Friday, June 9, 2017

The Intellectual Aesthetic

Nonmaterial, or intangible, things should not be dismissed in assessing what makes life worthwhile. Why a nonmaterial thing makes someone happy is not necessarily obvious even if it does. One such thing that makes me happy can be termed, intellectual aesthetics. This term requires some unpacking, as does my point that such an aesthetic can trigger happiness. In fact, the commonly presumed association between aesthetics generally and happiness is itself in need of a closer look.

Aesthetics are typically associated with the eye—meaning sight. A beautiful painting, photograph, or picturesque vista can be said to be aesthetically pleasing. Looking out over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, for instance, can prompt a person to feel a sense of awe. Beholding such a sight is also typically associated with happiness even if the question of why a beautiful view, or object such as a painting or sculpture, makes the beholder happy. Receiving a present or a lot of money, and the birth of a child are quite understandably associated with happiness. Optical aesthetics requires more in the way of explanation.

That a theory or philosophical system of thought could make an intellectual happy rather than merely impressed is particularly difficult to understand, for the aesthetics of an idea or relation between them is itself barely recognized even among intellectuals. An analogy may be helpful. I liken a theory to a physical model of a molecule. The balls are the ideas and the sticks connecting the balls represent reason. A theory thus has a particular “shape,” albeit in the mind’s eye, hence nonmaterial, or intangible. This mental shape itself, rather than merely the ideas themselves, can cause pleasure in the beholder.