Category: Bruno Latour

Aesthetic Education and Democracy

I have just participated in a terrific three day seminar on Aesthetic Education as part of the 2021 ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) conference.  I got caught up in (instigated?) a debate about expertise in which I think I failed to clarify my position or, more importantly, what is at stake for me in taking the position I did.  I think it likely that I misunderstood the paper by Michael Clune that I was over-reacting to.  At the very least, I need to wait until I read Michael’s forthcoming book on judgment and Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension before pursuing that quarrel.  Clune thrillingly described the ways in which subject and object can be co-constituted through their encounter, especially (it was implied) when the object is an aesthetic one.  “The work organizes our experience of the world” and “the subject is shaped by the work” are two phrases from his talk.  One is changed by this encounter; one’s world is enriched. 

Inspired by this account, I wanted to say that such meaningful encounters are open to all.  Everyone has aesthetic experiences from an early age. Aesthetic education can (I hope) heighten or intensify those experiences and (at a high school and college level) make students more reflective about the nature of their aesthetic experiences and the reasons/causes for their tastes. (Mark Wollenberg in his talk introduced me to the wonderful notion of a “taste journey,” the narrative of one’s evolving tastes.) But I want us to understand aesthetic experience as utterly normal and as universal as the ability to speak a language. One acquires aesthetic sensibilities and aesthetic tastes pretty much the same way one acquires a language or one acquires a set of moral commitments: through the give and take with others and the world, shaped by feedback loops that point in one direction as the way to “go on” and tell us that other directions are inappropriate, non-fruitful, or actively harmful. 

The barrier to entry into language, into aesthetic experience, and into morality is incredibly low.  As Kant says, we expect these competencies of everyone past a certain age (probably four years old).  We expect people will become more adept at all three practices as they grow older—and education aims to facilitate that enhancing of competence.  But there is no clear threshold between the expert and the novice, only a continuum because from a very early age people are always already linguistic beings with a sense of right and wrong and with a sensuous engagement with worldly objects that shape their selves and their selves’ understanding of the world. To put it a little differently, one’s way of being in the world (one’s character in an Aristotelian sense) is a product of one’s interaction with others, with the language into which one is born, with the prevailing mores of one’s society, and with the sensuous apprehension of worldly objects, situations, and events.  And lest that list look too sanguine and ethereal, let’s make sure to add the society’s compulsions, the things it demands of its members in terms of norms of productivity and accountability.  Systems of debt are omnipresent as David Graeber taught us, and Kristen Case’s talk at the conference introduced me to the notion of chrono-normativity, the ways in which our time is structured for us by social demands. 

So, in this post, instead of pursuing what quickly became a muddled and unhelpful debate over the term “expert,” let me try to articulate the positive vision that was behind my inclination to instigate that debate.  Of course, the clarity of this positive vision only came to me after the fact—and so is a good result (at least I hope so) of the ruckus.  Thinking it all through afterwards helped to clarify for me why I think aesthetic education and democracy can (and should) be deeply intertwined.

My position is an unholy mixture of Arendt, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kant, and Latour.  The best way to start is with Arendt’s insistence that truth and politics don’t mix.  Here’s a simple way to illustrate her point.  The local river does not have a bridge over it.  That’s a fact and is pre-political for Arendt.  If we can’t agree that there’s no bridge, we’ve got nowhere to go.  A scary thought in this day and age when millions deny the fact that Biden won the 2020 election.  Fact (the truth about the way things are) is compulsive for Arendt.  There is no room for negotiation or compromise; that’s why it is not political.  I can only insist that the election was fair and won by Biden. 

But let’s go back to our bridge-less river.  Should we build a bridge over it or not?  That’s a matter of opinion—and the very stuff of politics for Arendt.  The political community should meet together as equals, with everyone’s opinion heard.  In this agonistic understanding of democracy, some opinions may, in the course of the debate, prove more persuasive than others.  But the community is engaged in a fundamental process of asking for and giving reasons—and of weighing those reasons.  Chances of reaching consensus are pretty slim.  We live in an irreducibly plural world, ranging from the mysteries of individual idiosyncrasies (evident to any parent who has more than one child) to different social positionings, to different life experiences.  Where a decision has to be reached, a vote is a way to cut off discussion.  But in aesthetic matters we don’t take votes.  We simply let the discussion, with the different judgments about an aesthetic experience’s worth, and different descriptions of its distinctive qualities, roll on.  In fact, those endless disagreements are much of the fun, a point to which I will return.

Once the community decides to build the bridge, we exit politics again and call in the expert.  Everyone’s opinion is not equally entitled to be heard and respected when it comes to the question of how to build the bridge.  We are back in the realm of positive knowledge, where only certain trained persons know how to build bridges that won’t collapse.  Because any debate on that subject will not be between equals and only among a small group of qualified people, the debate (if there is one) is technical, not political.

My positive point overlaps with Nick Gaskill’s wanting to identify plural modes of apprehension, although I don’t know enough Whitehead to be sure.  Still, I like the idea that science as a mode of knowledge deals in facts ranging from the river has no bridge to assertions about the stress loads a particular bridge can hold.  Aesthetics is more attuned to the “qualities” of things—more properly the qualities of experiences since I want to hold on to the interactive emphasis I saw in Clune’s talk.  As Kant tried hard to explain, aesthetics is about the self’s engagement with the non-self, and the non-self meant not only nature but also one’s society, as represented by the sensus communis.  Everyone is engaged with the world and others—and they are the best witness to their own understandings and judgments of that engagement.  And surely we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.  The only thing worse than a world in which everyone disagreed with me all the time would be a world in which everyone agreed with me.  The parent delights in the child’s first signs of willfulness, of independence, just as the English literature teacher delights when students discover pleasure in a Browning poem.  In the case of the poem, the teacher can lead the student to water, but can’t make him drink.  The class can be the occasion for discovering how the self can be shaped by the work, but the occasion is non-compulsive, and there is no single or right way for that shaping to occur.  Mathematics is compulsive, aesthetic experiences are not.

Thus, when aesthetic education fosters the formation of aesthetic opinions, reflection upon the reasons and felt experiences that underlie those opinions, and debates with others about them, it is a simulacrum of democracy itself. 

This linking of aesthetic education with democracy (as Arendt envisions it) entails that the job of the aesthetic ed teacher is 1) not to claim his students begin in ignorance; 2) not to disparage the views they currently hold; and 3) not to intimate in any way that his views are preferable in any way to those of the students.  But that last point is outrageous!!!!

[Digression #1: it seems to me no surprise that when aesthetic education and aesthetic educators are threatened, it will seem particularly foolhardy to downplay our expertise and our contributions to positive knowledge since those are the coin of the realm. But I agree with Nick Gaskill that we aren’t going to fool anybody, including ourselves, by trying to assimilate what we do to the knowledge producing protocols of the natural or social sciences. Better to grab the nettle and explain how and why we are doing something different.]

Not so outrageous if you consider how seldom we offer to students the experience of equality.  If, as I believe is true, democracy is dependent on all members of society taking equality utterly seriously, then why would we think that depriving people (in the workplace as well as the classroom, not to mention the patriarchal family, and hierarchical stigmas of race, profession, wealth etc.) of any experience of equality would redound to the health of democracy?  I am suggesting that the aesthetics classroom is an ideal place (and currently one of the few places) where equality can be the norm.  Dare I say that’s because so little is at stake, that in the last analysis aesthetic disagreements have very few consequences, that (as I have already suggested), disagreements are what give flavor to aesthetic debates. The aesthetic is a safe space in which to practice the democratic ethos of meeting with one’s peers in equality to debate about things on which you disagree, but where there is never a conclusive, knock-down argument to be had, one that brings the debate to a halt because now everyone agrees or because we have reached a disagreement about fact that is conversation-stopping.

[Digression #2:Joseph North and Kate Stanley in our seminar would point out how individualistic this account of aesthetic experience and aesthetic debate is. What about the ways that aesthetic experiences can foster, even generate, collective identities? Arendt seems to think that the ability to participate in the conversation as an equal, to be heard, is enough to underwrite a commitment to the necessarily collective action that establishes and sustains the conversation. In other words, our collectivity is enacted–performatively created–through our talking to one another even as the substance of that talk is often our disagreements. It is also the case if no one’s opinion was ever changed, if we never achieved some partial agreements, the conversation would seem utterly futile and would most likely come to an end. That attachment to the collectivity achieved through the conversation may explain why almost everyone in the seminar tried to say that Clune and I really didn’t have a deep, fundamental disagreement.]

I challenge your opinions and you challenge mine.  In that pragmatic give-and-take, that attempt to offer reasons and grounds for one’s opinion, opinions and even experiences are changed.  I come to see that I had failed to see some aspect (Wittgenstein) of a work that now leads me to reconsider my opinion of it.  But maybe not.  Maybe I still think it trite and meretricious.  In Arendt’s lovely phrase (which she claims she takes from Kant, but which I can’t find in Kant), my challenger can only “woo” my consent with her view, lacking any way to compel it. 

So what does the teacher of aesthetic education bring into the classroom?  Three things, I would hope. 1) An ability to facilitate productive conversations about aesthetic experiences. These conversations enhance our ability to reflect upon those experiences and (absolutely crucially as will become clearer in a moment) foster an ability to hear about other’s different experiences/values/tastes and accept the way their views challenge me to revise my own.  The teacher helps the student learn how to assemble (Latour) his reasons, his evidence, his articulation of his experiences in order to make an eloquent rendering of his opinion to himself and to his auditors.

2) The teacher can bring a trained eye or ear.  That is, the teacher has spent a lot more time around aesthetic objects and thinking about them, and thus may be in a position to enhance the students’ aesthetic experiences by pointing out features of the aesthetic object they may miss.  If this is what we mean by expertise, I’m down with it.  But with the important reservations that the teacher’s judgments, at the end of the day, are no more authoritative than the students’ judgments.  If someone still finds Shakespeare a bore after all I have done to make him more accessible and interesting, that student (once again) is fully entitled to that opinion.  We cannot expect to persuade everyone all the time—and it would in fact be a nightmare if we did persuade everyone to hold the same views.  Which is another way of saying that communicability (Kant), not assent, is what is crucial here.

3) Communicability means that success in articulating my position—and yours as I comprehend it—is the good the teacher should be aiming for.  Students are to be engaged in the language game of asking for and giving reasons.  The teacher has been around the block and so is familiar with many of the moves in reason giving, with various types of reasons, of evidence, of persuasive appeals, and can guide the students toward a recognition of those means, and work to enhance their abilities of expression and comprehension.  One way to say this (I would reference Nick Gaskill’s paper here) is that intelligibility, not knowledge, is what is at issue.  I don’t know definitively that Moby Dick is the greatest American novel ever written after talking to you; but I understand (you have made intelligible to me) your reasons why you think it is and the reasons you think I should agree with you.  You have done your wooing—and our teachers (and other exemplars in this art of reason giving) have helped me learn how to hone my reason giving. Communicability rests on the same feedback loops I keep invoking. I know I have to try again when my auditor says I don’t see what you are driving at. What we have here is a failure to communicate. That failure, not a failure to agree, is what is fatal to sociality–and any hope of democracy. Need I add that the person who believes the 2020 election was stolen is not intelligible to me–and apparently not at all interested in talking to me in an effort to make his views intelligible, or listening to my account of how his conviction threatens our polity. Which is why I fear for democracy.

There are other things aesthetic education can aim to achieve.  I don’t mean to slight the value of aesthetic experience in and of itself—its essential place in anything I would deem a flourishing life.  But I do think, if stringently tied to equality, that the aesthetic classroom can be a laboratory of democracy in a world where we talk democracy all the time but very rarely experience it, which is another way of saying that our social spaces and social interactions persistently infantilize people, belittling their own understandings of their experience, their confidence in their tastes, and their ability to articulate their opinions in the face of a healthy, but respectful, skepticism.

Fact/Value Divide

It’s been a long hiatus.  But I want to pick up where I left off.  I have three issues on the table:

1. Cognitive versus non-cognitive theories of art.

2. The very distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive appears to motivate a fact/value divide—as shown most dramatically in the emotivist, non-cognitive theories of ethics/morals developed by the logical positivists in the mid-20th century.

3. I am still angling to get eventually to a consideration of the connection of art to meaning—with the corollary of considering if meaning differs substantially from information and/or causal explanation. On this last point, I am courting, it would seem, my own dichotomy.  I, for the most part, have no commitment to proving the arts “distinctive” in some absolute way.  I don’t feel a need to show that the arts do something that other activities we would not consider artistic do not.  But I do suspect that a focus on or concern with meaning leads in different directions than a focus on explanation.  To explain how hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water says little to nothing about the “meaning” that interaction might have. At least, that’s my intuition.

But today’s post focuses in on #2, the fact/value divide.  I think I am stealing my basic insight here from my friend Allen Dunn, but will follow a path derived from Wittgenstein and Dewey to make my case.

Consider the following sentences, all of which (except the last two) use some form of the verb “to be,” and take the form of assertions.

1.  There is a red house. [The speaker points at a yellow house.]

2.  There is a dog.  [The speaker points at a cat.}

3.   Henry is taller than John.

4.  Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.

5.  Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American history.

6.  Incest is wrong.

7.  “All men are created equal.”

8.  Hitting your child is wrong.

9.  Moby Dick is the greatest American novel.

10.  Moby Dick is a chaotic mess.

11.  Moby Dick is about a milkman who loses his job.

12.  James has Parkinson’s Disease.

13.  William has prostrate cancer.

The usual, intuitive, reasons for believing in a fact/value distinction are 1. The belief that values are human and are added on top of natural facts and 2. The notion that facts, generally, are verifiable and thus non-controversial, while disagreements over values are rife and irresolvable.  It is easy to agree that this copy of Moby Dick has a red cover, but it is harder to reach agreement over the artistic value of Moby Dick.

On number one: my inclination would be to say facts are as human as values—insofar as facts are fabricated (in the ways Bruno Latour’s work has made familiar to us) and that the mobilization of facts, their use in rhetorics of persuasion that aim to achieve agreement, is a human enterprise.  (Let’s leave speculation about the consciousness of animals and plants to one side for the moment.  I am a complete agnostic on this topic.  We learn more and more every year about animal and plant consciousness.  So I do not deny out of hand that these non-human creatures might have their ways of ascertaining facts and, crucially, bringing apprehended facts to bear in subsequent behavior, and communicating with others.)  For humans, the key for me is that facts are understood as pieces of information that have been produced, and then mobilized in processes of deliberation and the formation of individual and collective intentions. 

In other words, once a fact has been fabricated in the Latourian fashion, it then becomes something that is used in making plans and in trying to persuade others to assist with those plans.  Thus, a hurricane is not a fact until it has been made into one by an assemblage of the symptoms and consequences and causes gathered under the name “hurricane” by meteorologists—and then that name (with all that is associated with it) is used (for example) to justify an evacuation order.  In short, on this account, there is no reason to think the creation of values differs significantly from the creation of facts.  Both facts and values are assemblages that bring together various factors to designate something as the case (i.e. hurricanes cause damage; incest is wrong).

What I take from Allen refers to number two, the idea that facts are non-controversial while values generate endless disagreements.  Allen’s point was that we have many value statements that are almost universally accepted.  Very few people insist that incest is just fine.  Far fewer people call incest OK than believe that alien abduction happens.  We cannot sort things into the fact bin and the value bin on the basis of agreement over the truth of fact assertions as contrasted to value assertions.  The American experience of the past four years has merely brought the idea that facts are incontrovertible to its knees.

At this point, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “anything goes.”  This is where Wittgenstein and Dewey can prove helpful—even though they will not “solve” the problem of disagreement.  But they can help us think about it more clearly. 

The sentences I offer at the top of this post are Wittgenstein-like.  For sentence one, where a speaker calls a yellow house red, we would first ask him to look again.  If he repeated his assertion, we could only conclude that he is color-blind (and would arrange for him to be tested for that condition), or that he doesn’t understand how the word “red” is applied in English (and would proceed to try to teach him the color terms and their application in English.) 

For sentence two, where the speaker calls a dog a cat, we don’t even have known medical condition to appeal to.  Now it is simply telling him that “we” (the speakers of English) call that animal a “dog” not a “cat.”  This looks like sheer compulsion.  There is no underlying reason or fact that justifies using the word “dog” instead of the word “cat.”  It is just the way we do things in English.  The agreement is motivated (perhaps) by its usefulness in facilitating communication, but nothing else underwrites the convention.  For Wittgenstein, reasons stop at a certain point.  This is where my spade turns, he writes.  Reasons come to an end, and there is just the bald statement: this is what we do, this is how we think and act, this is what we believe. 

What Dewey adds to this Wittgensteinian picture is the notion of “warrants.”  Where there are disagreements over an assertion, there are reasons I mobilize in an effort to convince another that my assertion should be credited.  It is important to recognize that the warrants vary widely depending on the nature of the assertion.  The warrants for sentences one and two are, from a positivist point of view, pretty feeble.  The only “verification” is to show that this use of the words “red” and “dog” is actually what English speakers do.  There is no connection to natural facts involved.

When we get to sentence three, Henry is taller than John, we can stand the two boys next to each other.  Here there appears to be a fact of the matter that can be “shown.”  Agreement still depends on both parties understanding the term “taller” in the same way, but there is also (as the positivist sees it) “direct’ evidence for the assertion.

Sentence four shows how quickly the positivists’ view of facts falls apart.  There is no “direct” proof that Lincoln was the 16th president.  In a very real way, we must take that fact on faith, placing credence in various documents.  We in 2020 can have no first-hand knowledge of Lincoln having been president.  In part, we take that fact on authority.  But we also believe that fact because questioning it would undermine all kinds of other beliefs we have.  Our beliefs “hang together” to establish a holistic picture of our world and our place in it.  To discredit a single assertion can, in many cases, threaten to unravel a whole web of beliefs.  We are, for this reason, “conservatives” in the matter of beliefs, William James says.  We want to conserve, to not upset the apple cart.  We have to have very strong reasons (of interest, or argument) to give up a settled belief.  Saying this, however, indicates the extent to which we believe what it is “comfortable” to believe—and thus points to the ways we can believe things that, to others, seem to patently disregard compelling evidence to the contrary.  On the other hand, “confirmation bias” points to the ways we credit anything that seems to shore up our current beliefs.  We humans can be remarkably resistant to what others will claim are “the plain facts of the matter.”

Dewey’s notion of “warrants” tells us that what will “count” as evidence will vary from case to case.  The evidence brought to back up the assertion that Lincoln was the 16th president is different from the evidence called up to claim he was the greatest American president.  Of the asking for and giving of reasons there is no end.  But the kinds of reasons offered must be deemed pertinent to the matter at hand. 

Thus, when we get to the statements “incest is wrong,” or “all men are created equal,” we might be tempted to argue in terms of consequences.  There are harmful biological consequences for inbreeding, and there might be harmful social consequences (violence, resentment, various other forms of conflict) from treating some as inferior to others.  But incest was considered wrong long before there was any understanding of genetics, and the harmful consequences of inequality are uncertain.  In the case of incest, there is not much (if any) disagreement.  Certain persons might violate the injunction against it, but they recognize the force of the assertion in their keeping its violations secret.  I am tempted to say that the assertion “incest is wrong” is akin to saying “that animal is a dog.”  It is just the way this community does things.  It is foundational to our being a community (we share a language; we share a belief than incest is wrong and that it should be forbidden).  Our spade turns there.

The equality assertion is more debatable (as is the assertion that hitting a child is wrong).  Arguments (reasons) are offered for both sides.  Disagreements over consequences (installing equality breeds mediocrity; sparing the rod spoils the child) will be rife.  Kant, of course, offers a different argumentative strategy, one that depends on seeing the contradiction in making an exception of oneself.  You, Kant says, don’t want to be treated as an inferior.  So why should you think that it is right for another to be so treated?  Kantian arguments have proven no more decisive than consequential ones.  But the point is that these two kinds of reasons are typical of the “warrants” offered in cases of moral assertions.  Where they fail, we can only say “I have nothing more to offer. Here my spade turns.”  The kinds of evidence/reasons offered are different than the kinds I offer against claims of alien abduction or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, but there comes a point where what I deem more than sufficient reason to believe something does not work for others.  At that point, there is nothing further to be done.

 The Moby Dick sentences make the point that in debates over aesthetic values different kinds of assertions will call for different “warrants.”  The assertion that the novel is about a milkman is akin to someone calling a dog a cat.  There is no place to go with such a disagreement; the parties to it are literally not speaking the same language.  Wittgenstein’s point is that only where there is a fundamental agreement—we can call it the minimum required to be part of a community—can a disagreement then unfold.  I can’t play a game of tennis if my opponent says balls that go into the net are do-overs.  Unless we both stand within the constitutive rules of the game, the competition of an actual match cannot unfold.  I can’t have a conversation about Moby Dick with someone who thinks it is the story of a milkman.

But the other two sentences about the novel require different warrants.  To talk about it being the greatest American novel (just as any talk of Lincoln as the greatest American president) requires some kind of articulation of what makes a novel great and some attempt at comparison with other American novels my interlocutor might consider great.  To say Moby Dick is a chaotic mess need not involve any comparison to other novels, while the criteria for “chaotic mess” will be different from the criteria for “greatness.”  In both cases, I will presumably appeal to features of the novel, perhaps quoting from the text.  In the Latour vision, these appeals to the text are acts of assemblage, of putting together my case, calling into presence various available sources—features of the text, the opinions of prior readers and critics, my own responses to the novel’s shifts of tone and topic etc.—to make my assertion credible.

I have included the last two sentences, which provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and prostrate cancer, to indicate how warrants in medical science also differ from one case to another.  In prostrate cancer, we have blood tests and various forms of imaging that establish the “fact of the matter.”  In Parkinson’s there are no such definitive tests.  A patient is judged to have Parkinson’s on the basis of a bundle of symptoms (not all of which will be present in the majority of cases) and on the basis of how they respond to certain drugs or other treatments. 

There are two conclusions to draw, I think.  The first is pluralism.  Our reasons for believing assertions vary; we offer to ourselves and others different arguments/reasons/evidence to undergird (or justify) what we do assert, what we do hold to be true or to be good to believe.  (I recognize that I am going to have to think about the word “true” and the work it does when I take up the questions of meaning.) 

The second is that the kind of reasons offered in different cases do not separate out along lines that coincide with the traditional way of understanding the fact/value divide.  A consequential argument about the damage hurricanes produce takes a similar form to a consequential argument about the damage done by physically punishing a child.  In both cases, we might very well point to previous instances to show what those consequences might be—or we may point to larger-scale studies of multiple instances to show the odds of bad consequences, even while admitting that in some cases not much harm ensues.  And if, in the two cases of the hurricane and of child-rearing, we argue that humans should do all they can to mitigate the possible damage, we are asserting that suffering is a bad thing and to be averted wherever possible—an argument that can probably only be underwritten by some kind of Kantian reasoning about the good (the right) of all beings to avoid unnecessary pain.

Various writers—of the ones I know, Kenneth Burke and Hilary Putnam prominent among them—argue that fact and value are inextricably intertwined.  That the two comes packaged together in our apprehension of the world.  In Burke’s account, we have an “attitude” toward things and situations embedded within our apprehension of them.  But this Burke position still accepts the analytic distinction between fact and value, even if that “analysis” comes after the moment of their combination in actual experience.  The pluralism that Dewey points us toward suggests the distinction between fact and value misleads us altogether by suggesting that some things (Facts) are given and incontrovertible while others (Values) are human contrivances.  Better to look at how both facts and values are “made” (just as William James asks us to consider how “truths” are made), while paying attention to the plurality of ways of making humans (and other creatures) deploy.

Trying to Understand Practice

I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.

A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein.  Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.

I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself.  He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.”  I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from.  Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism.  There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.”  Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.

My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001].  As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002.  That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.

Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”?  Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term.  Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano.  This is an activity that takes place within a structured field.  The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field.  There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)

There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano.  Crucially, there also has to be a process of education.  You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it.  It takes years of training—and of practice.  You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book.  You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.

The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations.  There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls.  There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions.  This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”

Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment.  We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in.  A good parent is distinct from a good piano player.  It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged.  In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it.  What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement.  The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.

For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games.  A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules.  The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out.  But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out.  And the rules are not the source of the motivation.  The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another.  Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss.  More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.

To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.”  Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.”  There is also the social institution of money itself.  Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C.  Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently.  Money is a key example for Searle.  This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else.  Games make this magic very obvious.  I step across a line carrying an oblong ball.  A perfectly ordinary action.  But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown.  The conditions?  I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc.  Football, like money, is socially instituted.

Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated.  Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning.  Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating.  Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted.  He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies.  Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance.  In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up.  She has to let her body take over.

More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc.  The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms.  Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice.  The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.”  They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.

Several problems arise at this point.  For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated.  Basketball is the exception, not the rule.  (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions.  Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions.  The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized.  But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?

This puzzle also afflicts the use of language.  A child certainly has to learn how to speak.  But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage.  The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.”  In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar.  The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication.  And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.

In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C).  The same applies to syntactical rules.  In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules).  Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.”  (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use.  I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome.  I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)

Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along.  The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields.  Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential.  Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice.  “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.

Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments).  In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.

I will end with one recurring puzzle.  If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them?  How does one acquire “a feel” for the game?  This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North.  There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual.  (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)

There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go.  And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around.  That’s how the child learns to speak.  By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some.  Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities.  That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work,  the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.

Aesthetic Sensibility

Nick and I are scheduled to have our second discussion of Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  We will focus on chapters four and five, where Dewey has all kinds of interesting things to say about art as the expression of emotion.  But I thought it would make sense prior to that conversation to offer a kind of summary of where the previous posts on the aesthetic have landed me to this point.

The aesthetic sensibility, depending on how you understand it, can encompass:

1) Certain sensitivities to (and an inclination to pay attention to) perceptual encounters (hearing for music; seeing for the visual arts etc.)

2) Those sensitivities might stretch to include an attentiveness to or susceptibility to being moved by form (narrative structures; organizations of space in architecture or the plastic arts).

3) An expanded (or cultivated) capacity to sympathize with other ways of being in the world through acts of imagination that make those ways of being more “present” to the perceiver.

4) A propensity to consider multiple possible ways of understanding and responding to situations in which the self finds itself. (Could possibly tie this propensity to an account of “creativity”).

5) Tied (perhaps) to number 4 would be a tendency to consider meanings and values that step outside customary and prevailing views.  Tied (perhaps) to number 1 would be a tendency to dwell on certain perceptual experiences, valuing them for their own sake (the pleasure of the encounter), thus abstracting from a product-oriented relationship toward what a situation presents to the self.

6) An interest in the intensities generated by what Dewey calls “compression and concentration.”  That is, an appreciation of the ways in which formal organization of the materials of experience can heighten their impact.

I don’t see how any of these six possible features of aesthetic sensibility establishes any necessary connection to a leftist—or anti-capitalist—politics.  Yet I don’t want to endorse the kind of absolute divide between a “private” pursuit of intensities, of aesthetic experiences, and a “public “ pursuit of justice like that proposed by Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  The boundaries between the aesthetic and politics are more porous than that.

To be clear: I think that politics attends to desired arrangements for living in the world with others.  The fact that I share the world with others makes politics necessary.  (Hannah Arendt on plurality.)  Those who are passionate about politics care deeply about justice and/or about power.  Either they want social arrangements that they can affirm as just (there are, of course, competing versions of what justice entails), or they want social arrangements that serve and protect their interests against the (real or perceived) threat posed by others.  The exception to that either/or are those who desire power for its own sake—or for the status it confers (as contrasted to the safety or material goods it can secure).

However, it does seem that a focus on the quality of experiences pushes against the instrumental logic of capitalism (with its emphasis on production and efficiency).  The arts do seem to push in the direction of taking one’s time, of savoring available sensations, of focusing on process over product.  In addition, the pluralism of the arts—both the multiple different kinds of artistic practice/enjoyment and their imaginative play with different possibilities—does push against the way things are now, refusing to take the status quo as self-evident or necessary.  Finally, I think Nick’s position tends to a different way of understanding how the arts become political: namely, that the intense and fulfilling experiences that art offers stand as a rebuke to the dullness or positive suffering of the life on offer in contemporary societies.  The arts show that a higher quality of life is possible and desirable.

Three final points:

  1. I have not said anything yet about how the arts can create community. One problem of Rorty’s position is that it makes artistic practice and enjoyment so individualistic.  But the arts are in many cases collaborative (making a film, putting on a play, the studios of Titian or Barbara Hepworth).  And the arts are often enjoyed with others (going to a play or a concert)—and foster a sense of fellowship with those others.  Fandom is powerful social glue.  And maybe that works much more intensely at a football game, or is mobilized much more powerfully by nationalism, but sports and nationalism are at least cousins of the aesthetic in their mobilizing emotions to promote participation in collectivities in which the self is submerged.


  1. Everything said in this post as summary doesn’t help at all with my ongoing attempt to delineate the connection (which I think is intimate) between art and meaning. My hunch (but I am having severe problems cashing that hunch out) is that the arts (in many instances) push us toward asking the local question of what this phenomenon in front of me means and the global question of which things to value over others (i.e. what ways of being are most meaningful).  Do the arts forefront questions of value in a way that other activities do not?  I think they do, but am having a devil of a time coming up with an account that portrays how and why the arts are distinctive in that way.


  1. Aesthetic education stands in a fairly straight-forward relation to the observations in this post. The ability to experience the intensities offered by any given situation is enhanced by knowledge.  The person who knows the rules of baseball is going to “get more” out of watching a baseball game.  There are very few experiences that are not going to be enhanced by knowing something about the various participants in that interaction.  This is what Dewey calls “funded” experience; what we know—and bring from past experiences, memory, and knowledge—into the present contributes to how the present interaction unfolds. The experience will be different for different people with different degrees of knowledge.  Education provides students with that knowledge.  (Dewey, of course, thought the royal road to knowledge was experience itself–nowadays known as “active learning.”)

But there still remains the fact that education understood as I have just described it is about providing the student with knowledge.  What about that other goal: shaping the student’s sensibility.  Will enabling the student to be attentive to the nuanced qualities of a certain perceptual experience also awaken an appreciation of, a positive desire for, such experiences?  That’s why I find Sianne Ngai’s meditation on “interesting” so profound.  She shows how the description of something as “interesting” is a plaintive plea, a call sent forth in hopes of hooking one’s auditors.  Don’t just notice this thing, but acknowledge its worthiness as an object of attention, as a phenomenon worth dwelling on, spending time with.  Take an interest in it.  We have succeeded in shaping someone’s sensibility when we have inculcated that minimal psychic investment of their now finding something “interesting.”  They will not pass it by.  They will attend to it.

A political sensibility is formed when someone dwells on questions of justice—or questions of social order.  She finds those questions of import, of significance, worth attending to.  Those “matters of concern” (the great Bruno Latour term) are not, it seems to me, the same matters of concern that occupy the aesthetic sensibility.  The two sensibilities are compatible; they can co-exist without much strain; they may even mutually influence or reinforce one another in some cases; but they are far from identical, and the presence of one says nothing about the possible presence of the other.