Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

 

Aesthetics and Ethics have normally been studied separately.

Aesthetics belong to Beautiful and Ethics belong to Good in the Integral Theory.

  • Aesthetics – Arts – Beautiful
  • Ethics – Morals – Good

 

 

AESTHETICS AND ETHICS: THE STATE OF THE ART

https://aesthetics-online.org/page/DeanState

Jeffrey Dean

Because the poet traffics in mimesis, ungoverned by reason, appealing to the irrational part of the soul, this makes it right for us to proceed to lay hold of him and set him down as the counterpart of the painter, for he resembles him in that his creations are inferior in respect of reality, and the fact that his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul and not to the best part is another point of resemblance. And so we may at last say that we should be justified in not admitting him into a well-ordered state, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part, just as when in a state one puts bad men in power and turns the city over to them and ruins the better sort. Precisely in the same manner we shall say that the mimetic poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious currying favor with the senseless element that cannot distinguish the greater from the less, but calls the same thing now one, now the other. – Plato

I spoke of the novel as an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs our human variety and contradiction. – Lionel Trilling

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde

You know you’ve arrived when your likeness appears on The Simpsons or on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match, and while I don’t expect philosophers to show up on either of these shows any time soon (despite the notable publication of The Simpsons and Philosophy), for those interested in the intersection of aesthetics and ethics we have recently seen the next best thing: a survey article by Noel Carroll on art and ethical criticism in the journal Ethics. Of course, any arrival marks the end of an absence, and as Carroll points out in the opening paragraphs of his essay, the recent flood of work on the ethical criticism of art puts an end to a surprising dearth of work on the part of Anglo-American philosophers in this area. Surprising, not only because connections between ethics and aesthetics were central to much philosophy from Plato through the end of the eighteenth-century, but also because outside of Anglo-American academic philosophy, the ethical “interrogation” of art (and artists) has been steadily mounting for much of the twentieth-century. Precisely because it is the work that has seen most development in the last ten to fifteen years, and in order to help make this overview manageable, discussion here will be limited to what I see as the two most robust areas of renewed interest in Anglo-American philosophy of an “analytic” bent: research pertaining to the role of art and aesthetics in the development of moral imagination and understanding; and work on the relationship between moral and aesthetic values.

A great deal of this recent work in aesthetics has emphasized the connection between art and moral understanding, a connection long thought important, but as noted, largely neglected during the better part of the last two centuries. This neglect can be attributed to, among other things, zealous attempts to define and defend the intrinsic value of art, attempts which shun any whiff of an instrumentalism that sites the value of art in its didactic or ethical effects. But as contemporary critics of this approach often stress, the resulting aestheticism, the purpose of which was to save art from moralizing, is itself too often a form of reductive and blinkered formalism. The task some of those working in contemporary aesthetics have set themselves is to understand and characterize the relationship between art and ethics in a way that avoids the weaknesses of both instrumentalism and aestheticism.

In this endeavor aesthetics has been met halfway by ethics. Until fairly recently, the dominant strains in British and American philosophical ethics have been Utilitarian and Kantian. The central debates were over whether ethics should be characterized in deontological or consequentialist terms, with a shared focus on impartial principles designed to regulate self-interest for mutual advantage, and disagreements centered around the structure of moral intentions and obligations and the moral relevance of the consequences of actions.

But more recently there has been a renewed interest in what is commonly referred to as “virtue ethics”. In the tradition of Aristotle, virtue ethics focuses more on the long-term development of moral agency-including character, moral emotions, and the perception of salient details of particular moral contexts-than on finely tuned general principles intended to entail impartial outcomes in particular cases. The difference in approaches is sometimes cast as between an ethics of obligation vs. an ethics of character. This shift dovetails nicely with the recent efforts in aesthetics, since one element central to Aristotelian ethics is precisely what engagement with art has long been claimed to provide: a means to imaginative perception, feeling, and understanding Peter Lamarque provides one characterization of this trend, referring to the Wittgensteinian school of (literary value and) ethics (also represented by D.Z. Phillips and R.W. Beardsmore) as follows:

It is not the central task of ethics to formulate and apply general principles but rather to stress the particularity of moral situations and the idea that profound moral disagreements reside not in a difference of beliefs but in different ways of looking at the world. The argument is then brought to bear on literature with a parallel more or less explicitly drawn between a moral agent on the one hand and a competent reader on the other. The idea is that the moral agent and the reader both in effect confront complex moral situations with both called upon to adopt an imaginative perspective on those situations which should yield in the one case a moral judgement or appropriate action and in the other a moral insight or revised way of seeing. A competent reader might hope to learn from the literary work not by formulating a derived moral principle but by acquiring a new vision or perspective on the world.The list of recent and contemporary philosophers who stress the close connection between aesthetic and moral perception and understanding is long one, including among many others Wayne Booth, Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, Richard Eldridge, Susan Feagin, Peter Lamarque, Peter McCormick, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Frank Palmer, John Passmore, and Hilary Putnam. Most of the discussion by these authors focuses on narrative art, usually narrative fiction in the form of poetry, literature, drama and film. Also common to these accounts is their rejection of a central role for propositional knowledge vis-à-vis the moral relevance of art. Instead, it is claimed variously that art “shows” rather than “tells” us morally relevant features of the world, illuminating the importance of feeling, reflection and the perception of particulars in the moral evaluation of character and situation (esp. Murdoch, Nussbaum, Palmer, and Passmore), is especially well-suited to modifying our moral concepts (esp. Carroll, McCormick, and Putnam), and exercises the very imaginative capacities necessary for making sensitive moral judgments (esp. Booth, Currie, Feagin, and Lamarque). Each of these sorts of claim is intended to highlight ways in which the appreciation of art engages and refines capacities necessary for sound moral understanding and judgment, stressing that what is morally valuable about such art is inherently bound up with its aesthetic appreciation.

While most of the early work in this area tended to valorize the moral benefits of sensitive engagement with works of art, recent work has also stressed the potential dangers of imaginative commerce with art-particularly narrative art-in those cases where the work in question encourages or mandates imaginative identification with, or mental simulation of, morally deficient or pernicious points of view. Although little has been made of this as of yet, taking seriously the morally disruptive or destructive power of art (even while bearing in mind its virtues) may have significant consequences for one’s attitudes regarding censorship and arts education. That is, given the nature of the kinds of views developed and defended in current research, it becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the ethical benefits of imaginative engagement with art without acknowledging its potential dangers as well. I expect to see increased discussion of this issue in the coming years.

Given that recent efforts have centered on close connections between imaginative engagement with works of art and moral understanding, it is perhaps unsurprising that the other main focus of research and debate has been the relationship between aesthetic and moral value, and by extension, the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment. The debate here has centered on the question of whether the moral and aesthetic values of works of art are independent, or, alternatively, at least on occasion interdependent.

Consider the case of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette. Here, Sade offers a narrative which appears to endorse the notion that sexual torture is erotic and amusing. In this case, the “successful” understanding of the narrative (in the sense that we see things as the author would have us see them) would entail some distortion or perversion of our moral understanding, on the assumption that sexual torture is not, or at least should not be, either amusing or erotic, and that persons should not be treated merely as means to one’s own sadistic gratification. It may be said, then, that because Juliette prescribes a response to its subject matter that is ethically inappropriate, it is a morally flawed work.

The question then arises whether the fact that Juliette is morally flawed (because it endorses a morally defective perspective which prescribes a morally inappropriate response to its subject matter) in a manner that undermines its narrative intent (morally sensitive audiences should not respond in the manner prescribed by the work) means that it is thereby aesthetically flawed as well (and for that very same reason). The question is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. For, on the one hand, it seems intuitive to say when a work fails to merit a prescribed response, it has to that extent failed aesthetically. Thrillers that do not thrill, comedies that are not humorous, and tragedies that are not tragic fail in some respect, and that failure, given that it is internal to the nature and aims of the work, would appear to be an aesthetic one. Since Juliette fails in a respect internal to the aims of the work, it would also appear to be an aesthetically flawed in this regard. And the explanation for this failure is that the work is morally flawed. So the work is both aesthetically and morally flawed, and for the same reason.

On the other hand, however, a thriller that fails to thrill (say) is aesthetically flawed precisely because of its failure to thrill; why it fails to thrill would seem to be extraneous to the aesthetic issue, viz., that it fails. It may fail to thrill because the pacing is off; it may fail to thrill because the dialog is weak; or it may fail to thrill due to some moral defect, e.g., the putatively sympathetic protagonist is in fact morally repugnant, such that the audience doesn’t have sufficient sympathy with him or his plight to care about what happens to him or take a positive interest in the outcome of the storyline. In each case we have an aesthetic failure-a thriller that fails to thrill-with different explanations for this failure: pacing, dialog, moral misstep. In the latter case, it is mistaken to say that the thriller’s aesthetic defect (its failure to thrill) is “the same as” its moral defect (its prescription to sympathize with a repugnant character). Indeed, it would be mistaken to identify the failure to thrill with any of the explanations for that failure. Likewise, it is mistaken to identify the aesthetic defect in Juliette (its failure to warrant its prescribed response) with its moral defect (its endorsement of and invitation to share a morally corrupt perspective).

It is important to note that whether one supposes that moral and aesthetic values and judgments sometimes overlap, or steadfastly maintains their conceptual independence, there is one thing that most of those currently writing on aesthetics: works of art have multiple dimensions of value, including not only aesthetic and moral values, but historical, sociological, political, anthropological and other sorts of values as well. My own view (a view certainly shared and articulated by others, but not always made apparent in the literature) is that for the sake of clarity, the value matrices that converge in works of art ought to be referred to as artistic value (or “overall artistic value”). Artists are concerned with more than the expression of aesthetic values in their work, and so too are critics and philosophers of art. It is clear, in this sense, that moral values are sometimes artistic values, whether or not they are sometimes aesthetic values (which, as indicated above, is a more vexed question). A work of art that is aesthetically excellent, historically significant, and morally profound is a better work of art, overall, than one which is only some or none of these things (assuming of course that we hold the various achievements in the varieties of value constant across cases). This helps explain, in part, why judgments about artworks are so often contested. When one pays attention to the specifics of criticism or praise, one often finds that disputants are talking past each other: one is touting the excellence of a work while the other is decrying is triviality, but it will often turn out that the former, say, is focused on the work’s historical significance and moral fortitude, while the latter is considering only a specific set of aesthetic values relevant to the genre. Again, whether or not one believes varieties of value may sometimes merge, it is important to be mindful of their differences, so that evaluations are commensurable.

In closing, it should be noted that in addition to the topics discussed above, much interesting work has recently been undertaken on emotional engagement with artworks (including moral emotions), on a variety of relationships between works of art and simulation theory, imagination, and identification (where a great deal of this work has bearing on our understanding of the moral relevance of art), and on a variety of other topics. This is of course only the beginning, but a promising one, and I would wager that interest in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics has not only arrived: it is here to stay.

2002 © Jeffrey Dean

Please see my related posts:

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

On Aesthetics

On Beauty

On Classical Virtues

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Drama Theory: Acting Strategically

Drama Theory: Choices, Conflicts and Dilemmas

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance

 

Main Sources of Research

Aesthetics and Ethics : Essays at the Intersection

AESTHETICS AND ETHICS: THE STATE OF THE ART

On Beauty

On Beauty

Perspectives on Beauty.

 

Classical conception of beauty is mathematical.  It is based on:
  • Proportions
  • Symmetry
  • Harmony
  • Golden Ratio

 

in Architecture, Sculpture, Music. and Literature.

In the West, classical conception of Beauty is dominant.

 

 

Plotinus was critical of Plato’s view on Beauty,

Read Idealist conception of beauty to get views of Plotinus.

From Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy

Beauty
First published Tue Sep 4, 2012; substantive revision Wed Oct 5, 2016

 

The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought, as represented in treatments by such thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Burke, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hanslick, and Santayana. By the beginning of the twentieth century, beauty was in decline as a subject of philosophical inquiry, and also as a primary goal of the arts. However, there were signs of revived interest by the early 2000s.

This article will begin with a sketch of the debate over whether beauty is objective or subjective, which is perhaps the single most-prosecuted disagreement in the literature. It will proceed to set out some of the major approaches to or theories of beauty developed within Western philosophical and artistic traditions.

 

1. Objectivity and Subjectivity

Perhaps the most familiar basic issue in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective—located ‘in the eye of the beholder’—or whether it is an objective feature of beautiful things. A pure version of either of these positions seems implausible, for reasons we will examine, and many attempts have been made to split the difference or incorporate insights of both subjectivist and objectivist accounts. Ancient and medieval accounts for the most part located beauty outside of anyone’s particular experiences. Nevertheless, that beauty is subjective was also a commonplace from the time of the sophists. By the eighteenth century, Hume could write as follows, expressing one ‘species of philosophy’:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume 1757, 136)

And Kant launches his discussion of the matter in The Critique of Judgment(the Third Critique) at least as emphatically:

The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Every reference of representations, even that of sensations, may be objective (and then it signifies the real [element] of an empirical representation), save only the reference to the feeling of pleasure and pain, by which nothing in the object is signified, but through which there is a feeling in the subject as it is affected by the representation. (Kant 1790, section 1)

However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful (as James Kirwan, for example, asserts)—then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.

On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. In De Veritate Religione, Augustine asks explicitly whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful; he emphatically opts for the second (Augustine, 247). Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in theEnneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire, but locate beauty itself in the realm of the Forms, and the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Form. Indeed, Plotinus’s account in one of its moments makes beauty a matter of what we might term ‘formedness’: having the definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing the object is.

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form. All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly from that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered, it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may. (Plotinus, 22 [Ennead I, 6])

In this account, beauty is at least as objective as any other concept, or indeed takes on a certain ontological priority as more real than particular Forms: it is a sort of Form of Forms.

Though Plato and Aristotle disagree on what beauty is, they both regard it as objective in the sense that it is not localized in the response of the beholder. The classical conception (see below) treats beauty as a matter of instantiating definite proportions or relations among parts, sometimes expressed in mathematical ratios, for example the ‘golden section.’ The sculpture known as ‘The Canon,’ by Polykleitos (fifth/fourth century BCE), was held up as a model of harmonious proportion to be emulated by students and masters alike: beauty could be reliably achieved by reproducing its objective proportions. Nevertheless, it is conventional in ancient treatments of the topic also to pay tribute to the pleasures of beauty, often described in quite ecstatic terms, as in Plotinus: “This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight” (Plotinus 23, [Ennead 1, 3]).

At latest by the eighteenth century, however, and particularly in the British Isles, beauty was associated with pleasure in a somewhat different way: pleasure was held to be not the effect but the origin of beauty. This was influenced, for example, by Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Locke and the other empiricists treated color (which is certainly one source or locus of beauty), for example, as a ‘phantasm’ of the mind, as a set of qualities dependent on subjective response, located in the perceiving mind rather than of the world outside the mind. Without perceivers of a certain sort, there would be no colors. One argument for this was the variation in color experiences between people. For example, some people are color-blind, and to a person with jaundice much of the world takes on a yellow cast. In addition, the same object is perceived as having different colors by the same the person under different conditions: at noon and midnight, for example. Such variations are conspicuous in experiences of beauty as well.

Nevertheless, eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume and Kant perceived that something important was lost when beauty was treated merely as a subjective state. They saw, for example, that controversies often arise about the beauty of particular things, such as works of art and literature, and that in such controversies, reasons can sometimes be given and will sometimes be found convincing. They saw, as well, that if beauty is completely relative to individual experiencers, it ceases to be a paramount value, or even recognizable as a value at all across persons or societies.

Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and Kant’s Critique Of Judgment attempt to find ways through what has been termed ‘the antinomy of taste.’ Taste is proverbially subjective: de gustibus non est disputandum (about taste there is no disputing). On the other hand, we do frequently dispute about matters of taste, and some persons are held up as exemplars of good taste or of tastelessness. Some people’s tastes appear vulgar or ostentatious, for example. Some people’s taste is too exquisitely refined, while that of others is crude, naive, or non-existent. Taste, that is, appears to be both subjective and objective: that is the antinomy.

Both Hume and Kant, as we have seen, begin by acknowledging that taste or the ability to detect or experience beauty is fundamentally subjective, that there is no standard of taste in the sense that the Canon was held to be, that if people did not experience certain kinds of pleasure, there would be no beauty. Both acknowledge that reasons can count, however, and that some tastes are better than others. In different ways, they both treat judgments of beauty neither precisely as purely subjective nor precisely as objective but, as we might put it, as inter-subjective or as having a social and cultural aspect, or as conceptually entailing an inter-subjective claim to validity.

Hume’s account focuses on the history and condition of the observer as he or she makes the judgment of taste. Our practices with regard to assessing people’s taste entail that judgments of taste that reflect idiosyncratic bias, ignorance, or superficiality are not as good as judgments that reflect wide-ranging acquaintance with various objects of judgment and are unaffected by arbitrary prejudices. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (“Of the Standard of Taste” 1757, 144).

Hume argues further that the verdicts of critics who possess those qualities tend to coincide, and approach unanimity in the long run, which accounts, for example, for the enduring veneration of the works of Homer or Milton. So the test of time, as assessed by the verdicts of the best critics, functions as something analogous to an objective standard. Though judgments of taste remain fundamentally subjective, and though certain contemporary works or objects may appear irremediably controversial, the long-run consensus of people who are in a good position to judge functions analogously to an objective standard and renders such standards unnecessary even if they could be identified. Though we cannot directly find a standard of beauty that sets out the qualities that a thing must possess in order to be beautiful, we can describe the qualities of a good critic or a tasteful person. Then the long-run consensus of such persons is the practical standard of taste and the means of justifying judgments about beauty.

Kant similarly concedes that taste is fundamentally subjective, that every judgment of beauty is based on a personal experience, and that such judgments vary from person to person.

By a principle of taste I mean a principle under the condition of which we could subsume the concept of the object, and thus infer, by means of a syllogism, that the object is beautiful. But that is absolutely impossible. For I must immediately feel the pleasure in the representation of the object, and of that I can be persuaded by no grounds of proof whatever. Although, as Hume says, all critics can reason more plausibly than cooks, yet the same fate awaits them. They cannot expect the determining ground of their judgment [to be derived] from the force of the proofs, but only from the reflection of the subject upon its own proper state of pleasure or pain. (Kant 1790, section 34)

But the claim that something is beautiful has more content merely than that it gives me pleasure. Something might please me for reasons entirely eccentric to myself: I might enjoy a bittersweet experience before a portrait of my grandmother, for example, or the architecture of a house might remind me of where I grew up. “No one cares about that,” says Kant (1790, section 7): no one begrudges me such experiences, but they make no claim to guide or correspond to the experiences of others.

By contrast, the judgment that something is beautiful, Kant argues, is a disinterested judgment. It does not respond to my idiosyncrasies, or at any rate if I am aware that it does, I will no longer take myself to be experiencing the beauty per se of the thing in question. Somewhat as in Hume—whose treatment Kant evidently had in mind—one must be unprejudiced to come to a genuine judgment of taste, and Kant gives that idea a very elaborate interpretation: the judgment must be made independently of the normal range of human desires—economic and sexual desires, for instance, which are examples of our ‘interests’ in this sense. If one is walking through a museum and admiring the paintings because they would be extremely expensive were they to come up for auction, for example, or wondering whether one could steal and fence them, one is not having an experience of the beauty of the paintings at all. One must focus on the form of the mental representation of the object for its own sake, as it is in itself. Kant summarizes this as the thought that insofar as one is having an experience of the beauty of something, one is indifferent to its existence. One takes pleasure, rather, in its sheer representation in one’s experience:

Now, when the question is whether something is beautiful, we do not want to know whether anything depends or can depend on the existence of the thing, either for myself or anyone else, but how we judge it by mere observation (intuition or reflection). … We easily see that, in saying it is beautiful, and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself. Everyone must admit that a judgement about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgement of taste. (Kant 1790, section 2)

One important source of the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness is the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s dialogue The Moralists, where the argument is framed in terms of a natural landscape: if you are looking at a beautiful valley primarily as a valuable real estate opportunity, you are not seeing it for its own sake, and cannot fully experience its beauty. If you are looking at a lovely woman and considering her as a possible sexual conquest, you are not able to experience her beauty in the fullest or purest sense; you are distracted from the form as represented in your experience. And Shaftesbury, too, localizes beauty to the representational capacity of the mind. (Shaftesbury 1738, 222)

For Kant, some beauties are dependent—relative to the sort of thing the object is—and others are free or absolute. A beautiful ox would be an ugly horse, but abstract textile designs, for example, may be beautiful in themselves without a reference group or “concept,” and flowers please whether or not we connect them to their practical purposes or functions in plant reproduction (Kant 1790, section 16). The idea in particular that free beauty is completely separated from practical use and that the experiencer of it is not concerned with the actual existence of the object leads Kant to conclude that absolute or free beauty is found in the form or design of the object, or as Clive Bell put it, in the arrangement of lines and colors (in the case of painting) (Bell 1914). By the time Bell writes in the early twentieth century, however, beauty is out of fashion in the arts, and Bell frames his view not in terms of beauty but in terms of a general formalist conception of aesthetic value.

Since in reaching a genuine judgment of taste one is aware that one is not responding to anything idiosyncratic in oneself, Kant asserts (1790, section 8), one will reach the conclusion that anyone similarly situated should have the same experience: that is, one will presume that there ought to be nothing to distinguish one person’s judgment from another’s (though in fact there may be). Built conceptually into the judgment of taste is the assertion that anyone similarly situated ought to have the same experience and reach the same judgment. Thus, built into judgments of taste is a ‘universalization’ somewhat analogous to the universalization that Kant associates with ethical judgments. In ethical judgments, however, the universalization is objective: if the judgment is true, then it is objectively the case that everyone ought to act on the maxim according to which one acts. In the case of aesthetic judgments, however, the judgment remains subjective, but necessarily contains the ‘demand’ that everyone should reach the same judgment. The judgment conceptually entails a claim to inter-subjective validity. This accounts for the fact that we do very often argue about judgments of taste, and that we find tastes that are different than our own defective.

The influence of this series of thoughts on philosophical aesthetics has been immense. One might mention related approaches taken by such figures as Schopenhauer, Hanslick, Bullough, and Croce, for example. A somewhat similar though more adamantly subjectivist line is taken by Santayana, who defines beauty as ‘objectified pleasure.’ The judgment of something that it is beautiful responds to the fact that it induces a certain sort of pleasure; but this pleasure is attributed to the object, as though the object itself were having subjective states.

We have now reached our definition of beauty, which, in the terms of our successive analysis and narrowing of the conception, is value positive, intrinsic, and objectified. Or, in less technical language, Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing. … Beauty is a value, that is, it is not a perception of a matter of fact or of a relation: it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional and appreciative nature. An object cannot be beautiful if it can give pleasure to nobody: a beauty to which all men were forever indifferent is a contradiction in terms. … Beauty is therefore a positive value that is intrinsic; it is a pleasure. (Santayana 1896, 50–51)

It is much as though one were attributing malice to a balky object or device. The object causes certain frustrations and is then ascribed an agency or a kind of subjective agenda that would account for its causing those effects. Now though Santayana thought the experience of beauty could be profound or could even be the meaning of life, this account appears to make beauty a sort of mistake: one attributes subjective states (indeed, one’s own) to a thing which in many instances is not capable of having subjective states.

It is worth saying that Santayana’s treatment of the topic in The Sense of Beauty (1896) was the last major account offered in English for some time, possibly because, once beauty has been admitted to be entirely subjective, much less when it is held to rest on a sort of mistake, there seems little more to be said. What stuck from Hume’s and Kant’s treatments was the subjectivity, not the heroic attempts to temper it. If beauty is a subjective pleasure, it would seem to have no higher status than anything that entertains, amuses, or distracts; it seems odd or ridiculous to regard it as being comparable in importance to truth or justice, for example. And the twentieth century also abandoned beauty as the dominant goal of the arts, again possibly in part because its trivialization in theory led artists to believe that they ought to pursue more real and more serious projects. This decline is explored eloquently in Arthur Danto’s book The Abuse of Beauty (2003).

However, there has been a revival of interest in beauty in both art and philosophy in recent years, and several theorists have made new attempts to address the antinomy of taste. To some extent, such approaches echo G.E. Moore’s: “To say that a thing is beautiful is to say, not indeed that it is itself good, but that it is a necessary element in something which is: to prove that a thing is truly beautiful is to prove that a whole, to which it bears a particular relation as a part, is truly good” (Moore 1903, 201). One interpretation of this would be that what is fundamentally valuable is the situation in which the object and the person experiencing are both embedded; the value of beauty might include both features of the beautiful object and the pleasures of the experiencer.

Similarly, Crispin Sartwell in his book Six Names of Beauty (2004), attributes beauty neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object, but to the relation between them, and even more widely also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded. He points out that when we attribute beauty to the night sky, for instance, we do not take ourselves simply to be reporting a state of pleasure in ourselves; we are turned outward toward it; we are celebrating the real world. On the other hand, if there were no perceivers capable of experiencing such things, there would be no beauty. Beauty, rather, emerges in situations in which subject and object are juxtaposed and connected.

Alexander Nehamas, in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007), characterizes beauty as an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in, while also possibly fending us off. The beautiful object invites us to explore and interpret, but it also requires us to explore and interpret: beauty is not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature of surface. And Nehamas, like Hume and Kant, though in another register, considers beauty to have an irreducibly social dimension. Beauty is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. Thus, the experience of beauty is not primarily within the skull of the experiencer, but connects observers and objects such as works of art and literature in communities of appreciation.

Aesthetic judgment, I believe, never commands universal agreement, and neither a beautiful object nor a work of art ever engages a catholic community. Beauty creates smaller societies, no less important or serious because they are partial, and, from the point of view of its members, each one is orthodox—orthodox, however, without thinking of all others as heresies. … What is involved is less a matter of understanding and more a matter of hope, of establishing a community that centers around it—a community, to be sure, whose boundaries are constantly shifting and whose edges are never stable. (Nehamas 2007, 80–81)

2. Philosophical Conceptions of Beauty

Each of the views sketched below has many expressions, some of which may be incompatible with one another. In many or perhaps most of the actual formulations, elements of more than one such account are present. For example, Kant’s treatment of beauty in terms of disinterested pleasure has obvious elements of hedonism, while the ecstatic neo-Platonism of Plotinus includes not only the unity of the object, but also the fact that beauty calls out love or adoration. However, it is also worth remarking how divergent or even incompatible with one another many of these views are: for example, some philosophers associate beauty exclusively with use, others precisely with uselessness.

2.1 The Classical Conception

The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin gives a fundamental description of the classical conception of beauty, as embodied in Italian Renaissance painting and architecture:

The central idea of the Italian Renaissance is that of perfect proportion. In the human figure as in the edifice, this epoch strove to achieve the image of perfection at rest within itself. Every form developed to self-existent being, the whole freely co-ordinated: nothing but independently living parts…. In the system of a classic composition, the single parts, however firmly they may be rooted in the whole, maintain a certain independence. It is not the anarchy of primitive art: the part is conditioned by the whole, and yet does not cease to have its own life. For the spectator, that presupposes an articulation, a progress from part to part, which is a very different operation from perception as a whole. (Wölfflin 1932, 9–10, 15)

The classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions. This is a primordial Western conception of beauty, and is embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music wherever they appear. Aristotle says in the Poetics that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must … present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]). And in the Metaphysics: “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (Aristotle, volume 2 1705 [1078a36]). This view, as Aristotle implies, is sometimes boiled down to a mathematical formula, such as the golden section, but it need not be thought of in such strict terms. The conception is exemplified above all in such texts as Euclid’s Elements and such works of architecture as the Parthenon, and, again, by the Canon of the sculptor Polykleitos (late fifth/early fourth century BCE).

The Canon was not only a statue deigned to display perfect proportion, but a now-lost treatise on beauty. The physician Galen characterizes the text as specifying, for example, the proportions of “the finger to the finger, and of all the fingers to the metacarpus, and the wrist, and of all these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the arm, in fact of everything to everything…. For having taught us in that treatise all the symmetriae of the body, Polyclitus supported his treatise with a work, having made the statue of a man according to his treatise, and having called the statue itself, like the treatise, the Canon” (quoted in Pollitt 1974, 15). It is important to note that the concept of ‘symmetry’ in classical texts is distinct from and richer than its current use to indicate bilateral mirroring. It also refers precisely to the sorts of harmonious and measurable proportions among the parts characteristic of objects that are beautiful in the classical sense, which carried also a moral weight. For example, in the Sophist (228c-e), Plato describes virtuous souls as symmetrical.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius gives as good a characterization of the classical conception as any, both in its complexities and, appropriately enough, in its underlying unity:

Architecture consists of Order, which in Greek is called taxis, and arrangement, which the Greeks name diathesis, and of Proportion and Symmetry and Decor and Distribution which in the Greeks is called oeconomia.

Order is the balanced adjustment of the details of the work separately, and as to the whole, the arrangement of the proportion with a view to a symmetrical result.

Proportion implies a graceful semblance: the suitable display of details in their context. This is attained when the details of the work are of a height suitable to their breadth, of a breadth suitable to their length; in a word, when everything has a symmetrical correspondence.

Symmetry also is the appropriate harmony arising out of the details of the work itself: the correspondence of each given detail to the form of the design as a whole. As in the human body, from cubit, foot, palm, inch and other small parts come the symmetric quality of eurhythmy. (Vitruvius, 26–27)

Aquinas, in a typically Aristotelian pluralist formulation, says that “There are three requirements for beauty. Firstly, integrity or perfection—for if something is impaired it is ugly. Then there is due proportion or consonance. And also clarity: whence things that are brightly coloured are called beautiful” (Summa Theologica I, 39, 8).

Francis Hutcheson in the eighteenth century gives what may well be the clearest expression of the view: “What we call Beautiful in Objects, to speak in the Mathematical Style, seems to be in a compound Ratio of Uniformity and Variety; so that where the Uniformity of Bodys is equal, the Beauty is as the Variety; and where the Variety is equal, the Beauty is as the Uniformity” (Hutcheson 1725, 29). Indeed, proponents of the view often speak “in the Mathematical Style.” Hutcheson goes on to adduce mathematical formulae, and specifically the propositions of Euclid, as the most beautiful objects (in another echo of Aristotle), though he also rapturously praises nature, with its massive complexity underlain by universal physical laws as revealed, for example, by Newton. There is beauty, he says, “In the Knowledge of some great Principles, or universal Forces, from which innumerable Effects do flow. Such is Gravitation, in Sir Isaac Newton’s Scheme” (Hutcheson 1725, 38).

A very compelling series of refutations of and counter-examples to the idea that beauty can be a matter of any specific proportions between parts, and hence to the classical conception, is given by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime:

Turning our eyes to the vegetable kingdom, we find nothing there so beautiful as flowers; but flowers are of every sort of shape, and every sort of disposition; they are turned and fashioned into an infinite variety of forms. … The rose is a large flower, yet it grows upon a small shrub; the flower of the apple is very small, and it grows upon a large tree; yet the rose and the apple blossom are both beautiful. … The swan, confessedly a beautiful bird, has a neck longer than the rest of its body, and but a very short tail; is this a beautiful proportion? we must allow that it is. But what shall we say of the peacock, who has comparatively but a short neck, with a tail longer than the neck and the rest of the body taken together? … There are some parts of the human body, that are observed to hold certain proportions to each other; but before it can be proved, that the efficient cause of beauty lies in these, it must be shewn, that wherever these are found exact, the person to whom they belong is beautiful. … For my part, I have at several times very carefully examined many of these proportions, and found them to hold very nearly, or altogether alike in many subjects, which were not only very different from one another, but where one has been very beautiful, and the other very remote from beauty. … You may assign any proportions you please to every part of the of the human body; and I undertake, that a painter shall observe them all, and notwithstanding produce, if he pleases, a very ugly figure. (Burke 1757, 84–89)

2.2 The Idealist Conception

There are many ways to interpret Plato’s relation to classical aesthetics. The political system sketched in The Republic characterizes justice in terms of the relation of part and whole. But Plato was also no doubt a dissident in classical culture, and the account of beauty that is expressed specifically in The Symposium—perhaps the key Socratic text for neo-Platonism and for the idealist conception of beauty—expresses an aspiration toward beauty as perfect unity.

In the midst of a drinking party, Socrates recounts the teachings of his instructress, one Diotima, on matters of love. She connects the experience of beauty to the erotic or the desire to reproduce (Plato, 558–59 [Symposium 206c–207e]). But the desire to reproduce is associated in turn with a desire for the immortal or eternal: ‘And why all this longing for propagation? Because this is the one deathless and eternal element in our mortality. And since we have agreed that the lover longs for the good to be his own forever, it follows that we are bound to long for immortality as well as for the good—which is to say that Love is a longing for immortality” (Plato, 559, [Symposium 206e–207a]). What follows is, if not classical, at any rate classic:

The candidate for this initiation cannot, if his efforts are to be rewarded, begin too early to devote himself to the beauties of the body. First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse. Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, and he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or no importance.

Next he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and cherish—and beautiful enough to quicken in his heart a longing for such discourse as tends toward the building of a noble nature. And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment. …

And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. … Starting from individual beauties, the quest for universal beauty must find him mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung—that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, and from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself—until at last he comes to know what beauty is.

And if, my dear Socrates, Diotima went on, man’s life is ever worth living, it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty. (Plato, 561–63 [Symposium 210a–211d])

Beauty here is conceived—perhaps explicitly in contrast to the classical aesthetics of integral parts and coherent whole—as perfect unity, or indeed as the principle of unity itself.

Plotinus, as we have already seen, comes close to equating beauty with formedness per se: it is the source of unity among disparate things, and it is itself perfect unity. Plotinus specifically attacks what we have called the classical conception of beauty:

Almost everyone declares that the symmetry of parts towards each other and towards a whole, with, besides, a certain charm of colour, constitutes the beauty recognized by the eye, that in visible things, as indeed in all else, universally, the beautiful thing is essentially symmetrical, patterned.

But think what this means.

Only a compound can be beautiful, never anything devoid of parts; and only a whole; the several parts will have beauty, not in themselves, but only as working together to give a comely total. Yet beauty in an aggregate demands beauty in details; it cannot be constructed out of ugliness; its law must run throughout.

All the loveliness of colour and even the light of the sun, being devoid of parts and so not beautiful by symmetry, must be ruled out of the realm of beauty. And how comes gold to be a beautiful thing? And lightning by night, and the stars, why are these so fair?

In sounds also the simple must be proscribed, though often in a whole noble composition each several tone is delicious in itself. (Plotinus, 21 [Ennead 1.6])

And Plotinus declares that fire is the most beautiful physical thing, “making ever upwards, the subtlest and sprightliest of all bodies, as very near to the unembodied. … Hence the splendour of its light, the splendour that belongs to the Idea” (Plotinus, 22 [Ennead 1.3]). For Plotinus as for Plato, all multiplicity must be immolated finally into unity, and all roads of inquiry and experience lead toward the Good/Beautiful/True/Divine.

This gave rise to a basically mystical vision of the beauty of God that, as Umberto Eco has argued, persisted alongside an anti-aesthetic asceticism throughout the Middle Ages: a delight in profusion that finally merges into a single spiritual unity. In the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite characterized the whole of creation as yearning toward God; the universe is called into being by love of God as beauty (Pseudo-Dionysius, 4.7; see Kirwan 1999, 29). Sensual/aesthetic pleasures could be considered the expressions of the immense, beautiful profusion of God and our ravishment thereby. Eco quotes Suger, Abbot of St Denis in the twelfth century, describing a richly-appointed church:

Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner. (Eco 1959, 14)

This conception has had many expressions in the modern era, including in such figures as Shaftesbury, Schiller, and Hegel, according to whom the aesthetic or the experience of art and beauty is a primary bridge (or to use the Platonic image, stairway or ladder) between the material and the spiritual. For Shaftesbury, there are three levels of beauty: what God makes (nature); what human beings make from nature or what is transformed by human intelligence (art, for example); and finally what makes even the maker of such things as us (that is, God). Shaftesbury’s character Theocles describes “the third order of beauty,”

which forms not only such as we call mere forms but even the forms which form. For we ourselves are notable architects in matter, and can show lifeless bodies brought into form, and fashioned by our own hands, but that which fashions even minds themselves, contains in itself all the beauties fashioned by those minds, and is consequently the principle, source, and fountain of all beauty. … Whatever appears in our second order of forms, or whatever is derived or produced from thence, all this is eminently, principally, and originally in this last order of supreme and sovereign beauty. … Thus architecture, music, and all which is of human invention, resolves itself into this last order. (Shaftesbury 1738, 228–29)

Schiller’s expression of a similar series of thoughts was fundamentally influential on the conceptions of beauty developed within German Idealism:

The pre-rational concept of Beauty, if such a thing be adduced, can be drawn from no actual case—rather does itself correct and guide our judgement concerning every actual case; it must therefore be sought along the path of abstraction, and it can be inferred simply from the possibility of a nature that is both sensuous and rational; in a word, Beauty must be exhibited as a necessary condition of humanity. Beauty … makes of man a whole, complete in himself. (1795, 59–60, 86)

For Schiller, beauty or play or art (he uses the words, rather cavalierly, almost interchangeably) performs the process of integrating or rendering compatible the natural and the spiritual, or the sensuous and the rational: only in such a state of integration are we—who exist simultaneously on both these levels—free. This is quite similar to Plato’s ‘ladder’: beauty as a way to ascend to the abstract or spiritual. But Schiller—though this is at times unclear—is more concerned with integrating the realms of nature and spirit than with transcending the level of physical reality entirely, a la Plato. It is beauty and art that performs this integration.

In this and in other ways—including the tripartite dialectical structure of the view—Schiller strikingly anticipates Hegel, who writes as follows.

The philosophical Concept of the beautiful, to indicate its true nature at least in a preliminary way, must contain, reconciled within itself, both the extremes which have been mentioned [the ideal and the empirical] because it unites metaphysical universality with real particularity. (Hegel 1835, 22)

Beauty, we might say, or artistic beauty at any rate, is a route from the sensuous and particular to the Absolute and to freedom, from finitude to the infinite, formulations that—while they are influenced by Schiller—strikingly recall Shaftesbury, Plotinus, and Plato.

Both Hegel and Shaftesbury, who associate beauty and art with mind and spirit, hold that the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature, on the grounds that, as Hegel puts it, “the beauty of art is born of the spirit and born again” (Hegel 1835, 2). That is, the natural world is born of God, but the beauty of art transforms that material again by the spirit of the artist. This idea reaches is apogee in Benedetto Croce, who very nearly denies that nature can ever be beautiful, or at any rate asserts that the beauty of nature is a reflection of the beauty of art. “The real meaning of ‘natural beauty’ is that certain persons, things, places are, by the effect which they exert upon one, comparable with poetry, painting, sculpture, and the other arts” (Croce 1928, 230).

2.3 Love and Longing

Edmund Burke, expressing an ancient tradition, writes that, “by beauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it” (Burke 1757, 83). As we have seen, in almost all treatments of beauty, even the most apparently object or objectively-oriented, there is a moment in which the subjective qualities of the experience of beauty are emphasized: rhapsodically, perhaps, or in terms of pleasure or ataraxia, as in Schopenhauer. For example, we have already seen Plotinus, for whom beauty is certainly not subjective, describe the experience of beauty ecstatically. In the idealist tradition, the human soul, as it were, recognizes in beauty its true origin and destiny. Among the Greeks, the connection of beauty with love is proverbial from early myth, and Aphrodite the goddess of love won the Judgment of Paris by promising Paris the most beautiful woman in the world.

There is an historical connection between idealist accounts of beauty and those that connect it to love and longing, though there would seem to be no entailment either way. We have Sappho’s famous fragment 16: “Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful sights the dark world offers, but I say it’s whatever you love best” (Sappho, 16). (Indeed, at Phaedrus 236c, Socrates appears to defer to “the fair Sappho” as having had greater insight than himself on love [Plato, 483].)

Plato’s discussions of beauty in the Symposium and the Phaedrus occur in the context of the theme of erotic love. In the former, love is portrayed as the ‘child’ of poverty and plenty. “Nor is he delicate and lovely as most of us believe, but harsh and arid, barefoot and homeless” (Plato, 556 [Symposium 203b–d]). Love is portrayed as a lack or absence that seeks its own fulfillment in beauty: a picture of mortality as an infinite longing. Love is always in a state of lack and hence of desire: the desire to possess the beautiful. Then if this state of infinite longing could be trained on the truth, we would have a path to wisdom. The basic idea has been recovered many times, for example by the Romantics. It fueled the cult of idealized or courtly love through the Middle Ages, in which the beloved became a symbol of the infinite.

Recent work on the theory of beauty has revived this idea, and turning away from pleasure has turned toward love or longing (which are not necessarily entirely pleasurable experiences) as the experiential correlate of beauty. Both Sartwell and Nehamas use Sappho’s fragment 16 as an epigraph. Sartwell defines beauty as “the object of longing” and characterizes longing as intense and unfulfilled desire. He calls it a fundamental condition of a finite being in time, where we are always in the process of losing whatever we have, and are thus irremediably in a state of longing. And Nehamas writes

I think of beauty as the emblem of what we lack, the mark of an art that speaks to our desire. … Beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction. (Nehamas 2007, 77)

2.4 Hedonist Conceptions

Thinkers of the 18th century—many of them oriented toward empiricism—accounted for beauty in terms of pleasure. The Italian historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, for example, in quite a typical formulation, says that “By beautiful we generally understand whatever, when seen, heard, or understood, delights, pleases, and ravishes us by causing within us agreeable sensations” (see Carritt 1931, 60). In Hutcheson it is not clear whether we ought to conceive beauty primarily in terms of classical formal elements or in terms of the viewer’s pleasurable response. He begins the Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue with a discussion of pleasure. And he appears to assert that objects which instantiate his “compound ratio of uniformity and variety’ are peculiarly or necessarily capable of producing pleasure:

The only Pleasure of sense, which our Philosophers seem to consider, is that which accompanys the simple Ideas of Sensation; But there are vastly greater Pleasures in those complex Ideas of objects, which obtain the Names of Beautiful, Regular, Harmonious. Thus every one acknowledges he is more delighted with a fine Face, a just Picture, than with the View of any one Colour, were it as strong and lively as possible; and more pleased with a Prospect of the Sun arising among settled Clouds, and colouring their Edges, with a starry Hemisphere, a fine Landskip, a regular Building, than with a clear blue Sky, a smooth Sea, or a large open Plain, not diversify’d by Woods, Hills, Waters, Buildings: And yet even these latter Appearances are not quite simple. So in Musick, the Pleasure of fine Composition is incomparably greater than that of any one Note, how sweet, full, or swelling soever. (Hutcheson 1725, 22)

When Hutcheson then goes on to describe ‘original or absolute beauty,’ he does it, as we have seen, in terms of the qualities of the beautiful thing, and yet throughout, he insists that beauty is centered in the human experience of pleasure. But of course the idea of pleasure could come apart from Hutcheson’s particular aesthetic preferences, which are poised precisely opposite Plotinus’s, for example. That we find pleasure in a symmetrical rather than an asymmetrical building (if we do) is contingent. But that beauty is connected to pleasure appears, according to Hutcheson, to be necessary, and the pleasure which is the locus of beauty itself has ideas rather than things as its object.

Hume writes in a similar vein in the Treatise of Human Nature:

Beauty is such an order and construction of parts as, either by the primary constitution of our nature, by custom, or by caprice, is fitted to give a pleasure and satisfaction to the soul. … Pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence. (Hume 1740, 299)

Though this appears ambiguous as between locating the beauty in the pleasure or in the impression or idea that causes it, Hume is soon talking about the ‘sentiment of beauty,’ where sentiment is, roughly, a pleasurable or painful response to impressions or ideas, though beauty is a matter of cultivated or delicate pleasures. Indeed, by the time of Kant’s Third Critique and after that for perhaps two centuries, the direct connection of beauty to pleasure is taken as a commonplace, to the point where thinkers are frequently identifying beauty as a certain sort of pleasure. Santayana, for example, as we have seen, while still gesturing in the direction of the object or experience that causes pleasure, emphatically identifies beauty as a certain sort of pleasure.

One result of this approach to beauty—or perhaps an extreme expression of this orientation—is the assertion of the positivists that words such as ‘beauty’ are meaningless or without cognitive content, or are mere expressions of subjective approval. Hume and Kant were no sooner declaring beauty to be a matter of sentiment or pleasure and therefore to be subjective than they were trying to ameliorate the sting, largely by emphasizing critical consensus. But once this fundamental admission is made, any consensus is contingent. Another way to formulate this is that it appears to certain thinkers after Hume and Kant that there can be no reasons to prefer the consensus to a counter-consensus assessment. A.J. Ayer writes:

Such aesthetic words as ‘beautiful’ and ‘hideous’ are employed … not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows…that there is no sense attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgments, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics. (Ayer 1952, 113)

All meaningful claims either concern the meaning of terms or are empirical, in which case they are meaningful because observations could confirm or disconfirm them. ‘That song is beautiful’ has neither status, and hence has no empirical or conceptual content. It merely expresses a positive attitude of a particular viewer; it is an expression of pleasure, like a satisfied sigh. The question of beauty is not a genuine question, and we can safely leave it behind or alone. Most twentieth-century philosophers did just that.

2.5 Use and Uselessness

Philosophers in the Kantian tradition identify the experience of beauty with disinterested pleasure, psychical distance, and the like, and contrast the aesthetic with the practical. “Taste is the faculty of judging an object or mode of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful” (Kant 1790, 45). Edward Bullough distinguishes the beautiful from the merely agreeable on the grounds that the former requires a distance from practical concerns: “Distance is produced in the first instance by putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our practical, actual self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends.“ (Bullough 1912, 244)

On the other hand, many philosophers have gone in the opposite direction and have identified beauty with suitedness to use. ‘Beauty’ is perhaps one of the few terms that could plausibly sustain such entirely opposed interpretations.

According to Diogenes Laertius, the ancient hedonist Aristippus of Cyrene took a rather direct approach.

Is not then, also, a beautiful woman useful in proportion as she is beautiful; and a boy and a youth useful in proportion to their beauty? Well then, a handsome boy and a handsome youth must be useful exactly in proportion as they are handsome. Now the use of beauty is, to be embraced. If then a man embraces a woman just as it is useful that he should, he does not do wrong; nor, again, will he be doing wrong in employing beauty for the purposes for which it is useful. (Diogenes Laertius, 94)

In some ways, Aristippus is portrayed parodically: as the very worst of the sophists, though supposedly a follower of Socrates. And yet the idea of beauty as suitedness to use finds expression in a number of thinkers. Xenophon’s Memorabilia puts the view in the mouth of Socrates, with Aristippus as interlocutor:

Socrates: In short everything which we use is considered both good and beautiful from the same point of view, namely its use.

Aristippus: Why then, is a dung-basket a beautiful thing?

Socrates: Of course it is, and a golden shield is ugly, if the one be beautifully fitted to its purpose and the other ill. (Xenophon, Book III, viii)

Berkeley expresses a similar view in his dialogue Alciphron, though he begins with the hedonist conception: “Every one knows that beauty is what pleases” (Berkeley 1732, 174, see Carritt 1931, 75). But it pleases for reasons of usefulness. Thus, as Xenophon suggests, on this view, things are beautiful only in relation to the uses for which they are intended or to which they are properly applied. The proper proportions of an object depend on what kind of object it is, and again a beautiful ox would make an ugly horse. “The parts, therefore, in true proportions, must be so related, and adjusted to one another, as they may best conspire to the use and operation of the whole” (Berkeley 1732, 174–75, see Carritt 1931, 76). One result of this is that, though beauty remains tied to pleasure, it is not an immediate sensible experience. It essentially requires intellection and practical activity: one has to know the use of a thing, and assess its suitedness to that use.

This treatment of beauty is often used, for example, to criticize the distinction between fine art and craft, and it avoids sheer philistinism by enriching the concept of ‘use,’ so that it might encompass not only performing a practical task, but performing it especially well or with an especial satisfaction. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Ceylonese-British scholar of Indian and European medieval arts, adds that a beautiful work of art or craft expresses as well as serves its purpose.

A cathedral is not as such more beautiful than an airplane, … a hymn than a mathematical equation. … A well-made sword is not more beautiful than a well-made scalpel, though one is used to slay, the other to heal. Works of art are only good or bad, beautiful or ugly in themselves, to the extent that they are or are not well and truly made, that is, do or do not express, or do or do not serve their purpose. (Coomaraswamy 1977, 75)

Roger Scruton, in his book Beauty (2009) returns to a modified Kantianism with regard to both beauty and sublimity, enriched by many and varied examples. “We call something beautiful,” writes Scruton, “when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.” (Scruton 2009, 26)

Despite the Kantian framework, Scruton, like Sartwell and Nehamas, throws the subjective/objective distinction into question. He compares experiencing a beautiful thing to a kiss. To kiss someone that one loves is not merely to place one body part on another, “but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising – it is a move from one self toward another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being.” (Scruton 2009, 48)

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  • Bullough, Edward, 1912. “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology, 5. Widely anthologized, e.g., in Cahn, Steven and Meskin, Aaron, 2008. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Burke, Edmund, 1757, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Carritt, E.F., 1931, Philosophies of Beauty, London: Oxford University Press.
  • Coomaraswamy, Ananda, 1977, Traditional Art and Symbolism (Selected Papers, volume 1), Princeton: Bollingen.
  • Croce, Benedetto, 1928, “Aesthetica in Nunc,” in Philosophy, Poetry, History, Cecil Sprigge, trans., London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • Danto, Arthur, 2003, The Abuse of Beauty, Chicago: Open Court.
  • Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, C.D. Yonge trans., New York: George Bell & Sons, 1895 [3rd century CE text].
  • Eco, Umberto, 1959, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Hugh Bredin, trans., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Hanslick, Eduard, 1891, The Beautiful in Music, Gustav Cohen, trans., London: Novello and Company.
  • Hegel, G.W.F., 1835, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, in two volumes, T.M. Knox, trans., Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
  • Hume, David, 1757, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral and Political, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1894.
  • –––, 1740, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Hutcheson, Francis, 1725, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004.
  • Kant, Immanuel, 1790, Critique of Judgement, J.H. Bernard, trans., New York: Macmillan, 1951.
  • Kirwan, James, 1999. Beauty, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Moore, G.E., 1903, Principia Ethica, Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.
  • Mothersill, Mary, 1984, Beauty Restored, Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Nehamas, Alexander, 2007, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Plato, Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961 [4th century BCE text].
  • Plotinus, The Six Enneads, Stephen McKenna and B.S. Page, trans., Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Publishing, 1952 [3rd century CE text].
  • Pollitt, J.J., 1974, The Ancient View of Greek Art, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Pseudo-Dionysius, Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, John Parker, trans., London: James Parker and Co., 1897 [originally 5th or 6th century CE].
  • Santayana, George, 1896, The Sense of Beauty, New York: Scribner’s.
  • Sappho, The Poetry of Sappho, Jim Powell, trans., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 [7th or 6th century BCE text].
  • Sartwell, Crispin, 2004, Six Names of Beauty, New York: Routledge
  • Schiller, Friedrich, 1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, New York: Dover, 2004.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur, 1818, The World as Will and Idea, E.F.J. Payne, trans., New York: Dover, 1966.
  • Scruton, Roger, 2009, Beauty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Shaftesbury, Third Earl of, 1738, “The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody, “ Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.
  • Vitruvius, On Architecture, Frank Granger, trans., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970 [originally 1st century BCE].
  • Wölfflin, Heinrich, 1932, Principles of Art History, M.D. Hottinger, trans., New York: Dover, 1950.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia, E. C. Marchant, trans., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923 [4th century BCE text].

 

Please see my related post:

Shapes and Patterns in Nature

 

 

 

 

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance

 

 

From CIIS Catalog

“Drama Therapy, as one of the creative arts therapies [such as art, music, dance and poetry therapy] facilitates artistic expression-engendering clarity, mastery, meaning, and hope…. We choose from a wide array of adapted dramatic processes. Storytelling, improvisation, self-revelatory performance, life review, physical theatre, creative drama, puppetry, script pieces and more are tailored to the needs of a specific group or individual.”

 

California Institute of Integral Studies offers a graduate level degree in Drama therapy.

  • Therapy for the actors
  • Therapy for the audience

How does it work?  I am curious.  Are you?

How is it different from talk therapy? or group therapy?

  • Talking with a Psychiatrist
  • Talking in a group such as NA (Narcotics Anonymous), AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)

Why role playing helps in getting real and truthful?

  • Role Playing
  • Autobiographical
  • Self Revelatory

How is audience impacted?  How do they heal?

 

Self watching self.  Self experiencing self.

Witness Consciousness, Showing mirrors to each other.

Reflections of the self.  Self Illumination.

Sacred Mirrors.

If reality is holographic and recursive, it makes sense.

I admit I do not yet understand it all.  But I am trying and will continue to try and learn.

My artist friends.  Any suggestions?

 

Drama Therapy

Freedom and possibility are two key words that begin to describe the essence of drama therapy. Life is finite; there are only so many experiences we can have. But in drama, the opportunities and options are endless, enabling us to dive more deeply into the richness of life. And when the dramas are authentic and “real,” they have the power to affect, and even alter, our real lives profoundly. For the past thirty years, we have been investigating how therapeutically adapted dramatic processes work over time to heal wounds, facilitate lasting change, and help people reach their highest potential.

– Renée Emunah, Program Founder/Director


Please note: Please contact the Admissions Counselor, Skylar Hall, at 415-575-6122 or shall@ciis.edu for more information.

For more than 30 years, the CIIS Drama Therapy program has been steeped in the exploration of how therapeutically adapted dramatic processes work over time to heal wounds, facilitate lasting change, and help people reach their highest potential. Our program integrates experiential, didactic, and clinical courses in a carefully paced and sequenced curriculum, to train students to become personally and culturally aware, attuned, and competent drama therapists and psychotherapists.

Our program is one of the only master’s programs in the United States both regionally accredited and approved by the North American Drama Therapy Association, and is one of only a handful of such programs in the world. Furthermore, we are the only program that offers a path to the LPCC license. CIIS is internationally recognized as housing one of the world’s most highly developed and rigorous training programs for drama therapists.

Our graduates work in a variety of leadership positions and settings, including community mental health centers, private practice, schools and educational centers, organizations for serving LGBTQ communities, and clinics offering services for trauma, eating disorders, loss, and self-care.


Renée Emunah, the Founder and Chair of the Drama Therapy Program, is the co-editor a recent book:

The Self in Performance:  Autobiographical, Self-Revelatory, and Autoethnographic Forms of Therapeutic Theatre

Edited by Susana Pendzik, Renée Emunah, and David Read Johnson. New York and London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

This book is the first to examine the performance of autobiographical material as a theatrical form, a research subject, and a therapeutic method. Contextualizing personal performance within psychological and theatrical paradigms, the book identifies and explores core concepts, such as the function of the director/therapist throughout the creative process, the role of the audience, and the dramaturgy involved in constructing such performances. International contributors address issues of identity, memory, authenticity, self-reflection, self-indulgence, and embodied self-representation in Autobiographical Therapeutic Performance, Self-Revelatory Performance, and Autoethnographic Performance.


9781137541536

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Key Terms

  • Identity
  • Memory
  • Authenticity
  • Self-reflection
  • Self-indulgence
  • Embodied self-representation
  • Autobiographical Therapeutic Performance
  • Self-Revelatory Performance
  • Autoethnographic Performance
  • Mirrors of the soul
  • Witness Consciousness

Books for further details

Acting for Real: Drama Therapy Process, Technique, and Performance

Renee Emunah

The Self in Performance

Autobiographical, Self-Revelatory, and Autoethnographic Forms of Therapeutic Theatre

Editors: Pendzik, Susana, Emunah, Renée, Read Johnson, David (Eds.)

 

 

 

Self-Revelatory Performance: The Intentional Use of Theatre’s Therapeutic Nature

Leah Shapiro
Connecticut College, l.shapiro323@gmail.com

 

http://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=theathp

 

 

What is Drama Therapy?

North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA)

https://www.nadta.org/what-is-drama-therapy.html

 

 

Tales of Transformation: Drama Therapy in Hospitals

Click to access webinar_WhippleDramaTherapy2012.pdf

 

 

DRAMA THERAPY

AS A FORM OF MODERN SHAMANISM

Susana Pendzik

 

Click to access trps-20-88-01-081.pdf

 

 

 

“Working Through the Drama: The Art of Drama Therapy.”

A Theatre Bay Area article by Jean Shiffman about studying Drama Therapy at CIIS

 

Working Through the Drama: The Art of Drama Therapy

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

 By Jean Schiffman

  If you’re an actor who yearns to do more with your acquired skills than perform, if you’re inclined toward helping others, if you’re attracted to psychotherapy and counseling and if an eventual steady paycheck sounds inviting, you might want to consider a career in drama therapy (DT). If so, you won’t need to move—San Francisco boasts one of the best DT programs in the country, at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). In fact, this is one of only a few master’s programs in the field that are both regionally accredited (by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) and approved by the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA), and one of only a handful of such programs in the world, according to the CIIS catalog. (Others in North America are at NYU, Concordia University in Montreal and Lesley University in Boston.) Completing the two-and-a-half- to three-year program meets academic requirements to become registered drama therapists and fulfills the academic requirements for a Marriage and Family Therapist license in California.


In Transit: Braking at the Intersections, a 2013 production of the California Institute of
Integral Studies Drama Therapy Program’s Theatre of Change project. Photo: Lonny Shavelson

  DT, according to NADTA, is “the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals.” It “can provide the context for participants to tell their stories, set goals and solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis. Through drama, the depth and breadth of inner experience can be actively explored and interpersonal relationship skills can be enhanced. Participants can expand their repertoire of dramatic roles to find that their own life roles have been strengthened.”

 The CIIS program, which utilizes “theoretical, practical/clinical and experiential formats,” was founded and is directed by Renée Emunah, who first began the program in 1983 at Antioch University San Francisco before moving it to CIIS in 1989. With a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA combining theatre arts and clinical psychology (from San Francisco State), Emunah studied DT in England before it became a field in the US in 1979. She was one of the first four drama therapists to become officially registered in the United States.
In September I sat in one of her first-semester classes, Drama Therapy Process and Technique, to get a feeling for what kinds of students are attracted to the field. The group of about 18 skewed toward 20-something (with one in her mid-50s)—an articulate, intently focused group, mostly women, mostly but not entirely white, a few foreign accents and one hijab among them. They sat on the floor hunched over notebooks for a PowerPoint lecture (followed by a group discussion) on the topic of the day, which was the difference between psychodrama and DT. Basically, DT includes the fictional among its tools (Emunah paraphrases Oscar Wilde: “Give a person a mask, and they will tell the truth”) and is useful for groups; psychodrama is more individual-focused, deals more with straight autobiographical facts and leans less on dramatic skills.

 A typical first-year group, or “cohort,” like this one will stick together for the entire program, taking many of their classes together. They were admitted through a competitive process involving an interview and some group activities to gauge their potential skills in interrelating, intuition and such, after which only about a third are accepted. They are required to have at least some theatre background (the majority have a BFA in theatre) and to be in individual psychotherapy for at least 50 hours during their training (which is true for all psychology and counseling masters programs at CIIS). Despite a heavy weekly workload—perhaps four to five three-hour classes—most also work 15 to 20 hours. Financial aid and a few scholarships are available.

 The first year, while academically intense, might be more fun—if “fun” is an appropriate word to use for such rigorous training—than the extremely challenging second year, when students have a practicum, which is an internship in the field (on site 17 hours a week) along with their coursework.

 Although the day I was there was a traditional but informal lecture-style class, experiential classwork is a large part of the curriculum. As the catalog states, “Drama Therapy, as one of the creative arts therapies [such as art, music, dance and poetry therapy] facilitates artistic expression-engendering clarity, mastery, meaning, and hope…. We choose from a wide array of adapted dramatic processes. Storytelling, improvisation, self-revelatory performance, life review, physical theatre, creative drama, puppetry, script pieces and more are tailored to the needs of a specific group or individual.” Emunah teaches a five-phase integrative model in which drama therapists lead clients in a steadily progressive, carefully plotted journey of healing. Students practice these methods in the classroom, working together as though in a therapeutic environment.

 “There’s quite a bit of reading, of paper-writing, academic writing,” explains Emunah. “There are many publications in the field and lots of methods and approaches. Obviously their own material is evoked in the processes, but it’s a training program to become drama therapists, so we stress that meta-level and observational skill. That can be challenging. It’s not a drama therapy group; it’s class, [but] they can’t just be sitting and taking notes.” One class, for example, is geared to the application of DT in different facilities and age groups, and students practice being in the role of drama therapist while others simulate potential clients. The balance is between experiential classes and psychology classes. In lieu of a formal written thesis at the end, or making a documentary video, or directing a therapeutic “performance,” most students opt to create a “self-revelatory” piece: a scripted, deeply personal, 30- to 45-minute performance that differs from an autobiographical solo show (such as Brian Copeland’s revealing Not a Genuine Black Man) in that the student is not “telling a story” as such but rather is working through an emotional issue. “There’s a sense of suspense in terms of unraveling the multiple strands of healing,” explains Emunah, “but not a pat resolution or quick fix.” Some students have taken their “self-revs” into the mainstream theatre world, performing in festivals.

 

Renee Emunah’s Drama Therapy Process and Technique class at the California Institute of Integral Studies, October 2014.

Photo: Maya Grodman

 In the weeks before I attended the class, the students had—along with academic reading and other classes—played a variety of theatre games familiar to actors who have had basic acting and/or improv training: back-to-back nonverbal conversations; repetitive exchange of lines à la Sanford Meisner (“I want it”/”You can’t have it”) and the more objective-oriented “I want [fill in the blank with something you really want]”/”You can have it”; throwing an imaginary ball around a circle; blind walks (a trust exercise); a blind touch and smell sensory awareness-type exercise; a form of “emotional statues”; creating a scene for characters in conflict. Students keep a journal of the insights they’ve gained. Of the sensory exercise, one student wrote, “It was a different, new experience when miming in a group where the focus is not on the artistic side of it but on the playful, spontaneous, creative side.” One student wrote about a comedic improvisation involving three loud and rude Americans going into a strictly halal restaurant in Jordan and the cultural-political discussion that followed. “This scene really demonstrated just how powerful this work can be!” she wrote.

 There is a decidedly aesthetic component to the practice of DT; as a student wrote in her journal, “A drama therapist needs to identify as a drama/theatre artist.” Armand Volkas, a Marriage and Family Therapist and registered drama therapist with a private practice (the East Bay’s Living Arts Counseling Center, with a focus on “drama and expressive arts therapy”), emphasizes that point: “The more aesthetic you can make therapy, the more transformative it will be.” Volkas also teaches advanced improv and “Drama Therapy and Social Change” at CIIS. He started out by studying acting at UCLA, but when he codirected a theatre piece about children of Holocaust survivors (as he is himself) and realized how therapeutic it was, he knew he needed to apply theatre skills in a nontraditional way. He points out that DT emerged from several sources: ritual, shamanism, play therapy and—perhaps mostly importantly—the experimental theatre movement.
Volkas thinks DT is a field that more traditional therapists don’t take seriously. “I think they see the power of it, and it scares them,” he theorizes, “to get out of their chairs and into action.”

 Acting, he continues, requires a certain kind of narcissism. “It’s about you as an instrument—finding an agent, getting work. But when you’re a drama therapist, it’s not about you. It’s not the mommy-look-at-me impulse any more. You’re using your tools in the service of someone else. So you need to have the impulse to be a servant. To make the world a better place. [But] you don’t throw aesthetics out the window, although you have to adjust it because you’re working with people [your clients] who are not skilled. But when you think of the aha! moment of your life, it has an aesthetic quality. So that’s an important value in DT—to strive for an aesthetic even as a therapeutic goal. In a way you’re creating new memories and you’re rewiring the brain, so that when the person thinks of trauma, it can be rerouted to the new, reparative experience.”    

 Volkas has used his DT and theatre skills in a variety of innovative ways, including teaching a process he calls “Healing the Wounds of History,” an approach to intercultural conflict and collective trauma. He trains drama therapists in his method, then invites a group in historical conflict (say, Turks and Armenians) to engage in a therapeutic process in which they might look at things like “the art of apology.” “An apology is a performance,” he says. “The tools of Method acting apply: how do you make an apology real? These are existential and spiritual questions for groups in conflict, where there’s enormous trauma. How do you heal trauma? Theatre and DT are wonderful tools to research those kinds of questions.” He also works with clients to create the same type of self-revelatory theatre pieces that CIIS students perform as a thesis; the client then performs for an invited audience.

  Pamela Greenberg with auxiliary actors performing in her capstone self-revelatory performance for

California Institute of Integral Studies’ Drama Therapy Program. Photo: Courtesy of CIIS

 The drama therapists I talked to who’d completed the masters program at CIIS were enthusiastic—and employed. Aileen Cho, who had been a theatre major at UC San Diego with an interest in theatre for the oppressed and theatre for social change, working in commercials was unfulfilling. She’d been in traditional talk therapy herself, and when she started Googling around for ideas, she was surprised to discover DT. She’d always known theatre was a powerful tool for change, but thought, Wow, this can be applied in a clinical setting? The master’s program turned out to be the most intense thing she has ever done. She and her cohorts used to jokingly call it “trauma therapy.” Her practicums included working with veterans with PTSD, with teens in Oakland schools and in a residential program for eating disorders, which has turned out to be her niche. “The experiential stuff was the most challenging,” she reports. “They expect you to use your self and your life and personal stuff to experience the modality in DT. There’s always a fine line between therapy and not-therapy. It was very demanding academically and personally on all levels.” She became so close to her cohorts that they are now lifelong friends. “I’ve had close bonds with cast members, but this is a whole other level,” she says. Now Cho works in residential and partial hospitalization and intensive programs for eating disorders, specializing in DT; maintains a private practice; and works with Volkas’s performance programs as well as performing with a troupe of drama therapists at CIIS.

 Like Cho, Jennifer Stuckert—who has a BFA in acting from NYU and has performed on Bay Area stages—discovered DT via Google. She wanted more autonomy over her career, and a steadier income. And she’d always been interested in psychologically driven theatre about interpersonal and social issues. When she took an introductory class at the New School in New York, she fell in love with the field. So two years after receiving her BFA, she applied to CIIS. She was surprised, she says, at just how challenging the program was. “It was scary at times, too,” she says, “and surprising: learning how to not have compassion fatigue, learning how to have boundaries, even mental boundaries—be able to let go as you would let go of a role at the end of a show and return to yourself.” She says it takes ego strength and self-awareness to do this kind of work. “It’s not about you,” she adds. “You can bring your authenticity and your empathy and your love for narrative, but you have to want to help people. That’s not easy.” But she loved the program and finds this career path to be rich and rewarding. She now works as a drama therapist at Volkas’s Living Arts Counseling Center, has started moving toward sex therapy—and is heading to L.A. to pursue film work.

 And Emily Burleson, who is a drama therapist at a Jewish K-8 school in Oakland, says that she was drawn to the field by the same impulses that drew her to theatre. Theatre had been healing for her and she wanted to share that with others. But she also didn’t understand how the healing really happened, what that magic was—plus it depended on her being in a show. She needed “better access to whatever would provide me with that. Drama therapy training connected those dots for me.”

 Burleson attended the CIIS program from 2009 to 2012. She liked the emphasis on, “instead of diving directly into a client’s own story, placing it into a fairy tale or investigative frame, a heightened reality that makes it exciting rather than depressing or terrifying or upsetting.” She was thrilled to go to school with “psychology and theatre geeks.” The hard part was the practicum, which for her was at a psychiatric hospital and required “a lot of grit and compassion.” When she made it through to the end of that year, she felt fantastic. Now she realizes that the magic she was seeking happens when she helps another person to reach a deeper sense of peace and healing. Then she too receives the benefits.

 Finally, what kind of jobs do DT graduates get? Cho says that she and her colleagues are good at getting work, because DT is unique, and “there are not that many of us.” The majority of CIIS graduates work in community mental health, largely with groups, says Emunah: with emotionally disturbed children, at women’s shelters, in chemical dependency or eating disorders programs. A smaller percentage build a private practice, working with individuals. Many, like Aileen Cho, continue to find ways to satisfy their acting itch as they’re working as drama therapists.

 Visit ciis.edu or call (415) 575-6230. You can also read about the field in Renée Emunah’s book Acting for Real: Drama Therapy Process, Technique and Performance. And the Living Arts Counseling Center (livingartscounseling.org) offers exploratory sessions; call (510) 595-5500, ext. 10.

   Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.

Narrative Psychology: Language, Meaning, and Self

Narrative Psychology: Language, Meaning, and Self

 

Key Terms

  • Connections
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Language
  • Social Psychology
  • Social Constructivism
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Phenomenology
  • Postmodernism
  • Post Postmodernism
  • Humanistic Psychology
  • Self as Interactional Process
  • Hermenutics
  • Self and Social Structures
  • I and We
  • AQAL model of Ken Wilber
  • Integral Theory
  • Meta Integral Theories
  • Cyber Semiotics

 

 

Introducing Narrative Psychology

MICHELE L. CROSSLEY

Narrative Psychology and the Study of Self/Identity

Much of what is said in this article derives from my recent book, Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma and the Construction of Meaning (Crossley, 2000a). In that book, I began with the age-old, perennial question. What is a self? Who am I? C.S. Lewis once commented: ‘There is one thing, and only one in the whole universe which we know more about than that we could learn from external observation. That one thing is ourselves. We have, so to speak, inside information, we are in the know’ (Lewis, 1952). But how true is this? Are we ‘in the know’ about ourselves?

It may seem obvious to turn towards psychology in order to throw light on these complex questions regarding self and identity. After all, most people are drawn towards the study of psychology because they are interested in the ‘human condition’, what makes us human, our loves, passions, hates and desires. But most of us find ourselves only a few months into a psychology degree when we realise that we are dealing with very little of this. Instead, you are enmeshed in statistics, principles of learning, cognition, abstract theories and theoretical models, all of which bear very little resemblance to anything you were originally interested in studying. Somewhat ironically, a great deal of contemporary psychology, supposedly an area devoted to the study of human beings, has become a totally ‘lifeless’ discipline. So where do we look, in the discipline of psychology, if we want to examine these questions of self and identity?

In Introducing Narrative Psychology, I suggested four main areas of psychology which address these issues. These included: i) experimentally based social psychology; ii)humanistic psychology; iii) psychoanalytic/ psychodynamic psychology; and iv) social constructivist approaches. Highlighting the limitations associated with each of these four areas, I opened the way for a new narrative psychology approach which, although influenced by these approaches (especially humanistic and social constructivist), had the potential to avoid the pitfalls endemic within them.

The Central Role of Language and Stories

Of particular importance to the formulation of a narrative psychology approach is recognition, derived from social constructivist approaches, of the central role played by language and stories in the process of self construction. As Crites (1986), wrote: ‘A self without a story contracts into the thinness of its personal pronoun.’ And Mair:

Stories are the womb of personhood. Stories make and break us. Stories sustain us in times of trouble and encourage us towards ends we would not otherwise envision. The more we shrink and harden our ways of telling, the more starved and constipated we become (Mair, 1989: 2)

‘Always in emergencies’, argued Broyard (1992: 21), ‘we invent narratives’:

We describe what is happening as if to confine the catastrophe. When people heard that I was ill, they inundated me with stories of their own illnesses, as well as the cases of friends. Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness. People bleed stories and I’ve become a bloodbank of them (Broyard, 1992: 21)

Narrative as an ‘Organising Principle’ for Human Life

But it is not just the fact that people tell stories in making sense of themselves and others. A narrative psychological approach goes far deeper than that. For, central to this approach, is the development of a phenomenological understanding of the unique ‘order of meaning’ constitutive of human consciousness (see Crossley, 2000a; Polkinghorne, 1988). One of the main features of this ‘order of meaning’ is the experience of time and temporality. An understanding of temporality associated with the human realm of meaning is entirely different to that encountered in the natural sciences. This is because the human realm of meaning it is not related to a ‘thing’ or a ‘substance’ but to an ‘activity’ (Polkinghorne, 1988: 4). Everything experienced by human beings is made meaningful, understood and interpreted in relation to the primary dimension of ‘activity’ which incorporates both ‘time’ and ‘sequence’. In order to define and interpret ‘what’ exactly has happened on any particular occasion, the sequence of events is of extreme importance. Hence, a valid portrayal of the experience of selfhood necessitates an understanding of the inextricable connection between temporality and identity.

It is in accordance with these basic principles of temporality and connection that numerous authors such as MacIntyre (1981), Carr (1986) and Sarbin (1986) have put forward the idea that human psychology has an essentially narrative structure. Sarbin, for instance, proposes what he calls the ‘narratory principle’; this is the idea that human beings think, perceive, imagine, interact and make moral choices according to narrative structures. Sarbin uses the word narrative as coterminous with ‘story’:

A story is a symbolised account of actions of human beings that has a temporal dimension. The story has a beginning, middle, and an ending (or as Kermode (1967) suggests, the sense of an ending). The story is held together by recognisable patterns of events called plots. Central to the plot structure are human predicaments and attempted resolutions. (Sarbin, 1986: 3)

Sarbin treats narrative as the ‘organising principle for human action’. By this, he means that the concept of narrative can be used to help account for the observation that human beings always seek to impose structure on the flow of experience. Such a narrative principle invokes a humanisitic image of the self as a teller of stories, of heroes and villains, plots, and images of actors performing and engaging in dialogue with other actors.

Charles Taylor’s (1989) work is particularly important to the development of an understanding of self as intrinsically connected to temporality, interactions with others, and ultimately, morality. It is Taylor’s main contention that concepts of self and morality are inextricably intertwined – we are selves only in that certain issues matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me. To ask what I am in abstraction from self-interpretation makes no sense (Taylor, 1989: 34). Moreover, my self-interpretation can only be defined in relation to other people, an ‘interchange of speakers’. I cannot be a self on my own but only in relation to certain ‘interlocutors’ who are crucial to my language of self-understanding. In this sense, the self is constituted through ‘webs of interlocution’ in a ‘defining community’ (Taylor ibid, 39; see also Crossley, N., 1996). This connection between our sense of morality and sense of self, according to Taylor, means that one of our basic aspirations is the need to feel connected with what we see as ‘good’ or of crucial importance to us and our community. We have certain fundamental values which lead us to basic questions such as ‘what kind of life is worth living?’; ‘What constitutes a rich, meaningful life, as against an empty, meaningless one’? (Taylor ibid, 42).

A vision of ‘the good’ becomes available for people in any given culture by being given expression or articulation in some form or another. This articulation most often occurs through language and symbolic systems such as custom and ritual which reverberate with knowledge of connections and relationships across the generations. (Taylor ibid, 91). Such articulation brings us closer to the good as a moral source and gives it further power and potency. Stories have a tremendous force in this process insofar as they have the capacity to confer meaning and substance on peoples’ lives, to subtly influence their progression and orientation towards a particular ‘good’ (ibid, 97).

For example, cultures transmit to children knowledge of typical patterns of relationships, meanings and moralities in their myths, fairytales, histories and stories (see Bettelheim, 1976; Howard, 1991; Polkinghorne, 1988). And we are inculcated from a very early age to seeing connections between events, people and the world in a certain way through the stories and narratives told within our families (Langellier and Peterson, 1993; McAdams, 1993). Moreover, this process does not stop during childhood. As adolescents and adults we are exposed on a daily basis to TV dramas, soap operas, movie blockbusters and talk-shows, all of which play out, in the same way as the fairytale does for the child, eternal moral conflicts (see McLeod, 1997; Priest, 1996).

 

One of the central premises of a narrative psychological approach then, is of the essential and fundamental link between experiences of self, temporality, relationships with others and morality. We have a sense of who we are through a sense of where we stand in relation to ‘the good’. Hence, connections between notions of ‘the good’, understandings of the self, the kinds of stories and narratives through which we make sense of our lives, and conceptions of society, evolve together in ‘loose packages’ (Taylor ibid, 105).

Human Experience and Narrative Structure

Carr (1986) argues that the reality of human experience can be characterised as one which has a narrative or story-telling character (ibid, p.18). What would it be, he asks, to experience life as a ‘mere’ or ‘pure’ sequence of isolated events, one thing after another? In order to illustrate his thesis Carr draws upon phenomenological approaches such as Husserl’s theory of time consciousness which depicts the way in which humans ordinarily experience time. He basically makes a distinction between three levels of human experience: passive experience, active experience and experience of self/life. At each of these levels, human experience can be characterised by a complex temporal structure akin to the configuration of the storied form (see also Bruner, 1990; 1991). In the following exploration of human time consciousness, we will look at each of these experiential levels in turn.

According to Husserl, even as we encounter events at the most passive level (that is, when we are not consciously aware that we are encountering them), they are charged with the significance they derive from our anticipation of the future (‘protention’) and our memory of things past (‘retention’). His point is not that we have the capacity to project and remember but that we cannot even experience anything as happening, as present, except against the background of what it succeeds and what we anticipate will succeed it. Hence, when we experience time, we have no option but to experience it as an interrelated ‘configuration’ of past-present-future. Our experience automatically assumes temporally extended forms in which future, present and past mutually determine one another as parts of a whole. Husserl gives the example of a note in a melody. When we are listening to a melody we do not encounter notes in that melody as isolated elements or components. Rather, the note is encountered and ‘understood’ as part of a sequence as a whole. It only takes on ‘meaning’ in relation to the note that has preceded it and in anticipation of that which will succeed it. Hence the ‘presence’ of the note can only be encountered in relation to a mutually determined retentional- protentional structure. This kind of temporal experience is analogous to the Gestalt phenomena often discussed in relation to spatial perception.

 

Carr proceeds to argue that if this ‘configurational’ dimension is true of our most passive experiences, it is even more so true of our active lives in which we ‘explicitly consult past experience, envisage the future and view the present as a passage between the two’. Carr argues that the ‘means-end’ structure of action that we experience in everyday life is akin to the beginning-middle-end plot structure of narrative and thus, ‘the structure of action … is common to art and life’. This idea is also central to literary theorist Paul Ricouer’s notion that ‘time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 85). According to Ricoeur there are two sorts of time in every story told: on the one hand a discrete succession that is open and theoretically indefinite, for example, a series of incidents for which we can always pose the question, ‘and then? and then?’, much like a chronicle of events. The other sort of time is characterised by integration, culmination and closure owing to which the story receives a particular configuration. In this sense, composing a story involves drawing together a series of events in order that they make sense in relation to one another (Ricoeur, 1991: 121). We tend to experience activities, both short and long term, in relation to this latter mode, sometimes referred to by Ricoeur as the process of emplotment. The point is, our present activity only makes sense, and is framed in terms of, a vast array of interrelated memories from times past and anticipations of and for the future. Hence, the temporal configuration characteristic of narrative structure is akin not only to passive but also to active human experience.

If we can talk of narrative structure in connection with individual passive and active experiences, then the notion of a ‘life-story’ requires yet a further, more comprehensive grasp which brings separate ‘stories’ together, takes them all as ‘mine’ and establishes connections among them (Carr, 1986: 75). Although we have argued that there is a past-present-future temporal configuration (a narrative structure) at the level of passive and active experience, it is not difficult too see that at this more complex level (life as a whole), something special is required in the way of a reflexive (looking back) temporal grasp, to hold together the phases of these longer-term phenomena and preserve their coherence. This, of course, is the classic process of autobiography in which there is an attempt to envisage the coherence of a life through selection, organisation and presentation of its component parts. Some authors such as Kierkegaard (1987) have argued that it is through this process of autobiographical selection that we become ethical beings; in the telling of our life stories, we become responsible for our lives. Literary theorist Paul Ricoeur makes such responsibility central to his concept of ‘narrative identity’, arguing that the self only comes into being in the process of telling a life story (Ricoeur, 1986: 132).

 

It is important to point out here that we may be in danger of suggesting that in order to help us understand ourselves and our lives we actually need literary creations such as works of fiction, biography and autobiography. Indeed, Ricoeur, has been accused of placing too much emphasis on the role of ‘story’ as the instance where meaning is created, at the expense of ‘human life’ (Widdershoven, 1993). However, if we bring forth the conception of the narrative structure of human experience and action developed by Carr, we can see that the meaning created in the autobiographical act of reflection and that found within everyday experience and action, actually exist on a continuum rather than being radically discontinuous. In Carr’s terms ‘lives are told in being lived and lived in being told’ (ibid, p.61). The actions and sufferings of life can be viewed as a process of telling ourselves stories, listening to those stories and acting them out or living through them. Hence:

It is not the case that we first live and act and then afterward, seated around the fire as it were, tell about what we have done … The retrospective view of the narrator, with its capacity for seeing the whole in all its irony, is not an irreconcilable opposition to the agent’s view but is an extension and refinement of a viewpoint inherent in action itself … narration, intertwined as it is with action, (creates meaning) in the course of life itself, not merely after the fact, at the hands of authors, in the pages of books. (ibid, p.61)

When Carr refers to narration here, he is not just referring to the fact that a great deal of our everyday conversations are devoted to telling stories (although this is true). His point about narrative is more to do with its role in constituting the sense of the actions we engage in and the events we live through, its role in organising temporally and giving shape and coherence to the sequence of experiences we have as we are in the process of having them (ibid, p.62). Hence, the notion of narrative structure or the act of narrative structuring does not necessarily take on the form of explicit verbalisation. It refers more to the fact that, as the agent or subject of experience, I am constantly attempting to:

surmount time in exactly the way the storyteller does’. I constantly ‘attempt to dominate the flow of events by gathering them together in the forward-backward grasp of the narrative act … (ibid, p.62)

Carr further argues that our constant attempt to achieve a sense of structure and order in the course of our everyday activities and lives is firmly based on our practical orientation within the world. In order to get on in everyday life we need things to hang together, to make sense, to have some sense of connection. If, for instance, I found myself writing this paper and it bore very little resemblance to anything I had ever done before, I would have great difficulty pursuing it because I would be unable to see the point – why am I doing this? Where will it take me? Where do I go from here? And for the most part it is ‘normal’ for us to experience such narrative coherence in the sense that for most of us, for most of the time ‘things do, after all, make sense, hang together’ (ibid, p.90).

 

It is in this sense that Carr insists that everyday reality is permeated with narrative and that the human experience of time is one of configured time. ‘The narrative grasp of the story-teller’, he claims, ‘is not a leap beyond time but a way of being in time. It is no more alien to time than the curving banks are alien to the river or the potter’s hands to the clay’ (ibid, p.89). According to this perspective, literary stories such as fiction and autobiography do not in any sense ‘impose’ a structure and order on human action and life. Instead, they tend to reinforce and make more explicit the symbolisation that is already at work within a culture at the level of practical human action. The function of narratives such as autobiographies then, is simply to reveal structures or meanings that previously remained implicit or unrecognised, and thus to transform life and elevate it to another level.

But is Human Life Narratively Configured?

In characterising psychological life through the concept of narrative, however, are we not overplaying the significance played by the storied form in human experience? At the level of ‘personal’ experience, some researchers have argued that although human experience may bear some resemblance to the story, the idea that it takes on a narrative structure is mistaken. The core of this argument is that the coherent temporal unity lying at the heart of stories (the connection between beginning, middle and end) is something that is not at all intrinsic to real human events, real selves and real life. As literary theorist Frank Kermode argues, such ‘narrative properties cannot be ascribed to the real’ (cited in Wood, 1991: 160). The historian Louis Mink argues a similar point: ‘Stories are not lived but told … Life has no beginnings, middles and ends…Narrative qualities are transferred from art to life’ (cited in Wood, 1991: 161).

A related point is made by literary theorist Roland Barthes with regard to the selective capacity of the author of the story and his/her ability to create and determine coherence and order within the text. The literary text has a sense of structure and order because the elements and events making up the story have been ‘put there’ by the author. Disruptive elements have been ‘eliminated’. Life, in contrast to the careful manipulation of the story, cannot possibly have such a structure. Thus, it has been argued, whereas the story has an ‘implicit contract’ towards order, life has no such contract. (Bell, 1990: 174). In this sense, it is claimed, the story differs radically from ‘life’ insofar as in the latter, everything is ‘scrambled messages’, ‘chaos rather than order’ (see Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 161).

 

There is some truth to this argument. However, is it the case that life admits of no selection, that everything is ‘left in’, a vast array of ‘scrambled messages’? For example, Carr argues that our most basic capacity for attention and following through various activities or projects is premised on our capacity for selection. Hence, just like the author of the literary text, we partially determine the course of our own lives by selecting and omitting certain elements and events. As Carr argues:

Extraneous details are not left out but they are pushed into the background, saved for later, ranked in importance. And whose narrative voice is accomplishing all this? None but our own, of course. In planning our days and our lives we are composing the stories or the dramas we will act out and which will determine the focus of our attention and our endeavours, which will provide the principles for distinguishing foreground from background. (Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 165)

This may be story planning or plotting, but is it story-telling? ‘Most assuredly it is, quite literally, since we are constantly explaining ourselves to others. And finally each of us must count himself among his own audience since in explaining ourselves to others we are often trying to convince ourselves as well’ (Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 165). Hence, through the interrelated processes of story-plotting and story-telling we partially determine the stories of our lives.

The word ‘partial’ is important here, however, because we should not take this point – the self as a teller of her own story – too far. The critical arguments of theorists who dispute the analogy between ‘life’ and ‘narrative’ are important insofar as they emphasise the fact that, unlike the author of fiction, we do not totally create the materials we are to form. To a certain degree, we are stuck with what we have in the way of characters, capacities and circumstances. For instance, if a woman is married to a man who batters her every night when he comes in drunk from the pub, the fact that she secretly harbours fantasies of a white knight in shining armour coming to rescue her one day and that everything will turn out OK in the end, will have very little influence on her real life which is likely to be characterised by repeated abuse, dependency and further victimisation.

Likewise, just as we are unable to control the beginnings of our stories, so too are we unable, unlike the fictional author, to describe our already completed lives. Instead, we are in the middle of our lives and we cannot be sure how they will end. Hence, although I may have a plan to write my next book, I do not have any idea what may await me around the corner. As the old proverb goes, ‘There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip’ (Crites, 1986: 166). All manner of things could happen to forestall my plan and render it irrelevant. For example, I may be made redundant, in which case I would probably feel there is little point in continuing to write a book. I may fall seriously ill and be rendered incapable of completing the project; or even if I remained capable, my goals and values may change in the face of confrontation with the possibility of death. I may have to rethink my aims and projects, change direction, and start a new story. Hence, the fact that we cannot wholly determine either the beginning or the end of our lives, suggests that our activities and projects do lack the formal order and coherence of literary stories. Life, unlike the story, does not have an ‘implicit contract’ towards order.

 

However, one of the main aims of a narrative psychological approach is to provide an alternative to certain social constructionist and postmodernist approaches which have considerably overplayed the disorderly, chaotic and variable nature of contemporary human experience (Crossley, 2000c). On a routine, daily basis, there is more order and coherence than such accounts suggest. This is nowhere more apparent than when we examine traumatising experiences, which have the capacity to painfully highlight the ‘normal’ state of narrative coherence which is routinely taken-for-granted and thus remains ‘unseen’ within the active experiencing of everyday existence.

Narrative Incoherence and the Breach of Trauma

One good example of disruptive traumatising experiences is that of chronic or serious illness. In recent years numerous studies of chronic illness have illustrated the potentially devastating impact they can have on a person’s life. This has been characterised as an ‘ontological assault’ in which some of the most basic, underlying existential assumptions that people hold about themselves and the world are thrown into disarray (Crossley, 2000b; Janoff Bulman, 1992; Kleinman, 1988; Taylor, S., 1989).

One of the most fundamental building blocks of the perceived world to be destroyed in the experience of chronic illness, is one’s basic sense of time. Many phenomenologically and existentially oriented writers have highlighted that time is basic and fundamental to an understanding of contemporary human existence insofar as our normal, routine temporal orientation is one of projecting into the future. It is important to make clear, however, that we are not necessarily consciously aware of the fact that we project into the future in this way. Our taken-for-granted assumptions about and towards time, are only made visible when a ‘shock’ or a ‘disruption’ occurs, throwing them into sharp relief (see Schutz, 1962; Garfinkel, 1984). The experience of chronic illness constitutes such a disruption. When a person receives a serious illness diagnosis, they are immediately shocked out of the complacency of the assumed futurity of their existence and their whole conception of themselves, their life and their world is likely to undergo radical changes. Frank (1995) uses the metaphor of ‘narrative wreckage’ to characterise such experiences.

 

In previous research, I have shown how much of the traumatic emotional and psychological impact of living with a HIV positive diagnosis can be traced back to the disturbance and disruption of this fundamentally experienced sense of ‘lived time’ (Davies, 1997). The threat of chaos, of meaninglessness, is evident in the following quote from Paula, a HIV positive woman I interviewed, whose husband, a haemophiliac had recently died from HIV infection. When I asked her about her plans for the future she said:

I don’t think of the future as in what is going to happen in a year’s time or whatever. My future seems to have stopped when Mark (her husband) died because I am on my own and I just live from day to day … I am only 28 and I feel as if I have been put in a shop and left there … It is as if I am stuck in a sort of bubble and nothing seems to, I can’t get out of it … it’s frightening to think that I am going to be like that until I die … It’s terrible when you have got no-one to talk to … that’s a large part of it now for me, it is the loneliness, especially of a night-time when the kids are in bed … I often keep the baby up just to keep me company, it is horrible, I shouldn’t because he needs his rest … but … if I do send him to bed, it is so silent, it is just me. Often I go to bed early because I can’t stand being on my own …

Paula’s comments make abundantly clear the ‘unmaking’ of her world, and highlight her previous taken-for-granted sense of identity and projection into the future.

Adapting to Trauma: Stories and Narrative Coherence

Research into the experience of chronic and serious illness illustrates the way in which our routine, ‘lived’ sense of time and identity is one of implicit connection and coherence. This sense is severely disrupted in the face of trauma and it is in such contexts that stories become important as a way of re- building a sense of connection and coherence. As the recent proliferation of autobiographies (especially in relation to diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS) and self-help groups suggests, for people suffering the trauma of illness, storytelling takes on a ‘renewed urgency’ (Mathieson and Stam, 1995: 284). Of course, such a narrative understanding bears a strong affinity with Freud’s work, which equated mental ill health with an ‘incoherent story’ and narrative breakdown. From this perspective, psychotherapy constituted an exercise in ‘story repair’ and, as Spence (1982) argued:

 

Freud made us aware of the persuasive power of a coherent narrative – in particular of the ways in which an aptly chosen reconstruction can fill the gap between two apparently unrelated events, and in the process, make sense out of nonsense. There seems no doubt but that a well constructed story possesses a kind of narrative truth that is real and immediate and carries an important significance for the process of therapeutic change.

Conclusion

This paper has aimed to introduce some of the main themes underpinning a narrative approach towards psychology. Drawing on some of dominant theories in this area, it has argued that human life carries within it a narrative structure to the extent that the the individual, at the level of tacit, phenomenological experience, is constantly projecting backwards and forwards in a manner that maintains a sense of coherence, unity, meaningfulness and identity. From this perspective, the characterisation of human experience as one of constant flux, variability and incoherence, as manifest in many discursive and postmodern approaches, fails to take sufficient account of the essential unity and integrity of everyday lived experience. In accordance with this theoretical perspective, it has been argued that the experience of traumatic events such as serious illness are instrumental in facilitating an appreciation of the way in which human life is routinely narratively configured. This is because the experience of traumatisation often serves to fundamentally disrupt the routine and orderly sense of existence, throwing into radical doubt our taken-for-granted assumptions about time, identity, meaning, and life itself. When this happens, it is possible to examine the way in which narratives become important in another sense. This is in terms of the way in which they are used to restore a sense of order and connection, and thus to re-establish a semblance of meaning in the life of the individual. Accordingly, narratives of illness are useful because they help to reveal structures or meanings that typically remain implicit or unrecognised, thus potentiating a transformation of life and elevation to another level.

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Bruner, J. (1991) The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18: 1-21.

Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts. Carr, D. (1986). Time, narrative and history, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

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Crossley, M.L. (2000a) Introducing narrative psychology: Self, trauma and the construction of meaning, Open University Press, Buckinghamshire.

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Davies M.L. (1997) Shattered assumptions: Time and the experience of long- term HIV positivity, Social Science and Medicine, 44, 5: 561-571.

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Please see my related posts

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Socio-Cybernetics and Constructivist Approaches

Sounds True: Speech, Language, and Communication

Cyber-Semiotics: Why Information is not enough

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

 

 

Key Sources of Research

Introduction to Narrative Psychology

Click to access Chapter_1_Michelle_Crossley.pdf

 

Narrative psychology and narrative analysis

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274889276_Chapter_6_Narrative_psychology_and_narrative_analysis