Spirituality as “Consummatory” Experience of Place by Hyejung Chang, Ph.D.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17


Biography: Hyejung Chang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture

Hyejung Chang is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at University of New Mexico. She received her BS in Landscape Architecture from University of Seoul, South Korea, Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Minnesota, and Ph.D. in Design at North Carolina State University. Her scholarly interests lie in environmental design theory and criticism, focusing on landscape aesthetics and on its relations to environmental sustainability. She is a licensed landscape architect and Professional Engineer of Korea.

All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1)


The notion of “spirituality” in contemporary design discourse still seems to remain a vague concept surrounded by an esoteric aura, mostly regarded as an individual state of mind with little attention to our shared experience of place. This essay attempts to re-conceptualize spirituality in a more reasonable context of human experience as it relates to place, by suggesting three related propositions: 1) Spirituality is essentially a full sense of the self in place, 2) Spirituality is inevitably associated with an aesthetic experience of place, and 3) Spirituality ultimately transcends the individual moral sensibility toward place to one that is transpersonal, social, and environmental. (Fig.1)

A conjunction of Dewey’s and Maslow’s thought
This general conception that spirituality is deemed to be a meditative state of mind may be due to our “long-held intellectual belief of binary oppositions of mind and body, soul and matter, spirit and flesh.” (2) The word “consummatory” therefore serves a particular purpose in this essay to overcome the difficulties of this dialectical dualism. Consummatory experience, according to Dewey, is an aesthetic experience that is interactional, situational, and characterized by a unifying quality in the field of participation with objects, events, and processes of our environment.(3) This culminating experience of place is quite similar to Maslow’s term “peak experience” of a self-actualizing person in search for the highest kind of human fulfillment with the surroundings that is transpersonal, universal, and moral. (4)
Therefore, in order to illuminate these three propositions, it may be useful to underscore some notable similarities

between Dewey’s and Maslow’s thinking on the subject, for both recognize the vital importance of the consummatory phases of human experience as process, and both deal with social and environmental meanings of the spiritual realm as context, albeit from dissimilar world views: Dewey is viewed as a dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist in philosophy, while Maslow is described as a naturalistic realist in psychology. (5) (Fig. 2)

Spirituality and the self in place
Spirituality means to have both an existential and a psychological grounding of a whole being in a place. Dewey writes that the sense of a whole being is the “full realization of all the elements of our psychological being,” and that “happiness and delight …come to be through a fulfillment that reaches to an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence.” Maslow proposes that the self realizes its own identity when it becomes actualized through the whole process of growth, i.e. self-actualization. (Fig. 3) Both argue that the self is a more mature and spiritual goal that an individual mind (ego) aims to achieve in harmony with other existences in place for its own healthy personality. The sense of a whole being means the realization of the self as the center of the human mind-and-body, and that there is

no distinction between the self and the ego and between the self and its surroundings. Spirituality is the fullest sense of being in the environmental, social, and personal context with other existences.

Spirituality and aesthetic experience of place
Spirituality is a state of realizing one’s creativity by an awareness and exposure to experience—an aesthetic experience. Dewey notes, in aesthetic experience “a body of matters and meanings…becomes aesthetic as they enter into an ordered rhythmic movement toward consummation.” “There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that…would be designated ideal and spiritual.” Similarly, according to Maslow, the aesthetic need is a truly fundamental need that can be identified almost universally in healthy people in every culture and in every age, and it is also a catalyst to activate the center of the self toward the peak (spiritual) experience. He writes, “Peakers seem to live in the realm of Being; of poetry, aesthetics, symbols, transcendence; and of end-experiences [consummation].” Both view aesthetic experience not as a static state of mind but as an enduring adaptation of physical media and perceived qualities to a union. Spirituality is the felt quality that occurs when “the material of aesthetic experience in being human—human in connection with nature of which it is a part—is social.”

Spirituality and moral experience of place
Spirituality connects the aesthetic sensibility with moral accountability by transcending the individual toward the larger sensibility of community. Two premises can be suggested from a analysis of Dewey and Maslow: first, spiritual experience is the “feeling” of our appreciation, reverence, and mystery that are universal, transcendent, and ultimate; second, spiritual experience extends its “symbolic” meaning toward other existences, place, and nature in general.
Spiritual experience involves an emotional quality that possesses internal integration and fulfillment, and it is a primary and imaginative force to aesthetic experience, according to Dewey. He rejects “Ivory Tower” view of spiritual experience by connecting the higher experience with basic vital roots, and argues that a distinctive aesthetic experience such as mutual love and respect, reverence, and wonder occurs within morality. These “feelings” transcend the self toward others, and are essentially biological, emotionally universal, and ultimately spiritual––the vital moral quality of Maslow’s peak experience.
Spiritual experience therefore is symbolic rather than religious. Dewey stresses that “the ideal factors of morality are always and everywhere beyond good and evil.” Maslow also contends that a spiritual person is a morally healthy person, being critical of the definite dichotomy of good and bad. Both interpret the essential nature of the moral mind as spirit connected with the cosmos, derived from holistic philosophy such as Taoism. Spirituality merges the boundary between aesthetic and moral sensibility because it reveals, extends, and regenerates its sympathetic and symbolic associations with the self, others, and place. It is the felt value that harmonizes the beautiful with the good. (Fig.4)

Such an expansion of the concept spirituality toward a more general concept of the self, aesthetic, and moral experience suggests that spiritual experience be seen as a more all-embracing kind of experience, and be more descriptive, place-bound, value-oriented, and thereby useful. This experiential concept of spirituality can only serve as a conceptual guide in place design but not as a definitive standard, since its spatial and temporal nature gives individual and specific form to common principles and values. “Good place design” then could motivate us to have a fuller sense of the self in a place, enliven our meaningful associations with all of its elements in a place, and inspire us to transcend our narrow notion of “aesthetic delight” toward a “moral fulfillment” beyond the self to the environment.

1. Michael Moncur, The Quotation Page, http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Johann_Wolfgang_von_Goethe.
2. direct citations in the text, see also 256, 17, 326, 29, 326, 20, 349, respectively.
3. D.C. Mathur, “A Note on the Concept of “Consummatory Experience” in Dewey’s Aesthetics.” The Journal of Philosophy 63, n.9 (1966): 225-231
4. Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality: New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1954, and Toward a Psychology of Being: New York: Van Nostrand, 1968. For a further direct quotation in the text, see Motivation and Personality,164-165.
5. Many studies pointed that Dewey’s theory of comsummatory experience would be often misunderstood by approaching it from a strictly instrumental point of view. Maslow also refused the theory of need pyramid to be portrayed as a rigid hierarchy for behavioral psychology, by indicating that creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs.