In a philosophy of aesthetics of appearing, the work of the German philosopher Martin Seel draws a line from the notion of interdependent body-world relation to aesthetic theory. By this, a close link between senses, perception and aesthetics is established. In a historical perspective, Seel portraits aesthetics as a philosophical discipline, undertaken in its original form as congnito sensivita – or the discipline of sensuous knowledge, derived from the first definition of the term by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1750 (Seel 2005:2). In this manner, the sensuous is the aesthetic and the aesthetic is the sensuous. Aesthetic perception implies “a sensuous alertness, that is an end in itself” (ibid.: xii). This special alertness differs from scientific knowledge, states Seel, and refers to Baumgarten’s suggestion that complete knowledge should consist of both scientific and aesthetic thinking (ibid.:2).
Departing from aesthetic theory’s origin in sense-based knowledge, and following the thought that life gains in different ways from scientific and aesthetic knowledge, Seel present an illustration of the difference between what can be characterized as a detective and a poetic practice. The illustration is this (ibid.:29): A mushroom gatherer is scanning the forest floor. He is paying close attention to multiple appearances, but his attention stays connected to a particular intention: in this situation, to find edible mushrooms. This practice is detective, because it takes the form of a fixed investigation in a search for traces that can lead to a specific goal. Then an aesthetic perciever enter the forest. He is likewise characterized by close attention as he experience things in their particular phenomenal individuality (ibid.:28). But this attention is not directed at distinctions or details in order to find a particular object for a purpose, like edible mushrooms. Instead the aesthetic perception stays intuitive in a sort of spontaneous going-with-the-flow (ibid.:29). This practice is poetic, because its aim is purely to be open to the particular sensations that may appear in each given moment: the grass, the mushrooms, a sudden change in light, the leaves, the wind. The openness in the aesthetic perception can lead back to Seel’s notion of Baumgartens portrait of sensuous knowledge as an undetermined, confused form of knowlegde, and thus “cognito sensivita” and ”cognito confusa” becomes related (ibid.:2).
In the movement of bringing aesthetics back to its origin, Seel’s basic concept of aesthetic perception is not only connected to perception of art works, but also to “exstra-artistic phenomena” (ibid.:xii). Encountering the reality aesthetically can thus include nature, design, sports, artistically designed events, and also arbitrary objects in our everyday life – in our life world. As such, my definition of aesthetic perception finds its form with Seel as:“to apprehend things and events in respect to how they appear momentarily and simultaneously to our senses” (ibid.: xi).
In line with a phenomenological emphasis on perception as communication and communion, Seel connects the aesthetic object of aesthetic perception to a relational process, in the manner that such an object ”[…]shows itself in a constantly transitory state. In this condition, nothing is simply just what it is; everything appears in the light of relations that, for their part, change with every change in individual appearances” (ibid.:27). In the aesthetic process of perception, nothing is ever the same. The (or a) phenomenology of aesthetic perception can thus be stated to bring forth a perception of the particularity of the here-and-now, which requires a reconnection to playful, poetic intuition and capability of being present and alive in the moment. And finally, this approach can reach a proposal of the potential of aesthetic practice, as given in Seel’s thesis: “in the multifarious forms of this practice we are drawn into the play for the intuition of presence” (ibid.: xiii).
(The text is an excerpt from the introduction chapter in the master thesis I am currently working on, titled: “Sensescapes. The Phenomenology of Sensorial Landscape Connections”)
Seel, Martin, 2005: Aesthetics of Appearing, Standford