The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Dear Minds


Dear Unknown Friends:

Perhaps the person who was most successful in philosophic history was John Locke, 1632-1704. Other philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, have affected people somewhat given to philosophy already, while Locke meant a good deal to the plain, money-getting person; and still means a good deal.

Locke is philosophic enough: his Essay concerning Human Understanding has something to say about infinity; but common sense rules the whole work. Locke has been questioned on one side by Condillac and Marx, more materialistic than he was. He was questioned on the other side by Hegel, Thomas Hill Green, and Jean Paul Sartre. Generally, the Essay concerning Human Understanding says that mind and the world are a constant, interesting dualism. This is the viewpoint of what can be called philosophic realism. And then there is idealism, with the tendency to say all we are and know comes from some vast, everlasting idea or spirit. And then there is comforting, occasionally belligerent materialism, which says that our minds are an aspect of the matter we find in quarries and butcher shops.

Well, realism in philosophy is between idealism and materialism. The attitude of Aesthetic Realism to the three is that the world needs all of them. Today, I deal chiefly with John Locke; but I hope to show that all the philosophers, renowned and unrenowned, present a world we can see as usable for our lives, deeply on our side. Does not the title of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, with all its questioning of hope, present the world as interesting? Does not a world that is Will and Idea have a right to be lived in? At least such a world is impressive. And the idea in existentialism that the world wants us to be on our own, is at least so far praiseworthy of existence or nature that it leaves us alone.

1. John Locke Was Opposed

Before the questioning of Locke by, say, Hegel and Thomas Hill Green, there was questioning of Locke in the 18th century. In these sentences from the French Biographie Portative Universelle (Paris: 1861—and earlier, too), we can see that thought about mind could excite people; and further, that John Locke's philosophy caused a commotion in intellectual France. I give the French because of its aroma; and then translate:

Cette philosophie, populaire en Angleterre, fut introduite en France par Voltaire et développée par Condillac. Parmi ses adversaires on compte Leibnitz, Reid, Joseph de Maistre, et MM. Royer-Collard et Cousin.—This philosophy, popular in England, was introduced into France by Voltaire and developed by Condillac. Among the philosophy's adversaries are included Leibnitz, Reid, Joseph de Maistre, and MM. Royer-Collard and Cousin.

For some reason, Thomas Reid, the Scotch philosopher—who also wrote against Hume—was favored by the antimaterialistic French philosophers of the early 19th century; and so he is in this select list. And a person like Joseph de Maistre not only questioned Locke's philosophy but was a deep opponent of Locke's idea of government.

2. To Locke Himself

In Book II of his Essay, John Locke says clearly that all our knowledge arises from our seeing of the world—"external sensible objects"—and then from "reflection," or how we look at what we have seen. With all the questioning of Locke from Hume to Thomas Hill Green, the fact that our thought in all its weakness or strength was about something which may be called the world; and that later this thought remained in us to be looked at, too—this was not denied. The truth of what Locke said in the second book of the Essay can be seen in the following colloquial sentence: "So I've listened to you, John, about that house in the country and its advantages; and I'll think it over to see whether a trip to the house itself is worth taking." And when Edna St. Vincent Millay said in a famous sonnet:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms havelain

Under my head till morning

—she was illustrating John Locke's statement of 1690 that we reflect on our own impressions of the outside world even when that outside world is the material for love in America.

Locke writes (Book II, Chapter I) and these are two of the most famous sentences in English philosophy:

Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

In these words of Locke there is enough with which to like the world and enough to have us take care that we don't have contempt for the world. If the world is the first means of all our thoughts, all our sensations, then this world is certainly a constant companion of us and an everlasting dweller in us. And if when we are introspective or solitary or lonely, what we are thinking about is the world as it remains in us—even so, this great tenant should be thought of with care; maybe love.

The questioning by Locke of innate ideas—that is, knowledge we simply have as soon as we are born—is not so important as his saying that when we do have knowledge, it arises from the world's coming to us or our coming to the world. Both the world's coming to us and our coming to the world were called by Locke and the 18th century,"experience."

3. Locke and America

One of the reasons for my saying that Locke is perhaps the most popular philosopher in history was the fact that Locke affected America so much. His Two Treatises on Government, published in the same year (1690) as the Essay, affected Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, even Hamilton. And if philosophy was liked in the America of 1763 and 1776, it was the philosophy of John Locke. Aristotle, Descartes, Kant did not reach the fairly well-to-do American the way Locke did.

And it happens that the great phrase, "I'll think about it"—meaning the looking at what we have heard or seen—was used often in America. The pragmatism of William James and the instrumentalism of John Dewey are elaborations of the "I'll think about it" heard in many states of America. Even Santayana's "animal faith" is some kind of reflection on the ordinary and extraordinary offerings of this world.

Locke illustrates the religion of Jonathan Edwards and the basic thought of Andrew Carnegie. He also is not separate from the seeing of ideas as rich forces, the way Alfred Fouillée, with his Idées-forces, saw what was in our minds.

This is clear: Indians or no, America was built up and great architecture came to be in Chicago. When you build up a continent, you have to have some idea greatly practical in your mind. And whatever else Locke was, he was practical. Certainly I am not saying that America is practical only; but until some recent disasters and shameful administrative doings, America was seen as the most practical, most pragmatically accomplished country in the world.

4. Once More, Locke Himself

There is motion in Locke's Essay. In the following sentence, there are these motions: from objects to the senses; from the senses to the mind; from the mind to another aspect of mind, the mind capable of seeing itself as its own object. Locke writes (Book II, Chapter I):

When I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions.

If Locke is right, something like this goes on in all of us every day, whether we are feeling good or bad. There is a deep and wide and delicate teamwork between the world of "external objects" and our very selves or our dear minds. Since the other partner in this inevitable, every-moment team is the world, should we not take care of how we see it; and unless contempt does us good, not have it?

I have been saying in recent TROs that with all the inevitable partnership of the outside world and our cherished selves, there has been contempt for the world itself and many things in it. It would follow that unless contempt for the great repository of "external objects" is accurate and does one good, this contempt divides us and weakens us.

I believe that Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding is a constant monition to everyone to make sure that the way we see the very source of all our notions is a good way. So Aesthetic Realism says: Take care of how you see the world your mind came from and which it always uses to have cherished situations of its own.

Locke gets unusually intense as once more he says that we have no ideas whatsoever unless they are from the world and what remains in our minds after we have seen the world in one of its possibilities. This is from Section 5 of the first chapter of Book II:

The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two.

The way Locke uses the word "glimmering" makes him somewhat akin to Wallace Stevens in one of his more abandoned poetic lines.

In the Essay, opposites are casually and deeply and gracefully made one rather often. Here is an instance:

As a man sees at once motion and colour, the hand feels softness and warmth in the same piece of wax—yet the simple ideas thus united in the same subject are as perfectly distinct as those that come in by different senses.

And Locke a little later tells us of "the smell and whiteness of a lily" as instancing separateness and junction. All this is concerned with how the sameness and difference of the world can be felt everywhere.

5. Locke, Kant, Cooper

A later widely effective work in philosophy was Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, I78I—nearly a hundred years after Locke's Essay. The more idealistic Kant goes further in saying that the world is part of ourselves; that, indeed, we are the world in a personal form. This sentence is from Kant's Preface to his Second Edition, 1787:

Hence this determination of my existence, and consequently my internal experience itself, must depend on something permanent which is not in me, which can be, therefore, only in something external to me, to which I must look upon myself as being related.

Kant is here saying: Without the world, no me. The words I have quoted from Kant show that both common sense realism and idealism of a deep kind can describe the world as inseparable from us, and always of us, in some fashion or other. We are always experiencing the world and ourselves in a great, somewhat unseen oneness of opposites. An example of this is in the first chapter of James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821):

The storm began to rage with great violence without; and the dashing rain on the sides of the building awakened that silent sense of enjoyment, which is excited by such sounds in a room of quiet comfort and warmth.

Cooper here comments on Verlaine's noted lines:

II pleure dans mon Coeur

Comme il pleut sur la ville.


There is weeping in my heart

As rain falls on the town.

Poetry, the novel are constant exemplifications of what Locke wrote about. The world does become something within us. And what is within us can mingle with the visible, audible. touchable world; the gustatory, olfactory world; a world that has oneness and separation. In a story of Ivan Bunin, a remembered perfume brings up a whole sad week in Russia.

Locke says that the world and ourselves are inseparable. Both partners matter so much. We can't afford to let contempt make weaker either of the partners.

With love,

Eli Siegel