Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Transcendence as an Aesthetic Concept: Implications for Curriculum

Lee, Katherine. "Transcendence as an Aesthetic Concept: Implications for Curriculum." Journal of Aesthetic Education: 27.1 (Spring 1993): 75-82.


By Megumi Okamoto



            This article considers the difficulty in defining the concept of transcendence, due to the fact that it is a heavily loaded term with various historical connotations. It suggests that this concept could be "revised" to render itself useful for educational purposes.

            The author, Katherine Lee, traces back the history of this term. In an Aristotelian sense, the concept indicates something that lies beyond the bounds of any category. It also is akin to the way Kant described something that is above limits of any possible experience and knowledge.

In the project of Enlightenment, it became problematic to the Logical Positivists, and they put it aside as a merely meaningless concept. Indeed, the term "transcendence" does have religious overtones to this day, which can make some people uncomfortable. We live in a highly materialistic society and are not familiar with spiritual terms. The author feels that this word implies something in which we are familiar, but cannot fully describe. It is something that is only privately felt. Linear and categorical analysis cannot fully grasp this. It is not an expected result from a sequential chain of events, as it cannot be externally controlled.

            To receive a phenomenon aesthetically, it is important how we attend to it. Such "aesthetic mode of perception" requires an active engagement that is wholesome in nature. It is a self-reflexive activity, as the meaning that it holds upon the person making the judgment is crucial in creating this phenomenon. Also, we must note that the final referent of this experience is not reason. Rather, there is a sense of wholeness in which various details seem to magically fall into order, and the flow of time shifts. The author calls this "having an aesthetic experience." It is what Abraham Maslow named as "peak experience," what Glasser named as "state of positive addiction." It is therapeutic in the way that the strength to overcome negative addiction arises from the positive addiction. Such state of transcendence is a learning experience. It is where knowledge becomes a personally significant possession, where insight creates coherence. It focuses personal significance and meanings into present, and thus makes "human beings return to themselves."

The author feels that this experience requires a comprehensive paradigm than empirical science, and that we do not have enough rational/scientific account of this phenomenon. As a conclusion, the author notes that, although it may not be a daily occurrence, having an open attitude toward such possibilities will greatly enhance our educational system. This can be incorporated in schooling not by visible curriculum, but from implicit moral attitudes of teachers by their actions.



            First of all, this article reminds us that we are influenced by the views of the historical era in which we live, and the layers of meanings that are culturally imbued in our thought patterns. Therefore, how we interpret ourselves psychologically, and how we choose to place emphasis on certain aspects of our lives, are not as objective as one would expect. For instance, living in a materialistic society has implications to how we choose to view aesthetic feelings. The purpose of this is not to make judgments, but to be aware of the historical context in which we are placed.

            What the author describes as "transcendence" refers to a type of learning experience. I think we are all aware of the joy of learning: The dopamine gets released as the learning progresses in a field that is difficult but is manageable, and this chemical reaction makes us simply "feel good." And this pleasure for the brain becomes a sensation to which we would long to return and experience, over and over. And within this experience, there are such times when the sense of wholeness results as various details fall into place, and we lose track of time, as the author describes. However, to call this "transcendence" is a challenging task. We might feel transcendent while we are still in the experience, but as soon as we are back to the everyday lives, that term starts to feel too heavy for usage.

            My topic for the paper is "flow," which is closely related to this article. I am focusing on this because it is in fact something that has personal relevance. I have had such experiences, and that is what I treasure the most in life, and is what I live for. However, I cannot help but wonder if heavily-loaded terms such as "transcendence" make people feel alienated from the concept. I think that the author makes a great point by suggesting educators to have an open attitude toward this phenomenon, but personally, I feel that the concept will have more currency if the term "transcendence" is not blocking the entrance. Perhaps, by focusing on the topics that one is learning rather than the feeling of transcendence that one hopes to achieve, the learning experience would become more accessible and fruitful.  


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