Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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Beautiful discernments

Question: When is saying “I don’t know” considered a real achievement?

Answer: When studying aesthetics.

Aesthetics is the study of beauty and art. Beginning students assume that, after a few courses, they will know what beauty and art is. But the seasoned students realize that real knowledge of beauty and art means these things really can’t be defined. When they grasp that, they get their PhD.

Since the 18th century, many thinkers have propagated this bit of “I don’t know” insight. But basically, the fingerprints of Immanuel Kant are all over it.

I know this (or at least I used to know this) because I was one of those who earned a PhD on the “I don’t know” of Kant’s aesthetics.

It is a real Catch-22. Take that little yellow thing fluttering around over there: I can recognize it immediately as a butterfly. Kant called “This is a butterfly” a determinate judgment. It is like 1+1=2. Determinate judgments are no problem: you and everybody else know it is a butterfly; you and everybody else know 1+1=2.

Ah, but to say that it is a beautiful butterfly … well, this is a problem. Beauty is an indeterminate judgment. It does not involve (says Kant) your understanding; it only involves your imagination. And so there is a kind of schizo-split between determinate things we can understand and indeterminate things we can only feel.

Kant then spilled a lot of ink explaining why everybody should still agree with you that the butterfly is beautiful. Maybe a long time ago I could have explained his long-winded theory, but I don't think I'd do a very good job now.

Not because I can’t explain the words. But because I don’t believe them. And since a long time ago, I haven’t met a single person who can explain them – and believe them at the same time.

The word “aesthetics” comes form the Greek word αἴσθησις (aesthesis). Interestingly, the original Greek word meant both intellectual perception (Kant’s determinate judgments) as well as sensed perception (Kant’s indeterminate judgments).

To my knowledge, αἴσθησις appears in the New Testament just once. It is in a prayer Paul prayed for the Christians at Philippi: “… may your love abound more and more, with knowledge and … αἴσθησις …” The translated word is discernment. So:

“… may your love abound more and more with knowledge and discernment…”

And Paul's prayer is filled with other words that have high aesthetic value: excellence, purity, rightness (=righteousness), glory and praise. The

The Biblical idea of beauty goes hand-in-hand with understanding. No schizo-split here.

May all of our discernments and judgments be beautiful discernments and judgments that glorify God in Jesus Christ.


Philippians 1.8-11 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment (αἰσθήσει), so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.


Narcoleptic May 27, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

I love this.

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