Is more clarity always better? Is the ideal perfect knowledge? Ought we (at least try to) banish mystery and the unknown to remnants of a bygone, pre-scientific era? Now, I’m not talking about morality here; the somewhat cliched, “Everyone is trying to figure out how to do X, without asking if we should do it” (the suggestion being that we should deliberately restrict our knowledge in certain ways), nor am I talking about that last bastion of religious and mystical types who bemoan the loss of wonder and enchantment, as if a) understanding a sunset makes it somehow less magnificent to behold, and b) ignorance is something to be cherished. Rather, in this article, we are going to discuss the unknown as it pertains to art and life (and by the term ‘life’, I mean human (i.e. conscious, self-aware) existence). Specifically, I want to ask whether there is any room left for mystery, or the unknowable, in the modern, optimistic, scientific era in which we live.
I’m not going to attempt even a partial definition of art or the aesthetic here. Instead, I want to limit myself to one observation relevant to our purposes in this article; whatever else art is, it must conceal at least as much as it reveals. If art is to function as art, the imagination of the spectator must be called upon to exercise itself to some degree or other, and in general, the more the imagination is called upon, the better the artwork; that is to say, the more aesthetic, it is.
Detour – Immanuel Kant
In his 1790 book, the last of his three great Critiques, Critique of Judgement, the unparalleled 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant investigated the way our faculty of judgement serves as a link between the other faculties his earlier Critiques explicated; understanding and reason. The first of the two main sections of Critique of Judgement was an exploration of the aesthetic, and it’s here that we find our path crosses with Kant’s.
In the section he called Deduction of Pure Aesthetic Judgements, Kant talked about what he called spirit, which is “the animating principle in the mind…” (Kant, 1790, p.142). This principle is capable of in turn animating the soul (a deeper, more profound effect) through the presentation of aesthetic ideas, and the “material which it employs for that purpose – is that which sets the mental powers into a swing that is purposive, i.e. into a play which is self-maintaining and which strengthens those powers for such activity” (Kant, 1790, p.142). Thus, a work of art, to be aesthetic for Kant; that is, to be able to arouse aesthetic ideas in the spirit, must stimulate the mind into a free-form kind of play that is open-ended; i.e. that doesn’t lock us into a specific, definite concept (although the free-form play will be ‘guided’ by the work of art). In line with this, he goes on to say that he rates poetry the highest of the art forms precisely because it “…expands the mind by giving freedom to the imagination…” while at the same time “…offering, from among the boundless multiplicity of possible forms accordant with a given concept, to whose bounds it is restricted, that one which couples with the presentation of the concept a wealth of thought to which no verbal expression is completely adequate…” (Kant, 1790, p.155).
The emphasis on imagination is clear here as it is called on in the aesthetic experience to go beyond the brute givens of the aesthetic object. I would also highlight two additional features which are implicit in this picture although Kant doesn’t explicitly draw them out; one concerning the viewing subject, one the aesthetic object. Regarding the former, there must be effort on the part of the subject, who is required to actively engage with the content of the artwork. It can’t be the case that the viewer just lets themselves be carried away on an aesthetic current in which everything is provided for them. They have to work for their aesthetic pay-out. On the side of the object, everything cannot be exposed. If the imagination is going to be solicited the way Kant suggests, the artwork must not answer all of our questions; it must not reveal everything. Of course, it must be whole in what it is; we aren’t talking about an incomplete, unfinished, or ‘partial’ object, as it were, but its wholeness must be laced with fissures that provoke us to look deeper for answers that nevertheless aren’t there.
Let’s see if we can clarify all this talk of imagination, effort, and fissures with a specific object. Consider a photo. (This was what gave me the idea for this this article, by the way). Let’s take this one of Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer from 1929 from Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians (2020):
Photos being what they are, literally snapshots of an event that happens over time, all they give us are momentary glimpses into a scene that, despite the unwavering fidelity of the photo (or perhaps because of it), remains almost completely indistinct and hidden. What are the two men saying to each other? Do their postures indicate hidden tension? What have they just done? What are they about to do? Where are they? Who, if anyone, is with them but outside of the shot? None of these questions are answered or even answerable from what we have before us. This photo, and photos in general, give us only a fraction of what we need to fully understand the situations they depict, but far from detracting from their standing as aesthetic objects, it is precisely this (among other things, of course) that makes them aesthetic.
Contrast this with a movie in which everything is revealed. Rather than a single snapshot, we see the event as it unfolds over time. Every posture, every movement, every expression is understood, not as a separate, isolated fragment, but as a meaningful part of a greater whole. The movie unfolds in such a way that every scene builds on the ones that came before and sets the stage for those to come. It is, in other words, deliberately constructed to be as close to real life as possible, and there is nothing aesthetic about a lived life (more on this later).
Of course, you might object that not everything is revealed in a movie, and sometimes directors/writers deliberately make a movie such that scenes don’t build on those which came before (using devices like flashbacks, flash forwards, etc.). The point though, is that in a movie we are saturated with information, not necessarily about the plot, but about what is happening in every scene. There are obviously still unknowns in a movie. You could still ask questions: Why did that character say that? What is she really thinking? What happened at so-and-so’s house last night? etc., but these unknowns are relegated to the background in relation to the surfeit of information you are being given in every moment. The truth is that so much is being revealed in a movie that it’s probably more correct to say you don’t ask questions so much as the director elicits questions from you, which brings me to my next point…
Think about how we relate to these two different forms of media. We dive into the moment that has been arrested and preserved in the photo, looking to elicit from it whatever we can, knowing that the task before us will be more reconstruction than reception. We ask ourselves questions about the scene. We circle round and round the moment given to us, probing it from different directions, extrapolating, guessing, inferring. It holds our attention, not through what it does or shows (it does nothing, and it shows only a fraction of the whole situation), but through the effort we bring to it. Our focus pivots around the emptiness that surrounds the photo pervading it from every direction, not the plenitude of its subject-matter. The effort here is all on the side of the spectator. Thus it is that we are actively engaged with the photo.
How is it with the movie? Rather than actively and deliberately circling, probing, and interrogating, on the contrary, the movie encircles us, answering our questions before we ask them, sweeping us up in its plot, carrying us away with its storyline, the characters holding our attention with their dialogue. Nothing is hidden or concealed. In every scene, we are bombarded with all the information we could ever want and more. This is passive engagement. We don’t do anything; indeed, there is no time to do anything. We are, almost literally, mesmerised. If you haven’t ever done this, the next time you are in a movie theatre, take a moment to disengage from the movie and look around at the audience. It is surreal, and a little disturbing, to see the zombie-like expressions on everyone’s faces, bathed in the washed-out light emanating from the movie screen, as they stare blankly up into space. You don’t see this in people appreciating paintings or photos in an art gallery. There is a presence in the eyes of the latter that is absent from those of the former.
Of course, this isn’t to say that movies can’t be aesthetic objects. In truth, anything can be made into art, but a movie as it is watched; i.e. as a form of entertainment, isn’t aesthetic. When we watch a movie, we are completely and effortlessly immersed in it. The viewer’s imagination is not engaged precisely because there are no gaps in the experience for the imagination to fill in. Our senses are bombarded with a constant stream of information. Indeed, to properly experience a movie, one must not think about it. To treat a movie as art would be to no longer watch it.
So, by way of summary, we have found that one of the elements necessary for an object to be aesthetic; that is, for an object to acquire a depth that provokes the imagination of the spectator into active, effortful engagement with it, is concealment, mystery, a deliberate withholding of information.
Let’s shift focus a little now and turn from art to life. Do concealment, mystery, and unknowability play a role in everyday human existence comparable to the one we have discovered they play in art? I suggest they do, but not in a way that valorises ignorance or supports any misguided notions of preserving ‘enchantment’ in the world. For every moment of our lives defined by clarity and presence, there is, I argue, much more concealment and absence going on. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that it is only the concealment and absence that allow clarity and presence to occur in the first place.
Perhaps the easiest place to see this is in perception. In order for me to perceive this cup on my desk, everything else in my field of vision must recede into the background, a background that is perceived, but only as a background. What does it mean to say that something is perceived as a background? It means to be perceived only as a support for the object in the foreground. The background isn’t nothing, as in a void, but nor is it something. We can’t even say that it is an indistinct, hazy jumble of things that could break apart into distinct objects were I to turn my attention to it. The background just doesn’t appear for us at all.
Detour – Inattentional Blindness
In 1999, two cognitive psychologists, Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris, performed an experiment in which they showed participants a video of two teams of people – three people wearing white, three wearing black. Each team had a basketball which the members passed amongst themselves, making sure to only pass the ball to another person from their own team, as all six people randomly moved around and in-between each other. The participants were told to count how many times the players in white passed the ball while ignoring those in black. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla suit walked right through the middle of the two groups, turned and faced the camera, beat their chest, and then casually strolled out of the shot. After being asked about it once the video had finished, only 50% of the participants said they had noticed the gorilla. The study demonstrates what is called inattentional blindness, a term which describes the way we can be so focused on something that we completely fail to notice something else taking place in or around the area of interest, even something as unusual as a person in a gorilla suit.
This finding is typically seen as exposing a ‘flaw’ in human attention, a ‘defect’ in the design, as it were. However, I don’t see this as a shortcoming we should wish to overcome if we could, nor even as what we might want to call an unwanted, but unavoidable, side-effect of conscious perception. Rather, this capacity of attention to exclude the background so much that it goes unnoticed is what makes conscious perception possible in the first place. If the background retained almost as much presence as the foreground, such that every object was equally represented in our field of vision, we wouldn’t be consciously perceiving anything at all. We might be registering data, something like what a digital camera does, but we wouldn’t be perceiving. Perceiving is an activity that only conscious beings perform because it involves not just receiving sensory input, but receiving meaningful sensory input. For sensory stimuli to be meaningful, the perceiving subject must have a vested interest; it must have, among other things, goals, desires, hopes, expectations, and the capacity to be disappointed. Without any of these, all you have is data processing, and no matter how fast your CPU, how many feedback loops you build in, or how many quantum features you take advantage of, while you might get something that can factor in every single object in its webcam’s field of vision, something that never fails to spot the gorilla, you won’t get conscious perception. If AI ever becomes conscious, I fear the joke will be on the inventors when they discover that it comes with all the ‘flaws’ and ‘design defects’ that characterise regular human consciousness.
With this, then, we’ve already uncovered a permanent ‘mystery’ or unknowability in the most ordinary and mundane of human activities. Concealment on the side of the percept, and its counterpart, ignorance, on the side of the perceiver both turn out to be built into perception, not as unfortunate side-effects, but as that which makes the discovery and knowledge in perception possible. To wish this could be otherwise is as foolhardy as wishing it would rain while at the same time not wanting water to fall from the sky. Of course, while the perceptual background itself is a permanent mystery, considered as a collection of objects currently unperceived there is nothing absolutely mysterious about it. Every object in the unperceived background is a potential foreground object. Yet, at the very moment such a switch takes place, the former object, which we had known so well, melts into, and becomes part of, that ever-present, and yet invisible, necessarily unknowable background. In fact, the lives of conscious creatures like human beings are full of these kinds of concealed phenomena, if you know where to look.
Detour – Jean-Paul Sartre
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, somehow, in between all the coffee, cigarettes, and drugs he was imbibing, managed to write the definitive existentialist text (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms), Being and Nothingness, in which he discusses something very similar to what we have discovered here. Instead of calling it ‘mystery’ or ‘concealment’ though, Sartre, as the name of his magnum opus suggests, saw it in terms of negation.
Sartre asks us to consider the distance between two points on a line. There are two ways of apprehending this. We can focus on the segment in between the two points, in which case the two points are negated, as they became mere limits for each end of the segment. However, we can also direct our attention to the two points, in which case the segment disappears as a full, concrete object in itself, to become the (empty) space which separates the points. In either case, negation is present, not just as a by-product of the positivity, but as a constitutive moment which cannot be suppressed. This is just one example for Sartre of an infinite number of realities human activity reveals, which, while not obviously involving negative judgements, actually contain negativity as a key part of their structure. He called these unavoidable judgements negatites.
Sartre’s negatites (a word I’ve never quite figured out how to pronounce) are essentially what we have been discussing here; ours just occur within a slightly different framework. Another example of essential concealment/mystery in human life comes from the fact of our temporal existence; specifically, the future. Now, this is not just the old “life would lose its excitement and meaning if you knew everything that was going to happen” line – although this is surely true. Rather, my point is that such knowledge would become obsolete as soon as one acted on it. Let’s avoid the freewill/determinism debacle and just say you have a sophisticated machine that can predict events, including human behaviour, perfectly. You fire it up and it tells you the winning lottery numbers for the draw next Saturday. It also tells you who is going to win. During the next week, you pay a little visit to the winner and tie him up so he can’t buy his winning ticket. With your foreknowledge, you get your own ticket, and claim the prize. Perfect, right? Agreed. However, as soon as you decided to act on your knowledge; i.e. the moment you moved to intercept the poor, original winner of the lottery, you no longer knew what your future held in store for you. How could you? You’d changed it as it was originally supposed to happen. Couldn’t you just check the machine again? Of course you could. But, as soon as you acted on your knowledge of the new, ‘updated’ future, it would become obsolete again, proving my point that the future must always remain a mystery for a conscious being.
“Ah ha,” you’ll object, “But what if I decided not to change anything? What if I used the machine on myself, and after seeing everything I would do, resolved to just follow it to the letter?” Let’s grant that this is possible, even though there are serious non-technology-related reasons for thinking it isn’t. In that case, we would have to say that this is surely a good plan for guaranteeing the future your machine predicted comes to pass, but not such a good plan if you’re looking to live the life of a conscious being. If you knew how every moment in your life was going to play out and resolved to do nothing to change any of it, there is no meaningful sense in which we could say you are living at all. You would have reduced yourself to the status of a mere thing, a mindless zombie simply going through the motions, fulfilling a role dictated to you in advance. In short, you would be acting your life rather than living it. Tom Cruise surely acts the role of Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible movies, but he follows his script in the course of a life he is actually living. You would be more like the fictional character Ethan Hunt himself, a mere shadow of a real living being, a persona that we see doing things, but that never performs a single genuine action.
In this euphorically optimistic scientific era of ours where unknowns and mysteries are the enemy and seen as problems to be solved (the implication being that they are problems that can be solved), we have lost sight of the importance of the unknown, the mystery, and the concealed.
In this article, we started with the aesthetic, which we saw requires concealment and mystery in order to spark the imagination. Of course, it isn’t that the aesthetic object exists first and then provokes the imagination; rather, it is precisely the capacity to provoke the imagination that makes the object aesthetic, and this capacity can only exist if there is ‘room’ in the object for the imagination to move; that is to say, if there is some measure of concealment in the object.
In a similar way, we discovered that life also requires concealment and mystery, not, in this case, to fire up the imagination, but in order to facilitate basic features of life, such as perception (the ‘mystery’ of the background) and action (the ‘mystery’ of the future). And just as we saw with the aesthetic, it isn’t the case that life exists first and then facilitates these basic features; rather, life is these basic features (perception, action, etc.), and these basic features can only occur if there is some measure of concealment.
I’m not suggesting we ought to hold ourselves back from solving all the mysteries of the universe in order to keep things interesting, as if life were a magic trick that might lose its appeal once we learn the secret. Nor is it that some aspects of life are just going to be too hard for us to ever unravel, destined to remain absolute mysteries, the universe protecting itself from unwanted tampering, as it were. Rather, life – the lived life of a conscious being – is only possible when some parts of it are kept concealed, even if the concealment is only relative (to attention, for instance) or temporary (as in the future, which is revealed once it comes to pass).
Coda: Why Life Isn’t Aesthetic
Early in the article, I claimed that life isn’t aesthetic. It’s time to defend that claim. Why should it be the case that we can’t look at life through an artistic lens and appreciate it as an aesthetic object? Well, actually, we can. My argument is more specific than this, though. It is that life, as it is lived, cannot be an aesthetic object.
For life to appear as an aesthetic object, we have to view it in such a way that it appears as an aesthetic object. As we’ve seen, this will require enough concealment to arouse the imagination, but it will also require something else we have only briefly touched upon; namely, reflection.
An object can only appear as an aesthetic object when one adopts a reflective attitude towards it. Raphael’s The School of Athens does not appear as a great work of art to the team of movers when it is being transported from one museum to another. Rather, it appears as ‘something to be carried (carefully),’ or ‘something too heavy.’ Why should this be the case? Because the mover is otherwise occupied with moving the thing! Instead of reflecting on it as a representation of the history of thought and philosophy, he or she is simply manhandling it as a physical object. It is exactly the same with life.
Life only appears as an aesthetic object before a reflective gaze; i.e. a gaze that has stepped back from that life, viewing it from a distance, from a third-person perspective. Life as it is lived is something on which we can never adopt a third-person perspective. Why? Because you are too busy living it! Life as it is lived is exactly like the background in perception; it never appears at all when you are actually engaged in living it. You can, of course, make life appear as an object by stepping back and focusing your attention on it, but the moment you do so, the object you catch sight of is not what you were looking for; i.e. life as it is lived, because that particular quarry has now moved ‘up’ one level, buried in the ‘you’ that is doing the viewing.
The famous quote is that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. This is a profound statement. You never see life as it is lived as an object because a lived life isn’t an object, it’s an event. You can represent that event with an object, but not only will the representation never perfectly capture the original, in addition, the represented life can necessarily only occur in a life that is already being lived elsewhere, a life that therefore encompasses the very object it was supposed to be encompassed by.