Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin serializing the lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 10, 1970: the great Philosophy Begins with That. It is about one of the big matters distinguishing Aesthetic Realism from other philosophies. Mr. Siegel explains that philosophy is in things as such: ordinary things; things we bump into, use, discard. It is in everyday happenings; in moods; in disappointments; in clothing, trees, and every human being. And this is not a theoretical matter but vivid, immediate, and urgent. When Aesthetic Realism says the structure of the whole world is to be found in an object, it does not mean that in some vague or mystical way: it means that literally.
In his Aesthetic Realism: Some Central Notions, Mr. Siegel says that a central philosophic question “is whether everything has something in common.” And he continues:
Things have in common a oneness of a series of opposites; things have within them, in common, an organization of opposites in oneness....
Every thing, let alone every person, says something about us, explains ourselves. The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves? Is not a twig,...in its simplicity and complexity, continuity and discontinuity, an abstract and tangible presentation of what we are?
What I just quoted is about philosophy. But it is also about happiness or unhappiness, kindness or cruelty.
A huge feeling in people is that life, aside from a few highpoints, is pretty dull. There is in millions of men and women a sense of emptiness and, as the Existentialists would say, meaninglessness. People can put on a jovial show yet feel their lives are flat.
Aesthetic Realism explains that there’s that in everyone which wants to find the world dull, also ugly, also unkind—because we feel the way to make ourselves big is to be superior to what’s not us. Boredom and emptiness are painful, but they are accompanied by a miserable triumph: the victory of finding ourselves too precious for the drab things we’re surrounded by—of finding ourselves too good for the world we’re in. This feeling, that we take care of ourselves through making less of what’s not us, is contempt. And Aesthetic Realism shows that contempt is the most hurtful thing in every person.
Meanwhile, our deepest desire is to like the world honestly—as Mr. Siegel has put it, “with the facts present.” Is this possible? How? When we see the structure of the world, the oneness of opposites, in something, that thing becomes alive to us: it has Meaning, Value. That is why, studying Aesthetic Realism and seeing how the opposites are present so specifically, variously, and continuously in things, people have said they never felt bored or lonely again.
As I look out the window now, I see a brick building, wide, substantial; and the top of it is meeting a blue sky. The heavy building meets the blue airiness gracefully, yet dramatically. I am seeing the heaviness and lightness of the world, and it is thrilling, and composing.
Here is the street with cars and trucks moving on it, with people in them. Each person is different; each has his or her own thoughts. Some may be arguing in their cars as they drive east on this street. Some may be singing. Some will be parking; some pulling out of parking spaces. The cars are different; hundreds, maybe thousands, go by here each day. Yet it is a New York street, and they are all on it. Such a street, this street, pot-holes or not, is a simultaneity of Oneness and Manyness. It is philosophic. It embodies those huge opposites, many and one. And I am looking at it! It is before my eyes.
To see philosophy in things is, as I said, to see them as having meaning. And Aesthetic Realism shows that when we see the philosophic opposites, reality’s opposites, as one in something, we are also seeing beauty. In keeping with its name, Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that ontology, the study of being, is the same as aesthetics, the study of beauty!
In Us, Too
And what about ourselves? We are the opposites too. Each of us is a relation, which puzzles us, of confidence and uncertainty; body and mind; high and low; logic and feeling; tumult and stillness; outward show and inward being; sameness and change. That means we are philosophic: we have the world in us. We may not do the best job with these opposites, but they are ours—and reality’s. When we see that we stand, in our own ever so particular way, for the whole world, we can feel honestly important. And we can know that the fairer we are to the world—a form of which is our intimate self—the more important we will be. We don’t have to go after the shabby, fake, and desperate importance of looking down on other people.
Which brings us to other people. How can we stop resenting them and feeling cold to them? What will stop people from being cruel to each other, whether domestically, or in economics, or in the form of racism or war? We need to see that every person has in him or her nothing less than the whole world: the opposites that make reality. A person with a background different from ours, or different tastes than ours, or simply a person who’s not us, is a continuing and live drama of rest and motion, hope and fear, particularity and relation, logic and feeling, surface and depth, and more. Again, he (like us), may not put these opposites together so well—but he has them: they are himself. And as soon as we see that a person has the world in him, we may be critical but we cannot be cruel to him. And we will feel we need to understand him in order to understand ourselves. The ethics of Aesthetic Realism, then, is the same as its aesthetics, and its ontology.
As Mr. Siegel speaks in this lecture, informally yet with such exactitude and width, we see his love for scholarship, his relish of the history of philosophy, his respect and care for ever so many philosophers. Yet he is, in my opinion, the philosopher who described reality truly and met the greatest hope of every person: he gave us the means to understand and like the world and ourselves.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Philosophy Begins with That
By Eli Siegel
Roughly, there are four ways of talking about philosophy. The first way, which I like, is to begin with the world: reality, existence, non-existence, the nature of things—De Rerum Natura. It’s a lovely subject, rather inclusive. So you can begin with the big thing all for itself: the world. In fact, I’ve begun that way often.
Then, you can begin with a person who has written on philosophy, an important philosopher. The first in the field for the western world is Plato. You can’t say it is Democritus, or Heraclitus, or Parmenides, because their works aren’t opulent enough. The first person of ancient times who is sizable is Plato. Then, of course, there’s Aristotle.
One can say there is Confucius. But Confucius was not, strictly, a philosopher: what he tells you is about conduct, and how you should use your ancestors in your own behalf. He’s very nice, but as a philosopher he just isn’t there. Then there are Lao Tze and the Taoists. They’re usually what I call wonderful hit-and-run philosophers: they don’t stay put.
You can find an approach to the whole world in Plato and in Aristotle. You can’t find it in the Stoics. I’ve tried to find it there. Lucretius leaves out some things, but you can say he has a reasoned approach to the universe.
Then you have to skip a great deal. For instance, people have tried to make a complete philosopher out of Boethius, in the 6th century, with De Consolatione Philosophiae. But it doesn’t have questions about what truth is and what the nature of the world is. It’s ethical; and there are many philosophic statements. So we come to Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, Duns Scotus, Saint Anselm—the philosophers who have written about the world as such. Some texts remain. The Scholastics can be used, and Thomas Aquinas is the most noted.
Then, in the 16th century you can get to a person like Giordano Bruno, and Bernardino Telesio, materialists; and there’s Campanella. You can find a philosophy in Cardan. But the 17th century has some who are definite.
What I’m saying is, you can begin with a philosopher. You can begin with Whitehead, Santayana, Alexander, Bradley. It would be good to begin with them, persons who have given their whole lives to philosophy, nearly—Spinoza, for example. Dewey is a person to begin with. I can say it’s good to begin with Dewey but you’ll always be hoping (well, that’s impolite)—because he isn’t interesting enough.
You can deal with a cluster, such as the Italian materialists of the 16th century, or The Skeptics of the Italian Renaissance. That is a title which always took me (the book is by John Owen). You can begin with Coleridge, who has enough metaphysics. There are Hobbes, Hume, Mill. There’s Shadworth Hodgson. There is Stephen Pearl Andrews of America, who is one of the deepest anarchists of all time. I hope to talk about him, not because he’s an anarchist but because he’s deep. He has a book with an imposing title: Universology.
In Every Field
The third way of talking about philosophy is through classifications. It happens that everything has its philosophy. I once saw a book titled The Philosophy of Salesmanship. Well, there is a philosophy there, because everything you do has a philosophy: you can get to the deepest point. There’s a philosophy of electronics. Every science has its philosophy; there is the philosophy of chemistry. One can say “the philosophy of American history”: it’s more on the move than, say, that of Belgium, quite clearly. There’s a philosophy of some large thing in the way of culture—a philosophy of the novel. Brander Matthews wrote something called The Philosophy of the Short Story. Then, there’s the philosophy of poetry. There’s the philosophy of struggle. And of course there’s a philosophy of sex. Anything has a philosophy. You can have a philosophy of plumbing.
Things as Such, Specific, There
Then, what is most important—and its absence has made the discussions of philosophy incomplete—is the philosophy of things as such, things on the move. Every poem is a study in how a world arises from the friction of many things, the relations of many things. Philosophy is in things.
How is the specific thing, the thing on the move, related to philosophy? That is what is left out of philosophic studies. And when you see a specific thing as having a philosophic drama, you are fairer to philosophy than I think courses in philosophy have been.
A Novelist’s Journal Tells of Things
I thought of speaking today about an American philosopher, Chauncey Wright, who is related to science, and about Charles Peirce, with that series of essays on pragmatism and a certain sad difficulty in his life, showing that even Harvard people can be disorderly. (He’s not disorderly in any sensational way.) And it would be good to look once more at Benedetto Croce. He used to wow people in the ’20s. There’s an Italian philosopher I’ve always hoped to talk about, Rosmini. He’s mighty good. The need, though, is to feel that philosophy is in things, to have some commentary on one of the mottos of Aesthetic Realism: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.” Reality, after all, is the subject of philosophy. It is equivalent to existence; the universe; the world; things; the All; the shy totality, as I sometimes call it. And is the All present in things?
Somehow, the last diary of Arnold Bennett seemed to insist as a basis for showing what is in the title of today’s talk: “Philosophy Begins with That.” And if it makes Arnold Bennett more current, let it be. He died in 1931. His journals were already well known. This is his last, Journal 1929. I’m using it to show that philosophy is in things, sometimes in a way that’s charming, piquant, unforgettable, dramatic. But whether it’s that way or not, it is in things. There’s nothing so dull that it doesn’t have philosophy in it.
The first thing is “Journal 1929.” A problem which has a history—the Greeks weren’t so given to its study as later people were—is, What is time? You don’t find people worrying about time in the 5th century BC. And the Hindus didn’t ask too much what it was. The question is, still, ever so current, exceedingly fresh. There can be no reality without time. And one of the definitions of philosophy is: the study of what reality can never be without. Any life-size reality has to have it. You cannot think of reality as not having time, which means it has being, change, space. Then, you can say it has form.
Time Has with It Quantity & Feeling
With 1929, we come to the relation of philosophy and mathematics. There are quite a few treatises on the philosophy of mathematics. What does it mean to say “1929”? It implies a beginning, and the beginning here is part of a religion, which we see in AD, anno Domini. That is not accepted by orthodox Jews, really orthodox: they’d never say “1929”; they’re in the 5000s already.
In “1929” we have time given quantity. We don’t know what time is, but it is definitely organized. It’s got seconds, tenths of seconds, minutes, hours. It even has pentads, all kinds of fancy things. It has centuries. Then, it has January 3, 1929, 4 PM—and there’s a certain takingness. There’s something so definite about time, or something that can be made definite.
The first philosophic thing, then, that I point to is the fact that the word journal, which means an arrangement by days, as diary does, or day book, should be with something which means various things to people now: 1929. It is the year the Depression began.
Bennett Speaks of Opposites
On New Year’s Day, 1929, Arnold Bennett went to a party—a high class party, because Bennett was one of the best known authors in England at the time, and known over the world. About this party on January 1, 1929, eminently high class, he says:
The party had to be serious, but also it had to be smart; it was both.
Those are the opposites. The opposites are arrantly, completely, and nothing but philosophic. They are philosophic to the pores. Everything is philosophic in them, including their third cousins.
“The party had to be serious, but also it had to be smart; it was both.” We have a world which is serious and smart. Since philosophy is about the things that have to be—would reality have to be equivalent to what is smart and what is serious? Would reality have to have a point and also something wider?
If you look at a circle, you see the center as a little smarter than the circumference. The circumference seems to be sedate; the area seems to be sedate. But as soon as you get to tangents and arcs, you’re getting into the field of lightsomeness. And there are those frisky radii. If you think of a center as an ineffable point—since every center is a point and nothing—just about that time you have to think about it as smart: anything that is a point and nothing seems smart.
What does smartness-and-seriousness come from? It comes, in the first place, from space itself. You have to think a narrow triangle, just a sliver, is a little smarter than a sprawling obtuse triangle. These things, smartness and seriousness, are in matter, and also have to do with speed. You have to think that something speedier is smarter. A minute seems to be smarter than an hour. A second seems to be smarter than an hour. There are these associations. Why they are, should be talked about. What we want to see is that these notions of smartness and seriousness arise out of the nature of the world, which means they are philosophic. For instance, you can’t have a smart whip that’s an inch thick. There is a relation between dimension and smartness and seriousness. And dimension is something which courts space and matter.
Our Problem Too
A world that makes for sunbeams has smartness. A world that makes for light rays has smartness. The idea of light traveling 286,000 miles per second—that’s pretty smart, any way you look at it. Then, there are all kinds of vibrations you don’t see. The solar spectrum is no dull creation either, with all those colors. Then, there’s the way leaves are, and the way berries are. Every insect that you don’t see must be smart. Anything that flits is a little smart. The idea of smart is of delicacy, speed, and meaning.
Smartness is placed by Bennett next to seriousness, and this is a problem that girls have had: “Should I be serious or smart this week?” The relation of the two is present in everyone.
What I’m saying is that the sentence of Bennett has a philosophic basis. And in order to see philosophy, you have to see it present in these matters of the days. Philosophy is a weekday phenomenon, and also busy on Sundays.