Aesthetic Meaning

A Phenomenological Interpretation

by Peter Kellow

The question posed by any investigation into aesthetic meaning is as follows. I see this work of art, and I know that I like it; it gives me pleasure. But why does this feeling exist? What does it mean, if anything?

We have many different kinds of pleasure other than that which art brings. We enjoy a meal; we like to have a drink with friends; we like helping others. But what makes the experience of art different from these examples, particularly if it is great or even just good art, is that we feel that it has put us in touch with something beyond the simple direct experience. And we feel that it may be important, not just to ourselves, but to the whole culture. Beyond that, truly great and timeless art seems to be laying down a marker and reference by which societies and civilizations may judge themselves. But such expansive reflections do not obviously ground themselves anywhere, in anything. The difficulty derives from the fact that our experience is subjective and personal, but we feel it has a much wider, even objective reference. How can we link the personal and subjective to the greater world?

The title of this essay is “Aesthetic Meaning.” The word meaning in English is helpful in providing us with a first step in clarifying the terms and direction of the discussion here, for it has two quite distinct meanings. Meaning can stand either for signification or for significance. If I say, “What is the meaning of the word crisis,” the word meaning here stands for signification. If I ask, “What is the meaning of the crisis for the future of the country,” I am asking what may be the significance of the crisis for the country. It is in this latter sense that we shall be interpreting aesthetic meaning.

If we explore the idea of aesthetic meaning, in the sense of significance, then this suggests that it is not possible to translate the meaning of a work of art into something other that the work itself. As Roger Scruton writes, “the real meaning of the painting is bound up with, inseparable from, the image….”1 No matter how many words we may have read about a certain painting, they can never substitute for the experience of actually seeing the painting for ourselves as a physically present object. Only this object can fully disclose its own significance. In this, art can be contrasted with science, for a scientific theory can be translated into many different forms and languages but still retain its original precise meaning.

The other word in the title is aesthetic, and here we also need to pause for careful thought. The subject of this essay is not beauty, in spite of the fact that the two terms are often equated. The problem with the word beauty in this context is that, on the one hand, it can be too restricting and, on the other, takes us into areas that are not part of this investigation. Take, for instance, the famous painting by Edvard Munch, The Scream. Almost everyone would agree that it has aesthetic merit, but beautiful is not the word that obviously springs to mind. Furthermore, when we talk about, for instance, a beautiful woman, we are referring to a work of nature—not a work of art. So the idea of beauty is, at once, too limiting and too inclusive to correspond to the word aesthetic.

In my last essay in American Arts Quarterly (Summer 2011), I talked about the modern age and how it was legitimate to consider it to be quite distinct from the age that preceded it, often referred to as the middle ages, or the age of faith. I suggested there that what distinguishes the modern age from its predecessor is the loss of religion. I wish to argue here that aesthetic meaning belongs exclusively to the modern age. If we are to understand it, we need to appreciate exactly how and why this is so. It is no coincidence that the problem posed by aesthetics, which is under consideration here, first arose in the eighteenth century, when modernity and the loss of religion entered the culture. Roger Scruton writes: “the rise of aesthetics was simultaneous … with the loss of confidence in revealed religion.”2 Immanuel Kant was most instrumental in developing the discipline of modern aesthetic theory, in his Critique of Judgment (1790). Not long before that, the aesthetic experience, as we understand it, had not existed, and so, unsurprisingly, no one had thought to write about it.

So why was there no aesthetic appreciation in the age of faith? It was because appreciation of art as an isolated activity did not exist in the pre-modern era. We now regard the great paintings and sculpture of that period as art, like any other, but people of that time did not have our conception of art. They were focused on the religious—the transcendental realm in which the gods dwell. So the message was not aesthetic for them, in the way we mean it. We may regard the works as aesthetic but, in the age of faith, people were uplifted by images and architecture that glorified and made real the sense of a universal transcendental faith.

At the onset of the modern age in the eighteenth century, the format of much of the art was taken from the pre-existing religious art, but the religious message was no longer present. This was evident, for instance, in the new practice of landscape painting. Landscapes had figured in painting before this date, but always as incidental to the main theme of the work, frequently forming a backdrop, seldom portraying a real locality. As the nineteenth century progressed, the subject matter of art broadened to include scenes of city life and working life. In fact, no subject seemed to be out of bounds. This further departure of art from its clear religious role only made the question that Kant had asked—about what art was doing and what aesthetic experience meant—more acute.

The difficulty that many writers have had in answering this question arises from the fact that they generally employ the wrong method—the wrong worldview. Probably because of the apparent success and dominance that science has achieved in our culture, many seek to use its methods everywhere. And it is used in areas where it has no place and can offer only pseudo-solutions to problems. The methods of science can be called “positivistic,” which is to say, it seeks answers that can be proven to be true in an absolute sense. Sometimes, it even goes against what direct experience tells us. For instance, when science tells us that the sun, in spite of appearances, is a star like any other, we now take this to be true, and assume it to be empirically provable by science.

But think, for just a moment, what is happening in such scientific statements and what assumptions they are making. We are being asked to see ourselves as the viewers with the facts of science as external to ourselves. There is a clear separation between the observer and the observed. The facts of science can be said to be “external” to me, and my knowledge of them “internal” to me. If the facts are true, there is a correspondence between the internal and the external. In this “positivist” experience of the world, we are concerned with knowing what is true. Truth is integral to positivism. But what gets left out is any emotional content. In this sense, we may rightly consider science to be “cold,” uninterested in feeling, as much we might want it to be. Otherwise, we would have reason not to trust it. When we go to doctors, we want their scientific knowledge to be at work in dealing with our problem, not their emotional responses.

But the absence of the emotions in the positivist exercise indicates that it is going to be of little help in approaching our current question of what aesthetic experience means. Aesthetic contact is, above all, an emotional experience, and so we are going to need another approach to understand it. Separation of the inner and outer life is intrinsic to science. Yet, as I have suggested, the aesthetic experience is indivisible. Some might say that, at this point, we need to bring in psychology and use that discipline to reveal the processes taking place in the emotional experience. But such a psychologicist approach is still on the positivistic side, because it attempts to objectify our emotional experience and divide it up. As we shall see, the phenomenological method, mentioned in the title of this essay, avoids this trap, firmly rejecting psychologism.

Phenomenology is one of the great intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. Its birth is usually traced to the publication of Logical Investigations, by its founder, the philosopher Edmund Husserl, in 1900. Husserl continued to develop the insights of phenomenology until his death in 1938. Others, such as Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, to name three among many, took its principles further and expanded them beyond the territory that Husserl had mapped out. Although it has been very influential in philosophy and related fields, a wider understanding of what the phenomenological revolution really means is limited by the difficulty of the original texts. This problem extends to the secondary literature as well, which often fails to do the job of clarifying the central ideas. This confusion seems to me avoidable, because the phenomenological experience is built into our everyday experience. In fact, it is so natural to us that we may take it for granted and fail to notice it in an explicit, conscious fashion. Crucially, for this discussion, phenomenology can make good the deficit of positivism’s inability to address our emotional lives. Truth and logic form the glue that binds the positivistic view of the world, but emotions and values are at the very heart of the phenomenological experience.

Husserl said we could get in touch with our phenomenological experience by a process of “reduction.” He did not mean, by this, that we would arrive at a limited view of the world, but that it would leave us with a keener sense of this aspect of experience in relation to everything else. Above all, “reduction” means reducing out the positivistic attitude that shapes so much of our contact with the world. Positivism draws a line between the inner life and the outer world, and then deals with the relationship between the two. Phenomenology acknowledges no such separation.

Our total experience can thus be said to fall into two realms, the positivist and the phenomenological. Scruton puts it this way: “I draw a contrast between two modes of understanding: scientific understanding, which aims to explain the world as it is: and ‘intentional understanding,’ which aims to describe, criticize and justify the world as it appears.”3 Each of these realms amounts to a world separated from the other by the radical difference between the types of experience that make up each of them. To refer to the latter, Husserl talked about what he called a “life world,” but I prefer to use the terms “phenomenological life” or “phenomenological world.”

We have said that emotions are the key to the phenomenological life. But to make more precise and defined our account, let us lay down some principles for phenomenological experience and its corresponding phenomenological world. We shall clearly see exactly how this world is quite opposite in character to that of the positivistic world. I will cite four such principles. They are all interrelated.

1) Phenomenological experiences cannot be divided.

To illustrate this, let us return for a moment to the experience of viewing a work of art. The positivist interpretation will attempt to relate this experience to something else that the work is not. Kant, in his theory of aesthetics, said that art represented “morality and a universal order.” By equating the aesthetic experience with something it was not, he was dividing it up. The modern phenomenological view, on the contrary, focuses on the singular experience of the work. In general, when you say you experience a phenomenon, this is exactly what you mean. You do not know what lies behind it, or, if you do, you are not thinking about it. For example, when you say you experience a beautiful sunset as a phenomenon, you mean that your experience sets aside the (positivistic) awareness of the revolving of the earth and the consequential sinking of the sun behind the horizon. That would chop up the experience into parts and mitigate its emotional impact. The phenomenological experience of the sunset is about your direct emotional response to it, unfettered by factual explanations.

2) In the phenomenological life, there can be no comparison between experiences or measurements of them.

This means that any item is seen as an end in itself. To take another example from art, once you focus on the price of a work of art, you have left behind your phenomenological experience of it and returned to the everyday world of positivism and the crowd, or as Heidegger termed it, “das Mann.”

3) Within the phenomenological life, there are no spatial relationships.

This key element, to a degree, includes the other three. It is saying that this world is not a framework within which items of our experience can be positioned and related to each other, as, say, we spatially relate objects in a room or on a Cartesian graph. Instead, there is a relationship between each and every experience and the singularity of the total phenomenological life. But more than that, this relationship is reciprocal. For the existing accumulated phenomenological life bears upon each new experience, colors it and informs it. This is why I began by talking about meaning as significance, for each new experience has significance for the phenomenological life and, vice versa, the already existing phenomenological life has significance for the new experience.

4) The phenomenological life is accumulative.

Each new experience adds something, large or small, highly significant or not particularly significant, to the phenomenological world. And, because this world operates as a totality and cannot be divided, it changes. To use an overused word, but in its proper sense, we could describe this as an existential change. An example that illustrates well the phenomenological experience is loving somebody. This experience essentially has little to do with positivist-style truth and, in fact, may even have an element of fantasy. Taking the principles in order, first, loving is a singular indivisible experience. Second, we do not compare the object of our love with anyone or anything else, perhaps even seeing them as “perfect.” Third, just as it modifies our previous whole life, so this whole life informs our act of loving. Fourth, the loving experience becomes part of our whole phenomenological life or “life-world” and is inseparable from it.

Loving is a specially intense experience, clearly far more so than appreciating a world of art, but it well illustrates how the phenomenological interpretation of the aesthetic experience works. When we view a painting, fully contemplating it, casting aside all conscious and self-conscious references to other things, we enter deeply into what it means to us—what significance it has. Thus, it is not related to other, outer experiences of our lives. It enters our inner lives, where it finds a place and a relevance—not to specific identifiable elements, but to the totality of our phenomenological world. You cannot appreciate a work of art if you are an infant or, indeed, a person without culture. You need maturity and a degree of cultural sophistication. This is the point about the reciprocal effect of the phenomenological life, for we need that life to reflect back and inform our reading of the work.

Now, crucially, there is a further aspect of aesthetic meaning that the example of loving someone did not include. Loving a person is, above all, a personal experience. Art is also partly that and, so far, it has been interpreted from the point of view of individuals finding their own way to being sensitive to aesthetic quality. However, aesthetic meaning is not a purely private matter. It has cultural significance. So how do we make sense of this private experience in our own phenomenological world, in relation to the larger culture?

We return to Husserl for the explanation. We share many experiences with members of the culture. Although we recognize that the phenomenological life of each person is different, there is, at the same time, a degree of commonality. This commonality does not extend to personal experiences like loving a person. It is what is common to all, or the many, that establishes the shared culture. We are in no doubt of its existence, thanks to myriad exchanges we have with others. Husserl called this “intersubjectivity.”

Thus, phenomenology gives us an answer to our initial question: how do we square what is, in the first place, a subjective experience of art with the overriding feeling that it refers to the greater context of a cultural environment? This happens because the subjective experience of liking a work of art interacts with our own phenomenological world. Then, if the work has real value, many others will have the same experience, creating an “intersubjective” effect, and the culture will be touched.


  1. Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 110.
  2. Roger Scruton, “Modern Philosophy and the Neglect of Aesthetics,” The Philosopher on Dover Beach (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1990), p. 104.
  3. Ibid., p. 108. My emphasis.