Aesthetics: Philosophical Aesthetics

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Many elements appear common to aesthetic and religious experience. Both are modes of apprehending and articulating reality. Theorists of both have affirmed that aesthetic and religious insights or intuitions afford direct, nonconceptual apprehension of the real, and that they are dependent on inspiration, genius, or other forms of giftedness. Both issue in forms, objects, and activities expressive of specific visions of reality that are frequently, though not exclusively, nondiscursive. In both realms, questions and criteria of judgment entail distinctive relations of particularity to universality and of matter to form in appraisals of truth. Further, both art and religion have sometimes exemplified and sometimes countered prevailing views of reality. In each realm, protocols of style and canons of authority emerge generically, appealing to disciplines internal to experience. Thus, examining aesthetic characteristics and considering the possible relations of aesthetic insight to religious truth and beatitude proposed by a number of seminal thinkers may achieve an enhanced understanding of religion as the apprehension and expression of distinctive experience.

Classical Formulations

Aesthetics, like theory of religion, did not emerge as a discrete discipline in the West until the eighteenth century, in the wake of the Enlightenment. In the East it was largely a secondary product of the practice of art until Eastern philosophers were influenced by modern Western thought. Yet Plato (c. 428348 or 347 bce) is in some respects the founder of philosophical aesthetics, having developed concepts central to subsequent reflection on the aesthetic. Foremost is that of art itselftechnē, or know-how: the recognition of an end to be aimed at and the knowledge of how best to achieve it through the skillful use of appropriate materials and means.

Poiesis, Plato's term for aesthetic making, broadly designates all craftsmanship and more narrowly refers to the making of poems, plays, pictures, or sculptures. Poiesis is the verb used in the Septuagint version of the Bible for the divine "making" or creation of the world proclaimed in the book of Genesis. Through this association of divine creativity with human creativity in received religious texts, later Western theologian-philosophers were encouraged to incorporate elements of Platonic theory into their reflections upon the nature of the good, true, and beautiful. Platonic theory thus affected Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions and persisted in the philosophical disciplines that emerged from the Enlightenment.

For Plato (Philebus, 64e), the evaluation of poiesis requires a sense of proper proportion of means and ends, of measure (summetrica). The concept of measure, or standard, became central to his thought as he sought to identify the standards of truth, justice, beauty, and goodness, which he also called the Forms, or Ideas. The concept of measure suggested the possibility of a Form of Forms, a prior source of reality and human beatitude, that could be termed "religious" and was considered such by some successors.

For Plato the highest form of art is that of the divine maker (demiurgos) who composes the universe as an imitation (mimesis ) of ultimate and unchanging Forms. Practitioners of the fine arts, however, engage in imitations that are more complex and more problematic. In this poiesis, moral, psychological, and other factors color a more vivid rendering of reality through appearance. Plato therefore distrusted artists' claims to knowledge and was wary of the moral and political effects of epic and drama. He advocated a form of censorship by philosopher-guardians of the state and distinguished between true imitation (eitastikē) and false semblance (phantastikē), or illusion.

Plato also held that something in true art is not reducible to know-how. The poet, it appears, is inspired, and his achievement, insofar as it cannot be reduced to rules by the normal, conscious intellect, appears to be a form of madness. The poet imitates the divine demiurgos (Plato, Phaedrus, 245; Ion, 523525). Plato's dialogue "Symposium" both describes and exemplifies the ascent of the soul to the vision of the Good through the allure of the Beautiful. The Beautiful is the chief propaedeutic to the Good, which is the Form of Forms, the end also of the religious quest.

Thus Plato includes concepts central to the relation of aesthetics to religion. The conviction that aesthetic vision is also religious apprehension appears in Jewish wisdom literature and in early Christian theology and is consonant with some Hindu and Buddhist accounts of salvific knowledge. Plato's emphasis on the discernment of measure and fittingness is echoed in some forms of Confucian philosophy as well. Poiesis is a metaphor for the relation of the divine to the world in the cosmogonies of many religious traditions. In some Hindu speculation, all that is only penultimately real is māyā, or illusion, and is said to be the sport or play (līlā) of the ultimately real (brahman). In many religions of archaic societies, poetic or prophetic (shamanistic) inspiration is a means to perception of the sacred, that which is foundational to and constitutive of ordinary or profane space and time and which is articulated in accounts of events in illo tempore.

Aristotle (384322 bce), like Plato, saw art as the capacity to "make," to cause the coming into being of ends set by reason. The character of the envisioned end (telos ) determines the appropriate means for its realization. For Aristotle, however, the forms (patterns or essences of things) do not exist apart from the materials formed, except perhaps in the case of those ultimate ends, or reasons why, that reason may contemplate. It is in the capacity for such contemplation, Aristotle says in Nichomachean Ethics, that human beings are most godlike and, therefore, perhaps immortal. While some things in nature occur by reason of the material that constitutes themthat is, by necessitythe primary causes of all events are the ends to which they lead and for which they appear to be designed. There is a sense therefore in which for Aristotle nature is best understood as imitating art. The source of all processes is an Unmoved Mover whose ultimacy was taken by later theologians to be of religious significance.

Excellence or beauty in a work of art depends upon immanent standards: perfection of form and felicity of method, which render a work both a satisfying whole in itself and fruitful in its effects. A composition must exhibit symmetry, harmony, and definiteness. Aristotle's only surviving treatment of aesthetic issues, the fragmentary Poetics, focuses on one form, tragic drama. Like Plato he saw literary and dramatic poietikē as mimetic. Unlike Plato, however, he believed that tragic drama may be a definitive means of knowing reality through the presentation of philosophical truth and psychological insight in character, plot, and action. Tragedy arouses the emotions of fear and pity, but the well-made tragedy effects both a therapeutic purgation of these from the soul of the spectator and a resolution in the drama itself that is akin to ritual purification. Indeed it may be said that Aristotle saw in the art of tragedy the natural development of religious media that seek to negotiate the ambiguities and paradoxes of life, with their associated feelings of awe and guilt. For some who find traditional religious resolutions anachronistic, irrelevant, or superficial, expressions of the tragic in art can serve important religious purposes, as the irrational or nonrational dimensions of life are represented and lived through aesthetically.

The Aristotelian insistence on the significance of the materialthe "of what" of anything that is to be explicated, what Aristotle himself called its "material cause"is reflected in increased interest in material culture or subculture: the material objects and commodities prized in any culture or subculture. The seemingly spontaneous, natural, or transparently motivated products of material culture can be deconstructed to reveal operations of power on behalf of dominant ideologies or constituencies (races, classes, genders, religions) or to express resistance to sublimated power. This approach includes specific attention to aesthetic and religious elements of culture. Thus even Aristotle's "material cause" is subject to a hermeneutic of suspicion in pursuit of truth that frees. A major representative of this critical approach was Michel Foucault (19261984). Aristotle's attention to the ritual nature and effect of tragic drama is reflected in increased interest in "ritual studies" in the field of religious studies.

Plotinus (205270 ce), in The Enneads (1.6, 5.8, 6.7), incorporates a Platonic vision of ascent into his understanding of contemplation as active and productive of a form of knowledge. His Neoplatonism decisively influenced the formulation of Christian doctrine and shaped mystical expression in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions through the Middle Ages. Elements of his metaphysics were subsequently resurrected by Italian Renaissance humanists, by seventeenth-century Platonists of the Cambridge school, and by nineteenth-century German Romantics.

For Latin Christianity, Augustine (354430 ce) gave the Neoplatonic tradition the form it would retain through most of the Middle Ages. Augustine saw the arts not simply as an embellishment of explicitly religious materials but as a direct means of participation in the divine. Human art, when guided by divine will, may reflect the art of the divine, as in numerical proportion, rhythm, and harmony (Augustine, De musica; De ordine 1116). In keeping with his exaltation of auditory art, he exemplified and fostered a characteristically Latin attention to rhetorical forms of expression. While Greek Christianity tended to prize visual representations and look to liturgical praxis for the development of doctrine, Western theological reflection explored a multilevel textual hermeneutic in which metaphor, parable, and other narrative forms are seen as vehicles of revelation. Augustine applied that tradition not only to Scripture, in On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina Christiana; 3, 10.14, 15.23), but also, in The Confessions, to the life of an individual seen as an operation of divine grace. John Cassian (c. 360c. 435 ce) formulated a fourfold distinction between levels of scriptural meaning that became standard in the Middle Ages and influenced the development of modern literary criticism.

Thomas Aquinas (12251274) also turned to Scripture and Christian tradition for ultimate authority, relating them, however, to the newly recovered philosophical teachings of Aristotle. Every being (ens), he said, is one (unum), true (verum), and good (bonum), terms that apply to different beings variously according to their natures. Religious language, or talk of the divine being in terms of the finite, is possible by analogy, or proportion, as the created order displays the character of its origin. Truth is the equation of thought and thing, and good is fulfillment of desire in the truly desirable beauty. Contemplation of the good as beautiful renders knowledge of the good, because in it the soul resonates with the divine form. The beautiful is marked by integrity, proportion, harmony, and clarity. Thomas's doctrine of analogy and his emphasis on the revelatory character of the created order played major roles in subsequent theological development and in Thomist and neo-Thomist accounts of the relation of aesthetics to religion (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.13.5, 1.16.1, 1.5.4,

Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Formulations

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century developments in "natural philosophy" undercut the authority not only of Western religious traditions, identified as they were with a discredited cosmology, but also of Platonic idealism and Aristotelian scientific method. In the "enlightenment" that followed, the sense-bound character of all experience became problematic in a new way; definitions and criteria had to be developed for subjective experiences that could not be quantified. Chief among these were experiences of the beautiful and of the holy. The use of such terms as feeling and sensibility and attempts to articulate the variety of subject-object transactions characterized this debate. The relation of feeling or sensibility to the good and true was explored in terms of religious theory by some and in terms of aesthetic theory by others. Still others sought to bring both art and religion under a comprehensive theory.

Although Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (17141762) coined the term aesthetics in 1750, Immanuel Kant (17241804) was the first to develop a systematic theory of aesthetics as an integral, if not foundational, part of a philosophical system. Kant set himself the task of answering three questions: "What can I know?"; "What ought I to do?"; and "For what may I hope?" In Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he focused on imagination, whose work he traced from basic intuition or awareness of bare sensation, localized in the forms of space and time, to the reproduction of images schematized under "the categories of the understanding": quantity, quality, relation, and modality. These categories yield determinate concepts, expressed in propositions, analytic and synthetic, in the context of the "transcendental unity of apperception" or self-world consciousness. Such is all that the faculty of understanding can supply and all one can know in a sense warranted by the regnant conception of science. Yet reason requires the "transcendental ideas," or "regulative ideals" not only of self (or soul) and world but also of God as ground of world and soul.

Turning from the data of nature to the datum of freedom, of persons as moral agents, the dictates of pure practical reason (praxis) reveal a categorical imperative: never to make an exception of oneself to the demand of moral law; to treat all persons as ends and never merely as means; to recognize the moral dignity of persons as persons. In exploring the demands of moral life in Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant asks how disinterested moral virtue is to be related to the quest for happiness, which is also a legitimate component of the supreme good. A rational answer to this question, says Kant, demands the recognition of freedom in immortality.

A basic power assumed in the first two critiques, namely judgment, operates to subsume particulars in generals, parts in wholes, and so forth. Judgment is evidenced in acts, including logical operations, and expressed in the propositions of theoretical reason and the moral determinations of practical reason. In The Critique of Judgement (1790), however, Kant seeks to lay bare the general power of judgment as such. Here its form is expressive of pure feeling, of pleasure or displeasure. The controlling aesthetic category, beauty, is experienced when the free play of imagination, articulated in aesthetic forms, results in a "delight in ordering" produced by the creative artist and enjoyed by persons of aesthetic sensibility and informed taste. Feeling, however, is neither its cause nor its differentiating characteristic. Feeling merely signals that aesthetic judgment is at work.

Aesthetic judgment is characterized by four "moments":

  1. In quality, the grounding experience is that of "disinterested interest." The judging subject is fully engaged, but the focus of engagement is neither the self nor the fascination of being engaged, but rather that whose worth is not a function of the act of engagement.
  2. In quantity, judgment of the beautiful is singular yet of universal import. There is no class of which all beautiful objects are members; a specific work of art is judged to be beautiful. (Religious expressions of the unqualified singularity of the divine display a similar resistance to systematic formulation or classification.)
  3. In terms of relation, aesthetic judgment expresses "purposiveness without purpose" or "finality without use." Parts are also wholes, and wholes are parts; means are also ends, and ends are means. This suggests analogies with religious judgment concerning the integrity or wholeness of the holy.
  4. In modality, aesthetic judgments are subjective and particular, yet they are also necessary and universal. Here the judgment bespeaks a universality and necessity that its logical form as analyzed in the first critique denies to judgments of particulars. This "given" of aesthetic judgment, Kant said, may suggest a sensus communis, a universal structure of intersubjectivity. Some theorists of religion appear to designate a similar structure as the sensus numinous, a shared sense of the holy or sacred.

Kant also examined another category of aesthetic experience, the sublime. While beauty is formal, limited, and related to discursive understanding, the sublime is experienced variously as the infinite or the overpowering. It arrests attention, "performs an outrage on imagination," and seems to draw us into a supraempirical or supernatural realm. For Kant, this experience is not mystical intuition and affords no privileged access to what lies beyond the world of appearances. Some successors, however, did associate the experience of sublimity with the experience of the holy.

Friedrich Schelling (17751854), pursuing an aspect of Kant's thought as amended by J. G. Fichte (17621814), produced a philosophy of seminal influence on literary figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834) and theologians such as Paul Tillich (18861965). Schelling's philosophy of identity appropriated Kant's notion of aesthetic purposiveness as that which makes scientific inquiry intelligible, but whereas this was only a regulative principle for Kant, it became for Schelling the objective determining principle of reality. In System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) Schelling affirmed that "intellectual or rational intuition" reveals the ultimate identity of thought and being, real and ideal. In art, he said, a fleeting glimpse of this harmony or identity is made fully objective. Philosophy therefore should ultimately pass over from reflection on art to become art itself. Even art, however, cannot fully express reality as understood in Schelling's final "positive" philosophy and in his philosophy of mythology and revelation. Positive philosophy, which asserts the primacy of will, is said to be verified in the actual history of religions, which points toward an "age of the spirit" in which all is fulfilled. The function of art is thus replaced by the history of religions.

For Coleridge, as for Schelling, philosophy begins in a "realizing intuition," an act of contemplation that is both theoretical and practical, the coincidence of subject and object on which all knowledge rests and to which all knowledge aspires. Here knowing, doing, and making, science and art, are least distinguishable. Coleridge's theory of imagination is central to his understanding of this basic apprehension. Primary imagination, he says in Biographia Literaria (1817), is the "living power and prime agent of all human perception, and a representation in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (Coleridge, 1956, p. 86). Secondary imagination differs from primary only in degree and mode of operation, but it is similarly creative, seeking "to idealize and unify." From this basic characterization spring Coleridge's theories of poetry, symbol, and religion. Religion, he says, "unites in its purposes the desiderata of the speculative and practical being; its acts, including its events, are truths and objects of philosophical insight, and vice versa the truths of which it consists are to be considered the acts and manifestations of that Being who is at once Power and Truth" (p. 167).

G. W. F. Hegel (17701831) aspired to complete the movement of modern philosophy toward a conception of reality as Mind or Spirit. In his Philosophy of Fine Art (1807) he treated art and religion as authentic expressions of Spirit, whose concrete development, portrayed in his historical dialectic, would finally be superseded in true philosophy. Art, he said, is the sensuous appearance (Schein) of Idea, or the Real (Spirit). It seeks to give rich concreteness to unfolding reality; in it, a concept shows itself for itself. Its earliest form, Hegel thought, is the symbolic. In classical art, whose consummate form is sculpture, the divine is expressed through the perfection of the human form. Classical art, however, betrays its inadequacy for the expression of Spirit in the very concreteness of its forms. In the Romantic arts of painting, music, and poetry, Spirit is exhibited in increasing purity; in poetry, the art of sounded imaginative concepts, it achieves its most powerful artistic expression. This theme has been elaborated by poet-critics like T. S. Eliot (18881965) and others. Religion, thought Hegel, is a historically parallel manifestation of the Real in that it vivifies the Real as God in myth, ritual, and theology. Indeed, the God of Romantic art, he seems to suggest, is the God of Christianity. With full disclosure of the way the Real as Spirit works in the dialectic of history, the eclipse of art and religion in their historical forms had, he thought, begun.

Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) reacted vigorously against Hegel's views of the ultimate character of reality and of the place of the aesthetic and religious in its perception. Truth, he said, is not the objective working out of Idea, Reason, or Spirit; a logical system is possible, but there can be no logical system of personal life as it is actually lived, of existence. Truth is a matter not of what but of how one thinks, as displayed in the engaged conduct of a life. Truth is an existential grasp of "essence" arrived at not by logical conclusion but by life-committing choice.

According to Kierkegaard, three major valuations of life are open to truth-seeking choice, or the quest for authentic existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The grounding principle of the aesthetic, which may include all forms of human making, is enjoyment. The aesthetic is basically ahistorical because its fulfillments are only accidentally related to temporal and spatial situations. It involves less than the whole person; its criterion is that of fittingness or definition. As life orientation, the aesthetic is ironic, because it expresses only the individual as he or she is, rather than positing a task for indefinite striving. Dependent for its satisfactions on the vagaries of fortune and taste, it leads, he said, to "the despair of not willing to be oneself."

In the ethical perspective, one experiences the dignity of the whole self and the equality of persons before the moral law; the moral imperative does set a task for unending pursuit. Herein, however, lies the irony of the ethical: one can always do more than is required by or consonant with moral law, or one experiences the impossibility of complete obedience to moral law as guilt, leading to "the despair of willing to be oneself despairingly."

It is within the religious perspective, Kierkegaard thought, that authenticity is to be experienced. Christian faith, in particular, entails the most inward and passionateand therefore the most completeengagement of the self, because it is committed to an absurdity: that the infinite became finite, that God became a historical person. This commitment, which is also openness to divine forgiveness and grace, restores the individual to the realm of authentic finitude. For Kierkegaard, the aesthetic, like the ethical, is not abandoned or denied in the religious attitude; it is fully affirmed and enjoyed, but in its proper place and not as a way of salvation. Other modern existentialists have found something approaching religious significance in various aesthetic forms, even though for many the authenticity proclaimed therein is that of the tragic vision or of unredeemed and unredeeming absurdity.

Aesthetic and Religious Experience

Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) turned to the life of affections or feeling to identify and celebrate the religious in his On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1893). A brilliant preacher, hermeneut, translator of Plato, and teacher, Schleiermacher was identified with the circle of German Romantic artists whose attention to the affective dominated their work. Religion, he affirmed, is not primarily a matter of beliefs or of divine undergirding of moral law; it is rooted in a distinctive feeling, which he variously designated "the feeling of absolute dependence," "the sense of the Whole," or in his later work, The Christian Faith (18211822), the sense and taste for the Infinite (Schleiermacher, 1928, p. 55). Religious apprehension is akin, he said, to the experience of the sublime as described by Kant. While for Kant, however, the experience of the sublime bespeaks finally the dignity of man, for Schleiermacher it is a key to the experience of God. In the figure of Jesus as the Christ, he said, one sees exemplary God consciousness or complete transparency to the divine.

Rudolf Otto (18691937), whose Idea of the Holy (1917) decisively influenced developments in the theory of religion, was himself strongly influenced by both Schleiermacher and aspects of Kantian philosophy. Otto's book calls attention to nonrational dimensions of the holy, which is viewed as the distinctive religious category. Rational characterizations of the holy are expressed in conceptual superlatives (supreme being, supernatural) and other conceptual absolutes. A sense of its reality, however, must be evoked rather than rationally demonstrated, just as a sense of the aesthetic must be. The aesthetic realm thus provides for Otto the chief analogies for modes of apprehending the dimension of the holy that he termed "the numinous," the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans. " This realm of mystery is both awesomely overpowering and the source of that fascination that leads, through the history of religions, to beatitude. "Divination" (Otto's term for the discernment of the numinous), like aesthetic intuition, operates through the senses. The expressions of such discernments, like those of aesthetic intuition, may be nonconceptual or idiosyncratically conceptual ("ideograms"); they may issue directly in sound, light, darkness, or holy silence or be conveyed indirectly through music, poetry, or other art forms. The closest analogue to that which is so expressed, said Otto, is the sublime as described by Kant, though without Kant's critical restrictions.

Gerardus van der Leeuw (18901950), whose Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933) influenced many theorists of religion, describes the phenomenological stance in terms strikingly similar to those employed by some in describing the aesthetic attitude. Phenomenology of religion, he asserts, is not philosophy of religion, insofar as it brackets questions of religion's relation to reality and truth. It is not poetry of religion, because it seeks to understand what is expressed through its poetry. The phenomenologist of religion, rather, seeks "lovingly to gaze" on that which is to be understood and, through understanding, cherished. Schleiermacher had said that the historical forms of religion are to religion as the various forms of music are to music. Leeuw sought to comprehend the temporal and cultural diversity of religious expressions through the exercise of "surrendering love," a sympathetic mode of cognition "linking old and new."

Mircea Eliade (19071986) frequently described his monumental work as history or science of religion, but the stance he commends is in part that of the phenomenologist. However, it is not simply a matter of "gazing at" or resonating with apparently alien religious forms. Homo religiosus is universal. Understanding the diversity of experience of the sacred requires trained sensitivity to the forms and functions of the sacred, many of which are explicitly aesthetic in character. Whether there is or could be in modernity a complete loss of the sense of the sacred is for him problematic; if such a loss did occur, it would be comparable to, though more fundamental than, the loss of aesthetic sensitivity or orientation in relation to works of art.

Some modern philosophers, eschewing traditional formulations of religious faith, have found an analogue in the aesthetic. George Santayana (18631952), poet, essayist, and novelist as well as professional philosopher, keyed his understanding of verifiable knowledge to a conception of science that, he believed, portrayed the world as an insensate, mechanical arrangement of atoms, one existing prior to human consciousness and destined to continue after human consciousness has disappeared. Spirit is unable to rearrange the forces of nature basically or permanently, or to eliminate the exigencies of life. From within the perspective of spirit, however, persons may perceive these exigencies as necessities of existence and experience a transmutation of them "under the aspect of eternity." The gifts of the spirit entail more, however, than the passive acquiescence in fortune. Imagination may envision and affirm ideal values that become goals of highest human aspiration and sources of endless delight, even though (or perhaps because) they are never fully incarnate in the realm of existence. Chief among these is beauty, which exemplifies the ideal harmony that is the good. A life conducted in the presence of these ideals is eternal because the ideals that thus constitute its essence are eternal. They are not everlasting; they are timeless. Partially embodied in aesthetic experience and vivified in the religious life, they provide for human beings another world in which to live, one that celebrates the distinctively human dimension of the real. Religion is poetry that guides life.

John Dewey (18591952) held a quite different understanding of scientific inquiry and its implications for life and society. Patterns of inquiry, beginning in doubt or problem and moving through experiment to resolution, are not limited to cognitively problematic situations in which we "do not know what to think." They are also exhibited in morally problematic situations, in which we "do not know what to do." The latter may be resolved through careful discrimination between the temporal ends of courses of action and the ends as goals of moral aspiration; that is, between the desired and the desirable. We are justified, Dewey thought, in choosing those ends that enlarge the range of possible fulfillments.

The aesthetic in experience is that which makes any experience an experience. In experience as aesthetic, exemplified in those experiential achievements called works of art, the continuities of form and matter and of creative initiation and aesthetic consummation are presented directly. Experience as aesthetic is consummatory and a good in itself. In the creation and enjoyment of a work of art, one gains new perspectives on and energy for the pursuit of all other forms of experience. The sense of communion generated by a work of art, says Dewey, may take on a definitely religious quality in what one interpreter has called "the religion of shared experience." In aesthetic experience thus understood, nature achieves its human culmination.

Dewey also understood the religious in experience in terms of adapting nature to human ends and accommodating human life to those aspects of it that cannot be changed. In A Common Faith (1934) he describes the religious in experience as expressing the deepest and most pervasive of accommodations: faith as basic confidence, which may sustain the envisagement of ideals and religious commitment to their realizations. Indeed, Dewey argues, one may use the term God to express the active relation of ideal to actual. The sense of belonging to a whole, he says in Art as Experience (1934), is "the explanation of that feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity which we have in the presence of an object experienced with esthetic intensity it explains the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception. We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in ordinary experience. We are carried beyond ourselves to find ourselves" (Dewey, 1934, p. 195).

Between 1910 and 1913, Bertrand Russell (18721970) and Alfred North Whitehead (18611947) published their magisterial Principia Mathematica, foundational for later work in the logical structure of mathematics and symbolic logic. Both thinkers went on to engage in philosophical inquiry and theory in a wide range of human concerns. Whitehead eventually sought to articulate a metaphysical-cosmological view authentic "for our cosmic era." In the process he created a special vocabulary needed for the exposition of his thought. The basic ingredients of reality he called "actual occasions," "actual entities," "events," or "droplets of experience," emphasizing ongoing relatedness in the process of reality. In reality, each occasion incorporates a funding from the past and an "ingression" from the future. Novelty is a feature of all actual occasions, and freedom is a category. There are three formative elements in the process that is reality: Creativity, God, and Eternal Objects. Creativity is a "given," and it does not presuppose a Creator. Eternal Objects constitute the timeless realm of infinite possibility. "God," in Whitehead's term, in God's Primordial Nature timelessly envisions these Eternal Objects (cf. Santayana). Some logical possibilities are also ontological potentialities. God in God's Consequent Nature is involved in the actualization of these potentialities. God provides both "lure" and companionship.

Whitehead entitled his major work on religion, Religion in the Making (1926). Religions celebrate in various ways the mystery, awesomeness, and splendor of existence and its continuous coming to be or realization of actual occasions in the society of all other actual occasions in the cosmos. Whitehead's frequently quoted statement that "religion is what an individual does with his own solitariness" (Whitehead, 1926, p. 16) is sometimes construed to express an existentialist individualism. Actually, it is his way of saying that all individuals are individualizations of a reality that is inherently social, and religion itself is always "in the making." See below for why Whitehead thought the future of world faiths may lie between Christianity and Buddhism.

Whitehead never wrote a book on aesthetics as such. Perhaps he felt that he was writing about aesthetics in nearly everything he wrote. In his description of aesthetic experience he emphasized the transactional-transformative character and transfigurational effect of the experience. Beauty is the harmonious mutual adaptation of all of the elements of aesthetic experience, and beauty is the one self-justifying aim.

Martin Heidegger (18891976), like Whitehead, stressed the primacy of temporality in reality. (His basic work is titled Being and Time [1927].) But for him it is simply the "being-ness" of being that is foundational. He sought to recover for philosophy that primordial sense of being that, he believed, characterized early Greek philosophy and had been lost in Western philosophy by the attempt to dominate Being through the strategies of scientific inquiry and various patterns of technological cultural and institutional engagement.

Like Whitehead, he found that the articulation of his philosophy required a distinctive vocabulary. In the "temporalizing" of Being, Being "comes-to-light." Dasein is "there-being," which can question itself about its own being. It is human being. But Dasein is also transparent to various modes of unconcealments, in subjectifying and objectifying procedures. There are three "equiprimordial" elements in this unfolding. The first is Befindlichkeit "feeling" or "moodness." The second is understandingstanding under or within that which comes to light. All understanding is interpretation. There is no bare uninterpreted engagement with Being. The third ingredient in Being's coming to light is discursive reasoning. Dasein is both being in the worldbeing in the "worldhood" of thingsand being with others. The "thinghood" of things is first of all the thinghood of equipmentthings at hand for use. Through abstraction, use relations may become theoretical relations. Being with others entails affirming and celebrating the otherness of others in their unique integrity. The ultimate future of all authentic beings as Dasein is death. Authentic living unto death courageously affirms death as finis and also death as telosone affirms one's completion of being in finitude. In authentic living, thinking is thanking.

What mode of being is a work of art? It is at one level a thing as equipment. Conservation is an essential element of its being. But a work of art may also portray that form of being which is "thing" being. A work of art is also a kind of workingan artistic "creation." The work of the artist in all media is poiein poetizing in a sense epitomized in Greek sensibility. In poetry Being comes to light most clearly, or as Heidegger would later say, is most clearly "heard." Does poiein, whether in linguistic or other form, have religious significance?

If religion celebrates a sense of transcendence, there is a sense in which others transcend self and Being transcends all beings. But Being is not a being among beings, or transcendent "Being-itself," or a degree of being"Higher," "Supreme," or otherwise. For much of his career Heidegger seemed to emphasize the Mystery of Being. Later he has seemed to emphasize the mystery of Being. Many contemporary theologians seem to concur in this move.

Eastern Views

Eastern philosophers did not attend to the systematic development of comprehensive aesthetic theories until these were incorporated in influential Western systems. This does not mean, however, that profound reflection on aspects of aesthetic theory in relation to religious experience is not present in many classical Eastern texts. Ananda Coomaraswamy (18771947), a pioneer in introducing Eastern art and aesthetics to Western communities, incorporated many of these reflections in an original and influential theory that he described, in Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (1956), as a "doctrine of art intrinsic to the Philosophia Perennis." Its major themes, he thought, are expressed in Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, and other philosophies foundational to medieval Christian thought and culture and also in Indian, Buddhist, and Confucian classics. Central to his analysis is the view that all true art is iconographic; authentic art forms and objects are to be understood as media for embodying and transmitting "ideas" or spiritual meanings. Authentic experience of a work of art requires appropriate preparation of both artist and experiencer for the work and its appreciation, and it results in a transformation of the percipient. The supreme achievement of individual consciousness is to lose (or find) itself in what is both its beginning and its end. The transformation of the artifact also effects the transformation of the artist and the percipient. The object-subject of apprehension is an imaged idea that moves the will and attracts the intellect of the artist; the idea is the source of the formation expressed in and through the work of art. Universal themes and motifs or archetypes, he thought, are expressed in varying ways in great art, whether literary, plastic, or performed.

Coomaraswamy's articulation of the transactional nature of religious apprehension through aesthetic experience foreshadows later interest in general "response theory." A useful and suggestive work in this area, drawing on neuropsychological and general theories of perception, is Michael Stephan's A Transformational Theory of Aesthetics (1990). Stephan focuses on visual experience. He summarizes neuropsychological-evolutionary data on the sites of sensory information in lobes and modules of the brain and their paths of intercommunication, and he emphasizes the principal sites of visual experience in nondiscursive areas. Icons as unalloyed or uninterpreted visual experience are sui generis. Foundational experience, however, includes affective import that gives rise to emotional response (cf. Heidegger's Befindlichkeit or moodness). Psychological "item response" theories are discussed by Wim van der Linden and Ronald K. Hambleton in Handbook of Modern Item Response Theory (1997). A principal advocate of "reader response" theory in literary criticism is Stanley Fish, author of Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1998) and Is There a Text in This Class? (1980).

The ultimately Real is designated brahman in major schools of Hindu philosophy. Brahman is transspatial and transtemporal. The penultimately real is māyā, frequently defined as illusion, but it is as real as the realm of space and time. The ultimate reality in that world is brahman as ātman, usually defined as soul or self. The goal of human souls is moka or deliverance from the realm of māyā through realization of (making real) the identity of ātman and brahman. The world of māyā is governed by karma, the law of cause and effect that regulates both physical and nonphysical reality.

In traditional Hindu culture the path to moksha leads, for souls that have been in human form for at least one lifetime, through four stages: studenthood, householderhood, forest-dweller (retreat to a life of meditation), and sanyāsa, (living in the world as one not of the world). In the householder stage one should be guided by dharma (religious duty), artha (worldly welfare), and kāma (sensory pleasure). The Kāma-Sūtra is the Hindu classic of forms of sexual pleasure. Kāma is an essential ingredient in the four-stage path to moksha.

The ideal measure of kāma is rasa, usually translated as "Beauty." But rasa is an elusive concept. There are at least thirty definitions in standard Sanskrit dictionaries. It is a specific blend of specified feelings and emotions, with various rasas assigned to various art forms. As in other theories discussed above, the experience of rasa incorporates all of the elements of aesthetic experience in a manner that is transactional, transforming, and transfigural. May it also be a form of religious experience? The acme of experience as rasa is santarasa. Santarasa, writes Eliot Deutsch, "is just that transcendental realization that is joy-ful and peaceful. It is grounded in the Self and is realized as a kind of self-liberation" (Deutsch, 1975, p. 19). And ultimately "santa is silence . The art-work in the fullness of its experience as santarasa points to Reality and participates in it. In pure spiritual experience there is only the Real. To the enlightenedbut only to the enlightenedall experience is santarasa " (Deutsch, 1975, p. 19).

Whitehead said that "Buddhism is the most colossal example in history of applied metaphysics a metaphysics generating a religion," in contrast with Christianity, which is "a religion seeking a metaphysic" (Whitehead, 1926, p. 50). The metaphysics of Buddhism shares many affinities with the metaphysics of Whitehead. Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 563483 bce), known as "Śākyamuni""sage of the Śākya clan,"inherited many of the basic Hindu beliefs of his culture, which were retained as basic in Buddhism. When, as a scion of a noble family, he experienced major confrontations with the facts of old age, disease, and death, he moved on to the stage of withdrawal for intense meditation on a Way that would transcend these features of life in māyā. He found that Way in an experience of enlightenment that made him the exemplary BuddhaEnlightened Oneand that he shared with others, who became carriers of the Buddhist enlightenment, first to Southeast Asia, then to Central and East Asia, and eventually to other continents. In the process several themes were constant. One was the transitoriness of life. Another was the transitoriness of all of those elements that constitute a human self, leading to a doctrine of "no self" or "no ownership." Another was the role of karma in attaining the ultimate goal of beatitude: nirvāa.

As the Way spread, other concepts became important. One is that of the bodhisattva, one who has generated enough good karma to enter nirvāa but will not do so before he or she can be a means for all others to attain the goal. Much of Buddhist devotional, meditational, and aesthetic practice focuses on one of these or on enlightened masters who share their teachings with disciples through various forms of discipline.

Major forms of such schools or sects developed in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. They range from manifestations of faith to receive the grace of a bodhisattva to disciplined study and practice under the guidance of a master that can lead to satori or salvific enlightenment. The Chan school of China, source of the Zen school of Japan, is of the latter type. Zen practice has strongly influenced many of the arts in China and Japan. This includes that freedom and spontaneity that follows release from the hegemony of "normal" consciousness through kōans whose verbal form opens the way to supradiscursive insight. The pursuit of such insight may focus on complete concentration on the ingredients of a vocational activity, like that of the warrior or athlete. Or emphasis may be on the highly ritualized restraint that should characterize the work of the actor or other artist. The "spirit of Zen" may be made manifest in many forms.

In China, Buddhism encountered the indigenous Confucian tradition, which espoused the goal of harmony between "Heaven," humans, and earth, expressed aesthetically in poetry and landscape painting. The Daoist tradition emphasized spontaneity and paradox expressed in these media.

In Japan, Buddhism was related in a variety of ways to Shintō, the indigenous religion of the islands, which in itself exhibits many aesthetic elements in its practices. Donald Keene has noted several terms in shared Japanese aesthetic vocabulary. Aware expresses a sense of wonder at the "giveness" of things. It also means, he says, "a gentle sorrow, adding not so much a meaning as a perfume to a sentence. It bespoke the sensitive poet's awareness of a sight or sound, of its beauty and its perishability" (Keene, 1958, p. 72). Miyabi "was applied to the quiet pleasures which could be savored by (those) whose tastes had been educated to thema spray of plum blossoms, the elusive perfume of a rare wood, the delicate blending of colors in a robe" (Keene, 1958, pp. 174175). Yugen, says Keene, "was a word used to describe the profound, the remote, the mysterious" (Keene, 1958, pp. 174175). Sabi suggested not only "the old, but the taking of pleasure in that which was old" (Keene, 1958, p. 278). It is most profoundly felt in the tea ceremony and the tea hut. It is a quality, says Keene, that is captured in many brief and allusive poems called haiku. Again attention is drawn to the impermanence of things. This is not bemoaned. As in the Buddhist Way, it is noted simply as "the way things are." This sense is further expressed in ukiyo, the "floating world" of wood-block prints and of the transient passions. Some followers of many religious traditions are asking anew what is "floating" and what is permanent or enduring in the realms of aesthetics and religion within the multicultural world of globalization.

See Also

Aristotle; Art and Religion; Beauty; Biblical Exegesis, article on Christian Views; Icons; Images; Literature, article on Literature and Religion; Plato; Platonism; Plotinus.


Aristotle. Works. Translated and edited by William D. Ross. Oxford, 19101937. The classic translation of the relevant Aristotelian materials. See especially Nichomachean Ethics and Poetics.

Augustine. De doctrina Christiana. Translated by Thérèse Sullivan. Washington, D.C., 1930.

Augustine. Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil. Translated and edited by Robert P. Russell. New York, 1942. Translation of De ordine.

Augustine. De musica, a Synopsis. Translated by W. F. Jackson Knight. London, 1949.

Augustine. Later Works. Edited by John Burnaby. Library of Christian Classics, vol. 8. Philadelphia, 1955. Includes De Trinitate. This and the three preceding works embody the principal themes in Augustine's treatment of the aesthetic in relation to beatitude.

Bernabeo, Paul. "With Blended Might: An Investigation into Schleiermacher's Aesthetics and the Family Resemblance between Religion and Art." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1981. The significance of Schleiermacher's aesthetic theory for his theology.

Brown, Robert F. The Later Philosophy of Schelling. Lewisburg, Pa., 1977.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Edited by George Watson. London, 1956. Contains Coleridge's statements of the relation of imagination to religious and aesthetic insight.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Transformation of Nature in Art. Cambridge, Mass., 1934; reprint New York, 1956.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. New York, 1956.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, vol. 1, Selected Papers. Edited by Roger Lipsey. Princeton, N.J. 1977. These Coomaraswamy works are thoughtful analyses of aspects of Asian art in relation to classical Western philosophy and theology.

Deutsch, Eliot. Studies in Comparative Aesthetics. Honolulu, 1975.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, 1934.

Dewey, John. A Common Faith. New Haven, Conn., 1934. These two Dewey works offer a naturalistic and humanistic understanding of the relation of the aesthetic to the religious in experience.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge, Mass., 1980.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. London, 1972.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of Fine Art. 4 vols. Translated by Francis Plumptre Beresford Osmaston. London, 1920. Sets forth Hegel's views of the relation of art to religion in his understanding of the dialectic of Spirit.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson Jr. New York, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. Translated by Peter D. Hertz. New York, 1971.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York, 1971.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York, 1929. Presents Kant's view of theoretical knowledge.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy. Translated and edited by Lewis White Beck. Chicago, 1949. Discusses the nature and implications of moral judgment.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford, 1964. Shows how the nature of judgment as such is exemplified in aesthetic judgment; also contains Kant's treatment of the sublime.

Keene, Donald. "The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I." In Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary, vol. 1. New York, 1958.

Kierkegaard, Søren. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Edited by Robert Bretall. New York, 1959. Contains the substance of those works of Kierkegaard that set forth his understanding of the relation of the aesthetic to the ethical and religious. See especially "Stages on Life's Way," "Either/Or," "Fear and Trembling," and "Concluding Unscientific Postscript."

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Phänomenologie der Religion. Tübingen, Germany, 1933. Translated by J. E. Turner as Religion in Essence and Manifestation (London, 1938; 2d ed., New York, 1963). Portrays a phenomenological approach to understanding religion that exhibits many similarities to aesthetic attitudes.

Martin, James Alfred, Jr. Beauty and Holiness. Princeton, N.J., 1990. Includes extended discussions of several topics discussed in this article.

Niebuhr, Richard R. Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion. New York, 1964. Schleiermacher's aesthetic theory's significance for his theology.

Otto, Rudolf. Das Heilige, 9th ed. Breslau, Poland, 1922. Translated by John W. Harvey as The Idea of the Holy (London and New York, 1923; 2d ed., London and New York, 1950). An influential theory of religion that draws heavily on analogies from aesthetics.

Plato. Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford, 1871. The classic translation of the dialogues, which set forth Plato's understanding of the role of the aesthetic in philosophical and religious truth. See especially Philebus, Phaedrus, Ion, and Symposium.

Plotinus. The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna and revised by B. S. Page. New York, 1957. Contains the Neoplatonic formulation most influential in subsequent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought.

Santayana, George. Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York, 1911.

Santayana, George. "Reason in Art." In The Philosophy of Santayana, edited by Irwin Edman. New York, 1942.

Santayana, George. "Reason in Religion." In The Philosophy of Santayana, edited by Irwin Edman. New York, 1942. These works contain major statements of Santayana's humanistic and naturalistic position on art and religion.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar. Aesthetical Essays: Studies in Aesthetic Theory, Hindustani Music, and Kathak Dance. Delhi, 1981. Describes the emergence of aesthetics in Indian thought and its relation to philosophical and religious issues.

Schelling, Friedrich. The Ages of the World. Translated by Frederick de Wolfe Bolman Jr. New York, 1942.

Schelling, Friedrich. System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville, Va., 1978.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translated by John Oman. London, 1893; abr. ed., New York, 1955.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh, 1928; reprint New York, 1963. These two works portray Schleiermacher's aesthetic theory.

Stephan, Michael. A Transformational Theory of Aesthetics. London and New York, 1990.

"Theorists and Critics: Michel Foucault." Available from A comprehensive survey of primary and secondary works, including digitally authored resources.

Thomas Aquinas. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. 2 vols. Edited by Anton C. Pegis. New York, 1945. Contains the major statements of Thomas on aesthetic themes in relation to theology. See especially Summa Theologiae, 1.13.5, 1.16.1, 1.5.4,

van der Linden, Wim J., and Ronald K. Hambleton, eds. Handbook of Modern Item Response Theory. New York, 1997.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. New York, 1926.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, 1929.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Alfred North Whitehead: A Primary-Secondary Bibliography. Edited by Barry A. Woodbridge. Bowling Green, Ky., 1977.

James Alfred Martin, Jr. (1987 and 2005)