Aesthetic Consciousness or Gevoelsmatig Bewustzijn, Part II

December 2, 2020

I ended Part I of this little series of posts on gevoelsmatig bewustzijn with the following questions: what is “aesthetic consciousness”?; what does Western philosophy have to say about it?; is it knowledge bearing?; is it comparable to gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (i.e. the feeling aspect of consciousness)?; if so, why or why not?

“Aesthetic consciousness” is a well recognised phenomenon within western philosophy. Besides a deep tradition stretching back to Plato there is a great deal of contemporary thought on the subject. However it’s not my purpose to dive into that current of thought here, other than to acknowledge that it exists philosophically – and in a vibrant way. As a discipline, it seeks to find explanations and theories to describe the experience a human being has in relation to a piece of art. These theories seek to explain: the experience of the artist in the act of creation; the experience of the perceiver in the act of perceiving; and the (self) knowledge bearing capacities inherent to either or both activities. Fundamentally, it concerns itself with art as an intelligent, yet distinctly non-rational mode of human communication.

However, the question I had posed, and that which is driving this particular post is whether aesthetic consciousness is just another way to speak about the feeling dimension of consciousness (i.e. gevoelsmatig bewustzijn). Are they interchangeable? Up front then, I would have to say: no. Since aesthetic consciousness, in the philosophical tradition, concerns itself specifically with art, it examines a very important subset of the feeling aspect of consciousness, while gevoelsmatig bewustzijn spreads its wings to cover a wider ground. Aesthetic consciousness does not seek to explain how a bird (instinctively) knows when it’s time to fly south, neither does it seek to explain how one instantly intuits the sadness of a friend who has suddenly entered the room. Nevertheless, since aesthetic consciousness does point in an important direction it deserves a deeper look. Let’s check out its semantic components.

Etymologically, the word “aesthetic” arises from the Greek term aisthesis (αἴσθησις), for the Greeks were the first philosophers to pose essential questions about human cognition. As such they theorised that sense perception (aisthesis) offered knowledge of external objects while mental cognition (noēsis) offered knowledge of mental objects (thoughts). Some philosophers theorised that aisthesis (αἴσθησις) existed alongside – or in contrast to – noēsis (νόησις). Noēsis (νόησις) and its cognates to noein (νοεῖν) and nous (νοῦς) referred to the thinking/mind capacity of the human being. Thus from the start Ancient Greek philosophers made a more-or-less firm distinction between these two methods-of-knowing. And due to the fact that the objects of sense perception were fleeting and unreliable the emphasis in philosophy rested increasingly upon the latter. The mind-body split noted here in the first post is testament to the enduring nature of this dualistic enterprise.

Aisthesis (αἴσθησις) then referred to the kind of perception that we experience through the (five) bodily senses. They were viewed as channels through which input flowed to inform the inner man about things and events in the outer world. This aisthesis could refer to the object of sensual perception as well as the ability to discern it. It could, on a subtler level, also refer to moral cognition or discernment. I do not know (from primary source readings) if internal bodily sensibilities, like an upset stomach, which lacked an exterior sensing mechanism (eyes or ears) were included under this umbrella term, but given that aisthesis included the moral dimension noted above, I presume they were. If so, the mechanism by which this operated lacked a precise accounting, for apparently, the Ancient Greek language did not possess a word for “consciousness”. How then were these sensations communicated? That is, if the two communication channels were conceived of as separate, how exactly did internal events of a sensory (or emotional) nature come to the attention of the thinking mind? 

This question brings us back (once again) to the hoary history of “consciousness”. From what I have been able to determine, besides its linguistic lack in Ancient Greek, the word (consciousness) did not exist in the English language until it was introduced in the seventeenth century by the philosopher, John Locke. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophy during that time period was written in the French or Latin languages primarily by continental philosophers. Following the impetus of Rene Descartes, these philosophers began to create a distinction between conscience, as a moral kind of knowing (which had been well covered by the philosophical tradition for centuries), and consciousness, which was a “new” psychological shift to an aware knowing of internal, individual events. Since it was a slow semantic shift which occurred over the course of the century these philosophers had used the same word for both senses: the Latin word conscientia (or in French, conscience) could mean either “moral conscience” or “consciousness”. In English, the etymology for both meanings then follows from these semantic roots.

The modern psychological meaning of consciousness (“consciousness of”) began from philosophers such as these, Rene Descartes (Meditations), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding). They started their epistemic theorising from what they supposed was a skeptically clean slate (“I am aware of my thoughts”, “I am aware of my sensations”, “I am aware of my feelings”, etc…), however they did not question the basic “I-am-the-body-idea” from which these judgments arose. They were experiencing consciousness from within their own bodily perspective, and proceeded to make judgments on that basis. The edges of the skin determined the “I” and the “other”. In this way, a tradition stretching back to the Ancient Greeks which had already distinguished between sensory events and mental events now received a new-comer to the block, conscious self-awareness: the Cartesian Ego had arrived.

This is a rough sketch of some of the shifts which have occurred over time within western philosophy in relation to the root words employed for “aesthetic consciousness”. I have tried to illustrate how a dualism developed early on for sense perception within Greek epistemology and then later how the introduction of consciousness entailed a further psychological dualism. Strangely enough though, the phenomenological impulse which drives the current philosophical investigations into aesthetic consciousness takes us in the opposite direction(!).

Aesthetic consciousness explores a more refined, ethereal sensibility, something between mind and matter and also something between “I” and “other”. It’s a space where an embodied, intelligent communication vibrates. Actually, it’s a practical, experiential doorway for diminishing the tyranny of the “I-am-the-body-idea”. However, even after an invigorating aesthetic experience, that ol’ Cartesian ego tends to bring one crashing back to the ground. Gevoelsmatig betustzijn takes this aesthetic opening one step further by pointing out that the feeling aspect of consciousness is always, already there – as our birthright. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do and no state to whip ourselves up into. Rather it’s about stepping back and noticing the blissful (ananda) intelligence (chit) of being (sat). Advaita Vedanta states that these three qualities (sat-chit-ananda) are immanent as the first qualities of embodied creation, ourselves as consciousness having a bodily experience instead of the other way around. We encounter it every moment of every day: ourselves and each other as living, blissful, aware intelligence(s); the children running in the street; the spider tending its web; the pigeons on the roost; the barking dogs; and the sirens howling (yes, even the sirens howling).

Is matter truly as dead as we imagine? Are we truly as separate from each other and the world as we imagine? Perhaps not.

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