The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Philosophy & Our Hopes

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to serialize the 1965 Philosophy Consists of Instincts, by Eli Siegel. It is a lecture at once amazing and logically solid; it has might and ease, the everyday and the grand. As Mr. Siegel looks at philosophy, we can see something central distinguishing from all others the philosophy he founded and taught: he shows that the biggest matters in philosophy are equivalent to situations, desires, battles that are present in the life of everyone, often tormentingly, every day. It is Aesthetic Realism which shows that the subjects philosophers deal with, perhaps in intricate and forbidding language, are at work in a bewildered child, in an argument of a couple in a bedroom, at a party amid insincerity and laughter.

In this lecture, Mr. Siegel says that the largest conflict in everyone is between two instincts: the instinct to see, be exact, know, and the instinct to be comfortable, pleased. These are also, he says, the two biggest matters in philosophy! And he describes various philosophic forms that the conflict between them takes.

In Ourselves

As a prelude, I’ll mention some instances of that fight as it is going on now in people—including the people reading these words.

One aspect of it is told of compassionately, and I think greatly, at the beginning of Eli Siegel’s poem “The Dark That Was Is Here”:

A girl, in ancient Greece,

Be sure, had no more peace

Than one in Idaho.

To feel and yet to know

Was hard in Athens, too....

Young women of any time, any place, have wanted to have feeling for someone, feeling that is rich, thrilling, ever so pleasing. Yet such feeling has not seemed to go along with their logic, their intelligence. And that rift has made for grief even amid romance and victories.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had at the age of 25, Mr. Siegel spoke to me on the subject. I had been expressing confusion about a man I was close to, and Mr. Siegel explained that there are two things every person asks as to someone we’re affected by: “You please me, but do you make me stronger? You make me stronger, but do you please me?” He continued, “The fact that something can please one and make one weaker has brought a certain sick quality to the life of man.” I learned that these questions, so intensely personal, are also questions central to philosophy and art; and that there is a solution to them, satisfying, logical, and beautiful.

Before I say something of what that is, I am going to quote from the poet Byron. He wrote with honesty and style about the conflict in himself, without, of course, seeing that it had to do with the history of philosophy.

In 1821

This is from the diary of the literarily successful Byron, January 28, 1821:

Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure,—worldly, social, amorous, ambitious, or even avaricious,—does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow…?

Aesthetic Realism explains why people feel doubtful about the pleasure they get—can feel sad, empty, ashamed during or after. The reason is: It’s so easy to use pleasure to have contempt for the world, to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And when our pleasure or comfort involves looking down on things and people, conquering them, putting aside much of reality, making aspects of the world subservient to us (and this can happen in all the fields Byron mentions), we inevitably feel pleasure is against truth, against the facts, against knowing, against our real strength.

Aesthetic Realism shows that these philosophic opposites of fact and gratification, truth and pleasure, can be one in us. And central to the study of how is the seeing of what art is. The pleasure that is in and that makes for art comes not from lessening reality, but from seeing it, knowing it, being resplendently just to it. It moves me very much that Byron, who could be so pained by the way he got pleasure in his life, speaks this way about the pleasure of writing poetry:

Why, just now,

In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,

My bosom underwent a glorious glow,

And my internal spirit cut a caper.

[Don Juan, 10.3]

He is describing pleasure that did not cause “a certain sense of doubt and sorrow” in him.

Aesthetic Realism shows that art makes pleasure and justice one, and that we can. Byron longed to know this. And my gratitude for learning it is equivalent to the happiness of my life.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Philosophy Consists of Instincts

By Eli Siegel

The largest matter in philosophy is how the world of fact can be the same world as the world of meaning, which is another way of saying how what is fact can, without human distortion, make for meaning or value. And perhaps the largest, least seen conflict in self is the conflict between the desire to see and the desire to get value as one understands value. To put it in other terms: there is an instinct on the part of everyone to see or be honest; there is also an instinct to be comfortable or pleased. Perhaps the best way to see what this conflict is, is to see how it is present in the history of philosophy, present in American philosophy.

For example, William James complained of American idealists, very often theological, who got to a world that was on the side of God too quickly. But as his life went on, James wrote an essay that was seen as outrageous by some people, “The Will to Believe”; and he went for pragmatism, which is the seeing of truth as that which makes for results, which works.

The fight on the subject is the big fight in American philosophy. It has been present in many ways. On the one hand, there is a desire to see the object; on the other, what can one do with the object. According to Aesthetic Realism, whenever unconsciously the desire to follow through with what one can do is more powerful than the desire to see, something like guilt occurs. We have to like the world on its terms, not in terms of what we can do with it. And when William James said that some people were tough-minded and others not tough-minded, he was talking about the willingness of people to be pleased too easily. There are two kinds of being pleased too easily: one is to do something which is personally seemingly to our liking; the other, the more philosophic way, is to make a world that is good too quickly. There’s the personal ratification, which occasionally occurs without anyone’s knowing about it; then, there’s the ratification which often has taken the form of the idealism opposed in American philosophy.

To see the biggest conflict which everyone has suffered from, which everyone is suffering from now—the desire to be comfortable and the desire to be honest; the desire to see and the desire to call a halt to thought—to see this conflict means to see the history of philosophy too.

The Cause of Guilt

The cause of guilt consists of two things. One is the insufficient desire to like what is different from ourselves on its terms; the insufficiency of desire, in other words, to like the external world. The other form is the willingness to come to a conclusion before the things concluded upon are adequately seen. The second is nearer philosophic. We all think we have skimped somewhere; we could have seen something better. We are not interested in being just to the object; we’re interested in a means of comforting ourselves. And whenever the desire to please ourselves wins, there has to be guilt because guilt is the sense that oneself and things are not in an accord, the sense of disparity.

It seems strange to say that the history of philosophy instances the most common conflict of instincts: the instinct to see versus the instinct to stop seeing and live—that is, have things your own way. These two instincts are the most in conflict in man. They take the form of the self-respect instinct and the sex instinct. They take many forms. But the form which is at the beginning is the desire to see because things are there to be seen, and the desire to see so that one can have one’s own way—that is, be comfortable.

For example, we can have a picture of a man in about 1900, getting interested in the manufacture of autos (say, Mr. Studebaker, or later Mr. Ford, Mr. Olds, quite a few others), and then going to church and trying to be as good a church member as he could be. This desire to use the present physical world, with a desire to be comfortable, is in the lives of people in American history, not only in 1900 but in 1800. There is the desire to see the world exactly, which has taken the form of science. But then there’s also the desire to see the world as pretty, as pleasing, as satisfying one’s needs. Here we get to such things as religion, art, poetry, also patriotism—the things concerned with value.

The Problem Philosophically

In the last volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature there is an essay that stirred me many years ago. In it, the problem is present philosophically: how nature can be strictly seen and yet satisfy the heart of man; how the facts of this world can, without our playing games, be to our liking. It was written by a person who, as far as I know, gave up on the problem: Morris Cohen. He talks of resignation, and I think that is what he hit. He knew well the philosophic proponents of both sides: what can be called the fact philosophy—that we have to see the world in all its displeasingness, and before we get to any value we have to make sure we’re not imposing something on this non-motherly world—and how value could be reconciled to honesty as to fact. It was something apparently too much for Dr. Cohen, and that can be seen in his writings, including this essay, which appeared in The Cambridge History in 1921.

My purpose is to show that the history of later American philosophy is chiefly about this problem or conflict. For instance, first let us take earlier American philosophy, of which Prof. Cohen writes:

This movement of intellectual liberalism was almost completely annihilated in the greater portion of the country by the evangelical or revivalist movement.

Offhand, this does not seem to be about a conflict of instinct. But man wants to be comfortable, and he’d also like to be comfortable in all time. “This movement of intellectual liberalism”: what was that? Intellectual liberalism would say to the church people, Before we get to the idea of a healing and saving God, it would be well to find out the matter that we are present with, in terms of what it does. Liberalism was associated with a disrespect for divinity.

In American history we have these ideas of seeing and comfort, pleasure, value, in three forms: 1) They are in the life of a particular individual. We find, for example, that Abraham Lincoln every now and then questioned his honesty, particularly in the 1830s, and felt that there was something he might not be seeing. This doubt was present, in a way, in Theodore Roosevelt, though his ability to put aside doubts of self helped get him to be president; he was tremendous at it. Whenever we have doubts about ourselves, they are nuisances. They are the mosquitoes of skepticism at the home base, so the thing to do is to put them aside.

2) Have we something like what an individual does when he’s doubtful of himself, in what people in one land do when there is a world to be looked at? For example, for many years America was seen as the optimistic land. A Frenchman could despair, while the American was still looking west towards the Rockies. Optimism is something which often is cowardly. But a person who gives way too soon and becomes sad, we also call cowardly. There is a cowardly despair in the person who meets, let us say in building a railroad, the first difficult land and therefore says, “No railroad. We’ll use the Ohio.” That man is called a quitter. The word is not so often used now, but that was an awful title for an American once: a quitter. At the same time, the optimistic American—the American who could grin during a 3-day rain dampening everything—was also looked on with disfavor. The conflict, then, takes this form: there’s an instinct to say that when we feel good we have been deceived; there’s an instinct also to think we are weak when we feel not so hopeful. How is that possible? Why can we say we are weak when we’re hopeful—and when we are not hopeful?

The conflict also has to do with these major instincts: There is an instinct to see the world as not to our liking at all; there’s an instinct to see the world as that which can provide us with the material for our unknown hopes. There are also the desire to put ourselves aside and the desire to elevate ourselves. This is present in many fields: we are tough and we are soft.

3) There is philosophy, and American philosophy has been a mingling of toughness and softness. I mentioned William James, who, early in his career, would make fun of the German idealists and also English idealists because they got to an absolute which was just too pretty, too nice, too symmetrical; and then later, James was the only philosopher who felt there was something to the mind-healing business, something to such ways of looking at the world as Christian Science and Theosophy. There’s an adherence to or at least respect for these things in James’s Varieties of Religious Experience that you don’t find in any other recognized American philosopher. We have, then, in William James a mingling of toughness and softness.

The disposition to be soft with ourselves is the most dangerous disposition we have. Not to like the world where the not-liking would not imply an excess sweetness to ourselves, could be looked on as realism—pungent, acrid, keen realism. But if it could be shown that a desire not to like the facts is the other side of a hidden amour with ourselves, then this dislike of the world is not realism: it is the having one’s way. These matters are in the history of American philosophy.

Self-Accusation & Self-Elevation

In the sentence I quoted, Cohen mentions “the evangelical or revivalist movement.” That in itself consisted of two things brought together: if you called yourself a sinner in public, you became one of the elect; you were nearer to heaven. That is what it comes to. These were opposites that became one in a rather dramatic fashion. But that is not the whole story. It happens that the persons who had the experience, who cursed themselves perhaps at a camp meeting and said they had sinned and had fled Christ—those people were never considered to be very thoughtful. They went through something, but it was not seen as the utmost in thought.

Thought when it’s bad can do two things. One is, it is a means of a self’s making love to itself without including the processes of the outside world. The other is, it becomes a formula. The experience meeting was too often a formula: a person went through the procedure of calling himself a worm that had slid away from Christ, and in going through the procedure successfully he became something else.

“Thought” When It’s False

I am dealing now, while using something on the history of American philosophy, with the various ways thought can betray itself. We can never be satisfied with how fully we have seen something. If one has ego, that idea is depressing; but if one wants to see the world as infinite, as diverse inexhaustibly, it is not depressing. It means simply that the world is a merry and multitudinous customer, which it should be.

The desire to get to some way of expressing things in the world patly can, at times, be good: there is concision; there is the epigram; there is the phrase. But these too always have their beginning quality—they are not the putting the lid on the can of thought. They are also the pavement as something to walk on. But the formula way is something that a self has come to—without knowing it, very often—as a means of avoiding thought.

I have said that in a certain sense people would rather die than think; this was said too by Bertrand Russell, among other people. It is true, because to think, particularly if one is self-questioning, is to participate in the disgrace of oneself as process. In honest thought there is always the feeling that what one got to a short while or long while ago is not sufficient. This is seen as disgraceful. And in thinking honestly we admit the disgrace not as a formula but as a fact. We simply didn’t know enough yesterday. And people would rather die than admit they didn’t know enough yesterday; they will get around it one way or another.

So we have these two motions at the beginning of American philosophy: the desire to find comfort, and the desire to see the facts. This situation is the situation in ourselves. We have these two desires: Do we want to be comfortable! and, Do we want to see something more than what we did!