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I like to follow extended think-fests (such as conferences) with brief flights away from cerebrality, at least for a couple of days where possible. So following the SCMS, I visited the Santa Monica Mountains, which included a hike up La Jolla Canyon and Mugu Peak at the northern end of the range, and another up Solstice Canyon and the Sostomo Trail/Deer Valley Loop. Both were beautiful, as it was a great time to be there — warm, sunny, breezy, their chaparral and riparian vegetation in full bloom this time of year. Then I drove up from Malibu via Mulholland Highway to Hollywood — having recently re-read Mike Davis’s case for letting Malibu burn (in The Ecology of Fear) in preparation for it — and then walked from Griffith Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood to get a great view of the whole LA area, somewhat muted by smog but not nearly as much as it would have been several years ago.

(As for letting Malibu burn, well, some of the monster homes did remind me a little of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, although (a) burning and exploding are not the same thing, (b) there’s still a fair bit of land set aside in the public/private patchwork of the area to keep environmentalists at least somewhat happy, and (c) I might even consider living there myself if I could afford it ;-).)

The irony, and this is part of the point, is that getting away from thinking tends to trigger new synaptic connections for thinking. This time the connections revolved mainly around two sets of foci, one having to do with the raison d’etre of my teaching, research, and writing (which I’ll leave aside for a future post), and the second having to do with aesthetics and Peircian phenomenology. I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter recently — especially Peirce’s classification of experience into firstness, secondness, and thirdness — and wondering why it was that, for all the thousands of pages he wrote during his prolifically unpublished life, he had very little to say about aesthetics and ethics. In fact, he often admitted his ignorance of both of them, even as they fit into important places within his philosophical system. (He took aesthetics and ethics to be two of the three divisions of “normative science,” the third being logic, and the three corresponding, respectively, to the beautiful, the good, and the true.)


Aesthetics, for Peirce, is about “habits of feeling” that allow us to appreciate the “admirable.” In a loose sense, it is concerned with firstness, the “quality of feeling” of a phenomenon, while ethics is concerned with secondness, or reaction and relation, and logic with thirdness, or mediated representation, pattern, or law (cf. Collected Papers 5.129, and 8.256, and Parret, “Peircian fragments on the aesthetic experience,” in Parret, ed., Peirce and Value Theory, John Benjamins, 1994, pp. 181ff.). While logic is about truth and falsity, and ethics is about “wise and foolish conduct,” aesthetics is about “attractive and repulsive ideas” (CP 5.551).

With philosophy being less about pure contemplation and more about theorizing our action in the world — something that not only popularizers like Robert Pirsig and Jacob Needleman have told us for years, but that Nietzche and, more recently, Hadot and Foucault have argued in their writings on ancient philosophy — each of these categories is really about how to live: how to cultivate the habits that allow us to both appreciate and manifest the beautiful or admirable, the just and virtuous in our relationships with others, and the truthful in our understanding of the world. Aesthetics, then, is not just about our perception and appreciation (or evaluation) of things that appear to us, such as art and the like; it is also about our comportment toward those things.

So what was it that came to me as I was coming down Solstice Canyon last Tuesday? That one could do worse than to follow a Peircian triple aesthetic in one’s life, which I take to be made up of three parts: an aesthetic of appearances (firstness), which is about perceiving and cultivating the beauty in things; an aesthetic of empathic relations (secondness), which is about cultivating ways of responding to others in ways that sympathetically recognize their positioning in their interactions with us; and an aesthetic of ecology, which is about recognizing and cultivating the vitality of the systemic connections that sustain the whole.

Each of these is a selective response to a broader array of possibilities: beauty and ugliness (as well as neutrality and various shades in between), just and unjust interactions, systemic cohesion and disorder and collapse. And each is attentive to those other options, acknowledging their viability even as it opts for one (beauty, empathy, ecology) over another. Chaos, in effect, is not something “bad”: it’s our task, if one follows this aesthetic, to cultivate the beauty, the relational rightness, and the truthfulness of what seems “chaotic.” And in some circumstances, chaos may even be the wrench that needs to be thrown in to shake things up a bit.

This triadic conception of aesthetics allows us to cover a lot of ground. For one thing, it describes not just an aesthetic, but an ethic and a logic, but ones that start from our direct perceptual encounter with things, with the fresh and bare face of the world. The aesthetic moment is the first moment of our relation with the world; it’s the moment that branches out into an ethic (a way of relating) and then into a logic (an understanding of how things work). Our response to art, or to beauty, works primarily and initially at that “first step” level.

But there are many arts: the arts of democracy, for instance, which are a combination of aesthetic secondness (the aesthetic of empathic relationality) and thirdness (the aesthetic of ecology, that is, of how things fit together). And “beautiful” art isn’t necessarily privileged at the expense of the non-beautiful; there are different modalities and combinations of art. The “sublime,” for instance, is a combination of firstness (the aesthetic of appearances) and thirdness (the aesthetic of ecology), whereby we are confronted with the challenge of something that’s much greater than ourselves, or that fundamentally puts into question our assumptions. The sublime is about “the whole” breaking into our caricatured preconceptions of it.

A Peircian aesthetic of living, then, would be a simultaneous cultivation of one’s capacities for perceiving the beauty in things, for relating empathically with others, and for understanding the workings of the whole. Hiking in one of the semi-desert canyons of California’s Malibu coast provides a great opportunity for practicing all of these, though the “others” will more likely be nonhumans than humans. But even looking over the whole region from the top of mount Hollywood — a 360-degree view over a landscape inhabited by some 15 million humans and the mountains and ocean that surround them — provides a pretty good opportunity for all three of these practices.

Needless to say, this quasi-Peircian eco-aesthetic needs more thought, and more reading to see what other Peircians have come up with (though the Digital Peirce is a good indicator that there isn’t a whole lot out there, despite a few books like Parret‘s).

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