The very perceptions that engage us with the world around us open up the possibility of a profound deception. They allow us to imagine ourselves as independent beings who sit and contemplate the world as outside observers. From this vantage point it is very easy to forget that, as much as we’re cultural and social beings, we’re fundamentally biological organisms. Organisms that happen to be constituted by the very fabric of the world we see ourselves contemplating. We’re not separated from the world: we’re an integral part of it. “We exist and live in its very intestines” as the architect Juhani Pallasmaa phrases it.

It’s a magical moment when a cell emerges out of a purely chemical background. The walls are built simultaneously defining what is  in  and what is  out. It is the birth of both organism and its environment. In the words of the biologist and neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, and his colleagues,  “organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself”.  And then, just like every other biological organism, we participate in the ongoing dance of life in order to survive. We must preserve the integrity of our boundaries while remaining open to the continuous interchange with our environment.

This dance has its particular rhythms, its ups and downs, its moments of tension and release. This is the drama where the needs and desires of an organism develop. Needs emerge out of the possibilities of the organism losing the equilibrium with its environment, and desires are the forces that propel the organism to overcome obstacles in order to reestablish equilibrium and move from defence to conquest. In this ongoing dance the organism becomes active in the dynamic search for a better coupling with its environment; for harmony. Through this drama run all the forces and energies that bring about organism and environment. In humans, and in many other animals as well, some aspects of this drama become conscious.

We don’t meet our environment objectively. That is, the ups and downs, the patterns and rhythms of our inner and outer worlds, don’t appear to us just as they are in their true physical nature, whatever that may mean; if, in fact, it has any meaning at all. We experience this drama already coated with a sense of unified quality.

When action, feeling, and meaning are one, we experience aesthetics.

The world we inhabit is a world of qualities. Whatever description we may offer of our surroundings, of ourselves, we do through the qualities we perceive. These qualities, as the philosopher Mark Johnson puts it, are about how something feels to us, or how something shows itself to us. And so, there is no going beyond or beneath these qualities. It’s the closest we can get to our environment. There is no going beyond or beneath the brownness of that table or its particular mixture of smoothness and grooveness anticipated by the eye and brought to life by the hand. We can explore that table with more detail, depth or imagination, but we’ll always be touching qualities. Stealing from the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, we could say that qualities are the flesh of our environment. It’s what emerges when we touch the world and the world touches us back. Whatever we think, whatever meanings we create, they emerge within this qualitative world.

Qualities make their appearance in our experiences already loaded with meaning. They are meaningful for us not because they show us how the world is, but because they’re about how our environment is related to us: to our needs and desires. Indeed, no organism is in the business of objectivity; we’re all in the business of survival and thriving. Each organism, and in fact, each individual at different stages of its life, has its own environment. This is eloquently conveyed by John Hull as he writes about his loss of sight. “Somehow, it no longer seems important what people look like, or what cities look like… they lose personal meaning and are relegated to the edge of awareness. They become irrelevant in the conduct of one’s life. One begins to take up residence in another world.”

The worlds we reside in are crowded with meanings that transcend our biological origins. These meanings give shape to and are shaped by our needs and desires as cultural beings. Thus, within these worlds we have countless ways in which to strive, succeed and be defeated. We don’t only seek food, sex and shelter, we may enjoy a good movie from time to time. For organisms like us, the rhythms of struggles and consummation are as deep and wide as we can imagine. Just think of the amount of tension and later release football fans undergo when watching the last minute penalty kick that can decides their team’s victory or defeat. It’s hard to imagine other animals displaying such intense excitement for something so far removed from their immediate vital needs. As the football player gently places the ball on the penalty spot, takes three or four steps back, the goalkeeper makes small jumps from left to right and right to left, stops, stretches his arms to show how big he is, and the referee blows the whistle. The tension has accumulated and it’s just about to be released, for the glory of some and the pain of others. At that moment, action, feeling and meaning are intensely condensed in a strongly unified experience. As we’re about to see, what grants this unity to experience is aesthetics.

Without emotions every instant is isolated, detached.

The dominant nature of our experience is both continuity and wholeness. We usually move from one moment to the next in a continuous flow. When our experience breaks down into pieces we strive to recover that sense of unity. Experiences not only have a sense of unity across time, there is also a unity in their thickness. At each moment the world is made present to us all together, all at once. Every perception, says Merleau-Ponty is “not a sum of visual, tactile, and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being; I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once.” From the moment the football player grabs the ball to place it on the penalty spot and until the crowd bursts into joy or sadness the entire experience is strongly unified both across time and in its thickness. Any disruption would break this unity, it would alter its aesthetics.

The great insight that the philosopher John Dewey had, more than 80 years ago, was to appreciate that what brings the sense of unity to our experiences is aesthetics. Thus, he placed aesthetics not at the surface of experience, but at the heart of it. To get an initial flavour of how aesthetics operate, imagine you’re walking along a busy street, distracted by the countless many inputs that demand your attention. You decide to put on your headphones and play some groovy music. As the music builds momentum in your body, your pace becomes aligned with the music, then your shoulders, then your arms and hands. Gradually, the world around you starts dancing to the rhythm of your music in complete synchrony. What used to be a disassembled sequence of events, becomes a unified flow of coordinated movements. The experience has been unified by the cementing force of music. Music has boosted the aesthetics of your experience. Then, a passer-by stops you for some directions, you take off your headphones and immediately this unity falls apart.

Aesthetics is emotional.

Unity in aesthetics is key. Already being absorbed in a meaningful activity has an aesthetical quality to it. All our senses, actions, feelings and the meaning of what we’re doing are all tightly aligned in a strongly unified experience. Being in a state of flow with your activity is a powerful aesthetic experience. Be it gardening, solving a maths equation, coding, driving, or chatting. In that sense, aesthetics are not particular to humans. Think, for example, of a leopard idly wandering the savannah, fluctuating from one position to another, with no particular goal on the horizon. Then, the leopard suddenly spots some prey. Its entire body position is now aligned for a very specific objective. All its senses are sharpened and every movement becomes loaded with meaning as it gracefully gallops chasing its prey. No doubt there’s grace, unity and aesthetics in the leopard’s idleness. However, once the leopard becomes absorbed by its prey the unity of the experience is strengthened, its aesthetics are intensified. 

As long as there is some sense of unity, experiences may endure as long as one can imagine. This sense of unity is what allows us to refer to an experience as that handshake, that dinner, that rupture of friendship, that life or that war. We can call them by a single name because of this unity. And this unity, argues Dewey, is granted by a unifying quality that keeps action, meaning and feelings flowing together in spite of all the variations within an experience. These unifying qualities are none other than the qualities that pervade our day-to-day experiences. In their natural tendency to connect and integrate one with another, these qualities are aesthetic qualities.

There is no better example of a unifying quality than emotions. It is questionable, in fact, whether there can be unity without emotions. Let’s start with an illustration. Imagine you woke up anxious because you have a presentation to give later that day. This anxiety may accompany you right until the very moment when you start your talk. From the moment you woke up until the moment the anxiety vanished, independently of how many things you did and went through in the meantime, as long as you carried your anxiety with you, that whole period would have constituted a single experience for you, unified by your own anxiety. God forbid, but if this anxiety were to endure two, three or five years, anxiety would have wrapped those years for you as a single experience.

This is why emotions are essential to aesthetic experiences. They have a strong binding force that provides experiences with unity and character. All emotions are then aesthetical. Disgust, sadness, pain, excitement, anger, warmth, playfulness, desire, tenderness or calmness, they all have a strong cementing force that can unify any sequence of instances. Without the cementing force of emotions, experiences may not hold their integrity and crumble into fragments of disconnected instances. For Dewey, aesthetic qualities are emotional. 

If a fundamental aspect of aesthetic qualities is their unifying force, aesthetics cannot be regarded as a secondary, nonessential layer that can be added or removed at will from an experience. Rather, aesthetics must be fundamental to all experiences, because no experience can hold without unity. Without aesthetics we can’t have experiences. Without aesthetics we’re left with a disconnected chain of instances only mechanically connected to one another. If we could at least call that prospect “gloomy”, but that would already add a unifying quality to it. It would then have emotion that would bring the experience back to life. It would be a gloomy experience, but an experience nonetheless. Thus the words of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, “the aesthetic experience is not one kind of experience among others, but represents the essence of experience itself.” 

Without aesthetics there is no experience.

Once we have unity we can experience all the variations that give texture and intensity to life. It is because of our aesthetic sense and the unity it provides that we can experience the ups and downs, the patterns and rhythms of our inner and outer worlds. These variations take us back to the ongoing interaction between organism and its environment, with the need to maintain equilibrium and the desire to overcome obstacles and conquer new ground. Imagine, for example, the resistance and tension you accumulate when you fight with a dear friend. Once the fight is over, you may come together with your friend in a sincere and long hug. The tension is released and balance is restored. These transitions from tension to release and from imbalance to balance are lived with great intensity and they open the possibility for achieving higher significance. For cultural beings like us, such rhythmic alteration may take place at home, in our workplace, in a football stadium, at the theatre or in an art gallery. In fact, it’s common practice in the arts to cultivate resistance and tension to later achieve a unified experience. From this point of view, therefore, the difference between experiencing a friend’s hug and contemplating a captivating work of art is only a matter of degree, they’re different colours of the same gamut.

There is a difference, however, between the raw aesthetics one experiences in daily life and the refined aesthetics experienced in the arts. The aesthetic experience in arts must not only be unified and intense, but it must also clarify. It has to be expressive. What does it means here to be expressive? Consider a newborn baby crying, say it’s a baby girl. At the beginning the baby cries instinctively as integral to a situation of discomfort. As the baby starts learning about the attention she receives when she cries, she gradually develops a meaning for her crying. It is only then that the baby is capable of expression. In the past, primitive rituals were not only intended to make the rain and the deer show up, they also helped clarify what was truly meaningful for the community. Primitive rituals were above all, expressive. Life doesn’t expresses life; that may be the role of art.

We don’t live outside this world and aesthetics doesn't lives outside ourselves. Aesthetics can only be understood as an experience; our experience. It’s not a decorative layer attached to an outside physical object. What’s interesting about an object, a situation or an event, is what it does within experiences. How it affects the unity, intensity and rhythmic alterations we experience. Does it affords us harmony, tension or resolution. These rhythms are in us, not in any object or event. And these rhythms are certainly not superficial aspects that decorate our life. They’re what connects us directly with our needs and desires as biological and cultural beings. They connect us directly with what is meaningful for us. “If we want to find meaning, or the basis of meaning,” writes Mark Johnson, “we must [...] start with the qualitative unity that Dewey describes”, we must start with aesthetics.