Aesthetics and Ethics of Everyday Experience, by Deborah Fausch

In discussing an aesthetics of the everyday experience, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “practical thought” provides a way of connecting production and reception that includes body and mind, while avoiding the dichotomy of natural and conventional. Referring obliquely to Heidegger’s notion of “setting to work, ” Bourdieu defines practice as:

a cognitive operation, a practical operation of construction which sets to work […] systems of classification (taxonomies) which organize perception and structure practice […]. Practical taxonomies, instruments of cognition and communication which are the precondition for the establishment of meaning and the consensus on meaning, exert their structuring efficacy [in the measure] that they are themselves structured [1].

Practical thought is a body-centered, action-derived, not un-conscious, but rather non-mental, non-rational, non-logical, way of operating. The cultural schemes which operate in practical thought and action:

function in their practical state, i.e., on the hither side of explicit statement and consequently outside of all logical control, and by reference to practical ends which are such as to impose on them a necessity which is not that of logic [2].

In practical thought, as Bourdieu shows, the physiological, the emotional, and the ideological are inseparable. Practical thought thus combines aesthetics and ethics into a seamless whole that is experienced in action, “on the hither side of logic.” In everyday experience, this combination is not susceptible to analysis, but rather underlies and structures experience in the same way that the aesthetics of polite behavior, inculcated early in life, encode a set of values in body postures and movements.

The framework of practical thought provides a set of conceptual tools that aid in understanding the kinds of experiences buildings and environments provide. It also helps to understand the role that the built environment can play in inculcating or altering ethical behavior. Even today, many architectural critics call for the built environment to question the non-conscious, embodied spatial experience of a culture’s norms by means of its design. But if we see buildings as “practical operators, producing dispositions of which they are the product,” if we view the encounter with architecture as an experience based in practical thought, the capacity of architecture to be critical is called into question. In particular, it raises the question whether the experience of architecture can only affirm, rather than criticize, current cultural norms. Can architecture, as Freud asserted of dreams, not say no, but rather, propose only alternatives? If this is so, what is being proposed by contemporary architecture?

[1] Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 97.
[2] Bourdieu, Outline, 113.

Deborah Fausch, Washington University – St. Louis, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Fausch, D. (2012) Aesthetics and Ethics of Everyday Experience, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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