Category: John Dewey

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.

The Critique of Experience

Nick’s question about the status of Dewey’s concept of experience—and the preference for the term “practice” in writers like Latour—makes me feel like I have fallen into a deep well.  I will try to talk about “practice” and what that concept entails in future posts.  For now, I just want to consider the critique of experience.  I will start out with Joan Scott’s extremely influential 1991 essay “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991) and then move on to Richard Rorty’s explicit critique of Dewey’s reliance on experience (in the essay “Dewey’s Metaphysics” in Consequences of Pragmatism [University of Minnesota Press, 1982: 72-89).

Here’s a long passage from Scott that lays out her argument (note her reliance on the term “practice” in making her case):

Michel de Certeau’s description is apt. “Historical discourse,” he writes, “gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organizes it.”

When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience,” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed–what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation–as a foundation on which analysis is based–that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference. By remaining within the epistemological frame of orthodox history, these studies lose the possibility of examining those assumptions and practices that excluded considerations of difference in the first place. They take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference. They locate resistance outside its discursive construction and reify agency as an inherent attribute of individuals, thus decontextualizing it.

When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured–about language (or discourse) and history–are left aside. The evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.

To put it another way, the evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems–those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves and those that rest on notions of a natural or established opposition between, say, sexual practices and social conventions, between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Histories that document the “hidden” world of homosexuality, for example, show the impact [of] silence and repression on the lives of those affected by it and bring [to] light the history of their suppression and exploitation. But the project making experience visible precludes critical examination of the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation (homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman, black/white as fixed immutable identities), its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate, and of its notions of subjects, origin, and cause.

Homosexual practices are seen as the result of desire, conceived as a natural force operating outside or in opposition to social regulation. In these stories homosexuality is presented as a repressed desire (experience denied), made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced by a “society” that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal practice. Because this kind (homosexual) desire cannot ultimately be repressed–because experience is there–it invents institutions to accommodate itself. These institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately overcomes repression. Resistance and agency are presented as driven by uncontainable desire; emancipation is a teleological story in which desire ultimately overcomes social control and becomes visible. History is a chronology that makes experience visible, but in which categories appear as nonetheless ahistorical: desire, homosexuality, heterosexuality, femininity, masculinity, sex, and even sexual practices become so many fixed entities being played out over time, but not themselves historicized. Presenting the story in this way excludes, or at least understates, the historically variable interrelationship between the meanings “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” the constitutive force each has for the other, and the contested and changing nature of the terrain that they simultaneously occupy. (pages 777-778.)

Scott’s position is clear enough.  Inspired by Foucault’s notion of “discursive power,” she is saying that there is no innocent experience.  Rather, what we experience is shaped by the categories through which we process and understand what happens to us, what we see, and whom/what we encounter.  Furthermore, the experiencing self has also been shaped by the culture/society of which it is a member.  A consequential analysis of an historical scene must take those shaping processes into account, must make evident that that scene is historical through and through, the contingent product of a construction that could have been otherwise.

Rorty’s critique of Dewey takes the same path.  “Experience” in Dewey is a metaphysical term—and belies Dewey’s more productive efforts to escape metaphysics altogether.  For Scott, experience “naturalizes” that which should be understood as historical and constructed.  Rorty makes much the same move.  He opens the essay by quoting, approvingly, a late letter from Dewey to Bentley in which Dewey says he is thinking of a writing a new edition of Experience and Nature.  This time around, Dewey will “change the title as well as the subject matter . . . to Nature and Culture.  I was dumb not to have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written.  I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean” (quoted in Rorty, 72).

For Rorty, it’s a choice between Kant and Hegel.  Rorty sees Dewey as accepting the break with Humean empiricism which recognizes “that intuitions without concepts [are] blind and that no data [are] ever ‘raw’”(83).  Once accepting that basic fact, the Kantian sees the concepts as universal, shared by all rational creatures, while the Hegelian sees the concepts as historically and culturally relative all the way down.  Rorty writes: “By being ‘Hegelian’ I mean here treating the cultural developments which Kant thought it was the task of philosophy to preserve and protect as simply temporary stopping-places for the World Spirit” (85) Dewey, Rorty tells us, “agrees with Hegel that the starting point of philosophic thought is bound to be the dialectical situation in which one finds oneself caught in one’s own historical period—the problems of the men of one’s time” (81).

In his inimitable fashion, Rorty offers us a pocket-sized definition of metaphysics, utilizing a term from Dewey’s Experience and Nature.  Dewey’s metaphysics aim to designate “the generic traits of experience.” For Nick and me, Dewey’s metaphysics are most fully and fruitfully present in his interactionist account of human being-in-the-world.  It is that account, complete with its notion of “funded experience,” its unsettling of subject/object and other dualisms, and its dynamic picture of the ongoing production of identities, meanings, and novelty that we find attractive and see as adopted by Latour (and, presumably, Stengers, whose work I don’t know, but which Nick admires greatly).

Rorty is unimpressed.  “What Kant had called ‘the constitution of the empirical world by synthesis of intuitions under concepts,’ Dewey wanted to call ‘interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake.’ But he wanted this harmless-sounding naturalistic phrase to have the same generality, and to accomplish the same epistemological feats, which Kant’s talk of the ‘constitution of objects’ had performed.  He wanted phrases like ‘transactions with the environment’ and ‘adaptation to conditions’ to be simultaneously naturalistic and transcendental—to be common-sense remarks about human perception and knowledge viewed as the psychologist views it and also to be expressions of ‘generic traits of existence.’  So he blew up notions like ‘transaction’ and ‘situation’ until they sounded as mysterious as ‘prime matter’ or ‘thing-in-itself” (84).

It is the easiest thing in the world—and so is done constantly—to say Rorty himself cannot escape transcendental or metaphysical claims.  After all, to say all thinking starts from the historical position in which one finds oneself is to identify a generic trait.  But such a critique of Rorty misses the point—and would miss his very significant difference from Joan Scott.  Scott wants to replace one kind of historical claim—the kind that relies on the evidence of experience—with another kind of claim—one that analyzes what enables (serves as the transcendental conditions of) experience.  She is looking for a more accurate or more adequate way of understanding discursive, ideological forces and the way they construct how humans constitute and are constituted by history.  Rorty finds that enterprise just another way of remaining trapped within the wrong-headed set of metaphysical and epistemological questions that philosophy has obsessed over since Descartes.  Rorty thinks we should just walk away from that game.

Why?  What’s wrong with that game?  Rorty has a complicated, but coherent (if not utterly convincing) answer to that question.

That answer hinges on what I am fond of calling “transcendental blackmail.”  In most every case, the metaphysician is trying to sell his audience on something.  The tactic used is to get that audience to accept a seemingly neutral and irrefutable (and almost invariably universalistic) description of the human condition (“the generic facts of human existence”).  Once the writer thinks he has established that irrefutable fact, its consequences are unfolded.  I followed this strategy in my liberalism book.  I tried to begin with the most uncontroversial claims and then lead the reader down the primrose path to liberalism by showing that, if they bought in to the foundational claims, then they, as a matter of logic and consistency, should accept positions that didn’t seem as self-evident and attractive to them at first blush.  Thus, Scott’s critique of experience attempts to establish its constructed nature  and is meant, eventually, to serve to get her reader to question established powers and the categories that serve that power’s ends.

Rorty, first of all, hates any kind of blackmail, any strategy for establishing an authority that deems itself irrefutable.  Everything is up for question in his preferred version of liberalism, just as everything could be constituted differently in a different historical period or culture.  There are no transcendentals, just historical contingencies.

Rorty would like that last sentence to be true.  But often recognizes that it is not.  His talk about “common-sense naturalism” in the passage I quoted above is a nod to that recognition.  Let’s be concrete about this.  Here is a universalized, metaphysical statement of a generic fact of human experience:  All humans die.  Rorty would not deny that statement.  What he denies is that it has any necessary consequences beyond the brute fact of death.  How to face death, think about it, avoid or embrace it, respond to the death of others, etc. are all underdetermined by the brute fact.  We know that various cultures have established an incredibly wide range of practices in the face of the brute fact.

Thus, for Rorty, all humans die is a common-sense platitude that has no straight-forward or inevitable consequence for human beliefs, values, or behavior.  I think this position—while tied to Rorty’s resolute anti-authoritarianism—is also linked to his positivist origins.  Rorty maintains a strict fact/value dichotomy.  Facts are value-neutral.  How we understand and interpret them is radically disconnected from their existence.  In his metaphysics, Rorty tells us, “Dewey betrayed precisely the insight . . . that nothing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies by which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge. . . . [W]hat Green and Hegel had seen, and Dewey himself saw perfectly well except when he was sidetracked into doing ‘metaphysics,’ was that we can eliminate epistemological problems by eliminating the assumption that justifications must rest on something other than social practices and human needs” (81-82).  What Rorty says about epistemology here is fully consistent with his position on value as articulated in other works.  Our commitments in terms of value rest on “social practices” and what we (and/or our society) understands to be “human needs” and not on any facts that transcend (or dictate) a humanly produced vocabulary. [Note that Rorty’s quick acknowledgement of “causal antecedents” of some statements belies the idea that he is an anti-realist.  He is perfectly willing to say that the statement, “all humans die,” is motivated—or caused—by the encounter with death.  He is not denying the fact’s existence, just its consequences, while he also—as I am about to discuss—does not think that the elaborate gymnastics of modern philosophy’s epistemologies do anything at all to either confirm or unsettle one’s beliefs about facts. Philosophic metaphysics and epistemology are unproductive games.]

An unproductive game because metaphysics has no consequences—a position taken up aggressively by Knapp and Michaels in their essay “Against Theory” and in numerous works by Stanley Fish. Describe the facts of existence—and nothing necessarily follows. Scott’s essay seems to belie that conclusion. Surely, the practitioners of historical studies will proceed differently if convinced by her case that an appeal to experience is not sufficient.  I think that the pragmatist response (certainly it would be William James’s position and probably Rorty’s and Fish’s) is that my last sentence puts the cart before the horse.  What comes first is the commitment to a certain set of values—and then the theoretical (or transcendental) claim is constructed as a buttress for that commitment.  Certainly that was how my liberalism book was germinated.  Rawls’ Theory of Justice offers a more grandiose and even comical case. The painstaking elaboration of his Rube Goldberg-like argument is clearly motivated by where he wants to end up.

Rorty certainly insisted that his philosophical commitments and arguments had no political consequences.  His liberalism was not a product of—or even connected in any way—to his pragmatism.  He described himself as mostly in tune with Habermas’ and Rawls’ versions of liberalism (characterized by equality, open unimpeded discussion/deliberation, and hostility to concentrations of power) while disagreeing with their conviction that liberalism required theoretical or transcendental underpinnings.  The first-order commitments to certain values—commitments generated by upbringing, by sensibility/temperament, social practices, and comparisons among varied ways of living on display in the word and in the historical record—were more than sufficient for taking a stand.

Philosophers are no different from any one else in  trying to persuade others to adopt a particular stand—while stories, images, emotional appeals, and displayed loyalties are very likely much more effective tools of persuasion than philosophical argument.  “[P]hilsophers’ criticism of culture are not more ‘scientific,’ more ‘fundamental,’ or more ‘deep’ than those of labor leaders, literary critics, retired statesmen or sculptors” (87).  Philosophers just start out by working on a different set or materials—“the history of philosophy and the contemporary effects of those ideas called ‘philosophic’ upon the rest of the culture—the remains of past attempts to describe the ‘generic traits of existences’” (87).  And philosophers use different rhetorical means to persuade—means that are presumably effective for some people, that minority (?) which likes (prefers?) their commitments to be underwritten by a certain kind of argumentation instead of only by stories, images etc.  Rorty is guilty of unjustified metaphysical generalization when he claims (as he often does) that stories are always more effective than arguments.

I find this radical levelling—both of the hierarchy of thinkers and of planes of existence (no deep undergirding truth about our daily round)—attractive.  I find it harder to credit that understanding being-in-the-world and action-in-the-world in this way has no consequences.  Maybe adopting a particular attitude is not ratified by some set of metaphysical facts.  But the description itself is fruitful. How we understand the facts influences our reaction/adaptation to them.  [That’s simply straight-forward Peircean pragmatism.] Of course, it is not clear that Rorty would deny that.  He thinks the vocabulary we choose to work in does have consequences.  Those vocabularies (and the activities/practices that accompany them) just need to be recognized as ways of “adapting and coping rather than copying” (86).  Still, the adapting must be to something—like the COVID 19 virus.  Coping requires, it would seem at least in some cases, accurate modeling.

To conclude—and to set up the next posts on practice—it seems clear that the critique of experience is a resistance to the way the term takes as self-evident the naturalistic placement of an experiencing self in an environment.  The preference for the term “practice” is meant to introduce the social influences (determinants would be, for me but not I suspect for Scott, too strong a term) that shape what any individual might experience or might articulate as her experience.  Certainly, with his notion of “funded” experience, Dewey is not utterly naïve about the ways that experience has social and historical dimensions.  But the term “practices” tries (as I will discuss in the next posts) to put much more flesh on this idea of the ways in which experience is embedded within social settings that have prevailing norms, preferred ways of “going on,” and pre-established goals/ends.

Judgment, Aesthetic and Otherwise

My on-going engagement with Dewey has been the result of a series of conversations with Nick Gaskill.  Nick now responds to my recent Dewey posts, to wit:

I’ve just read through the last two Dewey posts, and I understand now why it’s important to differentiate the aesthetic and the everyday: namely because, as you put it at the end of #3 and again in #4, the aesthetic has resources that simply aren’t available in everyday experience. And so, if we take it a step further, any argument for rendering social relations “aesthetic” in the way Dewey wants (“the values that lead to the production and intelligent enjoyment of art have to be incorporated into the system of social relationships”–p.344) has to square up to the way that any translation of “aesthetic” values outside of those conditions will meet with difficulties. Is that right? The aesthetic has its own affordances, and this is why even though all experience can potentially have an aesthetic quality, there’s still a need to think about the arts as the paradigms. 

You’re helping me to get at another question I’ve had about Dewey, especially in light of the way that everyone from Rorty to Walter Benn Micahels to Colin Koopman wants to throw away “experience” as a bad term/concept. The question is about the difference between experience and practice. You know from my Rorty essay that I’ve been focusing a lot on how the science studies line thinks about practice. There’s a lot of overlap with “experience” but they aren’t synonymous: practice is a special case, practices have specific conditions. I’m wondering if it is useful to think of the aesthetic as a practice that is one way of cultivating or working up experience more generally. And I’m wondering if Dewey has a way to differentiate between experience in general and experience as it occurs within specific practices. Is that what inquiry is? 

I liked how you elaborated the point about “feeling one’s way” and judgment. And yet I couldn’t help think that the answer to your questions–“How do you know it feels right? What is that feeling based on?”–is qualitative thinking with its emphasis on the “unity” of situations. The reason Dewey thinks that this “intuitive” way of going on is not just a subjective feeling or hunch is that it is a way of thinking qualitatively, a way of thinking with and through the qualities of a situation, which has a shape or color that can guide one in the same way other constraints work in scientific or logical pursuits. I know you’re resistant to Dewey’s emphasis on qualitative unity, but it’s worth noting that part of the reason he offers it (or at least part of the way he develops it in AE) is to answer those very questions about how artists proceed. 

 

I am going to think about “practice” and offer my thoughts on that concept in a future post.

For now two quick points.

  1. Different “affordances” does seem the exactly right way to talk about the distinction between the aesthetic and everyday experience. We have to navigate the world in somewhat different ways than we navigate aesthetic experiences.  Furthermore, there are also differences between the experience of creating an artistic work (writing King Lear) and experiencing that work as its recipient or audience.  The language of “affordances” pushes us to be concrete about those differences.

 

  1. I am inclined, as I said, to see “judgment” as a black box. (Just as the “unconscious” often functions as a black box.)  Meaning that we trot out the notion of judgment to indicate the presence of something—an ability to assess a situation and develop/create a fruitful way of going forward—that we can see exists but which we have a very hard time explaining.  To say “she showed good judgment” is to acknowledge that achievement, but does not go very far toward explaining how it was done or how it was possible.  Kant usefully distinguishes “determinate” from “reflective” judgment—but can only fall back on the possession of “taste” when pushed to say what makes some people more adept at judgment than others.

But Nick’s comment pushed the account of judgment forward.  Judgment is now something like empathy, and something like the “concentration, compression, clarity” triad that Dewey links to “form.”  “Empathy” because judgment is based on a participatory, interactionist engagement with and feeling for the “qualities” of a situation.  Dewey, of course, is always against any notion that knowledge comes from standing at a distance from something and contemplating it.  Rather, knowledge is a product of immersion, of getting one’s hands dirty, of feeling one’s way forward, with a sensitivity to the feedback one receives from each step of the process.  But those steps are also guided by a sensitivity to the qualities of the non-self elements of the situation.  Judgment is a product of that two-way traffic between self and situation.  Dewey’s usual term for this process is “inquiry”—which Nick then asks us to consider as one example of a “practice.”

And judgment is like “form” in that it clarifies and concentrates by giving the situation a “unity.”  Which get us back to the question of the extent to which situations possess an “integral” or “intrinsic” (two words Dewey uses) unity or if that unity is mostly created by the human agent.

 

Dewey, Art As Experience (4)

I trust this is going to be my last post on Dewey, although Nick and I read the first and last chapters of Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art for our most recent conversation—and I will write a post on Goodman that, in part, considers his affinities and differences with Dewey.

Auden famously said “poetry makes nothing happen.”  One way to read that statement is to return to the aesthetic’s “fictionality,” its taking up residence in a realm that is not real, but (rather) hypothetical or speculative.  No one is killed in King Lear—which is why theories of the aesthetic inevitably end up pondering the mysteries of representation.  Without a doubt, acts of inflicting death are represented in King Lear—and those acts of representation are patently different than real killings.  A real killing does not represent killing; it is (simply) killing.  Thus the killing done in King Lear, if it has consequences, does not have the consequence of some person dying.  We must look elsewhere for its consequences.

Pragmatism, of course, is all about consequences.  The famous “pragmatic maxim” tells us that the meaning of something rests in its anticipated consequences—and that human action (at least; no particular reason not to include animal action here) is guided by the forwardly projected imagination of those consequences in relation to the agent’s interaction with the environment.

Thus, the discontinuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience appears heightened if we focus on consequences.  Art, if it makes things happen, does not, quite obviously, produce material consequences that align with those that follow action in the “real world.”

Dewey, of course, wants to describe the aesthetic as part and parcel of ordinary experience.  The aesthetic, for him, is any experience (whether writing/viewing King Lear or taking a stroll in the woods) that reaches “fulfillment.”  What specifically art works and the practice of art (taking “art” here in its most common ordinary language usage) do for Dewey is make us self-conscious about the pathways to fulfillment.  In art, we witness “a substance so formed that it can enter into the experience of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own.  This is what it is to have form.  It marks a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and most effectively becomes the material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator.  Hence there can be no distinction drawn, save in reflection, between form and substance.  The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance” (109).

The consequence of art, then, is the way it teaches us to live—more intensely, more meaningfully.  Its impact, we might say, is on the audience, on the social, not on nature, the material.  Art’s material consequences are small-scale.  The sculptor does transform the stone; the poet and the composer do manipulate material sounds.  But there are no large-scale material changes; temperatures do not rise, trees are neither grown nor felled in large quantities, colonies are not founded or overthrown.  The artist himself may acquire fame or wealth as a result of his work, but those (it seems to me) are social, not natural, consequences.

Dewey’s position unfolds in three steps. 1. Art, by showing us those intense experiences, leads us to desire them.  It fosters a sensibility attuned to the possibility and desirabililty of such experiences.  2.  Once having awakened that desire in us, art shows us possible paths to its fulfillment.  3.  Add one and two together and art’s major consequence is in enhancing the quality of our lives.  (The fostering of that sensibility might be placed in relation to a modern world that leads us to expect too little, that lets the daily grind of “getting and spending” overwhelm our knowing about and desiring consummatory experiences.)

As I have already argued in previous posts,  I think this position entails associating art with a certain kind of self-consciousness about what one is doing and a certain kind of “work” done upon “experienced matter” (109).  That work requires, it seems to me, a stepping back from the flow of experience into an artificially framed space that also enjoys a limited immunity from temporality as it is ordinarily endured.

The way that art is well placed to demonstrate the pathway(s) to fulfillment is captured in Dewey’s most extended description of fulfillment in his book. This description is useful to me because he relies so heavily on the concept of “meaning” to make his case.  Thus, it offers clues for my own ongoing project of trying to understand the special relationship to meaning of the arts and humanities.

Here’s Dewey’ description; it depends heavily on the Hegelian insight that the encounter with obstacles external to the self is what generates self-consciousness.

“Whenever the organic impulse exceeds the limit of the body, it finds itself in a strange world and commits in some measure the fortune of the self to external circumstances.  It cannot pick just what it wants and automatically leave the indifferent and adverse out of account. . . . In the process of converting these obstacles and neutral conditions into favoring agencies, the live creature becomes aware of the intent implicit in its impulsions.  The self, whether it succeed or not, does not merely restore itself to its former state.  Blind surge has been changed into a purpose; instinctive tendencies are transformed into contrived undertakings.  The attitudes of the self are informed with meaning. . . . The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed. . . . Impulsion from need starts an experience that does not know where it is going; resistance and check bring about the conversion of direct forward action into re-flection; what is turned back upon is the relation of hindering conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experience.  As energies thus involved reinforce the original impulsion, this operates more circumspectly with insight into end and method.  Such is the outline of every experience clothed with meaning. . . . [W]hat is evoked is not just quantitative, or just more energy, but is qualitative, a transformation of energy into thoughtful action, through assimilation of meanings from the background of past experiences. The junction of the new and old is not a mere past experience, but is a re-creation in which the present impulsion gets form and solidity while the old, the ‘stored’ material, is literally revived, given new life and soul through having to meet a new situation” 59-60).

The aesthetic is not referenced at all in this description of the movement toward “thoughtful action” that “assimilates meanings” and “gives new life” to those meanings as it forges a “qualitative” relation between the self and its impulses, and between the self and the situations it encounters.  We get here Dewey’s commitment to the full continuity between what ordinary language calls the “aesthetic” and his insistence that any experience is potentially fulfilling.  The aesthetic, for him, is a quality of experience, not a separate class of objects or activities.  But, as the passage from page 109 that I quoted earlier shows, the aesthetic is a demonstration project that does show us the experiences can have that quality.  My argument has been—because sheltered from certain material consequences and from certain temporal pressures while able to employ the heightened effects generated by framing—the aesthetic does that demonstrative work under conditions not as continuous with ordinary experience as Dewey assumes.

I want to end with a thought taken from Nick—one that resonates with the long description of “thoughtful action” just quoted.  Dewey, like Goodman, is not at all interested in aesthetic judgment if that means making statements about whether an art work is good or bad—or beautiful or not.  On pages 129-30, Dewey explains (pretty convincingly) why “beauty” is not a very helpful concept or term in trying to describe the aesthetic or art works.  It is too non-specific, what Bernard Williams would call a “thin” as contrasted to a “thick” descriptor.  A judgment that a work of art is “good” or “beautiful” doesn’t get us very far; it might serve as an opener for a conversation, but unless we get down to brass tacks in that ensuing conversation, we haven’t gotten said anything particularly enlightening.  While Kant’s thoughts about the components of judgment are useful, his focus on judgments of beauty is not helpful.  It deprives his account of a concrete engagement with the material to be judged.

When Dewey feels constrained to appeal to beauty, he redefines it (by way of rhetorical questions) to align with his criteria for successful art.  “Is ‘beauty’ another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence, upon material, or is it a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?  Is form, in its esthetic sense, something that uniquely marks off as esthetic from the beginning a certain realm of objects, or is it the abstract name for what emerges whenever an experience attains complete development?” (107, Dewey’s emphasis).

The passive construction here—“an experience attains complete development”—is unfortunate.  Form “emerges” in the interaction of agent and materials—as does “purpose” itself.  “Thoughtful action” is a product of interaction that feels its way forward, discovering its purposes and its abilities as it goes along, guided (at least in the cases Dewey wants to celebrate) by a desire for “adequate expression” and “complete development.”  Nick’s point is that judgment is located exactly in the process of feeling one’s way forward.  At every juncture, decisions must be made about the next step—and those decisions (as in my discussion of Gerhard Richter’s description of his process some posts back) are more like feelings or intuitions (Dewey’s “affective” or “qualitative” thought) than formulaic or logical applications of a rule or a deduction.

There is no pre-existing plan, no recipe to follow, no method. (Shades of my criticism of Joseph North’s fetishization of method and rigor.) I must admit that I waver inconsistently between embracing what seems to me this romantic, faintly irrational understanding of judgment and being irritated by its mysterious ineffability.  I want to nail it down better; to say, like Richter, that this just “feels right” seems to beg the question.  How do you know it feels right?  What is that feeling based on?  Give me your reasons.  I am fully willing to admit that good judgment is developed through practice and cannot be taught through a rulebook or method.  One has to develop a “feel for” the practice.  But I still long for more complete and specific articulation of the grounds for those feelings.

That said, I do think it absolutely right that the consequential stakes when it comes to judgment (the reason why trying to figure out judgment is important) are tied up with these decisions about how to “go on” (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) and not with the relatively trivial issue of whether we judge this work good or nor, beautiful or not.