esse is percipi, or All the Pretty Flowers

Last week, even after quite a long conversation that ranged from Kantian categories to Gödel’s second incompleteness theorum, a good friend of mine, whose identity shall remain undisclosed, still returned, somewhat stumped, to Berkeley’s question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I never usually get hung up on that one but encountered perhaps a different iteration of the question as I sat in church yesterday. I have occasionally pondered variations on this question in the field of aesthetics and so as I sat in church looking at a “pretty” barrette decorated with a large white gerbera daisy replica flower in the hair of a girl sitting in front of me, I began thinking about that flower and our common perception of it. More specifically, I thought of all flowers as a class. I think it is safe to say that many (most? 90%? or even more?) people simply perceive flowers to be “pretty.” Of course, one’s taste will vary as to which kind of flowers one finds the prettiest, but I think it can be fairly generalized for the class of flowers that most people find them “pretty.” Why is this? Indeed, how can this even be? Is it just because most people are taught from early on that flowers are supposed to be pretty and so they just grow up taking that for granted, i.e. they are socialized into thinking flowers are pretty? Or could it be that flowers are actually pretty in and of themselves, objectively, outside of any transmission of standard tastes from one generation to another? If the latter, why would that be so hard to believe? Is it because the idea of it has some kind of inevitable, eventual political implications? Does that really have to be the case? Whatever the case may be, people will continue to perceive flowers to be “pretty.”

14 Responses to esse is percipi, or All the Pretty Flowers

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Latin/English mix in the title (esse is percipi) quotes George Berkely, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge , para. 3 (1710):

    That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind, is what everbody will allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together (that is, whatever objects they compose), cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them,–I think an intuitive knowledge may be obtained of this by any one that shall attend to what is meant by the term exists, when applied to sensible things. The table I write on I say exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed–meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it. There was an odour, that is, it was smelt; there was a sound, that is, it was heard; a colour or figure, and it was perceived by sight or touch. This is all that I can understand by these and the like expressions. For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percepi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them.

    Naturally, quoting this from Berkeley should not imply any kind of wholesale adoption of his limited philosophy (in my opinion). Just an interesting observation is all it is supposed to be. 

    Posted by john fowles

  2. Anonymous says:

    That should be George Berkeley, not Berkley. 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    Off hand, I can’t see why this would be the case. It seems as if we could be evolutionarily hard-wired to see them as beautiful. The big question then becomes whether there is such a thing as transcendent beauty…and most flowers are symmetrical. Symmetry may have some transcendent virtue…

    Posted by J. Stapley

  4. Anonymous says:

    J. wrote The big question then becomes whether there is such a thing as transcendent beauty. 

    Yes, this is one of the underlying questions here. But it goes even further to an inquiry about objective aesthetics and whether such exist, and if they do, then whether they (and their close relatives, objective ethics or morals) have inevitable political implications that cause people to try to avoid such conclusions at all costs. I don’t think they necessarily have to, but what is the threat exactly in acknowledging a quality in an item that exists as a very part of the nature of the item and outside any socially constructed and transmitted concepts? Qualities that have their own objective effect by their very nature and existence. But I realize that this notion of an objective aesthetics is old-fashioned.

    On your point about what qualities might contribute you “transcendent beauty,” Edmund Burke had a lot to say to on that. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke argues that beauty is an objective quality of things that affects the mind from without, not surprising for this empiricist period of British thinking. He writes,

    Beauty is a thing much too affecting not to depend upon some positive qualities. And, since it is no creation of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses. (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [James T. Boulton ed., University of Notre Dame Press 1968] [1757] pt. 3 § 12, at 112.)

    Burke also lists some of the objective characteristics he claims affect the mind uniformly from without:

    On the whole, the qualities of beauty, as they are merely sensible qualities, are the following. First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright; but not very strong and glaring. Seventhly, or if it should have any glaring colour, to have it diversified with others. These are, I believe, the properties on which beauty depends; properties that operate by nature, and are less liable to be altered by caprice, or confounded by a diversity of tastes, than any others. (Ibid. § 18, at 117.)

    This rubs our twentieth-century, post-Hegelian minds the wrong way because, to my understanding, post-modern aesthetic theory cannot admit to any such universality that could exist outside of social construction. In fact, read Burke’s treatise and you will come away with the distinct impression that you have just read a large of amount of decidedly politically incorrect prose. And I am not saying that that feeling is unjustified. I believe in intellectual progress and that Burke was likely mistaken in much of his aesthetic theorizing. For example, he might have gone wrong by trying to categorize the characteristics of beauty instead of merely positing the objectivity of such. But it still seems to be the case that certain things, such as the flowers in my example, simply have some kind of objective aesthetic nature.  

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    Excellent comment John. I hope Steve H. weighs in, being somewhat of an expert in this field. I am not nearly well read enough to be cogent, however, as a chemist, I tend to see a correlation between things that follow natural physical laws and beauty. Whether it is the macroscopic cosmic structures or the microscopic biological structures, when things are acted upon by these physical laws, beauty results. The same can be said of human structural creations (bridges, buildings, etc.) that rely on these physical realities. I tend to think that art that mimics the natural (including chaos, and impressionism) draws upon this beauty. But art is also emotional and our emotions are a function of our conditioning as well as our physiology, and this is where I start sounding dumb. 

    Posted by J. Stapley

  6. Anonymous says:

    The biggest problem with Burke, beyond the inherent difficulties of an empiricist aesthetic (the percieving mind always filters the empirical, so examples are always taken to prove the point the subject wants to make, and contrary examples are always proof of the need for further observation, not difficulties with the theory itself), is that his specific agenda is so completely and thoroughly degrading to women. His ultimate example of beauty is a weak, soft, endagered, submissive woman in need of rescue by the sublime male, and all of his specific characteristics revolve around this. His object is the subjection of women, specifically in sexual terms.
    As concerns flowers, Kant addresses them specifically. The reason, he conjectures that they are so closely related to beauty is that they are “free” beauties. We have, that is, little practical conneciton to flowers. They are not connected to purposiveness for us. We do not look at a flower and say “hey, that stamen is very well adapted to the flower’s purposes of reproduction.” We have, to this day, unless we are trained botanists, or beekeepers, or some such thing, been able to cordon off flowers from usefulness in our lives, and see them as pruely aesthetic objects. There are few things we can say this about. Most of the earth’s natural beauty is seen as resource to us, especially in post-industrial capitalism. Thus we are unable to do this with most objects. Instead we class them in terms of what Kant calls the “agreeable,” that is, it fulfills our physical desires, or the “good,” that is, it is adapted well to it’s purpose, either a physical purpose or a moral one. If, perhaps, we could step outside of our economic-vlaue-driven modes of seeing the world, perhaps more of what our Father in Heaven has created would strike us with it’s beauty as the flower does.
    Of course, we would also have to get rid of all of our assumptiosn about the relative values of flowers, roses vs. carnations, for instance.” The post-Kantian would be skeptical about our ability to do so. I would also see a need for caution, since our cultural vlaues often lie too deep for us to recognise them. I think the real test would be our expanding ability to see beauty in all of God’s creation. As we do this, we are most likely leaving behind the prejudices that would lead us to cordon off much of creation’s beauty because it does us no good.  

    Posted by Steve H

  7. Anonymous says:


    My comment wasn’t meant as an endorsement of Burke’s theory of the sublime and the beautiful; I was merely noting it. I even hinted above at the very problems with his theory that you specifically address.

    But I wouldn’t go so far, out of a backlash against the distasteful aspects of Burke, to dismiss the idea of inherent aesthetic beauty or objective aesthetics. Burke went wrong in trying to give examples, and especially in his absurd enumeration of the characteristics, but was his underlying idea fundamentally flawed? Can items possess a beauty in and of themselves completely apart from social constructions of aesthetics or taste? The example of flowers seems to capture this idea nicely, as you note. I’m not convinced we have to resort to Kant’s explanation, though, for an answer as to why flowers are pretty, objectively speaking. 

    Posted by john fowles

  8. Anonymous says:

    Steve H.:

    I hope you’ve accurately described Burke’s “ultimate example of beauty” without using your own characterization of it as an example to prove your feminist-centric conclusions. You wouldn’t want to ignore contrary examples. ;->

    Since we all agree flowers are beautiful, what would a florist who buys and sells flowers all day say about their beauty? Does she consider flowers to be objectively beautiful or does she merely buy and sell based on economic considerations, having no independent notion of the beauties she is trading in? I suspect she might recognize the aesthetic qualities of the flowers independent from her need for the flowers as resources (and her other sociological influences). In other words, does the florist cease to see the “beauty”, in lieu of only the “good”? Can both be seen at once, or does recognizing beauty (ie a lush rainforest) preclude wanting to harvest it for economic gain?  

    Posted by pete

  9. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I just don’t want anyone thinking Burke was a good example of neutraity concerning beauty.
    I agree that there may be objective beauty, though I don’t think we can access it from our point of view, which is always subjective, the point of the Berkely quote above. We have no way of processing information that doesn’t get channelled through our individual brain. In fact, my point, through Kant, is that perhaps our ideas of what is beautiful might be broader if we weren’t blinded by use value. Kant might say they would simply be more accurate.
    I don’t think Burke would even disagree with my characterization of his characteristics of beauty, more’s the pity.
    I also think your quesiton is a good one. I think there is a huge amiguity when we begin to speak of marketing aesthetics as such. The purely aesthetic object, as a marketed commodity is, I would think, more likely to be loaded with cultural significance than not. Roses are a particular commodity used as a way of selling a cultural view of passionate love, and they connect passion to money through their pricey nature in ways that carnations do not. Both become more culturally charged when they are imported to Hawaii and compete for business against the Plumeria Lei which has both Hawaiian cultural significance and Western connotations of the exotic.
    I would think the florist has a vested interest in denying many of these cultural significances and claiming pure aesthetic value for flowers. And there is much less chance of a florist waking up and saying “hey, flowers are ugly. I hate them.” Sort of puts that person out of work. On the other hand, a florist might be bale to see the inherest beauty of the creation of the flower despite this if that person were less attached to money.
    A local clower shop just closed after many years in business. I should ask the owner if it has affected her sense of the beauty of flowers. 

    Posted by Steve H

  10. Anonymous says:

    Could the “light of Christ” be the cause of our perception of beauty? 

    Posted by Daylan Darby

  11. Anonymous says:

    Steve H.
    It sounds like you believe the florist’s vested interests (biases?) may influence whether she sees beauty that is objectively there. Interesting.

    (On a side note, capitalism and other forms of hegemonic oppression (patriarchy) are evil and have managed to exert inordinate influence over our entire paradigm. But when the age of aquarius comes, and we throw off the shackles that the “man” has kept us bound with, everything will be very cool.)  

    Posted by Pete

  12. Anonymous says:

    I never said that our interestedness is entirely (or even primarily) the result of evil hegemonic oppression. I think that hegemony happens, but the idea that we cannot escape a subjective view of the world doesn’t mean that subjectivity itself is evil. When I mention purposiveness, I mean it in the broadest sense. It’s not just a capitalistic phenomenon. If I’m hungry, bread is useful. Of course, if we live in capitalism then certain economic factors are part of the way we view pruposiveness. That doesn’t make them evil. 

    Posted by Steve H

  13. Anonymous says:

    Steve H.
    Fair enough. I probably went a little overboard.  

    Posted by pete

  14. Anonymous says:

    I think that many a philosopher would benefit a great deal from a reading or re-reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgement. The assertion that aesthetic judgement’s are subjective yet universal i believe has salience for this particular quagmire. I realize that objective grounds for aesthetic judgement have become passe, but it might be argued that there are certain PERCEPTUAL experiences that will delight the eye, as well as the other senses virtually without any help from concepts. I believe it is only when we start to CONCEPTUALIZE our experience with things such as “a flower” that the whole hegemonic element comes in. There are many instances that one could summon to imagination of a certain unpleasent or repulsive element such as a unknown smell that are revolting before one can put a label on it. I believe that such is the same with things of aesthetic worth. 

    Posted by Seth M.

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