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  • Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics by Steve Odin
  • Itsuki Hayashi (bio)
Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics. By Steve Odin. London: Lexington Books, 2016. Pp. xxii + 333. isbn 978-1-4985-1477-4.

In the preface to his new monograph, Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics, Steve Odin proposes to do two things: better understand Alfred N. Whitehead's "poetic vision of tragic beauty" through comparison with Japanese aesthetics, and thereby also suggest a "new religio-aesthetic vision of tragic beauty and its resolution in the supreme ecstasy of peace" (p. xvi). He does more than that, though. Besides thoroughly discussing Whitehead's aesthetics throughout the latter's works, from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) to Modes of Thought (1938), he enriches this aesthetics by discussing similar themes in American philosophy and literature, including Charles Peirce, John Dewey, Charles Hartshorne, Stephen Pepper, and Robert Pirsig (the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), just to mention a few. More importantly, following Onishi Yoshinori, Odin takes Japanese aesthetics, rooted in "overtones of feeling" (yojo), to consist in a combination of aware and yugen. Focusing exclusively on the Buddhist worldview, Odin associates aware with impermanence and sadness, and compares the notion with Whitehead's "tragic beauty" developed in Adventures of Ideas (1933). As for yugen, Odin follows Izutsu Toshihiko in calling it "atmospheric beauty" (p. 214), and compares it to Whitehead's aesthetics of the dark background, which Odin calls "penumbral beauty" (p. xviii). Thus, the book develops how Whitehead's aesthetics can be understood through tragic beauty and penumbral beauty, in dialogue with not only Japanese aesthetics but also with other American views. Of course, the book contributes not just to a deeper understanding of Whitehead but also suggests an interesting approach to Japanese aesthetics.

The book contains four parts. Part I develops Whitehead's aesthetics by extracting relevant discussions from the latter's works from 1919 to 1938. Part II elucidates Whiteheadian aesthetics by discussing similar themes in other American philosophers and writers. Part III compares Whitehead's penumbral beauty with yugen in Japanese aesthetics, and Part IV compares Whitehead's tragic beauty with aware in Japanese aesthetics.

Of tragic beauty and penumbral beauty, I would say it is in the latter that Odin makes the more significant contribution. That tragic beauty is an important idea in Whitehead's later philosophy is clear from his writings, but he vagueness about what he exactly meant by tragedy or tragic beauty (as I will elaborate later) is not problematized in Odin's discussion. On the side of Japanese aesthetics, while Odin makes ample references to scholars writing about mono no aware, he makes little reference to the most important person: Motoori Norinaga. Discussion of Motoori's view on mono no aware runs from the bottom of page 268 to the top of page 269, and it does not address the fact that Motoori's very motivation for writing about mono no aware is to show that the sensitivity is not just about sorrow and that it is not rooted in imported religions such as Confucianism or Buddhism. Perhaps in omitting discussion on Motoori, Odin is trying to avoid Nihonjinron or ultra-nationalism, but I think Motoori's thesis does not necessitate ultra-nationalism, and that it is necessary for a discussion of aware.

Penumbral beauty is an important yet overlooked aspect of Whitehead's philosophy. It is important as it is the source of the aesthetic quality of experience, the background against which the focused aspect of experience is contrasted, realizing the creative synthesis through which the disjunctive many of the world become the conjunctive one of concrete entity. Odin derives a succinct definition of penumbral beauty as "the beauty of hidden depths as an undiscriminated whole emerging from the dimly felt background of immediate experience, which always haunts those clearly discriminated objects illuminated in the foreground focus of attention" (p. 177). For Whitehead, beauty consists in harmonized contrast, so the penumbral beauty is brought out as the background is contrasted and harmonized with the foreground, as the whole is with the parts, as Causal Efficacy is with Presentational Immediacy...


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