Category: Judgment

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it. 

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.

Dewey, Art As Experience (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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