Arthur Koestler and Music Theory
by Roger E. Bissell 
A paper submitted January, 1971, in partial fulfillment of requirements for Seminar: Music Theory Research (25:237), also presented orally Dec. 7 and 14, 1970 at the University of Iowa


            The main thrust of this paper is to present an outline of the general theory of Arthur Koestler with respect to biology and psychology and human creativity, with the intention of indicating some of the applications which he has made specifically to the field of music.

            In addition, I will be indicating certain other problems and controversies in music theory, psychology, esthetics, etc., not explicitly raised by Koestler himself, yet which I believe can best be resolved within his theoretical framework.

            Finally, I will point out in passing certain similarities between Koestler’s ideas and those of Susanne K. Langer and Leonard B. Meyer. This is for the benefit of those who share my interest in these latter two and might be interested in seeing many of the ideas and problems they themselves treat being very masterfully and intelligibly dealt with by Arthur Koestler.

            By way of introduction, I would like first to present a thumbnail biographical sketch of Koestler and then even briefer reviews of Koestler’s two recent books, which are my main sources in this paper: namely, The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine.

Table of Contents

Preface, 1

Biography, 2

Reviews, 6

Works by Arthur Koestler, 8

Interjection, 10

Theory, 10

Application (category #1)

Application (category #2)





            Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest, Hungary on September 5, 1905. He was the only child of Henrik K. Koestler, an Hungarian industrialist and inventor and his Viennese wife, Adele Koestler.

            Throughout his childhood, he was very lonely and introspective; and although he was reared bilinguially (learning both Hungarian and German), his interests were restricted almost exclusively to mathematics, science, and chess.

            His early childhood in Budapest was bracketed by two upheavals in Eastern Europe: the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, a decade later. The latter were sufficient to ruin his father’s merchandising business, so the family then moved to Vienna.

            Graduating from boarding school in Baden (near Vienna) in 1922 at the age of 16, he then entered Technische Hochschule (Polytechnik), a school with university status (now the University of Vienna). Although his parents were Jewish, he had no strong attraction to Judaism until he was persuaded to join the Zionist movement at the university, then leaving in April of 1926 for Palestine, without finishing his degree.

            Koestler worked and nearly starved during the next two years in a series of part-time jobs scattered throughout the Middle East, finally being hired as a correspondent for some German newspaper, book, and magazine publishers, for whom he was to cover a seven-country "beat," writing three articles a week. In July 1929 he was transferred to Paris and a year later to Berlin, where he held down the positions of science editor, advisor, and foreign editor. During the summer of 1931, he was the only newsman to go on the arctic exploration of the Graf Zeppelin.

            On December 31, 1931, foreseeing the coming to power of the German Nazis, Koestler joined the Communist party; having read much of the literature of the two ideological groups, Koestler felt morally and intellectually compelled to choose between them. He left for the U.S.S.R. in July 1932, spending a year there as a guest of the government, then moved on to France, working as a free-lance journalist and apprentice in novel-writing.

            As a correspondent for the London News Chronicle, Koestler went to Spain in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. There his articles about the extent of German and Italian military aid led the fascists under Generalissimo Franco to believe that he was spying against them. They captured him in February of 1937, placed him in solitary confinement for three months in a prison at Seville, and had sentenced him to death; fortunately, however, the British Foreign Office intervened, arranging for his release, which came in May of that same year.

            Becoming disillusioned with the Communist party, he left it in the summer of 1938, then going to Paris where he worked as editor of a German-language, anti-Hitler, anti-Stalin weekly. When World War II broke out, he was arrested as an "undesirable alien" (refugee) and again imprisoned, this time at the notorious French detention camp at Le Vernet; again, through British intervention, he was released in January of 1940, arriving in England that fall. However, since he had used false papers to implement his escape, and since Britain was in the throes of a nationwide Fifth Column scare, he was again locked up, this time for a brief spell in Pentonville Prison. Upon being released in the spring of1941, he joined the British Army Pioneer Corps; after being discharged one year later, Koestler joined the British Ministry of Information where he remained for the balance of the war.

            Since World War II, Koestler has lived in England as a British subject, having become a naturalized citizen. In 1948, he covered the Arab-Jewish war in Israel for the Manchester Guardian, and since then has done much traveling abroad, with the bulk of his time being divided between London and the Austrian Tyrol, where he has avidly pursued his interest in mountain-climbing. He has been married twice and has engaged in a number of hobbies in addition to mountain-climbing, such as chess, canoeing, and being a connoisseur of the fine wines. He claims, however, no religious or political affiliations (as one familiar with his autobiographical writings would expect). He is also a member of England’s P.E.N. Club and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

            1955 was, in one key respect a sort of breakwater year for Arthur Koestler, in that he turned away from political work and political writing and toward science, particularly psychology. His new subject matter still possessed much controversy, however, and his writing style still possessed a discernible element of personal involvement, his accounts becoming speculative as well as reportive. Throughout his post-1955 scientific writings, his fondness for scientific terminology and detail, first-hand reporting, and sweeping generalization can be found. If one were hostile to Koestler’s views, one might with some justification dismiss him as a mere, banal popularizer of science, were it not for his constant contact, and close friendships with, many of the leading figures in the world of science today, as well as his own educational background.

            Typical of his deep concern with modern science are his Fellowship with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1965), his address to the 14th Nobel Symposium in Stockholm (1969), and his calling together a symposium in the life sciences, in which a number of various fields were represented by such unchallenged authorities in their fields as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, F. A. Hayek, Barbel Inhelder, Jean Piaget, and Paul Weiss (1968).  

            In conclusion, I would like to set forth the view that Arthur Koestler is an archetypal embodiment of the dilemmas of 20th century man, because of the reflection in his life and work of the great social and moral controversies of our time: totalitarianism vs. freedom, action vs. contemplation, collectivism vs. individualism, science vs. religion, and reason vs. mysticism.


            A complete listing and discussion of all of Koestler’s writings is beyond the scope of this paper; I have merely tried to set up the personal, historical, and philosophical context within which Koestler wrote the two works I am going to consider. (A full, annotated listing of his writings has been included as an appendix to this paper.)

            The two works under consideration here are The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine. Their broadest concerns—i.e., their theses—are respectively, the creativity and the pathology of the human mind.

            The Act of Creation (Macmillan, 1964, hereinafter Act) is a major contribution to the area of the study of human creativity. The first part of the book sets forth a theory outlining the basic pattern common to the conscious and unconscious processes underlying scientific, artistic, and comic creation. The second half is an extension, by analogy, of the concept of "creativity" to every level of the evolutionary scale—from one-celled organisms and fertilized ova to adult humans (and genius ones, at that!). By means of the numerous parallels offered as empirical, supporting evidence, and by means of the basic theoretical concept he offers to explain and unify these parallels, Koestler proposes, then, the theory that creativity on the human level is only the highest manifestation of a creative phenomenon present on all evolutionary levels, a phenomenon operating by the same principles on each level, as well.

            The book itself is not only a major contribution to contemporary psychology, but is also a well-documented study in the history of scientific discovery and an essay in literary and artistic analysis. For any of these virtues, I strongly recommend the book, let alone for its particular relevance to this seminar.

            My other primary source—The Ghost in the Machine (Macmillan, 1967, hereinafter Ghost)—attempts a scientific explanation of man’s impulse to destruction, in terms of an alleged mistake by nature in the process of evolution. Part III of the book is devoted to an exposition of Koestler’s thesis: namely, that there is insufficient integration between the neurological structures in the rational and emotional centers of man’s brain, resulting in an innate tendency toward irrational, destructive behavior. Although I disagree with Koestler’s thesis, I found it fascinating to follow his account of the various ways in which man, the individual, can psychologically submerge himself into larger social, religious, and political groups; how he thus loses all individuality, critical judgment, and contact with reality, in the extreme cases; and how actions on behalf of such larger groups or "causes" have been responsible for by far the "lion’s share" of cruelty, hostility, and destruction throughout history, as opposed to the comparatively insignificant amount of evil caused by individuals acting on their own (mistaken or irrational) self-interest.

            It is not for the thesis itself that I make recourse to this book, however, but for the basis by which it is supported in Parts I and II. Here Koestler presents a detailed analysis of the nature of mind, thought, learning, and evolution, offering strong critiques of behavioral psychology and Darwinian evolution. To the extent that this material amplifies and expands upon points made in Act, my presentation will rely upon Ghost, as well. Needless to say, I highly recommend both books to anyone interested in any of the areas mentioned here.


            The rest of this paper will fall roughly into two parts: theory and application. Even in setting forth the theory, however, I will be making some applicative observations, and in applying the theory I will need to extend it as well. The applications have been divided into three main categories, only the first two of which will be dealt with in this paper. These categories are:

(1) perception, memory, and motor-skills,

(2) esthetics, and 

(3) comparison of Koestler’s views with those of Leonard B. Meyer and  Susanne K. Langer on the subjects of "entropy" and the concept of "evolution," respectively.

            Before getting to the areas of perception, memory, motor-skills, and esthetics, I want to briefly set forth Koestler’s main theoretical assertions. His basic premise is that order, wherever it occurs, is hierarchically structured. All entities and systems—and in particular, living organisms—are hierarchically ordered. This is basically in opposition to the view that an organism structurally is merely a conglomeration or aggregation of elementary parts (a reductive view) and that an organism functionally is merely a string or chain of elementary units of behavior (the behaviorist view in psychology).

            Instead, living organisms are to be viewed as multi-leveled hierarchies, composed of semi-autonomous sub-wholes, branching into lower-order sub-wholes, etc. Each of these sub-wholes or sub-systems is itself an entity that exhibits the dual characteristics or aspects of "partness" and "wholeness." That is, each is related to the next higher level of the hierarchy as a part and to the next lower level as a whole. Thus, in biology at least, "part" and "wholes" are only relative terms. This part-whole duality is present on every level of every hierarchy, living or not, and is referred to by Koestler as the Janus effect (or Janus principle), in honor of the Roman god, guarding the doorway with his key and staff, his two faces looking in opposite directions.

            This is in contrast both to the atomist view of the Behaviorist approach in psychology which treats parts as absolutes and the holistic approach of Gestalt psychology, treating wholes as absolutes. To Koestler, these two seemingly diametrically opposed views are merely opposite sides to the same coin, since each fails "to take into account the hierarchic scaffolding of intermediate structures of sub-wholes." The dual-aspect hierarchic concept is intended to resolve or reconcile such conflicting positions, without denying any of their merits.

            By "hierarchy," Koestler does not refer merely to order or rank, such as the rungs on a ladder, as in the ecclesiastical derivation of the word. Instead, he refers to the tree-like structure of a system as defined above, and as diagrammed below.

            Koestler distinguishes two main categories of hierarchies:

(1) structural hierarchies, which emphasize the spatial aspect (the anatomy or topology) of a system; and

(2) functional hierarchies, which emphasize the process carried out by a system through a period of time.

            He holds, however, that structure and function cannot be separated physically, that they are "complementary aspects of an individual spatio-temporal process;" but they can be separated in thought—i.e., it is possible to focus on one aspect or the other, according to convenience. Further, Koestler holds that although all hierarchies have a "part within part" nature, it is "more easily recognized in ‘structural’ than in ‘functional’ hierarchies—such as the skills of language and music which weave patterns within patterns in time."

            There are basically two ways of diagramming hierarchies. The first way tends to emphasize functional aspects (and only sometimes the structural aspects) of a hierarchy. (See above diagram.)[sorry, diagram not included] The dots are referred to by Koestler as nodes, and the lines are lines of communication from one node to another. The depth of such a hierarchy is the number of levels comprising it, and the span is the number of sub-wholes on a given level of the hierarchy. (Among other things, the efficient working of a complex hierarchy must depend on the proper ratio of depth to span. Some of the other things will be considered later.) On the other hand, if we want to emphasize the structural aspect alone we could use the second type of diagram:  [sorry, diagram not included] 

             Koestler personally prefers the former, the branching-tree type of diagram, because the latter is "clumsy and contains less information..." Quite often, however, the form of music from the Common Practice period (and of much other music) is analyzed and diagrammed in the latter of the two above methods, as a "structural" hierarchy, using the one-dimensional variant.

            Admittedly, the two above types of diagrams are radically different in appearance, seeming to imply that Koestler’s assertion of the indivisibility of structure and function is arbitrary and without basis. The following demonstration (see diagram) provides convincing proof, however, that they are really equivalent or, better, that we can convert one diagram into the other.

            There have been other separate categories of hierarchies suggested, but these are all reducible to one of the two types above. For our purposes, let us consider two of these:

(1) symbolic hierarchies, such as language, music, and mathematics. According   to Koestler, they could just as well be classified under "functional hierarchies," since they are produced by human operations. For instance, a symphony, especially in its written score form, can be dissected into parts within parts, which reflect the nature of the skills and sub-skills (functions) which brought it into being.

(2) on the other hand, considering music, as it occurs to us, to be a developmental hierarchy, where "the tree branches out along the axis of time, the different levels represent different stages of development, and the nodes reflect intermediary structures at these stages."

            The next item for consideration is the nature of the nodes on the diagrams. Each unit or sub-whole on each level—each node—is referred to by the generic term holon. This is a term coined by Koestler to avoid the tedious, awkward repetition of such words as sub-wholes, sub-assemblies, sub-structures, sub-skills, sub-systems, etc., in referring to those nodes on the hierarchic tree. The derivation is Greek: holos = whole, with on as a suffix, suggesting particle or part (as in proton or neutron).

            Each holon, then, behaves partly as a whole or wholly as a part, depending upon the way you look at it. The tendency to act as a part is referred to as the integrative (or self-transcending or participatory) tendency; and the tendency to act as an autonomous whole is called the self-assertive (or aggressive) tendency. Thus, each holon has the dual tendency to preserve and assert its individuality as a quasi-autonomous whole—and to function as an integrated part of an existing or evolving larger whole.

            Such a balance or polarity between tendencies is inherent in the concept of hierarchic order, being derived theoretically from the part-whole duality and observed empirically in the world. Put another way, the self-assertive tendencies are the dynamic or functional aspect of a holon’s wholeness, and the integrative tendencies are the dynamic or functional expression of its partness.

            It may be further noted that a holon on the n-level of a hierarchy is represented on the (n + 1)-level as a unit. This, too, is implicit in the part-whole duality. Normally, furthermore, the higher levels of a hierarchy are not in direct contact with lower ones, but rather through what Koestler calls "regulation channels," one step at a time up or down. We shall see why later.

            Another pair of complementary principles are arborization and reticulation. Aborization is nothing more than the branching out of a hierarchy into a "vertical" structure, while reticulation refers to the forming of "horizontal" networks by the interlocking of the branches of different hierarchies at one or more levels. Remember these two principles; we shall use them later also.

            Now, to what can we apply all of this? These abstractions were drawn from actual connections seen in the world, and there is a multitude of examples in each of Koestler’s books. Among them are the species-genus-family-order-class-phylum type of classification in biology, the structure of a book (section-chapter-paragraph-sentence-clause-phrase-word-letter), the structure of biological organisms (molecules-cells-organs-organ systems), etc. In general, Koestler applies the term "holon"—and all of its properties—to any stable biological, psychological, social, or ecological sub-whole that displays rule-governed behavior (functioning) and/or structural Gestalt constancy.

            We see, then, that what differentiates or separates one holon from another—and thus allows a hierarchy to be dissectable into its composite holons, the holons into sub-holons, etc.—is the same thing that integrates it or gives it cohesion: namely, its own definite pattern of rule-governed behavior (functioning) and/or its own definite structure pattern.

            Talking specifically now about functional holons, Koestler says that they are governed by fixed sets of rules and display more-or-less flexible strategies. The rules or canon of the system (i.e., of the functional holon) determine its invariant properties, its structural configuration and/or its functional pattern. While the rules (or canon) define permissible steps in a holon’s activity, there is a strategic selection of the actual step, chosen from a number of possibilities within the range of a holon’s competence. This selection is guided by feedbacks from the contingencies of the environment of the holon or, more colloquially, from the "lay of the land" in the holon’s surroundings. Thus, the canon determines the "rules of the game," so to speak, and the strategy determines the course of the game.

            All skills, inborn and acquired, are functional hierarchies, sub-skills being holons governed by sub-rules. On successively higher levels of hierarchies, holons show increasingly complex, more flexible and less predictable patterns of activity, while on successively lower levels we find increasingly mechanized, stereotyped and predictable patterns.

            All skills, however, tend to become automatized routines with increasing practice; this process is the continual transformation of "mental" into "mechanical" activities. All other things being equal, a monotonous environment facilitates mechanization; whereas new, unexpected developments or contingencies require decisions to be shifted to a higher hierarchic level, an upward shift of controls from more "mechanical" to more "mindful" activities.

            Each upward shift is reflected by more vivid, precise consciousness of ongoing activity. Further, since the variety of alternative choices increases with the increase of complexity on higher levels, each upward shift is accompanied by the intensification of the subjective experience or awareness of freedom of decision. Thus, we have replaced the dualistic Cartesian theory of mind-body (where the two are absolutely different substances which somehow mysteriously interact) with a hierarchic serialistic approach, where "mental" or "mechanical" appear as relative attributes of a single unitary process. Dominance of one or the other of these attributes in a given action depends upon whether there has been a change in the level of control of ongoing operations.

            Consciousness, or awareness, then, is an emergent quality appearing in primitive form at first, and evolving towards more complex, precise states. We know this to be true of ourselves directly through introspection, and to be true of others and of animals indirectly through inference from our extrospective awareness of their behavior.

            Thus, on this view, there is no mysterious discontinuity between physical and mental processes in a living organism. Consciousness is only the most complex manifestation of what all of an organism’s capacities for life have in common: namely, the Integrative Tendency, the tendency to extract order out of disorder, and information out of noise. In general, when we talk about "life," we are talking about the capacity of an organism for self-sustained and self-generated growth, the power to constantly "build up" more complex substances from the ones it feeds on, more complex energies from the ones it absorbs, and more complex patterns of information (perception, feeling, thought) from the input of its receptor organs.

            Now the first conclusion I want to draw from the foregoing is that organization of information—specifically, here, by means of perception—is done. To explain how it is done, then, is one of two main problems involved in the first category of Applications of Koestler’s theory. In particular, we shall consider perception of pattern in music and recall of various aspects of music in memory.

            Secondly, the claim was made above that our actions are hierarchically structured and, further, tend to become automatized. Just how this happens—how we learn skills in general and musical ones in particular—is our other main consideration here.

Application (Category #1)

          In this first broad category of application, we are going to be concerned most generally with the working of the sensory-motor nervous system—i.e., with "outputs" or actions and with "inputs" or information (which includes sensations, perceptions, conceptions, and their products such as memory).

            Koestler gives what is admittedly a very simplified model of how our sensory-motor nervous systems function, but which serves as a good concrete image to hold in mind during the discussion following. The analogy he gives is that of a "military operation in old-fashioned classical warfare":

The General in Command issues an order which contains the plan of action in broad outlines; this is transmitted from Divisional Headquarters to Brigade Headquarters to Battalion Headquarters, and so on; at each successive echelon in the hierarchy the plan is more elaborated until the last detail is filled in. The reverse process takes place in collecting information about the movements of the enemy and the lie of the land. The data are collected on the lowest, local levels by patrols reconnoitering the terrain. They are then stripped of irrelevant detail, condensed, filtered, and combined with data from other sources at each higher echelon, as the stream of information flows upward along converging branches of the hierarchy.

          Now, on the sensory-perceptual side, we have a series of "filters" or "scanners" which all input traffic must pass on the way up from the sense-organs to the cerebral cortex:

Their function is to analyze, de-code, classify and abstract the information that the stream carries, until the chaotic multitude of sensations, which constantly bombard the senses, is transformed into meaningful messages.

            Recent experiments (Galambos, 1956) have shown that with respect to hearing, the brain’s stimulus-screening activity starts in the ear. In one experiment:

[A] cat’s auditory nerve was tapped and wired to an amplifier, so that impulses passing from ear to brain were directly recorded. The impulses were caused by the clicking of a metronome. But the moment a mouse in a glass jar was shown to the cat the firings in the auditory nerve were diminished or ceased altogether: the cat was turning a "deaf ear" on the metronome.

             It was further discovered that there were a number of efferent, inhibitory fibers connecting the cerebral cortex with the cochlea in the cat’s ear, suggesting very strongly that the process of selecting stimuli is centrally located—that the attitude, the expectation, the pattern to which the organism is tuned in at the time is what determines what will be a stimulus and what will not!

            This first stage, then—selective control of input—is the screening or filtering out of sensations that are irrelevant to the activity at hand or the mood of the moment. Were this selective control not possible, the whole world of experience would be like the "bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion" of pure sensation without organization, which is the newborn infant’s world. So, I might suggest to those who have been seeking the "total experience" to music, unmediated or "distorted" by mental organization, that they just check into Mercy Hospital and have a surgeon remove or sever those efferent, inhibitory fibers. That would be an effective (if somewhat gory) solution to their problem!

            Following the first stage is a whole series of relaying operations that further process the input, stripping it of that which appears to be irrelevant, according to specific criteria of relevance. Koestler has labeled this process "de-particularization," which is meant to convey what is implied by such terms as "generalization" or "abstraction." Most familiar to us are the visual constancies. The tendency, for instance, to see a familiar object as being its actual size, regardless of its distance from us, is called the "size constancy phenomenon." Objects moving about:

do not seem to shrink or grow in size—as they should—because we know that their size remains constant, and this knowledge somehow interferes with the visual input at some level of the nervous system and falsifies it in the noble cause of making it conform to reality.

            The color and shape of the retinal image of a moving object are always changing with changes in illumination and angle of vision, yet we are mostly oblivious to these changes, too, because of the color and shape constancy phenomena. Thus, even though the "mosaic" of our sensations is always changing, these visual constancies help us to make sense out of it.

            There are similar constancy phenomena in music, the simplest of which are timbral, pitch and rhythmic constancies. For instance, "we know that the timbre of an instrument is determined by the series of partials which accompany the fundamental, and by the energy distribution among them." When, in listening to a symphony, we are able to identify a flute or violin sound, we have done so "by picking out and bracketing together its partials, which were drowned among thousands of other partials in the composite air-pressure wave."

            To be able to do this, however—to be able to say, "Ah, that’s a flute!", during a symphony—implies one of two possibilities, both of which in turn imply some very interesting questions:

(1) Either this recognition is based on past experience, where one heard the flute in isolation and learned its timbre then.

(2) Or the flute is being strongly highlighted in some manner—being allowed to carry the melody, for instance—so as to set it in relative isolation from the rest of the sound wave, one’s having been told that the flute will be isolated in such a manner in advance.

            This latter possibility points directly to the question: How does one isolate and trace a melody or tune in the first place? What determines a tune? Here we have reached the level where we come face to face with the puzzling phenomenon of pattern-recognition—or, put another way, to the problem of how we abstract and recognize universals. Koestler says:

A tune is defined by rhythm and pitch. Rhythm derives from the hierarchic organization of beat-cum-accent into measure, measure into phrase. To qualify as a tune, the pitch-variation sequence must conform to certain codes of modality, key, harmony. These codes must also be represented in the listener’s perceptual organization, otherwise there would be no musical experience, only the sensation of a medley of sounds—as when a European listens for the first time to Chinese opera. It is either "taken in" as a whole...or learned by the integration of sub-wholes, that is, of entire phrases—but never by chaining note to note in the manner of learning nonsense syllables (though even these tend to form patterns). A chain of notes could not be transposed from one key or instrument to another; nor recognized after transposition.

            A tune, then, is a temporal pattern of notes in a given scale. The notes are its units; by humming it in a different key, or playing it on a different instrument, the units are changed but the relation remains invariant in all transformations. On a higher level, the tune as a whole becomes a unit which enters into relations with other tonal patterns; or with itself in retrograde or inversion, etc.; or contrapuntally with other themes. (There is a basic similarity here to Meyer’s architectonic view of musical form.)

            Most people can learn and recognize simple melodies, and just as readily can identify the sounds of various instruments—but very few people are privileged enough to have the capacity of absolute pitch—that is, of being able to identify a single note. In other words, Koestler says:

[The] retention of a pattern of stimuli is the rule, retention of an isolated stimulus the exception. If the pattern is relatively simple, it is "taken in at a glance," as a whole...But the more complex the pattern, the more difficult it becomes to "take in the whole at a glance," and it can be retained only by dint of a certain amount of rote learning.

            To sum up the foregoing: I think it is rather apparent that when we listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, for example, that:

[The] air vibrations do not become music [a full ensemble of instruments and voices, that is] in one single, magic transformation from the physical to the mental, but by a series of operations, of abstracting patterns in time and assembling them into more comprehensive patterns on higher levels of the hierarchy. The conscious appreciation of music depends on this, and the degree of "musical awareness" corresponds to the degree of integration of melodic, harmonic, contrapuntal [and other] patterns into a coherent whole.

            Now I intimated earlier that there was another question regarding how one might recognize the flute’s sound. Namely, how do we remember timbre, or any other characteristic? What is the nature of memory?

            Unfortunately, the basic neurophysiological questions behind memory have not yet been resolved; they are complex ones, indeed. Koestler, himself, no more than states the alternative theories presently held; and while such a consideration is beyond my scope here, the reader may find it of interest to read Koestler’s account. As we have seen, however, "all but the most elementary perceptions interact with past experience," so it is really unsound to discuss perception apart from memory, and vice versa. Rather, we will follow Koestler’s lead in treating "perception, recognition, and memory-formation as a continuous series."

            The bulk of what we remember of our life history and our knowledge is of what Koestler calls the "abstractive" type. For every consciously recorded aspect of an event, countless "irrelevant" details have been stripped from it; memory is more and more reduced, as time goes by, to an outline, a condensed abstract of the original experience, from which particulars have been stripped away.

            This "impoverishment of lived experience" has its advantages and compensations, however. First of all, the matter of parsimony or mental economy is involved here: if we could not abstract universals such as dog, tree, or pitch—which necessarily implies the "sacrifice" of particulars—our memory would be reduced to a collection of all of our particular experiences of dogs or trees or pitches, a completely useless collection, moreover. Why? Because no sensory input is identical in all respects with any other item of stored data. We would never be able to identify a dog or a tree or a pitch or understand a single spoken sentence; we would be lost in an immense maze of particularized data, with no logical connections between them.

            Secondly, we can, through training and practice, enable ourselves to discriminate and abstract finer and finer nuances in what we perceive, to classify percepts and concepts into wider categories, as well as break them down into smaller sub-categories, to make our perceptual hierarchy "grow new twigs," so to speak.


Memory is not based on a single abstractive hierarchy, but on a variety of interlocking hierarchies—such as those of vision, taste and hearing. It is like a forest of separate trees but with entwined branches...Thus the recognition of a taste is often dependent on cues provided by smell, even though we may not be aware of it. But there are more subtle cross-connections...You can recognize a tune played on a violin, although you have previously only heard it played on the piano; on the other hand, you can recognize the sound of a violin, although the last time a quite different tune was played on it. We must therefore assume that melody and timbre have been abstracted and stored independently by separate hierarchies within the same sense modality, but with different criteria of relevance. One abstracts melody and filters out everything else as irrelevant; the other abstracts the timbre of the instrument and treats melody as irrelevant. Thus not all the details discarded in the process of stripping the input are irretrievably lost, because details stripped off as irrelevant according to the criteria of one hierarchy may have been retained and stored by another hierarchy with different criteria of relevance. The recall of the experience would then be made possible by the co-operation of several interlocking hierarchies, which may include different sense modalities, for instance sight and sound, or different branches within the same modality. Each by itself would provide one aspect only of the original experience—a drastic impoverishment. Thus you may remember the words only of the aria "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen," but have lost the melody. Or you may remember the melody only, having forgotten the words. Finally, you may recognize Caruso’s voice on a gramophone record, without remembering what you last heard him sing. But if two or all three of these factors are represented in the memory store, the reconstruction of the experience in recall will of course be more complete.

            This is not the only type of memory-formation, however:

There exists, indeed, a method of retention which seems to be the direct opposite of memory-formation in abstractive hierarchies. It is characterized by the preservation of vivid details, which, from a purely logical point of view, are often quite irrelevant; and yet these quasi-cinematographic details or "close-ups," which seem to contradict the demands of parsimony, are both enduring, strikingly sharp, and add texture and flavor to memory.

But if these fragments are so irrelevant, why have they been preserved? The obvious answer is that while irrelevant from the point of view of logic, they must have some special emotive significance—which may be conscious or not. Indeed, such "vivid fragments" are usually described as "striking," "evocative," "nostalgic," "frightening," or "moving"—in a word, they are always emotionally colored. Thus among the criteria of relevance which decide whether an experience is worth preserving, we have also to include emotional relevance. The reason why a particular experience should have this kind of relevance may be unknown to the subject himself; it may be symbolic or oblique. Nobody—not even a computer theorist—thinks all the time in terms of abstractive hierarchies; emotion colors all our perceptions, and there is abundant evidence to show that emotional reactions also involve a hierarchy of levels, including some ancient structures in the brain which are phylogenetically much older than the modern structures concerned with abstract conceptualizations. One might speculate that in the formation of picture-strip memories these older, primitive levels in the hierarchy play a dominant part. There are some further considerations in favor of such a hypothesis. Abstractive memory generalizes and schematizes, while the picture-strip particularizes and concretizes—which is a much more primitive method of storing information.

            This second, picture-strip type of memory is also related to so-called eidetic images. A considerable percentage of children have this faculty of focusing on a picture, for instance, for about 15 minutes and then afterward see it "projected" on an empty screen, point out the location of each detail, its color, etc. Upon the onset of puberty, however, eidetic memory fades away—probably because abstractive, conceptual thinking and memory has become dominant; rarely do we encounter adults who have this capacity. For normal adults, the visual images associated with our memories are "much vaguer and sketchier" than we would like to believe. They are more on the order of "skeletonized visual generalizations—outlines, patterns, schemata—abstracted from the original output by several interlocking visual hierarchies, such as the melody, the timbre of voice and the words are extracted from the Caruso aria."

            In summary: for purposes of recognition, the "melody" of a tune alone may be sufficient. But the recall of the tune in its absence "will be the more complete the more branches of the perceptual hierarchy have participated in retaining it. The richer the network connecting them the more effectively it will compensate for the impoverishment of experience in the process of storing it."

            As we have seen, then, Koestler’s theory of hierarchic order applies quite well to the complex phenomena of perception and memory. Rather than go into a lengthy analysis, a la Koestler, of motor skills, I will instead give a briefer treatment of a related subject: self- consciousness.

            First, recall what was said earlier about "the higher levels of a hierarchy [not being] in direct contact with the lower ones, except through ‘regulation channels’." Next, consider the following:

When we exercise a well-practiced skill the parts must function smoothly and automatically—they must never occupy the focus of attention...The code which controls the performance functions on a lower level of consciousness than the performance itself—on the fringes of awareness or, in completely automatized skills, even beyond the fringe. The moment attention is focused on a normally automatized part-function...the matrix breaks down...and the performance is paralyzed—like the centipede who was asked in which order he moved his hundred legs, and could walk no more.

            Such a situation—known as the "paradox of the centipede"—is basically the same as when a person becomes overly concerned with what he should do with his hands, throat muscles, etc., while performing and, in effect, gets himself "all tied up in knots," not able to do a thing. The reason for this is that the nervous system’s hierarchic organization demands that one’s highest center be occupied only with the whole task at hand, leaving "the execution of component sub-tasks and sub-sub-tasks to the sub-centers, etc., on lower levels of the nervous system." If one tries to "give orders" to—that is, to concentrate one’s attention upon—one’s tiniest sub-skills during action, the action will go "haywire." Only if one is retraining oneself, replacing a wrong or undesirable sub-skill with a new, preferred one, would such a breakdown of activity be acceptable psychologically.

Application (Category #2)

            Of the psychological holons, one particular type has relevance to both art and mental creativity. These are called the cognitive holons or matrices, which Koestler defines as "sets of mental habits and skills governed by a fixed set of rules but capable of varied strategies in attacking a problem."

            Routine thinking, within the framework of one cognitive holon (matrix), is called associative thinking. Whenever two or more previously unlinked matrices are linked in thought, it is a bisociation. "Bisociation means combining two hitherto unrelated cognitive matrices in such a way that a new level is added to the hierarchy, which contains the previously separate structures as its members." Therefore, "...associative routine means thinking according to a given set of rules on a single plane, as it were. The bisociative acts means combining two different sets of rules, to live on several planes at once."

            This latter, bisociation, is for Koestler the precondition of both creativity and of the esthetic response. Let us see how.

            Briefly, in the case of creativity, Koestler’s theory holds that whenever a crucial challenge arises which cannot be met by an organism’s routine behavior patterns—a blind alley, so to speak—a new skill must be quickly developed (regeneration) or the organism will suffer a degenerative breakdown of activity. Much evidence supports the hypothesis that this new skill is developed by a temporary regression to an earlier, more primitive level of development, followed by a fluctuation back up to a modified pattern of activity ("reculer pour mieux sauter"). At any rate, this appears to be the basic pattern of both biological and mental evolution, and is well substantiated by Koestler in both of his books.

            To apply his theory specifically to the case of thinkers, artists and wits is not too difficult. Often such people face challenges to further progress in their understanding, self-expression, etc., which their normal modes of thought and expression are unable to meet satisfactorily. They then "reach back" subconsciously, bisociate their problem area with another previously unconnected matrix, and arrive at a new, modified matrix. Some of the ways in which this happens will be mentioned under the topic of esthetics, immediately following; I leave a full consideration of how this applies to all creative thinking for the interested reader to pursue in Koestler’s books.

            For the perceiver of a creation, the contemplator or observer in the esthetic experience, two aspects are crucial:  

(1) bisociation of matrices, as indicated above and discussed more fully below: 

(2) human beings have emotions, value-tendencies to action, which—like all tendencies to action—are of one of two types: self-assertive or integrative (self-transcending, participatory, identificatory).

            Traditionally, psychologists have regarded the self-assertive emotions—such as hunger, pain, rage, and fear—as the only "true" or "major" emotions. Since "emotion" is etymologically derived from "motion"—and only the self-assertive emotions tend toward overt action—it was regarded by many as a contradiction in terms to regard such responses as grief, longing, rapture, and esthetic pleasure and being emotions.

            Yet, as Koestler points out, precisely those esthetic (and other) experiences which we call "moving" are the ones that encourage passive contemplation (physically passive, in an overt sense only; contemplation is, of course, a form of mental activity) and silent enjoyment. For this reason, even though they do not result in impulses to muscular action (of the hit-run-mate-devour type), they are every bit as real.

            Koestler points out the fact that the self-assertive and participatory emotions are just special manifestations of the self-assertive and participatory tendencies, in general, which are the dynamic correlates of the dual aspects of "wholeness" and "partness":

From the psychological point of view, the self-asserting emotions, derived from emergency reactions, involve a narrowing of consciousness; the participatory emotions an expansion of consciousness by identificatory processes of various kinds."

Humor exploits the former of these tendencies and art the latter; science involves a more delicate balance between the two.

            The three basic responses which a bisociative act—and interaction between two independent matrices of perception or reasoning—may produce are:

(1) the HAHA reaction: laughter caused by a  "collision" of matrices,

(2) the AHA reaction: curiosity and intellectual insight resulting from fusion of matrices into a new, more permanent synthesis, and

(3) the AH reaction: catharsis caused by the confrontation of matrices in an esthetic experience.

            Specifically with regard to the participatory emotions, it is seen that the normally encountered ones are sympathy, identification, pity, admiration, awe, and wonder (the "oceanic" feeling). Certain phenomena are associated with, and facilitate the arousal of, participatory (self-transcending) emotions. Among these are:

(1) artistic, religious, and social communion;

(2) perceptual projection—a process which takes place in the retina and the brain, for instance, being experienced as taking place not where it actually does take place, but yards or miles away;

(3) projective empathy—the tendency to project (unconsciously) life and feeling into inanimate bodies, probably as a result of our own unconscious eye-movements;

(4) emotional projection, of which there are three basic types:

(a) anthropomorphism, the ascribing to our pet dogs, horses, and canaries the reasoning processes which we human beings undergo,

(b) ego-morphism, the illusion that others must feel on any subject exactly as I do,

(c) transference, a situation in which A projects his feelings, originally aimed at B, onto a substitute, C;

(5) introjectionthe forming of identificatory rapport with others, intended to be the reverse of projection, but often indistinguishable from it;

(6) hypnotic states, political fanaticism, the psychology of the mob.

            The first of the above, artistic communion, is a synonym for the esthetic experience, which we will now consider. The essence of the esthetic experience consists, according to Koestler, in two things: "intellectual illumination—seeing something familiar in a new, significant light; followed by emotional catharsis—the rise, expansion, and ebbing away of the self-transcending emotions." The intellectual aspect of this "Eureka" process, then, involves "the perception of a familiar object or even in a new, significant, light; its emotive aspect is the rapt stillness of oceanic wonder."

            The precondition of the esthetic experience is that the matrix providing the "new light" must have a higher emotive potential than the original matrix. That is, this new matrix must have a greater capacity to generate and satisfy participatory emotions. This capacity depends upon several factors: individual experience and context of values, collective cultural attitudes, as well as factors intrinsic to some matrices (for instance, the fact that the religious or mythological "flavor" characteristic of certain associative contexts seems to be objective, universal, and a-cultural.

            Koestler is critical of hedonist theories of esthetics, which fail to differentiate between the experience of beauty (the esthetic experience) and mere sensory gratification. The way to avoid such confusion in the matter, Koestler holds, is to make

a clear distinction between tastes and distastes directly affecting the senses (the tongue, the nose, the ear) [the "polarity of agreeable and disagreeable, attractive and repellent sense-impressions"] and the pleasure-unpleasure tone of complex emotional states mediated by the autonomous nervous system.

            The difference, then, between "sensory gratification and esthetic satisfaction [is due to’ a difference of levels deriving from the hierarchic organization of the nervous system." Koestler provides an excellent example from music which I will quote at length:

Periodic sounds—musical tones—are more pleasing to the ear than a-periodic noises; and some screeching noises—rubbing a blackboard with a dry sponge for instance—are so offensive that they give gooseflesh to some people. Again, among musical chords, the octave, fifth, and major third are more agreeable to the European ear than others; and some dissonances, heard in isolation, can put one on edge. But the flattery or offensiveness of individual chords has only an indirect bearing on the emotional effect of a string quartet as a whole. There is no numerical relation between the number of consonances and our aesthetic appreciation. The pattern of alternation between sweet and bitter sounds is merely one among several relevant patterns interacting with each other in the multi-dimensional experience.

Sensory preferences—the discrimination between sensory stimulations with "agree," and those which "disagree" with out innate or acquired dispositions—do not provide the clue to the nature of aesthetic experience, but they provide one of the clues: particularly those preferences which are part of the human heritage, and shared by all. The Chinese taste for music differs from outs considerably; but all men are subject to the pull of gravity and prefer keeping their balance to losing it. A leaning tower, or a big head on a thin neck give rise to disagreeable sensations mediated by projective empathy. But this again is only part of the story. Inverted, top-heavy, disturbing forms may combine in the picture with forms in repose, creating a total pattern with a balance of a higher order—in which the parts with positive and negative balance play the same role as consonant and dissonant chords, or beats and missed beats in a metric stanza.

Empathy projects our own dynamic experiences of gravity, balance, stress, and striving into [artworks] representing human figures or inert shapes... The Gestalt school has shown that the raw material of the visual input is subjected to yet other kinds of processing than those I have mentioned: the "closure principle" according to which we automatically fill in the gaps in a broken outline; "Praegnanz" (conciseness), "good continuation," symmetry, simplicity are further built-in criteria of excellence which prejudice our perceptions. But once again, it can hardly be maintained that the delights of looking at a perfect circle with a closed circumference, and the disgust with circles marred by a bulge, enter directly into the aesthetic experience. If that were the case, the perfect picture would be a perfect circle with a vertical and a horizontal line intersecting in its center; all hedonistic principles and Gestalt-criteria would be satisfied by it. The innate bias in our taste-buds in favor of sweet compared with acid stimuli is a fact which every theory of culinary aesthetics must take into account; but it does not make syrup the ideal of culinary perfection. Symmetry and asymmetry, closure and gap, continuity and contrast, must combine, like consonances and dissonances, into a pattern on a higher level of the perceptual hierarchy...

            Both Susanne Langer and Leonard Meyer give good critiques of hedonist esthetics and should be read in that connection. Meyer, in particular, amplifies the point made above by Koestler of the importance of not taking any of the individual Gestalt principles or hedonistic biases out of context of the esthetic experience as a whole.

            In art, the bisociation—simultaneous presence and interaction in the mind of two universes—involves one real matrix and one (or more) imaginary matrix (matrices) which together make possible our experience of artistic illusion. Koestler carefully distinguishes between a hypnotic trance and the artistic illusion. In order to know that one is perceiving an illusion, one must also be (at least dimly) aware of what is real also, which hypnosis or dreaming does not allow one to do. There must be a delicate balance between both matrices.

            The value of illusion is that it inhibits or neutralizes one’s self-assertive tendencies and makes one forget one’s own preoccupations and anxieties long enough to facilitate one’s being transferred, as a spectator, from the "trivial present to a plane remote from self-interest." In other words, it induces one to sit still and enter a contemplative mood and allow one’s participatory emotions to unfold; one forgets about one’s cares and enjoys being a spectator, so to speak.

            Yet, the mere fact that people identify with characters, for instance, would not be possible, were the fictional, illusionary characters not imagined as having some things in common with oneself. As was pointed out earlier, one of the phenomena which facilitates the self-transcending emotions—i.e., the vicarious experiencing of another’s joys or sorrows—is the ability of people to enter into a rapport, to identify, to abstract some common characteristic or feature held by someone other than themselves.

            Emotion in art, according to Koestler, is not created, but merely stimulated (evoked) by an artwork. All the artwork presents is "a sequence of stimuli cleverly designed to trigger off our participatory emotions. The emotion itself must be generated by the spectator."

            In the case of literature—story-telling—the narrator represents certain events by means of visual-auditory signs; Koestler emphasizes that these are mental events in the mind of the narrator, mental events that he wishes to share or communicate to others. This provides a marvelous controlling insight into the whole problem of representationalism. If one is seeking to represent anything—be it an external phenomenon or a mental one—it must be mediated by a mental approximation of it, which in turn is approximated by the artist in the artwork. "To achieve this [representation], the narrator must provide patterns of stimuli as substitutes for the original stimuli which caused the experience to occur."

            In what is usually called "representational art," however, where the artist seeks to copy nature, it is impossible to escape the fact that "the thing represented passes through two distorting lenses":

(1) The medium of expression has certain inherent limitations. Its nature precludes the possibility of direct, full copying or imitation. For instance, in a landscape painting, the canvas is smaller than the landscape to be painted, the pigment is not the same as the colors in the actual landscape, neither sounds nor fragrances can be presented, etc. This points out the fact that the limitations and peculiarities of a medium necessitates choices, conscious or unconscious. The artist is compelled to select those features or aspects which he considers relevant and discard the rest. "Even the most naturalistic picture, chronicle, or novel contains an unavoidable element of selective emphasis." In addition, to emphasize that which he has selected as relevant, the artist may employ exaggeration or simplification of certain details, as well.

(2) When the artist visualizes what he wishes to copy, his mind cannot avoid certain "prejudices of vision," "visual inferences," or "constancies of vision." These are merely perceptual or conceptual matrices which pattern his experience and determine which aspects are relevant; this processing of experience is part automatic (habit and learned response as well as inborn response) and part conscious. These modes of mental functioning, as they are manifested in the artwork, determine to a large extent an individual artist’s style. Among these visual inferences (and, by analogy, aural inferences), are:

(a) visual constancies "which enable us to perceive objects as stable in shape, size, color, etc., in spite of their unstable, ever-changing appearances;"

(b) perceptual projection, "the unconscious mechanism which makes us project events, located in the brain, into a distance of yards or miles (as opposed to the dazzling flashes which are ‘correctly’ located on the retina);" "foreshortening and perspective are consciously added twists to unconscious projection—like sensations in a phantom-limb: the flat canvas is the amputation stump. (The analogy is actually quite precise: pain, too, is located in the brain, but projected to the locus of the injury; the phenomenon of the phantom-limb is a secondary projection.)";

(c) projective empathy, "the attribution of our own moods of dynamic experience, motor ideas, to shapes. We attribute to lines not only balance, direction, velocity, but also thrust, stain, feeling, intention, and character;"

(d) synesthesia, the attributing of tactual qualities to visual or aural perceptions;

(e) ambiguity, the variation in personal interpretation of ambiguous blot-shapes;

(f) cliché, conventional formulae and methods of interpretation; conventionalized, cultural stereotypes, which are applied to abstract shapes.

            Thus, to Koestler, an artistic appearance "is not a copy, but a metaphor," and the thing "represented" is not a model, strictly speaking, but a motif, which the artists thinks about and tries to represent his thoughts of on canvas, or in music, sculpture, dance, etc.

            That this is actually the case can be seen when one considers "abstract," "non- representational," and "expressionist" art, which are misleading terms, according to Koestler. Granted:

[A] pigment pattern on canvas always means or expresses or represents something which is not just the canvas plus pigment. It does not, however, represent objects or events, but the artist’s mental experiences or imaginings of the nature, causes, shape, color of objects and events...It invites the spectator to share an experience the artist had and provides him with an illusion—not of seeing a thing, but of seeing through the artist’s eyes...The [artwork] expresses or represents an idea in the artist’s head, and if all goes well it will cause a similar experience to occur in the beholder’s head.

            Thus, the subject of an artwork is not, strictly speaking, an object or a historical event or a person or a landscape or even an emotional quality or experience, but rather the artist’s conception of them, certain aspects of them which he regards as most significant to present. Furthermore, it may not be an idea of something in the world, but instead it may be concerned with a very general idea about the world or about life or about man’s nature.

            This leads to a consideration of Koestler’s criteria for determining "good, bad, or indifferent" creations. These criteria fall into two general categories: criteria of technique and criteria of taste or relevance:

(1) criteria of technique. These criteria gauge the effectiveness of the manner in which a creation was made, and deal more with ideas pertaining to mental functioning and its representation in the artwork, rather than ideas pertaining to man’s other existential functions (living, achieving, being moral, being happy, etc.). They in turn fall roughly into three subcategories:

(a) originality, or unexpectedness—the extent to which an artist’s “selective emphasis deviates from the conventional norm and establishes new standards of relevance," which is partially measurable by its surprise effect.

(b) emphasis, or suggestiveness—"derives from the selection, exaggeration and simplification of those elements which the artist chooses to regard as significant; it is a means to impose his vision on his audience."

(c) economy, or implicitness—the technique whereby the artist entices the audience into "active cooperation, and makes them re-create his vision. This relies on the technique of implicitness and seeks to involve the audience in the "filling-in" of what is not presented; they must "decipher the implied message." This happens in three ways: (i) intrapolation—filling in the gaps between two things, (ii) extrapolation—extending and completing a hinted-at thing, and (iii) transforming—re-interpreting symbols, images, and analogies. It can be seen that economy is a complementary, mirror-process to emphasis, since the operations performed by an audience to grasp an implied message (interpolation, extrapolation, transforming) correspond respectively, and as "mirror-images" (so to speak), to the artist’s devices to emphasize the message (exaggeration, simplification, selection).

(2) criteria of taste, or relevance. What a particular person or culture regards as relevant and, hence, what perceptual aspects dominate in their artworks, depend ultimately on their concept of "the purpose and meaning of existence." Consequently, their standards of beauty "always reflect the archetype of some kind of functional perfection." Taking for instance the human body, Koestler observes that "lunatics, adolescents, lavatory artists, and tribesmen" regard the genitals as the dominant functional aspect; the ancient Egyptians emphasized social status; the Greeks emphasized physical perfection; the Byzantines stressed the body as "an indifferent, and often awkward, shell of the spirit;" the Renaissance was a return to the Greek mode; for the French (c. Louis XV), frivolous activities were emphasized; the impressionists used the body to demonstrate perceptual ideas (viz., the "impermanence of appearances in the luminous blur of colors"); the cubists used the body to "prove God’s preference for cubes;" etc.

            Similarly, in his painting of the ox carcass, Rembrandt was seeking to teach his viewers to look beyond the "repulsive particular object" and "see the timeless patterns of light, shadow, and color." Thus, rather than life or death (of the ox), Rembrandt was claiming certain perceptual patterns as his primary concern. Even though it might result in revulsion to see a glorified side of beef, the viewer must be assured that the dead thing they see is merely an irrelevant detail, merely the motif or carrier of his ideas about light, shadow, and color. It certainly seems to me to be a perversion on Rembrandt’s part to form his concept of "the purpose and meaning of existence" around perceptual patterns, while treating a much more metaphysically significant issue—life or death—as irrelevant, unless, of course, one assumes cultural relativism to be valid—which I do not, for it is a false doctrine and a perversion itself!

            For Koestler, anyway, the mark of creative genius—that of which Rembrandt was an exemplary case—"is not perfection, but originality, the opening of a new frontier." "[T]echnical virtuosity is one thing, creative originality another." "The greatness of an artist rests in creating a new, personal idiom—an individual code which deviates from the conventional rules. Once the new idiom—a new way of bisociating motif and medium—is established, a whole host of pupils and imitators [!] can operate it with varying degrees of strategic skill."

[I]f we were to add up those aspects of existence which [art] has ignored at one time or another, they would cover practically the whole range of human experience...All great innovations, which inaugurate a new era, movement, or school, consist in such sudden shifts of attention and displacements of emphasis onto some previously neglected aspect of experience, some blacked-out range of the existential spectrum...The measure of an artist’s originality, put into the simplest terms, is the extent to which his selective emphasis deviates from the conventional norm and establishes new standards of relevance.

            Regarding the problem of verbalizing about esthetic experience, Koestler has this to say:

[V]isual experiences cannot be traduced into verbal statements without suffering major impoverishment and distortion. All verbal analysis tends to make implicit, part-conscious experiences explicit and fully conscious—and to destroy them in the process...We always see a work of nature or art "in terms of" a selective matrix governed by this or that criterion of significance; but these "terms" are not verbal terms, and if we attempt to verbalize them the result is unavoidably a gross "clumsification"—a medley of clichés and psychological jargon. The matrix may carry emotive echoes of some archetypal experience, but our vocabulary is extremely poor where emotions are concerned. If we say that it responds to the sight of the ocean with associations of "eternity," "infinity," and so forth, this sounds as if we were referring to verbal associations. Such words may present themselves to the mind, but words are the least important part of the experience, and detract from rather than add to its value. We cannot help using words in referring to processes which in the listener’s mind are not crystallized into words. The alternative is to say a rose is a rose is a rose, and leave it at that.

The trouble with putting into words the aesthetic experience aroused by a picture is, as we saw, that so much is happening at the same time; that only a fraction of it becomes conscious, and an even smaller fraction verbalized. "The forceps of our minds," to quote H. G. Wells again, "are clumsy things, and crush the truth a little in the course of taking hold of it." Wells was talking of the difficulties of putting ideas into words; when it comes to putting aesthetic experiences into words, nothing short of a caesarian will help. The surgical tool that I proposed was "bisociation;" and the operation consisted in untangling the various bisociative, or bifocal, processes which combine in the experience.

            Koestler is very critical of the formalist position in esthetics, represented by Clive Bell (as an extreme case) and Susanne Langer (as a more moderate representative). He has some rather harsh words for the formalists in the following passage:

The mind is insatiable for meaning, drawn from, or projected into, the world of appearance, for unearthing hidden analogies which connect the unknown with the familiar, and show the familiar in an unexpected light. It weaves the raw material of experience into patterns, and connects them with other patterns; the fact that something reminds me of something else can itself become a potent source of emotion...When a painting is said to represent nothing but "significant form"—to carry no meaning, no associative connotations, no reference to anything beyond itself—we can be confident that the speaker does not know what he is talking about. Neither the artist, nor the beholder of his work, can slice his mind into sections, separate sensation from perception, perception from meaning, sign from symbol. [!]

            In my opinion, Koestler gets right to the core of the problem of meaning in art, and I can agree with him, for the most part:

The difficulty of analyzing the aesthetic experience is not due to its irreducible quality, but to the wealth, the unconscious and non-verbal character of the matrices which interlace with it, along ascending gradients in various dimensions. Whether the gradient is...steep and dramatic...or gently ascending..., it always points towards a peak—not of technical perfection, but of some archetypal form of experience.

            We thus conclude with Koestler that:

[A] work of art is always transparent to some dim outline of ultimate experience—even if it is not more than the indirect reflection, the echo of an echo. Those among the great painters who had a taste for verbal theorizing, and the articulateness of translating their vision into words, almost invariably evoked absolutes and ultimates—the tragedy or glory of man’s condition, the wrath or mercy of divinity, the universal laws of form and color harmony, the norms of beauty hidden in the mysteries of the golden section or anchored in Euclid’s axioms. "Everything has two aspects," wrote Chirico, "the current aspect, which we see nearly always and which ordinary men see, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals may see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction. A work of art must narrate something that does not appear within its outline.



            In light of the foregoing alone, I would say that a full semester of Seminar in Music Theory Research could be devoted profitably to—and would not nearly exhaust—the implications for music theory, music esthetics, and music psychology of the ideas of Arthur Koestler contained in The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine. His works, and those of Leonard B. Meyer, are eminently worthy of the time and effort of anyone even faintly interested in the areas mentioned above.

            This paper, then, is my contribution toward the realization of these goals, as well as:

(1) the vehicle for suggesting future, more specific problems for discussion in this Seminar, and

(2) a tentative outline of what I intend to be working on along these lines (viz., the paper on absolute pitch, and a critique of cultural relativism and related absurdities as applied to value theory) in the future.


"Arthur Koestler," Current Biography, ed. Charles Monitz, 1962, pp. 241-3.

"Arthur Koestler at 65—a fighter for men’s minds now studies their brains," an interview by L’Express of Paris, trans. by Stanley Hochman in New York Times Magazine, Aug. 30, 1970, pp. 12-26.

Hall, Elizabeth. "A Conversation with Arthur Koestler," Psychology Today, June 1970, pp. 63, 65, 78-84.

____________"In and Out of Jail with Arthur Koestler," Psychology Today, June 1970, p. 64.

Hanslick,Eduard. The Beautiful in Music, trans. by Gustav Cohen (1891), ed. by Morris Weitz. Orig. pub. in 1854: Bobbs-Merrill pub. the version for The Library of Liberal Arts, 1957.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation, Macmillan, 1964.

_____________ The Ghost in the Machine, Macmillan, 1967.

_____________ "Beyond Atomism and Holism -- the Concept of the Holon," Beyond Reductionism, ed. by Koestler and J. R. Smythies, Macmillan, 1970, p. 194.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form, Scribner’s, 1953.

_______________ Mind: an Essay in Human Feeling, John Hopkins Press, 1967.

_______________ Philosophical Sketches, John Hopkins Press, 1962.

_______________ Philosophy in a New Key, Harvard University Press, 1942.

Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music, University of Chicago Press, 1956.

______________ Music, the Arts and Ideas, University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Meyer, Leonard B. and Grosvenor Cooper. The Rhythmic Structure of Music, University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Miller, George A. "Arthur Koestler’s View of the Creative Process," a review of The Act of Creation in Scientific American, Nov. 1964, pp. 145-9.

Appendix: Works by Arthur Koestler

Spanish Testament (1938) and Dialogue with Death (1942)—accounts of Koestler’s three-month nightmare ordeal in Spanish prisons.

The Gladiators (1939)—novel, story of Spartacus and Servile War in 73 B.C.; contained signs of his disillusionment with Communism; dealt with the ethics of revolution.

Scum of the Earth (1941)—experiences at French detention camp at Le Vernet.

Darkness at Noon (1941)—novel about Moscow trials of 1937; used many details from his own prison experience; old Bolshevik Commissar Rubashov imprisoned by new generation of Communists and persuaded to confess to crimes against state of which he is innocent; good insight into working of totalitarian mind and well-written; earned Koestler’s international reputation; Book-of-Month Club selection and Broadway Play (1951).

Arrival and Departure (1943)—anti-totalitarian political novel, psychiatric problems of European Communist who has escaped Nazi torture; deals with ethics of revolution.

The Yogi and the Commissar (1945)—collection of essays; role of intelligentia, book reviewing, social change, moral aspects of revolution and war, etc.

Thieves in the Night (1946)—novel, depicts Jewish struggle to resettle Palestine in the late 1930s (interest in Zionism revived by Nazi treatment of Jews in World War II); deals with ethics of survival.

Promise and Fulfillment (1949)—on-the-spot report of Arab-Jewish conflict in Israel just after partition of Palestine in 1948; analysis of economic, political, and emotional factors involved in Jewish-Arab-British relationship from 1917 to 1949.

Insight and Outlook (1949)—explores theories about common foundations of art, science, social ethics; preview, in some respects, of The Act of Creation.

The God That Failed (1950)—Koestler and five other prominent form Communists explain why they were attracted to Marxism.

The Age of Longing (1951)—novel, despairing and pessimistic account of Paris international intelligentsia.

Arrow in the Blue (1952)—autobiography, lengthy description of his guilt-ridden, lonely, and introspective childhood.

The Invisible Writing (1954)—autobiography of seven years in the Communist party.

The Trail of the Dinosaur (1955)—apprehensions of extinction of mankind; collection of essays.

Reflections on Hanging (1957)—first appeared as syndicated column in London Observer; stimulated England’s movement in 1955 to abolish death penalty (finally achieved in 1956).

The Sleepwalkers; a History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959)—account of discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho de Brahe, Galileo, and Newton; examines part played by man’s creative faculty in constructing cosmological systems; interesting comparison can be made between Koestler’s view of the Pythagorean influence on Renaissance scientific discoveries and that propounded by Stillman Drake in his article in Journal of the History of Ideas.

The Lotus and the Robot (1961)—study of cultures of India and Japan; result of pilgrimage to determine whether Orient could offer solution to Western spiritual ailments (1958-9); although widely divergent cultures, overall conclusion: "to look to Asia for mystic enlightenment and spiritual guidance has become as much of an anachronism as to think of America as the Wild West;" gained intensified awareness and respect for Europe’s "sustaining self-regeneration."

The Act of Creation (1964)—essay expounding his insights on creativity.

The Ghost of the Machine (1967)—sequel to The Act of the Creation; also exposes inadequacies of Behaviorism and Darwinian evolution and proposes a theory regarding man’s "impulse to destruction."

Drinkers of Infinity (1968)—essays from 1955 to 1967.

Address to the 14th Nobel Symposium (1969)—more on his quarrel with Behaviorist psychology.

Beyond Reductionism (1970)—results of recent symposium (1968) on the life sciences, co-edited with John Smythies.