A Larger Sense of Beauty – Graham Harman
More than a century ago, George Santayana published The Sense of Beauty, one of a tiny handful of philosophical books on the arts worth multiple rereadings. In comparison with such topics as logic, metaphysics, politics, and the theory of knowledge, philosophical discussion of beauty has been confined to a minor role. Scattered classic books on the subject have appeared from the pens of great thinkers, but one still gets the sense that aesthetics is an underdeveloped field— like a young nation made up of isolated frontier towns rather than great cities.
This fact ought to shock us more than it does. As Santayana himself observes, beauty plays an almost overwhelming role in everyday life. In our choice of clothing, homes, vacation sites, and mates, in our strong preference for certain kinds of pets or specific foreign languages, and in our near-physical disgust at annoying voices and hated styles of music, aesthetic considerations play a pivotal role. Animals detect the slightest variations in patterns of color and sounds, and even lifeless stars and crystals display a kind of aesthetic structure. According to Santayana, philosophers have ignored beauty mostly because aesthetic standards seem at first to be so personal and arbitrary. Mathematical theorems are true for everyone, but to rank Picasso as greater or worse than another painter strikes many people as no less pointless than debating whether peppermint or chocolate is a superior flavor. Yet disagreement of opinion is not enough reason to place all beauty in the eye of the beholder. To be dazzled by a sunflower or ruby is not to live inside my own self-obsessed daydreams, but means instead that I reach out and grasp something in the things themselves, even if other humans do not follow me. This is why Santayana defines beauty as “pleasure objectified,” for it is pleasure seen as a quality belonging to an object, not just a bodily pleasure felt in my tongue, ear, or some other organ.
Already, we have found in Santayana two basic principles for developing a larger sense of beauty. First, beauty is not one limited neighborhood of reality, one tiny theater district or concert hall of the world, meant to entertain us after the day’s serious work is finished. Instead, beauty penetrates every square inch of reality; the world as a whole has an aesthetic structure. Second, the sense of beauty is not just a random personal taste projected onto a boring objective world of chemicals and neutrons. Although we humans may disagree about whether a canvas by Jackson Pollock is beautiful or not, this debate happens not because we are miserable isolated egos unable to communicate. There is no reason to be so cynical. Instead, we disagree about beauty because we live outside our private minds, agreeing and disagreeing about the objects that surround us all.
Furthermore, it is not true that all aesthetic opinions are equal. The artistic judgments of Clement Greenberg are clearly not those of a three-year-old child. And though it may be impossible to verify which critics are “right,” and though critics throughout history have sometimes overlooked masterpieces and overvalued absolute junk, and though standards of taste change greatly as the centuries unfold, this only shows how difficult it is for the human mind to pierce the swirling mists of the world. It is quite possible that one object is absolutely more beautiful than another, just as one object is hotter or colder than another, even if temperature is easier to measure objectively. Our inability to agree on the most beautiful object does not mean that there is none.
Next, it should be admitted that art and beauty do not entirely overlap. The common-sense view, like the classical view, is that artists are concerned with creating beauty and scientists are occupied with detecting reality. But as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently noted, there has been a reversal of roles between artists and scientists. It is now scientists rather than artists who praise the world for being “elegant” and “beautiful.” The new superstring physics is often praised for its mathematical loveliness no less than its possible truth, and when Crick and Watson found their model for the structure of DNA, they decided that it was “too beautiful not to exist.” But where are the avant garde artists these days in discussions of aesthetics? The search for beauty and elegance would strike many of them as laughably naïve. It is now the artists who give us the contact with brute reality, which used to be the domain of science. Real artists no longer focus on creating pretty objects: instead, they throw dissected cows into vats of chemicals, or spit from windows onto random pedestrians, or make films of clowns using the toilet. There may be artistic merit in some of these gestures, but my concern here is with beauty in all domains, not with the arts in their various pleasing and displeasing forms.
While Santayana was surely right to complain that philosophers have not done justice to the important status of beauty in human life, he should have pushed his complaint even further. One recent fashion in French philosophy holds that all philosophy should be based on ethics. My own view, by contrast, is that all philosophy should be grounded in aesthetics: not because there is no truth and we have to shape our truthless lives like a personal artwork, but rather because beauty stretches far beyond the human mind, and inhabits even the causal relations between stars, trees, and water. It is possible to explain this view clearly and briefly.
The English word “object” usually refers to lifeless bulks made of such materials as wood or stone. Let’s redefine the word here to refer to anything that exists: not just atoms and hammers, but also universities, armies, wishes, numbers, diamonds, rivers, and moons. Anything that exists can be called an object. While there are many different types and families of objects, all of them must share two basic features. First, every object is unified as somehow a single object, or we would never give it a name. An army contains many weapons, many soldiers, and the many body parts of each of the soldiers, yet historians still speak of the actions of a single army led by Caesar or Saladin. For the purposes of military history, the countless tiny parts of the army are irrelevant, and it can be treated as a unified whole. Second, every object must have specific features not shared by all the others, or else all objects would be the same. To cite a trivial example, a list of the features and qualities of coffee is very different from the same list for airplanes or dogs. This may seem absurdly obvious, but our goal here is to shed strange new light on the obvious, which is the only thing worth doing in philosophy. To repeat the point, every object is unified as one object, and every object also has thousands or billions of qualities, if not infinitely many.
In 1970, the philosopher Saul Kripke reminded us that the name of a thing goes far beyond any list we can make of its qualities. There is no way to “define” a person such as Churchill or his enemy Gandhi. We can write everything we know about each of them on a piece of paper, write books about them stretching to tens of thousands of pages, even millions of pages, and still we will never exhaust the reality of these two men. There will always be something more to say that is left out of our description. Some of our information may even turn out to be false, but this is not important. The names of Churchill and Gandhi are not abbreviations for detailed lists of qualities, as though the names changed their meaning every time we learned new information about these people. Instead, names are like fingers pointing rigidly at stable individual people who are never completely understood, no matter how much information we amass about them. A person always hides behind his or her properties, forever capable of surprising us. The same is true not just for people, but also for animals, plants, buildings, candles, sound waves, and atoms. Although objects can only be experienced through their qualities, in some way they must always exceed or hide behind these qualities. This apparently simple idea has surprisingly deep implications.
Now, what is most typical of everyday life is that we usually confuse a thing with its qualities. The philosophers Henri Bergson and Martin Heidegger both claimed that we do this because we tend to reduce things to their usefulness for us. Individual grains of salt are unimportant as long as they usefully give our food the desired salty taste. We do not usually care about the inner soul of a bureaucrat or teacher, as long as they give us what we expect. Science has no interest in the secret internal life of a specific star, but simply measures all its known properties and lists them in a table comparing it with other stars. The womanizer moves from one woman to the next, each of them equally capable of serving his needs. The common link in all these cases is that objects are stripped of their individual reality, and turned into a cash value of interchangeable usefulness. Any object having the right qualities fills the role that we plan for it just as well as any other object with similar qualities. In most cases this is not morally evil, but is simply a question of mental health. If we paid tender loving attention to each grain of salt at lunchtime, we would rightly be viewed as insane. No one could function normally in everyday life if they did not reduce most objects to their use-value.
Yet there are numerous cases in which objects are no longer fused together with their qualities—cases in which an object becomes highly unique, elusive, and alluring. Let’s use the term “allure” to describe what happens when an object is split from its qualities and seems to hover outside them, beyond our grasp. Allure is the root not only of beauty, but of many other things as well. Imagine the case of a dull bureaucrat whom we visit regularly to do paperwork. We have no interest in this person, as long as she stamps our forms in the correct manner. But imagine that one day she is lost in a shipwreck, is kidnapped and never seen again, commits suicide, turns out to be a terrorist operative, or blows us a passionate kiss without warning. In these cases the dull bureaucratic façade is no longer fused together with the person as a whole. We now sense a mysterious hidden reality or persona in the bureaucrat, an individuality that was previously suppressed from view, and which lies much deeper than all the boring, stereotypical mannerisms of a government official. All of these possible surprising or chilling events would give us the same dizzying thrill that beauty always does.
When someone disappoints us or pleasantly surprises us, here too they break away from the qualities that we used to believe were fused directly into them. We are now confronted with a mysterious depth to the person that we never suspected was there. Their previous useful function in our lives collapses, and we are both confused and bewitched by the new reality that lies before us, since it is difficult to define in terms of known properties. The same is true of profound courage, in which someone refuses to adapt his or her actions or compromise to changing circumstances, but continues standing for a deeper principle than the cynics and manipulators who shifts their ideals like chameleons. Here too, there is an alluring split between the surface qualities of the person and their deeper unified cores. Allure is the root of humor as well: as Bergson showed a century ago, comedy occurs when a person or other living force is unable to adapt to changing situations, and in this way becomes exposed as something separate from its surroundings. Love is also a kind of allure, since it aims at something in a person that is indescribable or indefinable and never quite clear, and which can often resist numerous deceptions and disappointments.
Even more importantly for us, metaphor is always a form of allure. If a journalist writes that “Lebanon is the Arab France,” we may be able to think of specific common features between Paris and Beirut, specific character similarities between the two peoples, and even a shared relation to the French language. But the statement remains a metaphor because, unless it becomes dull and trivialized through overuse, it remains hauntingly vague and can never be translated into any clear and definite list of similarities. Through the use of metaphoric language, Lebanon becomes a ghostly force— hidden from any direct access, and deeper than any of its known properties. It exerts a gravitational pull on certain known features of France (cosmopolitanism? sensuality?) while repelling others as inappropriate (the land of high-speed trains). No exact list of common features between Lebanon and France will ever succeed in recreating the metaphor, simply because it operates at a deeper level than all features and qualities.
My view is that every form of beauty can be described as a specific type of allure. Bottles and houses usually have a practical function, and can be efficiently used without ever being noticed. But when someone succeeds in designing an especially beautiful bottle or house, there seems to be a hidden spirit at work in the object, one that secretly dominates all of its surface qualities without being identical with them. Critics can work hard to identify the features that make any object beautiful, but they will never quite succeed in exhausting the magic, since that magic is something that clear descriptions can only partly approach.
Allow me to end on a somewhat stranger and wilder note. There is no reason to believe that allure belongs only to human artistic experience, or bird songs, or the radial symmetry of flowers that is so attractive to insects. For there is no such thing as qualities in isolation from objects. When fire burns cotton, it does not burn “flammability,” but burns the cotton itself. We have already seen that no human can ever fully grasp the depths of cotton or fire, since these objects remain mysterious units that exceed all of their visible qualities. But the same thing must be true of the relation of the cotton and fire to each other. The fire reduces the cotton to an ability to be burnt, not reacting at all to its fragrance, its softness, its price on the world market, or the story of its origin in a village field. To repeat, the cotton itself is something deeper than all of its qualities, something that can never fully approached. The fire both touches and fails to touch the cotton. It destroys the cotton without ever fully reaching its depths. But this is strikingly similar to all the more human forms of allure, in which we encounter a unified object split from its properties, an object that we can sense but never fully define. This leads us to the following question: is it possible that even physical causation has a metaphorical structure? I believe that the answer is yes. And if so, then beauty lies at the root not only of human daily experience (as Santayana saw), but even at the root of physical events such as fires, earthquakes, and the explosion of stars. If there is something ghostly and magical about beauty, then this disturbing magic already lies in the heart of physical matter, not just in the privacy of the human soul.