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  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
 NUMBER 200.—January 26, 1977
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Knowing Oneself

Dear Unknown Friends:

    Geoffrey Chaucer, the first unquestionably eminent English poet, said about six hundred years ago in his "The Monk's Tale," this:

Ful wys is he that kan hymselven knowe!

Well, even now, Chaucer is not agreed with, though certainly people often act as if they felt it was wise to know oneself. Nevertheless, there is a fear of knowing oneself that is present in nearly every person now alive, as it was in Chaucer's 14th-century time.

     The interference with knowing oneself is the desire a person has to praise oneself or think well of oneself. As fine a thing as any in reality is the possibility that praising oneself and knowing oneself may accord with each other. Yet there is the feeling in people that if they know themselves, they'll come upon certain matters which will not delight them.

     Certainly, man as contradiction shows himself in his great desire—never wholly quenched by fear—to know himself truly and completely; and his great desire to see only what looks good in himself. We haven't gone so far from Chaucer, although we have had six hundred stirring and disturbing years to do so.

1. The First Clearness

The first clearness, made notable by Descartes in the 17th century, is the ability of every person to say: I am. This is a great ability and should be cherished and understood. However, as those vexing philosophers of all ages might tell us, the phrase "I am" has in it the greatest and most puzzling verb in every language. This verb is the verb "to be "—which takes the first person present form in "I am." Just what does it mean: to be?

     However difficult this question is—also, however familiar this question is—Aesthetic Realism is much interested in it. One definition of philosophy is: the science or the body of knowledge, the purpose of which is to explain the meaning of the verb "to be." As soon as this possible definition is thought of, every person has the question of whether, along with himself, other things are. And the question that may follow this one is: Is it good that so many other things, let alone persons, exist besides myself? Every person has the desire to say, "I am Being, and that's that." We may look for company a moment later, but still, to see ourselves as all that which exists is a pure and immeasurable ambition. Most of us act on this ambition a little more than is good for us, or than we know.

     In terms of everyday life, the most insistent matter everyone has to consider is: How shall I look upon all that or all those which seems or seem to exist along with myself? The immediacy and largeness of this question has not abated since it was first asked or considered by Thales in the Greece of long ago. What this means is that in order to know oneself, one has to be clear about how to see all that which, apparently, is not oneself. To live is to have this question continuously brought to us, even forced upon us.

2. Self Is Aesthetic

Aesthetic Realism says that the more we can truly like in this world, the more that is not ourselves we can see as increasing what we are, the more we know ourselves and are taking good care of ourselves. The philosophic reason for this position of Aesthetic Realism has perhaps been best put in a passage of Kant's Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, 1787. It is a fairly difficult passage, but I believe I should quote it:

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 (Meiklejohn translation, Everyman's Library, page 22).

It is strange that this passage of Kant, summing up in its way the possible happy life of man, should be part of a long note.

     The upshot of Kant's Critique as a whole is that how one should use one's mind or self is to be found in the structure of the world. The Kantian categories are at once descriptive of the makeup of the world and of one's mind.

     A reason as great as any for liking the world is to be found in the meaning of the passage I have quoted and in the Critique generally.

3. The 15 Opposites and Self

The 15 Opposites in my Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? of 1955 are descriptive both of reality and of oneself; or, a little more precisely, how the mind of every person is constituted or works. Aesthetic Realism sees the Kantian categories as fairly descriptive of a mind in Pennsylvania or Oregon; but it must be said that the aesthetic relation of mental possibilities and possibilities in reality itself is not considered by Kant.

     Again, let us take the first pair of aesthetic opposites as I presented these in 1955. Freedom and Order are to be found in the "Necessity-Contingence" category or categories of Kant (Meiklejohn, page 79). Our selves are a study in what may be and what has to be; what is likely and what is inevitable. We are a study in preference and must. The self can be as uncertain as thistledown and as insistent as steel. And so, everyone will grant that to be wise in life, one must know something both about the light touch and the fist. The light touch and the fist are to be found in the Kantian categories. Moreover, our whims and our necessities are within the Freedom and Order of the first pair of opposites of 1955.

    Aesthetic Realism has found it right to say that if a person does not see that he has within himself the aesthetic opposites of the world and the aesthetic opposites constantly to be observed in art, this person does not know himself as well as he might. I should like nothing better than to have the following statements looked at carefully: We consist of the opposites to be found both in the world and in the Kantian categories. All the questions that art has ever had are within us now.—Why can't we look into the matter?

4. Continuity and Discontinuity

The eighth pair of opposites in Is Beauty is Continuity and Discontinuity. Everyone's life is continuous and interrupted at once; the line of life persists as it has points within it. Even as we lift something or answer the phone or suddenly change our minds, our lives go on, our hearts are busy, our blood flows, our minds are searching. At any moment, both continuity and discontinuity are large in us. Kant is much in this number of TRO, and I should point out that the Kantian line (Meiklejohn, page 79), "Of Inherence and Subsistence (substantia et accidens)," is about continuity and discontinuity.

     What Kant is talking about is that the present world is a continuation of the world that was once or the world at whatever beginning it can be seen as having had; and that our present world, something new, presents a difference, a something that was not before. As we look at ourselves at a certain moment, we see that we have interrupted ourselves, have welcomed discontinuity; but we also know that what we were once is continuing. And this means that every moment of our lives, we are old and new; the self is novel and veteran.

     What I am talking about was illustrated last year in an article of the learned journal Science called: "Constancy and Uniqueness in a Large Population of Small Interneurons." The article, which is about the subtle activities to be discerned in the brain of the locust, concerns a tendency towards the existence of uniqueness in the interneurons of the locust brain, and also a tendency towards constancy. My meaning may be found in this summary sentence from the article by Professor Corey Goodman (Science, August 6, 1976, page 503):

These areas of repetitive neuropil, then, have less equivalence and a greater tendency towards uniqueness than previously suspected.

     What Professor Goodman is saying in the difficult field of the brain structure of the locust would be put by a rapturous botanist of the 18th century in the following manner:

As I watched the thick leaves rustling on the elm of my estate, I noticed that each leaf had a tendency to be itself in all its unique leaf existnce. Yet each leaf made motions towards neighboring leaves, towards, indeed, all the leaves of my noble elm tree.

     In any gathering of like living things in motion, the tendency to be unique can be noticed along with the tendency to be variously related to the other living beings of the gathering or group. What Professor Goodman has done is to comment on the likelihood of microscopic things to speak for themselves and also to be loyal to the nervous-system-group. Professor Goodman is describing, in terms of his specific field, something to be seen in the world itself. Professor Goodman tells minutely of the way a locust responds to its environment and deals with it-which any nervous system is for.

     Philosophically, one can say that any material aggregate, surface or otherwise, is a study in continuity and discontinuity. The entomologist may see continuity as "structured" and discontinuity as "unstructured" in entomological beings. Changing from living beings, it may be said that the atom itself consists of unique and continuous electrons. Reality itself is separation and flow.

5. Philosophy Is Needed

Perhaps from what I have said so far, a person may surmise or infer that the one way to know oneself is not to be afraid of philosophy. Sameness and difference is a subject of philosophy; and it is sameness and difference that includes the continuous and discontinuous of music, the smooth and articulate of biology, the structured and unstructured of entomology, and the constant and variable of mathematics. The knobby, continuous bark of a tree trunk is like the world.

     The greatest insult that has been directed to philosophy is that it is not observation. As we watch the softness of a finger changing to something bony underneath, we are not only observing flesh and bone, we are observing sameness and difference. All observation has the philosophic in it. And when philosophy itself is seen as an aesthetic subject, it will no longer, I believe, seem so remote; but will take on warmth and scope and satisfactoriness at once. The philosophic is always the immediate.

     The self is spoken of by all the sciences. To know oneself is to welcome the sciences within us and about us. We are chemical, for physiology is largely chemical. We are as physical as a boulder is. The bacteria or the viruses in us—and if we are a sad, sick child, the worms in us—have to do with entomology somewhat. Since we come from the earth as much as strata do, we are geological. As much as a picture of a star is in us, we are astronomical. Since every phase of us is quantitative, we are mathematical. Since the way our bones fit into each other and work together has something, as La Mettrie said in 1747, of the machine, we are mechanical. And since we worry and hope, we are psychological. Since we have some notion of God, if it is but to put it aside, we are theological. Since we are willing to admit the Civil War of 1861 has something to do with our lives, we are historical. And since beauty has to do with all the sciences and ourselves, we are aesthetic.

     From all this, we gather that the sentence I have quoted from a note in Kant's Preface to his second edition of the Critique, is valid. This means that as soon as we know anything of anything, we are knowing a little of ourselves, too. In the poetry of the world, a human being has been compared to a tree, a river, a lion, a mouse, a grain of dust, a city, a flower. All these comparisons are useful.

     Aesthetic Realism says that everything in the world can be seen as telling us something about ourselves. Therefore, if we have contempt for anything unjustly, we interfere with a chance of knowing ourselves. Respect is a desire to use something to know our own purpose better. As soon as we respect something, we have something to go for: we wish that thing to mingle as much as possible and as accurately as possible with our own lives.

     That is why Aesthetic Realism says that all education is for the purpose of liking the world. Liking the world is inseparable from knowing it. One of these days, it will be commonly felt that knowing the world is the one way of liking ourselves. This is what Kant intimated in his second Preface to the Critique. Philosophy is as intimate as anything. The categories of both Kant and Aristotle are intimate. There is no place in the world we can't find ourselves if we look. Whitman joins Kant and Aristotle when he says:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

     Whitman, in these last lines of "Song of Myself," sees himself as reality, waiting, which we all have a right to do. Reality waits as we wait.

     This waiting interests Aesthetic Realism very much.

With love,    
Eli Siegel     

© Copyright 1977 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation  •  A not-for-profit educational foundation

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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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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