Monday, 9 May 2016

What Is This Thing Called Beauty?

Posted by Keith Tidman
What is this thing called beauty? Our reflexive first thoughts might turn to people creating paintings, sculptures, dance choreographies, songs, novellas, and the like. Without the imposition of rules that prescribe how beauty should be observed and experienced, and that box it in by formalities and what is ‘correct’, this is the most simple, descriptive account that many of us might give.
More liberal reflection, however, eclipses our first thoughts, to arrive at a far broader, more nuanced description of our perception of beauty. Our aesthetic experiences might encompass images of galaxies and supernovas, deft turns of phrase, powerful metaphors, elegant equations, breakthrough technologies, humour, love, fantasies, theatre, and cultural rituals. Urban and rural landscapes, athletics, architecture, physical pleasure, animals and plants, calligraphy, oceans, and chemical formulas. Food presentation and taste, music, unbroken silence, geometry, alone time, learning, engineered structures, social engagement, serendipitous discovery, and the birthing of new life. Texture, colours, lines, beam of light, laughter, computer code, altruism, photography, imagination – and so much more.

We may turn to more specific examples. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, and rules-free, has included Einstein’s iconic equation e=mc2, the neuronal/synaptic activity of the brain, the three-dimensional structure of C6H12, the human genome, and the problem-solving of the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. Poignant lines from Shakespeare, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Mozart’s Missa da Requiem, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The aurora borealis, a breaching orca and its calf, Istanbul’s skyline at night, and the Lascaux cave paintings. Melt-in-the-mouth chocolate truffles, Provence in spring, Hohenzollern castle, the Grand Canyon catching sunlight, the vision of alternative world futures, the rich nuances of Indian and African languages – and more.

Since these represent descriptions of our experience of beauty, some will be commonly shared – in some cases globally – while others will be appreciated only through individuals’ cognitive lenses, or through culture’s interventionist hand. Yet others are regarded as examples of beauty by ‘insiders’, who are in one way or another habituated to them through educational training, life experiences, or other uniquely personal circumstances. Yet all these experiences are equally legitimate as descriptions of our perception of beauty – none ascends above the others.

What is it, then, that unites these myriad conceptions of beauty? We may now turn our look inward as it were, to our own personhood – which is epitomised by intelligent consciousness. The aesthetic content of beauty as we have described it rests on the individual: not only on the stimuli being experienced, but influenced by the medium between the source and ourselves, by our senses, and by our human cognition. And while it is yet little understood, our consciousness is key to the experience of aesthetics – although these ‘things’ exist independently, their beauty transitions from what is potential to what is real only by being observed and experienced. Through neuroscience – which is informed by physics, biology, and philosophy – consciousness is bound to play an ever-increasing role in our understanding of the cognitive processes associated with our experiences of beauty.

Meanwhile, ‘personhood’ must be folded, however imperfectly, into the explanation of aesthetic experience. Personhood is definable by a multiplicity of factors – the following being just a few among many: our awareness of our existence, our functionality both apart from and as part of a societal network, our accumulation of experiences from which to learn, our vision of alternative futures for which to strive – in fact, a menagerie of cognitive abilities, such as creative, innovative, imaginative, linguistic, computational, logical, and analytical skills. A religious or secular-humanistic framework for personal experience. As well as emotions, sensory messages that reflect our environment, unbridled and insatiable curiosity, awareness of the arrow of time, abstract questioning of meaning and purpose, intuition, and a sense of destiny.

And so we circle back to the beginning – now being able to correlate descriptions of our perception of beauty with our cognitive apparatus. An appreciation of the ‘elegance’ and precision of mathematics is required – in fact, of the universe – to see the beauty in e=mc2. An appreciation of early people’s linking of art and what they valued for survival is needed, to see the beauty of the Lascaux cave art. An appreciation of how music triggers the release of emotions and flights of imagination is required, to hear the soaring beauty of Mozart’s Missa da Requiem. An understanding of humankind’s magnificent complexity, with all its implications for leapfrogging natural evolution is needed, to see the beauty of the human genome – and so forth.

Everything, then, that ‘personhood’ entails feeds into and gives shape to what we consider sources of aesthetic experience – and how, precisely, we respond to those sources. And it is the magnificent breadth of what constitutes our personhood – encapsulated (in part) by the qualities described – which allows for, and makes sense of, the equally magnificent breadth of all that falls under the rubric of descriptive aesthetics.

8 comments:

  1. Congrats for this very interesting and inspirat essay !!!

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    1. Thank you István, Behind the scenes we put in quite an effort with this post to drive deep(er), and Keith has produced, I think, some original thoughts in philosophy. Especially, for me, how our sense of beauty is so broadly coupled with our cognitive apparatus.

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  2. Welcome to Pi, István!

    Actually, I have some doubts aabout Keith's approach myelf. WHy do we need so much of an emphasis on 'understanding' - rather tha, say, feeling and intuitions?

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    1. Thank you, Martin, for your thoughtful comment. To your point, if I may, actually the words I used—successively three times in the same (the penultimate) paragraph—were ‘an appreciation of,’ not ‘understanding.’ There’s a significant difference. I would argue that the expression ‘an appreciation of’ is far broader than just ‘understanding.’ Indeed, ‘an appreciation of’ does include ‘understanding,’ but also embraces the concepts (experiences) you refer to, namely ‘feelings’ and ‘intuitions.’ How beauty is processed, I believe, is far from singular, calling into action both intellect (in its broadest sense, including understanding) and emotions (in their broadest sense, including feeling and intuitions).

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  3. Yes, thanks, Keith, that's good to see clarified. Yet there's still some sort of tension between 'conscious' and 'subconscious'response, isn't there?

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    1. Yes, Martin, I agree. There are definitely simultaneously conscious and subconscious components to the experience of beauty. Both carry a lot of baggage—historical, including cultural, conditioning—with respect to how each aspect of the mind is predisposed to process beauty. But I suspect that, because of the complexity of each and our shaky grasp of what each really is (especially their respective roles in the context of the essay), teasing out one from the other would be fiendishly hard. Fortunately, doing so (or, more likely, not doing so) probably doesn’t matter from the standpoint of the experience. Besides, although not wanting to sound overly Pollyannaish in this regard, there's a sublime side to the experience of beauty that rises above issues of 'process'.

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  4. Ah, the sublime! I do agree with the 19th century poets - mountains are sublime...

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    1. Indeed. Few, if any, more 'sublime' than the mountains of Percy Shelley's "Mont Blanc." (Although, I might add, the 'sublime' Grand Canyon isn't too shabby to gaze upon, either.)

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