– Aesthetic Experience

11 11 2012

(σκέψεις για τη φύση και τη λειτουργία της αισθητικής εμπειρίας)

Is aesthetic experience a result of the aesthetic attitude of the observer or of the qualities of the work of art?

Much has been said and written on the appropriate way of experiencing a work of art, a way traditionally considered as distinguishable from that of other kinds of experiences, described as an aesthetic experience. Different emphasis has at times been placed on whether the aesthetic experience can result from a range of qualities of the object experienced (Bell’s significant form, Sibley’s grace, unity, gaudiness etc.), or from a certain attitude on the part of the observer or beholder, described as aesthetic attitude1.

The idea of an aesthetic attitude, requiring both an involvement and a detachment from the perceived object can be traced back to Aristotle’s στάσις, or Aquinas’s aesthetic contemplation, but it was Kant who carefully and systematically analysed the concept of disinterestedness as central in aesthetic appreciation. Kant’s idea of disinterestedness was thought of as a kind of impartiality, as the absence of the kind of interest that relates to one’s own advantage or disadvantage. In Schopenhauer’s notion of the loss of will, one loses awareness of the self and becomes purely contemplative. Despite their fundamental differences in the nature of aesthetic experience2, Kant’s disinterestedness and Schopenhauer’s will-lessness do share a common ground as far as the aesthetic experience is concerned..

Bullough’s view of  ‘psychical distance’ is grounded in a similar suggestion that aesthetic attitude is a necessary condition of aesthetic experience. It does not follow, however, Kant’s analytical description of the free play of imagination and understanding. Nor does it follow Schopenhauer’s metaphysical interpretation of the intellect freeing itself from the demands of the will. It is rather founded on a psychological basis and presented to us with suggestive examples that try to encompass the variety of aesthetic experience and to define it in terms of the psychical distance.

One major claim of Bullough’s view is that there is a distinct kind of human experience called aesthetic experience, which can be differentiated from other types of experience. It involves a special attitude, which he introduces and calls ‘psychical distance’. “The distance lies between our self and such objects as are the sources or vehicles of such affection 3 “. In other words, the distance is between the object and its appeal on the one hand and our self and its practical interest on the other.

For Bullough, the aesthetic experience is not confined to works of art but comprise natural objects and phenomena. He introduces the concept in his much commented upon example of experiencing a fog at sea. The strange effects of the fog can only be appreciated, if distance is produced by perceiving the phenomenon, without being affected by the fears, terrors and practical concerns it can occasion. Cutting out the practical side of things is not the normal way to see them, but according to Bullough, the only way of achieving an aesthetic experience.

Certain similarities between Kant and Bullough are to be found in the connection between the former’s ‘disinterestedness’ with the latter’s ‘distance’. They are also to be found in the distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful:  Bullough describes the agreeable as ‘non-distanced, self-centred pleasure’, which seems similar to Kant’s idea of the agreeable as directly appealing to the senses and to a delight in possessing. Bullough’s notion for the aesthetic pleasure on the other hand, is that it is object or experience-centred, similar to Kant’s idea of the beautiful (as opposed to the agreeable), which is a contemplative delight, a capacity for disinterested aesthetic experience.

The idea of disinterestedness, detachment or distance as a distinguishing feature of the aesthetic attitude does capture a familiar feature of the aesthetic experience as it is commonly and traditionally considered. Bullough’s views, however, received severe criticism, mainly by George Dickie.

Dickie objects to Bullough’s view of psychical distance, not only doubting the very existence of the term and the notion, but also considering it a myth, harmful to the aesthetic theory. What he maintains is that we are not committing a special act of distancing when we appreciate some object,. We should not, therefore introduce new technical terms and “speak as if these terms refer to special kinds and states of consciousness4 “. Instead of talking about distance and distancing, Dickie argues, we could simply talk about focused attention and avoid the fact that “any psychological state has been induced5 “.

The fact remains, however, that when we are experiencing something aesthetically, there is something going on more than simply focusing our attention. We usually focus our attention in order to understand something. Once this cognitive act has ended, there is no need of concentrating any more or repeating the action. With what we commonly term aesthetic experience however, there is something more. We derive certain pleasure, we are emotionally and intellectually committed, we want the experience to last and if it comes to an end we want it to be repeated. Dickie’s notion of attention, no matter the degree or reference, seems inadequate to carry within it the rich characteristics of such an experience. Bullough’s term on the other hand, seems to constitute a much more appropriate framework to accommodate the richness and variability of the experience. Commonly, we tend to identify our own actual experience that we call aesthetic with Bullough’s description easily and convincingly6.

Bullough’s second major claim is that the psychical distance provides the best account of what is distinctive about aesthetic experience. This second assertion has been met with skepticism that revealed certain contradictions, inconsistencies and dangers.

One apparent contradiction in Bullough’s theory is what he himself calls ‘the antinomy of Distance’. He claims that the work of art “is appealing to us the better it finds us prepared for its particular kind of appeal7“. Relevant sympathies and experiences will make us apprehend the work fully. That concordance, as he calls it, however, must never run over into losing all distance. Distance must be preserved. In his much quoted example of the jealous husband watching a performance of Othello, the man is qualified in appreciating the play fully, but he will probably not, since he will not be able to maintain distance. He will be watching Othello and will be seeing himself. Concordance and Distance give rise to the antinomy. What is required, Bullough maintains, is the rather vague “utmost decrease of distance without its disappearance8“.

A possible danger is when the distance theory is not only considered as a necessary condition for aesthetic experience, but also as a yardstick for evaluating works of art. In these cases the presence or the absence of distance may be used as a measure of the success or failure of a work of art respectively.

This was the case in Sheila Dawson’s article, where she refers to that part of Peter Pan, in which the audience is asked to participate by clapping their hands. This, as Dawson argues, results in a loss of distance and a subsequent failure of the performance.

Unlike Dawson, Dickie considers “Peter Pan’s request for applause as a dramatic highpoint9“. He discredits the very existence of such a notion as distance, in favour of an awareness of the rules and conventions that govern theatre situations and at times request certain kinds of participation.

Dickie’s argument against distance seems rather implausible, however, because in Bullough’s theory, being distanced and participating do not necessarily contradict. If Dickie’s argument is plausible, it is so because it shows that psychical distance may not be the only account for aesthetic experience.

Another major criticism of Bullough’s theory, also presented by Dickie, refers with considerable cogency to Bullough’s subjectivism and possible psychologism. Bullough had somehow tried to insulate his theory with the notion of the variability of distance, but certain inadequacies are revealed. The most important seems to be the fact that the notion of distance as a necessary condition and a guarantee for aesthetic experience depend on the psychological capacities of the individuals, leaving very little room for the objective features of the work of art.

Dickie’s criticism of Bullough  seems to be based on the assertion that if there is such a thing as an aesthetic experience (which Dickie prefers to call ‘close attention to a work of art’), it should be based on the wholeness, clarity and completeness, which are objective qualities of the work. Bullough’s subjectivism, however, is rather loose and it does not neglect the object and its qualities. He claims that “distance may be said to be variable both according to the distancing-power of the individual, and according to the character of the object10 “. In addition, although distance, according to Bullough, implies a personal relation, this is “of a peculiar character…filtered, cleared of the practical, concrete nature of its appeal11 “.

The major value of Dickie’s criticism then, does not seem to be the rehabilitation of the qualities of the object (which were never completely abandoned), but his attack on the danger of psychologism in aesthetics. The danger, that is, to think of the aesthetic attitude wholly in terms of a subjective process occurring in individuals 12 “.  And although certain tenets of the later (?) presented institutional theory seem to underlie his motivation 13, his effort to see the aesthetic attitude as a concept that is “a part of a philosophical account of what it means for an attitude or an experience to be aesthetic 14“,   is well-grounded and logically plausible.

A further question that arises is that of our emotional involvement with works of art and the fact that we are profoundly moved by something we know is not real. Bullough’s account of psychical distance that renders characters fictitious so that we are not tempted to treat them as real beings, does not help much in explaining it. Nor does Dickie’s awareness and approval of conventions. Nor the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ 15 , for we would be in a kind of false relationship with works of art. A possible answer could be Anne Shepard’s notion of imagining an emotion, feeling it that is, in the detached way appropriate to art. A work of art as Kant pointed out employs material that is borrowed from nature but that is “worked upon by us into something else – namely what surpasses nature 16  “. Or, as Diane Collinson states, “human beings possess the ability to imagine not only circumstances, events and situations…but also the responses and emotions they invite17 “.

It seems therefore, that the aesthetic experience is a tenable concept of human experience, distinct from other kinds of experiences, connected to art, but not exclusively to it, an experience extremely valuable in human life. Bullough’s view of psychical distance may not be the best or the only account of what is distinctive about this experience but it does offer the opportunity to think of the notion of contemplativeness as of central importance to it.


1    There is not a straightforward distinction of this different emphasis, however. Bell clearly emphasizes the importance of form in aesthetic experience, but further on in his text, he talks about the fact that “for a moment we are shut off from human interest…We are lifted above the stream or life” (Clive Bell, 1915). Kant’s central idea of disinterestedness on the other hand, refers to an aesthetic attitude. However, he clearly states that when we experience beauty we are recognizing and responding to formal qualities.

2    Schopenhauer believed that through aesthetic experience, we acquire a certain kind of knowledge, while Kant denied the cognitive nature of aesthetic experience.

3    Bullough, E.,  ‘Psychical distance’ as a factor in art and as an aesthetic principle,  (reprinted in TAB, pp 248-265)

4    Dickie, G., 1971, p. 57

5    Dickie, G., 1964, p. 157

6    Dickie tries to discredit the introduction of a new terminology, insisting on the common notion of ‘attention’ . There are cases, however, when an even more highly sophisticated psychological account than that of Bullough is offered. One such case is Roman Ingarden’s effort to detect a series of phases in the aesthetic experience. Even compared with such a case, Bullough’s account seems to encompass better what we commonly have in mind when we talk of aesthetic experience.

7    Bullough, E.,  ‘Psychical distance’ as a factor in art and as an aesthetic principle,  (reprinted in TAB, pp 248-265)

8    Ibid

9   Dickie, G., 1964, p. 57

10    Bullough, E.,  ‘Psychical distance’ as a factor in art and as an aesthetic principle,  (reprinted in TAB, pp 248-265)

11    Ibid.,

12    Collinson , TAB p. 163

13   Contrary to the metaphysical resonances and psychological process of Bullough’s views, Dickie seems to be in favour of a rationally controlled system of the artworld. Appreciation of works of art in that system is to a certain extent dependent on the conferring of a status by some person(s) on behalf of this artworld and not dependent on the psychical distance of the perceiver, as Bullough would have it.

14    Collinson , TAB p. 163

15    Ibid.,

16    Kant, I., 1973 edn, p. 176 (quoted in PA, p. 165)

17    Collinson , TAB p. 165




  • Hanfling, Oswald (ed.) Philosophical Aesthetics. An Introduction, Blackwell Publishers in association with The Open University, 1992
  • Wilkinson, Robert (ed.) Theories of Art and Beauty, The Open University, 1991
  • Sim, Stuart (ed.) Art: Context and Value, The Open University, 1992
  • Αργυράκη, Ρεγγίνα  Τα κριτήρια και ο κακός λύκος, εκδ. Σμίλη, Αθήνα, 1992
  • Sheppard, Anne, Aesthetics, an introduction to the philosophy of art, Oxford University press, 1987



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