Varieties of Ultimate Satisfaction

This is the fourth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

So far we have encountered two varieties of ultimate satisfaction:

  1. Bertrand Russell’s “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly”;
  2. The mathematician’s experience of the “elegance” of a great proof.

These two seem very similar, both in their content and in the kind of person who experiences them; if they were wines, they would be French syrah and Australian shiraz – same grape, with subtle differences.

But just as there are many varieties of wine, which vary greatly one from the other, ultimate satisfaction comes in many varieties. Let’s take a deeper dive into this; you may well recognize what ultimate satisfaction is for you as we do.

Quick reminders:

  • People participate in the social practices of a community, within that community’s world. The world makes sense to people who participate in it.
  • Satisfaction accompanies participation.
  • Ultimate satisfaction accompanies participation in ultimate practices.
  • Ultimate practices involve directly recognizing the sense the community’s world makes.

“The world makes sense” is an aesthetic appraisal. That is, it is a direct recognition of “fittingness”, that things fit together. We can identify four distinct varieties of aesthetic appraisal:

  1. Artistic. The most frequently used in common language, this refers to the recognition of beauty, balance, harmony in a work of art.
  2. Social. The recognition of what is appropriate or called for in a given social situation.
  3. Natural. The recognition of an inherent unity found in nature.
  4. Conceptual. The recognition of how concepts fit with a situation to explain or illuminate it.

Conceptual aesthetic is clearly the variety experienced by logicians like Russell and mathematicians. Indeed, for many, perhaps most, scientists their world makes sense via conceptual aesthetic recognition. Traditionally this has been referred to as “insight” – a moment of clarity, an “Aha!” if you will – when one sees how the concepts one is working with shed explanatory light on a matter of interest. (The great Descriptive Psychologist Mary Roberts has used the term “pattern bliss” to allude to that flash of insight.) In that moment, as Pippa sang in passing, “All’s right with the world.”

Of course that quote from Robert Browning is more commonly quoted in its more extended form:

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

This is clearly not a case of conceptual aesthetic but it is equally clearly an experience of ultimate satisfaction. This is another well-known variety of ultimate satisfaction, rooted in spiritual traditions: a direct experience of the perfect unity of nature. “God’s in his heaven” is a traditional way of referring to the experience, just as “elegance” is traditional language in mathematics. Neither way of talking requires us as Observer/Critics to conclude that the world “really is” that way, but then that’s explicitly not the point. This is Actor’s language, alluding to aspects of the Actor’s world. (See Note 1).

Artists, musicians, poets, et. al. live in worlds held together by aesthetic appreciation of beauty, balance and harmony in works of art. Those transcendent moments in Bach and Mozart; Coltrane’s disturbingly engaging riffs; the mind-stopping brilliance of El Greco or Van Gogh – these are all deeply satisfying experiences. True artists experience this deep satisfaction in the act of creating their own work – not always, of course, but enough to recognize their world and their place in it. This is not to say they assess it as comparable to the masterpieces we all know, but rather to acknowledge that the world in which they work makes sense in the same way.

Aesthetic appreciation in its many guises is the form ultimate satisfaction takes for many. But aesthetic is only one perspective on the world, and worlds make sense in ways that are poorly understood as merely aesthetic. To say something is “right” can be, and in many cases is, a moral appraisal. And this is a powerful source of ultimate satisfaction in many persons’ worlds.

I choose to avoid the term “religion” and all its variants because it is too fraught with history and associations to be useful here. Instead let’s use the term “spiritual” to refer to the ways of life – the worlds – in which ultimate satisfaction takes the form of a direct experience of rightness that is moral rather than aesthetic.

Spiritual people participate in practices of their spiritual community – prayer, meditation, testimony, fellowship, charity, service, studying scripture – in which they experience a deep satisfaction of being on the right path. All is right with their worlds, and not just because someone has told them so – they experience it directly. To the Observer/Critic, faith is an form of knowing that is not supported by evidence, let alone proof. To the Actor, faith is a direct experience of knowing for which there can be no evidence or proof – nor are those lacking. The experience is both necessary and sufficient; to paraphrase Peter Ossorio, coffee cups do not require firing pins.

For some the ultimate satisfaction of faith takes the form of confident conviction; for some, a blissful awareness; for others, a fierce righteousness. Pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon; very different varieties, but all wines.

Russell’s world, held together by the “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly”, was blown apart by his encounter with his Paradox. Here’s something comparable as regards a world held together by faith, from John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies:

“… the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the parsonage of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leaving him. The sensation was distinct – a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward. … his thoughts had slipped with quicksilver recognition into the recognition, which he had long withstood, that … the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through a Universe entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be.”

Next: More varieties and … how about when your world doesn’t make sense?

Note 1: The categorical distinction between Actor’s world and Actor’s knowing, on the one hand, and Observer/Critic’s world and O/C knowledge on the other, is fundamental to this whole series on Worlds. This distinction originates with Peter Ossorio and is genuinely original; it is not a reworking of previously known material. The full articulation is found in Ossorio’s The Behavior of Persons; the relevant ideas are also in my paper At a Glance and Out of Nowhere.


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