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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1804.—August 31, 2011

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Philosophy, Art, & Our Turbulent Selves

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of the 1970 lecture You Can Gossip Philosophically about Psychology, by Eli Siegel. As its title implies, the discussion is casual, informal, sometimes humorous. Yet it is hugely important. It is definite about what matters most to us: the human self, the self which is so intimately our own. Mr. Siegel has been commenting on passages in a psychology textbook. Now he goes to a very different work: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Aesthetic Realism explains that each of us is, all the time, a philosophic situation—because the opposites that constitute reality are in us. They make up our turmoil, our hopes, intelligence, griefs, bodies, everything about us. Further, we are an aesthetic matter, because what we need for ourselves—to make those opposites one—is what happens in all true art.

Not understanding the philosophic nature of our selves, psychiatry has been completely unequipped to understand why people disapprove of themselves and feel profoundly agitated, dull, low. Our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like and be fair to that world outside us, from which our very beings are inseparable. Yet at war with this desire is another: to have contempt—to look down on, make less of, manipulate, dismiss, be aloof from what’s not us, in order (falsely) to increase ourselves. Contempt is the source of every injustice. And it’s also the cause of a person’s feeling ashamed, nervous, depressed, empty, self-despising. Why? Because “when we are unfair to the world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it” (Self and World, p. 45).

A Loved Poem Is about This

A work very different from both Kant’s Critique and a psychology text is an anonymous poem which has many versions. “The Ballad of Barbara Allan,” or “Barbara Allan’s Cruelty,” began in Scotland, likely in the 16th century. It was set to music, and has sometimes been called the most popular folk song in the English-speaking world, with forms of it sung from Kentucky to Australia. It is a great thing artistically. But I’m using it to illustrate what Mr. Siegel has described: no matter how smooth we act, we can’t be unjust to what’s not us without deeply despising ourselves. In the early Scottish version it begins:

It was in and about the Martinmas time

When the green leaves were a-falling,

That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,

Fell in love with Barbara Allan.

He becomes mortally ill. She is sent for, arrives—and takes satisfaction in his impending death. The reason is: as she sees it, he didn’t praise her sufficiently; he didn’t make enough of her in public.

Mostly, people treat the world the way Barbara Allan treats this man. We see it, with its human beings and its facts, not as something we need to know and value truly—but as something that should make us important and comfortable. We judge people on the basis, not of who they are, but: do they give us enough glory; do they do what we want? If they don’t, we feel we have the right to resent and punish them. This way of seeing is fundamental contempt. Further, there is in people the feeling that any fact which isn’t in keeping with what they want, they have the right to hate, twist, annul—as Barbara Allan wanted to annul Sir John Graeme.

She comes to see him, and this is the dialogue between them. “Hooly” means slowly. “Dinna ye mind” means don’t you remember? She says he deserves to die because he didn’t toast her when other men were around:

O hooly, hooly rose she up,

To the place where he was lying,

And when she drew the curtain by:

“Young man, I think you’re dying.”


“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,

And ’tis all for Barbara Allan.”

“O the better for me ye shall never be,

Though your heart’s blood were a-spilling.


“O dinna ye mind, young man,” said she,

When ye was in the tavern a-drinking,

That ye made the healths go round and round

And slighted Barbara Allan?”

Across 500 years has come this lady’s clipped, supercilious, scornful remark, “Young man, I think you’re dying.” He does die—and she cannot stand herself. When she hears his death bell, she feels it’s condemning her: “And every stroke the dead-bell gave, / It cried, ‘Woe to Barbara Allan.’” This bell represents what Mr. Siegel called “something in us which is the world itself.” The poem ends with the lady saying that her injustice to another is a lessening of herself—because of it she feels she doesn’t deserve to live:

“O mother, mother, make my bed!

O make it soft and narrow!

Since my love died for me to-day,

I’ll die for him to-morrow.”

The Art Way of Mind

What makes this poem beautiful is a way of mind different from Barbara Allan’s. Whoever wrote it wanted so much to be fair to a subject, to words, to reality, that the opposites of the world are made one in the lines. We hear this as music. We hear, as a story is told, something very definite at one with nuance, rustling. We feel and hear both simplicity and richness; the ordinary and the strange; fixity and that which goes wide, spreads, is free. This is the world, which, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the other half of ourselves, and so the one way to like ourselves is to be fair to it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The World in One’s Mind
By Eli Siegel

I am going to read, in keeping with our subject, a beautiful thing in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is philosophy, but can be seen as psychology. The main idea in Kant’s Critique is that the world, as one’s mind, is already in one. That is the reason we have a feeling of space and time; we couldn’t have sense impression if space and time were not already of our mind. In many ways throughout the book, this is said: there’s a sameness and difference between the whole outside world and the depths and structures of one’s mind. A beautiful passage is about how space is in mind, and therefore we can see objects or be affected by them. I’m using the Meiklejohn translation, in the Everyman Library. And I put the passage into verse lines, because it is poetry. I’ve given it the title “Kant’s Poem about Space.” Here is the first part:

Space is not a conception which has been derived from outward experiences.

For, in order that certain sensations

May relate to something without me

(That is, to something which occupies a different part of space from that in which I am);

In like manner, in order that I may represent them

Not merely as without, of, and near to each other,

But also in separate places,

The representation of space must already exist as a foundation.

Consequently, the representation of space cannot be borrowed from the relations of external phenomena through experience;

But, on the contrary,

This external experience is itself only possible through the said antecedent representation.

I have to say that without philosophy, I don’t think psychology can get anywhere of any great shakes. Psychology as we now have it is entertaining, enthralling, but it doesn’t really say what is going on. There are many persons who took psychology courses and just felt what was taught wasn’t them. It was 900 double-column pages, but it wasn’t them.

Is the World Already in Us?

“Space is not a conception which has been derived from outward experiences.” Did we get to a notion of space because we got various stimuli? That has been said. John Stuart Mill would go along with that idea, and others would; it’s part of realistic philosophy. But Kant says no.

Within any object in the world, is the world present already? This has to do with the matter, which we saw in the psychology text, of stimulus and response. Does a person bring something already, and the realities of the world arouse it? Does a baby bring a possibility of liking arithmetic, which later, when it meets the multiplication table, comes to fruition? Or is there just a multiplication table, and a child simply has it imposed on him or her? Is there that, already, which wants to like form?

When we look at any baby we can see that the baby sees. It gets an impression of the wall. It gets an impression of a rattle, or a turning page. But also, it looks for something. The human being looks for something. And we’re not looking for something completely new. It is like Diogenes looking for an honest man: he must have had some notion of an honest man before he started looking, with his lantern, for one.

So the world, which has the two abstractions space and time, would be present in a person. The world for every person is space and time, and the illustrations thereof. There is what takes place in space and time: say, choochoo trains, conventions, people meeting each other.

A person can ask, “Do I have space within me?” You will find that if you imagine anything, something like space goes with it. You can’t imagine two old friends running up to greet you and shake your hand without space. Space is within one’s mind. Then, as soon as there’s motion, we have time beautifully claiming attention, claiming existence. And are there what Kant called “categories” that go with this space and time? That is, is there a structure like that of the world already in one’s mind? Kant says yes, and describes that structure in German prose that has been thought more of recently. Some of it, like the passage I’m reading, is very lovely.

In like manner, in order that I may represent them

Not merely as without, of, and near to each other,

But also in separate places,

The representation of space must already exist as a foundation.

What this means is: since all imagination that goes on in ourselves has space and time, where did space and time as in our minds begin? Did we just find space and time and then say, “Well, we might as well have this in ourselves”? Or was there something corresponding to space and time already in us?

The Drama of Time & Space

Space and time have to do with everything that ever happened. Even chemistry is in space and time. Molecules occupy time. They’ve been doing their molecular stuff now for many hundred years. A philosophic question is: what is the relation of time and space at their utmost abstractness, to happenings? Aesthetic Realism sees time and space as dramatic already, with space representing reality as rest, and time as arising from motion, but also, as in music, arising from the rest that’s in motion. Anytime we want to like music, we’re trying to like the world. And space, while being restful, has all kinds of dramatic things happening in it—like point and line and plane and volume. Motion happens in space, but a certain relation among moving things or motions is of time.

Here, in line structure, is part 2 of the passage:

Space then is a necessary representation a priori,

Which serves for the foundation of all external intuitions.

We never can imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non-existence of space,

Though we may easily enough think that no objects are found in it.

It must, therefore, be considered

As the condition of the possibility of phenomena,

And by no means as a determination dependent on them,

And is a representation a priori, which necessarily supplies the basis for external phenomena.

This means that whatever you think about, space goes along with it. In dreams, space is there—usually the most innocent thing there is space. There is a time feeling also in dreams, which occasionally is very strange.

Space also has its maladies. Two of the earliest ailments of man were claustrophobia and agoraphobia, because as soon as we have space we can have interference with space, which can be a wall or door or prison, something that hems one in.

Space can be defined as that which is with all things which is not those things. It’s that in which all things are, and without which things cannot be thought of or, for that matter, exist—as England exists in space and one’s sister-in-law exists in space. Time is that which is not motion but which accompanies and is in all motion and of all motion. It is the abstract, never-away accompaniment of all motion. It also is a way of measuring motion. Motion can be measured in two ways: one is force, which has a great deal to do with space; the other is duration. What we hear in piano playing is force but also duration.

Which Is True?

“Space then is a necessary representation a priori, / Which serves for the foundation of all external intuitions.” This means that once you have space within you, you can imagine happenings and also place happenings. You can see things.

Again, there are two possibilities. One is: We get our notion of space and time because we see that things are and things occur. Because things are and usually have a place to rest, like a desk or a building, we get the idea of space. Then things happen, so we get to the idea of time. The other possibility is that time and space are of reality, but reality, the foundation of reality, is also in our minds. Put as questions: Are time and space the necessary basis for all that happens, or “external phenomena”? Do we have time and space within us—or do we get the idea of time and space because we go about and meet things? Could we get the idea of time and space from meeting things if it weren’t already in us somehow?

Reality Is Many & One

Part 3 of the Kant passage has these lines:

For in the first place, we can only represent to ourselves one space, and when we talk of divers spaces, we mean only parts of one and the same space.

Moreover, these parts cannot antecede this one all-embracing space.

Space is as wide as anything. Yet it is also something we feel immediately—because at any moment in life we feel obstructed and not obstructed. As soon as we feel there is something like freedom, a notion of space is had, because space is reality as not obstructing. And it isn’t just a wide thing—it is that which permits us to do things, even in our minds. That’s why a person, after thinking in a painful way, may use the phrase “I’m coming up for air,” though it’s all in himself.

“When we talk of divers spaces, we mean only parts of one and the same space.” There have been various kinds of space. There is the term hyperspace, and four-dimensional space. But an aspect of the continuity of reality is that we cannot think of it as being more than one space. And though there are different times—in California the hour is earlier than in New York—we have to think there is only one time, which contains many manifestations. —Now, is all this for liking the world? Is space something which can be liked, or should it be said it’s a bad contraption?

What Is the Purpose?

We come to what we began with in the psychology textbook: When we have sensation, is there a purpose? Is there a purpose in perception as such? And what is the purpose? The implication in Kant is that a person wants to have himself seen as something the whole universe can go by.* Since the whole universe has gone by time and space, which are in oneself, this ethical idea of Kant is a returning of a compliment.

“Moreover, these parts cannot antecede this one all-embracing space.” In art, occasionally a part seems to precede the whole—as a person writes a little sketch and then sees a whole novel can come from it. Or a person sees an arrangement of color and can have a whole painting around it. Then, you can find the part in the whole.

If any object whatsoever is difference and sameness, wholeness and partness, cause and effect, including and being included, this is the way the world is. Every object is a picture of the world. That is what art shows. And if that is so, a way of liking the world is to like the structure of the world as found in a bud, or a bit of music, or a kitten, or a leaf. It can be found there. We can see the structure of the world in a chemical element. Hydrogen persists and changes, and the world can do no better than that.

So this is philosophy. It is still about psychology. And it’s a kind of gossip. But it’s supposed to be philosophic gossip. We want to like the world, but we also, as the psychology book we looked at puts it, want our “own” world. What relation has our world to that world? The subject is large, and has to be seen as philosophic. black diamond

*Kant’s famous “categorical imperative” is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.

Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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