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  • Into the Unseen, the Unsaying, the Unknowing:Whitehead's Mystical Aesthetics in Paul Klee
  • Angelo Caranfa (bio)

Philosophy is mystical. Mysticism is direct insights into the depths as yet unspoken.

What things are … refer to depths beyond anything which we can grasp with a clear apprehension.

Alfred North Whitehead

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.

—Paul Klee

I. Science and the Dehumanization of Life

Art and mysticism or negative (apophatic) theology play a central role in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947): they show him the cosmos from the unseen, the unspoken, and the unknowing, and therefore from "the ultimate mystery of the universe,"1 from "supreme Beauty" (AI, 343), and from "the infinite [primordial]2 ground"3 of all things. This means that Whitehead is looking at the world not as a philosopher of science (that is, with the eyes of reason) but as an artist or a mystic (that is, with imaginative or intuitive eyes); not that Whitehead undervalues logic or the rational mode of thinking, far from it, but it fails to penetrate "the deepest Harmony" (ibid.), "the depths in the nature of things" (PR, 6), the truth hidden deep in nature. Moreover, scientific or philosophical thinking neglects the "glorious beauty of perceived nature" (AI, 321) that strikes the senses and that intuition or imagination can grasp.

Whitehead's emphasis on the union of rationalization and imagination as the very base of science sets him apart from most scientists who emphasize interpretation of facts over and against "the interpretation of experience" as it [End Page 5] constitutes itself into an "integral" whole (PR, x, and 318), or into an "aesthetic experience" (PR, 427). Whitehead's idea that art, religion, science, and philosophy are basically similar, in that they share the common element of creativity, is the very essence of his method. That is why, for example, such phrases as these are of great importance: "The worship of God is … an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable [absolute]. … [The] fertilization of the soul is the reason for the necessity of art. … The soul cries aloud for release into change. … [Art] transforms the soul into the permanent realization of values extending beyond its former self"4—"values" that even science pursues. On the other hand, Whitehead also points out that modern science—with its positivistic, mechanistic, and materialistic basis—abolishes these "values" as less important facts, or it excludes them from "the essence of matter of fact" (SMW, 138), or it reduces them to a mechanism entirely valueless. Modern science, says Whitehead, hides "the glory of God" from disclosing itself; for, without beauty, we cannot perceive God's glory, nor can we experience a sense of wonder, nor can we attain self-realization; without beauty, the human experience becomes "a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery" (ibid., 280).5

Whitehead turns to art as a way to relieve our pain or misery, to delight us, to refresh us, to rekindle in us a sense of wandering: the impulse necessary for the adventure of "the human spirit" (AI, 351) toward an unseen, unspoken, unknown, and "ultimate reality" (RM, 137). Therefore art, like religion, aims at "something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and … quest" (SMW, 275). Such "quest" or wandering is the very essence of the mystic who seeks God "within the sanctuary of the centered self."6 This "quest" is also of the philosopher and of the scientist who search the universe or nature with a sense of wonder, of religious reverence; without it, Whitehead notes, humankind "will cease to ascend in the scale of being. Physical wandering is still important, but greater still is the power of [End Page 6] man's spiritual adventures—adventures of thought … of passionate feeling … of aesthetic experience" (SMW, 298).7 A philosophy that can integrate such diverse "adventures" into a...


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