Blog for February 2024: Reason and Aesthetic Pleasure

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Back in October, I wrote about Lara Harb’s valuable book (see “Arabic Poetics and Japanese Theatre”). I asked Professor Harb if she wished to respond to anything in the blog. First, she told me about her forthcoming article on wonder, which is certainly relevant to the concerns of the Literary Universals project. (I will have more to say about that article below.) In addition, she had some concerns about the blog, specifically about my comments on the connection between the Arabic Aristotelians and Aristotle. She worried that I was assuming that the Arabic philosophers could not claim the Greek philosophers as part of their tradition. In fact, I completely agree that Plato and Aristotle are part of the Arabic tradition as well as part of the European tradition. The question I am addressing at that point in the blog is not about who inherits the past. It is rather about how a study such as Harb’s might contribute to a research program on literary universals. Specifically, there are multiple, areal links between (what became known as) the European and (what became known as) the Arabic tradition. The issue is whether or not these European-Middle Eastern areal links are so extensive as to make any parallels between the traditions irrelevant to the study of universals. I point to this problem, then explain that the interpretive divergence between the traditions seems great enough that neither the Middle Eastern nor the European theories is rendered redundant within a research program on literary universals.

To give some idea of my estimation of the Arabic tradition, consider the following passage from an article I published in 2004 (“Stories and Morals” 30):

[T]he Arabic theorists . . . engag[ed] in an early and still exemplary form of cross-cultural literary and theoretical synthesis. It was in this context that they formulated their theories of takhyil or “imaginative representation” and of the “poetic syllogism.” The Arabic theorists – al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and so on – came to Aristotle’s Poetics with a specific set of concerns in mind. They read Aristotle in light of those concerns. But this prior orientation did not inhibit the generalizability of their work, as they shaped Aristotle’s ideas into a new theory of literature and ethics. Despite some obvious interpretive errors [e.g., interpreting Aristotle’s tragedy as panegyric], this theory is, on the whole, no less faithful to Aristotle than were the various European writings of the Middle Ages. More importantly, it is, I believe, a more sophisticated, more illuminating, and more accurate theory of literary ethics – or, rather, of one part of literary ethics – than theories promulgated in Europe at the same time and later.

(Similar appreciation can be found in Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature in the section on Arabic theory, which directly follows the section on Plato and Aristotle.)

Harb had related concerns about my comments on the “querelle des anciens et des modernes.” My point there was not that the querelle somehow influenced the Arabic theorists (which, among other things, would have been anachronistic). My point, rather, was that Harb’s analysis was entirely plausible and that a possible argument against her—that she was imposing a Western model (derived from the querelle) onto the Arabic theorists—was without merit. In other words, I was supporting her claims.

Finally, Harb did not care for the translation of “takhyīl” as “imagination.” She is right that I should have noted that she translates it as “make-believe,” though I am not convinced that the change in translation makes much difference. For example, given Kendall Walton’s prominent use of the phrase “make-believe,” I am inclined to see it as no less misleading that the admittedly protean “imagination.”

I have gone through a few of Harb’s qualms about the earlier blog because I suspect that some readers will misunderstand my points similarly. The issue of areal distinction appears to be particularly vexing to non-linguists. As I explain in the introduction to the Literary Universals Project (see here), in order to be part of the data for a study of universals, a feature needs to be found in a greater number of traditions than would occur randomly. The key point is that “traditions” in this context refers to lineages that are genetically and areally distinct—thus traditions that are not descendants of the same proto-tradition nor were they subsequently in sufficient contact with one another to produce the shared property. If we find that the word for, say, “fruit” is closely related in several Romance languages, that does not mean that several unrelated languages use a similar word. It does not suggest a statistical universal. It shows only that these Romance languages derived their word for “fruit” from Latin. As such, it does not count as a datum bearing on language universals. In this case, the parallel across languages is, so to speak, disqualified due to genetic derivation. Similarly, if everybody uses the word “quark” for a quark, that does not mean that anything about the word is universal. It means only that the terminology of physics is largely produced by areal contact (in this case by way of a profession that enables cross-linguistic interaction).

The situation is a bit less straightforward in literary study than in linguistics, thus requiring some qualification (see “Areal Distinctness”). But the basic principle still holds: parallels should generally not be readily explicable by areal contact. My references to the different interpretations of Aristotle constituted an argument that this is one of those less straightforward cases that complicate the assessment of areal influence in the study of literary universals. Even though there was a shared source in the Greek philosophers, the prominent interpretations of those philosophers were different enough to allow the consideration of both traditions, that is, to see them as constituting two traditions and to see both as bearing on the topic of literary universals.

My only significant divergence from Harb, from my point of view, is that she does not draw on recent research on emotion and cognition. I do not mean this as a criticism. Harb has more than enough to do in reading the Arabic literary theorists and their commentators, critics, influences, and so on. However, since well before writing “Stories and Morals,” I have felt that there was a close connection or convergence between the work of the major Islamic Golden Age philosophers and the findings of cognitive science. Systematic study of this connection would, I believe, benefit both groups, enriching our general understanding of the mind as developed in the cognitive and affective sciences while also advancing the specifically literary accounts articulated by the Arabic theorists.

In this context, I would like to consider Harb’s forthcoming essay, which treats aesthetics and wonder. Before going on to that, however, I should pause for a moment to make a few comments on another work. I had initially planned to devote this month’s blog to Dacher Keltner’s Awe. In part, this was because the book promised to treat the same topic as Harb’s essay, but in greater depth and with greater rigor. Having now read the book, I certainly do respect Keltner as an author, a cognitive scientist, and a human being. But I feel his notion of awe is too amorphous to serve as a “fundamental” (xvii) concept in a branch of affective science. He defines “awe” as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world” (7). But that seems clearly too general. Almost everything transcends my current understanding of the world (for example, virtually everything electronic, almost all people, even my own body).

Moreover, I find some of Keltner’s arguments for the explanatory and therapeutic value of awe to be unconvincing. For example, sometimes the data he presents appear to be open to simpler explanations. In one case of this sort, he reports a study in which some test subjects look at a large valley and others look at a tourist area. When the former draw pictures of themselves, those pictures are smaller than when the latter draw pictures of themselves. Keltner interprets this metaphorically as representing a reduction in ego-centrism consequent upon feeling awe. But it seems simpler to interpret it as a response to the literal size of what they have just been looking at. The test subjects are literally much smaller than the valley, but about the same size as other tourists. In addition, he seems to simply set aside apparent counter-examples—such as people’s evident awe before Hitler. On the other hand, Keltner’s book is, in a sense, half affective science and half self-help. Even if his claims for the effects of a walk in the woods are not as well supported or as algorithmically explained as one might like, the chances seem very good that following his advice would yield some benefits, and would be very unlikely to result in any harm.

Now we may turn to Harb’s article. (She has kindly sent me a pre-publication copy. However, as it has not yet been copy-edited, she has asked me not to quote from the piece. I have therefore relied on paraphrase.) Having read her astute and learned analyses, I feel all the more strongly that her explication of the Arabic texts would both benefit and be benefited by integration with cognitive and affective science. This is not because Harb is less scientific (though of course she is not running a lab and undertaking controlled experiments). Rather, it is because her intellectual orientation is in some ways more scientific (e.g., more attentive to precision and logical development) than that of many scientists who write on literature. This is related to her stress on the rationality of the Arabic philosophers themselves. Many writers have discussed, for example, the use of syllogistic logic by these theorists. But Harb is one of the few who has seen the real value of these authors, not in the particulars of syllogisms, but in the larger commitment to reason, of which syllogistic logic is simply one part.

Harb begins by explaining that dictionaries of Classical Arabic define “taʿajjub” or wonder as resulting from experiences that have one or more of the following characteristics: being unexpected, unusual, mysterious, obscure, having an unknown cause, being magnificent. This is a rather broad definition, apparently suffering from the same problems as Keltner’s definition. But in naming this range of possibilities it tells us quite a bit. The first two properties in the list—being unexpected or unusual–come down to much the same thing, to which we will return. Being mysterious, obscure, and having an unknown cause are also virtually equivalent. I take the idea of magnificence simply to mark a strongly positive valence. Dictionaries basically tell us, then, that the elicitor of an experience of wonder is a strongly hedonically valenced target (e.g., an object, or an event) that we did not anticipate and that strikes us as mysterious in the sense that we do not understand how it has come about.

This is still insufficient. But Harb addresses that insufficiency immediately, explaining that wonder, in leading us to recognize our incomprehension, at once provokes us to seek cognitive understanding in the form of an explanation. Developing insights from al-Jurjānī, Harb maintains that aesthetic pleasure derives from wonder, not at the initial moment of mystery, but at the transition from incomprehension to understanding. This too is not quite right. For example, we may come to understand that someone’s unusual appearance is the result of a degenerative disease, but hardly experience aesthetic pleasure at that fact. Even so, it is, I believe, very close.

Harb goes on to enumerate a set of ancillary conditions set out by al-Jurjānī. The first is that our aesthetic pleasure is enhanced by a transition from something abstract to something sensory. Second, it is enhanced by the use of metaphor as this requires the recipient to engage in further effort to gain (pleasurable) understanding. Harb goes on to ask—what about metaphors that have become routine, so that they do not provoke further effort? Here, al-Jurjānī suggests varying the metaphor. He also recommends making use of sharply contrasting ideas. These various points lead Harb to takhyīl—“make believe” (as she translates it), where we in effect take it that the situation named in the metaphor is real (e.g., that a cloud is embarrassed, as in one of the metaphors treated by Harb).

I don’t believe that al-Jurjānī has provided us with a complete account of beauty. However, writing as he did well before the development of cognitive and affective science, he advanced remarkably toward that goal. As already indicated, moving from ignorance to knowledge is far too broad. Moreover, making recipients do cognitive work is not pleasing as such. Indeed, most of the time it is an onerous burden to have to do extra cognitive work to ascertain what could have been communicated to us directly and simply. Even so, I believe that the various points made by al-Jurjānī and Harb are on the right track.

Specifically, in Beauty and Sublimity, I have argued that aesthetic pleasure results from a combination of information-processing (“cognitive”) and motivation-eliciting (“affective”) components. The former are largely a function of nonhabitual categorization. As to the nonhabitual part, there is a great deal of evidence that we gradually stop responding to repeated stimuli (see, for example, LeDoux 138)—at least positive stimuli; as experience tells us, it is much harder, often even impossible, to get used to pain, while pleasures readily come to viewed as routine (on this “hedonic asymmetry,” see Frijda 323). This is why novelty is required for aesthetic pleasure, as in the rareness or unfamiliarity of a metaphorical, rather than literal, statement. Habituation is also why once delightful metaphors become banal. But even frozen metaphors can be thawed out, as Al-Jurjānī recognized. In their brilliant, More Than Cool Reason, George Lakoff and Mark Turner systematize the ways in which boring metaphors can be made delightful again, thereby unknowingly extending a basic insight from al-Jurjānī.

But that is only the “nonhabitual” part of the cognitive criteria. The more crucial part is categorization, for this is the sort of knowledge acquisition that, I argue, contributes positively to aesthetic enjoyment. There are three sorts of categorization, 1) that based on rule-extraction, 2) that based on prototypes or (roughly) average cases, and 3) that based on exemplars or instances (see Murphy and Hoffman 166 and Beauty and Sublimity 130-142). There is strong evidence that aesthetic pleasure in music comes when we tacitly isolate rules governing, for example, themes and variations. There is considerable evidence that natural objects, such as human faces, are more beautiful for us to the degree that they approximate an average instance of the category. Finally, there is at least some reason to believe that we experience aesthetic pleasure through exemplar-based categorization in mimesis. (On the evidence for these various claims, see chapter one of Beauty and Sublimity. Note again that each form of categorization has aesthetic effects only when nonhabitual.)

This covers a good deal of Harb’s and al-Jurjānī ’s insights, connecting them with and extending them through cognitive science. I also mentioned an affective component. Though Harb is not explicitly treating emotion, there are three aspects of her interpretation of al-Jurjānī that bear on emotion. First, his emphasis on sensory concreteness fits well with accounts of emotion that stress perception and embodiment in emotion elicitation (see, for example, chapter two of my What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion.) Second, there is his emphasis on effort. Again, it is not the work itself that is pleasurable but the disburdening of the “cognitive load” (at it is called) once we reach understanding. As Ortony, Clore, and Collins observe, in keeping with al-Jurjānī’s claims, “increases in effort tend to increase the degree to which goals are positively valued” (73)—and the greater the positive evaluation of the goal (here, understanding the source of wonder), the greater the pleasure we feel in successfully achieving that goal. Finally, there is al-Jurjānī’s advice on choosing representations that involve contrast or even opposition. In part, opposition intensifies unexpectedness. In addition, the gradient of change from one emotional state to another, especially one of an contrastive valence, tends to intensify the outcome emotion (e.g., expecting sorrow makes a final joy greater).

It is also important that Harb stresses imagination or “make-believe.” What is difficult in dealing with takhyīl is understanding how we could have emotions regarding persons or situations that we know to be fictional. This is referred to as “the paradox of tragedy.” As I have argued in several publications, our cognitive processes of simulation necessarily have this seemingly paradoxical property, for otherwise their evolutionary function would not be fulfilled. Specifically, that function includes, for example, dissuading us from actions that are likely to prove dangerous. This dissuasion operates by leading us to feel aversion when simulating the ways a particular (imprudent) course of action might unfold. (On simulation, see How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. On the paradox of fiction, see “Paradoxes.”)

All of this does leave out what I consider to be the most important element of aesthetic response—the activation of the attachment system (see Beauty and Sublimity 30-33). Among other connections, there is evidence that, at least for some targets, our feeling of aesthetic pleasure varies with our level of oxytocin (Heinrichs and colleagues 524), a key neurochemical in attachment (see Panksepp and Biven 37, 39). Interestingly, Keltner frequently links oxytocin with awe, possibly suggesting that many cases of what he is calling awe and perhaps what al-Jurjānī (through Harb) calls wonder, are cases of attachment system activation. In any case, I take such activation—thus the involvement of attachment-related feelings–to be a particularly important elicitor of aesthetic response, the feeling that a target is beautiful.

In sum, Laura Harb’s explication of al-Jurjānī shows us once more how much we are missing out on by ignoring non-European traditions of literary theory and aesthetics. Again, I do not believe that al-Jurjānī arrives at a complete account of the experience of the beautiful. But he articulates an extremely insightful theory. Moreover, that theory converges with the insights of cognitive science in many ways. That points us to another unfortunate gap in literary study today, though not as complete a gap—I am referring to the relative absence of cognitive and affective science from literary theory and criticism. Both non-Western theories and cognitive and affective science are clearly relevant to the Literary Universals Project, and their convergence lends support to the cross-cultural scope of both sets of aesthetic

Works Cited

Frijda, Nico. The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Harb, Lara. Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020.

Harb, Lara. “Ta‘ajjub (Wonder): A Rationalist Aesthetic.” PMLA forthcoming.

Heinrichs, Markus, Frances Chen, Gregor Domes, and Robert Kumsta. “Social Stress and Social Approach.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Ed. Jorge Armony and Patrik Vuilleumier. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 509–532.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013,

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion: Simulation and The Zhào Orphan.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Emotion. Ed., Patrick Colm Hogan, Bradley J. Irish, and Lalita Pandit Hogan. New York: Routledge, 2022, 134-143.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature.  Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” In The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Keltner, Dacher. Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. New York: Penguin, 2023.

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Murphy, Gregory and Aaron Hoffman. “Concepts.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science. Ed. Keith Frankish and William Ramsey, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012, 151-170.

Ortony, Andrew, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins.The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Panksepp, Jaak and Lucy Biven. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: Norton, 2012.