A 1530 painting by a follower of Massys, appearing in John Armstrong’s Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art.

Armstrong describes: contemplation is the “scrutiny of what is there to be seen. It is, literally, spending time with [an] object — not just time around it or standing before it, but time devoted to looking at it. ‘Contemplation’ has an august history used in Western thought to describe the mind’s approach to God and in Eastern philosophy to characterize the highest state of existence, but it remains — even in more modest uses — an obscure term. What goes on when we contemplate something, what are we actually doing?

“The process of perceptual contemplation of an object has, classically, five aspects:

1. Animadversion: noticing details.
2. Concursus: seeing relations between parts.
3. Hololepsis: seizing the whole as the whole.
4. The lingering caress.
5. Catalepsis: mutual absorption” (p81).

“Contemplation — in its initial aspect of animadversion — is time spent noticing details; that is, the process of becoming visually aware of parts of the picture which our habitual rapid scanning tends to gloss over. This is a process which sometimes requires conscious effort, we feel we are literally turning our attention on to different parts of the canvas and saying to ourselves: Well now, what is actually there?” (p83).

Follower of Massys, St Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, circa 1530 (p85).

“Concursus… involves seeing together many individual elements of the picture. Its pay-off comes in an enrichment of visual significance, of meaning. Scrutiny of a work of art frequently involves a rhythm of attention to individual parts and to the relations between those parts. This rhythm is required by art and it is also native to the perceiving mind. In fact we can see here how works of art respect and play up to the natural character of exploratory and synthetic attention; it is a native resource of the mind which we can bring into active, and developed, service in the engagement with works of art and which artists usually presuppose we will bring into service” (p91).

“The ambition of concursive attention — the ambition of drawing things together and seeing them in relation to each other —  naturally expands to incorporate more and more elements of the work; its logical maximum reveals a further aspect of contemplation” (p91): hololepsis. “Hololepsis yields an archetype of completeness and coherent explanation — thus responding to two of the great aims of mental activity. The contemplation of art of this kind and in this way can satisfy yearnings which the world generally frustrates. The world frequently springs the unexpected and sprawls in seemingly meaningless disorder. The prestige of systems of total explanation — religious, scientific, historical, philosophic — indicates a general need to grasp the world as a coherent whole in the face of its apparent confusion. A work of hololeptic art has the advantage over some of these systems in that its coherence does not rest upon falsehood; it has the advantage over others that what it offers is visible and palpable rather than abstract. Yes, of course, the price a work of art pays for this is that its completeness is bounded by its own small physical extent. It answers a yearning, but only in a restricted area. Hololeptic contemplation, thus, links the experience of art to the wider demands of reflective life and suggests how, to a certain kind of person, the experience of art could be of prime private importance” (p95).

“When we keep our [hololeptic] attention fixed upon an object which attracts us [a lingering caress], two things tend to happen: we get absorbed in the object and the object gets absorbed into us [catalepsis]… The quality and virtue of contemplation may depend… upon what it is we are giving ourselves over to. We can visually contemplate anything which we can see; but do some objects reward this kind of attention more than others? The belief that it makes a difference what you contemplate relies upon the assumption that what you contemplate gets inside you; contemplation is the spiritual analogue of eating” (p99-100).

2 Responses to “The Five Aspects of Perceptual Contemplation”

  1. CarmenJess Says:

    Perceptual Contemplation…Wow, this is cool, it resonates with me. Like the terms used too. Thanks Greg Pass

  2. Helena Hildur W. Says:

    Well, I wonder… just cannot find any connections to these, admittedly ‘cool’, Latin terms on sites like ‘Catholic Culture’ and ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’. Where did he pick them up? Anybody who knows?

    For a very serious, yet comprehensible, discussion on related matters, see Arthur Zajonc’s recent book ‘Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry’.

    I see you touch on a number of interesting subjects here. A la prochaine!

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