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The Aesthetic Aspect

Briefly ...

Primarily in harmonising, enjoying, playing, beautifying, do we experience life in its aesthetic aspect. The aesthetic aspect goes beyond the arts. The orchestra of daily life, a multitude of instruments, generates something harmonious, interesting and enjoyable -- or not as the case may be.

"The beauty of nature," Dooyeweerd wrote [1955,II 139], "is signified to those who are susceptible to aesthetic harmony, in the colours, the effect of light, the sounds, the spatial relations of nature etc." Aesthetic is the way we lay the table for a meal. Aesthetic is enjoying the food. Aesthetic is leisure. Aesthetic is sport - when undertaken for enjoyment, not competition or finance. Aesthetic is humour. Aesthetic is finding life interesting. Aesthetic is scientific discovery. Aesthetic is even computer programming, if that father of the field, Donald Knuth [1984], is to be believed! We hear about some of these in Dooyeweerd [1955,II, 66-7, 128, 139, 345-8]. Aesthetic is always seeing the whole.

Seeing the whole is a foundation for justice, which is meaningful in the next aspect.

Defining the Aspect x

First, before we go into the usual structured analysis of this aspect (skip to structured analysis), let's hear an aesthetic expression of the meaning of the Aesthetic Aspect.

On BBC Radio 3, Sunday 23rd November 2008, 10.55 am, Mary King was interviewing George Benjamin, who asked for the finale of Beethoven's 8th Symphony to be played. What he said about this piece is perhaps the best expression of the meaning of the aesthetic aspect I have ever heard: beautiful and dynamic. Hear his sheer delight (itself an aestethic response) at the virtuosity of the piece of music, at the many things going on which create the whole, at the beauty, surprise, joy, enjoyment, fun, humour. George Benjamin is so excited about the piece that he keeps on interrupting his own sentences to insert something (indicated by the dashes below), sometimes coming back to complete it, but often not. His excitement repeated words or bits of words (not shown here), and you could feel him on edge. Apparently, when the music played, he was 'air conducting' it; his whole body was involved. Here is his introduction to the piece, starting in the middle of a preceding sentence.

Best: read it out loud to yourself, stressing the words preceded by *.

George Benjamin:

...I think it's too simple,
I think Beethoven, I imagine, took - despite the fact he found it very hard - took enormous joy in writing his music.
And to come up with a work like this symphony! -
Can you imagine the thrill of writing that, putting the final bar to that, "I wrote this",
You know, that must have been amazing!
And, I've asked that you play the finale of this work because it's one of my favourite movements in all Beethoven, and I listened to it last night and I just can't - apart from the wonderful humour of it, and the fantastic speed of thought - I just cannot get over the virtuosity of his use of the orchestra.
The way he -
if you could watch a Beethoven symphony from above, directly above a symphony orchestra, you would be amazed at the angles and the shapes of energy whizzing apast the orchestra in ever different forms, the way the material
    goes to the bass,
        goes to the flute,
            shrinks in size,
                    moves around,
                        then the whole orchestra's playing it,
- it's incredibly dynamic in form.
It's also wonderfully full of humour.
The structure is so alive, so unpredictable, one single note, C-sharp thrusts the piece into, in Beethoven's terms, into chaos, when an F major movement suddenly lurches into F-sharp minor for about twenty bars, when you're least expecting it, near where you think the movement's going to end.
It's also got one of my -
I mean, people underestimate the wonder of Beethoven's sound, the pianissimo moments in this movement when the whole orchestra's playing -
which the the the arrangements of the instruments, and the background material, foreground material, is so *gorgeously ordered -
it makes the most *beautiful sound.
And then it turns a corner and it's wild and energetic.
And there's one particular - and it's really *hilarious sound - that's *completely his own invention. Composers until this period had always tuned the tympani to dominant and tonic, and I think this is the first -
yes he did it in the 9th symphony, and he did it for the first time here in the 8th -
he tunes them to an octave, F - low F and high F - and at two points in this finale the whole orchestra stops and the octave is left bare - bo bo bo bo - repeated with the *inspired doubling of bassoon and tympani.
And it's one of the most comic, and most fantastic, tiny little inventions in orchestral output.

Mary King: Fantastic, let's hear it...

(Thanks to my son, Stuart, for transcribing this text directly from the loudspeaker.)

Now, to the usual structured analysis! ...

Kernel: x

rather than, and richer than, the following impoverished versions of the above:

The following have strong aesthetic component, but are also of other aspects:

C.S. Lewis said once, "The principle of art has been defined by someone as 'the same in the other'." This seems to sum it up nicely. 'The same' speaks of harmony, while 'the other' speaks of something worth harmonizing; unity in diversity.

But how do the various components above - harmony, coherence, nuance, contrast, humour, enjoyment and leisure - relate? This is discussed below.

Some central themes x

Note: SInce this aspect is post-social, the full development of these themes and kernel issues involves society. There is a personal element (such as the harmony in a piece of music composed by an individual), but (if we are interpreting Dooyeweerd's notion of inter-aspect dependency validly here) much of this aspect can only be understood in terms of society.

On excellence. Why is it that we have different types of glasses for wine, whisky, brandy, port, etc.? Because each type of glass brings out the best of the drink. Similarly for how various foods go together with each other and with sauces etc. This is motivated by an idea of excellence: the less-than-excellent will not do, and one enjoys the excellent. Now, ask yourself: in which aspect is such excellence meaningful or important? Not the sensitive, because there every taste or smell is valid. Not the formative, because the excellent, though it can be a goal, is for enjoyment not work. Excellence is aesthetic. If that is so, then anything that includes a notion of excellence - such as league tables, the Football World Cup, etc. - has at least an element of the aesthetic aspect.

Seerveld's Table

In a later paper, Seerveld [2001] gives a useful table of what is good and bad in the aesthetic aspect, which shows its constellation of meaning.

Seerveld's [2001] table of aesthetic properties:
"Hunched suggestions on the richness of aesthetic functions,
ordered along lines of modal grades of complexity." [p.175]
anti-normative aberrations which kill joy normative functional analogues affording joy
pretentious, show-off festive, aw[e]ful, wonderful, amazing, marvelous
repulsive, horrific ugly, grotesque, monstrous, elegant, pathetic
terrifying, tasteless, flagrant, insipid tragic, ironic, fearsome
extravagant, uninteresting novel, odd, rare, interesting, fantastic
boring, tiresome, tedious entertaining
inane, undistinguished, blatant puzzling, caricaturing
verbose, clichégenic expressive
hacmneyed, true, monotonous comical
unpleasant fanciful, picturesque, charming
stillborn, vapid, jejeune funny, vivacious, humourous
forced spontaneous
dull inscape, splendour
amorphous concinnity
at random beautiful harmony

While we might debate details, this is very useful to show the constellation of meaning and normativity in this aspect. This actually integrates with Dooyeweerd's notion of beautiful harmony as the kernel meaning, if we see the rest as building up to that; Dooyeweerd tried, I think, to characterize the full, richest functioning in each aspect.

Poetic Expression of Aesthetic Aspect

Now, a slightly poetic rendering (1):

Aesthetic aspect.
    Aspect of harmony, integration, holism,
    Aspect of surprise, joke and humour,
    Aspect of fun, leisure and play.

Part of God's beautiful plan
    where each and every aspect means
    that we can live full lives,
    diverse and coherent,
    to his glory and delight
    to form Christ's inheriting
    to the world's wide blessing
    to our own deep fulfilment.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Part of the team.
    Aspect of the creatively unrequired.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Antidote to analytic -
    but a special kind of antidote.
    Instead of breaking down,
    we keep together;
    we don't just keep together:
    we harmonize.

Not the harmony of the tree.
    Leaves necessary for life
    Twigs necessary to bear leaves
    Boughs necessary to bear twigs
    Trunk necessary to bear boughs
    Roots necessary to get water
    Flowers necessary to reproduce.
But the harmony
    that brings together
    creatively and unrequired.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Aspect of the creatively unrequired.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Antidote to formative
    and its power, goals and work.
    Instead of forming with power
    putting together for a purpose,
    driven by a necessity,
    We harmonize.
    Instead of work,
    We play.

Not the putting together of a car,
    Wheels needed for traction
    Shafts needed to turn them
    Engine needed for power
    Chassis needed for construction
    Driver needed to control it,
    All formed out of necessity.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Aspect of the creatively unrequired.
    Aspect of going 'beyond'.

Like the ethical aspect,
    the antidote to juridical.
    Not just giving each its due
    according to its inner essence and need,
    but going way beyond,
    to the giving of the self.

Aesthetic aspect.
    Aspect of the creatively unrequired.
    Aspect of going 'beyond'.

Juridical enables us to give each their due.
Aesthetic enables us to go beyond, to the creatively unrequired.
Ethical enables us to go beyond to
    the agape love
    that takes no account of the inner value of the thing
    but gives it value within the fields of God.

Common Misconceptions x

The Aspect Itself

Inside the Aspect x

The following is an attempt to account for the various elements in the constellation of concepts that are meaningful within the aesthetic aspect. Seerveld [Rainbows] believed that his notion of allusivity or suggestiveness (or what he calls 'nuance'), by which we see something in the other, is the true kernel meaning of the aesthetic aspect (see discussion). Whether Seerveld is right or not, we can see that the ability to see allusions is necessary to our ability to obtain Harmony or coherence that is not just uniformity. But, someone from Chinese culture once pointed out, for true harmony there must be an element of disharmony - or, rather, something that is opposite or different in a particular way.

While Seerveld held that nuance is allusion or similarity, Webster's dictionary defines it as slight variation or difference. By means of Nuance we are able to find some subtle and delicate variation in something that is meaningful as more than just a variation. This may be the basis for the difference that we need for full harmony. Such nuance, combined with suggestiveness, leads to surprise. The essence of humour is surprise. All jokes involve the sudden, aesthetic breaking of expectations. At the same time, what we might call 'aesthetic living' is full of fun, laughter, playfulness. Play or fun involves that which is not necessary in life, and both allusivity and nuance are relationships of similarity of variation in the objects of our attention that are not necessary nor in the nature of those objects, but are of the subject.

Seerveld sees this aspect differently from Dooyeweerd, as explained and illustrated by Baus. But there are also arguments in favour of Dooyeweerd's view.

Shalom - Contribution x

See Seerveld's table earlier, the right-hand column. Here are some more concrete things that are good:


Art is closely connected with the aesthetic aspect, and may be seen as largely the functioning in the aesthetic aspect or the products of such functioning. (Though not all that is called art is qualified by the aesthetic aspect.)

If we allow such a close connection then what we know of art can help us in understanding the kernel of the aesthetic aspect - as does Seerveld below - but we must also allow for the possibility that there is aesthetic functioning that is not art, and that what we know of art is culturally conditioned and there may be whole vistas of art that humanity has yet to enter. Therefore we should be careful to be aware of the assumptions we make.

A particularly subtle danger is to assume that fine art is what best defines the aesthetic. Not so. Fine art is usually for display, is usually carried out by certain types of leisured people. And to make this assumptions downplays what ordinary people can do. Also, it would make it difficult to include such things as the exquisite miniature rooms displayed in Chicago's Art Institute. Likewise, art, or aesthetics, should not be seen as merely professional art, or art for display, but can also include information art, everyday aesthetics, such as the way we stack the dishes.

Harm x

See Seerveld's table earlier, the left-hand column. Here are some more concrete things that are bad:

Non-Absoluteness x

Special Science x


Institutions x

Contributions from the Field x

Heidegger, in Language, Poetry and Thought, asked

What is poetry? Something produced by a poet.
What is a poet? Someone who writes poetry.

Obviously this circular definition is unsatisfactory, he pointed out, and there must be something that lies behind both. Dooyeweerd's answer is that what lies behind both is the aesthetic aspect.

The Aspect Among Others

On the Need for This Aspect x

Seerveld suggested that the aesthetic aspect should be replaced by an earlier aspect whose kernel is 'nuance'. In which case, what do we do with harmony? Roper's comment on that suggestion of splitting into two aspects, of harmony and nuance, is that:

"I agree with it [that nuance cannot encompass the whole of harmony]. My problem with your wanting to split the aesthetic in two is that there is no distinctive clarity in respect to the identification of the modal kernel of harmony. ... As I've indicated above musical nuances do not exist apart from their harmony (or disharmony)."

Law-dependencies x

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x

Notes x


Harmony is not static. It can be hugely lively. Part of the dynamics of harmony is improvisation - which can be done either to enrich, to surprise or even to make something of an error.

Play a wrong note, and all is not lost. The good improviser can turn it into a 'passing note', letting it move the music via a little interesting side turning back into the mainstream via a suitably chosen chord. The possibility of doing this is written into the laws of harmony of this Aesthetic Aspect.

Improvisation does not just happen in music, however. We are walking up a mountain path, and suddenly see to the right a waterfall. We turn off the planned path to see it. Improvisation. Then either back onto the planned route, or climb above the waterfall and up onto the different heights above. Improvisation can enrich the day.

Is this a separate aspect?

Gedraitis cites those who wonder whether there really should be an aesthetic aspect:

"Seerveld has argued and Dengerink-Chaplin has demonstrated in her thesis on Suzanne K. Langer - that the aesthetic in D could be an unncessary modal cartegory overloaded onto an already fully explanatory set: economic, juridical, and ethical modalities in the theory. It was difficult for D to drop the schematic of Plato (D's pisteutic = Truth, ethic = Goodness, aesthetic = Beauty). Perhaps D's concept of "the aesthetic" is an advocacy of his own aesthetic ideology - de schone harmonie. That is, what to my mind is his mistake on the place, importance, and meaning of the aesthetic within his modal categories, can be accounted for in the very process of criticizing it. Most important, D desn't need it in the modal zone where he places it, quite high up on the ladder."

Seerveld suggests that nuance (and 'suggesting'), not harmony, should be the kernel that defines an aspect and that this is depended upon by the sensitive, so should be placed earlier. He criticises Dooyeweerd for taking too classical a notion of aesthetics. Click here for discussion of this view. However, whether or not there should be separate nuance aspect, there are reasons for holding that we still need an aspect centred on harmony.

On the need for an aspect of Harmony

In defence of Dooyeweerd's notion of harmony as the kernel of the aesthetic aspect, and placed after the economic.

One point is that we need more than nuance for a full aesthetic; we need also what we called anti-nuance - surprise, difference, contrast.

But the following is perhaps a more fundamental point. Whatever we call it, we need an aspect whose kernel meaning is harmony (in its richest sense). Harmony is what keeps everything together, cohering, and also bringing beauty. Without it, everything fragments (analytic aspect) or merely relates (social aspect), but does not cohere. The whole notion that the Creation is Good (Hebrew: 'working as it should') seems to have very strong overtones of coherence and harmony. But harmony cannot be derived from either relationship or nuance. It is something beyond these. Harmony, at least of this kind, is not the classical type of harmony that Seerveld criticises Dooyeweerd for holding, so maybe Dooyeweerd intuitively picked up something beyond the classsical?

But if we need an aspect centred on harmony, where should it be placed? That is answered if we can decide what it, full-blown harmony (including the elements of surprise, balance, fun, etc.), depends on. Here is an argument that might support Dooyeweerd's placement:

It depends, at least on the sensitive, formative. Though an individual might function in harmony, this is only fully so when we take the social into account. Also, harmony, it seems requires the economic notion of frugality (harmony seems destroyed by waste and wantonness) so it would be later than it. But does it now also depend on the juridical notion of 'what is due'? Possibly not. And full juridical functioning seems to require something of harmony and the 'place' of things.

But of course, there are other arguments to be heard about this; send them in.

Zuidfervaart's Critique of Dooyeweerd

Zuidervaart [1995] makes useful critique of Dooyeweerd's treatment of the arts, comparing and contrasting with Heidegger's. Z still follows Dooyeweerd, and criticises Heidegger for conflating norm and structure. Z believes Dooyeweerd provides important insight into the multi-aspectual and normative character of art, but he makes the following critique of Dooyeweerd:

I believe that in some of these criticisms, Z misinterprets Dooyeweerd, but even so, the above criticisms must be addressed. Z proposes a critical social ontology of the arts.


Footnote 1: This poetic rendering was put together by Andrew Basden, 13 August 2004, for a Thinknet discussion of what the aesthetic aspect is. It seems appropriate to set forth the kernel meaning of the aesthetic aspect in an aesthetic rather than analytic way.


Pat Albeck spoke about "the small decorations in life" while being interviewed on BBC's Desert Island Discs, 27 March 2015.

C.S. Lewis Reflection on the Psalms, Fontana Books, 1961.

Ezekiel 16:49 denotes verse 49 in chapter 16 of the book of Ezekiel in the Bible.

Seerveld, C. (unknown date). Rainbows for a Fallen World. IVP?.

Seerveld, C. (2001) Christian aesthetic bread for the world. Philosophia Reformata 66(2), 155-76.

Stafleu, M.D. (2003) On aesthetically qualified characters and their mutual interlacements. Philosophia Reformata 68(2), 137-47.

Zuidervaart, L. (1995) Fantastic things: critical notes toward a social ontology of the arts. Phil. Ref. 60(1), 37-54.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: by 7 May 1998. Last updated: 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 11 October 1998 added Improvisation and something of Shalom of the aspect. 23 September 1999 added 'the same in the other'. 5 March 2000 more themes. 7 February 2001 mailto. 5 March 2001 shalom and harm moved earlier and expanded a bit. 3 June 2001 added re. echoes. 14 March 2002 better kernel, removed %complete. 22 June 2002 excellence, and enjoyment. 14 September 2002 Note after themes about being post-social. 25 November 2002 Section on whether there is an aesthetic aspect, Gedraitis' bit on Seerveld, and section on need for harmony-centred aspect. 27 November 2002 Aesthetic themes In Life. 19 December 2002 changed the Themes and Kernel a bit, link to analytical sameness. 20 December 2002 Started an 'Inside the Aspect' section. 27 December 2002 more on 'inside'. 12 January 2003 extravagence. 18 January 2003 about anti-nuance; wrote about contrast, surprise; a bit more in defence of Dooyeweerd's notion. 29 January 2003 re informal everyday art. 4 March 2003 Needs section, .nav. 5 July 2003 not dramaturgy. 21 July 2003 Gadamer and play as primordial. 17 February 2004 cultural aspect of nuance. 12 March 2004 competition as harm. 7 April 2004 moved discussion of Seerveld's notion of nuance to new file ideas/aesthetics.html; made up a paragraph suggesting how elements of aesthetics relate. 20 May 2004 Art section; removed duff link. 5 February 2005 a few minors. 17 May 2005 added interestingness and made point it is active attitude r.t. what happens to us. 24 August 2005 new .nav,.end. 13 August 2007 mischief. 8 September 2008 poetic rendering. 2 December 2008 George Benjamin; moved poem later. 25 April 2009 link to structured anal. 15 June 2009 aesthetic drive. 28 January 2010 last line of poem. 6 September 2010 amazement, incongruity. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's rendering. 4 February 2011 refces, Seerveld's table. Zuid's critique. 30 January 2012 harming various other aspects, incl. aristocracy. 28 May 2013 suggestiveness, Hdg on poetry. 27 March 2014 corrected name of internal link to stafleu2003. 25 April 2014 Ezek 16:49 as harm. 27 March 2015 Pat Albeck. 23 June 2015 harmony intra, inter. 21 September 2016 briefly, rid counter.