10 Aesthetic Education, Neglect and Culture Today

Valery Vino

Introduction: a Cultural Concern

Notwithstanding its ambivalent reputation, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) marks a historic moment, as the text cements the independence of aesthetic inquiry from other branches of philosophy. However, Kant was not interested in developing a theory of aesthetic education, an experiential model attending to individual and collective welfare. Nevertheless, he provides a convoluted (and still stimulating) argument suggesting that aesthetic reflection is conducive to moral life (§§ 42, 59, 60), a significant claim picked up by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man ([1795] 1977). On one hand, Schiller follows Kant and argues that by cultivating aesthetic judgement one learns to feel freedom, thereby clearing a way to the embodiment of our moral predispositions (Letters 2, 3, 8). So conceived, aesthetics may serve as a means to actualise the ultimate goal of practical philosophy, that is, collective flourishing. On this view, aesthetic activity is of secondary importance to flourishing, for it does not directly influence one’s moral life. On the other hand, Schiller also attempts to develop an alternative position—culminating in the political notion of “the aesthetic state”—and argues that the collective practice of aesthetics is in and of itself the hallmark of a flourishing society (Letters 6–7, 17–27). While Schiller never reconciled the two positions, confounding many readers, his work is nonetheless notable in the context of this chapter for two reasons.

Firstly, it appears that for Schiller it is necessary to design and foster aesthetic education (or literacy) to be in a position to evaluate its prospects for human flourishing in the world. Secondly, as he develops his thoughts on the matter, another crucial insight emerges, namely that no such flourishing is attainable in the absence of aesthetic literacy. It is also noteworthy that, with respect to cultural impact, Kant’s grandiose theory has eclipsed Schiller’s pragmatic orientation of aesthetic inquiry.

A study of aesthetics implies a systematic and critical overview of a multiplicity of canonical, marginalised, and fresh topics, a task undertaken in this volume, though a considerably more extensive collaborative effort is required to do justice to the expanding discipline. By highlighting the principal areas of conventional neglect impeding the maturation of contemporary aesthetic literacy, this chapter analyses two major movements, Everyday Aesthetics and Somaesthetics, illuminating a new cultural framework for aesthetics. The following provides an introduction to these two aesthetic sub-branches and then critically evaluates their cultural aspirations. Everyday Aesthetics and Somaesthetics indeed radically deepen, widen, and diversify our appreciation of humanity, a mission of aesthetics envisaged by Schiller, but do these philosophical projects live up to contemporary global circumstances?

As a scholarly discipline, philosophical aesthetics is in full bloom.[1] While it is not uncommon amongst philosophers to think about aesthetics as a theoretical concern, one can discern a tangible pragmatic shift in aesthetics, promising new lifestyles. At the level of culture, involving social norms and preferences, institutional praxis and, above all, our aspirations and values, this fact can be explained as follows. As a practical discipline, aesthetics is nascent. Many factors contribute to this problem, among which two deserve our attention here. The division between cultural value spheres peculiar to the highly-specialised spirit of our globalised world has led to the loss of the once common experience of aesthetics as an integral part of one’s life, evident in many non-Western traditions. Furthermore, academic philosophy, a commanding contemporary approach to philosophical activity, is, by and large, a theory-oriented venture. Currently, an academic who is “groomed” to theorise, to use Ian Hunter’s term, is the kind of person most identified with the figure of the philosopher (2002, 2007).[2] Each philosophical lifestyle has its limitations! While the philosopher can nominally engage in any critical activity (such as, for example, working with prisoners or journalism), tertiary training centers around engagement with professional philosophers, texts, and fellow students, as a way to learn to write, present, and publish papers.[3] But philosophy cannot really flourish as a theoretical exercise, and this brings about a wide gap between philosophical education and the public. Aesthetic education is yet to escape the realm of a stimulating theoretical discourse and have a tangible influence on everyday culture. Both Everyday Aesthetics and Somaesthetics seem to be mindful of this problem and develop pragmatic models in response.

To foster a practical culture of aesthetics, which would finally emerge as a viable option, it is essential to entertain the aesthetic as a mode of existence one may choose to learn to appreciate our world. Teaching us to engage with, evaluate, and cultivate sense perception, feelings, and affects, the aesthetic is an essential way to experience life, a way that has been codified and alienated from our everyday activities. We are fortunate to live in an age when the following fact has become tangible: cultivating aesthetic intelligence is necessary to understanding the human person, our relations with one another, our environments and our responsibilities. To a significant degree, it is thanks to two contemporary philosophers, standing on the shoulders of giants, that this shift in thinking about aesthetics has taken place: namely, Yuriko Saito and Richard Shusterman. This chapter highlights two pragmatic projects that push the limits of contemporary aesthetic inquiry. Both projects advocate for new ways of thinking that entail practical considerations conducive to correcting the optics through which we gauge aesthetic education as a cultural enterprise. Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics (henceforth: EA) and Shusterman’s Somaesthetics (henceforth: SA) are both counter-cultural phenomena: they aim to advance culture by subverting some of its bases. Hence, our consideration of the respective models will coincide with a critique of several major entrenched cultural norms. As we shall learn, the path leading to the possibility of thinking about a vital educational niche of aesthetic literacy is twisted by a history of neglect, which is an erroneous and harmful judgement. To establish the forward-thinking grounds of literacy, therefore, it is essential to come to terms with the past errors.

This chapter aims to elucidate EA and SA drawing from the relevant literature, in conjunction with the history of philosophy, which is always to inform the philosopher’s judgement. In the first section, the crux of Saito’s approach to the re-discovery of the neglected sphere of EA is explained. Next, to be in a position to appreciate Shusterman’s project, we consider a number of perspectives—by Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, and Nietzsche—on the body’s status in philosophy. In the third section, we encounter the “soma,” a living and enhanced body, an object and subject of firm neglect in philosophy, aesthetics and, more generally, Western culture. In the conclusion it will be argued that, despite the considerable potential for re-orienting our ways of thinking about aesthetic life, both EA and SA represent the philosophies of urban care that neglect wild nature and fall short of matching up to current global circumstances.

Re-Creating Aesthetic Life: Everyday Aesthetics

“At every turn of my research and investigation, I found a gem lying around, ready to be polished and brought to life,” Saito invites the reader into a discourse on the aesthetics of the everyday (2007, 2).[4] Like many contemporary aestheticians, Saito feels at odds with the prevalent belief presenting aesthetics as an arts-oriented philosophical inquiry. While indeed much of the West’s aesthetic history is drawn to art-related matters, Saito takes pains to establish that aesthetics encompasses a wider territory than art, a much wider, life-encompassing terrain. Hence, one important issue that Saito addresses throughout her seminal book Everyday Aesthetics (2007) is the problematic scope of Western aesthetics. By neglecting ordinary objects as sources of philosophical (aesthetic) insight, the Western philosophical tradition has neglected the potential for developing a theory capable of ameliorating global issues in virtue of such seemingly trivial findings. According to Saito, it is plain that this pervasive shadow of neglect is cast upon the marginalised gems of aesthetic life by the long tradition that identifies the aesthetic with something extraordinary.

Let’s follow Saito to distinguish between two dominant types of experience that consumed aesthetics up until now: “art and special aesthetic experiences” (2007, 11; see also 52). Such aesthetics fosters an attitude of the spectator, a person who by default engages with aesthetics in a contemplative or reflective manner (2007, 4). Special aesthetic episodes stand out from the ordinary in that they draw out striking aesthetic responses. For example, partaking in the sublime natural phenomena of blizzards and aurora, or simply memorable events like “a comical episode witnessed on a street” (2007, 4; see also 10, 43, 52)—such objects directly and often dramatically prompt our aesthetic sensibility and invite us, as it were, to contemplate them. The canonical Western theories, moreover, entice readers into an aesthetics defined by a deep association with art. As Saito observes, an artwork “is almost always regarded as a quintessential model for aesthetic object” (2007, 13). For Saito, art is “something highly specialized and isolated from our daily concerns”—art envelops objects we attribute to the so-called artworld (2007, 12). Aesthetics of this kind provides a narrow access to aesthetic life. Specifically, due to a set of cultural expectations, we are inclined to “abide by the framed character of an art object and the conventionally agreed manner of experiencing it” (2007, 22). A Venus sculpture at a local cafe, Bosch’s Ecce Homo at Städel Museum, pornographic graffiti on a parliament house—however far we expand the bounds of art, Western understanding of artistic practice compels us to reflect on such objects and estimate them as being made by the figure of an artist who created that which is announced to be nothing else but a work of art. As a result, one is curious “when, where, under what circumstances, and with what sort of intention the object was created” (2007, 22; see also 33, 39–40). In addition, given we ascribe to such objects the status of art, our reflection is expected to be guided by means of the norms fashioned in the artworld: for instance, this Venus sculpture is an amateur junk, while the Bosch piece a timelessly disturbing masterpiece, and the graffiti designates an artistic weapon exposing the farcical and the obsessive in politics. In any event, such human-made objects acquire a privileged status in our culture, insofar as “art is conceived as something different from our daily affairs” (2007, 36; see also 40). Therefore, this pervasive perspective on art precludes us from affiliating artworks with the regular flow of everyday life. As Saito has it, art is “an exception to or commentary on everyday objects and affairs” (2007, 40).

One major issue for Western aesthetics is that when aesthetics is affiliated with special events or the arts, the objects and practices exhibiting no identifiable special or artistic features are prone to be dismissed as irrelevant to aesthetic education and life. Moreover, insofar as aesthetic practice is confused with activity in the realm of special objects, it is confused with a strictly contemplative, rather than a hands-on, approach. The value of such privileged objects of aesthetic interest, at a deep normative level, currently overshadows the value of the more common objects (including, as Shusterman argues, the human body). To counter this norm, Saito suggests “broaden[ing] our perspective by adopting a multi-cultural, global viewpoint,” based on which, “we realize that what has been regarded as mainstream aesthetics based upon art and its experience turns out to be specific to, and circumscribed by, the practice primarily of the last two centuries in the West” (2007, 12).

One way to characterise EA, then, is to note that this approach challenges the limits of the Western aesthetic tradition by urging us to look beyond our immediate culture so as to entertain, and possibly adopt, perspectives influenced by other traditions. In this creative endeavour, the immanence and diversity of aesthetic life comes to the fore (Saito 2007, 52–3). A popular aesthetic approach, on the other hand, inhibits an understanding and appreciation of a more expansive aesthetic life:

This spectator mode, while most appropriate and rewarding with respect to paradigmatic art, may not provide the most satisfying experience of non‐art. We can appreciate the aesthetic value of a chair, an apple, a landscape, and rain as if they were a sculptural piece, a landscape painting, or a music piece, by becoming a pure spectator/listener. However, more often than not, we experience a chair not only by inspecting its shape and color, but also by touching its fabric, sitting in it, leaning against it, and moving it, to get the feel for its texture, comfort, and stability. (Saito 2007, 35)

To supplement the conventional spectator’s mode, Saito draws from the Japanese tradition and posits an independent way to aesthetically engage with one’s surroundings, one that is characterised by a hands-on attitude allowing one to appreciate the ordinary as it is. The spectator’s mode, by contrast, not only is often guided by artistic norms, but also does not necessarily lead to decision-making (2007, 128). While reflecting on a pattern inscribed on a Persian tile in a shop, one may venture to explore the Iranian culture, but such an encounter is first processed in a reflective fashion, entailing only a possibility of consequent decision-making. In contrast, EA is an “action-oriented” approach that locates the aesthetic in the “all-too-familiar” environments (2007, 4; see also 51). Saito encourages us to look carefully at “those environments and objects with which we work or live every day in the most literal sense” (2007, 52). Aesthetic lessons hide in the most common things: EA “illuminate[s] the ordinarily neglected, but gem-like, aesthetic potentials hidden behind the trivial, mundane, and commonplace facade” (2007, 50). By paying attention to the ordinary, our “aesthetic life becomes diversified … [and] hence, enriched”: when each object is considered “on its own terms,” rather than in some hierarchical fashion, we may happen to ascertain its value, as it stands before us, and thereby learn something about our agency (2007, 11, 128).

The commonplace aesthetics permeates life, and it is urban life that Saito tends to refer to “widen our aesthetic horizon”: dining out, strolling the street, shopping at a market, passing time at work, home and the neighbourhood (2007, 130). Countering the Western aesthetic sensibilities, Saito calls attention to “everyday surface aesthetic qualities” exhibited by the objects in our usual environments, the qualities that we are subject to irrespective of our social standing, “training or cultural sophistication” (2007, 153). Thus, to supplement the more evident (and still interesting) aesthetic value of artistic and special objects, Saito advances a new form of aesthetic literacy by highlighting the qualities of mundane objects.

In the realm of the ordinary, the messy, abandoned, disorderly, decaying, ruined, all these “eyesores” tend to communicate curious and potentially significant facts not only about our changeable environments, but also about our attitudes to them. Unlike artistic qualities, often the prerogative of the fortunate classes, “everyday aesthetic qualities are of universal aesthetic interest,” and require no special training to engage with (Saito 2007, 153). Such qualities are routinely registered without giving too much thought to experience, and that is precisely the lacuna Saito fills in. Ordinary practices, objects and their qualities are integrated into our daily routines, and hence an acute attentiveness to them may entail serious practical considerations. A home’s exterior or a bowl, a pair of shoes or facial skin, a public toilet, or a highway—typically, all such objects originally come in a mint condition which, as all transient things, deteriorates over time. Transience—known as wabi in the Japanese tradition—is the most common property of EA objects (2007, 199). Of course, things can be taken care of to age gracefully, but everything loses functionality over time, particularly when ignored. It is a convention to be indifferent or neglectful to that which is not useful or appealing, be it a mosquito or a worn-out shirt—in a word, things displaying little explicit value to us. However, according to Saito, attentiveness to our responses to EA qualities may instigate thinking and acting in a mindful manner: “Our negative reaction toward their appearance prompts us to engage in the business of rejuvenating, restoring, sprucing up, renewing, renovating, refinishing, rebuilding, refreshing, and breathing a new life into old objects, unless they are too far gone for salvaging in which case we simply discard them” (2007, 159; see also 202).

This passage illustrates the pragmatism of Saito’s aesthetic theory, which underscores the key elements necessary for moral and civic growth, culminating in a moral life: “understanding, appreciating, and respecting the reality of the Other, understood as not only other people but also other-than-humans” (2007, 130; see also 240). In a nutshell, Saito is hopeful that daily aesthetic attention to the everyday will influence the more dispositional attitude of interest and care for the Other. Suppose the edges of a shirt’s collar are worn out. One option is to feel an urge to discard it (and buy a new one instead). Another is to feel upset and try to tailor it, because a good shirt (or anything, like a relationship), after some years of use, tends to acquire a character of its own, reflecting the person’s values.

By the same token, the force of Saito’s theory is manifest in the fact that it can be applied to different kinds of phenomena exhibiting surface properties that can be taken for granted in certain circumstances. Saito uses a striking urban example of “a ghetto area” displaying “broken windows, boarded-up windows and doors, weeds- and rats-infested abandoned lots, gang members loitering on street corners harassing passers-by, garbage-strewn streets reeking of urine and rotten food” (2007, 140). In this EA setting, a discerning person may discover “a sense of desperation and hopelessness,” a stimulating existential state, as well as an incentive to reflect over “the most eloquent illustration of social ills,” among which we can also mention those exhibited by the opposite examples of “the almost obscene expression of excessive affluence” (2007, 141). Mansions, luxurious jewellery, elite vehicles, and other material possessions and investments marking a sense of prestige and costing us the earth, when considered via the EA lens, are also potent enough to throw one into a rebellious state of angst. It is hard to reconcile, for example, the luminous shine of one’s platinum watch with the devastations caused in order to extract that shine.

To conclude this section, let’s consider two questions. Firstly, given Saito’s emphasis on the separation from the artworld and its norms, what guides EA activity? Unlike an art-focused theory, EA offers no established standards to guide and motivate us. As Saito puts it, due to “the absence of conventional or institutional agreements concerning how to experience non-art objects and activities, we are also free to engage ourselves literally in the aesthetic experience in any way we see fit. … The only guide, if we may even call it that, may be in terms of what is aesthetically more rewarding” (2007, 20–1).

Thus, Saito’s theory belongs to the philosophical lineage, instituted by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), that celebrates the experience of freedom as a mark of aesthetic life. For Kant, an ultimate example of aesthetic freedom is the mind’s contemplative play with a flower (Kant [1790] 2002, 93). By breaking away from the established aesthetic preconceptions, Saito invites us into the terrain where one finds a sense of freedom engaging with any environment. “In the realm of ‘the aesthetic,’” Saito argues, “I am including any reactions we form toward the sensuous and/or design qualities of any object, phenomenon, or activity” (2007, 10). Hence, Saito advocates for an expansive, and at the same time inclusive, theory of aesthetics. In this vein, Saito’s work emphasises “a pressing need to cultivate aesthetic literacy,” one that has been overshadowed by merely contemplative approaches to aesthetics (2007, 243). With practice, the approach of EA develops a sense of belonging in the commonplace, engendering both the spontaneity and responsibility peculiar to an expansive aesthetic life.

Secondly, what is Saito’s overarching goal? As an aesthetician, Saito is interested in investigating the threshold of aesthetic sensibility that has been left inchoate thanks to the trends in the Western philosophical tradition. Thus, the ultimate task of EA is a pursuit of self-knowledge, by means of aesthetic engagement—of being human in light of our attentiveness to both our surroundings and our responses to them. Correspondingly, Saito’s theory is inextricable from moral concerns (2007, 238). A pragmatic theory, EA is the philosophy of “care,” a deep concern with our world (2007, 240). Saito is hopeful that EA will entail a much-needed cultural change: “By liberating the aesthetic discourse from the confines of a specific kind of object or experience and illuminating how deeply entrenched and prevalent aesthetic considerations are in our mundane everyday existence, I hope to restore aesthetics to its proper place in our everyday life and to reclaim its status in shaping us and the world” (2007, 12).

Now, while the power of EA to influence culture is indeed potent, I do not share Saito’s optimism, as her line of argumentation, while adopting a multicultural lens, relies on cultural preferences defining the Western (urban) way of life. As shown above, Saito is aware that, insofar as we entertain non-Western cultures, dead or alive, curious alternatives may present themselves, including one that can address a delicate tension between art and non-art. Equally important, while Saito’s theory embraces all kinds of environments, the most expansive of all—wild nature—is considered from an urban vantage point. Both facts may mark stark differences between possible worldviews, and we shall return to this question in the conclusion.

Discovering Body-Consciousness

In the previous section we saw that aesthetic life is an expansive project, because our environments, the objects and events found therein, provide endless dynamic stimuli for thought and action. However, it is essential to observe that, in Western philosophy and culture, the role of one key element of aesthetic engagement has been silenced, and Saito’s project only briefly deals with this significant problem.

This is not to undermine Saito’s scope of philosophical vision, as she recognises the significance of the human body. She goes as far as to observe that “we are: body and mind” and hence “bodily-oriented aesthetic experience … [is] extremely important as … a barometer for our health and safety, ultimately determining the quality of life” (2007, 225). In her most recent book to date, Saito even dedicates a section to “body aesthetics” that she links with moral life: “Body movements, facial expressions, and the tone of voice” (2017, 175; see also 176–186).

However, the unknown potential of philosophical understanding stemming from the human body remains a surprisingly neglected aspect not only in her work, but also in Western thought up until now. Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) noted in 1947, just after the massacres of WWII:

Love-hate for the body colors the whole of modern culture. The body is scorned and rejected as something inferior, enslaved, and at the same time is desired as forbidden, reified, estranged. Only culture treats the body as a thing that can be owned, only in culture has it been distinguished from mind, the quintessence of power and command, as the object, the dead thing, the corpus. ([1947] 2002, 193)

Fortunately, aesthetics has recently witnessed another ground-breaking turn in Shusterman’s SA. Advocating for the necessity to cultivate the human body to realise our humanity, an exploration that opens up further horizons, SA paves the way for an even more expansive aesthetic life. The reader may wish to skip sections the next two subsections to consider the gist of SA explained further below. However, if our goal is a cultural change, an attempt to ascertain the grounds of aesthetic literacy has to spotlight the deep roots of philosophical neglect of body in philosophy. An understanding of the epoch-making errors—beliefs that confine human flourishing on large scale—is a necessary task for fostering considerate education, be it in history, spirituality, politics, or aesthetics.

Plato and Socrates

We can discuss and aesthetically engage with all kinds of material body. Above all, the cosmos, or else asteroids, our planet, mountain ranges, cityscapes, sculptures, trees, plants and mushrooms, animals and insects, stars, snowflakes and water droplets—even atoms—are aesthetically and intellectually curious bodies! However, the most intimate and tangible of all—the human body—is singled out by a long-standing tradition of neglect. The body is merely a vessel, an intricate biological mechanism we need to maintain to learn to appreciate the life of the mind. What are the canonical reasons supporting the neglect of the body in philosophy? Is it possible that this stance, embraced by thinkers across epochs and cultures, has solidified and preserved a great deal of ignorance, a state philosophers traditionally aim to purge?

In the Western philosophical tradition, it is Plato (c. 429–347 BCE) who first draws a severe distinction between the mind and the body. The body is to be overcome. Plato channels an ingenious rhetorical force into a literary depiction of his teacher Socrates, whose true personality is more difficult to imagine than Plato’s, and who still remains one of the most mysterious, daring, and influential sceptical masters. In Plato’s dialogues, an array of claims is fashioned while Socrates establishes, among many other important things, the bounds of philosophical inquiry. For Plato, the very drive to do philosophy is that which brings the philosopher closer to the divine, even at the expense of the body. Famously, this drive is called eros or loving desire, a term nowadays we may freely use with respect to the art of love-making. However, the art Plato refers to as ta erotika is that of elenchus, the back-and-forth process of affirmation and refutation of a philosophical position, aimed at understanding meaning, at fortification of the mind, ultimately having a moral foundation in Plato (Symposium, 177d8–9; Lysis, 205e2–206a2).[5] This intellectual exercise is inextricable from the passion or desire—eros—that drives and sustains one’s pursuit of knowledge, and this desire deserves the careful attention of educators.[6] For both Socrates and Plato the knowledge one ultimately strives toward is that of moral virtue (arēte), by way of courage, temperance, or practical wisdom. It is crucial to emphasise that for Plato, the philosopher, in the first place, is driven neither by career prospects, nor prestige, nor comfort, but by a form of love, a passion for “the supreme knowledge whose sole object is that absolute beauty” (Symposium, 207b). The Socratic philosopher is satisfied insofar as she achieves practical wisdom, a totality of knowledge necessary to the examined life, the life worth living for, a philosophical task that appears to be impossible to completely fulfil, like the transcendent idea of “absolute beauty,” or one’s own death.

Equally important, Plato makes it clear that we should not confuse this lofty exercise with mere bodily cravings. In the Symposium, using the priestess Diotima as his mouthpiece to instruct Socrates (and us), Plato casts an epochal shadow of doubt on the status of the body for the matters conducive to flourishing:

What may we suppose to be the felicity of the man who sees absolute beauty in its essence, pure and unalloyed, who, instead of a beauty tainted by human flesh and colour and a mass of perishable rubbish, is able to apprehend divine beauty where it exists apart and alone? Do you think that it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? (211d–212a)

The human body here is identified with “a mass of perishable rubbish” that the philosopher must be able to juxtapose with “the faculty capable of seeing … the truth,” that is, the contemplative faculty we call the mind (212a). No worthy philosophical insight thus can be gained in virtue of body, a source of appetites that one ought to strive to moderate (Phaedrus, 64e–67a).

This attack on the body is better understood in the context of two monolithic statements found in the Apology of Socrates, Plato’s dramatised version of Socrates’ speech at his own trial, leading to his death. First, Socrates addresses his fellow citizens, challenging their sense of civic duty, and also, by implication, us philosophers: “Best of men, you are an Athenian, from the city that is greatest and best reputed for wisdom and strength: are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible, and reputation, and honor, but that you neither care for nor give thought to prudence, and truth, and how your soul will be the best possible?” (29d–e).

A philosophical care in this Platonic sense, then, implies caring for one’s mind, a way of life hinging on elenchus, the practice of which allows one to distinguish between what is worth pursuing in one’s life, in a given cultural context, and what is not worthy of our attention and efforts. Plato insists in the Apology of Socrates that one should “not … care for bodies and money before, nor as vehemently as, how your soul will be the best possible” (30b). On this condition, a genuine philosophical life is possible, one that is inscribed in the immortal words of Socrates who committed suicide by drinking hemlock: “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (38a). He was not afraid to die, allegedly, because the value of his mind’s findings eclipsed the value of his earthly body’s existence. As Plato argues in Phaedo, “the philosopher’s occupation consists precisely in the freeing and separation of soul from body” (68a), and a dignified death in the name of the truth is not the worst option.

To sum up: Plato denies the body the status of an essential source to an examined life. However, before we move on, it is important to note that this strong philosophical position emerges in an ancient society that, in effect, would value bodily life, including not only a systematic practice of gymnastics, but also an explicit—by contrast with (post)monotheistic traditions—interest in erotic experience. In fact, both Xenophon (431–354 BCE), Socrates’ less popular student, and Diogenes Laertius (180–240 CE) report that Socrates cautioned that we ought to cultivate our bodies to avoid making “serious mistakes” (Xenophon 1990, 172) or poorly informed judgements (Laertius [1925] 1991, 163). The body’s condemnation, possibly, could be attributed with greater precision to Plato whose spirit was drawn to the transcendent realm of ideas and moral knowledge, rather than the streets and slums of Athens. How can we explain the fact that Plato condemns the body, despite being nourished by an aristocratic culture that took pride in the body’s cultivation? One way to explain this is to note that, even if disciplined, the body can still function as a tool for exhibiting one’s strength, power, and dominance: a tool for war, flirting, and sports, rather than a medium for the activation of an expansive philosophical care (see Adorno & Horkheimer [1947] 2002, 193–94). At any rate, one remains curious if it is justified to denounce the body as a source to a fulfilling life once and for all.

Descartes, Spinoza, and Nietzsche

The Platonic paradigm is entrenched into Western philosophical thought. As a means to stimulate aesthetic literacy, however, we should examine a singular antagonism revolving around the body’s epistemological status. Found in the early modern period, this clash features two contemporaneous rationalist philosophers, René Descartes (1596–1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).

Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy ([1641] 2004) is another canonical text that posits the superiority of the mind over the body. Written like many philosophical texts as a personal reflection, Descartes embarks on a therapeutic task of ascertaining who he is (§ 2.5), a sceptical task involving “the criticism of the principles on which all” of his “former beliefs rested,” so as to discover an ultimate ground of knowledge that admits no “slightest doubt” (§ 1.2; see also §§ 1.11, 2.1, 2.9). Correspondingly, he goes on to question the certainty of sense data (§ 1.3–4), of being awake (§ 1.5), of mathematical absolutes (§ 1.8–9), of other people’s rational agency (§ 2.13), and, less overtly, of God’s existence and goodness (§ 1.9–10, 1.12, 2.3). Interestingly, to exercise this militant scepticism, Descartes, by default, adopts the Platonic lens to evaluate the body:

I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz. suspend my judgment, and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false. (§ 1.12)

The human body (and sensibility in general) is thus considered by Descartes as that which can be readily pushed away as unreliable in one’s pursuit of certitude and knowledge: “I believe that body, figure, extension, motion, and place are merely fictions of my mind”; in more eloquent terms, the fiction we are most interested in here also bears the name of “the fabric of members that appears in a corpse, and which I called by the name of body” (§§ 2.2, 2.5; see also § 2.7). Further, Descartes deploys a famous example to demonstrate that any body, like a piece of wax, can change shape, feel, and smell differently (§§ 2.11–12). For Descartes, wax/body can be melted/severed, while the idea of wax/body, and the mind itself, cannot (§§ 6.6, 6.19). It is therefore not surprising that we find Descartes entertaining a mental state in which neither his body nor the world external to his mind—all the things that can be doubted—in effect exist. It is within this context that he arrives at his dictum:

Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that without these I cannot exist? But I had the persuasion that there was absolutely nothing in the world, that there was no sky and no earth, neither minds nor bodies; was I not, therefore, at the same time, persuaded that I did not exist? Far from it; I assuredly existed … it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind. (§ 2.2; see also §§ 2.6, 2.16)

Descartes argues that it is not in the moments of facing a blizzard, or wax changing physical states on one’s belly, not even at a random philanthropic deed—not in these kinds of moments that he comes to realise that he exists, but exclusively in an instant of self-cognition.

Who is Descartes, then, and what defines being a human person, “our whole essence or nature” (§ 6.9)? One who practices a form of elenchus: “a thinking being” (§§ 2.5–6, 2.8). A human body can once again be ignored, he argues, because unlike the thinking “I,” it is “unknown to me”—“not sufficiently clear” (§ 2.7). After all, “the body of man,” he remarks, is “a kind of machine … made up and composed of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood, and skin” (§ 6.15). One conventional way to understand the human body, then, is in terms of a functional mechanism, like Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck, the 18th century French marvel.

Drawing of a cross-section of a mechanical duck, showing the digestive system as a clockwork mechanism made of pumps, wheels, and tubes.
Digesting Duck, via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Ultimately, Descartes’ analysis pushes the Platonic paradigm to an extreme and, notoriously, splits the mind and the body into two distinct substances:

Although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, that is, my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it. (§ 6.9)

Descartes adopts a common position on the human body that treats it in terms of a utility: body is good insofar as it serves the mind, the quintessential faculty that can think through passive “obscure and confused” bodily receptivity (§ 6.10; see also § 6.15). Like many philosophers before and after him, Descartes is sceptical of the body’s potential, as he cannot come to terms with the fact that the body can’t reason. Nonetheless, this conviction poses a problem to Descartes, that of “the union and apparent fusion of mind and body” (§ 6.13). In the end, Descartes resorts to a variation of early modern neuroscience and discerns a point of unity between the two philosophical ideas in the pineal gland, manipulated by “animal spirits,” a cryptic borderline supernatural notion he inherited from the Dark Ages.

Descartes’ overall position provoked a great deal of controversy in the history of philosophy, and the claim about the role of the pineal gland was soon found to be ludicrous by the Dutch rationalist Spinoza, a man of great acumen and wit. In another seminal 17th century philosophy text, The Ethics ([1667] 1955), Spinoza observes that, as far as philosophical understanding is concerned, Descartes “accomplishes nothing beyond a display of the acuteness of his own great intellect” (part III, Preface). Luckily, we do not need to consider here the philosophical claims against the unity of mind and body in the gland, but Spinoza’s attack on Descartes is nonetheless worthy of our attention:

Such is the doctrine of this illustrious philosopher … one which, had it been less ingenious, I could hardly believe to have proceeded from so great a man. Indeed, I am lost in wonder, that a philosopher, who had stoutly asserted, that he would draw no conclusions which do not follow from self-evident premises, and would affirm nothing which he did not clearly and distinctly perceive, and who had so often taken to task the scholastics for wishing to explain obscurities through occult qualities, could maintain a hypothesis, beside which occult qualities are commonplace. What does he understand, I ask, by the union of the mind and the body? What clear and distinct conception has he got of thought in most intimate union with a certain particle of extended matter? (part V, Preface)

Unlike Descartes, Spinoza is intrigued by the prospect of philosophical understanding of the “most intimate union” of the embodied mind. He refrains from dismissing the body as an irrelevant philosophical subject, and also, being aware of his own interpretative limits, does not attempt to explain philosophical matters by contentious means. Instead, in The Ethics, we find an elucidation of the possible grounds of this unity. Spinoza starts off arguing that “there [is] no comparison possible between the powers of the mind and the power or strength of the body; consequently the strength of one cannot in any case be determined by the strength of the other” (part V, Preface).

This insight strikes right into the heart of our discussion by pinpointing the fact that the capacities of the body should not be evaluated by intellectual standards. Human hands are not designed to grasp the notion of a tsunami’s aesthetic value, and yet they can be adept at leading a surfboard; similarly, one’s imagination is not destined to fold up an origami tarantula, but it can certainly come up with ways to create many. What is essential is that the philosopher is expected not to commit a category error and condemn the body in virtue of the mind’s powers, and the implications for aesthetics here, as we will see in the next section, are quite significant.

Spinoza offers one way to interpret the relationship between the mind and the body. A dualist like Descartes is keen to sever the mind from the body, his contemporary materialist thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) reduces the mind to the body, whereas Spinoza argues that both stem from one source—God, or we can also say: nature in its totality. Nature—and our place in it—is at the centre of Spinoza’s work. The mind is a thinking thing that is not extended or movable, while the body is an extended and non-thinking thing, as Descartes argued. Both, however, are specific “modes” of the totality of nature (Spinoza [1667] 1955, part II, Preface). The mind thinks of the body as its object—my body is a representation in my mind—and yet Spinoza argues it is not only an image but, in effect, the “human mind is the very idea or knowledge of the human body” (part II, prop. XIX). Intriguingly, by paying attention to the life of one’s body, not only does the mind learn about it, and the world is thereby opened up through perception, but it also learns about itself (part II, prop. XXII, XIII, XXIII, XXVI). Their relationship is in principle educational, and Spinoza, in a rather revolutionary manner, insinuates that to be human is not to overcome the body but discover oneself—in nature—through it!

Hence, Spinoza not only questions any thinker who holds the body to be a bag of flesh or mechanism at the disposal of the mind, but also goes as far as assert that “the frame of the body” is “so great a work of art” ([1667] 1955, part I, Appendix). It is in this soma-artistic context that we should invoke his classic proposition: “no one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body, that is, no one has as yet been taught by experience what the body can accomplish solely by the laws of nature … the body can by the sole laws of its nature do many things which the mind wonders at” (part III, prop. II).

Arguably, what underlies the neglect of the body in philosophy is nothing but ignorance, occasioning exploitation, denial, bigotry, repressed fears, shame, aggression, and other demons haunting humanity. To unearth the body as a work of art, one is to cultivate it and experiment with it, to try to actualise its potentials, and to direct them at the pursuit of an examined life. After all, our body, to borrow Saito’s term, may be “a gem” that needs to be re-discovered to ascertain what we can do, and, therefore, the bounds of aesthetic life.

Spinoza is a 17th century rationalist, and hence we should not expect him to posit the body’s autonomy, or individual character. And yet, he certainly does not identify body with passive receptivity or a corpse: as a part of nature, the body is full of lessons and surprises, and it can strive for excellence, like humans do. Thus, Spinoza’s ingenious thought represents a drastic shift from the Platonic paradigm (and generally an inclination to theorise about the body) that would, nonetheless, dominate Western philosophy and aesthetics up until recent decades.

An untimely text in Western philosophy and spirituality, Spinoza’s Ethics was lambasted and suppressed, his influence on the Enlightenment was negligible and secretive. In the times dominated by the monotheistic views on being, Spinoza was responsible for the rebirth of pantheism, even though he speaks about nature or God employing definitions, axioms, propositions, and corollaries.

The silencing of the body in Western philosophy extended into the 18th, 19th, and the first half of the 20th century. However, it is necessary to pose another question: can we identify a thinker who instigated the subsequent and irreversible philosophical curiosity about the body? Kant advanced supra-cognitive concepts like “the moral law” and “transcendental imagination,” G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) the “World-Spirit,” Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) “a leap of faith,” while Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) only reminded his readers of the sexual drive. Among these male giants of Western thought, one provocateur deserves a mention.

Cultivating a mature attitude toward a multifarious artist of thought is bound to be complex and should be approached with discernment. Take the story of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), for example, who is notorious for savouring proto-fascistic and, arguably, anti-semitic sentiments, but also for understanding the value of everyday originality, solitude, and pain, for reviving amor fati and disarming honesty. Nietzsche is testing both himself and you, reader, and is also notable for inventing striking, satirical and naturalistic images related to the body. In fact, he went as far as to develop his own philosophical jargon drawing from the body, and philosophised with words such as “stomach” (for human “spirit”) and “diet” (the discipline of the spirit) (see [1881] 1997, 42, 122; [1889] 2005, 17, 19). Let me borrow only one aphorism from his Gay Science ([1882] 2001), summing up a Nietzschean turn on the topic of the body, where, to counter Plato, he entertains the following definition of philosophy: “The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual goes frighteningly far—and I have asked myself often enough whether, on a grand scale, philosophy has been no more than an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body” (5).

It must be remembered that Nietzsche’s cultural influence is colossal, stimulating numerous prominent philosophers and cultural critics like Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Jean Paul-Sartre (1905–1980), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), who is notable for his invaluable work on existentialist embodiment, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), who developed a far-reaching concept of “the grotesque body,” and, of course, the great humanists like Albert Camus (1913–1960) and Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). In any event, it is in Nietzsche that we find the audacious assertion that one can’t engage in an open-ended activity we call philosophy by neglecting the body. By misunderstanding ourselves, our instincts, drives, and capacities, by neglecting the workings of the body, we at the same time misinterpret and misrepresent the scope of philosophical inquiry and practice.

Interestingly, Nietzsche also read Spinoza, and, in Daybreak ([1881] 1997), we can find a follow-up on the question of the body’s enigma that for millennia suffered “depreciation, neglect, and tormenting,” the body “of which we still know so little!” (aphorisms 39, 86). It is timely to recall Spinoza’s prompt at Ethics part III, prop. II: do we philosophers now know what the body can do? In search for a trustworthy response, I reached out to two contemporary philosophers, Graham Priest and Richard Shusterman. The former, a contemporary master of both logic and karate, remarks,

Of course it is clear that there are physical limits on the body. No one can survive being hit in the head with a sledge hammer. We do not know, of course, exactly where those limits are. Someone has just run a sub-2-hour marathon. How fast is it possible to do this? No idea—though nothing can travel faster than light. And yes, of course the body can do amazing things that one might not think possible. Musical dexterity, climbing El Capitan solo, feats of qigong. All these things are amazing. (Priest, personal communication)

Before we consider the second response, allow me to sum up our findings in this section: the neglect of the body—an apathetic attitude to its cultivation—is entrenched into our philosophical tradition; it seems that it is the inclination to assert the mind’s putative superiority, designating the access to distinctly human knowledge, that is responsible for this mode of self-understanding. Such a worldview can be manifest in a manifold of values, habits, preferences, and choices. Take one’s personal clothing style, for example, an aesthetic domain readily open to experiments, as a way to express one’s self, sense of belonging, and to feel comfortable in one’s body. A choice of clothing often depends on a sense of cultural identity and also our attitudes and values: ethnic, religious, political, corporate, academic, nudist, and so on (see Novitz 1992, 107; Shusterman 2011, 150). Would it not be curious to look at the choices of experts in the field mirroring the prospect of caring for the body’s expressivity and flourishing: namely, academic aestheticians? With this in mind, I showed Tamara Leacock, an ethical and futuristic clothing designer, the pictures of several contemporary high-echelon scholars. Interestingly, such pictures tend to feature similar backgrounds—stacks of books embodying serious mental work. Tamara’s responses ranged between indignation, indifference, disgust, and interest. I wondered why she mostly appeared disappointed. Tamara remarked that world-class experts in aesthetic judgements are expected to exemplify “active taste” as opposed to wearing careless or formal pieces “like lawyers and politicians,” who seemed to share the same tailor. There was one photograph, however, that elicited interest: a recent take (by Christophe Beauregard) of Richard Shusterman, to the consideration of whose theory and practice we now turn.

Finding Body-Consciousness in Somaesthetics

I appreciate Spinoza’s perspective. I introduce the term “soma” to avoid all the prejudices about the body’s limits and lack of intelligence and subjectivity and agency that automatically arise when the term “body” is used.

That is Shusterman’s personal response to Spinoza’s prompt, by which he thereby breaks further away from the Platonic-Cartesian paradigm. Like all humans, I am both in my body and in my mind. To be in a position to realise my humanity, I am to learn to cultivate them. Shusterman observes,

The body-mind connection is so pervasively intimate that it seems misleading to speak of body and mind as two different, independent entities. The term body-mind would more aptly express their essential union, which still leaves room for pragmatically distinguishing between mental and physical aspects of behavior and also for the project of increasing their experiential unity. (2006b, 2)

The project of SA, by implication, is an attempt to bring to the fore the human body as an essential source for realising our humanity through practice. What is also noteworthy is that the body thus becomes a topic of revived philosophical interest through an aesthetic inquiry. To revive the interest in the body is to revive the interest in the essential component of our agency which is in and of itself aesthetic. After all, aisthēsis originally stands for sense perception inextricable from the pursuit of understanding, and there is no sense perception without being embodied. The aesthetic becomes more apparent inasmuch as the body is cared for, inasmuch as it is understood as the soma. Hence, in this section we shall unpack the soma, a term coined by Shusterman two decades ago (1997).

Semantically, the concept of the body differs from that of the soma in that the former typically stands for the mind’s inferior, a scientifically constructed and instrumental servant-image, while the latter designates a source of “lived experience” (1999, 302). The body is a useful shell, a medium for movement, consumption of nutrients, and for other experiences, such as activities (protection, cliff-diving), sensations (burn, kiss), emotions (bitterness, serenity), and sensations of all kinds. However, the body is only a vulnerable source of self-esteem because it is merely a useful thing. The body can be developed as a means to all kinds of experience, to impress people, or yourself, but it is not regarded as that which manifests bodily agency, an accomplished state designating one’s familiarity with one’s somatic powers, which may deteriorate/deepen with time. A reliable source of self-esteem, the soma is “the living body,” a sentient creation, or “a complex field of multiple movements, a surge of life, a projection of energy” (Shusterman 2006b, 3, 8). The mind, if we recall Spinoza, feeds off this source of life, and recognises itself in it, until there is nothing to recognise. The soma is a gateway to a new discipline “returning to some of the deepest roots of aesthetics and philosophy,” one that helps to understand why some of these conceptual roots are to be shunned (Shusterman 1999, 299).

Interestingly, SA shares some significant traits with EA.[7] Both are inspired by the pragmatism of John Dewey (1859–1952). In Shusterman’s view,

If most philosophies readily recognize that culture is both an essential value and the ineliminable matrix of human life, pragmatism goes further by insisting that philosophy itself is essentially the historical product of culture, and therefore should (and does) change through more general cultural change. … Pragmatism, therefore, is also an essentially pluralistic philosophy. Insisting on the plurality of values and beliefs … pragmatism affirms its pluralistic open-mindedness (which is more than mere tolerance) toward individuals who adopt these different perspectives. (2012, 166)

Consequently, Shusterman’s and Saito’s projects are open to adopt a multicultural lens spotlighting the objects of significant neglect in the West (see Shusterman 2009). Correspondingly, both projects rebuke the essentialist and formal makeup of Western aesthetics, and inculcate an exploration and enhancement of aesthetic sensibility in virtue of new forms of aesthetic awareness. Both Saito and Shusterman argue that the practice of aesthetics enriches life at the personal and collective levels. More generally, EA and SA demonstrate that the contemporary practice in philosophical aesthetics is too narrow to live up to the available potential. Consider Shusterman recalling his experience leading to the emergence of somaesthetics: “Bringing aesthetics closer to the realm of life and practice, I realized, entails bringing the body more centrally into aesthetic focus, as all life and practice—all perception, cognition, and action—is crucially performed through the body” (2012, 140).

For the purposes of this chapter, let’s follow the gist of Shusterman’s foundational argument made in a seminal paper, “Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal” (1999). At the outset, Shusterman defines SA as “the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning” (1999, 302). In line with Classical philosophical values, SA addresses the questions of knowledge, self-knowledge, and orientation to the examined life (Shusterman 2012, 140). In other words, because “the body is an essential and valuable dimension of our humanity,” SA explores our humanity in a vast world (Shusterman 2006b, 1).

SA is about a philosophical care, or more precisely, “somatic care,” a notion that can be elucidated by responding to some prejudices inherent to Western philosophy (Shusterman 1999, 302). Firstly, Shusterman argues that the standards of excellence do not merely apply to the mind, and hence in lieu of treating the body as a perishable and unreliable source of knowledge and selfhood, and by implication, a source that can be neglected, we should “seek to improve the acuity, health, and control of our senses by cultivating heightened attention to and mastery of their somatic functioning” (302). A cultivated soma, he suggests and subsequently demonstrates, is a means to a more distinct and considerate knowledge of the world. Secondly, since philosophy deals not only with the world (and further, the cosmos) that surrounds us, but also with our inner worlds, the soma, which marks the material borderline between the two, is an agent of self-discovery and self-knowledge. More specifically, the cultivation of the soma results in “improving awareness of our bodily states and feelings,” in a more lucid understanding of our affective natures (302). The soma is “the locus and medium” of sensory data, and hence the somatic mastery deepens our capacity for receptivity and feeling, to prolong or diminish, to savour, modify, or deny a certain experience (304). The mastery of the soma is a crucial means to the examined life inextricable from “right action” (303). Importantly, Shusterman is clear that the pragmatic focus of SA pursues one solid goal: “to improve certain facts by remaking the body and society” (305).

To this end, Shusterman demarcates between three interdependent dimensions of SA: “analytic,” “pragmatic,” and “practical.” The first, theoretical dimension punctuates “traditional ontological and epistemological issues of the body,” raised in the previous section, and the contemporary approaches constructing the human body as a socio-political phenomenon (Shusterman 1999, 304). The analytic inquiry is essential to the pragmatic dimension of SA, the bodies of knowledge that target cultural norms and change by “proposing specific methods of somatic improvement” (304). For clarity, Shusterman distinguishes between “representational” and “experiential” forms of SA methodologies. The representational dimension addresses the philosophical methods dealing with care for one’s appearance, such as clothing or make-up, with an emphasis on restoring a link between “one’s spiritual self” and their somatic expressivity, traditionally deemed a superficial external representation of the self (305–6). This charge is weakened in light of the experiential dimension that evaluates one’s “inner” experience and “refuses to exteriorise the body as an alienated thing distinct from the active spirit of human experience” (306). Shusterman reminds us that “the [said] distinction must not be taken as rigidly exclusive,” since “there is an inevitable complementarity of representations and experience” (306). The pragmatic methods and techniques of SA, then, inculcate the possibility of somatic consciousness and, if successfully applied, help one to resist the lure of caring for the body as a malleable shell, a rack for consumerist embellishment, and, more generally, a dummy subjected to an army of socio-political forces (see Foucault [1976] 1980; [1984] 1986). Taken together, these methodologies aim to render our experiences “more satisfyingly rich” and “our awareness of somatic experience more acute and perceptive” (Shusterman 1999, 305, 307). By contrast, so long as the potential “experienced depth” of somatic life is neglected, the soma retracts into the body’s fragile shell, and, like the conformist mind, is likely to be manipulated by norms and practices maintaining docile levels of human agency and creativity (306). One Western example is single-sex schools, where all pupils are forced to wear the same uniform, and to act timidly and reverently in the presence of an authority, who only relatively recently, when confronted with disobedience, felt entitled to punish and piously whip dispensable body parts. The soma is a marvellous source of insight: “blushes, trembles, flinches” and many other responses communicate to us curious hues about our agency, and our environments, including the oppressive ones (Shusterman 2006b, 6). The body often takes a blow when the human spirit strives to achieve independence, but the problem of agency now ought to factor not only the more familiar ethical, social, and political considerations, beliefs, actions, and commitments, but also the living and expressive soma. By alienating the body—as a decorative façade or an ideological canvas, the life of which can be ignored—we humiliate our humanity, and move away from the prospect of actualising our nature.

This observation takes us to the third and final dimension of SA, called “practical,” the realm of activity, where one in effect practises somatic “care through intelligently disciplined body work aimed at somatic self-improvement” (Shusterman 1999, 307). In the words of Shusterman, “Concerned not with saying but with doing, this practical dimension is the most neglected by academic body philosophers, whose commitment to the discursive logos typically ends in textualizing the body. For practical somaesthetics, the less said, the better, if this means the more work actually done” (307).

Shusterman’s project introduces philosophical problems that reason can’t address on its own, as such problems necessarily stem from “an important nondiscursive dimension,” that is, the soma (Shusterman 2012, 195). This critical point brings back the earlier concern with the dominant theoretical culture in aesthetics (and academic philosophy). Rationality imposes its norms and rules onto the body, “textualizing the body,” which often leads to leaving the body on the fringes of philosophical vision. The body is an outsider. This trend in philosophy may finally come to a halt, and we can use an example of pain, customarily demoted as something undesirable and necessarily harmful. As a matter of fact, pain may divulge important lessons: “Pain itself—a somatic consciousness that informs us of injury and prompts a search for remedy—provides clear evidence of the value of attention to one’s somatic states and sensations. Care of the self is improved when keener somatic awareness advises us of problems and remedies before the onset of pain’s damage” (2006b, 12).

One may undergo an episode of pain while stretching, or reflecting on a skyline, inhaling the smog, or the smoke from a bushfire, and each such experience is mediated by the soma signalling ways to improve oneself and one’s environments. Thus, Shusterman’s seminal turn consists in offering “a comprehensive philosophical discipline that is concerned with self-knowledge and self-care,” and, to accomplish this ultimate philosophical goal, “the concrete activity of body work must be emphatically named as the crucial practical dimension of somaesthetics” (Shusterman 1999, 307). Practice of SA develops “somatic attention,” a care for the soma reflected in one’s “somatic style,” including one’s voice, breathing, fragrance, posture, gestures, manner of eating, smiling, laughing, and more complex activities, like dance, teaching, and love-making (Shusterman 2006b, 12; see also 2011, 152; 2012, 312). Some elements of one’s somatic style are voluntary and some are involuntary, and one of the chief practical goals of SA is to become aware of one’s bodily habits and comportments, and, if necessary and possible, to try to change and enhance them. It is in this way, again, that the body becomes “lived, sentient, intelligent,” and Shusterman calls this process of cultivation, furthering the echoes of Nietzsche and Foucault, “self-stylising or self-creation” (2011, 157).

The epistemological and ontological parameters of SA are akin to martial arts: an idea of an SA theorist is as nonsensical as an aikido theorist. Philosophical activity becomes body-conscious. As a prospective pathway to a worthwhile life, one must do SA, to engage in serious embodied work. As Shusterman beautifully puts it, “though knives are most clearly means for cutting rather than ends of sharpening, we sometimes need to focus on improving their sharpness and other aspects of their use in order to improve their effectiveness” (2006b, 13).

The basic model of SA dovetails a rigorously-investigated theory and practice. The model is, in principle, interdisciplinary, as the soma cannot be claimed by philosophers. In aesthetics, the recent findings in SA branch out in many directions, such as architecture, photography, sound, and dance. But, perhaps the most acute cultural need is for developing an awareness of the rich import of one of the most natural human needs: erotic experience.

Regretfully, learning to make love is a marginalised cultural and educational topic. As a result, a non-professional would find such a choice of topic for discussion to be rather vexing. Probably reflecting our disregard for the body’s (affective) powers, sexuality and embodiment are both neglected school and tertiary subjects. When the mind’s striving to achieve excellence is oppressed, that is, by denying the practice of elenchus, one is likely to experience a sense of discomfort, frustration, and shame when confronted with testing philosophical questions. By analogy, when the body’s strivings to achieve excellence are restrained, similar responses will ensue. To illustrate: one may still feel conflicted similarly to the Westerners encountering the Tahitian customs in Denis Diderot’s (1713–1784) Supplement to Bougainville’s “Voyage.” In a fearless philosophy text on sexual education, written in 1772, cosmopolite Diderot assumes that his readers would uphold strong beliefs about nuclear family and sexuality and unveils a ceremony imbued with aesthetic overtones:

The young Tahitian girl [who] blissfully abandoned herself to the embraces of Tahitian youth and awaited impatiently the day when her mother, authorized to do so by her having reached the age of puberty, would remove her veil and uncover her breasts. She was proud of her ability to excite men’s desires, to attract the amorous looks of strangers, of her own relatives, of her own brothers. In our presence, without shame, in the center of a throng of innocent Tahitians who danced and played the flute, she accepted the caresses of the young man whom the young heart and the secret promptings of her senses had marked out for her. ([1772] 2001, 190)

This passage can still stimulate much thinking and feeling, still poses a problem for the conventional views on freedom, desire, motherhood, polyamory, intimacy, nudity, and many others. What is also worth pointing out is the openness with which Diderot presents this rite of passage. It is difficult to determine how much this literary portrayal is an artistic invention (or, possibly, a mistaken interpretation of the event), but it is clear that Diderot is impatient to play with Western values. The vital hues of erotic life are respectfully—and one may say artistically—celebrated in the embodied performance aiming to evoke “wholesome feelings,” the feelings where the erotic is an aesthetic component (Diderot [1772] 2001, 190). Such sensibilities may resonate with Shusterman, who dedicated two seminal papers to foster erotic SA education, a project that runs afoul of Western aesthetics, where “old prejudices and repressed fears” dominate our culture (Shusterman 2006a, 224-25; see also Shusterman 2007).

Discussions of aesthetics in relation to erotic experience elicit discomfort in a culture that “limit[s] aesthetic experience narrowly to the experience of artworks” and that “confine[s] sexual experience to unimaginative, thoughtlessly mechanical, and insensitive copulation” (Shusterman 2006a, 226). Indeed, even the terms commonly used to name our sexual organs—”vagina” and “penis”—are medical, influenced by anatomy, rather than by artistic, spiritual, or philosophical searches for meaning. Alarmingly, such scientific terms are typically deployed to evaluate our sexual life, and ourselves. As an exercise, I encourage the reader to practice the aesthetics of language by considering the following three words: “vagina,”[8] “cunt,”[9] and “yoni.”[10]

Shusterman is certainly hoping for a more progressive humanity, and his analysis draws from ancient Greek, Chinese, and, particularly, Indian traditions, and develops a vibrant and inclusive perspective. In line with the SA model, Shusterman posits that “human sexuality is motivated primarily by attractiveness and pleasures … and that human sexual performance therefore can and should be rendered more enjoyable and rewarding through the application of knowledge, methods, and refinements introduced by learning, thought, and aesthetic sensitivity” (2007, 61).

A carefully orchestrated erotic aesthetic experience may involve, but is not limited to, “staging of the sexual performance,” various “modes of foreplay” and “coital positions,” where one must take into account “size (and sometimes also texture) of genitals, force of desire, and time required for its satisfaction” (Shusterman 2007, 62–3). Crucially, one is to strive (and hence to learn) to improve aesthetic erotic experience, as opposed to expecting a fulfilling sex to transpire out of nowhere. As Shusterman notes,

Unity in variety is among the most prominent of our traditional definitions of beauty. In Indian erotic arts, the richness of variety is found not only in the diversity of embraces, kisses, scratchings, bitings, strikings, hair fondlings, temporalities, love noises, coital positions (which include oral and anal sex), and even different ways of moving the penis inside the vagina, but also in the ways these several modes of variety are combined into an aesthetic unity. (2007, 64)

So construed, erotic enhancement is very different from our common understanding of sexual enhancement achieved by medical and pharmaceutical means. Instead of taking a drug and putting on a nurse’s or doctor’s outfit, an SA erotic practice aims to enhance performance “by paying particular attention to which elements of these various modes fit most successfully together so as to both stimulate and satisfy desire” (Shusterman 2007, 64).

Shusterman is convinced that such practice is deeply purposeful. More traditionally, an artful erotic experience is a cure for monotony (and boredom), and thus is potent to advance “the bonds of intimate friendship” and sustain “sexual attraction and sexual love” between partners that helps “to preserve domestic harmony and through it social stability” (2007, 65). More specifically, Shusterman observes that,

Ars erotica’s rich stimulation and sophistication of the senses, together with its mastery and refinement of a wide range of complex motor coordinations and bodily postures, cannot help but bring significant cognitive enhancement to both sensory and motor abilities. Its cultivation of perception includes an education in recognizing the enduring dispositions but also the changing thoughts and feelings of others, so that the lover can properly respond to them. … Such perceptual training develops ethical sensitivity to others and to their diversity. … Conversely, ethical self-knowledge and self-discipline are similarly deepened and honed through erotic practices that probe our desires and inhibitions as they reshape them, while also testing and refining our self-control, through artful, pleasurable mastery of our senses and sensuality. (2007, 65)

This is only one example demonstrating that the practice of SA, aiming at the development of “somatic sensibility,” eventuates in a more fulfilling life (Shusterman 1999, 303). To properly respond to our environments, people we engage with, and to the enigma of our own selfhood, it is necessary not only to fortify the mind, but also the living body. According to Shusterman, that is one of the essential grounds on which a well-rounded culture can be established: “one measure of a culture’s quality of life and humanity is the level of body-mind harmony it promotes and displays” (2006b, 3). The bearing of SA (and EA) on the question of a life worth living, inherent to the phenomenon of culture, is taken up in the conclusion.

Conclusion: Neglect, Culture, and Wild Nature

Despite the different aesthetic realms that Saito and Shusterman spotlight, their views can be united in a caring philosophical position urging us to practise aesthetics, to learn to engage with ourselves and our surroundings, including other people and sentient creation. Saito and Shusterman, both thinkers and practitioners, take pains to stress that attention to the aesthetic in our lives influences not only our self-understanding, but also, relatedly, our values, commitments, and lifestyle. Therefore, as Schiller hoped, when collectively practised and explored, aesthetic education positively influences the creation of a flourishing culture and society. Let me dwell on the more specific claims that Saito and Shusterman make in this regard.

As we remember, Saito identifies the association of aesthetics with the arts as the central impediment to the evolution of aesthetics into a more expansive and culturally proactive project. Saito’s entire line of argumentation hinges on the delicate tension between the two concepts, art and non-art, and it is an engagement with the latter kind of everyday aesthetic reality that is necessary to foster a new form of aesthetic literacy. By taking notice of the aesthetic dimension of the ordinary, my life becomes enriched. The ordinary is to be appreciated on its own terms, without trying to render it extraordinary or artistic, pulling us back to the conventions of the Western artworld and corresponding “sophisticated” aesthetic responses (Saito 2007, 50; see also 202–3, 245; Haapala 2005, 50–2).

Mindful of this tension, and having announced the adoption of “a multicultural, global viewpoint” (Saito 2007, xxi) Saito posits a crucial question: “is overcoming the boundary between art and non-art impossible?” (2007, 250). Is it possible to “break down this barrier” and traverse the border between art and the common life, where our artistic propensities are nonetheless fulfilled (251)? Insofar as we stick to the idea of an artist as a special persona who claims to present “a slice of everyday life as a work of art” we at the same time introduce “an unbridgeable gap between art and life” (252; see also 39–40). This gap is a cultural peculiarity in the West, a normative trap, and one may submit to it, voluntarily or otherwise, or entertain an alternative perspective.

Saito’s project is edifying because, unlike the influential aestheticians of the past, she is mindful of the legitimacy of non-Western paths: “We may consider those cultural traditions which do not provide a special place or status for art because every facet of life is conducted with artistic sensibility. In such cultures, everyone is an artist and every activity is an artistic activity in the sense that it is practiced with utmost care, skillful execution, and in pursuit of excellence and beauty” (2007, 41). Saito uses the examples of the Balinese who say “we have no art, we do everything the best we can,” and the Navajos “who integrate their artistic endeavour into their other activities,” simply because “art is a way of living”![11]

On these anthropological grounds, Saito admits that “if we were to enlarge the domain of art to include these cultural practices, it essentially amounts to abandoning the art-centered aesthetics that I have been reviewing … because there will be no distinction between art and non-art” (2007, 42). What is significant here is a matter of cultural inclusion. One way to address this problem is to note that in a multicultural world (or society), different culture groups are interested in each other, but their co-existence and striving to flourishing do not undermine the foundations of each culture. In a cross-cultural world (or society), inclusion implies a voluntary adoption of foreign ways of life, and hence a personal sacrifice. Thus, one viable trajectory is to disown the alluring notions of art and the artist altogether, and choose to actualise our predisposition to expressivity, vivid in children, to cultivate aesthetic sensibilities and creativity. Like wild nature, this way of life crawls on the fringes of Western culture.[12]

However, that is not where Saito’s cultural preferences appear to lie. At the end of her book, we find a remark that, “I expect that there will be disputes over my particular views. Thus, I characterize my preceding discussion as an initiation for further exploration rather than a definite theory of everyday aesthetics” (2007, 243–4).

In what follows, I’d like to critique one overarching commitment of Saito’s (and Shusterman’s). Reminding the reader again that “I certainly welcome and endorse widening our scope of aesthetics by adopting a multi-cultural and global mode of exploration” (Saito 2007, lvii), Saito ultimately expands the bounds of aesthetic life on the terms defined by Western culture:

The problem with examining our (contemporary Western) aesthetic life with the help of anthropologists’ and historians’ accounts of those aesthetic practices unfamiliar to us is that it gives an impression that the only way to acknowledge our multifaceted aesthetic life is to assimilate or proximate those unfamiliar cultural or historical traditions. … But, our aesthetic life in the everyday context is already rich and familiar to us. I do not think that we need to exoticize its content; nor should we have to become experts in Balinese, Navajo, Inuit, or Heian traditions or adopt their worldviews in order to investigate the heretofore neglected aspects of our everyday aesthetic life. (2007, 42; italics added)

Saito argues that there is no need to learn from the aforementioned traditions to be able to uproot the gems in “our [Western] multi-faceted aesthetic life” (2007, lvii). This implies that we can, of course, borrow ideas and approaches from other traditions (like Saito borrows from the Japanese, or Shusterman from the Chinese), but only to refresh the familiar Western life, dominated by urban lifestyle, to make it more interesting and sustainable. Should we choose to significantly reorient our ways and values in light of other traditions, we may run the risk of exoticising the contents of our Western (aesthetic) life. I find Saito’s position on culture and well-being to be problematic. While I wholeheartedly applaud Saito’s philosophy and use of multicultural optics, I believe that presently “a global mode of exploration” confronts us with grave global issues, suggesting it is necessary to change our ways.

It is timely to ask: how do cultures evolve? Consider Shusterman adducing three different kinds of “culture politics.” The most obvious way is when a government “is using its political power to advance certain cultural objectives that it feels are worth pursuing,” such as erecting or burning down theatres and monuments, expanding or eradicating grant schemes (Shusterman 2012, 167). A more recent phenomenon is when ostracised groups “engage in political activities of a distinctly cultural form in order to advance not only their cultural aims, but also their political and social status” (169); and here we may recall multiculturalism and LBGTI+ as two prominent cultural movements. The collective activism of the latter kind, through theory and practice, can expand a government’s cultural horizons. Finally, the third kind is concerned neither with policy, nor group interests, at least at its inception. This approach introduces a possibility of cultural change by “criticizing and reconstructing established ways of living, talking, acting, and thinking, but also by proposing new ways of life” (169).

Both Saito and Shusterman envision their projects bringing about cultural change by calling our attention to the major neglected aspects of the everyday, thereby advocating for new ways of life. However, the limits of such change are defined by their urban values and culture, which do not match up with contemporary global circumstances. I wish it was not the case; I wish we had more time. To sharpen and enhance the philosophical project of aesthetic literacy, Saito and Shusterman champion the cultivation of common, and yet unfamiliar, ways so as to enjoy a better life in the context of a familiar urban environment. Moreover, if Saito is right in arguing that ordinary objects in our lives have been neglected, and that our bodies have been similarly neglected as a source of self-understanding, as Shusterman insists, then this amounts to saying that we have failed to adequately engage not only with the most fundamental phenomena around us, but also with who we are. Neither formulation of the grounds for contemporary aesthetic literacy takes into account the intimate and most expansive domain of wild nature, neglected, depleted, and butchered as never before.

Neglect is the opposite of care; complacency and sacrifice share a similar dynamic. It is of paramount importance to flag a sense of urgency we philosophers must be able to channel in our work, insofar as our goal is a pursuit of understanding and instruction within specific global circumstances. Our shared environment is imperiled by global warming, directly undermining the possibility of flourishing, and there is little sign of such urgency in the work of the two philosophers (see Saito 2017, 141–45, 205, 215). The global environmental issues are dire, requiring immediate and dramatic changes in our lifestyles. To confirm this observation, I reached out to Bill McKibben, one of the world’s leading environmentalists. Bill is clear on the issue at hand: “the planet is way outside of its comfort zone, so we need to be way outside of ours.” Our comfort zone is located in city life, in buildings and other man-made things, also structuring regional environments. And both Saito and Shusterman offer ways to care for our enigmatic, literally cosmic nature only from the vantage point of urban culture.

Saito’s vision of cultural change, and of promoting aesthetically informed welfare, gravitates to civic solutions, and her references to wild nature are scanty (see Saito 2007, 132–3; 2017, 69). For example, endorsing the movement named “civic environmentalism,” Saito argues that a much-needed change can transpire insofar as we participate in the everyday environments thereby forming “affection and attachment”—or care—and by “promotion of and support for sensitively designed objects and environments” (2007, 99, 239; see Sepänmaa 1995, 15). It’s a city-focused care that Saito advocates:

Care, respect, sensitivity, considerateness regarding the other, whether human or non-human, have to be the moral foundation of a good society, as well as a good life. Surrounded by and being able to enjoy the ease, comfort, and aesthetic pleasure provided by artifacts induces a sense of belonging; such an environment tells us that our needs, interests, and experiences are considered important and worthy of attention. In turn, it encourages us to adopt the same attitude toward others not only in our direct interaction with them but also in our dealing with objects and surroundings. We are more inclined to take care in maintaining the public space in good condition, cleaning our house and yard, planting flowers, composing a reader-friendly document, and serving a meal that is not only nutritious and tasty but also reflective of thoughtfulness and mindfulness. (2007, 240–41; see also 244)

For Saito, the radical change can only stem from within, from changing our attitudes and dispositions, from finding a sense of belonging in caring, rather than from insatiable theorising and, effectively, following conventions. Now, while I also believe that a significant cultural change is a matter of personal transformation, I am pessimistic about the prospects of such a change in ways of thinking to emerge within the urban environment. In 2021, it is hard to concede that the care for the hidden gems of urban life can mould a frame of mind and body for the kind of change that is currently at stake.

The same issue impairs the vision of Shusterman’s project. It is true that somatic enhancement not only enriches one’s experience and feeling of life, but also exposes an opening to “the depths of the self and character,” and, by implication, to the depths of the collective project of culture:

By critically examining our culture’s oppressively narrow ideals of good looks and somatic satisfaction, while exploring alternative notions of bodily beauty and sources of somatic pleasures, somaesthetics can surely help improve “people’s sense of who they are” and “what matters to them,” and can promote new ways of talking about our embodied selves that are more liberating and rewarding. Through its comparative critique and exploration of various somatic disciplines and how they can be productively introduced into the project of philosophy as an art of living, and still further through the actual practice of such disciplines in one’s life, somaesthetics not only offers suggestions for personal cultivation but also resources for “social hope” and “working programs of action.” (Shusterman 2011, 158; see also Shusterman 2012, 189)

Like EA, SA has the potential to remedy many social ills, as both imply self-cultivation within a certain environment. In a multicultural society, Shusterman’s project of understanding the soma, for example, is a way to undo “ethnic and racial hostility” often rooted in “deep prejudices that are somatically marked in terms of vague uncomfortable feelings aroused by alien bodies, feelings that are experienced implicitly and thus engrained beneath the level of explicit consciousness” (2006b, 4). Indeed, “the visceral grip of the prejudice” cannot be undone by means of the mind alone (4–5). However, Shusterman’s philosophy as a way of life is a way of urban life. Interested in both pop and high culture, Shusterman persistently glosses over the natural environment, particularly over its wild forms, such as vast areas of water and land. Canvassing all kinds of artistic practice toward self-creation, Shusterman comes close to somatic consideration of wild nature while passing time at a Zen Dojo in rural Japan. Wilderness gets a mention along the lines of “the sublime natural seascape,” a lovely background for a meditative activity (2012, 305).

What concerns me is the fact that self-understanding in both EA and SA is fashioned within the aspirations of urban culture, as if this form of human self-fashioning and cooperation was definitive of the potential of human makeup and inclination—of humanity as such. Both aesthetic projects advance remarkable philosophies of care. However, the dimensions of attention they open up are constrained by urban concerns; even if such concerns promote a much-needed cultural transformation, I struggle to justify the neglect of wild nature, a cosmically expressive body. Consider a definition of aesthetics of the everyday by Shusterman, who observes that the term has a double meaning: “Although both are concerned with appreciating ordinary objects or commonplace events, the first notion stresses the ordinariness of these everyday things, while the latter instead emphasizes how such things can be perceived through a distinctively focused aesthetic appreciation that transfigures them into a more richly meaningful experience” (2012, 303).

Both EA qualities and the body are indeed ordinary—we are in the habit of taking them for granted—and so is wild nature. It appears that both Saito and Shusterman aim to rescue the examined life understood almost strictly within the urban environment, one that takes a heavy toll on nature to flourish. One can only wonder why wild nature does not feature in these cultural projects as an object of the commonplace aesthetic engagement, the parameters of which can be transfigured by that which exceeds any human capacity, and any human creation, like culture.[13] Possibly, because wild nature is that which is outside of our comfort zone.

What are the EA qualities in wild nature, how do they influence us, what do they suggest about our agency, and what practices and actions do they provoke? What will the soma teach us about our being when engaged with the wilderness?[14] What kinds of philosophers and meanings surface in the wild?

As our objective here is to determine the possible foundations of contemporary aesthetic literacy, it will suffice to determine some beginning steps. One simple example explains how, at a normative level, we are debarred from experiences in wild nature. Perhaps the most common way to try to spend time in nature is to go for a trip to a national park. Mostly surrounded by wild nature, we enjoy our travels to some destination, scarcely seeing any other humans. But all national parks are parks, after all, and hence are branded by roads and trails. Trails in nature are like major streets in the city. It is hard to get to know the culture of your city being guided in a line, designed by no one knows who or to what end. It is hard to discover a gig by an iconic underground post-punk band on a major city street. In a genuine city, like contemporary Berlin, the valuable marks of culture are often discovered off or under the main streets and shops, off or under the mainstream culture. Analogously, the infinite (and frequently inviting) natural phenomena emerge, perform, interact, age, decay, crawl, change colour, and fly beyond the trails, into the wild.

Extinct or still existing, ancient cultures have developed many impressive coming of age ceremonies to mark one’s growing practical wisdom, some tested by means of long, solitary, and therapeutic stretches of time(lessness). One such wonderful and demanding ceremony is the Walkabout practised by Australian Aboriginals, the oldest cultures on our planet. We do not know much about this spiritual ordeal, and yet the ultimate goal of the Walkabout is to follow who you are becoming, a similar task to many Western or Eastern philosophies of care.

A primordial condition of experience, wild nature is our habitat. It offers its own ways to learn to be human, when we explore and taste our senses.

Leave behind your phone and notepad, go for a wander. Start with trails, with the familiar, seek guidance, try to avoid encounters with bears, sea snakes, black widows, and other unforgiving creatures. Fight the compulsion to source updates, to capture the moment, to crave food. Repeat. Take the shoes off, if possible, wander about seeking no destination, observe and respond, looking for no conclusions. Take precautions, keep attentive to yearnings, tap into instincts. To get acquainted, be open to being stung by a bee, latched by a leech. Learn how to react, in cold water and heat, to bleed, confront muscle errors and inhibitions, fears and aggression. See if play is possible, risk it. See what it takes to come closer to a bird, create sounds, climb branches, listen, dive for pearls.

Re-flect, re-frame, un-think, be-come, be-long. This free-styled form of para-historic practice is just one link to being in a position to evaluate one’s ostensibly superior commitment to urban culture and lifestyle, a grand and now barely sustainable human endeavour.

Going outside of our zone of comfort implies taking risks. In the wilderness, we enter not only into a basic domain of aesthetic education, but also that which is viscerally more than can be perceived and learned. The wild alphabet is life-affirming and self-effacing. Tragically, if you were to offer your friend, lover, colleague, or a stranger, to go for a wild wander, you would probably bewilder them. A child may be surprised though, and will follow your lead and lead you. That’s how far we are alienated from nature, and from childhood.

Photograph by David Pattinson.


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  1. This fact is evidenced by the establishment of a number of new journals, e.g. Contemporary Aesthetics (2006–), Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2009–), Evental Aesthetics (2012–), Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology (2014–), The Journal of Somaesthetics (2015–), and Aesthetic Investigations (2015–).
  2. It is essential to study the lives of philosophers to learn about the diverse ways to be a philosopher. Anyone can be a philosopher, be it the wealthiest young man in Europe like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who only flirted with the academy, or Diogenes the Cynic (412–323 BC), another noble who embodied the philosophical alternative to the first academy by living on the streets of Athens, or bell hooks, a thinker born in a segregated town to a working-class African-American family.
  3. Academic training typically involves neither field work nor unconventional praxis. Philosophical insights can be communicated and provoked using many styles, ranging from literary dialogues and science fiction to poetry and aphorisms. At CUNY, for example, Jesse Prinz runs Phil-arts, a group for graduate students aiming to break away from academic norms by practising to write “fiction, popular writing, songs, comics, blogs, even comedy” (personal communication). At the University of Arizona, Keith Lehrer employs dancing to unearth meanings of abstract art. That said, we are yet to see a norm of philosophy students sharpening their judgments by doing philosophical work in their communities, and on the streets.
  4. The reader interested in the origins of everyday aesthetics should also consult the work of Katya Mandoki (2007).
  5. Plato’s works are cited by title, all of which can be found in Plato (1892). Specific locations are noted by using Stephanus numbers rather than page numbers, a common way to locate sections across different editions and translations of Plato’s works.
  6. Perhaps it is this passion for and in doing philosophy that unites philosophers across times. In the history of philosophy, some philosophers choose to channel it into practical pursuits, in ethics, politics, or education, while others can’t escape fixation on the thrill of philosophising, and the experience of the drive becomes an affirmation of itself, rather than that of humanity.
  7. Since the soma is the defining feature of human agency, SA covers not only the realm of EA, as alluded to by Saito above, but also all of aesthetic inquiry, including the arts, and even far beyond the discipline of philosophy into the interdisciplinary realm.
  8. Originates in a Latin word standing for “sheath” and nowadays defined as “the passage in the body of a woman or female animal between the outer sex organs and the womb” (Oxford Dictionary).
  9. While this word’s meaning may come across as vulgar and derogatory in the common contemporary use, the reader should be mindful that, in the last fifty years, the word has been reclaimed by many feminist thinkers and artists (see Muscio, 2002). Please also consider Bakhtin reflecting on the words belonging to the lower bodily stratum, “in the modern image of the individual body, sexual life, eating, drinking, and defecation have radically changed their meaning: they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole. In this new connotation they can no longer carry on their former philosophical functions” ([1965] 1984, 231). Bakhtin attempts to reanimate the unofficial spirit of the festive folk culture, “opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world,” a task achieved, contra our modern sentiments, by means of “degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is … coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time” (20–1). According to Bakhtin, then, such words are charged with repressed meanings that link us not to our private selves as such, but with the earth and, consequently, with “a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character” (19). Thus, Bakhtin exposes a centuries-long semantic gap, where we may rediscover a regenerative sense of the earthly life and languages of the lower bodily stratum: “Modern indecent abuse and cursing have retained dead and purely negative remnants of the grotesque concept of the body … almost nothing has remained of the ambivalent meaning whereby they would also be revived; only the bare cynicism and insult have survived. … However it would be absurd and hypocritical to deny the attraction which these expressions still exercise even when they are without erotic connotation. A vague memory of past carnival liberties and carnival truth still slumbers in these modern forms of abuse. The problem of their irrepressible linguistic vitality has as yet not been seriously posed” (28). “The best energies are often hidden behind the strongest swear words. It is as if all the maltreated backsides are waiting for their hour of revenge in the near future, when everything will again be falling flat on its arse,”—a comparable remark found in Peter Sloterdijk’s seminal Critique of Cynical Reason (1987, 148).
  10. A Sanskrit word of cosmic significance designating not only the female sexual organ, womb and home, but also a powerful metaphor for regenerative and creative forces (see Dinsmore-Tuli, 2014).
  11. Saito 2007, 41; see Rader & Jessup 1976, 116; Witherspoon 1996, 737.
  12. Philosophy as a way of life, rather than a career path or a hobby, is a common interpretation of philosophical lifestyle stemming from antiquity. Recently, this approach re-emerged thanks to the interest in work and lives of Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and Foucault, Nietzsche, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Pierre Hadot (1922–2010). The aesthetic/artistic elements in this approach to philosophical life are yet to be investigated due the arbitrarily special status of aesthetics and the arts in Western culture.
  13. Cf. Henry David Thoreau in “Walking” (aka “The Wild”): “Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man” ([1862] 2002, 199). And also Andrey Tarkovsky: “A person has no need of society, it is society that needs him. Society is a defence mechanism, a form of self-protection. Unlike a gregarious animal, a person must live in isolation, close to nature, to animals and plants, and be in contact with them. I can see more and more clearly that it is essential to change our way of life, to revise it” ([1977] 1994, 145).
  14. A further discussion may benefit from considering the intersections with environmental aesthetics. At first, take a look at Yuriko Saito's chapter in this volume and the work of Arnold Berleant.


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Aesthetic Education, Neglect and Culture Today by Valery Vino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.