Aesthetic and Practical Interests and their Bodily Ground

Aesthetic and Practical Interests and their Bodily Ground

Richard Shusterman

In Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s fine book on William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, she convincingly claims that the guiding key to James’s interpretive practice in analyzing a philosophical position was to try to grasp the center of the philosopher’s vision.1 She further notes that James tends to understand such a center of vision as closely related to a distinctive attitude or feeling the philosopher had toward the world. As Seigfried astutely points out, James thought the defining characters or attitudes of individuals could be summed up by the particular mental or moral disposition in which they felt themselves most intensely alive and active. For James, by his own confession, “this characteristic attitude in me always involves an element of active tension, of holding my own, as it were, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will�, and which although it is a mere mood or emotion to which I can give no form in words, authenticates itself to me as the deepest principle of all active and theoretic determination which I possess.”2
    In Seigfried’s richly informed reconstruction of James’s philosophy, the “organizing center is taken to be the establishment of a secure foundation in experience which would overcome both the nihilistic paralysis of action and the skeptical dissolution of certain knowledge brought on by the challenge of scientific positivism” (S 2). In my brief remarks I want to follow her clue about James’s characteristic attitude as an active tension seeking harmony. Given the strenuous ideal and vigor of James’s temperament, I construe such harmony as a dynamic balance of concord rather than a frictionless quiescent unity. At the center of James’s philosophical vision I see an active, dynamic tension in his combined emphasis on practical and aesthetic interests, interests that he both contrasts and links. Seigfried presents, in a chapter entitled “Practical and Aesthetic Interests,” an excellently detailed analysis of James’s diverse remarks about these varieties of interests, and I shall comment on her analysis and James’s views on these matters before turning to consider what I regard as the central ground of both practical and aesthetic kinds of interest—and indeed of all interests for James—the sentient body.
     Despite the centrality of the body for James’s thought in general, he does not always fully recognize the amplitude of its role in aesthetic experience, though his basic philosophical views certainly seem to point in that direction. Similarly, this paper will note that James poses limits to the value of attending to the body in our practical life of action. The sentient body as organizing center could provide the experiential foundation to overcome nihilistic paralysis of action and excessive skepticism that Seigfried identifies as the organizing center of James’s vision, but it is only a relatively stable foundation and cannot be entirely secure, given the fragility and vicissitudes of our somatic existence. Nonetheless, it seems to be the most serviceable and indispensable foundation we have, the home and primordial instrument of our action, feeling, and thought.
For properly understanding the relationship of practical and aesthetic values in William James’s thought, we must recall how he experiences the tension between these values not as a mere abstract philosophical matter but most vividly, vitally, and painfully as probably the most central crisis of his early manhood, the dilemma of choosing a profession, a career for his life that would be aesthetically and emotionally rewarding but also constitute a practical livelihood. James’s first ambition was to be an artist but though his father initially humored him in this enterprise and secured him some instruction in painting, he soon made it clear that young William would have to choose a more practical field that would guarantee not only intellectual stimulation and respect but a reliable income. Science emerged as the field he had to pursue to please his father, a conflicted decision that apparently helped plunge him into his long struggle with neurasthenia and depression. James psychosomatic disabilities were what made him turn from experimental science to medical school and what made him take so long to finish his medical degree. If parental pressure (and filial love) urged the primacy of practical and swayed James’s career decisively away from aesthetics and the arts, then we should expect that James’s approach to the relationship of aesthetic and practical interests was invested with great personal meaning and feeling. 4
    In her careful analysis of James’s philosophical writings, Seigfried shows how these interests lie at the core of his thought. She cites his Hemholtzian account of attention in Principles of Psychology, according to which we identify as things precisely those complexes of sensible properties “which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us”; she also notes his insistence that aesthetic and practical factors are “irreducible ultimate factors in determining the way our knowledge grows” (S 118). But Seigfried further argues that besides their relationship as basic, independent but coordinate categories, the practical is sometimes affirmed as more basic and essential and as determining or generating the aesthetic. As she puts it, “the practical and the aesthetic function together as organizing principles for the human appropriation of experience, sometimes the one and sometimes the other predominating, and they are not ultimately independent sources of action. The aesthetic is understood both as having its origins in the practical and as raising issues which can only be solved, if at all, insofar as they are amenable to a practical test” (S 137). Even if James urges in later works (such as A Pluralistic Universe and Essays in Radical Empiricism) that our basic philosophical orientation is determined ultimately by very basic aesthetic preferences, these aesthetic interests and inclinations can be explained as growing out of our basic practical encounters of living in the world. 5
    Seigfried follows James in essentially linking the aesthetic with rational or intellectual interests. The practical, she writes, “includes the emotional, the moral and other active needs, while the aesthetic includes, but is not limited to, intellectual drives such as those of profusion and simplicity and their reconciliation or harmony.” And she carefully notes that for James, the “aesthetic principles” of rationality include not only those of “richness and of ease” but also the apparently somewhat overlapping needs of “unity”, clearness” and harmony (S 118,120,131-2). In linking the aesthetic so closely to the rational and intellectual, he seems to downplay or minimize its deeply affective character as vivid, pleasing sensory experience that has particular appeal to our non-intellectual feeling. Indeed we often characterize the aesthetic more by its strong affect, emotionality and sensuality than by its rationality. As Habermas documents its role in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, the aesthetic has been repeatedly portrayed (and sometimes celebrated) as a contrasting “other of reason,” not only because of its impassioned experience of delight but because of its bodily character and essential connection to our sensory experience that is grounded in our bodily senses.3
     James discussion of aesthetic emotions in his Principles of Psychology strikingly accords with his rationalist aesthetic orientation.4 While James famously defines emotions in an essentially embodied way, he makes an exception for aesthetic emotions which he places in a special group of “subtle” emotions (those of “pure” aesthetic, moral, and intellectual pleasure and displeasure) that are described as “almost feelingless,” wholly “cerebral” and “cognitive” and thus not at all dependent on feelings of “the bodily sounding board,” though he admits that in much experience of the arts (especially for people with less refined taste) our aesthetic emotions are impure and contain a significant measure of bodily feeling (PP 1082,1085). One wonders whether James’s preoccupation with the aesthetic principles of rationality, coupled with his deep respect for aesthetic refinement and art’s spiritual potential, led him to disembody and rationalize aesthetic emotion in his Principles, despite his intense appreciation of the body in that book and elsewhere. 7
    The body is obviously of the essence of practical life, since we can perform no action without it. James asserts its primordial grounding of our experience quite explicitly: “The body”, he writes, “is the storm-center, the origin of coordinates, the constant place of stress in [our] experience-train. Everything circles round it, and is felt from its point of view.” “The world experienced,” he elaborates, “comes at all times with our body as its center, center of vision, center of action, center of interest.”5 For purposes of survival, if not also for other reasons, “all minds must�take an intense interest in the bodies to which they are attached�.My own body and what ministers to its needs are thus the primitive object, instinctively determined, of my egoistic interests. Other objects may become interesting derivatively through association” with it (PP 308).
    One of the many remarkable features of James’s Principles is its extraordinary precision of somatic introspection and description. In making his case for the essentially embodied nature of emotion and of thought itself, James not only deploys somatic introspection but argues that philosophers have been blind to the body’s presence in thought and feeling because they have been insufficiently skilled or attentive in somatic introspection. They fail to discriminate the bodily feelings involved in thinking and hence conclude that it is must be a thoroughly spiritual process. James, moreover, suggests some very helpful methodological insights for somatic introspection that anticipate some of the techniques currently used by contemporary somatic therapists engaged in heightening body-mind awareness and harmony for the promotion of better experience and improved use of the self.6 In this perspective, James stands as an exemplary prophet for the budding discipline of somaesthetics.7 9
    However, together with James’s masterful theoretical deployment of somatic introspection we find his dire warnings that such attention is harmful to our practical interests. Such introspection not only conflicts with his advocacy of leaving as much as possible of our practical daily life “to the effortless custody of automatism” or habit (PP 126); it also runs awry of what he calls the “law of parsimony in consciousness” (PP1107). Focused attention to bodily feelings “would be a superfluous complication” (PP 1108) that distracts us from the true ends of our practical enterprises rather than aiding their realization. Of course, when at an early stage of learning, the singer may need to think “of his throat or breathing, the balancer of his feet on the rope,” but these forms of “supernumerary consciousness” are eventually best avoided in order to achieve true proficiency by concentrating on the ends—the right note or the pole one is balancing on one’s forehead (PP 1108). As James later puts it, “the end alone is enough”; “we fail of accuracy and certainty in our attainment of the end whenever we are preoccupied with much ideal consciousness of the [bodily] means” and the internal (or “resident”) feelings they involve: “We walk a beam the better the less we think of the position of our feet upon it. We pitch or catch, we shoot or chop the better the less tactile and muscular (the less resident), and the more exclusively optical (the more remote), our consciousness is. Keep your eye on the place aimed at, and your hand will fetch it; think of your hand, and you will very likely miss your aim” (PP 1128).8 10
     James is certainly right that in most practical situations, when our already acquired habits are fully adequate to perform the actions and secure the ends we desire, it is not helpful to focus attention on the bodily means and feelings involved in such actions. But, as I have frequently argued9, there are also many practical situations when our habits prove insufficient, either because the situations require unfamiliar forms of action or because our habits are defective, so that the desired action is either not performed successfully or is performed in a way involving excessive effort, pain, or other negative consequences. In such cases, a careful attention to our bodily means (and attendant feelings) of action can be very helpful, not only in improving the performance of the particular action on a single occasion but also in constructing improved habits for performing that action (and also other actions) in the future. Through such focused awareness, we can learn to feel when we are contracting our muscles more than is necessary and in places that conflict with the efficient execution of the movement desired; and such knowledge can instruct us to make the movement more successfully and with greater ease and grace. This improved way of performing the movement and its attendant proprioceptive feelings can then be reinforced into a new and better habit of action. 11
    The enhanced awareness of one’s movement and of its increased smoothness and experienced efficacy also provides aesthetic satisfactions. Such aesthesis of the sentient body, which unites aesthetic and practical interests in active life and not just in theory, would seem an exemplary case of harmonizing these sorts of interest (so often thought to be essentially inimical) and of providing an experiential basis that promotes the central aims Seigfried identifies of overcoming “both the nihilistic paralysis of action and the skeptical dissolution of certain knowledge brought on by the challenge of scientific positivism.” 12
Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton)


1 Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990); hereafter abbreviated S.

2 Letter to Alice James, in William James, The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 1 (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920), 199-200.

3 J�rgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourses of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987).

4 William James, Principles of Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), hereafter PP.

5 See William James, “The Experience of Activity,” in Essays in Radical Empiricism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 86.

6 I explore these matters in detail in Richard Shusterman, “William James, Somatic Introspection, and Care of the Self,” Philosophical Forum, 36:4 (2005), 419-440.

7 For a detailed account of somaesthetics, see Richard Shusterman, Performing Live (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), chapters 7 and 8; and Pragmatist Aesthetics, 2nd. edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). For critical discussion of somaesthetics, see, for example, the symposium on Performing Live in Journal of Aesthetic Education 36 (2002) with articles by Kathleen Higgins and Casey Haskins followed by my response; see also Martin Jay, “Somaesthetics and Democracy: Dewey and Contemporary Art,” and Gustavo Guerra, “Practicing Pragmatism: Richard Shusterman’s Unbound Philosophy,” in the same issue of Journal of Aesthetic Education; and the symposium on Pragmatist Aesthetics in Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 16:1 (2002) with articles by Paul Taylor, Thomas Leddy, and Antonia Soulez. For critical refinements and applications of somaesthetics to issues of bioethics and the new technologies, see Jerrold Abrams, “Pragmatism, Artificial Intelligence, and Posthuman Bioethics: Shusterman, Rorty, Foucault,” Human Studies, 27 (2004), 241-258.

8 For discussion of further reasons for James’s critique of somatic introspection in practical life, see “William James, Somatic Introspection, and Care of the Self.”

9 See, for example, Richard Shusterman, Practicing Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997), ch. 6; Performing Live, ch. 8; “The Silent Limping Body of Philosophy,” in T. Carman and M.B. Hansen (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 151-180; and “William James, Somatic Introspection, and Care of the Self.”

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