Shelley says something quite beautiful about poetry, which is that it’s the root and blossom of human knowing. I’d like to turn that upside down for a moment and wonder whether that image is possible because rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poetry. A flower is a plant’s poem about sex; a flower is a bee’s poem about precious food. I mean this quite literally, which is to say, poetically, though in a greatly expanded sense. Bees and flowers have coevolved over millions and millions of years into what we might call an interobjective system. Causality itself—how a flower attracts a bee in order to have sex—is poetic in this sense, in other words, as I’m arguing these days in various places, the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension.
- Tim Morton
What is the aesthetic dimension? How deeply embedded in the cosmos is it? These are two of the questions I find myself asking recently. In the above quotation, Tim Morton makes the bold assertion that “the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension,” the boldest part of which, I think, is that it is a correct statement. But what does it mean to say that the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension? Perhaps if we keep repeating it the phrase will, like a mantra, reveal its deeper meaning to us. But perhaps it won’t, in which case we shall have to do some old-fashioned philosophical digging to discover what Tim could possibly be on about (the quote is from this recent interview). I’d like to do just that in this essay, though my path to making sense (or nonsense) of this phrase may be slightly different than Tim’s, even if we seem to arrive at similar conclusions.
My sense is that Bergson’s thesis about perception — that perception is primarily extractive rather than additive – is helpful in exploring the deep structures of the aesthetic dimension. This essay proceeds in three movements inspired by Bergson’s idea which can gives us: (1) a corrective account of perception that indicates that the real cannot be broken into “primary” and “secondary” qualities; (2) a fascinating angle from which to approach the phenomena of depth as a problem for both the sciences and phenomenological experience; and (3) an important link to cosmology via what Whitehead calls the “bifurcation of nature.” By linking cosmology, epistemology, and perception we can make some fascinating comments regarding how aesthetics (of all things) can link all three. This investigation yields fascinating insights into the ecology of mind, which I will discuss as a conclusion to this essay.
I’ve targeted the division between primary and secondary qualities specifically because it is this schism that makes the phrase “the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension” so hard to understand. Whitehead calls this split view (between primary and secondary qualities) a “metaphysical chimera” that leaves us with “warmth and redness on one side, and molecules, electrons, and ether on the other side” (TCN, pp.36-37). The trouble with this system (which is the basis of most modern science, epistemology, and psychology) is that it may have turned the whole schema of perception upside-down. Where the metaphysics of primary and secondary qualities sees the act of perception as additive, we perhaps ought to follow Bergson and view perception as primarily extractive. An extractive approach to our understanding of perception would mean that qualities such as warmth and redness are relata that can be extracted from within a given phenomena itself, rather than psychic additions projected by the external observer.
In other words, given two appropriately mediated entities (in this case fire and humans) a recursive process of extraction occurs so that warmth and redness can be understood as actual characteristics of the fire itself (provided that these are abstracted from the concrete actuality which is the burning-fire-in-relation-to-a-human-perceiver). In this view, red and warmth are not properties added by human beings but are, rather, qualities that the fire possesses that represent possibilities of experience for humans. The primary (or causal) properties of the fire are in this way joined by the secondary (or qualitative) properties of the fire to form an enduring, integral event called “fire.” When we think about fire from this perspective, the phrase “the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension” begins to make a lot more sense; aesthetics and causality are integrated all the way down and this has enormous implications for how we think about human perception and epistemology.
If there can be no final distinction between primary and secondary qualities (but perhaps an analytical distinction based on the method of abstraction) then we should find similar problems in our investigation of objects on either side of the line of bifurcation. We can explore this hypothesis by investigating any number of real objects; whether those are the objects of science (e.g., electrons, DNA, or helium atoms) or the objects of phenomenological experience (e.g., colors, sounds, or feelings) should not matter. If the causal dimension and the aesthetic dimension are linked — as Morton suggests and as Whitehead and Bergson support — then there should be recurring problems that mire both, being that they are, in fact, aspects of the same integral phenomena. Needless to say I think there is a problem that unites both sides of the line, and that problem is the problem of depth. We can explore depth from both the perspective of the sciences and phenomenology and yield the same perplexing result; depth endures beyond every attempt to flatten it.
Take the move to scientific reductionism, has any discipline of knowledge every born witness to more entities? By recourse to empiricism and systematic investigation the sciences have rendered a cosmos far older than we imagined, far larger in scale than we could have dreamed; and populated by a dizzying number of quarks, protons, electrons, waves, atoms, genes, galaxies, and stars than we could ever hope to count. Perhaps the buddhists, meditating in the thin atmospheres atop the mountainous Tibetan plateaus, alone have envisaged vistas of equal vastness. Reductionism multiplies beings when it theoretically should be eliminating them. In an attempt to eliminate the phenomena of direct experience in order to get to the really real, the sciences end up bearing witness to a cosmos much deeper, wider, and more densely populated than what we began with. The sciences lead only to a deeper cosmos, and with each new discovery of quarks, leptons, muons, and extra dimensions, we still seem only at the surface of a much stranger pond.
What of the phenomenological traditions then — those careful practices of the mind that seek to bracket the elaborate conceptual apparati of the sciences. Can these disciplines of the mind hope to illuminate for us the paradox of depth? The answer again is no. Even when we put all that we know about electromagnetic waves, particle spin, and speciation on the shelf we find the same troubling paradox swimming around us like an octopus releasing its ink into already dark waters. This seems to be a result of a simple phenomenological fact: the more we attend the more we perceive. Here the smooth surface of the writing desk becomes a rich, uneven topography infinite in detail; the quiet string section playing behind piano keys vibrates with endless tonality; the red sunset becomes a kaleidoscopic curtain of purples, golds, and fuchsias, each their own rich composites.
Try as we might there is no escaping the vast depth of things. Even when withdrawing from contact with the world of phenomena — as in certain practices of mindfulness and meditation — we find again the same increase in depth. This time it is our own inner dimension that begins to swell with the particles of thought, image, sound, and feeling; events of the mind that are seemingly always taking place with or without our attention. When we attempt to attend to these species of psychic life, we find the same paradox as before: our mindfulness makes us aware of more phenomena not less. When we try to practice a truly radical empiricism — one attentive to the machinery of science, the rise and swell of phenomenal experience, and the endless flow of mind — we find that this bifurcated theory of nature just won’t do. But anchoring the phrase “the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension” to human experience alone just won’t do either.
If we truly want to link aesthetics and causality we need something more than an appeal to human experience. Tim is helpful here as well when he writes:
What is called subjectivity is really just a small region of a much larger space of interactions between beings: coffee cups, sea foam, flakes of obsidian and nebulae. To realize this is to enter into a larger world in which humans coexist with a plenitude of uncanny entities that for shorthand’s sake my essay calls objects. Ecological awareness just is the human attunement to this coexistence
Stated more plainly, Bergson’s thesis about human perception is not simply a matter of humans relating to world but is a matter of things relating to each other. This much Whitehead also understood and his hundreds of pages on prehension detail this magnificently. But what Whitehead accomplishes with technical precision he loses in accessibility and style. Here Tim’s compact phrase “the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension” provides us with a single insight, a cosmological commitment to be sure, but one than that offers a clear way to understand how we might think the links between cosmology, perception, and epistemology. If we follow Whitehead and resist the bifurcation of nature into primary and secondary qualities then we are obliged to consider the weight of Tim’s arguments.
The truly strange thing is that when we link aesthetics and causality in this way we arrive at a new understanding of the mind’s (human or otherwise) relation to the world. We can begin to see that the material processes of causality, the biological process of perception, and the philosophical task of epistemology share certain unshakable similarities (ecological similarities as I am fond of arguing). If Bergson is correct and perception — at the level of the organism — is extractive and not additive, then does this state of affairs not mirror precisely what we know about cognitive acts such as building a new paradigm in the sciences? Paradigms are always extractive after all. Recall the opening quotation:
A flower is a plant’s poem about sex; a flower is a bee’s poem about precious food. I mean this quite literally, which is to say, poetically, though in a greatly expanded sense. Bees and flowers have coevolved over millions and millions of years into what we might call an interobjective system.
Is not the ecology of mind and perception similar in kind to the ecology of the more-than-human world? Does this not also hold true in the opposite direction as well; the perception of the organism shares an extractive function with the act of knowing, both similar because perception and knowing partake in a deeper structure that links, in an integral way, aesthetics and causality?