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.

I want to talk about something that Western Philosophy, for all its wisdom and logical acumen, has difficulty recognising. Yet for all that it’s an essential part of human being-existence. I’m using the Dutch phrase for it in the title above so that the English language speaker has the chance to recognise that they are not entirely sure what I am talking about. Imagine then, that this is something new, though in fact, it is something very old or rather, deeply innate to us all. “Gevoelsmatig”, refers to the feeling-sense capacity of a human being. And “bewustzijn” refers to consciousness. Joined together, as a phrase, it suggests that there is feeling-sense dimension to consciousness itself. How can that be so? It seems like a contradiction in terms.

For myself, as a native English speaker, it has taken me years to wrap my head around this phrase, to understand it, to relax into it and see examples of it in my own experience. At first it required a certain kind of linguistic de-programming. That is, language was a deterrent and then later an aid. There were a number of reasons for this, so I’ll try to explain. My difficulties may be helpful others?

Firstly, “gevoelsmatig” as a stand alone term does not have a one-to-one translation from Dutch to English. It requires a few words to define it. I currently use “feeling-sense”. A Dutch friend of mine (who is also fluent in English) suggested “feeling-wise”. Google translate uses “instinctively” or “emotionally” while VanDale (one of the main Dutch-English dictionaries) suggests “instinct” or “instinctively”.  Thus, gevoelsmatig can refer to the kind of knowing that a bird experiences when it “knows” it’s time to fly south. In the world of nature there are a multitude of examples. Animals “know” all kinds of things and this kind of knowing is not based on language. It is not rational, neither is it irrational; it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence.

But what about humans? How does this instinctive feeling-knowing manifest in human beings? As instinct? As intuition? As insight? A mixture of all three? Notice, in any case, that all three suggestions contain the prefix “in”. This refers to the internal, subject dimension of knowing. The objectifications of language are not its medium, nor its method of cognition, though the knowledge it acquires can later be expressed that way. Just as noted above in the animal world, it is not rational, neither is it irrational; for us too, it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence. For example, a friend walks into the room and you immediately know they are sad. From one point of view, it’s very simple. Over thinking it (which philosophers love to do) just makes it more complicated. This explanation then is not a logical proof, basically, it’s about recognition.

Secondly, what about “consciousness”? As a stand alone term Merriam Webster defines it as “sentience or awareness of internal or external existence”. Problems quickly multiply when we try to define it any further. Thus, Western philosophy speaks of “consciousness” in terms of “consciousness of”. Consciousness then refers to that aspect of ourselves which knows internal events (which are often but not always objectifications of external objects) and because of that, this consciousness is inextricably tied to its object. Instead of the simple statement: “I am thinking” the modern philosopher states: “I am conscious of my thoughts”. Due to this division, it is not possible to speak of the subject dimension (the “I” part) of consciousness without reference to its internal mental object (the thought).

Additionally, in a world where the objective scientific method-of-knowing reigns supreme, western philosophers tend to contemplate the “hard problem of consciousness”. This involves the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than not. Thus, it begins from the assumption that matter itself is not conscious, is not intelligent in/or to some degree. To step outside of that problem would require a different method-of-knowing. Something other than the object oriented, language based scientific-method. Is there such a thing?

In some western languages the word consciousness translates to the compound word “bewustzijn” (such as in the Dutch or the German “bewustsein”): “bewust”, meaning aware, and “zijn” (or sein), meaning being. That is, being-awareness. If one were willing to take the meaning of the compound elements full stop, there might be a recognition of pure, objectless being-awareness. Being without fixing, fixating, on an object – any object, even ourselves. We rest in this sphere every night in deep sleep. We revert to it (absently or not) in-between thoughts. It forms the basis and goal of every meditative technique or inquiry. It is infinitely expansive, like space itself and provides a substrate for all our perceptions and mentations. Just as before with the term “gevoelsmatig”, this explanation is not a logical proof, it’s about a being-recognition.

A third reason for my difficulty in grasping the meaning behind the term “gevoulsmatig bewustzijn” is the strong mind-body dualism present within Western culture (and philosophy). For people (like myself) who have embraced religion and/or a spiritual path, there may be a strong impetus to encounter the more refined aspects of our subject-consciousness through meditation and prayer, free from the unrefined impulses of our material nature. This can lead to their suppression and/or repression (spiritual bypassing). The instinctive impulses of the body then might be placed in various shadowed categories. To suggest philosophically that the gevoelsmatig impulses of our nature are vitally important in order to progress spiritually might at first appear blasphemous or simply difficult to accept. Further, even though this (apparently) shadowed side of human nature cannot be denied, still, in the expanded sphere of social interaction it might sit outside the norms of accepted cultural behaviour, making its recognition difficult. In this, as in many things, we carry within us the catechisms and taboos of our elders – until one day we don’t.

Now at this point you might counter and say that this expanded feeling-sense capacity of consciousness is not at all unrecognised or absent from western philosophy. Of course not. Philosophers recognise that as human beings we joyfully expand in many non-rational and still deeply intelligent ways. One primary example is aesthetically in the world of art: the visual arts like painting (the subject-matter of this web blog), but also music, dance, film, literature, poetry etc…  Another is the overwhelming love we experience from allowing ourselves to fully open up to the beauty of the natural world, in all of its micro and macrocosmic majesty. But are these venues considered to be knowledge bearing? Are they included within a standard approach to Western Epistemology? Well, no, not really. Any self-respecting Epistemology 101 in any department of philosophy around the world concerns itself (primarily) with the truth bearing possibilities of propositional statements. (Young epistemologists there might hope to be clever enough so as to one day be the next Gettier.) Yet to be fair, there may be some toe dipping into radical skepticism, but if so, this is done without a recognition of the life enhancing properties of non-conceptual methods-of-knowing.

Nevertheless, to continue the conversation, we might think of gevoelsmatig bewustzijn as “aesthetic consciousness”? Is it comparable? And what does Western philosophy have to say about that? Is it knowledge bearing? And if so, what kind of knowledge?

See Gevoelsmatig Bewustzijn Part II.

I think any artist functioning in the twentieth/twenty first century has had to (at least self-reflexively) address the apparent dichotomies of approach between abstraction and/or realism. Are they really as separated as they might at first appear? Personally, I don’t think so. If anything, it’s more of a sliding scale, a question of perspective.

About forty five years ago, during my art school days, while viewing a Rembrandt self portrait in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I had a sudden flash of insight. I realised that if you took a square inch (or two) of that painting and expanded it exponentially you could have a modern piece of art. Place it on the wall and voila! Just like that. But that wouldn’t work for just any painter. It would only work for someone who was a master of their craft; someone whose play of light and shadow did not ignore visual interest or luminosity in any part of the image’s value range; someone whose sense of colour and texture appealed to the senses in a magical way; someone who left enough hints on the painting’s surface such that you, through your act of perceiving, could be left guessing, sure of your own experience, less sure of its conceptual meaning.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

I took that insight and dove directly into learning about the materials artists have traditionally used to create paintings. I figured then, as I do now, “it ain’t what you paint but the way how you paint it”. Thus, rather than create a number of paintings based on one particular image but interpreted in different techniques, I took one strong central image, cut it into identical parts and rendered each one separately. Each part was intended to function independently as a painting in its own right yet also to contribute to the unity of the whole. That, at least, was the theory, which worked out relatively well at the time (see image to the left and fuller description here). Yet of course becoming a master of one’s materials is not an overnight process, it’s much less dependent on a flash of insight than it is upon years of experimentation, dedication, hard work and synchronistic luck (can’t discount that!). Ultimately that means you guide the materials (including those happy accidents) but they – neither the materials nor the accidents – should control you. For in whatever you are creating there’s always a discriminatory selection process.

Fast forward forty five years and I can now say that I have learned a few things about what makes a painting, any painting, a good painting. One, it is not about the subject matter, it never is and never has been, that’s secondary. That’s not to say that the subject matter may inspire the artist. It can, but that doesn’t make it art. What makes it art is the ability of the artist to communicate his or her feeling-experience to you the perceiver in such a way so that you feel it too. Note, the emphasis on two words, “communication” and “feeling”. Which brings us to the second point about what art actually is. I would now say that art (including any good painting) is an aesthetic unity created by or through the feeling-intelligence of the artist in such way so that it can then be directly perceived by the feeling-intelligence of the perceiver. Full stop. Concepts may follow but they are entirely secondary. In that sense then, realism and/or abstraction present a false dichotomy.

One possible reason that such a definition has been lacking up until now is that Western philosophy has been slow to recognise that there is a universal feeling-intelligence which reveals itself subjectively in the inherent/inborn feeling-intelligence capacity of the human being. So, stay tuned for Aesthetics Part II: Gevoelsmatig-Bewustzijn.