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Aesthetic Perception

Author(s): Joseph Margolis


Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter, 1960), pp. 209213
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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JOSEPH

MARGOLIS

Aesthetic

Perception

are apparent, though the correctives are


usually less so.
Now, the complications that follow from
speaking of the perception of a work of art,
that is, from speaking more or less generically of aesthetic perception, regardless of
the kind of art object involved, have less to
do with the achievement of such perceiving
than with the properties of the objects so
perceived. Nor can the generic notion of
aesthetic perception be clarified by comparing it, so to say, with hearing, with seeing with one's eyes, or even with imagining;
this much we can guess simply by noting
that all sorts of such abilities are called into
play in aesthetic perception: hearing is
crucial to the perception of music, and seeing is crucial to the perception of paintings,
of art.
and understanding language is crucial to
To speak in the same breath of "aesthetic the perception of literature. And still we
perception," that is, of the perception of speak of the perception of a work of art-as
objects that are aesthetically significant, if that had nothing to do with the special
may be to speak of a special kind of per- matters of hearing and seeing and imaginception-perhaps then even of a special ing and understanding. And in fact it does
faculty of perception. And with the multi- not have anything directly to do with those
plying of faculties goes the multiplying of special matters taken severally. Stated in
another way, we begin by allowing that,
entities. One hears remarks for instance
about the perception of "beauty" and the whatever they are, the properties of works
of art and of other aesthetically eligible obdiscovery of specifically "aesthetic objects."2
Much the same kind of talk may be noted in jects are perceivable; we do not start with
certain companion fields; one hears, for in- a special model of perception, say, one restance, of "moral intuition" and of the per- stricted to sensory reports, and then ask
ception of "goodness." The dangers at least whether the alleged properties of works of
art are perceivable. We could, of course;
is associate professor of philosophy
JOSEPHMARGOLIS
and on the provision of obvious models, the
and senior research associate in psychiatry at the
properties of works of art would be
University of Cincinnati.
Presented in a shortened version at the meeting of
promptly labelled "illusory" or "imperceptible."3
The American Society for Aesthetics in Berkeley,
California, October 30 to November 1, 1958.
This is not to say that aesthetic percepIr IS

WORTH

remarking that we are obliged

to qualify, in certain characteristic ways,


our philosophical habit of speaking of the
"perception" of a work of art.' For instance,
one speaks of an aesthetic "spectator," but
though the term is nicely suited to observing
the performance of a drama or a dance, it is
not so nicely suited to attending to the performance of a musical composition and even
less well-suited to the reading of a poem or
a novel. We seem to "watch" dramas anti
dances, to "listen" to music and the recital
of poetry, to "look at" paintings and sculptures, to "read" literature. And these automatic adjustments in our language serve, I
believe, as warnings about the complexities
of what we choose to speak of, in a compressed way, as the "perception" of a work

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JOSEPH

210

tion is irresponsible as far as knowledge


claims are concerned, but rather that the
concept is neutral in this respect. Anyone
who speaks of the perception of a work of
art is committed also to explicating how,
whatever is discriminated in such perception, is open to confirmation. And when the
comments about works of art are as conglomerate as they appear to be-as in "The
music is sad," "Alice in Wonderland is a
phallic fantasy," "His last novel is really
quite baroque," and the like-we may well
wonder about the confirming procedures involved. But the concept of aesthetic perception is neutral in that it does not, by itself,
specify the set of objects or kinds of properties these objects have, that could be known,
but merely requires that the kinds of objects alleged to be known and their corresponding procedures for becoming known
be specified. "Perception," in this sense, is
a term very much like "experience"-it
merely announces the inclusion of a set of
objects in the general domain of public
scrutiny; what these objects are and how we
come to have knowledge of them is presupposed in announcing their public status, but
these matters are not detailed in the announcement itself.
We see from this that we must, in speaking of aesthetic perception, provide for characteristic instructions thought to facilitate
the required aesthetic perception of some
given object; thus we say, "Look at this,"
"Watch that movement," "Read this," "Listen to that," "Now, do you see?" And the
reply eventually comes: "Yes, I see." We are
led to try to examine things according to
directions given; we make the necessary behavioral adjustment that is listening or
watching or imagining or reading, all in the
hope that a suitable discovery will be forthcoming. And so we see also that we must
provide for appropriate testings by which
claims we may make about certain suitable
objects, on the strength of our aesthetic perception, are to be confirmed or disconfirmed.
But what it is to perceive in an aesthetically
significant way is not clarified by such instructions and such testing. For, presumably,
the same sort of instructions may be given for
both aesthetic and non-aesthetic perception
(looking and listening are not peculiarly

MARGOLIS

aesthetic endeavors, on any familiar view);


and it is altogether possible to confirm hypotheses about objects without perceiving
them in any clear sense. We require the
concept of aesthetic perception then in order to mark out initial instructions and
eventual testings as relevant to a certain
interest we are all aware we take at least
in works of fine art. And of course we require the instructions and the testings to
make it possible to extend public participation in perceiving of the aesthetic sort and
to guarantee the responsibility of critical
remarks made on the occasion of such perceiving.
One of the difficulties in the usual discussions of aesthetic perception is provided
by the dominance of visual illustrations. It
becomes possible thereby to suggest that
perceiving of the aesthetic sort requires attention to appearance as opposed to objects.4 It is not clear how this generalization
would apply in, say, an art like that of
music: where, that is, the relevant sense
verb ("hear") has a tautologous accusative
("sound"), where the distinction between
"appearance" and "object" seems ill-appointed-are there aesthetically eligible and
aesthetically ineligible sounds? Or to architecture, where, surely, our attention is at
least sometimes directed to objects (think of
functional considerations proper to architecture); of course, if one insists that architecture can sustain only "mixed" perceptions, one has already dropped the pretense
of debate. Even graver difficulties would, of
course, arise for the literary arts, where the
very applicability of a vocabulary of sensory
appearance and material object is itself
more than dubious. And even in the visual
field, if one may speak of the "appearance
of an object," what can possibly be meant
by denying that the perception of objects
(admitted to occur) is never an instance of
aesthetic perception? Either there are aesthetic and non-aesthetic appearances that
can be segregated;5 or else, the reason the
perception of an object (rather than of an
appearance) is excluded from the aesthetic
range is the presence of a non-perceptual
factor, namely, a particular kind of attention to what is perceived.6 But that has the
curious consequence of transforming what

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211

Aesthetic Perception
appeared originally to be a perceptual distinction into an attitudinal one.7
The difficulty with an attitudinal definition is very easy to trace. One supposes that
we are dealing with an attitude of a determinable sort toward some determinable
engagement. The question is, what sort of
engagement? Is it being engaged in perceiving things? The differences among the various arts, at the least, come to mind again
and the problems that have suggested themselves from these. So, for one thing, an account which emphasizes attitude or interest
will inevitably be subordinate to another
which identifies the sort of engagement the
appropriate attitude or interest concerns.
The factors mentioned in attitudinal definitions regularly include disengagement from
the so-called "practical" concern with the
world of objects,8 the purity, steadfastness,
intensity of our attention once so disengaged. But here we must note that the compatibility of different attitudes or interests
will have to be taken as empirical and contingent.9 For another thing, these attitudes
and interests must be taken to form a continuum of mixed tendencies-it would be
misleading to describe the characteristic aesthetic experience as rapt or to define aesthetic experience as having among its essential ingredients such pure and rapt
attention.10 For a third, we must be careful
not to allow such "quantifications" of our
attention (as of purity, steadfastness, intensity) to be retransformed into perceptual
distinctions; we should then have made a
complete circuit. In fact, Edward Bullough's
celebrated essay on "psychical distance" suffers from such a transition."
It is also sometimes supposed that aesthetic perception is somehow valuationally
privileged. John Dewey for instance is in
the habit of speaking of aesthetic perception
or experience as being peculiarly bound up
with the perception of a certain "satisfying"
coherence and order.12But this has the odd
result that, taken in a non-trivial sense, his
view precludes the possibility of examining
aesthetically a poorly constructed work of
art; such perception, being by hypothesis
unsatisfying, must be non-aesthetic, though
as far as mere discrimination is concerned
(as distinct from valuation) the kind of per-

ception involved will not be noticeably different from that involved in the other. So
that even if we did preempt the term "aesthetic" for certain discriminations valued
in a certain way, we see that we are still
left with a larger and logically prior effort
merely to make perceptual discriminations
themselves.13

Aesthetic perception has however some


puzzling features to be noticed. One may
hint at these by recalling that we speak of
"grasping" the melodic line of a musical
movement, "understanding" a poem, "feeling" the colors of a painting. And we may
focus these features somewhat more clearly
by citing some characteristic comments by
aestheticians. One writer remarks:
I think there is a simple way out of the dilemma
of the poem's immediate aesthetic value and the
symbolic nature of its medium. This is to recognize that linguistic meanings are, like colors
and sounds, themselves particular qualities.14

Note please that he wishes to treat the meanings of words in a poem as discernible
qualities of the poem.15 Another writer remarks:
If this is what, as I believe, feeling import is
[i.e., the intuitable intrinsic quality, the "suchness" of (an entity)], then we may say: with regard to any entity whatever, whether it be something perceived, sensed, imagined, conceived, or
in some other way brought before the mind...
if we are receptive simply and solely to the intrinsic quality, "the what," or "suchness" of it;
if what we do with the quality is feel it, rather
than interpret it, then our attitude is aesthetic,
the entity has the status of aesthetic object, and
we are "savoring" its feeling import.16

Note please that he wishes to provide for


aesthetic discriminations that may engage
sensing, imagining, and conceiving. What I
wish to draw attention to are the diverse elements that appear to be admissible in aesthetic perception and the diverse sorts of
things that are said so to be perceived.
Aesthetic perception could be taken promisingly only as a phenomenal concept, referring to our awareness of qualities, regardless of the specific mechanisms entailed or
the specific qualities discriminated, referring
to whatever is "before the mind," to what
C. J. Ducasse very tellingly titles "savoring"
(if we free the term from any value imputations).17 It refers to the achievement of

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212

JOSEPH

seeing in the largest sense, to whatever we


are aware of, to whatever is the content of
our attention. Whether what we are aware
of corresponds to the properties of objects
under examination depends on testing criteria; aesthetic perception relates only to
the having of these discriminations. And the
concept is necessary because it points to
the commensurability of perceiving qualities that include sensory qualities, imagined
qualities, meanings, implications, and others, and because it points to the complexity
of what we refer to as the immediacy of
aesthetic perception.
Aesthetic perception as such has no cognitive privilege. The single large advantage
of our proposal is that the problem of perception in the aesthetic domain is seen to
be continuous with that of any other domain. It is merely the "use" of such perception that changes, if I may be allowed to
express the point this way. What aestheticians insist on is that we are distinctly
interested in merely having our perceptual
discriminations without any developed regard for ulterior uses. But to see this is to
see why the concept of aesthetic perception
is philosophically uninteresting, except as
a corrective to otherwise extravagent tendencies that take the experience of art as an
important and privileged philosophical
clue. It must also be urged, however, that to
say this is not to say that the several kinds
of perceiving comprehended by "aesthetic
perception" or the kinds of objects and
qualities so perceived are without philosophical interest. On the contrary, it is
precisely here that our interest chiefly lies.

1This is a revised version of a paper first presented before the American Society for Aesthetics
(Fall 1958), at Berkeley, California.
2 For a particularly extreme instance, cf. C. E. M.
Joad, Matter, Life and Value (London, 1929).
3 Cf.
Henry David Aiken, "A Pluralistic Analysis
of Aesthetic Value," The Philosophical Review, LIX
(1950), 497-498.
4 Vincent Tomas, for instance, holds such a view;
cf. "Aesthetic Vision," The Philosophical Review,
LXVIII (January 1959), 52.
Tomas is most certainly not holding this very
unpromising view.
61 believe this is the point of Tomas' entire discussion; cf. op. cit., 58-60 particularly. It also ex-

MARGOLIS

plains his sympathy for writers like Schopenhauer,


Bergson, Roger Fry, and Croce, all of whom incline,
unlike Tomas himself, toward theories of a privileged kind of aesthetic perception; cf. 52-55. Detailed difficulties in Tomas' views regarding appearances and objects are discussed in Frank Sibley,
"Aesthetics and the Looks of Things," Journal of
Philosophy, LVI (November 5, 1959), 905-910.
71 find a related theory in Monroe Beardsley,
Aesthetics, particularly pp. 31-32 (New York, 1958).
Beardsley distinguishes, for instance, between a
physical chair and a perceptual chair, the latter
alone being a conceivable aesthetic object. Another
related theory is developed by Virgil Aldrich, "Picture Space," The Philosophical Review, LXVII (uly
1958), 346; Aldrich contrasts aesthetic perception
with scientific perception ("basic imagination" and
"observation"), treating them as basic categorial "aspects" (per Wittgenstein) of perceiving what is said
to be originally "simply noticed in the neutral field."
He thus makes the aesthetic a "mode of perception"
and is able to speak of specifically "aesthetic objects" in contrast to "physical objects." Apart from
the question of whether Aldrich would classify particular perceptions as aesthetic or non-aesthetic, or
whether he would permit the apparently perceptual
distinction to reduce to an attitudinal one, one may
notice a somewhat more specialized difficulty-that
concerning the propriety of using Wittgenstein's
concept of "aspects" to cover an alternation between
"modes" of perceiving. The analysis of the duckrabbit picture (Jastrow) would seem to require distinct "aspects" of a thing for the same "mode" of
perception: Aldrich would treat the "modes" themselves as basic categorial "aspects" of some "neutral
noticing." The logic of the move would seem to
oblige Aldrich to hold that particular perceptions
may be segregated (on perceptual grounds) as aesthetic or scientific.
8 Cf. Tomas, loc. cit.
L. A. Reid, A Study in Aesthetics
9Contrast
(London, 1931), p. 306; "pornography and art are in
essence mutually exclusive."
10Contrast Eliseo Vivas, "A Definition of the Aesthetic Experience," Creation and Discovery (New
York, 1955); but see also, "Contextualism Reconsidered," JAAC, XVIII (December 1959), 222-240.
11Explaining his concept, Bullough remarks: "It
has a negative, inhibitory aspect-the cutting-out of
the practical sides of things and of our practical
attitude to them-and a positive side-the elaboration of the experience on the new basis created by
the inhibitory action of Distance," "Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,"
in Eliseo Vivas and Murray Krieger, ed., The Problems of Aesthetics (New York, 1953). Bullough does
not seem to be fully aware that he is operating on
two independent scales: (1) the inhibition of the
practical (I should add, incidentally, that aesthetic
attention, on this scale, must be a threshold phenomenon); (2) the imputation of emotional states to
the object examined, by projection. But we see that
a decrease along scale (1) may occur without any
change of emotional projection; and we see that an
increase along scale (2) may occur without any dis-

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Aesthetic Perception
turbance of practical involvement (e.g., superstition,
pathetic fallacy, romance, sentimentality). So changes
regarding the two factors are not changes along the
same scale; a decrease of distance is not the reverse
of an increase of distance. The antinomy of distance,
for which Bullough is so well known ("What is ...
both in appreciation and production most desirable
is the utmost decrease of distance without its disappearance") is merely an apparent antinomy; the
second scale is quite gratuitously added to the first.
2 Thus Dewey writes, ". .. the [aesthetic] experience itself has a satisfying quality because it possesses internal integration and fulfilment reached
through ordered and organized movement"; and
also, "... no experience of whatever sort is a unity
unless it has aesthetic quality"; also, "To be truly
artistic, a work must also be aesthetic-that
is,
framed for enjoyed receptive perception. Constant
observation is of course necessary for the maker
while he is producing. But if his perception is not
also aesthetic in nature, it is a colorless and cold
recognition of what has been done, used as a stimulus to the next step in a process that is essentially
mechanical," Art as Experience (New York, 1934),
Ch. III.
"I may perhaps suggest here that "aesthetic experience" be taken to apply minimally to the having
of perceptions, regardless of the emotional tone that
attends our perceptions. This is not to advocate
emotionally "colorless" perception but rather to
avoid the difficulties inherent in such a way of
speaking as Dewey's. It is, I think, just as significant
as the "satisfying," "fulfilling," "ecstatic," "rapt"
qualities usually attributed to aesthetic experience
(obviously relatively rare) to speak of sustained attention to what one perceives, concentrated awareness of qualities discriminated, and the like. Though
even here, we see that if we emphasize discrimination as itself adequately aesthetic, developed attention may be superfluous. And if attention is regarded as critical, discriminations usually regarded
as aesthetically significant would be denied such
status. Cf. Frank Sibley, "Aesthetic Concepts," The

213
Philosophical Review, LXVIII (October 1959), 421450.
14Sidney Zink, "The Poetic Organism," The
Journal of Philosophy, XLII (April 2, 1945), 423;
cf. also, Zink, "Quality and Form in the Esthetic
Object," The Journal of Philosophy, XLII (March 1,
1945), 119-120.
5
Though it is impressively diverse, C. J. Ducasse's list of aesthetic eligibles is misleading; cf.
The Philosophy of Art (New York, 1929), p. 224. He
says objects may be "ecpathized, i.e., from [them]
may be extracted in contemplation [their] import of
aesthetic feeling." But this suggests that meanings
do not form a part of that "import." And Ducasse
actually distinguishes between "lectical" contemplation (directed to meanings) and "aesthetic" contemplation (directed to feelings).
16Vincent Tomas, "Ducasse on Art and its
Appreciation," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, XIII (September 1952), 73-74.
17
Ducasse, I might point out, fails to distinguish
satisfactorily between a narrowly psychological use
of "feeling" and the phenomenal use. His typical
illustrations-pleasure, pain, anger, jealousy, rageare illustrations of the psychological sort. Yet it is
clear that he also intends the phenomenal. Thus,
in speaking of aesthetic "feeling," he would wish to
include sensations as well as feelings (in the psychological sense), but for some reason (presumably, a
confusion between the two senses) he denies that
"meanings" may be included in the "feeling import"
of things. This distinction cannot be maintained,
in terms of the range of experience to be accounted
for; and if it is maintained on psychological grounds,
the distinctive mechanisms underlying sensation and
feeling, as well as memory and imagination, would
have to be admitted as well. Ducasse's neat distinctions among endotelic activities-the
lectical, the
aesthetic, and the heuristic-would
then founder.
All of these difficulties are obviated if we speak,
say,
of "feeling" or "savoring" the meanings of literary
pieces.

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