A Note on the Difference Between Structuralism and Aesthetic Realism
by Arnold Perey

Quite a number of anthropologists, on first meeting Aesthetic Realism, ask about its relation to Structuralism. I was first asked this by Conrad Arensberg of Columbia University, who saw the use of opposites by both and asked about it. I am referring of course to Structuralism as presented by Claude Levi-Strauss, and the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel. There is a likeness, but as one studies that resemblance the striking difference becomes clear.

The reason for their likeness is that both respect the dialectic process and see opposites as primal in our understanding of the world. A dialectic, writes musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnick, "enables one to grasp ... two opposed priorities as simultaneously valid."  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectics]

Aesthetic Realism sees the dialectic process as essentially aesthetic. This makes for very significant differences. Eli Siegel presented reality as having a dialectic structure--a oneness of opposites: but the opposites make for value, for beauty. They are not only analytic categories. Reality therefore has an aesthetic structure. That is why, he stated, the world--or reality--can be liked. It has a structure that is beautiful the way a painting or poem is beautiful. This differs from structuralism, which does not neccessarily accent the value--or beauty--of an object's structure, but the structure itself.

This brings us to another difference between structuralism and Aesthetic Realism. The opposites which, Siegel explained, are at the basis of reality are the metaphysical or ontological opposites: such as freedom and order, one and many, sameness and difference, individuality and relation, matter and energy. These are qualities which are in reality as such (see for instance Aristotle's discussion of One and Many in his ''Metaphysics''). And take an electron--it is both substance and form, a particle and a wave. A sonnet is both substance and form (a Shakespearean sonnet about the Dark Lady has subject matter and sonnet form) -- see the similarity? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle describes every instance of matter as both definite and indefinite (we can know position or velocity but not both). Monet's ''Waterlilies'' are both definite and indefinite--and beautifully so! We feel both opposites at once: hence the idea of dialectic. We see it as beautiful: hence the term aesthetic.

Eli Siegel wrote in his preface to The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict  (Definition Press, New York: 1946):

Were there a word as exact as aesthetics for the purpose, we would have been glad to use it. The nearest word, other than aesthetics, is dialectics.

Claude Lévi-Strauss by comparison--the best known of structuralists today--relies on such opposites as ''sky and water'', ''succulent and dessicated'', ''raw and cooked'' which are not ontological, along with such opposites as ''diversity and unity'', ''order and disorder'' which are ontological; but the structuralist approach does not see it as necessary to differentiate between them. That is, ''Raw'' and ''cooked'' are not ontological the way ''disorder'' and ''order'' are; they are not fundamental or inescapable in the description of any reality--though we do use them to describe food as well as other things that we process, e.g.: "He ''cooked up'' a plan for revenge. But it was only a ''half-baked'' plan."

Lévi-Strauss explained that opposites are at the basis of social structure and culture. In his early work he demonstrated that tribal kin groups were usually found in pairs, or in paired groups that both oppose one another and need one another. For example, in the Amazon basin, two different expanded families would build their houses in two facing semi-circles that together make up a big circle. He showed too that the congnitive maps, the ways early folk categorized animals, trees, and so on, were based on a series of oppositions.

Later in his most popular work ''The Raw and the Cooked'' he described the widely dispersed folk tales of tribal South America as all related to one another through a series of transformations--as one opposite in tales ''here'' changes into another opposite in tales ''there''. As the title implies, for instance, Raw becomes its opposite Cooked. These particular opposites (Raw/Cooked) can be considerd as symbolic of human culture itself, in which, by means of thought and labor, raw materials become clothes, food, weapons, art, ideas. Culture, explained Lévi-Strauss, is a dialectic process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

While Aesthetic Realism has a resemblance to structuralism and other philosophic thought, and arises from the Western philosophic tradition, it also differs in this fundamental way: Eli Siegel stated that art, the self, and the sciences have in common a structure of fundamental opposites--opposites which make for beauty. "The world, art, and self explain each other," he state: "Each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." This relation among those three things: reality, the human self, and art, had not been understood before.

Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel in 1941, is taught in classes, public seminars and presentations, and individual consultations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City; as well as by speaking engagements nationwide and telephone consultations. The Class Chairman, Ellen Reiss, teaches the classes for Aesthetic Realism associates and consultants which I attend. As I write today I am proud to say that I am a consultant on the Foundation's faculty. I teach anthropology and teacher education workshops and I am an instructor in consultations, which teach a person the aesthetic way of seeing the world and themselves.  Links are provided below so you can find out more.

Home Page: Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
Aesthetic Realism Online Library
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Links to Aesthetic Realism Resources
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture,"Friends of Aesthetic Realism — Countering the Lies
Aesthetic Realism and Self-Expression

Anti-Racism Resources:

See the page titled " How Aesthetic Realism Opposes Racism." The practical and deep articles on the Web include, too, "On Racism & How to End It" by Nancy Huntting; Allan Michael's "It Is In Contempt That the Root of Racism Lies"; Alice Bernstein's "Poems by Eli Siegel about Martin Luther King and America" and the book she edited: Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism. Other articles include, "The Genome & Equality""Words, Truth, & the Confederate Flag"; "Fascism, Understood At Last!"; "Aesthetic Realism: The Solution to Racism""Contempt, the Cause of Racism""Queen's Visit to Amritsar" by Christopher Balchin. And articles by New York teachers who show how the standard curriculum, K-12, can be used to encourage kindness include: "Prejudice Changes to Respect" and "Students Learn, Prejudice Is Defeated!"



Aesthetic Realism Foundation
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
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