Cosmological and Civilized Harmonies

First published 2008

1. Overview

Modern understandings of aesthetics usually identify it as one of the two branches of axiology (value theory), the other being ethics. Aesthetic values have to do with beauty; ethical values with goodness. The aesthetic worth of an object or experience is intrinsic to it rather than instrumental, something that makes it valuable for its own sake. An aesthetic object or event can be natural—a delicate rose petal, a beautiful sunset, a graceful gesture—or it can be artificial, something created by a human being for the purpose of evoking an aesthetic response—a Michelangelo sculpture, a Turner landscape, a pas-de-deux from the Nutcracker. Art is the field of human endeavor dedicated to the creation of aesthetic objects.

Traditionally, aesthetics is the last section of a metaphysical system that begins with foundational principles, moves through logic, cosmology, and physical science, then on to psychology, sociology, and history, before concluding with religion, ethics, and aesthetics. The Platonic influence is obvious. Metaphysics begins with the most real things—those that are universal, abstract, and timeless—and ends with those things that are least real—that are concrete, contingent, and fleeting. It starts with what can be known only by reason and concludes with what is known by the senses, by what is felt rather than thought.

Whitehead inverts this hierarchy. Momentary concrete achievements—actual occasions—are the most real features of the cosmos and all else is derivative. The first principles of metaphysics and the fundamental laws of nature are abstractive generalizations, interpretive hypotheses about the recurrent patterns that characterize the becoming and perishing of actual occasions and enduring objects. Aesthetics is foundational for Whitehead because the character of an actual occasion, its reality as a process of determinate realization, is aesthetic. The foundation of the world lies in activities of making that have inherent value. To be is to be beautiful.

Whitehead wrote extensively about aesthetics in a metaphysical sense, and he cites the arts as one of the specific forms of endeavor from which a metaphysical theory might take its departure. His comments about art and aesthetics as human activities, however, about the artist’s crafting of aesthetic objects that evoke aesthetic experiences, are informal, illustrative, and episodic. Whitehead wrote no book on aesthetics, not even a collection of articles. The one exception is the fourth Part of Adventures of Ideas.

The remainder of this entry is organized as follows. I have attempted in Section 2 to pull together Whitehead’s scattered ideas in a systematic way, beginning with his notion of aesthetic harmony as it applies specifically to works of art, expanding this notion to an exploration of the distinction between aesthetic and logical harmony, then expanding it further to a consideration of the cosmological foundation for the aesthetic. The implications of this understanding of aesthetics for epistemology and education are then explored. I conclude by discussing Whitehead’s culminating vision of the aesthetic: his sustained account of how civilized existence depends on an effective expression of the interrelated virtues of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, and Peace. Thus the movement of Section 2 follows the “airplane” trajectory that Whitehead says any metaphysical theory must take: from concrete experience to abstract systems and then back to concrete applications. Section 3 offers a sketch of the ways in which Whitehead’s aesthetic theory has been interpreted by his commentators, and how it has been used to interpret the character of works of art and the artistic act of creation. In Section 4, I offer a few evaluative comments on what I find to be the most profitable direction in which philosophers have taken Whitehead’s aesthetic ideas. Section 5 contains suggestions for further reading.

2. Whitehead’s Aesthetics

2.1. Art and the Principles of Harmony

Whitehead defines art as “any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realisable by them” (SMW 200). The vividness of the value is key, not the content. The dramatic sweep of a thunderstorm or a epic poem, the delicate subtlety of a butterfly wing or a sonnet, the well-ordered efficiency of a factory or a political campaign, are all works of art because they have a complex unity that captures our attention. We appreciate them not primarily for their usefulness but for the vivid reality they make manifest.

The intrinsic value of an art object is a function of the “strength” of the harmony it exhibits. The stronger the harmony, the more vivid the value. Whitehead identifies two dimensions of strength—”massiveness” and “intensity” (AI 253). Massiveness has to do with the number of elements included in the harmony, intensity with how coherently they have been integrated. Integration is the more readily achieved the more the cohering elements are similar, which can be accomplished by “narrowness” in what is included or by “vagueness” concerning their specific character. Integration is easier when the requirements for inclusion are minimal, a disorderly “width” or one that suffers from “triviality” (PR 111-12). Both the massiveness and intensity are increased when “contrasts” (PR 128) are utilized. The elements of a harmony are more effectively unified by contrasting rather than blurring their differences, when relationships are constructed in which conflicting details express rather than deny more general harmonies.

Thus there are degrees of aesthetic value, for although all art objects have achieved equally determinate results, they differ with respect to the strength of that achievement—the massiveness of its complexity and the intensity of its integration. Whitehead offers the Cathedral at Chartres as his paradigm. The details of its architecture, such as the nearly four thousand statues along its facades, all with their own “vigorous characters,” are tightly integrated into the unity of the cathedral as a whole. The whole exhibits not merely an abstract “pattern of qualitative beauty” but “a beautiful system of objects,” its components rendered systemically compatible without loss of their contrasting differences (AI 264). “Strength of experience, in massiveness and in intensity, depends upon the substratum of detail being composed of significant individuals” (AI 263).

A work of art can achieve considerable value, however, at a far remove from this paradigm, flirting with the extremes of maximal inclusiveness with minimal intensity or minimal inclusiveness with maximal intensity. A Brancusi bird daringly eliminates detail and difference in order to intensify unity, as does a Schubert lieder or a Japanese haiku. Obversely, in a Míro painting disparate elements brashly destabilize but do not destroy the integrity of the whole. This same journey to the edge of chaos characterizes a Mahler symphony or a sprawling picaresque novel such as Don Quixote. Aesthetic excellence, however, usually lies around a Chartres-like golden mean: as much massiveness as possible combined with as much intensity as possible. There is no formula, however, for achieving such optima of value. Creating great art is an art.

2.2. More General Kinds of Harmony

Whitehead distinguishes two kinds of harmony: harmonies are not only aesthetic but also logical. A logical harmony begins with diverse primitive elements and then synthesizes them into a harmonic whole, whereas an aesthetic harmony begins with the harmonic whole and then discloses its constituent elements. Logical creation moves from the many to the one. Aesthetic creation moves from the one to the many, “from the delight in the whole to appreciation of the details” (MT 61). Logical harmonies are constructions, the fruit of organizing separate individual entities into a system. Scientists are concerned with logical harmony, with quantitative systems in which the elements are integrated by means of mathematical relationships. The laws of physics and of axiomatized logics such Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica exemplify this kind of harmony.

Aesthetic harmonies are qualitative rather than quantitative. The importance of this difference is suggested by what Whitehead calls the “haunting charm” of early medieval art. As with any art object, we are attracted to these works by their intrinsic quality, but they also manage to convey a sense of a reality stretching far beyond what is directly perceived. Our direct aesthetic experience suggests that there is more than this experience can encompass, connections that, however dim and fragmentary they might be, “sound the utmost depths of reality.” The medieval faith in an order of nature, which the opening chapter of Science and the Modern World shows to have been crucial to the emergence of modern science, finds expression in its art. It is a faith that particular things are part of a greater whole, that “in being ourselves we are more than ourselves” (SMW 18).

Aesthetic artistry involves developing a new perspective on familiar things, a novel way of organizing them so as to bring into the foreground what has previously been lurking in the background—to transcend the obvious. Because there is always a periphery beyond every focus, depths not fathomed by any formulation of what is the case, artistic genius involves reaching into these depths in order to devise a novel synthesis that carries us out a bit further than before into the unknown. Thus Whitehead closes Modes of Thought by likening philosophy to poetry. The one uses mathematical pattern, the other meter, but both refer to “form beyond the direct meaning of words” (MT 174). Philosophy seeks to rationalize mysticism, to offer in precise linguistic and mathematical symbols a rational interpretation of the depths that necessarily escape our finite understanding. Art (including poetry) discloses those depths non-linguistically, evoking our vaguely felt sense of the ways the here and now relates to an environing more. Even when words are the medium of artistic expression, the aesthetic experience carries us beyond the dictionary meanings of the words. Our enjoyment of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is not found in his apparent exploration of a series of logical dichotomies (PR 185).

Among the arts, the kinaesthetic ones are the most ancient because, says Whitehead, their symbols are easier to produce than pots, pictures, or poetry (RM 20-23). Ritual emerges as a way for humans to relive in tranquility what was initially experienced as a struggle for survival. Gathered in the security of their cave around a fire, cooking the meat from an animal killed earlier in that day’s hunt, someone reenacts in bodily movements and facial gestures the cleverness of the search, the caution of the stalking, the danger of the kill, the fatigue of the return, the delight in the meal. The emotions of the hunt are in the foreground; rekindling them is the point of the reenactment. Eventually, verbal symbols are added, permitting both greater economy and greater subtlety in the emotions invoked. Odysseus, dwelling among the shades in Hades, listening to Homer chant his heroic exploits, is able to enjoy them free from the perils that were so salient when they occurred (AI 272).

Thus art satisfies “this simple craving to enjoy freely the vividness of life which first arises in moments of necessity” (AI 272). But it also makes judgment possible. The heroes become role models for their successors, their courage and craftiness generalized as normative measures for assessing the value of a person or an undertaking. Self-consciousness emerges as ritual and mythic speech makes it possible to step back from immediate practical concerns, to compare present conditions and future opportunities with a remembered past, to imagine a creatively embellished ideal located in that past and to be judged and guided by it. “The souls of men are the gift of language to mankind” (MT 41).

2.3. Cosmological Harmonies

The Function of Reason maps the contrast between logical and aesthetic harmony onto the cosmos. It does so by explicating “two main tendencies in the course of events”: an entropic element involving a steady degradation in the quality of achievement and an originative element involving improvement in quality. Unless disciplined by Reason, however, the originative element is a fast track to degradation, introducing more novelty than can be effectively integrated by established techniques, forcing a retreat to some lesser quality in achieved harmony. Speculative Reason, the reason of Plato, emphasizes massiveness by increasing the scope of what is relevant and then fashioning new schemes for their integration. Practical Reason, the reason of Ulysses, emphasizes the intensity of the scheme’s integration by insisting that its scope be kept within manageable limits. Either mode of reasoning by itself merely echoes one of the two cosmic tendencies that need disciplining. Together, however, they “embody in us the disciplined counter-agency which saves the world” (FR 34).

Whitehead calls this interweaving of both the speculative and the practical “The Greek Discovery.” His discussion of it is completely in terms of science, the fashioning of “logical harmonies,” the imaginative elaboration of empirically testable schemes of thought. Aesthetic harmonies are equally important interweavings, however, in their way also a counter-agency to cultural and cosmic decay. Artistic creations expand the scope of relevance not by schematizing closed systems but by adumbrating the open-ended totality that encompasses but always escapes systemic formulation. Art discloses the “solemnity of the world,” the world as always stretching indefinitely beyond all finite facts and the finite systems integrating them. Aesthetic experience, as it leads us toward greater depths of feeling, becomes religious experience, an “intuition of holiness” (MT 120).

If logical harmony invokes a sense of the “iron necessity” of law, aesthetic harmony invokes “a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress toward finer, subtler issues” (SMW 18). The cosmos needs both the power to achieve stable order and the power to transform it into some better order. It is a realm of adjusted values mutually intensifying and destroying what has been achieved, a dynamic interplay of established law and rebellious innovation.

It follows from these considerations that harmony needs to be a fundamental feature of the categoreal scheme that sets the metaphysical parameters of Whitehead’s cosmology (PR Chapter 2). The details of the categoreal scheme and its metaphysical implications are discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopedia. We need only underscore the aesthetic character of the reality for which the metaphysics proposes an interpretation. Concrescence, says Whitehead, is “aesthetic synthesis” (PR 212). It begins with the nascent occasion’s physical prehensions of the given world, prehensions that are as richly varied as the world. The challenge is for the concrescence to make from this multitude of prehensions a new well-ordered distinctive unity, to reconcile a many, to synthesize a one.

The Categoreal Obligations explain how such a synthesis is possible (PR 26-28, 247-55). The first, the Category of Subjective Unity, stipulates the logical condition for harmony: that the diverse, as-yet unintegrated prehensions belonging to incomplete phases of the process of concrescence are nonetheless “compatible for integration by reason of the unity of their subject” (PR 26). The fourth and fifth categories, Conceptual Valuation and Conceptual Reversion, are concerned with the origination of the novel possibilities needed to effect the concrete harmony promised by the logical condition set forth in the first category. The sixth and seventh categories, Transmutation and Subjective Harmony, stipulate the conditions governing how that promise can be realized, how incompatibilities can be modulated into contrasts and an actual harmony produced.

When Whitehead elaborates on the categoreal obligations later on in Process and Reality, he refers at one point to the seventh category as the Category of Aesthetic (rather than Subjective) Harmony, and rightly so, for it has to do with “aesthetic adaptation” (PR 255). Precisely because the concrescence of an actual occasion is constrained initially by the condition that its prehensions have a logically harmonious content, and because it is guided in its determinative trajectory by conditions that make for aesthetic harmony, the process issues is a definite result, one that departs from its inheritance sufficiently enough to effect that result. Whitehead says these categories create a “pre-established harmony” (PR 255). What is pre-established, however, is not the specific outcome but the conditions guaranteeing that there will be an outcome of some sort, and that it will be a fully integrated whole, a unique new actual occasion, come to be in addition to the many from which it emerged. Each actual occasion is, in this sense, a work of art.

2.4. Practical Harmonies

Whitehead’s epistemology, developed in Symbolism and in Process and Reality, echoes the structure of concrescence. The world is first experienced in the mode of causal efficacy as a circumambient vague presence demanding to be taken account of. These feelings of influence from beyond oneself are transformed into the sensa that characterize experience in the mode of presentational immediacy. By means of symbolic reference, these sensa are projected onto the spatio-temporal region from which the feelings were felt to originate. This interpretation of the causally efficacious then guides the perceiver’s actions, and guides them fruitfully insofar as the sensa focus attention on aspects of the world relevant to the perceiver’s purposes, to matters of survival and betterment.

The “immense aesthetic importance” we give to sensa is because they are derived from these vague feelings of influence (AI 245). The affective tone of our experience in the mode of causal efficacy is reproduced in the subjective form of their transformation into sense data. Secondary qualities are transmutations of how we feel the impinging world; the adjectives of our languages derive from the adverbs. Whitehead’s example is of the “strong aesthetic emotion” associated with colors: we see the red cloth angrily, the green fields serenely (AI 246, 250).

The abstracting of sensa from their affective origins is an invaluably practical ability. By means of it, we develop clear precise information about the world, which we then use to guide our actions. The practical utility of presentational immediacy can tempt us to forget its dependence on causal efficacy. We ignore or even denigrate the vague unquantifiable feelings upon which our sense data depend, identifying feelings as features of our subjective responses rather than as objective features of the external world, as irrational rather than rational. The fallacies Whitehead famously identifies—”misplaced concreteness” (SMW 51) and “the perfect dictionary” (MT 173)—result from neglecting the dependence of sensationalist and rationalist forms of knowledge on aesthetic experience.

A similar mistake plagues education. In the second and third chapters of The Aims of Education, Whitehead argues that there is a rhythm to the learning process, one that cycles through three stages: romance, precision, and generalization. He chastises educators for beginning—and ending—with precision, prizing only what is clear and distinct, what is capable of being organized systematically. Before students can be expected to find the discipline of careful analysis worthwhile, they need to have an opportunity to exercise their imagination and curiosity, to follow out “unexplored connexions with possibilities half-disclosed by glimpses and half-concealed by the wealth of material” (AE 17). This stage of romance is an aesthetic stage, because it emphasizes direct experience and interconnection. We must begin with what is concrete and therefore open-ended. Experiencing things for the first time—looking through a telescope, going to an opera, attending a town meeting—is vividly thrilling because these experiences are overflowing with import, their content as yet unbounded by the requirements of disciplined understanding. Students are better served reading Plato’s dialogues, even in translation, than by reading a textbook in which someone systematically explicates at second-hand what Plato said or meant (AE 74).

Romance should lead naturally to precision as students, wanting to know more about what they find important, willingly acquire the methodological tools of analytic inquiry and learn to relate their growing knowledge to established theories and other bodies of fact. Star-gazing motivates a student to study astronomy; opera going, to take voice lessons or enroll in a music course; experiencing local politics, to stand for political office; reading Meno in English, to become competent in classical Greek. Generalization, Whitehead’s third stage of education, returns students from the abstractions of the disciplinary competence they have achieved to the immediacy of the romantic. Now they come equipped, however, with the tools of their disciplines. The innovative thinker, the creative artist, and the effective leader are all able to transcend established routines—pushing beyond normal science, acceptable styles, and practical good sense. They can do so because they have not only mastered the established techniques but are aware of the limitations of those techniques, aware of the unrealized alternatives and unexplored possibilities they necessarily exclude.

Education, Whitehead argues, is “the guidance of the individual towards a comprehension of the art of life,” by which he means “the most complete achievement of varied activities expressing the potentialities of that living creature in the face of its actual environment” (AE 39). It requires an “artistic sense”: knowing how best to subordinate our lower to our higher possibilities. The practice of the art of life begins with wonder, curiosity, and reverence, progresses to the development of self-discipline, and finds its fruition in effecting through our own initiative an outcome better than what we had previously achieved. The habit of this way of responding to circumstances allows us to achieve in our lives “the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realised perfection” that is our fulfillment as persons (AE 40). As with all great artistic creation, such an individual life always points beyond itself, to possibilities it has not realized, to values that transcend even as they inform its own finite accomplishments. The art of life is to make of one’s life a work of art.

2.5. Civilized Harmonies

In the concluding five chapters of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead offers his only sustained discussion of what are otherwise scattered comments on aesthetics and the arts. He defines “civilization” as the quality of any society that exhibits the characteristics epitomized in five notions—Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, and Peace.

Truth and Beauty are the two “regulative principles in virtue of which Appearance justifies itself to the immediate decision of the experient subject” (AI 241). That is, they are the factors by which the subjective form of a prehension is modified so as to emphasize or attenuate its content, thereby prolonging or undermining some heritage of achieved value. Reality, experienced in the mode of causal efficacy, is transformed by the modality of presentational immediacy into an Appearance. Truth is the relation of that Appearance to the Reality it purports to represent. Art creates a truth relation in which the objective content of the Reality to which its symbols point is subordinated to the subjective form of that relation. The symbols bring the vague emotional tonalities of an experience into prominence. These tonalities provide “an emotional clothing which changes the dim objective reality into a clear Appearance matching the subjective form provided for its prehension.” The “delicate inner truth of Art” is this power it has to express truths about the nature of things that elude discursive language (AI 249).

Whitehead distinguishes Beauty from the Beautiful. Beauty is the quality of a concretely exhibited harmony. Some of the elements available for incorporation into that harmony are Beautiful because of their potential to contribute positively to it, whether or not they actually do. They would enhance its Beauty were they included, “by a fortunate exercise” of the artist’s creativity. Such elements are ideals, beautiful because of their “inherent capacity for the promotion of Beauty” (AI 255). The quality of being beautiful is a contextual feature, the resourcefulness of a physical or cultural heritage to encourage efforts that aspire to create higher harmonies and to provide opportunity for realizing those aspirations. A society’s artists in particular, its cultivated elites more generally, all its citizens ideally, are agents of hope insofar as they fashion, preserve, and celebrate the beautiful potencies of their world.

The things that not only possess beauty but are also beautiful are always concrete particulars: this granddaughter smiling up at us, this vista we observe at the end of an arduous climb, this haunting melody played by the oboist in the symphony’s second movement. They are beautiful, however, because the emotional intensities found in experiences of this sort have been remembered, generalized, and then focused on that specific individual or object. Our love for our family, for parents and children, for ancestors long dead and descendants not yet born, an emotion distilled from all our particular interactions with them and about them, is invested in the smiling grandchild. This child is distinctively herself, born of a particular mother on a particular day and in a particular place, already having a biography to recount and expectations to pursue. But through these particular features that constitute her Beauty, we see her as Beautiful also, as embodying a familial love that existed before she was born and that will endure long after she has grown old and died.

These generalized feelings adhere in what Whitehead calls an “It”: an apparent enduring object with its permanent character, transcending the immediate moment and yet evoked by and through such moments. We prize a cenotaph carved under the watchful eyes of Sennacherib (AI 262) because its historical uniqueness, its having come into existence at that very particular time and place, evokes an emotional engagement with this powerful monarch, and through him with an ancient empire that once flourished, with a sense of glorious achievements won and lost, with an ontological sense of the hard truth that all things come to be and perish. The cenotaph is Beautiful because it frees us from our parochial concerns, prods us to imagine other times, other successes and failures, and so lures us to dream of what we might do to improve upon the Beauty in which yesterday’s efforts found their resolution.

Thus great Art lures us from the Beauty of what the artist has made to a sense of the Beautiful that we too can make. It lures a civilization away from an idolatry of its distinctive value achievements toward the innovations necessary for its adaptive survival. Art is an engine of instability, and therefore it is the soul of a civilization. For “civilization is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony” that the achievements of the past have made possible (AI 271). Whitehead calls the pursuit of this “unremitting aim” Adventure because the end sought is always at risk. The pursuit is destabilizing, and so the new level of harmony is a possibility that might not be achieved, that might result in a lesser rather than a higher harmony. Even where there is local success in achieving higher and then yet higher harmonies, no final ultimate harmony is possible. There is an “intrinsic incompatibility” in things: incommensurable ideals struggling for realization, always and everywhere the violence of strength against strength (AI 279). What a great work of art exhibits, however, is an ideal of “the harmony of all perfections” (AI 276).

The last of the five qualities Whitehead says a society must possess to qualify as a civilization is Peace, which is our sense of the ideal harmony just mentioned. Peace involves no utopian vision, but is rather “a trust in the efficacy of Beauty” (AI 285), in its capacity to lure us beyond established boundaries, toward stronger higher harmonies. The fruit of Peace is the love of humankind as such, the “zest of self-forgetful transcendence” (AI 296), a “living urge toward all possibilities, claiming the goodness of their realization” (AI 295). The dream of actualizing such ideals is bound to fail, in whole or in part. The harvest is always tragic. The ideals remain, however; for our failure to actualize an ideal has its own beauty. Tragic Beauty is therefore Beautiful, for it has the power to revive hope, to encourage our effort to find new ways by which the failed ideal might be realized.

A sense of Peace is thus akin to a work of art. It means perceiving the cosmos as a complexly dynamic and enduring totality, composed of creative individuals succeeding or failing in diverse ways in their effort to achieve some sort of finite harmony, each individual redolent with the beauty of its achievements and beautiful in its aspirations, and the whole cosmos therefore beautiful. Peace is our sense of taking part in an adventure we share with all entities past, present, and future, with all things that have perished, that are concrescing, and that might someday be possible. As a work of art reveals a depth and scope of relevance far exceeding what it explicitly exhibits, so Peace reveals the Final Fact of an ideal unity, a Harmony of Harmonies, that is its own justification. Peace is thus the way the world is persuaded “towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions” (AI 296).

3. Secondary Sources

The standard general commentaries on Whitehead’s philosophy mention art or aesthetics only in passing, and then mainly to note, but not to explicate, his recurrent use of aesthetic terms. Bertram Morris, in his 1941 contribution to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Whitehead, provides the first sustained exposition of Whitehead’s aesthetic theory, which he does in terms of its centrality in the genetic analysis of actual occasions. Charles Hartshorne on a number of occasions explicates the hierarchical character of aesthetic value in Whitehead’s metaphysics. David Martin, in a 1955 essay on the “Unrealized Possibility […] immanent in the ‘given’ of works of art” (1955, 394), uses Whitehead’s categoreal obligations to explicate the difference between merely hearing a Beethoven symphony and listening to it, experiencing the “infinity and transcendence” it reveals. Two years later, John Cobb, Jr. argues that the aesthetic is a feature of objects, not of one’s subjective response to them. An object is aesthetic to the extent that it is “determinative of the subjective form” of its prehension in the mode of causal efficacy, and that prehensive experience is “aesthetically satisfactory” (1957, 179). The work of art is beautiful and so it causes the viewer’s experience of its beauty.

Donald Sherburne rejects Cobb’s definition of the aesthetic. In the first book-length development of an aesthetic theory based on Whitehead’s thought, Sherburne argues that a work of art is a proposition rather than an object. An art object, such as a painting in a museum exhibit, is an “objectification” of an aesthetic proposition. Aesthetic experience is “aesthetic recreation”: our emotional response to the painting includes the subjective aim of recreating in our own immediate experience the proposition objectified in that painting. Any experienced object has some modicum of propositional lure, but an art object exerts “commanding control over an overpowering percentage of subjective aims that encounter it” (114). The creativity that effects this commanding control involves fashioning what Sherburne calls a “horizontally transmuted intellectual feeling” (165).

Subsequent essays on Whitehead’s aesthetics split into two camps: those that agree with Sherburne’s “rationalistic aesthetic” with its emphasis on the propositional character of art and those that advocate an “empiricist aesthetic” in which art is said to involve an “immediate, physical, emotional, and nonconscious response to the world” (Dean 1983, 107).

Stephen David Ross belongs to the rationalistic camp, weaving a theory of the inexhaustibility of art out of Justus Buchler’s ordinal metaphysics and Whitehead’s theory of contrasts. Robert Valenza extends Sherburne’s thesis in an essay that demonstrates through well-chosen examples how with respect to “an experiential flow from the outside world […] science condenses this experience, thus sharply defining truth, [whereas] art expands it” (2002, 72). Unlike a scientific proposition, an aesthetic proposition “distances” us from “ordinary reality” through not only horizontal transmutation but also what he calls “dissociative reversion.” William Dean, in an essay on Whitehead’s “other” aesthetic, rejects this over-intellectualization of art, arguing that an aesthetic experience is nonpropositional: an “intimate concourse of the body with the aesthetic worth of the world” (1983, 108). Similarly, David Martin’s book on sculpture explains how “perceiving bodily” creates an “enlivened space” around the physical sculpture; the art object is propositional, but it is felt, not thought.

David Hall (1973) wrote the only book that deals with art in the context of Whitehead’s theory of culture as found in Adventures of Ideas, and so his book provides a thorough account of the role of human society in the nurture of aesthetic appreciation and artistic creativity. Hall interprets Whitehead as distinguishing art, understood as one of the five “aims” that define civilized societies, from art understood as a cultural “interest.” Truth, beauty, art, adventure, and peace are ideals, but they “can be made a part of a social order only if the theoretical and practical energies are directed toward their realization” (1973, 110). Art—along with morality, religion, science, and philosophy—are the cultural interests in the West that have predominately served this role. Hall laments the decline of our cultural ideals and imagines the emergence of a “new sensibility” based on a Whiteheadian understanding of finitude that “prevents cynicism and overcomes despair,” a “new religious vision” it is the function of art to proclaim (1973, 195).

Hall agrees with the empiricist approach to aesthetics, criticizing Sherburne for paying insufficient attention to the physical—realist—aspects of art. A genuine “naturalism” needs not only to appreciate the inventive “artificiality” of aesthetic creation, the strategies of transmutation that result in intensities of experience not otherwise available, but also to appreciate how art is rooted in the concretely practical everyday necessities of life, in circumstances having to do with individual and group survival and well-being (92-94). No writer has taken this sense of aesthetic naturalism more seriously than Susanne Langer. Her distinction in Philosophy in a New Key between “presentational” and “discursive” symbols is a superbly inventive application of Whitehead’s distinction between causal efficacy and presentational immediacy. Her account of the shift over time away from presentational symbols toward the dominance of discursive symbols elaborates Whitehead’s comments, primarily in the first chapter of Religion in the Making, on the emergence of rational thought from religious ritual and myth.

Leonard Wessell’s book on the function of aesthetics in Whitehead’s cosmology seeks to use the aesthetic as the key to an interpretation of the philosophy of organism. A number of essays use Whitehead’s aesthetic theory to interpret the work of a particular artist, usually a poet. His theory has also been applied to areas other than the arts, mainly by emphasizing the nonlinear inter-relational character of his notion of aesthetic harmony. For instance, William Dean, in his book Coming To, affirms aesthetic categories as theologically more fundamental than those having to do with goodness or truth. Barry Whitney offers an aesthetic alternative to traditional forms of theodicy. Robert Mesle develops a theory of personhood based on an ideal of aesthetically grounded “relational power.” Pete Gunter proposes an “aesthetic of nature” focused on forests, in which beauty and ecological diversity are linked, in which the destruction of wilderness and the development of monocultures “wrong the aesthetic telos of nature itself” (2004, 322). The neurologist Jason Brown uses Whitehead’s epistemology to develop a “microgenetic” theory of mental processes rooted in “aesthetic perception.” Steve Odin uses Whitehead extensively in developing a “comparative aesthetics” approach to Japanese and Western art.

4. Concluding Remarks

Whiteheadian commentators offer no explanation for why Whitehead never developed an explicit aesthetic theory. Equally perplexing is why none of the commentators have remedied this neglect on Whitehead’s part. Sherburne is the exception, but his book is essentially a Ph.D. thesis. Although he subsequently wrote a number of essays on Whitehead’s aesthetics, he never followed up with a further book-length study. David Martin’s books are the best example of sustained examinations of actual works of art using Whitehead to help frame one’s interpretive categories. The total number of essays on Whitehead’s aesthetic theory, and those that use his theory in discussing aesthetic topics are relatively small, and except for some that relate to Sherburne’s propositional interpretation, in support or critique, these essays are lonely ventures, disconnected from one another. Whiteheadian aesthetic scholarship, ironically, lacks massiveness, and what diversity there is has not been transmuted into contrasts leading to strong harmonic satisfactions.

This weakness is partially offset, however, by philosophers whose metaphysical creations have been inspired at least in part by Whitehead’s aesthetic theory. Whitehead’s contemporary, John Dewey, and his student, Susanne Langer, are the best known English-language exemplars of this sort of metaphysical adventuring. The influences of Whitehead’s aesthetics in German philosophy can be found in the writings of Nicholaï Hartmann and of Reiner Wiehl.

Two current metaphysicians deserve special mention—Robert Neville and Frederick Ferré. Neville develops an axiological ontology in which each and every entity is a harmony of “conditional features” marking its dependence on other entities and the “essential features” by which those conditional features are integrated, constituting the entity’s absolute uniqueness. Every harmony is also a conditional or essential feature for other harmonies, and how these harmonies are harmonized temporally in the durations of entities, especially of “discursive individuals,” generates an ethic based on “normative measures” of self-fulfillment and self-transcendence. Ferré argues that the basic factual entities of the universe are self-fashioning processes involving the integration of diverse elements into a definite unity, a harmony. To achieve any sort of harmony is to generate beauty, so a cosmos composed of beauty-fashioning entities is “inherently kalogenic.” Given such a universe, an ethic obviously follows in which not only persons but other organisms, indeed entities of every sort, should be treasured for the value achieved in their existing and for their relevance to possibilities for future value realization.

These creative re-formations of Whitehead’s ideas are fitting homages, more so than the secondary scholarship. Lured by the ideal of the aesthetically grounded metaphysics that Whitehead’s work reveals even in its failure to actualize it, these “post-Whiteheadian” metaphysicians express the “Unity of Adventure” which Whitehead says is the height of civilized existence.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Brown, Jason W. 2000. “On Aesthetic Perception,” in Mind and Nature: Essays on Time and Subjectivity (London and Philadelphia, Whurr), Chapter 9.

Buchler, Justus. 1990 [1966]. The Metaphysics of Natural Complexes, 2nd Edition, edited by Kathleen Wallace and Armen Marsoobian, with Robert S. Corrington. Introduction by Kathleen Wallace (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Cobb, John B., Jr. 1957. “Toward Clarity in Aesthetics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 18, 97-105.

Dean, William. 1972. Coming To: A Theology of Beauty (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Dean, William. 1983. “Whitehead’s Other Aesthetic,” Process Studies 13.1, 104-112.

Dewey, John. 1959 [1934]. Art as Experience (New York, Capricorn).

Ferré, Frederick. 1996. Being and Value (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Gunter, Pete A. Y. 2004. “A Whiteheadian Aesthetics of Nature: Beauty and the Forest,” Process Studies 33.2, 314-22. [Translated from “Une esthétique whiteheadienne de la nature : la beauté et la forêt”, in François Beets, Michel Dupuis et Michel Weber (éditeurs), Alfred North Whitehead. De l’algèbre universelle à la théologie naturelle, Frankfurt / Paris / Lancaster, ontos verlag, 2004.]

Hall, David L. 1973. The Civilization of Experience: A Whiteheadian Theory of Culture (New York, Fordham University Press).

Hartmann, Nichoaï. 1953. Ästhetik (Berlin, de Gruyter).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1970. “The Aesthetic Matrix of Value,” in Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (La Salle IL, Open Court), 303-22.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1997. “The Kinds and Levels of Aesthetic Value,” in The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy, edited by Mohammad Valady (La Salle IL, Open Court), 203-214.

Langer, Susanne K. 1957 [1942]. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, 3rd Edition (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Martin, F. David. 1955. “Unrealized Possibility in the Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Philosophy 52.15, 393-400.

Martin, F. David. 1981. Sculpture and Enlivened Space: Aesthetics and History (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press).

Mesle, C. Robert. 1983. “Aesthetic Value and Relational Power: An Essay on Personhood,” Process Studies 13.1, 59-70.

Morris, Bertram. 1951 [1942]. “The Art-process and the Aesthetic Fact in Whitehead’s Philosophy,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, 2nd edition, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York, Tudor), 463-86.

Neville, Robert Cummings. 1989. Recovery of the Measure: Interpretation and Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Odin, Steve. 2001. Artistic Detachment in Japan and the West: Psychic Distance in Comparative Aesthetics (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press).

Ross, Stephen David. 1982. A Theory of Art: Inexhaustibility by Contrast (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Sherburne, Donald W. 1961. A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Sherburne, Donald W. (ed.). 1983. “The Arts, Aesthetics, and Process Philosophy,” Special Issue: Process Studies 13.1.

Valenza, Robert J. 2002. “Aesthetic Priority in Science and Religion,” Process Studies 31.1, 49-76.

Wessel, Leonard P. 1990. Zur Function des Asthetischen in der Kosmologie Alfred North Whiteheads (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Europäische Hochschulschriften Reihe 20, Philosophie 309).

Whitney, Barry L. 1994. “An Aesthetic Solution to the Problem of Evil,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 35.1, 27-37.

Wiehl, Reiner. 1971. “Einleitung in die Philosophie A. N. Whitehead,” in Alfred North Whitehead, Abenteuer des Ideen, translated by Eberhard Bubser (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp), 7-71.

Wiehl, Reiner and Horst-Jürgen Gerigk. 2004. Philosophische Ästhetik zwischen Immanuel Kant und Arthur Danto (Göttingen, Vanderhoeck und Ruprecht).

Author Information

George Allan
Philosophy Department
Dickinson College, Carlisle PA 17013

How to Cite this Article

Allan, George, “Cosmological and Civilized Harmonies”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.