- Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics by Steve Odin
Steve Odin’s latest book is an outstanding example of comparative philosophy in a sympathetic mode: through meticulous exposition of the consonant features of two seemingly disparate perspectives—the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the “religio-aesthetic” tradition of Japanese Buddhist philosophy and the arts—Odin builds a powerful argument of deep sympathetic resonance. At the same time, Odin makes a compelling case for understanding Whitehead’s philosophical system through his aesthetics and, in this light, presents Whitehead’s philosophy as a leading exemplar of a distinctive strand of aesthetically oriented American philosophy. The cumulative result is the articulation of an aesthetically oriented, multicultural field of philosophical thought, with the aesthetics of Whitehead and his Japanese interlocutors acting as the focus and central point of reference.
The first part of Odin’s book (Part I: “Primacy of Aesthetics”) presents the argument that aesthetics is at the heart of the systematic speculative philosophy that Whitehead develops in Process and Reality (1929) and other late works. The centrality of aesthetics in Whitehead’s philosophy is indicated first and foremost by his “profound aestheticism,” for which “all values presuppose aesthetic value as that which is admirable in itself” (93). On this point alone, Whitehead resonates with C. S. Peirce as well as the Japanese “religio-aesthetic” tradition. However, Odin’s exposition shows that for Whitehead aesthetics is more than just the key to value: it is also the key to reality.
According to Odin, the fundamental problem that animates all of White-head’s late philosophical works is the “fallacy of vacuous actuality, or the abstract notion of reality as lifeless material substance devoid of intrinsic value” (67). Whitehead’s response to this fallacy was to develop a strikingly original philosophical cosmology that attempts to show how the feelings and activity of experience belong to the concrete nature of reality as much as the law-like patterns described by science. It is within the context of this cosmological project that the full depth and scope of Whitehead’s aesthetics is most clearly revealed. Unfortunately, Whitehead’s cosmology is notoriously difficult to engage without immersing oneself in his special terminology and [End Page 64] his elaborate “categoreal scheme.” Here I will attempt only to summarize the central points of Odin’s Whiteheadian analysis of yūgen and aware.
But first I would like to mention another of Odin’s arguments, namely, that Whitehead’s aesthetic orientation is “continuous with the American philosophical tradition of radical empiricism running through C. S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and others” (99). In the second part of Odin’s book (Part II: “Beauty as Aesthetic Quality”), readers who are interested in tracing the theme of aesthetics through American thought will find a wealth of references to other notable figures, including Charles Hartshorne, Susanne Langer, F. S. C. Northrop, and many others. In particular, Odin shows how our view of pragmatism can be enriched by greater attention to its aesthetic affinity with process thought. Once this case has been made, however, I also see the need for finer grained treatments that bring out the differences between Whitehead, Peirce, and others. Still, it is only by establishing a coherent field of aesthetically oriented philosophical discourse, as Odin has done, that we can bring these subtler differences into focus.
Now let us return to Odin’s central argument, which uses the “aesthetic cosmology” of Whitehead to provide a fresh reading of the Japanese aesthetic ideals of yūgen and aware (see Parts III and IV). The crucial point on which this argument turns is Whitehead’s claim that aesthetic value is an achievement of feeling that depends upon the formation of a “focus” of relatively clear and distinct contrasts within a wider “field” that includes a background of trivial and vague contrasts shading off into a vast penumbra of irrelevance. This point must be made with care, because we never actually perceive these wider and deeper “overtones” of feeling. The only parts of feeling that are sharply...