Category: Judgment

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.

The Aesthetic (Four)

The traditional worry about associating the aesthetic with epicurean sensibility/sensitivity has been the fear of sensuality.  The aesthete will just be someone who hedonistically indulges in pleasurable bodily sensations.  It seems a short step from Pater to Sade, from a healthy pagan sensuality to the perverse.  Hence we famously get John Stuart Mill trying to disentangle the pleasure/pain calculus of Benthamite utilitarianism from endorsing swinish bodily pleasures as humanity’s goal.  From Epicurus to Bentham, Mill tells us, utilitarians have always been attacked for being bestial sensualists—to which Mill offers this riposte.

When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other.

The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. . . . It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. . . . [I]t is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both [i.e. bodily as contrasted to mental pleasures] , do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. (Utilitarianism, Chapter Two)

I don’t want to linger on the tangles Mill gets himself into in trying to make this argument. (Especially worth noting is his claim that the higher faculties of humans means that they suffer more than beasts, a point that makes a straight-forward pleasure calculus problematic as well as encouraging a comparative indifference to the suffering of animals.)  What I want to highlight instead is the theme of this post, to wit: almost every account of the aesthetic insists that art has some kind of significance or provides some kind of experience that cannot be reduced to the corporeal.  Art entails more than just perception and bodily sensation.

What is this more? Let me dispense immediately with theories of the aesthetic that attempt to abstract away from the bodily altogether.  Kant seems to belong in this camp.  I always present this to students as the attempt to distinguish pornography from the nude.  Kantian disinterest and the elevation of form over matter/content is designed to protect the nude from awakening either desire or bodily lust.  A hard and fast line (a wall) is to be established between pornographic representation and the nude that figures so prominently in art from the Greeks to the present day.  If it is bodily it is not art; if it is spiritual it is art.  And the appeal to “form” over “matter” allows us to make—and preserve—this distinction between representations that are art and ones that are not.

Like Dewey, I have no interest in this way of understanding the aesthetic.  Dewey’s effort to embed the aesthetic in everyday experience means he is opposed to abstraction in all its forms.  He doesn’t want the art object, the aesthetic experience, or mental processes to be alienated into some separate realm apart from the ordinary–or from the corporeal.  He is firmly committed to overcoming any mind/body dualism. (What follows draws on Chapter three of Art As Experience, esp. pp. 52-55.)  Dewey’s interactive model of experience means that perception is both passive and active at the same time.  As he never tires of saying in all his works, experience is both a doing and an undergoing.  Perception (which is bodily and mental for Dewey) registers the impact of the situation, which is not chosen but which is imposed upon the perceiver. However, that perceiver is always already pushing back against the circumstances in which she finds herself, trying to shape those circumstances toward her purposes, toward fulfillment.  The “matter” of perception (the material offered by the situation) is being pushed toward “form” by the active engagement of the perceiver with the environment.

Revising Dewey a bit (see page 55), we get four elements of an experience, all of which occur just about simultaneously, and all of which do not exist separately or self-sufficiently.  We perceive a situation; it is registered bodily by our senses.  We have an emotional response to what we perceive; we consider it a threat, an opportunity, pleasing, disgusting, as something mostly indifferent, or something of tremendous interest/significance.  Dewey adds that this emotional response binds the different elements of the situation into a whole, since the emotion gives us an overall assessment of our relation to that situation.  (He underplays ambivalence or confusion in this last claim).  There is also an intellectual response/assessment of the situation.  This response deals with meaning (in the very distinctive pragmatist understanding of meaning as the potential consequences of the things and/or situation perceived and emotionally registered.)  Intelligence (that favorite Dewey term—and the highest value in his overall philosophy) entails acting in relation to those understood meanings/consequences in such a way that we can produce the “fulfilled” or “satisfactory” relationship to the environment for which a meliorist pragmatism aims.  Finally, there is the practical component of an experience—which is the actual interactions through which we try to put the meanings/vision imagined by intelligence into action.  The practical is the site of the actual interaction with the environment.

The association of intelligence with imagination—with the projection in thought of a future state of affairs through a vision of possible consequences—is crucial here since it links intelligence with art.  After all, if we consider all human action as aiming toward a satisfactory relationship with the environment, then there is no difference between science, art, and just daily life.  Dewey’s position appears to be (see page 26) that art is the all-encompassing term for the human way of interaction, with science a subset of art (a “handmaiden” that attends to natural events), and daily life the less conscious, more habitual, and thus often less satisfactory dealing with what life throws at us.  Art is the effort to find fulfillment raised to full consciousness.

Now back to the main problem this post wants to explore—and a devilishly difficult problem it is. To restate: almost all accounts of the aesthetic assume—or explicitly argue—that the aesthetic transcends the corporeal.  “Intelligence” is the site of that transcendence in Dewey.  The field of candidates as agents of transcendence is crowded.  And my “meaning” project obviously (or so it seems to me) is located precisely here.

Let me sharpen this point.  I do not suppose—and believe no one else would suppose—that an epicurean pleasure in antique automobiles has much of great significance to tell us.  We might certainly learn something about the character of my friend who devotes much time and mental (as well as bodily) energy to the appreciative gazing upon those cars, and we may also learn (from him or from the books written on the subject) much about how those cars worked, were designed, manufactured, preserved etc.

But we are very unlikely to think this aesthetic pursuit has much to say to us about how to live one’s life, or about how to judge different possible ways of being in the world.  In short, this pursuit has little to say about what is significant or what has meaning in relation to the primary ethical question: how am I to live my life? (I adopt here the Bernard Williams distinction between ethics and morality.  Ethics is about how to live one’s life in the best possible way given that there are many possible ways to live a life; morality is about the best possible ways to arrange relationships among humans–and between humans and all the non-human beings and things–in the world we humans find ourselves in.)

There are, of course, those who would divorce art from any pretension to offer “meaning,” any effort to address the ethical question of how to live.  For those who take this position, there is nothing more to be said of or claimed for fancying Moby Dick than there is for being a devotee of 1934 Rolls Royces.  Art is a hobby like any other, equally non-essential if relatively harmless, and we should just give up all these efforts to make it into something more.

But that is a minority position.  While we don’t find many car fanciers arguing for the centrality of their pursuit to living a good life, the majority of artists do believe—and often declare that belief passionately in public—that the aesthetic is the royal road to a meaningful or fulfilled or good life.  Examples are everywhere, but most telling for me are figures like Kandinsky and Rothko, who insist that their non-representational art is loaded with meaning, is completely removed from any Flaubert-like aspiration to create an art “about nothing.”

The insistence that art has vital things to say about how to live explains how the aesthetic gets connected 1) to a critique of the an-aesthetic way many lives are lived and 2) political programs that would make daily life more aesthetic. And I take it that any project of “aesthetic education” is connected to the ethical project and, at the very least, to the critique of an-aesthetic forms of life–even if that educational project is not signed on to some reformist or revolutionary political re-vision.

I will postpone further thoughts on the connection of the aesthetic to the ethical and/or political.  Right now, I want to push harder at what the hell we mean by “meaning” or “significance” in art.  I will start with Dewey.

The aesthetic is significant (or important) to Dewey because it alerts us to fulfilling, consummatory experiences.  Teasing out exactly how that works is difficult.  Here are some possible ways of explicating Dewey’s position.

One, we have fulfilling experiences all the time in ordinary existence.  But we do not always register them as such.  Art calls them to our attention, makes us realize their qualitative difference from less satisfactory experiences.

Two, fulfilling experiences don’t just happen.  They require an especially conscious effort of crafting them, a highly intelligent mode of interaction that imaginatively grasps the possibilities of the given situation, and is joined with a highly conscious and focused pursuit of one’s purpose.  Art alerts us to these conditions for achieving satisfaction—and/or is the name for that kind of concerted effort.

Three, the arts offer models of satisfactory experiences from which we can expand our vision of what is possible and learn ways to make such possibilities realities. (See pages 346-347.)

Fourth (and finally), the aesthetic offers us a vision of a fully integrated “experience,” one that combines in a harmonious equilibrium all the subjective elements (perception, emotion, intelligence, practice, and purpose/motive/desire) with a sensitive, careful interactive relationship to the non-self (whether than non-self is other people or non-human features of the environment or the existential fact of time.)  Many (most) of our interactions are partial; they neglect (fail to take into account) all the elements of a situation.  Art is the place of holism—and holism enhances the chance of fulfillment.

Note that none of these accounts of the aesthetic has anything to say about “meaning.”  Technically, Dewey reserves the term “meaning” for its pragmatic sense.  Following the pragmatic maxim, “meaning” only refers to the possible consequences of the interactions that are made available by a given situation.  Intelligence is the grasping of such meanings; satisfaction follows from the satisfactory achievement of the outcomes that intelligent imagination has predicted will follow from a certain course of action.

But Dewey in certain places departs from the technical use of the term “meaning.”  He seems to assume that satisfactory experiences are “more” meaningful.  We find them more significant.  Why should that be so?  It is easy to see why fulfillment of any desire is more pleasurable than its frustration.  But why should we think fulfillment more meaningful?  After all, many would argue that frustration tells us more about the nature of the world, teaches us more, than satisfaction does.  Dewey’s position depends on his benign (Romantic?) view of the human condition.  Art teaches us how to live because it teaches us that nature can be aligned with human desires and needs.   The meanings (consequences) human intelligence can discern can be activated to provide fulfillment.  An existentialist, absurdist reading of the human relation to nature would yield a different model of how to live (think of Camus’ rebel).  This is the way that “meaning” gets attached to the ethical question of how to live one’s life—and how art could be a site for the portrayal of such meanings.  What the world can “afford” to us makes a big difference in the strategies we might then adopt for living.

Once we abandon the goal of an art about nothing, the focus usually shifts to the ways in which art delivers its message.  In other words, what meanings the art work conveys depends on how that specific art work is interpreted.  (Or, in Dewey’s case, I think we are to understand that “aesthetic experiences” come in many different varieties; not all fulfillments or the means to them are the same. So there is still the work of attending to the particular details in different cases even though the general outline of “fulfillment” is provided by his theory of the aesthetic.)

There are, of course, multiple theories of interpretation.  I want to bypass those to consider instead how we account for the art work’s having a meaning at all.  By what means does art convey its meanings?  The answers to this question are very often contrastive.  Unlike logic, reason, polemic, or assertion, art works by indirection.  It doesn’t state things outright (showing instead of telling); it works by inference and through emotional, more than intellectual, appeal.  The superiority of aesthetic modes of communication—or at least such modes being equally valid as more direct ones—motivates many discussions of this issue.

There are different schools of thought.  The Martha Nussbaum camp wants to insist on the aesthetic as cognitive.  Art provides knowledge about the world just as much as science does—and art’s knowledge might very well be superior because it blends the emotional and the reasonable instead of trying to purge emotion like positivism does.

Dewey inflects this all differently.  He holds on to science as our best means for learning the potentials of nature.  Then the knowledge that science offers contributes to the more comprehensive aesthetic project of fulfillment.  Art can convey the knowledge that satisfactory experiences are possible.  But more important to Dewey than the possible “cognitive” function of art is its enabling impact on its audiences.  The shaping of sensibility (character) that art can accomplish “is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude” (334).  “Compared with [art’s] influence things directly taught by word and precept are pale and ineffectual. . . . The sum total of the effect of all reflective treatises on morals is insignificant in comparison with the influence of architecture, novel, drama, on life” (345).

Why does Dewey think the arts more effective in shaping our values and our ways of living?  It is precisely here that he falls back on the term “meaning”—and uses it in the non-technical, non-pragmatist way.  The “stabilizing” and “enduring forces” in a “civilization” (or “culture”; Dewey uses the terms interchangeably) are founded upon the “meaning given in imagination” it provides for its members (326).  “[T]he multitudes of passing incidents” that comprise life must be “organized into the meanings that form minds” (326).  We process experience through those meanings—which shape our interpretations of our situations and influence the values (attitudes, concerns) by which we understand and judge those situations.  Art serves to “consolidate” these available meanings, by giving them enduring “objective expression” (326).  “If social customs are more than uniform external modes of action (i.e. if they become internalized structures of feeling), it is because they are saturated with story and transmitted meaning” (326).

Here’s my attempt at the best way to understand Dewey at this point.  (I don’t know if I personally subscribe to this view.  I have to think about it more.  But I do think this is what Dewey believes.)  Science provides meanings in the technical pragmatist sense.  The scientist aims for the fullest account possible of the consequences that might flow from any particular state of affairs.  The experimental method provides the best way to tease out all those possible consequences.  Intelligence entails relying on the experimental method–and in cases where that method has provided reliable (even though “fallible”) knowledge, intelligence acts upon that knowledge.

There is, however, also another set of meanings—the meanings that human actors have given to their experiences, meanings that relate to how satisfactory, how fulfilling, how important or trivial, they find some experiences as compared to others.  These meanings are connected to desire and to the formation of purposes.  Science is never disconnected from purposes for Dewey; all inquiry is motivated in his view.  Still, conscious reflection on purposes is not pursued via the experimental method.  (Dewey does not appear interested—except in one short passage I will get to in a subsequent post—with the idea that art works are thought experiments.)  Rather, such reflection involves 1) an introspective awareness of one’s desires; 2) an engagement with (internalization of) the values provided by one’s culture; and 3) an image of possible fulfillment that is responsive to the situation at hand and enacted by a practical interaction with the elements of that situation.  “Meaning” is the term that sums up this combination of received values, individual purposes, and evaluation of/ interaction with the environment.  Meaning is what motivates. It moves the philosopher toward an account of what Kenneth Burke called “the grammar of motives.”  Art is a privileged place where meanings in that sense are stored, examined, articulated, displayed, interrogated, fooled around with in playful and not so playful ways.  And art seems to be a privileged place for one’s immersion into the realm of meanings—and one’s becoming initiated into various attitudes toward the values that meanings instantiate

Enough for today.  As I said, I don’t know if this account is what I mean by meaning. I do think I have offered a fair “reconstruction” of Dewey’s use of the term.  All I know for myself is that I think there is some kind of connection between art and the claim that “meaning” is important.