aesthetics emotion

On the Face of It

10:15:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

I find myself in a busy marketplace at midday. The sun is shining out of a clear blue sky, shedding its rays upon all the people below. As I look around the stores and traders, I see various individuals filling the scene. One man has a look of consternation, dissatisfied as he haggles with a local vendor. A woman speaking with a friend has a look of deep sorrow about her as she shares some unknown grief. Many others, bustling to and fro, exhibit little more than a bland face, betraying nothing of their inner emotions. Yet I also see a group of friends with big, bright smiles. Happy and carefree, they share a moment of laughter over some joke.
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Each one of us encounters a multitude of people in our daily routines. We see countless faces displaying every kind of emotion. Whether strangers in the park, co-workers in the office, or our loved ones at home, visually we relate to others primarily through how their face appears. Though posture, clothing choices, and overall bodily appearance play significant roles in expressing who a person is and how they are feeling, the central visible feature which proclaims the person and conveys their interiority is the face. It is a window into the inner person.

In chapter 7 of his Aesthetics (Vol. 1), Dietrich von Hildebrand raises the question of the nature of facial expressions and how we perceive what another is feeling. Some have suggested an analogical inference theory of face recognition. This theory states that we first observe the facial expression of the other. Next we compare this face with a past facial appearance of our own. We would then infer that the other is likely feeling what we felt then. In other words, we would make a judgment about the other’s feelings based on a similarity of their facial expression to one of our own. But do we really need to compare, thinking back to our own experience in every apprehension of the other’s face?
Hildebrand, for his part, argues that we naturally perceive the feelings of the other through the face. “Thanks to the face, we learn something about what is going on in his soul at this moment...” (1) The visible appearance of the face carries a spiritual significance -- it has the potential to directly manifest the inward person. Take, for example, a man sitting alone on a bench that you walk past. Looking down, he has a distraught face and is almost moved to tears. The first thing you wonder is not what he is feeling, but what has motivated such a distressing response. What is he struggling with? Here the man’s mournful countenance reveals directly what is happening interiorly. “The expression of sadness, joy, or of other affective attitudes that appears in a person’s face is something that is immediately given, something that can be apprehended intuitively.” (2)
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Consider too a joyous moment that you share with a friend. Your friend has just heard the good news: he got the promotion his family was relying on. Absorbed in the moment, he is filled with joy, and his smile is so wide that it can hardly be contained by his face. You know that he is joyful simply by looking at him: his joy is so clear. Here it is not as if his face
separates us from his interior experience. Rather, it communicates to us what is happening in his soul. We apprehend intuitively what this person is feeling.


File:Free Awesome Girl With Braces Close Up.jpgAt other times, however, we may feel as though a person’s face obscures their inner life. For instance, you see someone lost in their thoughts with a quizzical and vaguely unhappy look upon their face. Are they sorrowful or merely confused? Perhaps they are upset -- or could they just be deep in thought? Now it seems we cannot discern what the other is truly feeling. This window into the soul seems to be shuttered. And what of the case in which someone seems to have a long face but is merely resting? This person might actually be upset that you have mistaken their emotion based on their facial expression.

When it comes to the confusing or mistaken emotion, we may rightly think back to our own experiences. Have I ever had a quizzical look such as his? What was I feeling at that moment? This can help us realize what the other is thinking. However, Hildebrand says this does not change the fact that faces do express certain emotions, though at times the other may not actually be feeling that emotion. In this case it takes a further question to determine whether this face authentically manifests the other’s inner feelings.

Yet in marveling at the intimacy afforded by our countenance, we can perceive how significant  the human face is in personal communion and communication. On the face of it, this requires much personal reflection and discussion. ----------

1. Dietrich von Hildebrand,
Aesthetics Vol. 1 (Forthcoming publication, Hildebrand Project) 107.
2. Ibid., 107. Photo 1: Photo by Steve Evans. 2 May 2008. (source) Photo 2: "Girl with sad face." Photo by Wilfredor. 6 April 2013. (source) Photo 3: "Awesome Girl with Braces Close Up." Photo by D Sharon Pruitt. 23 May 2009. (source)

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