JOHN DEWEY and the  AESTHETICS OF MORAL INTELLIGENCE

1993

by
David Ilett Seiple    ( D. Seiple)

             -->    ABSTRACT              

 INTRODUCTION

     Despite its wide influence, over the past three decades or so Dewey's aesthetics has received surprisingly little serious consideration,[1] and this is partly because, until recently, influential commentators have considered Dewey's theory to be "a curious amalgam of the illuminating and the confusing."[2] In an early review of Art as Experience,[3] E. A. Shearer had noticed what he took to be a lack of theoretical economy in the work.  There (Shearer thought) Dewey's attention seems to be divided between two notions of the aesthetic.  Thirty years later, D. W. Gotshalk thought he detected a similar theoretical division, remarking that the logical distance between two strands in art theory was lost on Dewey himself (who naively "gives a changed meaning to the concept of the aesthetic according to the situation or context in which he is operating" (Gotshalk: ODA, 132)).

     So the Shearer-Gotshalk view detects a tension in Dewey's fundamental aesthetic assumptions, which goes like this.  {1} On the one hand, Dewey insists that an aesthetic experience is one that is a consummation -- one that "runs its course to fulfillment" (AE, 35).  In this sense, even an experience of pure thinking can be "aesthetic" since the movement of intellect may exhibit "anticipation and cumulation, one that finally comes to completion" in a process that "differs from those experiences that are [commonly] acknowledged to be esthetic...only in its materials" (AE, 38).  Shearer identifies as the central element in this process the "amalgamation of means and end" -- a trait that need not be restricted to the narrow purview of fine art.  Accordingly, art is not distinct from life itself: "art is an example of perfection and is moreover that which all forms of life become when perfect" (Shearer: DET-I, 405). 

     {ii} On the other hand, it seems as if Dewey is simultaneously juggling another aesthetic theory altogether, "based on a search through life and through art for what happens when sense experience, what is present to eye and ear, takes on increasing importance" (Shearer).  This is reflected in Dewey's preoccupation with immediacy: "The different elements and specific qualities of a work of art blend and fuse" into a pervasive whole that "can only be

felt, that is, immediately experienced" (AE, 192).  When this occurs, Dewey insists, it involves a peculiar selection and condensation of elements that ordinary experience does not allow. And here is the point of conflict with #{i}. The problem is not that, as concepts, `immediacy' and `consummation' have no point of contact (Dewey says more than once that consummations are immediately apprehended). The problem is that, as Dewey himself describes it,[4] ordinary experience does not seem to afford the occasion for the aesthetic significance that Dewey otherwise -- viz., via #{i} -- promotes.

     Neither Shearer nor Gotshalk is able to make much sense of the conjunction of these two theories in Dewey's work.  Shearer claims they "have little to do with each other."[5] But here I shall claim that these two aspects of Dewey's aesthetics have everything to do with each other.  The problem is that Dewey does not make this as clear as he should have, ignoring some promising points altogether while consigning others to forgotten treatment in little-known articles. 

     We shall see here that the larger unity within Dewey's aesthetic theory becomes evident in the context of his well-known dispute with "the compartmental conception of fine art."  As it stands, much of Dewey's discussion of that (AE, 3-19) is left badly underdeveloped.  What I intend to show here is how the significance of Dewey's criticism of Compartmentalism reaches beyond the traditional concerns of art theory, so that understanding just what Dewey finds so pernicious in Compartmentalism will allow us to understand just how he thinks aesthetic experience is related to other human concerns.  I will use his account of moral deliberation to illustrate that relationship.

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      Here I shall use `Compartmentalism' to indicate a cluster of theoretical views and institutional practices that treat art as object apart from its social context.  In Dewey's day, the major Compartmentalists were Roger Fry and Clive Bell, and I shall begin by comparing and contrasting their Formalist views with his.

     Now on the surface, this might seem to be a fruitless exercise, because (as we shall be seeing) Dewey's interests lie with the relation between artistic production and practical conduct, whereas the Formalism of Bell and Fry had to do with the disinterested attention of the spectator.  But then this is only part of the story.  In the first place, Dewey actually shares with them a similar aestheticist impulse.  For Dewey this impulse gets theoretically expressed in terms of a view about aesthetic experience that reflects the Post-Impressionist climate that Bell, Fry, and others (notably Albert C. Barnes) were so influential in creating: for them, aesthetic experience is an intense, immediate apprehension of form -- which here means organic unity (a whole in which the parts are related internally to one another).  The first part of Chapter I discusses this in some detail.

     Where Dewey and the Formalists differ, on the other hand, is over the fact that Formalism denies any interesting relation between aesthetic experience and praxis.  Dewey sees his philosophical project -- his major philosophical aim, I would claim -- as that of "restoring continuity" between our experience of fine art and our experience in practical contexts (AE, 3).  Here, however, I see Dewey's project as incomplete.  For his explicit comments on the Formalists[6] are few and largely piecemeal responses, and his objection to Compartmentalism  is never given a full, explicit treatment.  This omission on Dewey's own part may have contributed to the mishandling of Dewey's work by Rorty, who (wrongly, in my view) insists that Dewey is some kind proto-deconstructionist.  If Foucault and Dewey really were "up to the same thing" (as Rorty claims[7]), it would be impossible for Dewey to sustain an interest in aesthetic experience as an organic unity; and making clear that this is indeed an essential part of his project will, I hope, contribute to a more accurate appraisal of his work.

     So the format of this discussion is the historical relationship between Dewey and Compartmentalism, and my argument here consists of two parts. {1} The first concerns the substance of the narrow aesthetic issue that divides them.  {2} The second concerns the larger theoretical framework which accounts for the importance Dewey places on the dispute.

 

 

     * {1} Dewey's Refutation of Compartmentalism *

 

     Aesthetic experience, for both Dewey and the Formalists, is the apprehension of "form" in a work of art.  To say that a visual artwork exhibits form is to say that its visual interest consists in the satisfaction one receives from apprehending the organic unity (the internal relatedness) of its elements.  And to say this is to emphasize the phenomenological aspect of the viewer's response to the presented configuration.  That response is immediate -- which is not to say that one's response is unreflective, but only that the work gains a visual impact that is non-inferential.

     Now what is peculiar to Compartmentalism is the doctrine that the organic unity immediately exhibited by the work of art has a sequestering and not an integrative function.  "Art transports us from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.  For a moment we are shut off from human interests, our anticipations and memories are arrested, we are lifted above the stream of life" (Bell: A, 25).  To say that aesthetic experience shuts us off from human interests is to deny that aesthetic experience is significant for praxis, and this latter claim -- which I call the SPT[8] -- defines in the most economical fashion the point of contention between Compartmentalism and Deweyan aesthetics. 

     Compartmentalists, for example, typically insist that aesthetic experience has no significant moral implications, in that art (viewed properly) does not give us any indication as to how we ought to behave.  To suppose otherwise would be to attribute to art the peculiar representational function of being about the moral life of human beings, and one way to avert this would be either to deny altogether the representational character of art, or else to degrade it to the point of triviality.  And this was the characteristic Formalist move: if art itself is not significantly representational, then aesthetic experience need not find itself diverted toward practical matters and away from the self-referential purity of the work itself.  The aesthete can remain shut off from human interests.

     But, as I argue in Chapter I, the SPT is simply wrong.  If aesthetic experience had no significance for praxis, then aesthetic experience could not fit into the motivational structure of practical conduct.  And that is demonstrably false.  If we regard practical conduct in a broad sense, the artist (who "embodies in himself the attitude of perceiver while he works" (AE, 48)) depends upon his own aesthetic experience for control over the artistic process (LW5,[9] 251).  Since artistic production itself is a practical affair, artistic production provides a counterexample to the SPT.

     Now taken as a narrow dispute within aesthetics, this conclusion is not especially exciting in itself, particularly since the heyday of Formalism is long since over, and it turns out that much of Dewey's critique has acquired canonical status within both the philosophical community and the artworld.  So I need to  make clear why this is dispute might still have contemporary interest, and this involves the social function of art.

 

     * {2} The Significance of Anti-Compartmentalism *

 

     Dewey's objection to Compartmentalist theory goes far beyond his concerns with aesthetics proper.  As I shall argue in Chapter II, the textual evidence makes it quite clear that Dewey wants to treat artistic production as a model for praxis in general.  Dewey would claim that all "normal" conduct is governed by "intelligence," and that all intelligence is inherently "expressive."  Just as the ("authentic") artist seems to be guided by a peculiar sort of intentionality, this is true as well of what goes on in moral deliberation.  In both cases, this is a process that is "experimental" in its sensitivity to the unexpected suggestions coming from the environment, and "consummatory" in the unity the agent (ideally) experiences upon completion.  Dewey would say that a "felt qualitative whole"  -- i.e., the perceived "form" of elements internally related to one another -- guides activity.  When fully displayed in conduct (Dewey wants to say), moral intelligence too is a paradigm of expressiveness.  It involves imaginative "experimentation" through a dramatic rehearsal of possible courses of action; it involves a consummatory resolution of a felt problem, directed by something other than mere routine application of moral rules -- viz., by that perception of "form" (the internal relation of means to ends) which was classically labeled `phronesis'.  This I shall discuss in Chapter II and in Chapter III.

     Now once we appreciate the moral significance of Dewey's theory of art, we are in a position to understand why Compartmentalist theory in particular is so troubling to him.  Theory (along with, certainly, other considerations) has an institutional impact, and social institutions are of course the vehicle for acculturation.  What makes Compartmentalism so pernicious is that it impedes resolution of what Dewey regards as the fundamental human predicament: the problem of "recovering the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living" (AE, 10).  Human life is valuable (Dewey would to say) insofar as it exhibits consummatory vitality, and the possibility for consummation is a function of external circumstance, together with the dispositional trait I call "interpretive competence."  Dispositions are acquired traits, and art accordingly has an important educative function that Compartmentalism largely ignores -- a function that depends on the fact that experience of "form" is particularly powerful, not just for its intensity but also for its capacity to reconstruct the self, in ways that enhance one's powers of expressive conduct.  This I shall discuss in Chapter IV.




     [1]  This is changing.  For examples of a recent renewal of interest in Dewey's aesthetics, see (Alexander: JDT) and (Shusterman: PA).

     [2]  (Gotshalk: ODA, 131).

     [3]  (Shearer: DET-I, 23-4).

     [4]  "Near and far, close and distant, are qualitites of pregnant, often tragic import....In experience they are infinitely diversified and cannot be described, while in words of art they are expressed" (AE, 207-8).

     [5]  (Shearer: DET-I, 405). Cp. Gotshalk: "It cannot be said that Dewey himself is clearly aware of these two very different views of the aesthetic in his theory.  He moves in and out of them noiselessly, as if they were the same, now emphasizing one, now the other.  Generally speaking, he emphasizes the first view -- the aesthetic is the integrated or unified -- when he wishes to argue against the compartmentalizing of experience, and to develop the theme that all life may have aesthetic quality....He emphasizes the second view -- the aesthetic is the qualitatively immediate as intuitively grasped -- when he wishes to describe the fine arts in a vivid and distinctive manner" (ODA, 132).

     [6]  E.g., (AE, 86ff).

     [7]  (Rorty: CP. 208).

     [8]  The Significance-for-Praxis Thesis.

     [9]  "Qualitative Thought" (1930).

 

 

 

 

coming soon....

 

 

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