Kinaesthetic Knowing: A Review – by Priyanka Basu

Zeynep Çelik Alexander, Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), ISBN: 978-0-2264-8520-1

Zeynep Çelik Alexander’s Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design offers a new account of German modernism told through the history of its preoccupation with bodily experience from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The resulting work speaks to interrelated histories of German-speaking intellectual history, art history, architecture, applied arts, and art and design education, holding interest for scholars working in any of these areas and beyond. The book, broadly considered, emerges out of an interest in art history’s intellectual and institutional foundations that was energized in the early 1990s, including in the discourses around Visual Studies. One intellectual constellation brought again into view by this research was that of empathy theory, in which some late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century art historians, at an early experimental highpoint of the field, tried to incorporate recent scientific knowledge into a new, modern way of defining aesthetic feeling, incorporating psychological and bodily experience.

Along these lines, Alexander’s book examines what was understood in the late nineteenth-century German intellectual world as a new “aesthetics from below.” This was a term used by Gustav Fechner, the founder of psychophysics (or the empirical study of relationships between stimuli and sensations), for whom it denoted an inversion of eighteenth-century speculative aesthetics and deductive philosophy “from above” (as, for example, in the writings of G. F. W. Hegel). This new approach aimed to “steer this field away from abstract concepts such as the beautiful and the sublime toward what psychophysics considered the building blocks of ‘lived experience’: impressions, sensations, feelings, and effects” (8). Such “experiential knowledge” or “kinaesthetic knowing,” as Alexander terms it in order to emphasize bodily movement, became the subject of serious interdisciplinary scholarly concern from the mid-nineteenth century until World War II, shaping aesthetic theory, art history, art, architecture, and design education.

Alexander shows that kinaesthetic knowing in the German context was perceived above all as having pedagogical implications. This review will focus on Alexander’s demonstration of how “aesthetics from below” was actualized by key art historians, artists, architects, and designers in experimental educational settings and as part of reform movements during a time of expansion of mass education. In each case, the results challenged established Enlightenment notions of self and humanistic knowledge, as well as fine and applied arts practices. It is in this reckoning of “aesthetics from below” with the German Enlightenment project that the book’s primary interest for eighteenth-century studies lies. However, the agents of these changes were motivated by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, they conceived of the larger public as capable of aesthetic experience and creativity inspired by new notions of experiential knowledge; espoused expanded art education; and devised experiential techniques to cultivate this newly appreciated potential. On the other, they also perceived the new subject of aesthetics as vulnerable to excessive stimulation and distraction and thus in need of training to regulate unmediated experience.[1]

The book sets up its case studies with an intellectual historical survey, beginning in the early nineteenth century. Scientist Hermann von Helmholtz is vital to this story because of the groundbreaking distinction that he made in the mid-nineteenth century between the processes of Wissen (conceptual knowledge) and Kennen (nondiscursive, experiential knowledge) as a way to distinguish the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) from the humanities and social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). This reconfiguration made sense of the seeming irreconcilability of the scientific approaches of Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe inherited by nineteenth-century scientists. Even more crucially for the fate of kinaesthetic knowing, it gave the arts credit for their own rigorous forms of knowing, while implying that they had to be studied scientifically. Alexander also underscores that the new science of experimental psychology, which treated experience empirically, was at the basis of the growing importance of experiential knowledge and a key discipline of the era. This was because it seemed to reconcile scientific empiricism with the longstanding importance of philosophical self-examination and also to bypass epistemological dilemmas about causality and teleology that formerly seemed irresolvable.

In addition, in Germany, Kennen was part of a debate beginning in the early nineteenth century about the utility of different types of knowledge. While humanistic knowledge dependent on the classical tradition was traditionally considered most important, it was increasingly clear that empirical sciences had led to great advances and to Germany’s growing international status. Scholars were particularly anxious about the fate of the eighteenth-century project of Bildung, or disinterested self-cultivation, and the correlated “will-centered, unitary sense of self imagined by Humboldt and Fichte” if modern disciplines and methods came to dominate education (38). Alexander follows such linked scientific, philosophical, and sociopolitical discussions, ending with twentieth-century rejections of experiential knowledge, ultimately concluding that experiential knowledge was a failed project due to its “foundationalism.” In its desire to postulate experience as the basis of knowledge, experiential knowledge ended up being part of the same Enlightenment history that it aimed to reject, and was thus unable to produce “another way of knowing” (61).

In tracing kinaesthetic knowing’s impact in an art historical context, Alexander focuses on Heinrich Wölfflin, showing that his notion of the Baroque was a stand-in for experiential knowledge and exploring the interconnection of his notion of the Baroque with the development of new visual technologies and media, as well as transformations in the teaching of art history. Building on scholarship by Heinrich Dilly, Robert Nelson, Daniel Adler, and others on aspects of these histories, Alexander connects them to further shifts driven by experimental psychology in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century understandings of reading and looking.

Wölfflin and other art historians of the time found the new technologies of the slide projector and photographic illustration promising for teaching, despite their associations with mass culture, because these mediums could reach large audiences. This was an era when larger numbers of students than ever before gained access to the university and to art history courses and could no longer all closely examine reproductive mediums like engravings and casts. However, Wölfflin was conflicted about the powerful, seemingly unmediated experiential impact of projected images, as well as the arbitrary sense data provided by photography and the phenomenon of mass art viewing more broadly. He adopted these modes of experiential rather than discursive knowledge, but, at the same time, he attempted to moderate their effects, first through formal analysis carried out during his lectures, and second through comparative looking via double slide projection and in illustrated books. In this latter method, the Baroque, which Wölfflin described using terms from experimental psychology to describe unprocessed sensations, was famously balanced with his notion of the Renaissance, corresponding to reflective and visual knowledge.

Two further chapters are centered on kinaesthetic knowing in relation to the Jugendstil decorative arts movement in Germany, on which Alexander has extensively published, beginning with a chapter on architect August Endell, a critical figure in promoting experiential knowledge in this period. His writings and teaching pursued the idea that visual forms have immediate psychophysiological effects, while his interior and architectural designs sought to make an impression on viewers through surfaces, creating moods. This approach had much in common, Alexander argues, with the nineteenth-century science of pathognomy, which studied facial muscles as they expressed emotions, rejecting physiognomy, which had been a key way of approaching architecture since the eighteenth century and corresponded to an earlier emphasis on decorum. Furthermore, Endell’s conception of architecture as stimulating the nervous system challenged the Bildung paradigm with a notion of the subject “entirely open to the influence of…external sensations,” in line with the new “motor theory of consciousness” that posited that “all consciousness was conditioned…by the activity of the musculature” (118, 119). This is also the reason that Raum, or space, became an important term in innovative architectural theory of the period, Alexander argues, superseding ideas of rules and orders of architecture. Moreover, it was Endell’s larger goal to show that because aesthetic enjoyment was a bodily experience, it was available to the masses, not only to Germany’s educated classes. In new applied arts educational institutions that Endell founded in the early twentieth century, he furthered this objective by creating foundation programs for the study of form, a new approach to design education that put into practice an “aesthetics from below.”

The discussion of Endell is followed by one of artist and designer Hermann Obrist and the new experimental educational institution that he launched in 1902, the Debschitz School, which was shaped by his opposition to formal education. Drawing was critical to Obrist’s teaching, though his method departed from traditional academic notions of this skill. Instead, he provided instruction in developing rhythm and intuitive techniques. Alexander writes, “More importantly, this new way of drawing was conceived as the first step toward the making of a new kind of subject. Drawing did not simply prepare students for careers as artists: it purportedly tapped into a hidden reservoir of creativity, unleashing…the ‘talent’ (Begabung) unique to each student” (142, 144). Such ideas were also closely connected to the rise of the occultist movement in Germany, both popular and scientific, which emphasized the phenomenon of people exhibiting talents without formal training. Such ideas contributed to the era’s push for mass education, as many early twentieth-century pedagogues in Germany agreed that “German education had to be liberated from its long-standing dependence on words—especially from its insistence on history and classical languages—and place more faith in the power of Anschauung [sense-based knowledge or intuition]” (150). At the same time, formalist drawing instruction based on the ideas of Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was widely implemented and became a fundamental component of this mass modern educational curriculum.

Alexander also argues that this privileging of sensual knowledge has to be understood as part of debates around the Kulturkampf, the Prussian campaign against Catholicism after German Unification, in which Catholicism was considered irrational, feminine, and anti-modern. Obrist and other pedagogues’ emphasis on experiential knowledge seemed, on the one hand, to valorize a “model of selfhood” identified with Catholics and the masses, as opposed to the male Protestant Bildung ideal (138). On the other, these attempts to expand education and realize “aesthetics from below” were also meant to discipline and modernize their students: “Drawing instruction instituted during the Kulturkampf sought to tap into these marginal subjects’ hidden aesthetic sensibility and release the creative forces in their unconscious—but not without ensuring that such creative forces would be kept in line by such heuristic devices as the grid” and other instructional tools (159).

The final chapter looks forward to the eventual decline of the paradigm of kinaesthetic knowing by the end of World War I. This took place as psychology began to lose its high status during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, no longer regarded as linking the human and natural sciences, but instead, due to the evolution of the discipline, merely one of the natural sciences. However, kinaesthetic knowing lived on belatedly during the Weimar period in its final home, the Bauhaus school of art, craft, and design, where Bauhäusler “implicitly accepted the basic premise of psychophysics: a relationship of correspondence between physical stimulus and psychological sensation” (174). This was especially the case in the Bauhaus’s famous preliminary course, which had its roots in the new art educational institutions and types of instruction discussed in previous chapters, subsequently becoming the foundation of modern design education. The otherwise divergent course instructors all promoted psychophysical thinking, each in their own ways. They also subscribed to a philosophy of “elementarism,” which was founded upon the notion of elementary experiential units and was based, like Pestalozzian drawing reform culture, on standard geometric shapes and colors, rather than historical styles and ideas of proportion and order. Moreover, these Bauhaus instructors believed that every person had the ability to create form and aimed to tap this potential for universal creativity. In relation to the book’s revelation of a contradictory dynamic of educational expansion and regulation of modern subjects in the implementation of “aesthetics from below,” here Alexander concludes that Bauhaus pedagogy was defined by its cultivation of the expression of “inner feeling” while also requiring the latter’s constant training and testing. She argues that the latter was analogous both to experimental psychology’s dedication to measuring internal experience and a means to simultaneously prop up and modernize Bildung.

Overall, Kinaesthetic Knowing shows how closely tied the practices of German-speaking nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art history, art, architecture, design, and arts education were to the legacies of Bildung, the fortunes of the discipline of experimental psychology, and the search in the arts for rigorous, modern methods that responded to new scientific developments. The book’s extensive study of these debates and how they shaped these areas goes far beyond the existing literature on psychological aesthetics and empathy theory, surely becoming the authoritative work in this area. While the book is beautifully written and erudite, one might only say, in conclusion, that Alexander could have more effectively articulated the importance of understanding today a discourse that she characterizes as failed and effectively closed. It is not a question for Alexander alone, but for scholars of European modernism and art history more broadly. Her new history of German modernism comes at a moment when the question of failure is a productive one, as art history along with other humanities disciplines grapple with their historical blind spots, as well as—once again—with their relationship to the sciences in a shifting landscape of mass education.

Priyanka Basu is Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Minnesota Morris


[1] Along these lines, Alexander’s book can be considered a follow-up to Jonathan Crary’s groundbreaking 1990 Techniques of the Observer about the break from classical models of vision and how sense experience became an object of study earlier in the nineteenth century. It also builds on Crary’s discursive approach, examining the intersection of developments in philosophy, the natural sciences, mass culture, and other areas as they overlapped with other forces, opening up to unfamiliar figures and objects, and driven by notions of subtle disciplinary power that contributed to the production of modern subjects.


Cite this note as:  Priyanka Basu, “’Kinaesthetic Knowing’: A Review,” Journal18 (May 2021), https://www.journal18.org/5746.

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