Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Arthur Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation

Lecture V

Aesthetic Contemplation

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 here.)

Perhaps an example of this kind of B-cognition will help.

Some examples

1. This 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. She writes:

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.)

2. 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 longest time.

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.

3. Several 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 interests (D-cognition).

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 152.

[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 the genius.

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. (p 186)

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.

In sum

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.

  1. The experience happens to only a few people.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.