The World as Will and Representation
What does Schopenhauer mean when he talks
about aesthetic contemplation, or the encounter with the beautiful?
In order to understand what he means, it will be helpful to look first
at Abraham Maslow's distinction between D-perception and B-perception,
and then to look at a few examples of people describing what an encounter
with the beautiful was like for them.
D- and B-Cognition
Abraham Maslow, one of the classical American
psychologists, in his book Religions, Values and Peak Experiences,
distinguishes between two different kinds of perception. One is our ordinary
daily mode of perception, which Maslow calls D-perception (or D-cognition).
The other, B-perception (or B-cognition) is a highly non-usual kind of
perception which is experienced only rarely, and only during what Maslow
terms "peak experiences."
(It might be helpful here if you could call
to mind some moment in your own experience when you were so taken with
an experience of beauty that it almost took your breath away, that was
so overwhelming that it could almost not even be described in words. It
may have been an experience of something in nature - a mountain, the sea,
a sunrise, etc - or it may have been an experience of an art piece - for
example, a piece of music, a dance, a painting, a sculpture, etc. But
in any case an experience so powerful and overwhelming, and maybe even
what you might call "enlightening," that it was almost beyond
words. It may have been so powerful and significant for you that you could
almost not bring yourself to even tell anyone about it for some time afterward.
Those are the kinds of experiences of B-cognition we will be discussing
Perhaps an example of this kind of B-cognition
particular experience is recounted by a woman in her early thirties. She
is describing a walk in the little woods just outside her home, a woods
that she walked through almost every day. But on this particular day she
saw it with entirely different eyes than she had ever seen it before.
I felt I was there with God on the day of
the Creation. Everything was so fresh and new. Every plant and tree
and fern and bush had its own particular holiness. As I walked along
the ground the smells of nature rose to greet me - sweeter and more
sacred than any incense.
It is worth noting that people often resort
to using religious metaphors in their descriptions of these B-perception
experiences. Religious language is a language of fullness and ultimacy
and often seems the most appropriate kind of language for portraying these
experiences. The woman continues.
Between the trees I could see the sun sending
down rays of warming benediction upon this Eden, this forest paradise.
I continued to wander through this wood in a state of puzzled rapture,
wondering how it could have been that I lived only a few steps from
this place, walked in it several time s a week, and yet had never really
seen it before. I remembered having read in college Frazier's Golden
Bough in which one read of the sacred forests of the ancients. Here,
just outside my door was such a forest and I swore I would never be
blind to its enchantment again. (Quoted
in my doctoral dissertation, T A Kerns, Altered States of Consciousness:
A Philosophical Analysis of their Psychological, Ontological and Religious
Significance, Milwaukee, 1973.)
During my college years I often worked summers in a lumber mill and one
summer my job was to grade sheets of plywood as they came rolling slowly
by on a chain. I would pull them off into various piles depending on their
grade. About half way through one long drowsy night shift of this work,
along the chain came a stunningly beautiful piece of plywood, with unbelievably
striking and well-defined grains and colors. I pulled it off the chain
and put it in a special place just to enjoy looking at it for a while.
It truly was so beautiful it just amazed me, and I looked at it for the
But then it occurred to me later that perhaps
it wasn't the board itself that was so uniquely beautiful, but that maybe
something had changed in me, in my mode of perception, that had allowed
me to see the beauty in that one piece of plywood. I wondered if maybe
some other sheets of plywood were perhaps equally beautiful, but that
I had just not been in a state of mind to see their beauty. So I began
specifically to examine other sheets as they came down the chain, and
sure enough, just as I expected, many others were equally beautiful but
I had just not had the eyes to appreciate them.
And this is exactly Maslow's point. Our ordinary
daily mode of perception, what Maslow terms Deficiency perception
(or D-cognition) simply is not focused on seeing a thing as it truly is
in itself. It is focused instead on seeing only those aspects of a thing
that it is necessary to see for meeting the needs and interests of daily
life. Maslow believes - like Schopenhauer - that human beings (like all
living organisms) are a bundle of needs which have to be met so that the
organism can go on living [Maslow's psychology is famous for his "needs
hierarchy"]. In order to meet our needs, i.e., our "deficiencies,"
our perception is designed to scan the world and take note of whatever
aspects of things will be most helpful to us in meeting those needs. On
your way to and from your work, for example, you may pass by three "pre-owned"
car lots and have never noticed them. But when you suddenly need to buy
a car, your consciousness immediately starts picking up on things like
used car lots, "For Sale" signs on cars, and certain ads in
the newspaper. All those things were there before, but you had never noticed
them because you had no need to notice them, and no interest in them.
Your consciousness simply screened them out. That is the way our daily
D-cognition perceives the world: it takes note of things in which it has
an interest, and it picks up on only those aspects of things in which
it has an interest.
years ago I bought a gilnet boat and my son, Tom, and I began commercial
salmon fishing in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and in Puget Sound. Gilnet
fishing is a night fishery, so you're out on the water all night long.
One of the first nights we were out there was a particularly calm, warm
night, and the sea was flat like glass.
A gilnet is a long webbed net that hangs down
from a floating corkline strung along the surface and is weighted down
with a leadline strung along its bottom. It hangs in the water like a
curtain, and the idea is that salmon will come along and accidentally
swim into it and get tangled up by their gills. We then drummed the net
aboard after a couple hours, pick out the fish, and re-set the net. (The
best-selling novel Snow Falling on Cedars was set in the
San Juan Islands and involved gilnet fishing.)
My son, Tom, and I had just gotten our net
out in the water this particular night, so it was hanging nice and straight
there in the water fishing. I was keeping an eye on things from inside
the cabin, and Tom was out on deck in the bow. After a while he motioned
me to come out for a minute. When I got out there, he showed me what was
happening in the water. It was this amazing stuff that I later learned
was called phosphorescence. Tom had been hanging over the bow moving his
finger through the dark water, and wherever he stirred the water it lit
up brilliantly. So for the next several moments he and I enjoyed playing
in the water. We threw a bowline overboard and swished it through the
water, watching the water light up all along the path of the rope. We
wrote our names in the water with our fingers. We urinated in the water.
We threw coins in the water and watched them stir up light for as deep
as we could see. We were both just amazed at the magic of this phosphorescence.
(I later learned that the phosphorescence is actually from tiny organisms
that emit light when disturbed.)
After a while I went back in the cabin and
got on the radio to call Erick, a friend who had been gilnetting in the
Straits for many years, to tell him about this amazing stuff.
"Erick, you gotta get out on your deck
and look at this stuff, it's just amazing."
"Yeah, we call it fire in the water,"
he came back. "Gets stuck all over your web and lights it up bright
as day. To any fish that come along the lit-up web says 'hi, I'm a net,'
and the fish just swim around it. Very bad news for fishing. Hopefully
it'll go away before too long."
Well that sort of brought Tom and I back to
our senses. It also perfectly illustrated the difference between D-cognition
and B-cognition (Being-cognition, i.e., seeing a thing as it simply is,
rather than just seeing it as it relates to your own needs, wants, and
interests). Tom and I had been enjoying the simple being of this
phosphorescence, seeing it for what it was, not in terms of any particular
needs. But then we were told how it would affect fishing, i.e., how it
would affect our needs and interests, and suddenly we saw it in a totally
different way. That's the difference between seeing a thing simply as
it is (B-cognition), and seeing it only as it relates to your needs and
D-cognition - to put it in Schopenhauer's
terms - is a will-filled perception, and B-cognition is a will-less perception.
Later that same night, at maybe two or three
o'clock in the morning, the big moon came up over the eastern horizon,
clear and bright and big. It was a stunning sight, all alone out on the
water like that. Tom and I just stood amazed at the beauty of the huge
bright gibbous moon. I got on the radio to call Erick:
"Erick, take a look out to the east.
That moon is just stunning."
"Yeah, it's great," he responded.
"Bright moon like that will kill the fire in the water pretty quick.
Fishing should pick up pretty soon here."
And again I was brought back from B-cognition
of the moon, to seeing it simply as it related to our interests and needs.
Mind serves will
Schopenhauer's point is that our ordinary
daily will-filled consciousness does not so much see things as they actually
are, i.e., does not see their simple being, but instead sees them only
as they relate to our particular needs and wishes. But, says Schopenhauer,
that's what consciousness (mind, knowledge) is originally designed for,
viz., to help will meet its needs. Will has evolved mind to help will
meet its own needs, and most people have only as much mind as is necessary
to help their little will meet its needs and interests. Most people are
like cattle in that way, says Schopenhauer; they have only enough mind
for their will to get along satisfactorily in their little world.
But some few, says Schopenhauer, seem to have
an excess of consciousness, more mind than is necessary for simply meeting
that will's needs, and it is that extra level of consciousness
that allows these people to "see" more than others can see.
You may recall how Schopenhauer says this in that little summary on p
[W]e shall see in the third book how, in
the case of individual persons, knowledge can withdraw from this subjection
[to the will], throw off its yoke, and, free from all the aims of the
will, exist purely for itself, simply as a clear mirror of the world;
and this is the source of art.
Here is how Schopenhauer describes what is
happening during a moment of aesthetic contemplation such as that experienced
by the woman (above) in the woods just outside her home.
Raised up by the power of mind, we relinquish
the ordinary way of considering things, and cease to follow merely their
relations to one another, whose final goal is always the relation to
our own will. Thus we no longer consider the where, the when, the why,
and the whither in things ["the spatial, temporal, causal manifold"],
but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract
thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness,
but instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception,
sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be
filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present,
whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything
else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant
expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and
continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object,
so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive
it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the
perception, but the two have become one. (pp 178-79)
Schopenhauer calls the ability that some few
people have to perceive in this way, genius. Genius, for Schopenhauer,
is not just the ability to do mental gymnastics very quickly or easily
(which is the way that the word "genius" is often used in common
discourse). Genius is instead the preeminent ability to perceive in this
B-cognitive way. Schopenhauer thinks that only a very few people have
genius in this sense because only a very few people ever perceive in this
B-cognition way. Most people, says Schopenhauer, have "brains that
are made of leather," and they see only in the D-cognitive, will-filled
manner. (Maslow thinks this kind of experience, what he calls peak experience,
is much more common than Schopenhauer thinks; my own guess is that Maslow
is closer to the truth on this question than Schopenhauer is.)
Here is Schopenhauer's description of genius,
from pp 185 & 186.
The method of consideration that follows
the principle of sufficient reason [causality, etc] is the rational
method [ordinary daily consciousness], and it alone is valid and useful
in practical life and in science. The method of consideration that looks
away from the content of this principle is the method of genius, which
is valid and useful in art alone. The first is Aristotle's method; the
second is, on the whole, Plato's. The first is like the mighty storm,
rushing along without beginning or aim, bending, agitating, and carrying
everything away with it; the second is like the silent sunbeam, cutting
through the path of the storm, and quite unmoved by it. The first is
like the innumerable violently agitated drops of the waterfall, constantly
changing and never for a moment at rest; the second is like the rainbow
silently resting on this raging torrent. Only through he pure contemplation
described above, which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are
the Ideas [Plato's essences] comprehended; and the nature of genius
consists precisely in the preeminent ability for such contemplation.
Now as this demands a complete forgetting of our own person and its
relations and conexions, the gift of genius is nothing but the
most complete objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the
mind, as opposed to the subjective directed to our own person, i.e.,
to the will. Accordingly, genius is the capacity to remain in a state
of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception, to remove from the
service of the will the knowledge which originally existed only for
this service. In other words, genius is the ability to leave entirely
out of sight our own interest, our willing, and our aims, and consequently
to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain
pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.
Schopenhauer then describes the person of
For genius to appear in an individual, it
is as if a measure of the power of knowledge must have fallen to his
lot far exceeding that required for the service of an individual will;
and this superfluity of knowledge having become free, now becomes the
subject purified of will, the clear mirror of the inner nature of the
world. This explains the animation, amounting to disquietude, in men
of genius, since the present can seldom satisfy them, because it does
not fill their consciousness. This gives them that restless zealous
nature, that constant search for new objects worthy of contemplation,
and also that longing, hardly ever satisfied, for men of like nature
and stature to whom they may open their hearts. The common mortal, on
the other hand, entirely filled and satisfied by the common present,
is absorbed in it, and finding everywhere his like, has that special
ease and comfort in daily life which are denied to the man of genius.
True art vs the charming
This, then, leads us to the question of true
art, what it is and what it isn't.
What it isn't is charming. Schopenhauer' distinguishes
between what he calls true art and what he calls "the charming,"
or "the attractive." The charming is basically whatever charms
or excites the will, and therefore is exactly the opposite of true art,
which does not appeal to the will, but instead takes one "out of
oneself" so that one is temporarily no longer a will-filled subject.
Schopenhauer describes the charming thus (on pp 207):
By this I understand that which excites
the will by directly presenting to it satisfaction, fulfillment. [T]he
charming or attractive draws the beholder down from pure contemplation,
demanded by every apprehension of the beautiful, since it necessarily
stirs his will by objects that directly appeal to it. Thus the beholder
no longer remains pure subject of knowing, but becomes the needy and
dependent subject of willing.
He then refers to what today we would call
pornography as one example of the charming.
In historical painting and in sculpture
the charming consists in nude figures, the position, semi-drapery, and
whole treatment of which are calculated to excite lustful feeling in
the beholder. Purely aesthetic contemplation is at once abolished, and
the purpose of art thus defeated. The charming, therefore, is everywhere
to be avoided in art.
He then adds:
There is also the negatively charming, even
more objectionable than the positively charming just discussed, and
that is the disgusting or offensive. Just like the charming in the proper
sense, it rouses the will of the beholder, and therefore disturbs purely
aesthetic contemplation. But it is a violent non-willing, a repugnance,
that it excites; it rouses the will by holding before it objects that
are abhorrent. (p 208)
The charming, therefore, has two species.
One is the attractive and one is the repugnant, both of which excite the
will (one to draw the will toward, the other to repel the will away from).
And both are the complete opposite of true aesthetic contemplation.
(Some of you may recall that Socrates, in
The Phaedrus, speaks of the experience of encountering the beautiful
- Stephanus 249D - 250A - where he says that it takes a certain kind of
soul, the lover's soul, to experience the madness of this overpowering
experience of what Schopenhauer calls aesthetic contemplation.)
To create true art, therefore, requires that
a person first have that encounter with the beautiful, and then secondly
also have the artistic skill to portraying that vision in a way that others
who then view the art (painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, music,
etc.) can get a glimpse of it too.
To sum up: Aesthetic contemplation is one
of the solutions to the life problem (suffering and illusion). We suffer
as long as long as we are a will-filled subject, and the experience of
aesthetic contemplation takes us temporarily out of our will-filled self.
There are problems, though, with aesthetic
contemplation as a solution to the life problem. It is not an entirely
adequate solution for the following reasons.
- The experience happens to only a few people.
- The experience, when it does happen, comes
only rarely, perhaps only a few times in an entire lifetime, not nearly
often enough to be a true and lasting answer.
- It is a temporary and ephemeral experience,
lasting only seconds or moments, so it can be only the beginning of
an answer, and not a complete answer.
- The experience is not under our control
at all; it comes and goes as it wishes, not as we wish
In order for a solution, a path of salvation
from the world, to be an adequate one for us, Schopenhauer believes, it
will have to not be rare, not temporary and ephemeral, and it will have
to be largely under our own control.
Schopenhauer believes there is such a path
of salvation, but that it is a difficult one, and one that not many will
have the wisdom to choose. He calls it the practice of asceticism.