Arnold Berleant


It is gratifying to see this special issue of the Polish journal Sztuka y Filozofia, originally published in Polish in 2010, now accessible in an English translation. Along with Polish editions of several of my books, it demonstrated close attention to my work, an interest of which I had not been aware. Now that I have read for the first time the contributions by my Polish colleagues, I am impressed by how clearly they and all the other scholars represented here have grasped the scope, coherence, and originality of my work in that country with its strong tradition in philosophy.

Both Cheryl Foster and Krystyna Wilkoszewska, coming from different academic traditions, see the larger picture clearly. They recognize how, in identifying the pervasiveness of aesthetic engagement in the arts, I was led to recognize the same underlying force in the compelling quality of environrnental experience. Foster shows not only the historical roots of aesthetic disinterestedness but documents my efforts in loosening its tenacious hold in aesthetic theory. She recognizes the grounds of my efforts to replace it with the perceptual engagement that more genuinely reflects the experience of the aesthetic. Wilkoszewska, too, sees my larger enterprise, a re-thinking of aesthetics that is actually a re-thinking of philosophy. Both Foster and Wilkoszewska recognize the scope of my work and its unifying themes. I have only admiration for their sense of its theoretical sweep and its implications for aesthetic theory and philosophy more generally.

Crispin Sartwell, too, grasps the large themes illuminating my work:  how the dichotomizing presumption of the Western tradition—initiated by Plato, climaxing in Descartes, and culminating in Kant—has led to compartmentalizing and fragmenting aesthetic values across the range of normative experience. This has produced constricting oppositions and barriers, both in human being and in living experience. Their persistent influence can be seen in Sartwell’s ascription of a realist ontology to my work despite his recognition of my non-dichotomous view.

Much has happened since the eighteenth century to question that tradition, but it still retains its hold with formidable tenacity. I am gratified that these commentators have discerned the philosophical vision that has illuminated my aesthetic critique of that tradition. In trying to free the compelling freshness of our aesthetic encounters from the constraints of Western philosophy, the striking affinity of my claims with the prevailing understanding in Asian cultures has been, for me, a surprise. Cheng Xiangzhan, my host on several visits to China, not only documents them but describes the affinity of my efforts in developing a free and open environmental aesthetics with traditional Chinese environmental thinking and its current development as ecological aesthetics. Yuriko Saito similarly identifies how the Japanese aesthetic tradition, in surprising resemblance to Nietzsche, rejected the narrow, reception-oriented subjectivism of aesthetic appreciation in favor of a more active and pervasive experience. These traditions support and amplify my argument for the pervasiveness of the aesthetic across the range of experience. And in introducing moral considerations into the realm of the aesthetic, Saito amplifies my efforts to include a moral and social presence in the aesthetic domain.

Krystyna Wilkoszewska provides a discerning account of the ordering of my ideas. She recognizes the influences that contributed to their originality and provides a reconstruction of the stages of my theoretical development. I am impressed by the scope of Wilkoszewska’s grasp of the development and the distinctive features of my formulation of aesthetic engagement.

Other contributors to this volume have chosen to respond to the application of aesthetically engaged experience to perception in the arts. In writing of the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuşi, Alicja Kuczyńska chose to discuss the work of an artist that has had a lasting influence on my understanding of engagement. She finds meaning that goes beyond imitation and surface qualities, literally incorporating the sculpture’s exchange with its space as a “material” contribution to experience. Anna Wolińska, like Prof Kuczyńska, shares my fascination with the aesthetic implications of Brâncuşi’s sculpture. She recognizes, as I do, the remarkable ability of his work to shape perceptual experience by incorporating the surrounding space into its perceptual process.

Other arts inform the observations of the remaining contributors. In discussing dance improvisation, Lilianna Bieszczad, who has written extensively on my work, finds inspiration in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, an influence on me as well. Both sources inform her work on the aestheticity of the body and the performativity of dance.

I was particularly gratified that Mara Miller chose to develop and illustrate my idea of negative aesthetics, turning specifically to the novels of the Japanese writer Natsuo Kirino. In her study, Miller shows how acknowledging negative aesthetic experience enlarges and extends the range of the aesthetic. She recognizes that it can also be applied to environments, individual relations, and social situations. Her study exhibits the possibilities of negative analysis where, in social contexts, negative aesthetics can become a powerful critical instrument. It is a concept rich in possibilities, for its scope encompasses, in addition to the arts, social and moral concerns. The idea of negative aesthetics can stimulate further inquiry and application; it has the potential to become a powerful instrument for social critique.

Let me conclude by thanking my colleagues for their sympathetic understanding and for their willingness to give serious consideration to ideas that skirt the periphery of convention yet seriously engage the basic issues of philosophy. This reflects my own sense of aesthetics as the ur-discipline of philosophy. Reviewing these essays has been gratifying and has enlarged my own perception of these efforts. I gratefully thank the editors of Sztuka y Filozofia for offering me that opportunity in the original publication of its special issue. And I now must add my gratitude to the editors of Contemporary Aesthetics for enabling me to read the Polish contributors for the first time and for inviting me to engage in the pleasurable task of reviewing the entire volume. I hope that satisfaction will be shared by others.

Arnold Berleant

Published January 5, 2021.

Cite this article: Arnold Berleant, “Reflections,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 9 (2021) Aesthetic Engagement and Sensibility: Reflections on Arnold Berleant’s Work, accessed date.