Introducing the Aesthetic Turn in the field of Psychotherapy

Aesthetic knowledge (also known as tacit knowledge) attained through our lived and sensory experiences. Interest in aesthetics in psychotherapy practice and research is borne out of the search for an alternate method of knowing and knowledge processing. The transmission of aesthetic knowledge has created interest in the qualitative research field for art-based research methodologies like Autoethnography, which I have adapted for the inquiry into the psychotherapeutic process. The turn towards aesthetic knowledge helps us fill in knowledge gaps left behind by decades of positivistic thinking that had dominated research and, inadvertently, training. Postmodernists are more interested in conveying knowledge and overcoming problems of representation and form or the poetics of knowledge-making. Aesthetic inquiry finds value in all field-based, cultural and sociological research, including psychotherapy and organisational development. Aesthetics relates to the study and attunement of the researcher to the atmosphere of the environment, images and perceptions, artefacts, ideas, symbols and culture of the investigated field.

Descartes believed in the power of detached intellectual thinking, but Vico (1744/1948) and Baumgarten (1750/1936) disagreed. They argued that knowledge is more about feelings than cognitions. Vico believed that we create meaning through our senses, and called this “poetic wisdom.” Baumgarten believed that logic studies intellectual knowledge, while aesthetics studies sensory knowledge. This type of knowledge is directly experienced through our five senses. Nietzsche and other philosophers later agreed that aesthetic knowledge is not only a separate way of knowing, but that other forms of knowledge depend on it. Aesthetic knowledge offers new insights and awareness, even though it can’t always be put into words. It’s an embodied, sensory knowing that is often contrasted with intellectual knowing.

The word aesthetics is derived from Greek aisthētikos, which means ‘perceptible things’ and from aisthēta, which means ‘to perceive’. Aesthetic evaluation is a pre-reflexive and preverbal process of sensing the atmosphere of a situation. The atmosphere, the atmos, the exhalation of vapour and the globe is a meteorological term denoting the gas surrounding the planet we constantly touch. The emotions or reactions from interacting with the atmosphere are not personal or internal but shared in a boundless space where the perceiver participates. Atmospheres are inter-subjective and holistic feelings poured out into a certain lived environment (Giffero, 2010/2014, p. 6). Philosopher Schmitz (2003) considers feelings as atmospheres, not subjective moods projected outwards, but affect that fills up the spatial situation with which the individual perceiver gets involved and identifies the self. “‘My sadness’, in fact, implies ‘not that I possess it, Hold it or perform it’, but only that ‘it hits me, regards me, touches me in the flesh’ (Schmitz, 2003, p. 181). The concept of the atmosphere is ambiguous and loses meaning when one tries to put it into words. Atmospheres are hard to define and must be experienced to be understood. Perceiving the atmosphere means capturing a feeling in the surrounding space and being moved by something beyond what can be proven. The atmosphere is a shared space that is difficult to pin down but is integral to how we connect with others and the environment.

Aesthetic sensing and knowledge are implicit in psychotherapy practice and training, even though this fundamental fact is not well represented in psychotherapy Embracing aesthetics in psychotherapy expands our ability to fully grasp the suffering of our clients, which is the essential process of psychopathology. Being attuned to psychopathology establishes a connection between therapist and client crucial for therapeutic change. This approach allows therapists to move beyond the traditional psychiatric diagnosis of disorders, which often views clients as isolated individuals with symptoms. This narrow perspective can be limiting and problematic in practice. Instead, diagnosing through aesthetics encourages therapists to consider the client’s subjective experience and to view them as a whole person. Each person brings their perspective to the therapeutic encounter, and the relationship between therapist and client creates a unique field of interaction. Using the term phenomenology, as proposed by Karl Jaspers, emphasizes the importance of the client’s subjective experience in understanding their pathology. This approach de-objectifies the client and highlights how informed diagnosis and psychopathology are integral to the therapeutic encounter, underlying the rift between practice and research that has plagued the field for decades.

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Baumgarten, A. G. (1750/1936). Aesthetica. Bari: Laterza.

Giffero, T. (2010/2014). Atmospheres: Aesthetics of emotional spaces. (S. d. Sanctis, Trans.) Routledge.

Schmitz, H. (2003). Was ist Neue Phänomenologie? Koch: Rostock.

Vico, G. (1744/1948). The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Trans. Bergin, T. G. and Fisch, M. H. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.