A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 13

Reality and Admiration

A. Activity and Reality

I HAVE argued that by calling a thing good we mean that it either is, or is instrumental to, the fulfilment of tendency, and that the ideal is the greatest possible fulfilment of the tendency, or capacity, of the world. I will now speculate upon certain more remote implications of this view. It may well be that the most urgent and most fertile task of philosophy to-day is not speculation but criticism. Certainly speculation on the deeper, or metaphysical, problems is apt to lead the inquirer into treacherous ground. But speculate we must, to the best of our ability. The intellect is untrue to itself if it is afraid to venture into the metaphysical bogs. It must dare, even at the risk of succumbing to the fever and delirium of verbalism. The danger, however, is minimized if we realize it and prepare for it, and remember that in philosophical even more than in scientific speculation all conclusions are to be held tentatively.

The tendency of anything is, in a sense, its drive or thrust to become something more than it is. It is its effort, as it were, to give birth to something new over and above its present existence. It is its potentiality striving to be actual. How scandalously vague an assertion! Yet in some sense it is certainly true. Fulfilment of tendency is a creative act on the part of the extant real, in which it brings new real into being. It is an exfoliation of the real into further richness of actuality. Activity (of every kind) is the all-pervading miracle of the universe, an all-pervading creativeness. Everything in the last resort turns out to be some mode of activity, everything from a piece of lead to a symphony. There is in a sense nothing whatever but activity, and the universal characters which it assumes, and certain principles or laws, some few of which it logically must illustrate, while others it merely does express. The former we may indeed deduce; the latter we can but discover. But the fact that there is activity, in diverse modes, is entirely beyond the reach of reason. It just is — the all-pervading creativeness of the real.

We have supposed that more complex kinds of activity emerge into being in the organization of units of simpler kinds of activity. On the physical plane there is only physical tendency, and the only fulfilment is physical. On higher planes of organization the real assumes new tendencies. It does not, we have supposed, fulfil tendencies that were active all the while, but repressed; for the new tendencies presuppose the higher organization. We may say, if we like, that the real had all the while the ‘capacity’ of expressing itself in the higher tendencies when organized; but, until the proper organization was achieved, there was no ‘straining’, so to speak, to behave in the new way. The tendency is not in the isolated parts, but only in the complex. By ‘capacity’ we must mean, here as always, no more than that the simple parts are such that, if they were organized, they would form a whole with certain tendencies.

Let us consider the ethical bearing of this creativeness of the real. The good, we said, is the greatest possible fulfilment of tendency, and of the capacity of substances to co-operate for the creation of higher emergent activities or tendencies. We now see a further implication of this view. The good is in general the greatest possible actualization of the potentiality of the real, the fullest expression of the nature of the real. And the real expresses itself most fully in the fulfilment of tendencies emergent in organism. In the activity which constitutes an organism new reality is brought into being. And the ideal, as we have seen, involves that the world should be organized so as to express itself in the highest possible emergent tendencies, and their fulfilment. This constitutes the fullest actualization of the potentiality of the real, the bringing into being of the richest possible reality of which the present actual is capable.

B. Implications of Being Admired

One of the tendencies of organized reality is the psychical tendency to know, will and feel. Perhaps it might better be called ‘capacity’ rather than ‘tendency’, since, without any object to experience, experience is impossible. But the physical organism itself constitutes an ever present object to its own subjectivity, and in the organism itself lie the objective tendencies that are first conated. Moreover just as, in our earlier discussion of tendency, we were led to say that organisms have in themselves tendencies which demand a certain environment for their fulfilment, so now once more we must hold that this psychical capacity of organisms constitutes in them strictly a tendency demanding an environment for its fulfilment.

Now the psychical capacity may be called a capacity for cognizing the real and its tendency, and for willing and enjoying its fulfilment. In fact it is essentially a capacity for knowing and admiring andserving the real’s exfoliation into new reality.

We have agreed that, in any given situation, it is good that actual psychical tendency be fulfilled; for fulfilment, or progressive fulfilling, is what we essentially mean by ‘good’, and psychical fulfilment is no less fulfilment than any other kind. The act of knowing, willing and enjoying is itself an emergence of new reality; though, as we have seen, false cognition and irrational conation and affection are but imperfect fulfilments of psychical capacity.

A very important problem must now be faced. Is true cognition and rational conation and affection good solely in that it constitutes the fulfilment of the experient’s capacity and may be instrumental to objective fulfilment in the environment? Or does being known, willed and admired constitute in itself an intrinsic fulfilment of the object? Does the objective world, in some obscure sense, need to be the object of psychical activity, need to be known and willed and admired? Surely, it may be said, this cannot be the case, unless we are mistaken in holding (as we have held throughout this inquiry) that mere knowing makes no difference to its object, save indirectly. It is true, of course, that, in a certain sense and in certain cases, volition makes a difference to its object. I will to move my hand, and my hand moves. But in the great majority of cases volition takes effect indirectly upon its object, though always the medium must be some case of direct influence of volition upon the body. 93 Anyhow it would seem that objects are not themselves benefited in any way simply by being objects of psychical activity. To suppose otherwise must seem an indulgence in unwarranted fantasy.

But (since we are frankly speculating) let us pursue the matter somewhat further. In the first place we may note that, when the object is one that is capable of knowing that it is the object of psychical activity, it may very well be benefited by being known and admired and by having its fulfilment willed. Human beings commonly find that to be valued is an end in itself. To be an object of love, no less than to be a loving subject, is judged to be in itself a fulfilment demanded by our nature. This fact is often attributed to our social or our sexual dispositions’ and certainly it would be illegitimate to infer from it alone that all objects are intrinsically benefited by being objects of psychical activity.

Nevertheless, it is worth while to inquire what it is that we do experience when we rejoice in being valued. Roughly, what we feel when we are valued is that ‘we have not lived in vain’. Apart from a merely selfish pursuit of pleasure, there seem to be two kinds of fulfilments worthy to be sought. A man may hope that his behaviour may be instrumental (in however microscopic a measure) to the fulfilment of that which is objective to him as an experient. But also in so far as he is himself intrinsically excellent, in so far as his cognition is true and rich, and his conation just, this excellence of his may, so to speak, be saluted, confirmed, crowned, by the admiration of his fellows or the affection of some few intimates, or the love of a life-long companion. Without such admiration he may feel that, though he may have done good work in the world, he, as a source of intrinsic value, has missed complete fulfilment, in that he has not brought into being all the excellence of which he was capable, namely the psychical reals which we call admiration and love. He may feel, in fact, that in failing to be known and valued he fails (thus far) to be woven into the tissue of psychic reality. He is a loose thread. And so, not only does he fall short of self-fulfilment, but also the whole of reality falls short of fulfilment in respect of his absence from the psychic tissue. The sense of not being valued, then, is a sense of not being adequately gathered up into the unity of things.

Now it matters little for our present purpose whether this experience is due to a specific disposition, social or sexual; for whatever its psychological source, it is logically justified. The admiration of intrinsic values does, as a matter of fact, constitute an emergence of new reality. In failing to be admired, an intrinsically good object does not fulfil all its capacity. Further, since value does not depend on the act of valuation, the fact that an intrinsically good object has fulfilled its capacity of being admired constitutes an additional good, whether the object is aware of being admired or not.

This does not mean that the admirer’s cognition creates the value of the object itself. The object’s value is intrinsic. The admirer cognizes it and espouses it. This espousal, or admiration, itself constitutes a new value, which is a fulfilment of the psychical subjective capacity of the admirer, and also a fulfilment of the ‘psychical objective capacity’ of the object. It is in fact an emergent fulfilment.

After all, then, it is not mere fantasy to say that the objective world needs to be known and admired and to have its fulfilment willed; for everything that is intrinsically valuable is capable of producing further value in being admired. Even objects which are not intrinsically good, and are admired erroneously, obtain in a sense fulfilment in being admired. For the cause of an erroneous value-judgment is always the apprehension of some true value. (The erroneous admiration of a villain must be attributed to the true apprehension of the excellence of some of his attributes). In respect, then, of its good attributes the bad object is fulfilled in being admired. But the object as a whole, which by hypothesis is not good but bad,. does not in strictness obtain fulfilment in being admired. For the admiration which it arouses is unjustified. It is admiration for something which is not admirable, which does not in its own nature demand admiration. The admiration which it gets is not strictly its fulfilment at all. Further, the experient who thus erroneously admires, incurs an evil discord within himself. The objective world as a whole, moreover, is not benefited by admiration of things within it that are not good, for things within it that are not good are antagonistic to its rudimentary unity.

This speculation may, indeed, seem to ignore the principle that knowing, as such, makes no internal difference to its object, save (indirectly) when the object is aware of being known. But if the ideal is the greatest possible fulfilment of the capacities of the universe, it is demanded in the ideal that all intrinsic goods should be contemplated and admired; and this is demanded, not simply because the act of contemplation and admiration constitutes a fulfilment of the subjective psychical capacity of the observer, but also because to be admired fulfils the ‘objective psychical capacity’ of the thing that is admired. In fact it fulfils the thing’s capacity for being an object to some mind, and an admired object, knit within the system of that ‘objective self’. To be admired, then, ‘makes the best of’ good things. For in the cognitive relation of subject and object there emerges this new reality (knowledge and admiration), in which subject and object together find their completion. In this view it remains true in one sense that being known and admired makes no internal difference to an object (just as being photographed makes no internal difference to an object); but on the other hand it is also true in another sense that being known and admired does constitute a fulfilment of the object’s capacity for entering into an emergent subject-object-relationship. Being known and admired makes no difference to that in the object which is known and admired. But it does make a difference to the (ontological) object as an entity capable of playing the part of epistemological object in a subject-object relation, and of co-operating in the creation of the emergent activity of admiration.

I am well aware, however, that this contention would be wholly unjustified save in a frankly speculative discussion.

C. Organisms, Nature, and Aesthetic Objects

Very tentatively, then, I conclude that there is meaning, a very special meaning, in saying that intrinsically good objects do ‘need’ to be admired. In particular every organism needs admiration. It is not wholly meaningless to say, for instance, that the rose-tree flowering in my garden needs to be admired for its organic achievement in order that its objective psychical capacity may be fulfilled. Each of the atoms, also, that constitute its leaves and petals would obtain fuller being by being known as an individual and admired for its primitive excellence as an expression of the ‘underlying substantial activity'94 upon a lowly plane of organism. And for her richer and more organic nature, my wife, known by me somewhat intimately, demands a deeper admiration. And when I see her with her child and observe how intimately she has embraced within herself the needs of her child, thereby assuming a still more complex nature and capacity, this higher intrinsic good also demands of me admiration. And further, though we must never ignore the difference between the subjective unity of experience and the objective systematic relationships of distinct experients, admiration is demanded by the vast and diverse, but only slightly organized, company of the forty million minds of England. And the rudimentary trace of objective organism which hopeful observers can detect in the human race, also demands admiration so far as it exists, and service in so far as it is yet only potential.

But what of the mountains, lakes, and clouds, and the whole company of nature’s beauties? These are not themselves single organisms, though they may conceivably be compounded of primitive physical organisms. So far are they from being single organisms that they are not even single organizations, as a nation is, and the human race might become. Are we to suppose, then, that natural beauties, which are not unities of being but only of appearance, claim our admiration as an organism claims it? Or is the Wordsworthian view mere sentimentalism? Professor Whitehead holds that the Romantic Movement was justified in feeling that in admiring nature we apprehend an intrinsic value. ‘Nature,’ he says, ‘cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values'; 95 and 'these values arise from the cumulation, in some sense, of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.’ What precisely can be meant by such a statement?

An adequate discussion of our admiration of nature is not possible here. But I would hazard the guess that it involves two very different activities. We are apt to regard a landscape both as a pattern of sensory qualities, of colour, volume, texture, and so on, and also as in some sense the face of nature herself, as features expressive of an underlying spirit. The former is strictly aesthetic admiration, the latter might be called religious. The former is typified by the artist’s manipulation of abstracted natural features for the construction of a true aesthetic unity, and is carried to its logical conclusion perhaps in the most ‘abstract’ art. The latter is experienced most purely perhaps in our admiration of the star-strewn sky. Here the strictly aesthetic experience is slight, but we may have an overwhelming sense that we are confronted by the very face of nature. In the former experience, I should say, we are interested in perfection of form, unity in diversity, even if that perfection gathers up into itself much that in isolation would be imperfect, ugly, or evil. In the latter experience we are interested chiefly in actuality. Here, we feel, we are confronted with the very features of the cosmos; and, just because they really are the features of the cosmos unobscured, we admire them. It was a variety of this experience, perhaps, that led us at times to admire even the horrors of war. Here at least, we said, is the real unadorned, and no mere censored aspect selected from the real. But in this mood, indeed, we forgot that if prettiness is not the whole truth of the real, neither is horror. This ecstasy of horror and defeat, however, must be more closely considered in the next chapter. Here I would distinguish between purely aesthetic appreciation and the ecstasy to which both aesthetic appreciation and also other experiences may sometimes give rise. In aesthetic appreciation, I should say, we admire a certain limited object; in the ecstasy which may result from this admiration, we admire the universe through the symbolism of, or at the suggestion of, the particular aesthetic object. But of this later.

Now in aesthetic appreciation, whether of natural beauty or of the works of pure art, one source of our delight may possibly be that certain specific kinds of sensory patterns are the appropriate stimuli to certain inherited emotional tendencies. Sounds and colours and forms may well have for us an inherited value — sexual, social, parental, and so on. Or, on the other hand, certain sensory patterns may touch off certain simple glandular reflexes. Another source of aesthetic delight lies doubtless in the acquired human associations of the object. These may be explicitly conscious in our minds, or fused and subconscious. Thus we may frankly admire the sunset for its emotional significance. In calling the hills bold or serene we unwittingly confess that we admire them for their fused human symbolism. In such cases what we admire is not strictly the sky and the mountains for their own sake, but only their likeness to things human. We rejoice, as it were, in human features seen reflected in nature. True, nature herself really has the features that we are admiring; but our judgment of their beauty depends on their fused human associations.

Further, it may be that aesthetic appreciation is largely derived from the free exercise of our neural capacities. The rhythm of the dance and the curves of the hills and the proportions of the ‘abstract’ picture may doubtless please us just because they accord with our own powers of apprehension. In music those combinations of sound are best appreciated which are apprehensible under some pattern, which in fact are neither so simple as to be trite nor so complex as to be ‘unintelligible’. Here again it may seem that we admire just because our capacities are fulfilled. But in truth what we admire is not our own agility in apprehending the form, but the form itself. We admire most the most complex and unified unity-in-diversity which we, with our degree of skill, are able to grasp.

This apprehension of unity in diversity, and of the most rigorous unity in the richest diversity, is clearly essential in the aesthetic experience. And it is in virtue of this that mathematicians rightly claim that there is beauty in mathematics. In the work of art, fused associates and even conscious associates must combine, in most closely knit yet diversified unity of matter and mood, with the unified sense pattern of the aesthetic medium itself. It is too easy to explain this whole affair in terms of the observer’s need for diversified yet harmonious exercise of his powers. The artist himself, and the unsophisticated observer, are justified when they revolt against this subjectivism, and insist that in some sense or other what is produced is itself a thing of value, and no mere means to harmonious satisfaction.

An organism, we have agreed, is a value in itself; and it attains a higher degree of intrinsic value the more organic it is. It attains the most complete fulfilment of its capacity in a life of most diverse activities all of which are harmoniously controlled for one end. Now in a work of art we are presented with a concrete instance of that unity in difference which is an essential character of organism. In admiring the harmonious fulfilment of the capacities of the diverse matter of any work of art, what we admire is a concrete presentation of this essential character of organism. True the experience is in a sense illusory. The presented unity, including all its fused and unfused symbolism, is the unity of no actual organism, such as a person. It is only a phantom of organism projected upon unorganized material, or on material organized merely from outside. The ‘underlying substantial activity’ which expresses itself in this intrinsic value is not in the medium alone, but in the co-operation of the artist and his medium. (In fact it is an emergent activity.) But the phantom is a phantom of a concrete unity. It is presented to our senses and our imagination. It is a visible, audible, or even (in sculpture) a tangible ghost, into which we ‘project’ an illusory life. Unlike the value of a true organism, the aesthetic value of a work of art is not ‘in and for itself’, since it, the concrete object, has not ‘realized’ itself. It entails for its existence the artist’s creative mind.

Of the appearance of nature I said that we admire it partly for its felt actuality and immensity, partly for its symbolical fulfilment of our human needs, partly for the fragmentary and fortuitous traces of that unity in diversity which is the special character of organism. Now while in the appearance of nature this sensory unity in diversity plays a minor part, in the work of art it is supremely important. Without it there is no aesthetic value whatever. But, on the other hand, whereas in the appearance of nature we are confronted by the very face of nature herself, or at least certain of her features apprehended in isolation from the rest, in the work of art we are confronted, certainly by something actual, but by something which is significant to us less by virtue of its actuality than by virtue of the symbolism which is focused into it by the human mind, and by virtue of the abstract form of rich ‘unity in diversity’ which it embodies.

D. Summary

I would summarize this whole very speculative discussion as follows. There is a sense in which the ideal, the good, is the greatest possible actualization of the potentiality of all that exists, the fullest expression of the nature of the world. This, owing to emergence, is more nearly achieved the more there is organization. The ideal, therefore, is the realization of potentiality upon the highest possible plane of organism. No organism, however, fulfils its whole capacity unless it is contemplated and justly admired; since in being contemplated and admired it co-operates in the emergent activity of the subject-object whole. The abstract form of the ideal is, therefore, that continuously victorious activity, on the part of all organisms on all planes, be continuously and justly admired in all their aspects by all psychic subjects of sufficient capacity for this task.

In admiring the features of nature, we appreciate them partly for their accidental human associations, but also for the fragmentary ‘abstract’ beauty, or unity in diversity, which we discover in them. Possibly one cause of our love of nature is that we inherit sensory and perceptual capacities which are themselves the product of nature’s age-long operation upon our ancestors. What more natural than that we should delight in the perceptual environment to which we are best adapted? What more natural than that the modern urban and industrial environment should not be perceptually appropriate, and therefore not immediately pleasing? What more natural than that, as we become better adapted to urban life, we should begin to discover new and unexpected beauties in the gloom and glare and angular precision of city percepts? But there is another element in our attitude to nature’s features. We salute them for being, whatever their form, veritable features of the face of reality. And this is sometimes true also of our reaction to the civic environment; for even city life, after all, is a feature of reality. Finally, in so far as we find in nature hints of formal unity-in-diversity, or again symbols of human nature, we are tempted to take them as features of a veritable cosmic organism.

In the creation and appreciation of works of art, our delight has doubtless many sources. But when all irrelevant matter is set aside, what we admire in art is a strict formal unity which is imposed upon, or is seen to emerge out of, richly complex matter, sensory, affective, and ideational. What we admire is the harmonious fulfilment of rich potentialities. What we admire is an appearance of organism. This admiration of a unitary object (though in a sense an illusory object) is the main factor in aesthetic experience. But it is not always distinguished from the enjoyment of our own agile and victorious activity in apprehending the object. Nor is it true that we admire the object because it affords us harmonious activity. It is unnecessary to suppose that our own harmonious activity is itself the only object which can rouse our admiration.

93 Volition itself, of course, may be regarded as the activity of the psycho-physical organism as a whole, controlling the activities of its parts.

94 Professor Whitehead's phrase.

95 Science and the Modern World, p. 122.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30