Category: pragmatism

The Aesthetic (Six)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Aesthetic

My friend Nick Gaskill and I have embarked on a plan to read about the aesthetic—and talk about what we are reading over the ubiquitous Zoom.  Nick is interested in “aesthetic education,” partly because his fabulous book Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) uncovered the (at least to me) surprising fact that American schools at the turn of the 20th century developed specific pedagogies to teach pupils the different colors and their relation to one another.

But this interest is also partly fueled by a return to the aesthetic in recent work—work that Nick has been pushing me to read.  In their own ways, Rita Felski’s anti-critique campaign, Caroline Levine’s book on “form,” the Joseph North history of criticism, Michael Clune’s work on judgment, Fred Moten’s development of his notion of the “undercommons,” and Saidiya Hartman’s interest in “beautiful experiments” all try to mobilize the aesthetic as a site of resistance to the dominant order.

Déja vu all over again.  The 30s and the 80s were all about, as Walter Benjamin put it, making aesthetics political. [In other words, right wing triumphs in the political realm seem to inevitably generate attempts to use art against the regime.] In Benjamin’s case, that project was poised against the ways that fascism “aestheticized politics.”  For Nick (inspired partly by Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories), there is not just the aesthetized politics of Trump (can’t take our eyes off the spectacle he offers daily), but also the meretricious everyday aestheticism of consumer capitalism.  All dressed up and ready to spend.

Can some other (truer? proper? more tasteful?) version of the aesthetic combat its trivialization in our culture?  I have had very little to say about the aesthetic over my long career—and pretty much abandoned literary criticism as soon as I got tenure in 1987.  I read novels voraciously, and taught literature all the time, but I lost (if I ever had) any ability to do the kinds of things critics do, especially fancy formal readings.  I became (probably always was) a “naïve” reader of texts—interested in meaning, content.  I have very little avant-garde sensibility when it comes to art: I like novels with plots and characters.  My taste does run to the abstract in painting, but that’s because I love vivid color, while I find the chaotic incoherence of much surrealism distinctly unappealing.  Pop usually strikes me as cheap, cynical tricks, although I like Roy Lichtenstein.  But give me Diebenkorn over Warhol any day.

More theoretically, I have had two problems with the aesthetic.  The first is how to even define it.  I knew someone who was into vintage cars.  His appreciation for them seemed as fully aesthetic as mine for abstract painting.  And some of those cars seemed worthy of (in fact were) being placed in museums.  Yet it seemed absurd to do somersaults to show how his fascination with cars was political in any way.  And I was similarly (in almost all cases) unimpressed by efforts to show me that Mondrian or Matisse was somehow political.

Instead, it seemed to me that lovers of painting and novels (for some reason) were just more prone to feel guilty about their love than those who fancied antique cars.  That guilt generated their need to justify their love by painting it up as radical, as a blow for the revolution etc.  That two things—a commitment to leftist causes and a love of novels—happened to co-exist in the same person in no way demonstrated that one was related (causally and necessarily) to the other.  No one tries to connect my being addicted to running as exercise to my political convictions.

Worse still, in my view, was that the attempts to tie the aesthetic to politics led to gestural politics.  Proving that a close reading of Moby Dick was political left you off the hook.  You got to spout all kinds of rousing slogans—and didn’t have to do any of the work of political organizing and political action.  “Get real,” I always found myself saying.  Another reading of Moby Dick is not going to change the world.  It is bad faith to pretend otherwise.  And there seemed no lack of bad faith in the various art worlds out there.  Parading one’s virtue stood in for rolling up one’s sleeves and actually going to work.

In fact, it seemed most artists and academics (of the literary variety) were allergic to collective, collaborative work, with all its messy compromises and inefficiencies.  They were loners, pursuing their own visions in splendid isolation before presenting the finished product to the world—and feeling hurt when the world did not respond with astonished applause.  The world also did not transform itself to correspond with the artist or author’s vision.

My skepticism duly registered, the point of this collaboration with Nick is (for me; I trust there will be a pay-off for him as well, but it will be a different one) to challenge these long-held prejudices of mine.  There are (immediately) two reasons for me to reconsider.

One, if I have been converted by recent events to the William James view that sensibility, not reason, is the more important factor in our adopting values and commitments, then art does seem to address sensibility more directly and effectively than other modes of discourse.  If the aim is to shape or transform sensibility, then attention to artistic modes seems imperative.  (In my 2002 book Democracy’s Children, I argue the opposite.  Basically, I wrote that since I believe my commitments have a good rational basis, it is condescending of me to assume that others’ commitments are a-rational in a way mine are not. I am still nervous about throwing reasons—offered in the public speech acts by which we try to persuade one another in a deliberative model of democracy—overboard.  But it is hard to retain any faith in deliberative democracy these days, when all sides seem so determined to not ever hear other sides, and refuse to give any credence to what others might say.)

Two, the focus on tying “education” to the “aesthetic” in the phrase “aesthetic education” shifts the playing field in the right direction (I think).  Now it is not the artist or critic’s performance that is political, but the shaping of sensibilities.  The question is not whether the art is political or has direct political effects.  The question becomes how (and why) it is useful to deploy art works as the means to developing certain sensibilities.

This pathway is fraught with many difficulties—and I warn you that, once again, a slew of posts is on the way.  But this educational project is one that makes sense to me in a way that claims for the political efficacy of “radical” readings of Moby Dick does not.

Nick and I started out by reading the first three chapters and the final one of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934).  So my next few posts will try to consider features of the aesthetic—and the hallmarks of aesthetic sensibility—as gleaned from Dewey’s text.

A Veteran’s Worldview

I have just finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s riveting biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, subtitled “A Life in War, Law, and Ideas” (Norton, 2019).  Like Louis Menand, Budiansky claims—and makes a very compelling case for the claim—that Holmes’ manner and belief are all shaped by his service in the Civil War.  Holmes was severely wounded twice (once in late July 1861 and then again at Antietam in September 1862).  The second time (like Robert Graves) his death was reported in the newspapers.  Holmes returned to service after both wounds, but saw only limited combat after 1862 since he joined a general’s staff.  He had had more than enough—and quit the war in 1864 as soon as his three year term of service had expired.

Budiansky does a superb job in portraying Holmes’ worldview, one that I think is shared by many veterans.  It certainly resonates with the hard to describe beliefs that animated my own father, who saw serious combat (although far short of the slaughterhouse that was September 17, 1862 at Antietam) in the Pacific during World War II.  At bottom, Holmes became a “it’s struggle all the way down” guy.  In the final analysis, it is force that tells—and that rules.  That is an ugly truth.  Force is relentless, mindless, brutal, and unrelated to justice or any other ideals.  People who mouth ideals or try to call others to account in the name of ideals are naïve at best, deluded hypocrites speaking claptrap.  At worst, they are moralistic despots, deploying their moral certainties to tyrannize over the rest of us.  Dewey’s pragmatist attack on “the quest for certainty” becomes in Holmes the justification of an activist pluralism.  The role of the law is to create a social field in which individuals are free to live their lives according to their own vision of the good life.  Oddly enough, this yields a positive value: basically the very English value (both Holmes and my father were over-the-top Anglophiles) of “fair play.”  Holmes’ Supreme Court decisions, in almost every instance, were directed to leveling the playing field, to denying any one or any group more power than any other.  Thus he was a liberal in the Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” sense; the focus is on preventing concentrations of power.

But Holmes (and here he is also very pragmatist) did not accept that uncertainty meant nihilism.  “’Of all humbugs the greatest is the humbug of indifference and superiority,’ he wrote . . . in 1897. ‘Our destiny is to care, to idealize, to live toward passionately desired ends.’ He always dismissed the nihilistic attitude ‘it is all futile,’ which he termed ‘the dogmatism that often is disguised under skepticism.  The sceptic has no standard to warrant such universal judgments.  If a man has counted in the actual striving of his fellows he cannot pronounce it vain’” (130).

Eureka!  I can’t help but take this for the cornerstone.  It jives with William James’s constant harping of “striving,” and it is tied to a deep commitment to a certain ideal of masculinity.  Holmes (like my father) was clear-eyed about the waste, the futility, the sheer brutal nastiness and devastation of war. He could see that a killing field like Antietam left nothing to individual initiative, ability, or resolve.  It was all sheer chance as to whether one survived or not.  And yet, he still hung on to the time-worn notion that war was the supreme test of manhood—and thus valuable because (for reasons never examined) manhood has to be tested.  Maybe that goes back to the struggle thing; one needs to compete against others for the prize of being able to, in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others, be accounted a man.  Since the struggle lies in front of us, the prize goes to those who most energetically strive.  And by upping the stakes to life or death in the way that combat does, manhood is fully tested.

Thus, he famously wrote (in 1884) of himself and his fellow Civil War veterans: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top . . . Through our good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire” (127).  And later, during the First World War, he wrote: “I truly believe that young men who live through a war in which they have taken part will find themselves different thenceforth—I feel it—I see it in the eyes of the few surviving men who served in my Regiment.  So, although I would have averted the war if I could have, I believe that all the suffering and waste are not without their reward.  I hope will all my heart that your boys may win the reward and at not too great a cost” (363).

That last bit strikes the note perfectly.  A real desire to avoid war joined with an equally real belief that war brings its own distinctive rewards, along with the absolute distinction between those who have the incommunicable experienced of war and those who do not.  The veteran is part of the elect; he has looked into the abyss; he has seen the fundamental ugly truth of struggle, and is the better man for it.

In the implacable face of violence and death, high ideals mean nothing.  The only worthy response is to shut up and get on with it. Grim determination, strong silence, and doing the job well are what is worthy of respect; nothing more or less.  His ideal men “were free to be egoists or altruists on the usual Saturday half holiday provided they were neither while on their job.  Their job is their contribution to the general welfare and when a man is on that, he will do it better the less he thinks ether of himself or of his neighbors, and the more he puts his energy into the problem he has to solve” (137).  His contempt for intellectuals and moralists was unbounded.  “More than once he cautioned his friends about ‘the irresponsibility of running the universe on paper. . . . The test of an ideal or rather of an idealist, is the power to hold it and get one’s inspiration from it under difficulties.  When one is comfortable and well off, it is easy to talk high talk’”(131).  His attitude toward intellectuals was very close to that of George Orwell; they talked a talk they never had to walk—and they rendered the world frictionless in their images of its betterment.  It is the contempt of the self-styled man of action for the man of ideals—and is undoubtedly tied up with a cherished ideal of manhood.  And, of course, in both Holmes and Orwell, it comes from two men who are primarily men of words.  But they both share their military experience, so can see themselves as superior to the non-veteran.

When you aspire to be a man of action, the nostalgia for combat is understandable.  What other field of action that is not contemptible does the modern world offer?  What honor is there in making more money than others?  Where, in other words, is the moral equivalent of war?  Certainly not in politics, which is even more contemptible than trade.  Holmes was determined not to become either the gloomy Henry Adams nor the god-seeking William James.  He wanted, instead, to be the tough-minded realist described in the opening pages of James’s Pragmatism book.

I want, in my next post, to consider how tough-minded realism plays itself out in Holmes’ understanding of the law.  But today I will end with the way that realism renders Holmes a pluralist in an additional sense.  He is a pluralist in the John Rawls sense of believing that the central unalterable fact that liberal society must negotiate is the existence of multiple visions of the good, none of which should be allowed to trample on the others.  He is a pluralist in the Isaiah Berlin sense in asserting that, even within a single vision of the good, there are competing goods that require tradeoffs and compromises; we will never getting everything we could wish for because those things cannot co-exist.  Going to the theater tonight means missing a dinner with a different set of friends.  Intellectuals, he thinks, never take the inevitability of never achieving the maximum into account in their criticisms of the men of action or in their imagined utopias.  “Remember, my friend [he wrote], that every good costs something.  Don’t forget that to have anything means to go without something else.  Even to be a person, to be this means to be not that’ (131).

In sum, life’s a struggle and a real man just gets on with the job, harboring no illusion that it will be all wine and roses.  That real man is full of contempt for the complainers and idealists, the ones who aim to change the basic fact of struggle into some kind of gentler form of cooperation that tends toward ameliorating the sufferings of himself and/or others.  You just need to face up to the suffering in stoic silence, doing the best that you can for yourself and for those you love.  Because you are a man and they are depending on you, even as you have no one to depend on but yourself.  It’s a cop-out of your manhood to expect help; it’s a sign of weakness, of not being up to the struggle, to whine for help from the law, from society, from anyone.