Category: John Dewey

A Diminished Thing


Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”


There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.



The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”

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.

The Aesthetic (Six)

Today’s post will introduce three additional features/effects often attributed to the aesthetic.


  1. The aesthetic has the effect of widening our sympathies because it bring us into contact with a diverse range of content—and allows us to “get inside” the motives and ways of being of that diverse content. George Eliot offers a much-cited version of this argument in her writing about the novel, and this assertion also figures prominently in Martha Nussbaum’s work.  If it is true, as I argued some posts back, that compassion (which grows out of sympathy) is a key feature of left/liberal sensibility, then the connection between the aesthetic and a leftist politics is fairly direct if the arts do make us more sympathetic.


Dewey offers his own version of  the “sympathy” assertion (even though only in passing and even though that assertion would not seem connected—or even compatible with—the main argument about consummatory experiences.)  Here’s Dewey (once again downplaying “knowledge” in favor of a more emotion-laden relationship to the thing beyond the self that is to be known).  “Friendship and intimate affections are not the result of information about another person even though knowledge may further that formation.  But it does so only as it becomes an integral part of sympathy through the imagination.  It is when the desires and aims, the interests and modes of response of another become an expansion of our own being that we understand him.  We learn to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and their results give true instruction, for they are built into our own structure” (336).  This kind of relationship to others’ “modes of response” (a good synonym for sensibility, I think) is “instruction in the arts of living (336)” Dewey writes.  This instruction is “something other than conveying information about them [the arts of living].  It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living” (336).

To put it crudely, imagination allows us to walk a mile in another way of life’s shoes.

The flaws in the sympathy theory are obvious.  There are whole realms of art—classical music for instance—it seems to neglect altogether.  Does a Mozart symphony introduce us to “an art of living”?  To a “mode of response” maybe, insofar as it shapes or alters our abilities to hear, but a way of life?  And the notion that the arts foster compassion runs us into too many counter-examples to hold much water.  Are aesthetes really consistently better people than those indifferent to the arts?  And are those aesthetes more likely to be bleeding heart liberals than hard-hearted Scrooges?

Finally, and more substantially, the sympathy assertion requires a robust account of imagination and how it works.   We are in the realm of “faculty psychology” at this point: the psychology that divides up mental functions by positing something that thinks (cognition), something that wills (desires), something that feels (emotion), something that judges (phronesis), and something that images (imagination).  The adequacy of faculty psychology to actual mental functioning is pretty doubtful; it is a kind of high-level “folk psychology” that doesn’t fit with current developments in neurology or cognitive science.  But questions of adequacy aside, the “imagination” as a mental capacity/act is very hard to pin down, since it gets appealed to every time artists want (as I talked about in the last post) to posit “ways of knowing,” and forms of apprehension, not covered by traditional canons of rationality, evidence, and knowledge formation.   Certainly Dewey does not come close to offering a full scale account of imagination in Art As Experience.

And yet.  At issue (recall) is if the arts shape sensibility—and, if so, how?  The sympathy assertion has going for it the fact that it addresses sensibility (openness to and sympathy for other ways of being in the world) and offers an account of how that sensibility is fostered by (at least some) art.


  1. An alternative version of how the arts shape a certain kind of sensibility is offered by Dewey just a few pages later, once again with imagination doing the heavy lifting. The arts alert us, “not directly, but through disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience . . . possibilities that contrast with actual conditions” (346). “Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilitis that are interwoven within the texture of the actual” (345). [I don’t see how this version of what the arts do can be anything but contradict the main argument of the book, which seeks to embed the aesthetic in “actual conditions.” But let’s leave that aside to pursue the account of the arts suggested here.]


Because the arts provide a place where unrealized possibilities can be imagined, Dewey even goes so far as to say that tomorrow’s realities can be found shadowed forth in the arts of today.  “Change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (346).  Thus, Dewey ends his book with an engagement with Shelley’s apology for poetry.  The poets are the unacknowledged legislators not only because they imagine what has not yet been accomplished, but also because they avoid having “their vision of possibilities . . . converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions” (348).  “Art has been the means of keeping alive that sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habits” (348).

What gives art this power is precisely its separation from facts on the ground.  We can imagine what does not exist—and meditate on “purposes” and “meanings” apart from their entanglement in the institutions of socio-political life and the habits of the daily grind.  Art exists in the realm of the hypothetical, not the actual.  We can try things on for size (in imagination) in that realm.  This appeal to the advantages of art’s “fictional” nature has been fairly common in accounts of the aesthetic—and often is linked to an ability to consider alternatives to prevailing customs and social arrangements.  The artist is a dreamer.

Dewey gives this idea a pragmatist twist.  The artists is someone trying to play out—in thought—the consequences of particular possible courses of action.  As such, that artist looks like the scientific experimenter who figures so prominently in all of Dewey’s work.  Yet Dewey, for the most part, doesn’t take this path in his book on aesthetics.  Why?  I think it is because he dislikes pretty heartily thought experiments.  They smack too much of the spectator theory of knowledge.  For him, experiments are very much about working materially and concretely with things.  The experiment is a motivated and controlled, but real, interaction with the stuff of the world.  Experiments are not conducted by armchair cogitating.

For myself, I think there is much to be said about the arts occupying a hypothetical space.  Accounts of the arts that neglect their fictional nature miss something important.  The arts do seem to allow for a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of stepping away from immediate demands.  But I share Dewey’s uneasiness with extracting the arts too far from the daily chore of getting on with a life.  That said: I do think it part of an aesthetic sensibility to be especially alert to alternatives to current modes of being.  Attuned (because of stepping aside into a hypothetical space?) to other possible ways to live, the aesthetic sensibility pushes against the taken-for-granted.

Whether this belief that things could be different is more a left than right wing outlook is a different question.  I am tempted to say that when the vision of a different life is located in a lost past we should recover, then we have a conservative or right-wing sensibility.  When that alternative is located in a future we should strive for, then we have a left-wing sensibility.  In both cases, the present is unsatisfactory and to be transformed into something else. The arts do seem to provide a particularly suitable place for displaying that possible transformation.


  1. These first two ways of describing what the aesthetic does—or what it affords—rest on the level of content. The aesthetic presents another way of life and elicits our sympathy for it through enhancing our understanding of it.  Or the aesthetic presents possibilities that lead us to question the forms life in the present takes.


But there is another route to take, one that places the emphasis on the Form, not the content, characteristic of the aesthetic.  This approach is the dominant one in Dewey’s book, even though he slips in all these other ways of thinking about what the aesthetic is or does.  This is where Dewey aligns with the modernists—at least insofar as certain modernists wished to downplay the representational content of art in favor of an emphasis on form.

This is where (if I understand him correctly) Nick wants to plant his flag.  The “ordered intensity” art creates is an effect of form, not content (or message).  The arts are emotionally compelling, capture our attention, sharpen our focus, and provide satisfactory experiences through the intensities of form’s elegant constraints.  Think of water collected into a container and then heated.  Instead of dissipating (flowing away) as uncontained water does, contained water acquires a shape while heated water reaches the consummation of boiling (if enough heat is applied).

Dewey, then, like the modernists, wants to focus not on what the art work says, but on the experience it offers both the artist and her audience. In his own key, he is actually not that far from Adorno, who also wants to locate art’s importance—and its political effects—on its form (since form is what makes something, in Dewey’s terms, “an experience”).

How does this work?  For Adorno, artistic form offers a riposte to the “damaged life” offered by modern capitalist societies.  Dewey in the 1930s, influenced by the economic conditions of the Depression and by leftist responses to that catastrophe, offers an argument not that far removed from classic Marxist accounts of alienation.  (In his biography of Dewey, Robert Westbrook suggests that Sidney Hook was a key factor in Dewey’s adoption of various left-wing arguments.)  On pages 341—344 of Art As Experience, Dewey offers his version of the Marxist argument that a more equitable distribution of the products of economic activity will not suffice in curing the ills of capitalist productive and social relations.  “Production of objects enjoyed in direct experience by those who possess, to some extent, the capacity to produce useful commodities expressing individual values, has become a specialized matter apart from the general run of production.  This fact is probably the most important factor in the status of art in present civilization” (341).

Hardly the clearest statement in Dewey’s corpus, famous for its many obscurities.  My translation: we get here a mixture of Ruskin and Marx.  The artist has the privileged experience of “producing” objects “that express individual values.” (Nick and I will be exploring Dewey’s understanding of art’s connection to “expression” in our next meeting, so I will hold off on that topic.)  Most workers, by way of contrast, just follow orders. Their work cannot be satisfactory because, even if they are helping to produce well-formed objects, “there is esthetic form only when the object having this external form fits into a larger experience” (341).  The aesthetic, in other words, stands for the possibility of a satisfactory experience, for an undamaged life.

Access to that undamaged life requires workplace democracy and some workplace autonomy.  Dewey is always insistent that democracy is judged by the quality of the individual lives it makes possible—and his model of artistic creation and the enjoyment of artistic experiences is primarily individualistic.  (Importantly, he does insist continually that democracy is a mode of sociality, and that individuals can only find fulfillment in “association” [a favorite Dewey term] with others.)  We will only have access to the kinds of satisfactory and consummatory experiences that constitute “the aesthetic” for Dewey when we stand in the proper relation to the activities (of which work is a crucial one) that make up our daily existence.  That proper relationship requires a sensitivity to the possibilities of harmonious form (a sensitivity the aesthetic can impart) and an individual investment/ownership of our daily activities that strive to achieve that harmonious form.  Current social arrangements make that individual investment/ownership only available to a privileged few.

To sum up this post: the aesthetic may develop one’s sensibility through the messages it communicates.  It may promote sympathy/compassion and it may shape a habit of considering alternatives to what the present offers and an expanded sense of possible paths out of the present.  It may also be the case that even when the message to be offered is fairly straight-forward and easily conveyed by non-aesthetic means (sermons, moral treatises, political platforms, sociological studies, statistical demonstrations), that the aesthetic is more effective because pitched at an emotional level that resonates more than more “rational” or argumentative discourses.

In short, when we consider the sources of one’s sensibility, to what extent has it been shaped by aesthetic works as contrasted to non-aesthetic ones?

But Dewey’s primary focus (and I think Nick’s) is not in such a direct, message-driven, attempt to shape sensibilities.  Rather, the idea is that the aesthetic models a form of unalienated existence; it offers and instantiates the possibility of the “equilibrium” and “harmony” that would constitute an undamaged life.  Dewey thinks this desire and striving for a satisfactory, consummatory experience is built into human nature.  So it is not as if the aesthetic has to teach us to want it—and that there are sensibilities which forego (or even condemn) this endeavor.

But I do think a position that wants to use the aesthetic to re-form the experiences available under current “damaged” conditions will end up with some version of an alienation argument.  We have become “alienated” from the appreciating (even recognizing?) consummatory experiences, often embracing pale substitutes for it. Our aptitude and appetite for such experiences needs to be “awakened” in contemporary life—and the arts can do that awakening work.

However, that brings us back to the better/worse judgments discussed in the last post.  Only some of the arts can do this job because contemporary culture also offers a multitude of degraded aesthetic experiences.   The trick will be to make these judgments of satisfactory versus unsatisfactory aesthetic experiences without falling into the mandarin contempt of Adorno.  Snobbishness is not only a hallmark of the inegalitarian right. The damaged life argument doesn’t belong exclusively to either the left or the right since T. S. Eliot offers an obvious example of a conservative version.  But whether deployed from the left or the right, it always entails judging some forms of life damaged even if participants in that form do not themselves register it as unsatisfactory.