Chapter 2: The Humanities and the Arts

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2: The Humanities and the Arts

The founder of process thought in its generally accepted version was, as we have noted, Alfred North Whitehead. He was an English mathematician and theoretical physicist, who ended his academic career lecturing in philosophy in the United States. The son of a parson-schoolmaster in the Isle of Thanet in Kent, in the southeastern part of England, Whitehead attended Sherborne School in Dorset, one of England’s oldest schools for boys; he then went to Cambridge University as an undergraduate at Trinity College, which had been founded by King Henry VIII. There he remained for more than a quarter of a century after graduating and being elected a fellow of his college. He became lecturer in mathematics in the university and a distinguished member of the academic community. Bertrand Russell was among his pupils, and he had many other close friends in all the faculties. Yet Whitehead left Cambridge and joined the faculty of the University of London. He lectured at the Imperial Institute of Science and Technology, and while there he served as head of the senate of that university and had much to do with the revision of the curriculum and with teaching methods, as well as with extramural education, taking a special interest in workers’ education. Finally, just as he was planning retirement, Whitehead was invited to Harvard University in the United States. There he lectured in philosophy for more than a decade. After retiring from his professorship he produced some of his major works, and he and his wife continued to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until his death in 1947 at the age of eighty-seven.

Whitehead’s major interest during much of his life and certainly until he went to the United States, had been in the sciences, particularly in mathematics and the mathematical side of physics. But from his earliest days, as he recalled toward the end of his life, he had been a great reader, especially of poetry and fiction. As a boy, he had been taught both Latin and Greek, as was common for young people of his background and class. He was familiar with religion and had respected and admired his father’s devout and genuine faith. When he married, his wife brought into his life an even deeper interest in the humanities and in art, not least in music. She was a woman of aesthetic sensitivity, and she made him understand (as he himself said), that an awareness of beauty of form, sound, and color is very much in the center of a truly human experience. Finally, Whitehead had always been conscious of, and had given time and attention to, ethical issues, not only pondering questions of personal human responsibility but also being active in the realm of political and economic affairs; indeed, he took part time and again in English political campaigns, on the liberal and labor side because of his deep concern for social justice.

I have outlined Whitehead’s varied interests to enable us to see that the man who developed the basic categories of process thinking was not a narrow specialist but a man of deep culture and wide sympathies -- truly a humanist. It has been said that Whitehead was one of the really "universal" people of recent years, with much more than a superficial acquaintance with the best that has been thought and said in human history and at the same time with a sympathetic concern for many areas and aspects of contemporary life. Indeed, he has been more than just the founder of process thought. For those who have adopted that conceptuality, his breadth of interest and his openness to all sorts of human experience have also been a model to follow.

But it is not only Whitehead’s own example that has brought adherents of process thought to their concern for the humanities and the arts as much as for science and formal philosophy. The process perspective is itself an invitation to take these with enjoyment and to recognize their importance. This is because process thought is concerned with analyzing human experience at its deepest and widest, never being content with regarding that experience abstractly but always intent on its concrete disclosure to us of what it means and what it feels like to be human -- to be human in a world that is both the origin of and the setting for human existence with its distinctive qualities and capacities.

A book that seeks to present the process conceptuality should devote a chapter to considering some ways in which process thinking illuminates the humanistic disciplines, especially the way these disciplines invite men and women to participate, to find enjoyment in that participation, and in the end to experience an enrichment of their own lives -- to know what Whitehead called a heightening of the "emotional intensity" which, as we have noted, was for him Important for its own sake but which has the added value of suggesting to us a more profound understanding of the "energetic activity" found in the wider cosmos itself.

In a conversation some friends had with Whitehead’s American interpreter Charles Hartshorne not long ago, that process thinker, who was approaching his eighties at the time, made this comment: "If I were bringing up a child, I should not start by burdening him with a lot of moral rules. I should begin by trying to help the child see that life can be beautiful and can be lived beautifully. Then I should not need to bother so much about how moral ideas would develop." This remark sums up very precisely and movingly the point I shall be making in this chapter.

Life can be beautiful, and life can be lived beautifully. What does this mean? A great many people will say that it is only a bit of sentimental talk which need not be taken seriously. Their saying this is an indication of the superficiality of much modern thinking and, consequently, much modern living.

The frequent reduction of beauty to the merely pretty, the notion that it is sentimental to delight in the aesthetic side of experience, the easy dismissal of that aesthetic component of human existence as either irrelevant or unimportant, and the resulting willingness to acquiesce in ugliness -- all these are proof of the cheapness and triviality so prevalent among us. It is tragic that people who should know better, men and women of excellent education and background, are so often prepared to accept this attitude. Even in academic circles one frequently finds a contempt for art, a dismissal of the aesthetic as interesting only to those who happen to "like that sort of thing," and a refusal to consider the aesthetic experience in all its aspects as a clue to something very deep and real in human life and in the world in which we live.

On the other hand, I know a considerable number of distinguished scientists who are keenly sensitive to the aesthetic, not only because they take "elegance" to be one of the criteria for a sound scientific theory but also because they have come to feel that without opening themselves to and developing within their lives some profound aesthetic awareness they would be greatly impoverished. Some of the "greatest" people I have known, whether distinguished scholars or quite ordinary people who yet have lived deeply and well, have shown just this sensitivity. I saw and met Whitehead only three times, but I had the privilege of a long friendship with Paul Tillich. Tillich was a man who delighted in art, especially in painting and music; who read widely, either in the original or in translation, in all the literature of the world; and whose sensitivity to the aesthetic was equaled only by a remarkable gift for logical thought. Furthermore, it is unquestionably a fact of our time that many younger people are returning to just such a concern, which explains the growing popularity among them of music, painting, sculpture, and the other arts. These young people, some of them spending most of their working hours in dull jobs, know very well that the aesthetic is for them a great release. But they know also that it makes life richer and finer. In a word, they see that life can be beautiful and can be lived beautifully, as Charles Hartshorne put it.

If process thinkers are to be loyal to the conceptuality they accept, they must take this attitude. The perspective that process thought provides includes the aesthetic as one of its data. We might phrase it even more strongly and say that in a sense it is the basic datum.

What then is the aesthetic? I have urged that it does not mean prettiness or a merely superficial emotional response. Neither is it only a matter of human subjectivity, although some unthinking people have argued that this is the case. If it were merely that, we should have to attribute to our own feelings the loveliness we see, or think we see, outside us. But, no. Most of us are certain that there is something objective about the truly beautiful. And this certainty, so deep in human sensibility, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.

In process thinking, with its stress upon the profound relationship between human existence and the world which is that existence’s origin and context, no dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity is possible. All human knowledge is a matter of relationship between objective data of some sort -- even if so badly ordered that the result is the concept of a nonexistent entity like a unicorn! -- and a perceiving subject. This rules out the sort of philosophical idealism (better called "idea-ism" or "mentalism") that finds genuine knowledge and experience a purely subjective affair. It also rules out the phenomenalism that confines data to the external world and is unable to explain how we come to assume we know these data.

Now, if ordinary knowledge is a subjective-objective complex, then aesthetic awareness is equally, indeed supremely, subjective-objective. On the subjective side, the aesthetic -- as the very word indicates, if we take account of its Greek derivation -- is primarily the business of feeling, an imaginative grasp that is more penetrating than intellectual knowledge alone. Awareness of the aesthetic is a kind of sympathetic identification with the presented material. That material, which constitutes the objective side of the aesthetic situation, is essentially a patterning or ordering which harmonizes contrasts. It is in fact a formal arrangement that satisfies the observer or listener or participant. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is "clarity of form" -- a shining forth of pattern that evokes a positive response of appreciation. Whitehead’s view was very similar.

When we contemplate or read or hear something that we describe as beautiful, we find ourselves both stimulated and given a sense of harmony. There is excitement and fulfillment or satisfaction. In Whitehead’s own words, there is zest and peace. The zest is not disturbing, as if it entirely disrupted the sensibility of the participant in the experience, but the peace is not mere passivity. On the contrary, the two belong together and modify each other. The zest gives deep contentment, and the peace is a felt union of the experience with the experient, who feels genuine fulfillment and great enrichment through the intensifying of the emotions.

This is not irrational. When imaginative awareness -- what in some discussions is called empathy, or a sensitive subjective entrance into the presented objective reality -- is entirely contradictory to all reason and becomes nothing more than emotionalism, we have only fantasy. That is how Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it. Coleridge was quite clear about the distinction between imagination as the reason of the total personality, which includes but surpasses ratiocination, and fantasy or mere imagining, which belongs to the realm of the unreal and fanciful. A total concentration upon rationality alone, in its narrower sense of syllogistic reasoning or the simple reporting of experiment and observation, can produce the type of person who has lost awareness of the "more" in human experience, of the unexplained and unexplored, of the mysterious depths and heights that give human life its vivacity and its color. Dean Inge of St. Paul’s in London spoke once of imagination as "reason with wings." Perhaps that was too high-flown a definition, but it makes the point.

No human life can be complete if the aesthetic side is neglected or denied. Hence, for example, during their education young people ought to be exposed to the beautiful in all its aspects, and it is tragic that this is not sufficiently recognized. The houses in which people live, the furnishings they contain, the towns where those houses are located, the surrounding countryside with its natural beauty -- all these can express dignity and serve as patterned structures that are not only functional but also lovely to contemplate. The spoliation of the countryside, the ugliness of our cities, and the senseless ornamentation of public and private places are all examples of serious failure in aesthetic sensitivity. So also is the vulgarity of much writing, drama, cinema production, and music. To say this is not to deny the need for relevance, nor is it a call for censorship or suppression by official agencies. Neither is it to ask for a "prettying up," since that would be to fall once again into cheap vulgarity, like the overdecoration and sentimentalizing so often found when people make an effort without any education in art to escape from the drabness and dullness of their daily work. We need training in genuine aesthetic appreciation, and I agree with Sir Herbert Read that such training in art should be a part of genuine education.

All this is a natural consequence of the process way of looking at ourselves and our world. It is the result of grasping the wholeness of things, the many-sidedness of human existence, and the need for complementing functional efficiency by joy in doing and speaking and living. Above all, it seeks for the satisfaction that comes from the fulfilling of humankind’s yearning for harmony or peace. Peace, yes, but as I urged above, peace of the sort that allows zest, adventure, and intensity of experience full play.

Another point should be made here. One of the richest sources for our grasp of what it means to be human is found in the literature, music, and art we have inherited from the past. Without some acquaintance with this inheritance we are likely to be victims of the merely contemporary. Process thought teaches that the past is important because it provides us with the materials upon which present decisions may rightly be made, materials which are in vital continuity with the age-long movement in the world from the past into the future. We are not asked to confine ourselves to the past; in that case, the aesthetic would be nothing more than repetition. But we should not confine ourselves to the present either, for if we do that we are denying ourselves the heritage our ancestors have given us and their insight into human motivation, desire, sensibility, appreciation, and understanding. In a truly whole world past and present go together. The continuities are to be such that opportunity for new experiments, new modes of writing and painting and composing, will not be without foundation in the persistent aesthetic experience of the human race. The truly aesthetic, then, is not mere archaeology, nor does it reek of easy-going contemporaneity. Instead, it is a fusion of the past with present, and it opens up possibilities for the enrichment of life in the future.

This is not the place to explore the several media through which aesthetic sensitivity is manifested. They are indeed varied, and one or another will have its particular attraction to each of us. But I will single out one medium that has special appeal to me and can serve as a paradigm for the other equally important and valuable media. Music is the medium I find moving and enriching in my own experience.

Music has a quality that is not generally found: its incommunicability in any idiom other than itself. There is a familiar story about a celebrated pianist who, after he had completed his rendition of a piece of music, was asked, "What does that mean?" His answer was simple: "I will show you what it means." Then he played the piece again and said, "That is what it means."

The pianist gave the right answer to the question. Music is music. It means what it conveys through its combination of sounds. There is no way of stating that meaning by verbal chatter, and it cannot be defined, as some technicians have thought, by an analysis of the physics of music, the measurement of tones and the mathematical arrangement of notes. Music is sui generis. If you want to put it so, it is the supreme instance of art for art’s sake. Presumably this is why many musicians are suspicious of "program music" which purports to paint some scene in tone or to articulate some idea through sound. Yet in another sense we might say that all music does paint scenes and convey ideas. The point is that the scenes painted in music are musical scenes and the ideas conveyed by it are musical ideas. With the inner ear the musician hears and feels and maybe even "sees"; then the musician composes the piece. The performing artist is grasped by what the composer has heard or felt or seen, and excellence as a performer is to be judged not only by how well the piece is executed but also by how well the performer communicates both the interpretation of the composer’s intention and the personal experience deep inside. And the audience is caught up into this complex situation and becomes a participant in it.

Those who love music know that it conveys "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," thoughts that lie so deep that they are beyond articulation. Here is sheer beauty. Here is the union of activity and response. Here the listener’s "emotional intensity" is heightened by an ordering of sounds that bring musical contrasts together in harmonious accord. Songs that have words can do this, of course, when the words and the music seem to be marvelously wedded, but so also can songs without words, music that is simply music, like a Mozart symphony or a Beethoven concerto or a work by Mahler or Bartok, Sibelius or Messiaen. In all these, music is an instance of what Clive Bell styled "significant form." But the form must not be intruded into the material, and the significance must not be spelled out in terms of some other medium.

Music speaks to the human heart and mind, the human emotions and understanding. Other media -- the novel, the poem, the dance, the play, painting, sculpture, design -- do much the same thing, each in its own distinctive manner. The end product is an enriching of human life as well as a deepening of our sense of what it is to be human at all. A process conceptuality finds place for all this and welcomes it; it also tells us that any genuine interpretation of the world and its way of going on must remember and give adequate expression to the enormous importance of the aesthetic as one of our clues, maybe the chiefest, to what is going on.