Sensual Experience: Pre- and Post- Science

After a spectacularly warm and sunny and protracted Spring we finally received some rain. At first it was short, welcome showers, but then we had a spectacular storm. The rain and  wind combined to test the glass in our windows. Then lightning flashed, ushering in dramatic thunder that seemed to go-off like dynamite exploding immediately overhead.

Sometimes, when I witness extreme natural phenomena like this I try to imagine what it would be to witness all of this stripped of any modern, scientific understanding. What would it be like to experience it without any explanation of what it is and what it is for?

I sometimes think the same when I see a particularly bright full moon. Surely, the peoples of ancient times, of pre-scientific times, and even peoples deprived of organised religion, experienced just as much fear and beauty as we do ourselves, while nevertheless experiencing it in some way that we can no-longer appreciate. or imagine.

The writings of the pre-Socratic Greek proto-philosophers give hints of some very different (though perhaps still proto-scientific) responses, and perhaps studies of other ancient cultures, translations of ancient texts etc. give more and varied insights. But if there is a time in human history that preceded any such representation and any such attempted analysis, it is that time that I am thinking of here.

What most interests me about this is that the same non-scientific and non-organised-religious interpretation, may still be available to us. Hence we say the sun ‘rises’ despite the fact that we know it does not ‘rise’, and it is clearly hard to maintain the apparently counter-intuitive (but in fact counter-cultural and counter-habitual) scientific idea when enjoying the sight of the sun apparently nudging up over the horizon at dawn and apparently ‘climbing’ into the sky.

When thunder claps and when lightning flashes, when wind shakes my windows and rain batters the panes, when I watch the sun ‘rise’ or a glowing moon float through the night sky, a part of me – and a large part – experiences these neither scientifically nor religiously but in some more purely and simply sensual way. They ‘affect’ me as if by-passing brain, intellect, mind, logic and language and ‘speaking’ only and directly to my nerves, my body. It is as if one body (the earth and its swirling, volatile climate) were resonating and interacting with another (my own) non-linguistically, for there is no ‘understanding’ or ‘interpretation’ here, no ‘signs’, signifiers and signifieds, just a call and response of energies and materials.

Thus, both our experiences of beauty and what we have come to call ‘the sublime’ remain mysterious aspects of human experience that science seems only partly responsible for and only partially able to ‘explain. That is because science is itself couched in the very language and logic that these experiences by-pass as pure enervations (nervous interactivity).

If we give time and thought to this area of experience, we come to appreciate what a large part of our experience it is, despite all our modernity, technology, education etc. Science allows modern humanity to award itself the hubris of coming to know, and to possibly even know all, and yet we sense that these aesthetic experiences, despite scientific attempts to ‘organise’ them as knowledge, are far more ancient than science, and that they may even just exceed and succeed science too, in the longest possible projections of the human journey to come – if, that is, one hell of a storm doesn’t just come along one night and wipe us all away.


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