Modern Philosophy and the Neglect of Aesthetics

The Greeks were deeply interested in the questions of aesthetics, and their philosophers discussed them in a variety of contexts—moral, political and metaphysical. Nevertheless aesthetics, conceived as a systematic branch of philosophy, is an invention of the eighteenth century. It owes its life to Shaftesbury, its name to Baumgarten, its subject-matter to Burke and Batteux, and its intellectual eminence to Kant. Its irruption into the terrain of philosophy is one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of ideas. In Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education, the newly discovered faculty of aesthetic judgment is given the sacred task that was once laid on the shoulders of religion—the task of preparing man for his life as a moral being. In Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics art is presented as the successor to religion, an all-embracing form of consciousness in which the truth of the world, at a certain point of spiritual development, is most perfectly distilled. Art, and the study of art, form the highest point to which man's self-understanding may attain, before emancipating itself from the sensuous, and passing over into the sphere of abstract concepts, philosophical reflection, and natural science—the world of Wissenschaft.

What Hegel said was a kind of nonsense. But what he meant was true. Or at least, true enough to serve as the starting-point for discussion. Art, culture and the aesthetic experience have been removed from the central place in philosophical speculation which they briefly occupied. In their place we find science, logical theory, and the rigour—or rigor mortis—of semantic analysis. This transformation in philosophy has accompanied another and larger change. The triumph of scientific thought has caused such self-doubt, such a loss of faith and simplicity, in those subjects which have had the articulation of man's self- image as their purpose, as to raise the question whether a humane education is any longer possible. At the same time, philosophy's retreat from the study of art and culture has left a vacuum. In its absence, any kind of nonsense can take root and stifle the natural growth of meaning. Here is an instance of what happens to literary criticism, when philosophy abandons it:

Even before it ‘concerns' a text in narrative form, double invagination constitutes the story of stories, the narrative of narrative, the narrative of deconstruction in deconstruction: the apparently outer edge of an enclosure, far from being simple, simply external and circular, in accordance with the philosophical representation of philosophy, makes no sign beyond itself, towards what is utterly other, without becoming double or dual, without making itself be ‘represented', refolded, superposed, re-marked within the enclosure, at least in what the structure produces as an effect of interiority.

Those words occur in a book put together by a collection of staid and bewildered American critics who, having looked in vain for a philosophy that would give sense and direction to their enterprise, at last hit on Jacques Derrida (the author of the passage) as the answer to their problems (1). Their purpose was to display to the academic world that criticism is alive and well and living in Yale, where, thanks to Derrida, it has discovered a new method and outlook. The name of this method (or anti-method) is deconstruction.

I do not pretend to know what deconstruction is, although apparently it tells us that texts have neither author nor subject-matter, and that reading is impossible. But I should like to reflect on what is implied, when those who are the trustees of a literary tradition as deeply interwoven with life and feeling as ours has been, should consider themselves to be studying nothing more warm or more compromising than a ‘text', and should be able to draw no more useful conclusion from their studies than that reading is impossible. Surely something has been lost, when those artefacts in which every possible meaning has been deliberately concentrated should be offered to the world as ‘unreadable'? Surely philosophy has been neglectful of its duties, if it has allowed matters to proceed to such a pass?

There are some lines of George Seferis, in which he seems to reflect on the burden placed on the modern Greek by the classical culture which surrounds him:

I woke with this marble head in my hands

which exhausts my elbows, and I do not know where

I shall put it down:

it fell into the dream, as I was emerging...

Just such an image occurs to me, when I hear words like ‘text' and ‘deconstruction' on the lips of a modern critic. The work of art lies in his hands, as unbearable as an ancient marble whose meaning he cannot fathom. Such a critic seems to be no longer immersed in a civilization, but rather awakening from it, into a flat and desert landscape—a ‘post-cultural' world. The ‘text' is a piece of dream-debris, a burden of which he can rid himself only by analysis, or ‘deconstruction'. And in none of this does life play any part. 

The collapse of English studies into deconstruction is not, in my view, the cause but the consequence of philosophy's inertia. If literary critics now seem so unable to appreciate the difference between genuine reasoning and empty sophistry, it is partly because philosophy, which is the true guardian of critical thinking, has long ago withdrawn itself from their concerns. When the agenda of philosophy is so narrow and specialized that only a trained philosopher can understand it, is it then surprising that those disciplines which— whether they know it or not—depend upon philosophy for their anchor, should have slipped away helplessly into the night?

But is the cultural isolation of philosophy really so recent a phenomenon? Some would argue that, in jettisoning its links with art and literature, philosophy has returned—after a period of Romantic and post-Romantic aberration—to its traditional role in the modern world, as the handmaiden of the sciences. If we look at the first century of modern philosophy—the century of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza and Leibniz—we see philosophical speculation arising in the wake, not of cultural and artistic endeavour, but of scientific experiment. Then as now, it was science which set the agenda for philosophy; and if modern philosophers have been so deeply concerned with logic, probability theory, linguistic analysis and the behavioural sciences, this is because those branches touch upon the frontiers of science, and address themselves to difficulties which, if they are not solved, will hamper the process of discovery. If modern philosophers have been so exercised by the ‘mind-body' problem, for instance, it is largely because, until it is solved, scientists will not know what they are observing, when they study human behaviour and its causes.

On such an account, the rise of aesthetics was more of a temporary disturbance: an indentation in the smooth project of philosophical enquiry, caused by the neighbouring explosion of the Romantic movement. And Romanticism was itself the product of man's sudden and urgent need to find meaning elsewhere than in church, and in some other posture than on his knees. All revolutions in philosophy either serve to launch some new science, or else exhaust themselves in futile enquiries of which we soon grow tired. Aesthetics came into the world simultaneously with social philosophy: and the comparison between them is significant. Out of social philosophy, economics and sociology were born. But out of aesthetics—what has come out of aesthetics, if not futile enquiries of which we have now grown tired?

There is some truth in the retort. But it needs careful examination. Two features distinguish the philosophers of the seventeenth century from their modern descendants. First, they were fully integrated into the cultural life of their times; second, if they did not look to aesthetics for the source of meaning and value, it was because they were, with few exceptions, sincere believers in a benevolent God, whose redemptive purpose they read more directly in the laws of the created world.

Thus Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and Spinoza were, despite their scientific leanings, practising participants in a literary culture. They wrote well— in the case of Bacon and Descartes, surpassingly well. Leibniz composed poetry, and Bacon essays which are as great as any in the language. Even Locke, clumsy though he sometimes was, expressed himself in a manner so succinct and vivid as to enrich intellectual discourse forever after. Consider the following passage, from the Second Treatise on Civil Government:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property' in his own ‘person'. This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labour' of his body and the ‘work' of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

The simplicity of language in such a passage is one with the complexity of thought. Each word is used with a full sense of its value, not only as a vehicle for abstract reasoning, but as a purveyor of images. And of course the principal image —that of the workman as mixing his labour, and therefore himself, with the thing that he produces—has lived in the educated conscience ever since, resurging in countless ways in the writings of Smith, Ricardo, Hegel, Marx and their modern followers.

The second distinguishing feature of our forebears is equally important. Each of the philosophers to whom I have referred was a believer, for whom the meaning of the world is neither created by philosophy nor dependent upon philosophy for its construction. Spinoza, it is true, concluded that God is identical with the world, and therefore that many of the claims of theology are erroneous. But he at once set out to show how a person may find peace and happiness in the very recognition of that disturbing truth. And Spinoza's language, as he bent to this task, became so fully alive as to convey a message well beyond the reach of abstract argument. Even Spinoza, therefore, the most forbiddingly technical of the seventeenth century philosophers, was able to speak directly to the heart. Goethe records, in a moving passage of Dichtung und Warheit, the effect that this solemn, mathematical prose was to exert over him:

That wonderful utterance: ‘Whosoever loves God, cannot strive that God should love him in return', with all the preceding sentences upon which it rests, with all the following sentences which spring from it, filled my entire meditations. To be in everything unselfish, to the highest unselfishness in love and friendship, was my greatest desire, my maxim, my rule, and so that insolent remark which follows—‘if I love you, what is that to you?'— was spoken directly into my heart. 

The fact that the meaning intended by Spinoza was not the meaning understood by Goethe is of small account, beside the evident force, whereby one man has impinged through the written word upon the life and feeling of another.

Poverty of Style in Modern Philosophy

In both the respects to which I have referred—cultural participation and religious belief—contemporary philosophy differs completely from the philosophy of the seventeenth century. With rare exceptions, the contemporary philosopher is isolated from the surrounding literary culture, with no grasp of style or rhetoric, and with little instinct for linguistic nuances. Of course, there are philosophers with genuine literary gifts—Quine, for instance, and Strawson. And the stylistic insufficiencies of the remainder resemble those of the average practitioner of literary ‘deconstruction'. Nevertheless, there is, in the idiom of modern philosophy, such a poverty of emotion, such a distance from the felt experience of words and things, as to cast doubt on its competence as a vehicle for moral and aesthetic reflection. Here is an example of what I have in mind, taken from a recent work of aesthetics:

I start with some action A that some person P wants at time t1 to do at time t2. One possibility is that P believed at t1 that he cannot perform A at t2. Then P at t1 has no action-plan for performing A at t2. Alternatively, P may believe at t1 that there is a chance that he can perform A at t2; but there may be no action A' distinct from A such that P believes at t1 that he might be able to perform A' at t2 and that if he did so he might thereby generate A. In such a case, let us call the unit set, (A), P's action-plan at t1 for performing A at t2. But thirdly, there may be at least one ordered set of actions (A...,An), such that P believes at t1 that he might be able to perform A1 at t2 and that if he did so he might thereby generate A,..., and believes that he might be able to perform An at t2 and that if he did so he might thereby generate An-1. In such a case, let us call the n+1-tuple of actions, (A,., An), P's action-plan at t1 for performing A at t2. Let us call A the goal of that action-plan. And let us call An, the terminus of the plan. (2)

To understand what is so objectionable in that style, is to understand the spiritual temptation which leads people away from true philosophy into pseudo-science. The whole paragraph is a kind of fraud, an introduction of redundant terminology from set theory, in order to capture one simple fact, namely, that a plan of action involves a goal, together with the steps chosen to achieve it. Nothing is subsequently done with the technicalities, which serve merely to give a quaint appearance of rigour to banality.

The stylistic catastrophe of analytic philosophy is a subject for another occasion. I shall merely record my opinion that the alienating prose of our philosophers is due not to expertise but to idleness—to a failure to pursue a thought to the point where it speaks itself, in words of its own. (It is precisely this self-utterance of thought that we find in the passage quoted from Locke.) Style is the search for simplicity and naturalness, for the phrase which not only says what you mean, but also embodies within itself all the nuances and hesitations that would enliven the reader's judgment. Philosophy severed from literary criticism is as monstrous a thing as literary criticism severed from philosophy. In each case the result is a kind of intellectual masquerade, a phantom world of discourse, whose principal subject-matter is itself. In philosophy, as in literary criticism, the written word has largely ceased to address itself to living creatures. Only if it contains a theoretical truth, therefore—a truth to be measured by the exacting requirements of the sciences—can philosophy be justified. This partly explains the peculiar affectation of scientific language on the part of many modern philosophers—even though the real hard work of science lies beyond their competence.

The Quest for Aesthetic Value

It is the second difference between the seventeenth-century philosopher and his contemporary descendant that interests me. If we examine, from the standpoint of the historian of ideas, the episode in philosophical history to which I referred at the outset of this lecture, then we cannot fail to notice that the rise of aesthetics was simultaneous with the Romantic movement, and with the loss of confidence in revealed religion. In Kant's Critique of Judgment the point is already explicitly made, that the sense of God's immanence—the sense of the world as created, and of personality as shining forth from all its aspects—is to be derived from the very same faculty which has beauty as its object and judgment as its goal. It is through aesthetic contemplation that we confront that aspect of the world which was the traditional concern of theology. We cannot prove, by theoretical reasoning, that there is a God; nor can we grasp the idea of God, except by the via negativa which forbids us to apply it. Nevertheless, we have intimations of the transcendental. In the sentiment of beauty we feel the purposiveness and intelligibility of everything that surrounds us, while in the sentiment of the sublime we seem to see beyond the world, to something overwhelming and inexpressible in which it is somehow grounded. Neither sentiment can be translated into a reasoned argument—for such an argument would be natural theology, and theology is dead. All we know is that we can know nothing of the transcendental. But that is not what we feel—and it is in our feeling for beauty that the content, and even the truth, of religious doctrine is strangely and untranslatably intimated to us.

In Kant's third Critique we see, in remarkably explicit form, the historical meaning of that shift in emphasis which was to place ethics and aesthetics at the centre of philosophy. The Critique of Judgment situates the aesthetic experience and the religious experience side by side, and tells us that it is the first, and not the second, which is the archetype of revelation. It is aesthetic experience which reveals the sense of the world. Of course, the ‘sense' turns out to be, for Kant, precisely what religion had assumed it to be. But suppose we do not accept that conclusion? Suppose we look for the meaning of the world in aesthetic experience, while reserving judgment in matters of faith? This would be to give to aesthetic interest an importance comparable to that which once had attached to religious worship. It would hardly be surprising, in that case, if aesthetics were to move from the periphery of philosophy to the centre, so as to occupy that place which, in the centuries before Bacon and Descartes, had been occupied by theology.

In the nineteenth century we do indeed find philosophers for whom aesthetics provides a central subject-matter and a central task. I think of Schiller and Hegel, of Kierkegaard, and above all of Nietzsche, whose flight towards the aesthetic followed an act of deicide unparalleled in the history of thought. And if proof is needed of the ease with which the aesthetic may replace the religious as an object of philosophical interest, it is to be found in the thought and the personality of Nietzsche. Nietzsche's philosophy arose out of art and the thought of art; it involved an effort to perceive the world through aesthetic value, to find a way of life that would raise nobility, glory and tragic beauty to the place that had been occupied by moral goodness and by faith. And of course, among philosophers, Nietzsche is one of the great stylists, rivalled among those who came after him only by Wittgenstein.

The English Literary Tradition

No such philosopher could exist in the anglophone tradition, for the simple reason that, if he did exist, he would not be called a philosopher, either by others or by himself. He would be identified as a critic or a social theorist, as an essayist or a reformer. Nevertheless, the transformation heralded in Kant's Critique of Judgment also took place in Britain. The search for the meaning of the world shifted from speculative theology to aesthetics, just as it had done in Germany. It is thanks to Coleridge, Arnold and Ruskin that students at a British university are now in a position to learn that there are more serious problems on earth than are dreamed of in analytical philosophy.

Nor did literary criticism lose, in our century, its place in the vanguard of the English-speaker's quest for meaning. The debates that were begun in the last century by Arnold and Newman were carried over into our times by Eliot, Chesterton, C.S.Lewis and finally—last representative of a ‘great tradition'—F. R.Leavis. And it was perhaps only in the famous ‘Two Cultures' debate, in which Leavis made mincemeat of C.P.Snow's suggestion that there could be a ‘culture' of science, that the question which had bothered Central European writers for upwards of half a century was at last articulated in Britain (3). The question is a philosophical one, and of the first importance. Nevertheless, it is a singular fact that it was left to a literary critic to articulate it, and a singular fact, too, that no major analytical philosopher has subsequently shown the slightest interest in what he said. It is hardly surprising, in view of this, that Leavis dismissed philosophy in general (and Cambridge philosophy in particular) as a subject which had lost contact with the human world.

I shall express Leavis's position in his controversy with Snow in my own terms. To possess a culture is not only to possess a body of knowledge or expertise; it is not simply to have accumulated facts, references and theories. It is to possess a sensibility, a response, a way of seeing things, which is in some special way redemptive. Culture is not a matter of academic knowledge but of participation. And participation changes not merely your thoughts and beliefs but your perceptions and emotions. The question therefore unavoidably arises whether scientific knowledge, and the habits of curiosity and experiment which engender it, are really the friends or the foes of culture? Could it be that the habit of scientific explanation may take over from the habit of emotional response, or in some way undermine the picture of the world upon which our moral life is founded? Could it be that scientific knowledge leads precisely in the opposite direction from a culture—not to the education of feeling, but to its destruction, not to the acceptance and affirmation of the human world, but to a kind of sickness and alienation from it, an overbearing sense of its contingency?

The question returns me to my theme. For Leavis the task of culture was a sacred task. Culture had in some way both to express and to justify our participation in the human world. And the greatest products of a culture—those works of art that Arnold had called ‘touch-stones'—were to be studied as the supreme distillations of this justifying force. In them we find neither theoretical knowledge, nor practical advice, but life: life restored to its meaning, vindicated and made whole. Through our encounter with these works our moral sense is liberated, and the fine division between good and evil, positive and negative, affirmative and destructive, made once more apparent, written everywhere across the surface of the world.

To take such a view is to raise the aesthetic to the pinnacle of authority upon which Kant and Schiller had placed it. And, given his sceptical premisses—his Lawrentian belief that value is not transcendent but immanent, contained in life itself—Leavis can hardly stop short of the conclusion that, whatever consolation and significance men have sought in worship, they may find it more securely in the modern world through culture. The touchstones of our culture convey to us the meanings which others have found in liturgy, ritual and.prayer. It is unsurprising to find Leavis pointing to Bunyan and Blake as his authorities, or to find him extolling, as landmarks of our literary tradition, the Bible of King james, and the now vandalized liturgy of the Church of England. For it is precisely in sacred works and liturgies that the emotional memory of a civilization is recorded, and it is in the works of prophets that a language strives to its utmost towards the perception of a justifying sense.

Leavis's attack on the idea of a scientific culture has all the character of a holy war—it is a defence of the faith against the infidel, of the Israelites against the Philistines. It is interesting that the word ‘philistine', used so as to denote the enemy of civilization, entered the English language from Germany, through the writings of Carlyle. The expression was coined by the German students of Schiller's day, and immortalized on their behalf by Robert Schumann. In borrowing it, Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin and their followers entered the battle on Schiller's side. The confrontation between science and culture that we find in Leavis is foreshadowed in the conflicts between Coleridge and Bentham, between Arnold and the Philistines, between Ruskin and the immovable apparatus of Podsnappery by which he saw himself surrounded. All of them are heirs to that conception of the aesthetic which we find in Kant and Schiller, according to which aesthetic experience stands in the place of worship, our key to the moral health of humanity and to the meaning of the world.

The Primacy of Culture

In my view, the question discussed by Leavis and his forebears is not only philosophical; it is one of the most important of all philosophical questions. Nor has it been entirely ignored by philosophers. For one in particular—Edmund Husserl—it was central to what he called, in the apocalyptic idiom of Central Europe, ‘The Crisis of the European Sciences [Wissenschaften]'. To put in a nutshell a thought which may or may not be contained in the tens of thousands of Husserlian pages, it is this: science has offered us a paradigm of objective knowledge. According to this paradigm, all reference to the subject of experience is to be eliminated from the description of the world. In seeking to emulate science, the various studies, even those which have man as their primary subject-matter, have tried to abstract from what is given in human experience, to purge the human subject, so to speak, from the archive of knowledge, and to achieve a kind of Stalinist history of the world, in which all persons are unpersons. The attempt, however, is fraught with paradox. For the human subject is the starting point of enquiry, and to refine him out of our science is to lose sight of the very thing that science endeavours to explain (4).

I agree with one part of Husserl's claim. It seems to me that there are forms of understanding (Wissenschaften) which do not possess the objectivity of science, being derived from man's self-conception, rather than From the impersonal observation of natural processes. Nevertheless, they possess another kind of objectivity, a convergence upon a common fund of superficial truth, which entitles them to their own claims to knowledge. If philosophy has a central task, it is to protect these forms of knowledge, to anchor them once again in human consciousness, and to strike down the pretensions of science to give us the whole truth of what we are.

I draw a contrast between two modes of understanding: scientific understanding, which aims to explain the world as it is, and ‘intentional understanding', which aims to describe, criticize and justify the world as it appears. The second is an attempt to understand the world in terms of the concepts through which we experience and act on it: these concepts identify the ‘intentional objects' of our states of mind. An intentional understanding therefore fills the world with the meanings implicit in our aims and emotions. It tries not so much to explain the world as to be ‘at home' in it, recognizing the occasions for action, the objects of sympathy, and the places of rest. The object of such an understanding is not the world of scientific theory, but the Lebenswelt, the world as it is revealed, in and through the life-process which attaches us to it.

This distinction explains what I have called the ‘priority of appearance'. Scientific penetration into the depth of things may render the surface unintelligible—or at least intelligible only slowly and painfully, and with a hesitancy that undermines the immediate needs of human action. (Such is the case, I have argued, with the critical phenomenon of sexual desire). As agents we belong to the surface of the world, and enter into immediate relation with it. The concepts through which we represent it form a vital link with reality, and without this link appropriate action and appropriate response could not emerge with the rapidity and competence that alone can ensure our happiness and survival. We cannot replace our most basic everyday concepts with anything more useful than themselves—even if we can find concepts with greater explanatory power. Our everyday concepts have evolved under the pressure of human circumstance, and in answer to the needs of generations. Any ‘rational reconstruction'—however obedient it may be to the underlying truth of things and to the requirements of scientific objectivity—runs the risk of severing the vital connection which links our response to the world, and the world to our response, in a chain of spontaneous human competence.

The concepts which inform our emotions bear the stamp of a shared human interest, and of a constantly developing form of life. Whence do they come? The answer is implicit in Leavis's attack on Snow: these concepts are the gift of a culture, being neither consciously made nor deliberately chosen but inherited. It is by the use of such concepts that the moral reality of our world is described: concepts of good and evil, sacred and profane, tragic and comic, just and unjust —all of them rooted in that one vital idea which, I would contend, denotes no natural kind, and conveys a classification that could feature in no true scientific theory of man: the concept of the person. The concepts of a culture classify the world in terms of the appropriate action and the appropriate response. A rational being has need of such concepts, which bring his emotions together in the object, so enabling him—as the Hegelians would say—to find his identity in the world and not in opposition to it. A culture, moreover, is essentially shared; its concepts and images bear the mark of participation, and are intrinsically consoling, in the manner of a religious communion, or an act of worship. They close again the gap between subject and object which yawns so frighteningly in the world of science.

Estrangement from the world is the poisoned gift of science. For Coleridge and his followers the same estrangement attaches to utilitarianism—that morality of the Philistine which was launched into the world by the smiling idiot Jeremy Bentham, and which has marched onwards ever since. The hostility to ‘Benthamism' was inherited by Leavis, and became fundamental to his moral vision. And one can see why. Utilitarianism represents the attempt by science to take charge of our moral lives: the attempt by the objective perspective to displace the subject from his throne. The utilitarian sees the world not as it appears to the agent, but as it is in the eyes of the omniscient observer. The utilitarian moralist rises above the individual's predicament, and sees the meaning of his actions in their long-term success or disaster, freely availing himself of concepts which form no part of the individual's reasoning.

Suppose a tribesman is dancing in honour of the god of war. To the observing anthropologist, steeped in functionalist and utilitarian thinking, the dance is a means to raise the spirits, and to increase the cohesion of the tribe, at a time of danger. This description both explains and justifies. Nevertheless, it does not tell us what the dance means to the dancer. If the tribesman thinks of his dance in that way, then he is alienated from it: he loses his motive to dance, once he borrows the language of the anthropologist. His first-person reason for dancing (because the god demands it) is precisely opaque to the third-person perspective: by shutting the dancer within his dance, it abolishes the distance between agent and action. Of course, in this case, the first-person reason is founded in error: there is no god of war. But a culture need not be rooted in error: it may remain ‘on the surface', in the way necessary to engage with our acts and emotions, and at the same time free itself from superstition. It then ceases to be a culture only, and becomes a civilization, sending its branches into theology, philosophy, art and law.

Even when it has launched itself, however, on the path of critical thinking, a culture cannot forswear ‘the priority of appearance'. If it is to offer us the precious gift of participation it must resist the pursuit of an unobtainable objectivity. Utilitarianism fails as a moral theory because, aspiring to objectivity, it begins to justify actions in terms which remove the motive to engage in them. Utilitarianism purges our actions of their sense, by displacing the concepts under which we intend them. (Consider, for example, how the utilitarian justification of punishment erodes the will to punish, by abolishing the concept of retribution through which punishment obtains its ‘sense'.)

The Renewal of Aesthetics

In our post-Enlightenment world, it is natural that we should look elsewhere than towards religion for the ‘sense' of our actions. And Kant was in a way right to single out the aesthetic as, so to speak, next in line to the Eucharist, as the source of meaning. The object of aesthetic understanding is given to us in and through experience, and has no life outside the ‘intuition' in which it is embodied. In aesthetic judgment, therefore, we aim to achieve the finest possible understanding of how things seem. All art is semblance, and (Plato notwithstanding) this is the source of its value. Art brings us to the very same point that we are brought to by religion—to an experience saturated by meaning, whose value overwhelms us with the force of law. In aesthetic experience we perceive the fittingness of the world, and of our place within it. For a moment we set aside the relentless curiosity of science, and the habit of instrumental thinking. We see the world as it really seems: in Wallace Steven's words, we ‘let be be finale of seem' (although there are other emperors besides the Emperor of ice cream). In the aesthetic moment we encounter a unity of form and content, of experience and thought. This fact, which places the meaning of aesthetic experience outside the reach of science, explains its peculiar value. In the moment of beauty we encounter directly the sense of the world; and in tragedy the most terrible things may cease to be strange to us, and cease to be so metaphysically threatening. Even the nothingness of death may be overcome. In tragedy, death is not a nothing, but a something, a part of that very order which it seems to deny. Death exists in tragedy as a pattern in the world of appearance, and is lifted free from its absurdity. (In tragedy, a man's death becomes part of his life.)

When meaning and experience are welded so firmly together, the first is secured against scepticism. The habit of uniting them in the aim and reward of aesthetic education—of that induction into a culture which Leavis recommends. The aesthetic understanding locks our modern dancer within his dance, just as an unquestioned culture locked our warrior tribesman within his:

O Chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer;

Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Aesthetic experience, which stands outside instrumental calculations and outside science, is therefore of the greatest practical import to beings like us, who move on the surface of things. To engage now with those distant parts of my life which are not of immediate concern, to absorb into the present choice the full reality of a life which stretches into distant moral space, I must lift that experience out of the immediate preoccupation and endow it with a meaning, in which my humanity is embodied and accepted. Hence I have a need, as a rational creature, for aesthetic experience, and for the habits and customs which engender it. No utilitarian calculation can substitute for this experience, which consists in a projection forwards of the acting self. The ability to participate imaginatively in future experiences is one of the aims of aesthetic education: without that ability, a man may have as coherent a purpose as he likes; but he will not know what it is like to achieve it, and his pursuit of it will to that measure be irrational. Failure to appreciate this point, I have argued, underlies the disaster of utilitarian and modernist architecture—an architecture which denies the priority of appearance, and denies the tradition which has formed and educated the human eye.


Philosophy, to the extent that it takes the study of the Lebenswelt as its primary concern, must return aesthetics to the place that Kant and Hegel made for it: a place at the centre of the subject, the paradigm of philosophy, and the true test of all its claims. Philosophy, I have suggested, ought to be, not the handmaiden of the sciences, but the seamstress of the Lebenswelt. Philosophy must repair the rents made by science in the veil of Maya, through which the winds of nihilism now blow coldly over us. And, even with the needle and thread of conceptual analysis, this labour of piety can begin.

And there is, as I remarked at the outset, a great need for it. Unless philosophy resumes its place as the foundation of the humanities, those disciplines which have the human world as their subject-matter will be exposed to intellectual corruption. Tempted now by the fata Morgana of deconstruction, now by sociological pseudo-science, they will wander from their purpose, in a desert of unmeaning, and dwindle into parched unwholesome remnants of themselves. The defence of humane education therefore requires the defence of philosophy. But philosophy can be defended only if it has aesthetics at its heart.

Notes and References

1.      H.BLOOM et al., (Eds): Deconstruction and Criticism, London, 1979.

2.      NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF: Works and Worlds of Art, Oxford, 1980, p. 9

3.      Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow', in F.R.LEAVIS: Nor Shall My Sword, London, 1972.

4.      EDMUND HUSSERL: Die Krisis der europaischen Wissenschaften und die tranzendentale Phanomenologie, (Ed.) W.BIEMEL, The Hague, 1976, Part 2.




The Symbolic Order: A Contemporary Reader On The Arts Debate (Falmer Press Library on Aesthetic Education)

by Peter Abbs (Editor)

First published in 1989. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company


Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton (1944-2020) was an English philosopher and writer who specializes in aesthetics and political philosophy. He was editor of The Salisbury Review and author of over 50 books.