Why Aesthetic Patterns Matter: Art and a “Qualitative” Social Theory



This paper argues that an explanation of the role of aesthetic patterning in human action needs to be part of any “qualitative” social theory. It urges the social sciences to move beyond contextualism and to see art as visual, acoustic and other media that lead to heightened sensory perception and the coordination of feelings through symbols. The article surveys the argument that art provides a basic model of how the self learns to interact with external environments; and the complementary thesis that art could be seen as integral to the emergence of systems of human knowledge, communication and economy. Ornamentation and stylization are advanced as two concrete devices through which human attention is captured and experience is ordered through aesthetic patterns. The conclusion is drawn that art offers the social sciences a meaningful account of the perceptual or “qualitative” dimensions of social interactions; and that this is much needed today.