Dewey, Art As Experience (1)

Ok, the first of at least three posts on Dewey’s Art as Experience.

This post will focus on one objection to Dewey’s position.  Then my next post will take up another objection, along with Nick’s rejoinder to that objection.  And the third post (finally!) will explain how Dewey’s book has helped to clarify my own thoughts on the aesthetic.

Objection #1:  What Bertrand Russell calls “Dewey’s metaphysics of organism” in his section on Dewey in A History of Western Philosophy.  Dewey assumes that situations have an intrinsic unity—and meaning.  One long passage, early in Art As Experience, suggests that metaphysics even as it also indicates why Dewey turns to the aesthetic to overcome the alienation, the compartmentalization, of modern life.

“Life is compartmentalized and the institutionalized components are classified as high or low; their values as profane and spiritual, as material and ideal.  Interests are related to each other externally and mechanically, through a system of checks and balances. . . . Compartmentalization of occupation and interests brings about separation of that mode of activity commonly called ‘practice’ from insight, of imagination from executive doing, of significant purpose from work, of emotion from thought and doing.  Each of these has, too, its own place in which it must abide.  Those who write the anatomy of experience then suppose these division inhere in the very constitution of human nature. [This paragraph summarizes the position Dewey is writing against.]

Of much of our experience as it is actually lived under present economic and legal institutional conditions, it is only too true that these separations hold.  Only occasionally in the lives of many are the senses fraught with the sentiment that comes from deep realization of intrinsic meanings.  We undergo sensations as mechanical stimuli or as irritated stimulations, without having a sense of the reality that is in them and behind them: in much of our experience our different senses do not unite to tell a common and enlarged story” (20-21, my emphasis).

Dewey’s position is spelled out in the essay “Qualitative Thought” (from Philosophy and Civilization).  Each situation is initially encountered through our grasping its “quality”—and that quality is singular, not plural.  Everything follows from this assertion of the “unity” of the situation.  “The underlying unity of qualitativeness regulates pertinence or relevancy and force of every distinction and relation; it guides selection and rejection  and the manner of utilization of all explicit terms.  This quality enables us to keep thinking about one problem without our having constantly to stop to ask ourselves what it is after all that we are thinking about.  We are aware of it not by itself but as the background, the thread, and the directive clue in what we do expressly think of. . . . If we designate this permeating qualitative unity in psychological language, we say it is felt rather than thought.  Then, if we hypostatize it, we call it a feeling.  But to term it a feeling is to reverse the actual state of affairs.  The existence of unifying qualitativeness in the subject matter defines the meaning of ‘feeling.’ [This sentence is the metaphysical assertion.] The notion that ‘a feeling’ designates a ready-made independent psychical entity is a product of a reflection which presupposes the direct presence of quality as such.  ‘Feeling’ and ‘felt’ are names for a relation of quality” (99, Dewey’s emphasis).  “When it is said that I have a feeling, or impression, or ‘hunch,’ that things are thus and so, what is actually designated is primarily the presence of a dominating quality in a situation as a whole, not just the existence of a feeling as psychical or psychological fact. . . . All thought in every subject begins with just such an unanalyzed whole” (100).

That feelings are relational—and created out of the encounter between self and world—suits the pragmatist interactional model that I heartily endorse.  What I object to is the notion that the world (as parsed out into situations) possesses a “qualitative unity.”  It seems to me more obviously right to say 1) that situations are multi-voiced, presenting a welter of components that do not cohere into any clear unity; 2) that the emotions produced by situations are equally plural, ambivalent, mixed, ambiguous.  Literature (among the arts) attends most carefully to this difficulty of simply understanding or naming one’s emotions; 3) that it is devilishly difficult to define the boundaries between one situation and another. The whole situation model is too visual and static, coming damn close to the “spectator theory” that Dewey usually and rightfully scorns.  Our most important situations—marriages, careers, parenthood—unfold over long periods of time and encompass an astounding range of emotions, purposes, actions, and undergoings.  Forging a unity out of such long-range projects seems to me to fail to experience them in their full complexity.  It’s like Leon Edel’s reduction of Henry James’ life to his rivalry with his brother William.  A unified explanation, yes; a plausible one, no.

Dewey’s stake in this insistence on unity seems, to me, encapsulated in the assertion that “human hopes and purposes find a basis and support in nature” (28, Art As Experience).  I find myself unable to believe that romantic and optimistic position.

Here’s my alternative view, which I derive from how I understand the pragmatism of William James.  In our interactions with the environment in which we find ourselves (crucially a natural and a social environment), we do (through acts of judgment) assess our surroundings and the possibilities those surroundings might afford and might frustrate.  Those acts of judgment are certainly some kind of mixture of thought and feeling, thus making a hard-core distinction between those two would be a mistake.  But those judgments are also almost invariably partial.

What any one person “sees” at a particular moment—and how she projects what is possible to do at this moment (in relation to long-term projects as well as to immediate concerns of comfort)—is determined by a number of factors (temperament, cultural conditioning, physical health, commitments to oneself and to others etc.)

But the “creativity” displayed in considering how to move from this moment to the next always only activates one of the plural possibilities that this moment actually affords.  Our actor may be aware of some of these possibilities; but that she sees all of them is highly unlikely.  We prize creativity precisely because it reveals possibilities to which we ourselves have been blind.  To use James’s terms, our attentions are selective; we only see part of what the moment holds.  There is always “more” that we do not see.  As a psychologist, James was interested in how attention selects, in how we fail to see some things even as we focus in on others.

Finally, the real (if we need to identify a pragmatist metaphysic) displays itself insofar as it enables or frustrates the attempts by the agent to make certain possibilities actualities.  Thus the stress on “experimentation” and “fallibility.”  We cannot know for certain in advance if this course of action will bear fruit.  We have judged that this line of action id possible and have predicted that it will have these outcomes, these consequences.  But we might well be wrong.

Thus, “nature” is not aligned with human purposes; it simply does not inevitably frustrate such purposes.  Nature is neither beneficent nor malign.  It just is.  It’s only significant feature, in this view, is its plasticity.  What nature can or cannot afford is not written in stone.  Work upon nature can change what is possible.  The lesson from today’s environmentalists is that we have probably been too sanguine about the human powers to change nature.  There are deleterious consequences to our work upon nature that we have failed to take into account.  A heroic, Promethean pragmatism needs to be tempered with more attention to the unfolding (over time) of harmful outcomes of actions that look like short-term successes.

In short, I am saying that if a situation can be identified as a singular situation, and if it is seen to possess a “qualitative unity,” that is because our judgments are selective.  In our interactions, we carve out something we call a situation from a more chaotic flux (James’s buzzing, booming confusion), and it attains a unity in relation to the purposes, desires, and consequent actions that are activated in relation to it.  My metaphysic is (and I think this is James’s metaphysic) a mixture of Heraclitus and Darwin.  The flux part is Heraclitus; the locked into perpetual interaction within a dynamic, non-static nature is Darwin.  Dewey—and lots of commentators besides Russell have made this point—sometimes follows the Jamesian metaphysics, but in other cases adheres the residual Hegelianism in his thought—which leads to the positing of all-embracing unities.

Does any of this matter?  Is it—as James would insist that we ask—a difference that makes a difference? Who cares if the unity exists (as Dewey says) in the subject-matter (meaning “out there” apart from the human agent) or if unity is forged by the human agent in her interaction with the environment?  I don’t really see (but, then again, I am not all religiously minded) that it makes much difference if I believe the world is attuned to my purposes or not.  So long as I have the experience of some interactions actually yielding outcomes close to those which I was aiming for, that seems more than enough.  The proof is in the pudding.  You win some, you lose some.  Beyond that, I don’t feel the need for some kind of cosmic guarantee, some assurance of alignment beyond what everyday interactions yield.  Others, it seems, feel differently (including at times William James).  They want to know that the universe looks kindly on, and deigns to respond to, their needs and the efforts to satisfy those needs.

More consequential, at least for me, is the problem of humanism.  To say that nature (a problematic term, by the way, and one which Dewey has great things to say about on 151-52 of Art As Experience) is not unified must not come to mean nature is inert.  Rather, nature is pluralistic precisely because it is composed of multiple beings with their own purposes, their own ways of acting.  In short, the term “nature” must be understood as something that is “assembled” in the same way that Bruno Latour thinks of “society” as being assembled.  To deny nature has a unity is to open the way to an understanding that humans are not alone on the planet—and to underscore the complexity of the multiple relationships that encompass “being with others” (human and non-human).

Dewey’s version of the interactionist model needs to be disconnected from his overly credulous faith in modern science and technology.  His belief in unity drastically—and dangerously—underestimates the resistance offered to human actions by the world—and the costs to other creatures and to multiple locales if those resistances are ignored or overridden.  We are learning now that those costs also redound to we humans as well.

There remains the psychological question.  Are we always inclined to forge a unity out of what the world presents to us?  Maybe we could positively interpret the fragmentation of so much modern art  as not a continual lament about the failure to attain “unity of being” (Yeats’ term for what he sought), but instead as an attempt to recognize multiplicity.  Celebration of diversity, even of incompatibility.  What could be more PC than that?  What would it mean to unlearn our habits of productivity, or eagerness to turn every moment to account?  To simply let go (as Isabella Tree and her husband have done at Knepp—as described in my previous post).  The results can look chaotic—and are certainly not “composed” in ways that are recognizably beautiful according to traditional canons of beauty.

Dewey is not necessarily hostile to such speculations.  The interactionist model is more than compatible with a stress on cooperation, interdependency, and appreciation for the different roles various participants might play.  To simply master the world to serve one’s own needs is coming to look more and more like a Pyrrhic victory, ultimately self-defeating.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could learn that attending to others’ needs is the best path to serving our own?  That may be too benign an interpretation of the prevailing state of affairs.  Competition exists alongside cooperation and interdependency in a fully Darwinian world.  But the fact (where my metaphysic takes its stand) that both competition and cooperation exist, just as the flux and achieved unities also both exist, works against any sense of unity, of being able to identify a single quality that characterizes our experiences.

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