The Status of Artistic Illusion in Concrescence

by Wayne A. Dalton

Wayne A. Dalton is Minister of Arts and Education at First Congregational Church of Manchester, Vermont. He received his Ph.D. from the School of Theology at Claremont in 1974.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 207-211, Vol. 4, Number 3, Fall, 1974. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The function of artistic illusion is not “make-believe,” as many philosophers and psychologists assume, but the very opposite — disengagement from belief. The author’s purpose is to show how Susanne K. Langer’s view of art may be understood within the philosophy of organism, wherein all things must satisfy the Ontological Principle.

The thought of Susanne K. Langer is becoming increasingly important in the field of aesthetics. More and more departments of art and philosophy are turning to her work as a basis for understanding the arts. She recently published the second part of a projected three volume work entitled Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling,1 indicating that we have yet a great deal to hear from her.

A cornerstone of Langerian thought is the view that the true import of art is illusory in nature. That is, the aesthetic quality of an art work consists neither in the relationship of the creator’s intent to the result, nor in the physical character of that result, but in the perceptible "appearance" effected by the art object.

What is "created" in the work of art? . . . It is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imaginal, but quite realistic -- canvas or paper, and paints or carbon or ink. . . .

An image in this sense, something that exists only for perception, abstracted from the physical and causal order, is the artist’s creation. . . . Something arises from the process of arranging colors on a surface, something that is created, not just gathered and set in a new order: that is the image. (FF 46f)

Because of the visual flavor of words such as "appearance" and "image," Langer goes on to suggest another term, "semblance," to describe that which is created in a work of art. Thus, not only visual, but also auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic perception are suggested.

Following Langer, then, the "meaning" of an art symbol lies in its semblance, created expressly to be perceived. All entities have aspects of substance and appearance, both of which convey meaning. But art, though the conscious agency of the artist, lifts up for perception the aspects of semblance from practical, ethical, and cognitive concerns. Thus

[Art] liberates perception -- and with it, the power of conception -- from all practical purposes, and lets the mind dwell on the sheer appearance of things. The function of artistic illusion is not make-believe," as many philosophers and psychologists assume, but the very opposite -- disengagement from belief. (FF 49)

Because art has been freed of practical considerations and from necessity of belief, the forms of feeling embodied in the art symbol are presented directly to the understanding for their own sake. The capacities of conception and understanding have no obligation other than to the presented semblance. Whatever meaning that symbol possesses is there insofar as it is embodied in its appearance. "Its [perceptible] character is its entire being" (FF 48).

The Status of the Art Symbol

It is my present purpose to show how Langer’s view of art may be understood within the philosophy of organism, wherein all things must satisfy the Ontological Principle. Can artistic illusion find its "reason" in actual entities? It is the thesis of this paper that artistic illusion arises in the final steps of concrescence, where the proposition is set in contrast with the datum of the raw physical feeling. Thus it may be viewed as a product of the originative function of concrescence.

Whether it be cathedral, engraving, dance, or song, the "art object" or "art symbol" is a society of objectively immortal occasions. This means that, despite the illusion it creates, the symbol itself is fully actual.2 In illustration, let us consider any one of Franz Schubert’s songs. A set of impure possibilities has been made available by Schubert as a pattern for the creation of a work of art. This proposition is a set of tendencies, tension and release. He has hinted at its form in his manuscript, thus providing a blueprint for the art symbol. The song comes into being only in the temporal span, occupied by the singing and playing, which we call "musical performance." For only in an audible event are these possibilities of semblance available for prehension. The symbol is the event of performance, an occurrence in time. "Music’s audible character is its entire being," as Langer would remind us. In sculpture, the art object is the plastic shape which our eyes perceive; in music, it is the audible symbol.

The music may or may not be perceived aesthetically. The performing musician has an immense responsibility to create an art symbol that is consistent with the proposition which the composer has helped him to understand, but for the large part aesthetic perception is contingent on the way in which novel configurations are prehended by the listener. The paragraphs that follow are presented in support of these observations.

Illusion and the Supplemental Phases

As the becoming occasion prehends its actual world and through transmutation feels it as including a certain society -- the art symbol, eternal objects held in common by the occasions of that society are drawn into contrast with the datum of the original physical feeling. The resulting feeling is a propositional one -- the contrast of "what is" with "what might have been." In certain instances, the proposition is prized in its character as possibility. It is the "lure for feeling," functioning as the source of novelty for the subject’s concrescence. Something has appeared that was not, in fact, previously immanent.

In a propositional feeling [writes Whitehead] there is the "hold up" -- or, in its original sense, the epoch -- of the valuation of the predicative pattern in its relevance to the definite logical subjects which are otherwise felt as definite elements in experience. There is the arrest of the emotional pattern round this sheer fact as a possibility, with the corresponding gain in distinctness of its relevance to the future. This particular possibility for the transcendent creativity. . . has been picked out, held up, and clothed with emotion. (PR 427f)

Depending upon the type of proposition, one of two things may happen in the prehension of it. A "conformal" proposition introduces patterns of possibility into concrescence which conforms to the real world. They are "true." "The reaction to the datum has simply resulted in the conformation of feeling to fact; . . . The prehension of the proposition has abruptly emphasized one form of definition illustrated in fact" (PR 284).

However, when a nonconformal proposition is admitted into feeling,

the reaction to the datum has resulted in the synthesis of fact with the alternative potentiality of the complex predicate. A novelty has emerged into creation. The novelty may promote or destroy order; it may be good or bad. But it is new, a new type of individual, and not merely a new intensity of individual feeling. That member of the locus has introduced a new form into the actual world; or at least, an old form in a new function. (PR 284)

Here we are reminded of Whitehead’s famous remark, "In the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is, that it adds to interest" (PR 395f) His example is that of an art symbol: the recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The true nature of a proposition is revealed here in that even a logician will appreciate the speech without first judging whether the initial "To be, or not to be: That is the question" is true or false. "The speech, for the theatre audience, is purely theoretical, a mere lure for feeling" (PR 281).

In the nonconformal proposition we have a new configuration of fact and fancy, dominated by fancy. The proposition has maintained its status as possibility through the early conceptual stages by virtue of its novelty. As a result, it remains a lure for feeling at the point of consciousness. The enhanced status of the eternal object as a lure for feeling is the locus of artistic illusion. The "what might have been" gains more influence upon the shape of eventual satisfaction than the "what is."

These new forms are then contributions of the perceiving occasion, arising from its feelings of possibilities for future contrast by virtue of congruent feelings within its physical inheritance. The novelty, induced by the physical feeling of the art object, has "merged into creation." The nonconformal proposition is largely the contribution of the percipient -- always relevant to, but decidedly different from, the originative feeling. The degree to which the perceiving dominant occasion entertains these new realities as lures for still other feelings is the degree to which that person may be said to be "perceiving aesthetically."

This, then, is the basis of artistic illusion -- the "reason" for import. The art object, prehended by the physical pole, is felt in terms of certain embodied eternal objects, which lead through reversion to the prehension of "alternative potentialities" for the becoming occasion. These possibilities survive several contrasts with pure physical data, and are drawn finally into the last stages of concrescence, still retaining their virtual nature. They are felt as efficacious because of their interesting character, their formal congruence with significant contrasts in its physical inheritance, and their capacity as lures for new feeling.

The Prehension of Import

In order that the virtual lures for feeling derived from the art object be finally efficacious for satisfaction, they must be positively prehended in the final integrative contrast, where "pure theory" meets "pure fad." This is the point at which the experience becomes an aesthetic one, or not, and here the degree of influence exercised by novelty is determined. This is the genesis of artistic import. Here the virtual creation is contrasted not only with the artistic symbol physically felt, but also with other significant feelings of nexuses from the past. Here, at the affirmation-negation contrast, which is the seat of consciousness, virtual data encounter their actual counterparts. Here, too, perceptions of the art object in the mode of causal efficacy are drawn into contrast with immediate perceptions of the becoming occasion’s extensive locus.

In the experience we term "aesthetic," the occasion holds the derived conceptual feelings as more efficacious for its final satisfaction than its physical ones. It has done so on the basis of the formal congruence of those virtual feelings with nexuses from its serial past felt by hybrid physical feelings as having led to intensity in that past, and because the issue of the earlier contrasts of these physical and conceptual data has been the retention of possibility in its pure form and thus the emergence of a "new creation."

So, for example, the illusion of music -- virtual passage -- is more important for the perceiving occasion than are the physical attributes of the tonal symbol. At times, it can capture one’s subjective aim. "Sometimes," says Langer, "in the presence of great art, attention to the actual environment is hard to sustain." (FF 84) When music is perceived aesthetically, the new creation, virtual time, is more efficacious for intensity than is the pure physical fact of sounds in time. In the nonaesthetic experience of music, on the other hand, the virtual possibilities are valued down, so that the sounds are felt simply as sounds (e.g., background music), or at most as tones corresponding with moods and emotions. They are felt as efficacious by virtue of physical qualities alone. Propositions, if they arise, are conformal.

A performance of a Schubertian Lied, then, could be prehended as nothing more than a pleasant sound, or, perhaps, poor singing. When it is perceived aesthetically, however, new possibilities for feeling-experience are introduced. For the shape of time as it is felt is "the pattern of life as it is felt and directly known" (FF 31).3 The novel potentialities are those of experiencing a realm of feeling normally beyond everyday individual experience. By holding up for prehension the shape of experienced passage in its most general form, music presents for our contemplation the temporal shape of human experience: "the pattern of life itself." This stretching of our feeling conceptuality deepens our humanity and our understanding of who we are. Musical performance contributes, event by event, to an enlargement of insight and an enrichment of feeling-life, thereby helping us to better understand what it means to be human.

Especially notable within the aesthetic experience is the check on the originative functions of the entity in the final contrast with the datum of the physical feeling. This prevents the stampede of novelty leading to chaos (which may occur, for instance, when bodily fatigue or drugs allow perception in the mode of presentational immediacy to be felt with little significant relationship with corresponding causal perceptions) and preserves the integrated feeling of the virtual qualities as being related to the nexuses physically felt. Any explanation of the aesthetic experience must account for the phenomenon in which whatever is felt -- beauty, illusion, and so forth -- is felt as an attribute of the art symbol. This is accomplished in organic philosophy by the description of the final integrative contrast.



FF -- Susanne K. Langer. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.



1. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1973.

2. This view contradicts that of Donald W. Sherburne in his A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) and "Meaning and Music," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 24/4 (1966), 579-83. Sherburne holds that the aesthetic object has the ontological status of a proposition, and, in the case of music, that the performance of a composition is an ‘objectified" proposition, the logical subject of which is "you" understood. In A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, see p. 107f.

3. Cf. Sherburne’s description of music as "sheer predicative pattern" in "Meaning and Music."