This essay explores the belief that we share a common existence of real physical objects despite the differences between divergent subjective experiences. Furthermore, I scrutinize the way this sentiment informs artistic and philosophical orientation. As a point of departure, the universe is a vast apparatus with an infinite number of interrelating components, some of which are sensible and external to the human subject. However, the majority of existential elements are beyond both human sensation and human comprehension. Kittler frames his media-based discourses by identifying those things we are incapable of experiencing as being very much greater than that which is illuminated by the senses (41). This condition renders external objects as “boundary projects. But boundaries shift from within; boundaries are very tricky” (Haraway 201). A vital and functional human being navigates the shifting gap between internal subjectivity and external objectivity. Meanwhile, the artist philosopher engages a critical and reflective attitude to promote originality and freshness of perspective by embracing interpolation uncertainly. Merleau-Ponty identified perceived things as “open, inexhaustible systems which we recognize through a certain style of development” (5). Aesthetically comfortable with fallibility, this boundary of the knowable and the unknowable is the locus of creative disposition, which “we are never able, in principle, to explore entirely” (Merleau-Ponty 5). As explained by Paul Cézanne, “what I’m trying to convey to you is something more mysterious, more entangled in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of all sensation” (Gasquet 152). The artist-philosopher is “entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees” (Merleau-Ponty 161). Motivated by necessity, constructions of individuality and awareness provide the foundation of imaginativeness (Fig 1).
Art in Relation
As an organizing argument, the mysteries of existence are manifest at every moment. Haraway supports this idea, as “objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world” (199). Rendering uncertainty certain, the foundation of knowledge is infinitely deep, and “absolute knowledge will run as an endless loop” (Kittler 02). There is always something else beneath the current level of understanding. The artist-philosopher seeks the enigmatic, exemplified by Cézanne “seeking depth all his life” (Merleau-Ponty 179). Thus, drawing on accumulated experience, all action must proceed based on probability calculations of the sensate agent. This means that “progress in knowledge will show that it is not yet a final, unconditioned evidence” (Merleau-Ponty 20). Under certain extenuating circumstances, in the unity of a contemporaneous intuition, enigmas become even more apparent. Cézanne felt that fixed theories of understanding could overwhelm intuition, reducing aesthetic potential (Gasquet 167). Regardless, for a subjective experience to be even possible, certain objective conditions must exist.
The main channel of life’s consideration is progress, defined as the ability to grow and adapt as a function of dynamic experience. All mental modalities contribute to this progression. Thus we can “say that what is true of perception is also true in the order of the intellect and that in a general way all our experience, all our knowledge, has the same fundamental structures” (Merleau-Ponty 19). Nevertheless, although they have a close relationship, sensation and perception have discrete qualities that differentiate one from the other. Sensation is the process in which a subjective sensory receptor is stimulated by an objective physical stimulus present in the environment, producing nerve impulses that travel to the brain. Perception refers to cognitive organization of data obtained from the neural impulses, in an elaborate process of translation and interpretation. This vital process functions in progressive stages and processes information related to any physical stimulus, thereby forming the basis to construct knowledge. Thus, perception occurs as the subject transforms information to assign meaning by means of emotions, memories, and conceptual application. Because perception is an act of interpretation, it is also simultaneously an act of knowledge adjudication. The conceptual difference between sensations followed by perception is now firmly established, as a universal sequential process with recursive feedback loops.
Merleau-Ponty tells us perception is convoluted, in that “I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself” (16). By strict deduction, a point of view implies knowledge that cannot be exhaustively objective. But how might an artist-philosopher most usefully diagnose and critique constructions of subjectivity and knowledge while engaged in the creative process? Kittler references Bergson’s Creative Evolution, that “culminated in the claim that the philosophically elementary functions of "perception, intellection, [and] language" all fail to comprehend the process of becoming” (160). Merleau-Ponty suggests accepting the paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception, “immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to him who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given” (16). Phenomenologically, as meaning coalesces within human experience, sensation cannot be disentangled from perception. From the existence of inert matter, our inner life differs by consisting in the continuous permeation of memory. This is supported by perception and thought in “that both of them have a future horizon and a past horizon and that they appear to themselves as temporal, even though they do not move at the same speed nor in the same time” (Merleau-Ponty 21). However, as Edmund Husserl tells us, “what becomes well known through repeated experience is always still only relatively known in regard to everything known about it, and it thus has in all respects a peculiar horizon of open unfamiliarity” (343). Thought and behavior are conditioned both consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetic sensibility forms the advancing boundary between the past and the future drifting forward while negotiating the subjective/objective abyss.
Relative to the important tension between objectivity (universal) and subjectivity (particular), the artist-philosopher’s construction of knowledge is motivated by free will and control of identity. In the process of resolving contradiction between reality and possibility, Haraway tells us we “both learn about and create nature and ourselves” (42). But a fact is a piece of impersonal knowledge. This does not mean that facts are independent of human beings. All rules, classifications, theories, concepts, or cause and effect relationships, are human products. Therefore, facts are dependent on human interpretation/judgment, but they are impersonal in the sense that they are independent of the interpretations/judgments of any one human. Agreement between many diverse impartial observers, an “undeniable plurality of consciousness” (Merleau-Ponty 17), is reached to establish facts. But collectively these facts are tentative and amenable to future progressive revision. Moreover, in a society “power and authorship fabricate reality” (Haraway 74). Haraway challenges prescriptive social constructivism by identifying culture’s influence on knowledge. The human tendency to accept authority and to resist new ideas is partly due to conservative aversion to displace older established conventions. Cultural resistance to new ideas mitigates their disturbing affect on obstinate authority and vested interests.
For the artist-philosopher to be engaged in works of creation is to generate, produce, and construct by straddling the universal/particular and the objective/subjective divides. In this way, the artist-philosopher’s task is endless. He/she does not accept the total validity of pure reason standing apart from nature. Rather the artist-philosopher is part of nature, reacting to his/her internal and external environment. Furthermore, the line between the artificial and the natural blurs, as attention, memory, imagination, emotion . . . all have their technological correlative (Kittler 162). In this vein, Merleau-Ponty credit's Cézanne as saying that “nature is on the inside” (164). Moreover, this subjective/objective boundary gap is a very useful place for vague thinking. New ideas do not suddenly appear, without initial prolonged indistinct contemplation over the contingencies of existence
The degree of subjective control or free will exercisable by an individual artist-philosopher is a problematic context against which inquiries strive. In this regard, the speculative hypothesis is the principle intellectual instrument in art and philosophy. Even when not correct speculations can lead to new discoveries, as suppositions can be employed as useful thought experiments without being strictly believed. The general goal of a thought experiment is to explore the potential consequences of the issue in question. Productive philosophical thinking is initiated by question formulation. The fertile mind entertains a large number and variety of elucidation combinations, as imagination can lead to many promising clarifications to conundrums. The artist-philosopher becomes accustomed to withholding definitive verdicts and remaining in doubt when the evidence is insufficient, as is regularly the case. The inability to demonstrate a hypothesis does not prove that it is erroneous.
Consciousness is awareness, and progress for the artist-philosopher is measured in increased awareness compared with internal representation, as “memory consists in the awareness . . . of the connections it entertains with other impressions” (Kittler 32). New combinations of thoughts arise from rational associations, irrational fancy, or perhaps by chance circumstances. Vigilance however, is needed to prevent observations and interpretations from being biased. Important to the artist-philosopher is an understanding of the limitations of reason, especially in relation to hypothesis formulation, as “the will to apply reason to what is taken as irrational is a progress for reason” (Merleau-Ponty 29). Along these lines, it is also important to understand that theories and facts only hold under certain conditions. Human knowledge is so fragmentary that at best, reason must be based on probabilities and possibilities.
By shining the light of deeper understanding into the objectivity/subjectivity chasm, how might the artist-philosopher critique the relation between intellectual consciousness and perceptional consciousness? Accurate observation of complex circumstances is exceedingly difficult, and observers usually make many unrecognizable errors. One manifestation of this contingency is that “left to itself, perception forgets itself and is ignorant of its own accomplishments” (Merleau-Ponty 19). But effective observation involves noticing something and giving it significance in relation to something else noticed or already known; thus, it contains elements of sensation, perception, and conceptual application.
Awareness involves sensation activation leading to perception, while critical observation requires attention. The necessary distinction is indefinite between stimulation conditions that will produce, or not produce, a perceptive observation. Although attention may herald, establish, or just accompany an observation, it most generally involves pattern recognition based on experience of similarity comparison. Patterning arrangements are human contrivances that reciprocally build understanding and establish action criteria. Recognized patterns depend upon the individual, the subject matter, and the temporal occurrence. Although perhaps innately desiring an exhaustive explanation, no such patterning device is capable of arranging all types of experiences into one unified mosaic. Furthermore, no formulation of any information collection ever permanently culminates in issue totality.
In boundless speculative enthusiasm, aesthetics allows for the free play of imagination to formulate new concepts unmitigated by old concepts. In this light, creativity is a hypothetical and tentative experiment inspired by a profound sense of the reality of existence. Patterns repeat in infinitely various permutations, providing a structure for creative progression. Many simultaneous hypotheses supplement equivalent observational inquiry allowing for inherent variability. For Cézanne the play of universality and particularity gives art its flavor, as “nature is always the same, and yet its appearance is always changing. It is our business as artists to convey the thrill of nature's permanence along with the elements and appearance of all its changes” (Gasquet 148). The promise of the artist-philosopher is to add something new to the accumulating discourse, as a process of continuous becoming = progress. To the artist-philosopher, “the things of the world give birth by a sort of concentration of coming-to-itself of the visible” (Merleau-Ponty 181). This is the aesthetic approach to meaning.
The general strategy of artistic-philosophical activity is to work with some clear intentional cognitive content, but to nevertheless keep alert and seize any accidental opportunity, recognizing that “intuition does not occur in empty space” (Merleau-Ponty 24). As a speculative worker, we try to arrive at tentative solutions by use of imagination and intuition, and then corroborate by experience and observation, because “art has a harmony which parallels that of nature” (Gasquet 150). Because “perception as intuition, or the basic contact with the real, is the exclusive source of truth” (Merleau-Ponty 34), there is real gratification obtainable from pursuing philosophy through art. Aesthetic ideals and creative action can give purpose to life.
Gasquet, Joachim, and Paul Cézanne. Joachim Gasquet's Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Routlege, 1991.
Husserl, Edmund, and David Carr. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Print.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. (1986).
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Ed. James M. Edie. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2000 (1964).