Category: aesthetics

Dewey, Art As Experience (3)

I am now ready to offer an account of the aesthetic that is inspired by Dewey but departs fairly drastically from him as well.  The key point of contention is the continuity between artistic endeavors and ordinary experiences.  My account will make much of the peculiar powers and capacities art acquires precisely because it is discontinuous with everyday life.

Where Dewey helps me is his description of the work that the artist does upon the materials offered to her by the everyday.  Here are some of Dewey’s helpful statements on that score.  My “conception . . . of esthetic experience,” Dewey writes, “is, indeed, that the work of art has a unique quality, but that it is that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences” (84).  “[M]aterial is not subordinated to some particular and antecedent meaning . . ., but it is reconstructed and reorganized to express the artist’s imaginative vision. . . . Drawing is drawing out; it is extraction of what the subject matter has to say in particular to the painter in his integrated experience” (92, Dewey’s emphasis).  “Art . . . carries further, through selection and concentration, the reference to an object, to organization and order, beyond mere sense” (126).  “Through art, meanings of objects that are otherwise dumb, inchoate, restricted, and resisted, are clarified and concentrated, and not by thought working laboriously upon them, nor by escape into a world of mere sense, but by creation of a new experience” (132-33).  “Emotional energy continues to work but now does real work; it accomplished something.  It evokes, assembles, accepts and rejects memories, images, observations, and works them into a whole toned throughout by the same immediate emotional feeling.  Thereby is presented an object that is unified and distinguished throughout” (156).

The artist achieves intensity (a focusing of attention and of energies) through a “work” of concentration, compression, unification, selection, and reduction.  I can accept that we all might perform a similar work in our everyday lives—since we attend to only part of what lies in front of us and we strive to understand it and be responsive to its features by deploying strategies of concentration, unification etc.

Thus it is not the features of artistic work that I want to highlight.  Rather it is the conditions under which that work is done.  I have five I want to consider.


  1. Framing. Drawing boundaries around any activity can increase its intensity.  In part, this is an effect of concentration/selection, of only admitting within the frame things that are pertinent.  The banishment of the non-relevant focuses matters.

But there is also the effect of deliberately and self-consciously stepping into the bounded arena.  We are here in this space now to do this and only this.  Framing creates a kind of unity of purpose that is hard to achieve in daily life.  Games, classrooms, the operating room, and the bounded canvas of traditional paintings are only some examples of the power of spaces designated to one purpose—and one purpose alone.  Everything else is to be checked at the door.

Such spaces are artificial; they must be constructed.  The natural world does not come to us in bounded chunks or with sacrosanct spaces.  Dewey’s aesthetics neglects both the rationales for and the processes through which framing occurs.  Framing, I am suggesting, is a powerful and deliberate device erected against the “disordered heterogeneity” (157) that characterizes much of ordinary experience.

It is worth saying here that modern art has been very self-conscious about framing and its effects—and has often tried to deconstruct frames.  From Duchamp’s Fountain (calling out attention to the institutions of art and the semi-sacred space of the museum) to Jo Baer’s paintings, artists have highlighted the artificiality of the frame, sometimes in the name of being more real, more attentive to a non-exclusionary heterogeneity, at other times in order to simply increase self-consciousness about framing effects.


  1. Reflection/Self-Consciousness. Precisely because the artist works upon material provided by the world (whether that material be the emotions and thoughts arising out of experience or just the material stuff—paint, words, rock, sounds—the world affords), there is a stepping back from the flow of experience to this deliberate fashioning of something out of it.

Maybe what I am saying here is that there is a difference between “working” and “living”—and that Dewey (perhaps pragmatism as a philosophy) is blind to that difference.  Does the interaction model imply that we are always working, that we are always fashioning what the situation provides in relation to needs and purposes?  Isn’t walking through a landscape taking in its sights and sounds different from working up those sights and sounds into a painting or an essay?  Is Thoreau’s living in his cabin distinct from Thoreau’s writing about that experience, striving to derive and communicate that experience’s meanings?

In other words, are we self-conscious in every moment?  Or, alternatively, is it possible to do work without being self-conscious?  Work is the quintessential case of Deweyean “intelligence”—the movement toward a desired end in relation to the means afforded by the materials at hand, the resources available to the worker.

My question here has two parts.  A) Are we always working?  One way of understanding the Darwinian interaction model would answer that question Yes.  I am not so sure.

B) Doesn’t work require a kind of self-consciousness, a kind of deliberate action, that also requires certain enabling conditions—conditions that ordinary experience often does not provide? For starters, work might require a dedicated, framed space: a room of one’s own (or, at least, a workplace). The pandemic, of course, is challenging that spatial division, but doing one’s job on-line in the kitchen or the bedroom (the complete collapse of a distinction between domestic space and work space) is an experiment whose results are still undecided.  More globally, I am suggesting that there is the sense of crossing a border from one way of being in the world to another way of being when one sits down to work.  The artist as well as the engineer self-consciously takes up her tools.  We don’t live every moment so self-consciously focused or so oriented to getting a specific thing done.

I suspect that Dewey thinks self-conscious focus and achievement are the most fulfilling form of human life.  There is a deeply buried work ethic in Dewey, with his emphasis on “consummation,” on bringing things to “fulfillment.”  Yes, he wants to celebrate process over product, but the process is always ends-driven, and engaged intelligence is his version of both Socrates’ “the examined life” and Mill’s pleasures of a higher animal.


  1. A crucial—and to me truly decisive—discontinuity between art and ordinary experience is the relation to time. In our everyday experience, time cannot be stopped.  There is not, pace Prufrock, time for visions and revisions.

The artist gets to step outside of time and work on the materials that ordinary life provides.  Yes, there are deadlines—and there are the assorted pressures that a life in time presents—but the artist can work on his novel or his painting for eight years, striving to get things right.  The framing inherent to the aesthetic is not just spatial, but also temporal.  The luxury of reflection, of intense self-consciousness, requires not just a room of one’s own but expansive amounts of time.  Both, needless to say, are luxuries not available to a majority of the world’s inhabitants.  The relation to the materials provided by experience is radically different if one must react in real time or if one has the ability to step back, mull things over, revise one’s first (and second and third) responsive move, and manipulate various inputs to achieve an integrated whole.  Art’s ability to achieve unity and coherence—not to mention the eloquence of its expressions of emotion and insight—is directly related to this slowing down of time.

Art is not entirely non-temporal.  Art forms like the novel and music are explicitly temporal—but they demonstrate (and glory) in a kind of dominion over time that cannot be achieved in “real life.”  To miss the discontinuity between the arts’ relation to time and the way we all must live temporally in our ordinary lives is to miss a distinctive reason art is so powerful.

  1. Games and work benefit from the intensification effects of framing. But it is not obvious that they have the same relation to time as the arts.  Yes, a musical or dramatic performance, like a baseball game, is a “one-off”—and thus subject to irreversible results (well-played or marred by errors).  But the creative artist gets “do-overs” in the way that performers or the players of a game do not.  Revisions and mulligans come with the territory of creating an art work.

Furthermore, not only does the artist step out of “real time,” but the artist also works in the realm of “fiction.”  On the one hand, it is not surprising that Dewey, who really had barely an aesthetic bone in his body, missed the fictional nature of the arts.  But on another hand, it is shocking that he did so—because of his life-long advocacy for “experimentation.”  In a certain way, the space of the arts is not very different from the space of the laboratory.  In both cases, the practitioner gets to assemble various materials, see how they interact with one another, and not have to worry about the results of that interaction having immediate real world consequences.  (I will worry about the indirect, non-immediate, consequences in my next post.)

Thus, Shakespeare’s King Lear can consider the consequences of dividing up a kingdom without a real civil war occurring.  We can call his play a cautionary tale, a plea to his fellow countrymen to maintain unity, through his vivid depiction of the awful alternative.  But no one gets killed—even though he fictionally represents people getting killed.  So we can add to the powers that art possesses by virtue of its special relations to space and time, its ability to step aside from “real life” into a controlled space we call “fiction” to conduct thought experiments about various alternative ways of living (or perceiving or thinking or reacting emotionally) in ordinary existence.

In short, most art works—even the ones that call themselves “realistic”—exist in a hypothetical universe, not in the universe you and I must live in.  Again, modern art has sometimes chafed against this constraint, sometimes embraced it (“speculative fiction”), and sometimes played with it in various ingenious ways (Philip Roth’s The Counter-Life for just one of many examples).  Still I am arguing that this discontinuity—a distinction between the hypothetical and the real—is endemic to the arts, for better and for worse.

  1. I will consider the issue of how art impacts ordinary life in my next post. For today, I will conclude with a summary statement that will come as no surprise for readers of my earlier posts on Dewey.  What I am repeating here is that the everyday does not come to us (in my opinion, but not in Dewey’s) endowed with form.  The aesthetic’s work is to derive form, to create form, out of the material life provides.  Dewey calls the art work “formed matter” (114), which seems right to me.

Here is his fullest discussion of form.

“In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art.  Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency (my emphasis) to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified experience.  Form is a character of every experience that is an (Dewey’s emphasis) experience.  Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity.  Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment. (Dewey’s italics; my underlining).  The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without.  It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation. . . . The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to its fulfillment” (137).

Perhaps there is “an inevitable tendency” to attempt to organize the materials presented by the daily round.  In that sense, the aesthetic impulse and our responses to everyday experience would be continuous.  In both cases, we seek fulfillment or consummation through the achievement of form.  I do think this is too mono-causal an account of the multiple ways that humans respond to experience—or, to be more fundamental still, simply experience.  I don’t think our ways of being in the world are “perverted” if we fail to strive to “form” the heterogeneous stuff the world throws at us on any given day.  Furthermore—and I have beaten this horse many times already—I don’t believe that situations and events and scenes have an “integral fulfillment” lurking within them.

What this post adds to these worries/objections is this:  Even if there is a fundamental continuity between the aesthetic effort to achieve form and similar efforts we make in our everyday lives, it is a mistake to miss that the aesthetic possesses resources for that effort that the everyday lacks.  Living forward in real time is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to doing the work of selection, concentration, clarification, intensification, and unification that the aesthetic performs in order to whip the matter of experience into shape.  The aesthetic’s ability (its constitutive ability?) to step aside from the flow of experience grants it capacities that everyday life simply does not possess.

It is worth adding that the aesthetic’s various resources are not unique to art.  In various ways, other forms of human activity (from games to specialized pursuits) avail themselves of the capacities activated by creating separate spaces, by selecting out only relevant features of a situation, by developing techniques of working upon and shaping available materials, and by focusing attention in various ways.  Some of these other enterprises even possess strategies for stepping outside of time’s relentless forward flow.



Dewey, Art As Experience (2)

Dewey hates dualisms.  He is (shades of Hegel again) always trying to cross conceptual and existential divides.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that he hates modernist aestheticism, even as he (a fact Nick has made abundantly clear to me) embraces the modernist commitment to a non-representational art that is an experience in and of itself (not the representation of some experience external to it).  And he clearly (it seems to me) wants to make the kind of experience that would qualify as “aesthetic” continuous with ordinary experience.

Yet—he also is committed to the aesthetic experience accomplishing a “consummation” that many ordinary experiences do not achieve.  The aesthetic is connected to “fulfillment.”  That is why the aesthetic in Art As Experience offers a template for the kinds of experiences that everyone should strive to have—and attending to the aesthetic motivates a critique of the social, economic, and psychological conditions that make so much of ordinary experience unfulfilling.  The goal is to make more of our experiences “aesthetic”—that is, fulfilling and consummatory.  Our lives could be more intense and more coherent and more satisfying than they currently are.

This distinction between ordinary experience and aesthetic experiences produces a number of dualisms in Art As Experience.  There is the foundational distinction between “experience” and “an experience.”  Then, when we move onto the discussion of emotion, we get a distinction between an emotion that is “discharged” and one that is “expressed.”  Finally, in the chapters on “form,” there is the distinction between (mere) “shape” and “form.”

So this my objection number two to Dewey’s book.  He maintains a set of dualisms that stand in unresolved tension with his commitment to unity.  In thinking about the aesthetic in my next post, I will be inspired by Dewey to consider the discontinuity between art and ordinary experience—which goes against his fundamental desire to make them continuous.  But his dualisms give me a way of thinking about discontinuity.

Here’s a clear statement of the distinction between “discharge” and “expression,” a statement that (from my perspective) makes clear the “work” that must be done to render something aesthetic.  “The emotion that was finely wrought out by Tennyson in the composition of ‘In Memoriam’ was not identical with the emotion of grief that manifests itself in weeping and a downcast frame: the first is an act of expression, the second of discharge.  Yet the continuity of the two emotions, the fact that esthetic emotion is native emotion transformed through the objective material to which it has committed its development and consummation, is evident”(78-79).   [This position has the unfortunate implication that the grounding emotion has to be really felt by the artist.  But actors—and poets for that matter—may artistically express emotions that they don’t actually have.  Throughout, as I will discuss at some length in my next post, Dewey neglects the “fictional aspect” of the aesthetic—a neglect that is not surprising given his investment in the continuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience.]

In each case of these dualisms, it seems clear that some kind of work is done upon the material that experience offers.  That work is necessary to move from “experience” to “an experience.”  What seems obvious to me is that the “aesthetic” in Art As Experience becomes another mode of “reconstruction”—which, of course, is Dewey’s characterization of the work philosophy does (or should be doing).

My point is that we need then to attend to how that work gets done.  A lot of Art As Experience does that descriptive task, but Dewey is hampered by his desire to keep the aesthetic and the ordinary continuous.  I think his aim is to render all experience aesthetic.  The ordinary transformed—or reconstructed.  On the one hand, “aesthetic education” teaches us how to perceive, how to take in what experience (or the experienced work of art) has to offer.  “There must be indirect and collateral channels of response prepared in advance in the case of one who really sees the picture or hears the music.  This motor preparation is a large part of aesthetic education in any particular line.  To know what to look for and how to see it is an affair of readiness on the part of motor equipment. . . . [I]t is necessary that there be ready defined channels of motor response, due in part to native constitution and in part to education through experience” (98).  “Education through experience” needs to be guided.  Dewey should say more about the role of the teacher here.  You don’t learn how to listen to a Beethoven sonata—or how to play it—without a teacher.  And I am willing to entertain the notion that the same holds true for ordinary experience.  We can learn how to pay attention to, how to understand, how to value various elements of experience that might pass by unnoticed without the nudges education provides.

Dewey insists throughout that it can never be a matter of immediate experience.  “The other factor that is required in order that a work may be expressive to a percipient is meanings and values extracted from prior experiences and funded in such a way that they fuse with the qualities directly presented in the work of art” (98).  There is no immediate perception in Dewey, and no self-enclosed present moment.  How we understand (judge) what is in front of our nose is always “funded”—and presumably some of that funding is a product of education.  But another part of the funding is more individual, a product of one’s own distinctive experiences, purposes, desires, and temperament.  One’s interests (a word that works beautifully in this context) predispose one’s present moment interactions.  (Acknowledgement to Nick required here since he keeps reminding me of the temporality built into Dewey’s key notion of “experience.”  It is not just our “funded” response—this bringing the past to bear—but also our orientation toward desired consequences—thus bringing the future into the relation—that is present in the present moment.)

Chapter Five of Art As Experience concludes with a stirring statement of what aesthetic reconstruction can accomplish.  I am going to quote from it at length.

“[T]he process of living is continuous; it possesses continuity because it is an everlasting renewed process of acting upon environment and being acted upon by it, together with institution of relations between what is done and what is undergone.  Hence experience is necessarily cumulative and its subject matter gains expressiveness because of cumulative continuity.  . . . Yet apathy and torpor conceal this expressiveness by building a shell about objects.  Familiarity induces indifference, prejudice blinds us; conceit looks through the wrong end of a telescope and minimizes the significance possessed by objects in favor of the alleged importance of the self.  Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us it in its varied qualities and forms.  It intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in object and orders them in a new experience of life” (104, my emphasis).

We get here the romantic, vitalist Dewey.  Art re-vivifies the world and the self.  It quickens.  Crucial for Dewey is that art works upon actual experience; it awakens us to this world; it is not offering us a refuge in some alternative universe (the house of art).  I certainly thrill to these kinds of claims for art, for the seductiveness of the intensity it offers, for its ability to render the ordinary luminous, and replace routine with intensity.  How it manages to do that revivifying work will be the subject of my next post.

But Dewey doesn’t stop there—with this account of how the arts quicken individual consciousness and experience.  He also proclaims that art is the best way to establish the most complete and the most satisfactory communication between people.

“Those who are moved [by a work of art] feel . . . that what the work expresses is as if it were something one had oneself been longing to express.  Meantime, the artist works to create an audience to which he does communicate.  In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between mean and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience” (105).

Dewey’s meditations on democracy turn more and more to the theme of “communication” in the 1930s and 1940s.  Two examples, the first from “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” (1939): “For every way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched” (p. 245 in The Political Writings [Hackett, 1993]).  The second from “John Dewey Responds” (1949): “Many years ago I read something written by an astute politician.  He said that majority rule is not the heart of democracy, but the processes by which a given group having a specific kind of politics becomes a majority.  That saying has remained with me; in effect it embodies recognition that democracy is an educative process; that the act of voting is in a democratic regime a culmination of a continued process of open and public communication in which prejudices have the opportunity to erase each other;  that continued interchange of facts and ideas exposes what is unsound and discloses what may make for human well-being”(p. 248 in The Political Writings). [Read this statement in the context of 2020—and weep.]

The claim that art works offer the most “complete and unhindered communication” possible in this sublunary world seems to me overboard.  But I don’t want to deny that artists do (at least in some instances) pay particular care to communicating, while I accept (again, with some reservations) Dewey’s conviction that emotionally charged communication has a potential effectiveness (and impact) denied to more austere pronouncements.

I will end with anticipating a bit my next post.  That art works can revivify one’s relation to the world, express emotions more successfully, render the elements of experience more fulfilling, and communicate with others more completely depends on a certain kind of self-conscious work upon the materials offered by experience.  That work is connected to the creation of “form” out of those materials, as Dewey suggests in his closing words to Chapter VI.

“[Whatever] path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.  It does so by reducing the raw materials of that experience to matter ordered through form” (133).  The world’s fullness needs to be reduced in order to achieve form.  The artist must select out of everything that experience provides for just those elements that she will concentrate upon.

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.

Sentimentality and Apocalypse

Despite the effort of feminist critics, Eve Sedgwick most notable among them, fear of sentimentality (one of the most persistent hallmarks of a modernist mindset) still rules the roost in almost all “serious” fiction.  I remember figuring out around age 14, when I first started reading classics like Hemingway, Joyce, and Hardy, that I could be sure that I was reading the “good stuff” if it all ends badly.  “Poetic justice” and “happy endings” belong to the Victorians and Hollywood.  They were banished in any fiction post 1890 that aspired to “high” status—and such seems to still be the case.  Bad things happening to good people is the rule.

One reason for abandoning sentimentality, one I find myself very much in tune with, is the determination to avoid any hint that suffering pays dividends.  The classic Christian plot, of course, reveals how redemption is won through suffering.  And classic fictional plots offer all kinds of variants on the ways that characters grow in wisdom or strength or sympathy through various trials, physical and/or mental.  Not to mention suffering that serves as atonement for various faults, thus washing them clean and making the character “worthy of” a happy ending.

The modernist sensibility is that suffering is meaningless.  It does not make people better—and it does not make the world better.  Suffering is just outrageous, all too common, and offering nothing but the cup of bitterness.  In fact, there is something obscene about all efforts to turn suffering to account, to make it serve some purpose.  One must resolutely turn one’s back on any sentimental way enlisted to make suffering pay dividends.

The sentimentalist, in other words, lies.  He makes the world out to be better than it really is because he takes suffering, which is inevitable, and makes it palatable.

Anti-sentimentalism, as many have pointed out, comes with a kind of machismo pride: I am man enough to face up to the harsh truth that others try to shirk. My objection is that manning up seems to also entail admitting there is nothing that can be done about it.  It becomes sentimental to think there are ways toward a more just world.

Anti-sentimentalism also alters the form of narratives.  Traditional plots often turn on character development.  To put it most simply: they show characters learning from and being changed by experience.  As Aristotle put it way back when: characters are shown as moving from good fortune to bad, or the reverse.  It doesn’t have to be that schematic, but the point is that experience matters, that neither character nor the world are eternally the same.  Things and people change—and plots are ways of registering and accounting for those changes.  The anti-sentimentalist view tends toward stagnant, determinist, fatalism.  Things are always just about the same: the good suffer, injustice prevails, there is nothing much in the way of improvement to expect or hope for.

It’s this hopelessness that makes me like the John Dewey quote about sentimentalism that I offered a few posts back.  Here it is again:  “Education and morals will begin to find themselves on the same road of advance that say chemical industry and medicine have found for themselves when they too learn fully the lesson of whole-hearted and unremitting attention to means and conditions—that is, to what mankind so long despised as material and mechanical.  When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism.  But when we take ends without regards to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost”(Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).

No surprise, of course, that Dewey, optimist that he is, believes change for the better is possible.  But I want to take up two different thoughts prompted by his statement.

First, that grand ideals like “justice” and “equality” are sentimental if unmoored from concrete ideas about how to put them into practice.  And such sentimentalism leads directly to preaching and exhortation, along with fuzzy thinking that avoids all consideration of means.  I have no more to say on that score.  If the shoe fits . . .

Second, if one has no concrete steps to be taken, I think the form “magical thinking” takes is apocalyptic.  The writer cannot imagine how to transform the world of injustice and suffering he presents.  But the writer also declares this state of affairs is unsustainable and, therefore, will come down with a crash at some unspecified point in the future through some unspecified chain of events.  This is the dream of revolution, but it has become the garden variety claim that current levels of inequality must lead to drastic political upheavals, that current levels of greenhouse gases must lead to transformative environmental disaster, and (of course) to the well-worn belief that economic crisis must lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Waiting for the apocalypse is not a politics.  “To profess to have an aim and then neglect the means of its execution is self-delusion of the most dangerous sort” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 72-73).  Kant’s categorical imperative gets all the attention, but I have always preferred the “hypothetical imperative” myself.  Basically, Kant says we fail one test of reason when we don’t will the means toward an end.  As I explain it to my students, if your goal is to pass the test on Friday morning, the hypothetical imperative says you must study on Thursday night.  If you go out to the bars, you are being irrational by Kant’s account.

Now, it is true, neither Kant nor Dewey pay enough attention to the case where one wills the means (after having thought carefully about them) but is powerless to put those means into action.  Apocalyptic thinking is a delightful refuge for the powerless, for those who can’t make their desired courses of action a reality.

But there is no reason for such powerlessness to rule supreme in fiction.  We seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of fatalism (suffering and disaster are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it) combined with a severe lack of imagination (an inability to entertain, at least in thought, pathways toward a better future).  The only means of transformation we seem currently able to credit is catastrophe.  And Dewey would claim that predilection is every bit as sentimental as an Austen or Dickens novel that offers its characters a happy ending.