out to anyone else, because either they can't see it, or it affects them differently.
If people in general agree that they are affected emotionally in a given way by a given object, then the esthetic property is such that it tends to affect "human beings as such" in the way in question.
The common metaphors we use are obvious instances of this third level of objectivity. Everyone knows what is meant by "the smiling meadow," because in fact there is the same esthetic property in sunny fields and smiling faces; and what that means is that something about each is capable of awakening that pleasant emotional experience in human beings in general.
There is a fourth level of objectivity that is possible in science, but closed to esthetic understanding. In addition to using human beings as receivers of activities, science also uses receiving instruments, which are, of course, not like human bodies, but can be affected by the acts that affect human bodies.
If both a human body and an instrument are affected by a given type of activity, then relations among the effects on the instrument can be compared with relations among the conscious reactions in the person; and in this way, the peculiarities of the human body itself can be circumvented, and a new level of objectivity is reached: the act in question is now known as capable of "affecting a receiver in general" in certain ways, and not just affecting human receivers.
But this is not possible with esthetic knowledge. The reason is that the emotion depends on the bodily state of the perceiver, because it is the conscious dimension of the program by which he adapts himself to his environment. No non-human receiving instrument would or could have any read-out which would make it enough analogous to an emotion to be at all useful as an "esthetic instrument."
No, the nature of esthetic knowledge is such that an investigation of esthetic properties by means of instruments is impossible; there will never be a "scientific esthetics" in that sense. But this does not mean that esthetic properties are not real, or that they aren't "out there" in the object. It just means that we can only know them as "what is capable of affecting me (now or in general or as human) in a certain emotional way," and not "what is capable of affecting an instrument to this degree."
Here is another place, I think, where it would be wise to stop and ponder. The temptation is very strong to let the variation due to the emotion's monitoring the bodily state blind us to the fact that at times the particular emotion must have an external cause, and that we can compare these emotions insofar as they are externally caused and so know relationships among the causes.
But this sort of procedure is exactly what we do with respect to perceptions, when we learn facts by comparing perceptions as the effects of objects. The only difference is that we don't have to bother so much with the perceptions in being sure that the perception is in part due to the bodily condition of the moment.
But since the emotion is only partly due to the bodily condition of the subject, it can be used as a special "perceiving organ"; and comparisons among emotions do get us at facts about the objects that caused them.
Yes, facts. It is a fact that the meadow is like a smiling face; it is a fact that John is esthetically unlike Frank, and that he sometimes roars like a tiger. These relationships are not only in our minds; they were caused by some sort of relationship among the objects--and by definition, these relationships are facts.