Art and the path towards a sensible morality by Taylor Redwood

In his letters to humanity, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Frederic Schiller outlines two drives – the sensible and the formal – that constitute human subjectivity. When coaxed into cooperation, the sensible and formal drives give rise to the play drive and it is only through play that we can experience, to the fullest extent, our true humanity. Crucially, play allows for the development of a living form, and this living form is what we describe when we call art beautiful. Furthermore, art is the only form of communication through which humans can share their feelings universally. Thus art, according to Schiller, is the only medium available to society through which we can develop a sustainable moral system that does not require the suppression of feelings in order to lead a moral life.




As Schiller notes, “we are impelled by two opposing forces which, since they drive us to the realisation of their object, may aptly be termed drives” (Schiller, 2016, p. 80). Our sensible, or sense drive, reminds us that we exist as a temporal Being within time and space. The ever changing world of sensuous perception is that by which time is furnished with content. The sense drive is committed to a pure sensation, one free from the mediations of reason. As Schiller so eloquently put it, “[w]ith indestructible chains it binds the ever-soaring spirit to the world of sense” (Schiller, 2016, p. 81). The language we use to describe someone overcome with rage or beside themselves with anger betrays the control our senses can have over us. If we surrender ourselves entirely to our senses, then all traces of Personality are temporarily extinguished. The battle against capitulation to passion and desire, that which constitutes our Condition, is an experience only possible because of the sense drive.


Contrary to the mindless compulsion of the sense drive, the rational nature of our formal drive provides the preconditions for the existence of human freedom. Freedom exists in the ability of our Personality – the unchanging, immaterial, and eternal mind (1) – to assert itself against the tumultuous sensations of our Condition.


The formal drive is behind our impulse to transcend time and express our eternal Personality as necessary and real; change is antithetical. Reason allows for the development of general concepts that assimilate and thus abolish our individuality. When we make something universal, we make “an individual case into a law for all cases… [and thus treat] one moment of your life as if it were eternity” (Schiller, 2016, p. 83). The formal drive, with its insistence “on truth and on the right” (Schiller, 2016, p. 81) is the foundation upon which human morality is constructed.

1 – There is a strong argument against the notion of an unchanging and eternal mind but it is one for a separate paper.




At first impression, the sense and formal drive appear to be diametrically opposed. However, such opposition is more reflective of the times in which we live, rather than the actual incompatibility of the drives. The sense drive does indeed demand change, but this does not extend to changing our fundamental principles. Conversely, the formal drive’s insistence on stability and unity does not extend to our sensible perceptions. Problems only arise when we “postulate a primary, and therefore necessary, antagonism between these two drives” (Schiller, 2016, p. 81). In this case, the only means for maintaining unity within the subject is for one drive to unconditionally subordinate the other.


Modernity – and most of the history of philosophy – is established on the premise that reason must triumph over sense. Thus we follow the Law and are try to uphold universal moral duties irrespective of what our natural inclinations tell us. This amounts to a “premature hankering after harmony” (Schiller, 2016, p. 89) where we abandon our individuality and strive to make our lives conform to the general rule. We dampen our feelings in an attempt to make – often arbitrary – moral laws easier to follow. However, were these state of events to reverse such that feelings came to trump reason, we would simply become a prisoner to our desires. Autonomy and freedom would be relinquished in much the same way that a person addicted to drugs becomes a slave to their particular high. If we lose ourselves in pure sensation, then we must also lose the ability to assert our  Personality. We thus find ourselves in a predicament where the subordination of either drive to the other leads to a surrendering of our freedom and individuality (Guyer, 1993, pp. 122-123).




To experience our full humanity, we must unleash the drives both together, and in harmony. Each drive “gives rise to, and sets limits to, the activity of the other, and in which each in itself achieves its highest manifestation precisely by reason of the other being active” (Schiller, 2016, p. 95). For without reason there can be no form given to Nature. My determinate being becomes indistinguishable from the world. I am lost. Conversely, if I lose myself in thought, the reality of my absolute existence becomes blurred and I become a mere Idea; a thinking thing. It falls to reason to best actualise the Infinite Idea of my Human Nature in the finitude of my determinate being while preventing the surrender of my Personality to my Condition. This move, which differentiates my determinate being from the rest of the world, also simultaneously manifests my infinite being as a determinate reality. Thus it is only when our two drives play together that individuality is preserved. This gratuitous union of primary drives begets a new drive, the play drive, in which humanity will “be at once conscious of his freedom and sensible of his existence” (Schiller, 2016, p. 95).


The play drive does not however, refer to the term play as popularly understood. Common play does not concern itself with the union of drives and is “usually directed to very material objects” (Schiller, 2016, p. 107). Schiller’s use of the term is limited to those experiences in which both our sensible and formal drives operate in union. It is precisely because of this cooperation (which is necessarily opposed to its constituents when considered separately) that the play drive “could justifiably count as a new drive” (Schiller, 2016, p. 97). The play drive is that, “which of all man’s states and conditions is the one which makes him whole and unfolds both sides of his nature at once” (Schiller, 2016, p. 105). This simultaneous unfolding must conform to both the laws of nature (life) and the laws of reason (form) and thus we designate it living form. This is what Schiller meant when he said: “man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays” (Schiller, 2016, p. 107).




Living form arises when we harmonise our reason (formal drive) with our feelings (sense drive). This creates the possibility of aesthetic experience, or beauty (play drive). Beauty cannot exist as a pure form. For example, a statue considered only in terms of technique remains forever as lifeless marble. Conversely, if we were to simply feel the life of the person but never created the statue, it would remain forever formless. Beauty requires the creative intercourse of both drives, feeling must pour forth and fill the statue’s form with life. The statue becomes living form, it is a work of art.


Beautiful art is the play drive writ large and constitutes humanity’s only universally communicable feeling. On the one hand, this is because rationality, by definition, is devoid of any feelings to communicate. While on the contrary, feelings constitute uniquely individual experiences that language can never entirely capture. Think for example, about how we feel pain or how we perceive the colour red. Luckily for us, art provides the one form of communication by which feelings can be communicated universally. A case in point is how Louis Wain’s drawings of cats change as he descends into schizophrenia (Cunningham, 2015). Wain’s art provides a universal form – and thus the ability for communication – which we then bring to life with our own individual emotions. An aesthetic education thus not only teaches us to develop our own full humanity, but beauty – and its expression through art – also provides the only form of communication by which society may share feeling and thus cultivate moral laws that do not require the repression of our sensible natures.


While a culturally shared taste is not equivalent to morality, it is through this shared development that a sustainable moral society can emerge. Presently, society understands morality as a rational duty which must be rigidly adhered to at all times. This is an unsustainable state of affairs that depends upon the repression of our intuitions. “Thus little by little the concrete life of the Individual is destroyed in order that the abstract idea of the Whole may drag out its sorry existence” (Schiller, 2016, p. 37). To overcome such a state of affairs, we must develop our shared morality using art as a communicative tool. We must cultivate a reasonable sensibility and a sensible rationality such that following the moral law becomes equivalent to following our intuitions.




Modernity is premised on the assumption that reason, and reason alone, is required for the realisation of a moral society. This pits our formal and sensible drives against each other such that all feeling must be repressed if the subject is to remain united. This antagonism necessarily prevents the development our full humanity, both individually, and as a society. To counter this, we must foster our play drive through the harmonious integration of both feeling and reason. The play drive gives rise to beauty through the expression of living form. Beauty – which is expressed through art – is a unique form of communication that constitutes our sole means by which feelings may be shared universally. It is thus only through art that we may cultivate a shared morality of feeling in which the members of a society follow the moral law as an act of freedom rather than by coercion and force.


By Taylor Redwood

Diploma of Arts, Majoring in Philosophy




Cunningham, M. (2015). Louis Wain – Schizophrenic Cats. Prism.

Guyer, P. (1993). Kant and the experience of freedom: essays on aesthetics and morality. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schiller, F. (2016). On the aesthetic education of man: in a series of letters PHIL2500: Philsoophy and Art Course Reader. St Lucia: POD Centre.


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