I have been fascinated by Emmanuel Kant’s description of aesthetic knowledge and the nature of “beauty” as outlined in his Critique of Judgement. He weaves a tight net of deduction and reasoning based on empirical understanding of the world and logical conditioning. His extrapolation on the quality of beauty itself touches on truths which are by their nature beyond words. In order to begin to describe the nature of beauty he first works to outline aesthetic knowledge.
This type of knowledge is essentially our experience of something as it arises within us before we are able to formulate analytical judgements. It is the physical and emotional things that we feel when we first encounter the world, and before we can begin to formulate words to describe it. These are visceral perceptions of our world that bring us a special sort of understanding and sense of our surroundings that is not mediated by words or rational thoughts.
Beauty, for him, is an aesthetic judgement which occurs within us as we encounter something outside of our selves in a way that transcends words. Or, more often, before those words kick in and begin to shape our experience.
This framing of beauty is something that we can only truly judge from within a wordless context or pure experience. Kant reserves much of his highest praise for nature, and works that share in the spirit of nature. To try and describe it more fully he outlines a quality of nature which he calls the “purpossiveness”. This is to be understood as as sort of self-organization or drive, or foundational quality. The attribute of being the way it is because being that is the way that fulfills its own purpose. The way that each element of a plant or animal has been crafted to support the sort of existence it requires within the context in which it lives, its ecosystem and biosphere.
That a blade of grass is the shape, color and texture which it is, is because that is the way that it needed to be given the resources it had and the environmental elements it was dealing with. There is nothing about the form of the grass, the experience of the grass, which doesn’t need to be there and isn’t linked back to its essential character.
That, for Kant, is something which can be said to be beautiful.
That word, however, that description, falls into the realm of rational thought and rational judgements. It isn’t an aesthetic judgment in and of itself. In fact, it is impossible to put an aesthetic judgement into words at all.
Beauty isn’t an attribute, it is an experience. It is placing oneself in relation to something in the world which is true to its own nature.
Finding aspects of our world which adhere to their own natures is actually very easy. Any natural element, from weeds in the sidewalk to rain puddles, to cracks in the cement are the way are given the context and innate attributes of how they came to be. These things cannot be other than how they are, and will always be fully what they are in this moment.
The difficult part of encountering beauty, then, isn’t finding things which are worthy to described that way, it is placing ourselves into an orientation to experience them as beautiful.
When we see a marvelous mountain, snow-capped against the blue sky and the deep shadowed valleys, that great grandeur and majesty absorb us completely; for a moment we are completely silent because its majesty takes us over, we forget ourselves. Beauty is where ‘you’ are not. The essence of beauty is the absence of the self.J Krishnamurti
Words are the end of beauty, because as soon as we start trying to capture what we see in words we have ceased experiencing it in an aesthetic manner.
It is natural to document and describe the experiences that we have. There is value in passing on those descriptions to other people. There is nothing wrong with formulating arguments for why one does or does not appreciate a work of art, or a tree.
Those classifications, delineations and descriptions are not, however, beauty. Beauty belongs to each individual and only in relation to what they are having an experience with. Beauty isn’t a universal standard which can be tracked or passed from one person to the next.
Beauty hits us not in the consciousness but in the body. Think about a piece of music that gave you goose bumps, or standing in front of a work of art which literally took your breath away. Those expressions tap into the visceral experience that we all have had at one time or another. Whether or not we would describe that experience, that object we are encountering, as “beautiful”, the experience itself is the experience of a kind of beauty.
Kant would probably not have said this the way that I am, and certainly may have disagreed with much of this. However, based on how he has described the mechanism and orientation of aesthetic judgement, I can only arrive at these conclusions about the nature of what is beauty.
While we are surrounded by the potential for experiencing beauty all the time, we are prevented from it through the constant need to document, describe and rationalize everything which comes before us. Our ego, ever focused on self preservation in an increasingly complicated world, does not let down our guard long enough for us to simply be open to what is around us. Tuning ourselves towards greater awareness and mindfulness is helpful to allow distance between the ego and our perceptions of the world.
Beauty, finally, isn’t the elusive and rare quality to be sought out and prized within a handful of objects. It is possible to have an experience of the beautiful with the aspects of our world which are already around us in each moment.
It is only when we are feeling secure, satisfied, comfortable, loved, supported…that we are able to let down our guard and experience what is happening around us with greater perspective. In this mindset we are open to being more compassionate and supportive of others, and to seeing things for what they are.
An interesting additional benefit to cultivating mindfulness is that we are only able to experience moments of beauty when we are in a space to see our world the way it really is, and not the way that our ego categorizes it.
Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, thankfully, and for many excellent reasons. Add to this list the ability to leave your door open to beauty. Sink into the aesthetic knowledge of the world, the inherent purposiveness of the natural world especially, and you have the opportunity to be surrounded in a sea of beautiful encounters. Just leave the ego at the trailhead.