Between Affinity and Expression: Kant, Nishida, and the Sensible Foundations of Expressivity, #5: Affinity, Sensibility and Expression.

By Otto Paans



I. Introduction

II. Definitions

III. Why Rethink Affinity?

IV. Nishida and the Unity of Experience

V. Affinity, Sensibility and Expression

VI. Conclusion

This is the fifth and final installment of this series, and contains sections V and VI.


V. Affinity, Sensibility and Expression

If “reflecting itself in itself” is the universal formula through which the world expresses itself, then to understand the world or to perceive objects in it is to participate in an all-encompassing field of reflections, and therefore expressions.[i] We have seen that Kantian affinity can be construed as the outcome of the world’s self-formation through dynamic expression. The world appears as unified because of transcendental affinity. However, even if we grant Kant that general observation, Nishida’s thought further explains why we can gain progressive insight into the workings of the world. In other words: Kant speaks about the enabling conditions that form our unified experience, whereas a Nishidean approach to Kantian affinity shows why it forms us in turn. Thus, again, the relation between us and the world is co-expressive, essentially complementary, and dynamically reciprocal.

This thought is particularly important for any creative practice, whether it concerns art, design, or any speculative practice for that matter. For all of these activities inherently deal in and work with expressions. So when properly done, they produce an output that can be viewed as a set of expressions. A sculptor creates physically shaped expressions; a designer creates functional and/or beautiful formal expressions with cultural significance; a theologian produces religious and/or spiritual expressions; a novelist produces literary expressions in the form of prose; and a painter produces the visual manifestation of an expressive idea.

Just as each expression is made by a subject embedded in the world, so too affinity is always practiced from out of a given perspective on the world. The way in which connections in a given expression are drawn out and reworked in new expressions reflect the experience, preferences, and proclivities of the subject expressing them. In turn, these expressions shape the subject, while they are simultaneously shaped by the subject.

Kant’s point about affinity as a kind of coherence or unity among representations is most illuminating for our creative capacities when it is supplemented with Nishida’s concept of co-expression. For one thing, it provides a sufficient reason to take the agency of sensibility fully seriously. The faculty of sensibility is not a passive receptacle for sensory input; neither is it constrained by senses like seeing, hearing, or touching, because the sensory modalities are all comprehended by the “forms of intuition.”

This point is tremendously important, because the forms under and via which sensory content reaches us are mediated by the senses. However, the Kantian notion of sensibility can no doubt be extended to capacities like attunement, acumen, perceptive insights, sensitivity — all the factors that are often uncritically grouped under “taste or “feeling.” A cellist may be sensitive to the various timbres to be used in playing a musical composition, and play very fluently and organically, or highlight the accents; a writer may be finely attuned to the subtleties of language and its expressive possibilities; a sculptor may be acutely sensitive to the play of light on the surface of a stone.

Sensibility, then, is a sensibility to something: it has a broadly intentional structure that opens up to the world, and that detects patterns and characteristics as focal points. Many of these focal points, in conjunction with the requisite background knowledge and technique, add up to focal networked structures. To create and sustain such structures, one must actively express oneself; and conversely, such structures are expressions in themselves, because expression is a reciprocal act with regard to the world.

Moreover, given the fact that every subject has differently shaped set of sensibilities, is differently attuned to the world, and has different skills, preferences and capacities, different affinitive structures can emerge from any given object in a structure of dynamic co-expression. This thought explains why we can derive so many layers of meaning from a single object. It also explains why we are able to make art that is evocative and essentially non-conceptual, or write a text that is allusive and yet of fathomless depth, or hear a Bruckner symphony again and again and discover new layers in each new hearing.

To be able to derive and invest meaning in objects has everything to do with the connection between affinity and sensibility. It is a given fact that some people will make sublime composers, while others cannot compose a piece of music at all or get stuck at a given level. In terms of expression, not everyone is able to bring the hidden potentials of a musical, sculptural, visual, or philosophical idea to the point at which it becomes tangible; nor is everyone is able to individualize a certain expression to a degree that it speaks to almost everybody. Writing a good essay can be practiced, but writing a truly insightful, moving essay is an art that taps into an expressive dimension that singularizes the content to such a degree that it bypasses the generic and the mundane, venturing well into the dimension of the universal or the sublime.

From this, we can conclude that we perceive the unity or coherence in expressions to a varying degree. This is why some people can compose, but not make art out of their compositions; and on the other hand, it also explains why some artworks point beyond their empirical unity towards an experience that can be accurately described as truly transcendent and/or existentially transformative.

The range of cultural, artistic and religious expression is just as much enabled by imagination as it is by being able to grasp the hidden, elective, transcendent affinities hidden in each expression. Or, if we conceptualize the imagination as a synthesizing capacity, it is the skill for synthesizing and recognizing novel patterns and meaningful connections within an expression.

So defined, expression is an act of disclosure, of giving something undefined a tangible form. Another way of putting this point is to say that in expressing, we shift from one form of intuition to another. If we take the example of a painting, an idea that existed first only in outline, or as a hunch, is just as much an intuition as a fully worked out composition sketch and color-scheme. The difference between the first intuition and the second is that in the latter case, different senses can act on it, and the implications of expressive choices can be teased out with much more precision. The more acute and articulate the expression becomes, the more clues it offers for the sensibility and in particular the imagination to work on it, thereby initiating what Kant called a “free play.”

If expression is disclosive, what is the nature of the content that is disclosed? First, this is the representational content of a work. Second, and more importantly, this type of content points beyond its empirical properties towards the affinities that underlie it. Each expression can only be understood and developed according to the constitutive affinities that dynamically determine its internal structure. As such, each expression needs to possess a kind of inner coherence or tangible associability among its elements. Only if these affinities can be grasped is the systematic development of thought possible. This in itself provides a powerful argument against an intellectualist or overtly conceptualist approach to human thought. Some things in this world cannot be grasped by ratiocination or by the application of concepts. They must first of all be experienced in and through expression, and only those with a proper sensibility can perceive them. And to perceive them properly and in all their richness, one must be able to detect their constitutive affinities.

Perceiving such constitutive affinities is a form of sensibility required for creating or sensing anything novel or unexpected at all. It is at the root of cultural, religious, or artistic acumen, by being the creation of connections by assuming a different unity of the world than currently imagined. Some of these visions come about by combining conceptual and non-conceptual contents, but most of it takes place at a purely non-conceptual level. The very nature of expression underscores this fact: an undefined notion or idea creates tensions that can be worked through only by pulling them into the conceptual foreground. Part of the content of an expression is its discursive character: no matter how oblique or allusive the language that we have to use to discuss its value and impact, a minimum level of conceptual access is required to be able to contextualize it in a wider field of cultural production; but the core of expression is its essential non-conceptuality.

VI. Conclusion

Pairing Kant and Nishida provides new insight into the nature and significance of affinity. Far from being merely a unifying principle, the extended notion of Kantian affinity turns out to be constitutive and structural. The expressive basis of affinity allows us to grasp artistic objects like symphonies, paintings, drawings, but equally essays and novels, in a way that reveal an inner coherence between their elements. However, such insights develop themselves only in a co-expressive relationship: the object expresses itself into the subject, and the subject expresses itself into the object, thereby recognizing itself. The basis for this co-expressive relationship between subject and object lies in the faculty of sensibility — that is, an active openness or responsiveness to what is being sensed — and its essentially non-conceptual power of imagination.


[i] There certainly are overtones or undertones of Berkeleyan subjective idealism here, and correspondingly of Berkeley’s thesis that every human sensory impression is an idea in the mind of God, who thereby writes the book of nature and confers unity on our otherwise chaotic field of impressions; but that theme is outside the scope of this essay.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 26 July 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.