Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nature, Communication, Meaning and the Aesthetics: Dewey's Experience and Nature

There is a deep connection between meaning, communication and aesthetics.  One can see Dewey's chapter on "Nature, Communication and Meaning" in his book Experience and Nature, as suggesting what this can be.  (This discussion will be limited to the abridged version of this chapter to be found in Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy edited by John Stuhr.) The idea that meaning is a function of cooperative behavior as well as response to a thing as entering into behavior sets up the basis for all communication which is aesthetic in nature, including those forms of communication involved in the arts.  Further, there is a dimension of the everyday in Dewey's comment that "a directly enjoyed thing adds to itself meaning, and enjoyment is thereby idealized."  He goes on:  "Even the dumb pang of an ache achieves a significant existence which can be designated and descanted upon; it ceases to be merely oppressive and becomes important....because it becomes representative..."  This heightening of significance of the dumb pang takes it beyond the strictly ordinary into some other domain...not quite aesthetic, but getting there.  To understand the aesthetic we need to understand the vast range of human experience that is not aesthetic but provides the grounds or basis for aesthetic experience.

Any aesthetic relation to the surrounding environment or to a particular object will have the multivalent quality Dewey has described in terms of relation between object, person communicating and person communicated to.  Dewey describes it in this way:  "The meaning of signs ...always includes something common between persons and an object.  When we attribute meaning to the speaker as his intent, and also something, we take for granted another person who is to share in the execution of the intent, and also something, independent of the persons concerned, through which the intent is realized."  Meaning is a "community of partaking" between these three things.

Dewey goes on to discuss tools and the ways in which they can help us to project potential efficiencies.  Fire, for example, when it is used to cook is "an existence having meaning and potential essence."  This is especially true when fire is the result of actions used to generate it.  This is going to be the basis for any thought of the world as containing aesthetic objects and experiences. 

Dewey then refers to language as the tool of tools and in doing so refers back to the ways in which tools take on meaning in ceremony and institutional setting.  "The notoriously conventionalized and traditional character of primitive utensils and their attendant symbolizations demonstrates" that tools are used in this way.  For a stick to retain its meaning as a lever, "the relationship between it and its consequence" must be distinguished and retained, and this is effected through language.  Spears, urns, etc. may be "institutionalized as tools."   Further "communication is a condition of consciousness," which means that aesthetic experience, which is a form of consciousness, would be impossible without communication.  

The issue concerning aesthetics which Dewey raises for me in this writing is whether we can even speak of aesthetics separate from meaning.  It seems that aesthetic experience is not only experience where the sensuous and formal are prominent but also the contextual and meaningful.  It too has to be triadic.  The aesthetic insofar as it is related to art is also related to tools.  Artworks must be artifacts.  Tools have meaning.  They are items of everyday life with their own relatively primitive yet art-like in some ways aesthetic dimension.   This is what I have tried to described as "heightened significance" of the aesthetic.

Dewey argues that it follows that "every meaning is generic or universal" in the sense that it is "common between speaker, hearer and the things to which speech refers" and is also "a method of action, a way of using things as means to a shared consummation..."  In sum, "meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretations being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence" ... clearly a pragmatist notion of meaning.  Here he opposes the traditional Aristotelian notion of meaning and of generalization as arising out of comparison of particulars.  Rather, he sees generalization as spontaneously carried as far as it will go, as when a child uses a word as much as she can in new ways, and only then is it limited by conditions of use in a social context.  Thus meaning and generalization is like metaphor in being promiscuous in interpretation, at least at first.  

The picture I get out of Dewey is that of a first layer or level of meaning that provides a basis for our understanding of higher, more complex levels of meaning that can be called aesthetic.  So, for example, he speaks of a traffic policeman using his whistle, and that this action is more than just a stimulus of the moment, but is situated within a set of consequences in terms of coordinating movement and even in terms of fines and imprisonment if one fails to respond.  The essence of the whistle blow is "the rule, comprehensive and persisting, the standardized habit, of social interaction" for which the whistle is used.  This is not aesthetic, nor is it art.  But it does provide the basis for other actions and events which do have a distinctly aesthetic character.

It is not surprising then that when Dewey goes on to discuss fire he sees it phenomenologically as something "not merely physical" but entering "into human action and destiny."  At this moment there is an aesthetic dimension, but at the level of everyday aesthetics, not at the level of art aesthetics.  He writes that fire "enters experience; it is fascinating to watch swirling flames; it is important to avoid its dangers and to utilize its beneficial potencies."  The fascination aspect of this experience of fire is aesthetic.  He goes on: "the ultimate meaning, or essence, denominated fire, is the consequence of certain natural events within the scheme of human activities, in the experience of social intercourse, the hearth and domestic alter, shared comfort, working metals, rapid transit, and other such affairs."  Fire is deep and rich with meaning, for example as something that can have such aesthetic or quasi-aesthetic qualities as giving shared comfort along with personal or family based associations of the hearth and alter and more practical and business-related associations involving metals and transit.  This. of course, is distinguished from the scientific approach to fire which ignores such meanings in order to enhance control.

Dewey, however, is concerned about our current "sharp separation between meanings determined in terms of the causal relationship of things and meanings in terms of human association" where the latter are seen as unimportant or merely private.  At the same time, he gives credit to the sciences, and to mathematics in particular, for disconnecting themselves from "human situations and consequences" and freeing themselves from the moral and the aesthetic in order to achieve what they achieve.  Here, in the science/math perspective, the essence of something is entirely intellectual without any implications with regards to consummatory experience.  The problem is that in doing this it becomes instrumental by way of detaching itself from the things towards which it is instrumental, i.e. valuable experience.  

Of course science can be not only instrumental but also aesthetic itself, or as he puts it, an object of intrinsic delight.  This is true also for philosophy (although it is hard to see philosophy as instrumental.) To be frank, this is a personal thing as much as a general point:  Dewey obviously loves doing philosophy.  And, in fact, this is true for me too.  Doing philosophy, one might say, is part of my everyday aesthetic experience.  As Dewey rightly says,  "Few would philosophize if philosophical discourse did not have its own inhering fascination."  But, as he also observes, this is not the goal of philosophy or of science or math, which relates rather to the function of their subject matters.  

At this point in the chapter Dewey turns to art and religion.  (One senses that he turns away from math with some relief.)  This forms a culmination of his discussion of communication:  "Letters, poetry, song, the drama, fiction, history, biography, engaging in rites and ceremonies hallowed by time and rich with the sense of the countless multitudes that share them, are also modes of discourse that, detached from immediate instrumental consequences...are ends for most persons."  Discourse becomes both instrumental and final here.  Further, as Matthew Arnold held, poetry (standing for art in general) is a criticism of life insofar as it "fixes those standards of enjoyment and appreciation with which other things are compared" and sets us on a path of action both for individual and community.  The "staple objects of enjoyment," including not only the arts but also recreation, amusement and ceremony, do the most to "determine the current direction of ideas and endeavors in the community" by which life is judged.   

So, in the end, communication in its highest form is both instrumental and final, giving us both a world of meaning and one in which there are objects valuable to the individual and the community. This second form, the final purpose of communication, is ultimately aesthetic:  it is "a sharing whereby meanings are enhanced, deepened and solidified in the sense of communion" -- and the resultant objects are "worthy of awe, admiration, and loyal appreciation" as they are means to making life "rich and varied in meanings."  As ends they free man from isolation into a realm of shared meaning.  

Dewey concludes (after one of his typical blasts against the social conditions of our times):  "When the instrumental and final functions of communication live together in experience, there exists an intelligence which is the method and reward of the common life, and a society worthy to command affection, admiration and loyalty."  So, a chapter which addresses the nature of communication and meaning ends with a vision of an ideal society in which the arts, in the broadest possible sense of that term, are both means conducive to a great society and ends in themselves. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Aesthetics as a Core Sub-discipline of Philosophy, argued from Dewey’s “Experience and Philosophic Method”



This summary and discussion is based on the abridged selection of the first chapter John Dewey’s Experience and Nature, “Experience and Philosophical Method,” which is found in John Stuhr’s Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy.  The main thesis of my discussion is that if Dewey is right (and I think he is) then (1) aesthetics is a core subdiscipline of philosophy ranking up there with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics, and (2) the fact that aesthetics does not have this role is due to the various fallacies Dewey uncovers in the philosophic tradition prior to pragmatism.  This has implications not only for aesthetics but for our culture in general insofar as its assumptions are to a large extent those of traditional philosophy.  The irony of the essay, but not a negative one, is that it is a turn to a philosophic method modeled after the methods of science which proves the point.  Taking experience as the central concept, and primary experience as the starting point, both science and the value-related disciplines of ethics and aesthetics, penetrate reality.   



Many would question associating the terms “experience” and “naturalism” in what Dewey calls "naturalistic empiricism," experience being too unimportant in nature, and nature being complete apart from experience.  Some even hold that experience is a veil that shuts us off from nature, unless it can be transcended by something like reason or intuition.  An opposite school of thought sees nature as mechanistic.  On this view, seeing experience in naturalistic terms would be to deny ideal values associated with experience. 



One cannot argue against these positions, but perhaps we can change the way we see the meanings of these terms.  Nature and experience do work harmoniously together when experience is seen as the only method for knowing nature, and nature, so disclosed, “deepens, enriches and directs the further development of experience.”  (460)  (The philosophical theories Dewey opposes, going back to Descartes and his treatment of the piece of wax, denudes nature of richness, taking away all of the sensuous and associated qualities from the piece of wax.  Dewey seeks to return us to the primary experience of the wax.  He is deeply anti-Cartesian in this respect.)  In the natural sciences the union of nature and experience is seen as natural:  empirical method is required for genuine science.  Reason, calculation, and theory must terminate in experienced subject-matter which itself is the same for the scientist and the ordinary man, i.e. the same rocks, stars, and animals.  This indicates that experience is not just a thin layer of nature but penetrates deep into it, bringing things up from these depths. 



Some would argue that since experience comes late in evolution it has slight significance.  It is true that it occurs only in specialized conditions in highly organized creatures.  But, when it happens, it allows access to portions of nature.  For example, a geologist living now can tell us of things that happened millions of years ago.  He or she may determine that something we see now is a fossil through collation of observations and through comparison of data, translating “observed coexistences into non-observed inferred sequences.”  The geologist also predicts experiences and brings them about, producing in experiment what he or she has inferred.  (401)



So, experience is not only in nature but of nature.  Things interacting are experienced.  Some would say that a tiny part of nature cannot incorporate its vast reaches.  Well, to answer this, we just have to study experience.  And when we do, we find that science itself would not exist if experience did not penetrate nature.  In natural science we typically treat experience as a starting point, a method, and a goal, the goal being discovery of nature.  Also, with respect to the idealist objection that mechanism trashes our values and ideals, note that experience actually presents aesthetic and moral traits which then, we may suppose, reach down into nature as much as do mechanical structures.  The traits of such subject matters are as genuine as those of the sun and the electron (462) and “their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature” as those found by physics.



Dewey then tells us that Experience and Nature will seek to discover the “general features of experienced things and to interpret their significance.”  He calls the empirical method he is describing “denotative method.”   Non-empirical methods in philosophy fail “to use refined, secondary products” as pointing back to primary experience.  These methods exhibit three problems.  First, there is no verification.  Second, “the things of ordinary experience do not get enlargement and enrichment of meaning” in the way they do in science.  Third, the subject matter of philosophy is, in them, arbitrary and abstract in the sense of being without contact with ordinary experience.  Since the objects philosophers reach using these so-called “rational” methods are seen as supremely real, the question is raised why ordinary objects exist at all.  This does not happen in the natural sciences!  They don’t turn the subject-matter into a problem.  Rather “they become means of control, of enlarged use and enjoyment of ordinary things.” (Note the reference here to the enhancement of aesthetics of everyday life reached, somewhat surprisingly, by way of scientific method.)  If they generate new problems these are of the same sort and may be resolved by the same methods.



So we now have a test of philosophy’s value:  “Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful?”  (463). (We may infer that a philosophical theory in which aesthetic theory is on the periphery fails in this respect.)  In illustrating the meaning of empirical method we must recognize that the term “experience” means not only what men do, suffer, strive for, love, believe, and endure, but how they do all these things -- the processes of experiencing.  Within experience, there is no division between act and material or between subject and object.  “Life” and “history” are equally double-barreled, in James’s sense.  Life is only broken into external conditions and internal structures through reflection.  History, similarly, is both the deeds and the interpretation of those deeds.  Only empirical method of this sort can do justice to the integrity of “experience.”  It must get together again what has been torn apart. 



Why is the whole distinguished into subject and object?  The non-empirical method begins with subject and object as separate, and so wonders how an outer world can affect and inner mind, or how the mind can penetrate the world.  It makes the fact of knowledge unnatural.  It becomes either materialist or idealist.  (464)  The naturalistic empiricist, however, finds these distinctions only useful up to a point.  Holding the physical in temporary detachment from the psychological does lead to tools, technologies, and mechanisms which can better regulate our lives.    



The history of the physical sciences is that of the possession of tools for dealing with life and action.  But ignoring the connection with life makes the world seem indifferent to human interests.  It can then be a source of oppression.  When objects are isolated from that “through which they are reached and in which they function,” experience is reduced to experiencing as complete in itself or as experiencing only itself.  The conception of experience as “subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly as physical objects” is destructive to philosophy itself.



It is true that attitudes themselves independently of their objects may be the subject-matter of reflective experience:  they cannot be the subject-matter of primary experience.  When they are not abstracted we get truths like this: that the person who hates finds the object of hatred obnoxious and despicable.   That is, the object experienced is experienced as obnoxious.  (This can also be inter-subjective or even "objective" to a degree:  we might agree that Jones is obnoxious and both experience him as such.)  It is true also that philosophy takes us away, at least temporarily, from primary experience. 

Philosophers tend to identify objects of knowledge with ultimately real objects.  For example, Spinoza held that emotion is confused thought and, when not confused, becomes cognition.  “That esthetic and moral experience reveal traits of real things as truly as does intellectual experience, that poetry may have a metaphysical import as well as science – is rarely affirmed” without some unacceptable mystical connotation. (465)  Actually, reverie and desire are relevant to philosophy, as are possibilities present to imagination.  This includes magic, myth, politics, painting and the ethical issues surrounding incarceration.  The social and political life are as important in the philosophical construction of reality as chemistry.



Also, ignorance should be studied as much as wisdom.  In general, whatever is actual is possible, and the occurrence of an illusion is not itself an illusion.  Most significantly, experience includes more than what is currently known, and, whereas knowledge needs to include only the distinct and explicit, the vague and the obscure also exist.  There are reasons for liking the distinct and evident, but the dark, the potential and the possible are also there.  So we cannot assume that nature is all distinct or explicit as do those who divide it from experience.



So, the great vice of philosophy is “intellectualism,” i.e. the assumption that “all experiencing is a mode of knowing” and that all subject-matters may be reduced to the terms of science.  Intellectualism goes against the facts of experience.  Things are to be acted on and enjoyed even more than to be known.  Indeed, if you isolate as real only the aspects of things that are known then you exclude “the characters which make things lovable and contemptible, beautiful and ugly, adorable and awful.”  This is why the valuable in things is considered a problem in philosophy.



Actually, thought and knowledge are subordinate to these other things.  The problem is that when real objects are identified with the objects of knowledge then things related to feeling and willing are relegated to an isolated mind, and the self becomes an alien in the world.  This favoring of the cognitive over desire, action, and passion, is a case of the “principle of selective emphasis.” Yes, we need selective emphasis to think, but in ordinary life and in science we do this for a purpose and do not deny what is left out.  (467)  In philosophy, it is ignored that what is left out is as real as what is chosen.  Philosophy assumes, wrongly, that the qualities of poetry and friendship aren’t as clearly real as those of matter.  People naturally take what is most valuable to them to be the most real.  This is OK in everyday life, but philosophers tend to become rigid in focusing on what is dear to them as “real.”  Philosophical simplifications are due to choice in the sense of concern for the good.  Philosophers then transfer what they find good into “fixed traits of real Being.”  Ultimately we can explain these choices in social-economic terns since philosophers belong to a leisure class, and hence they convert what they find most interesting into reality. 



Traditional philosophies have gone astray because of their failure to connect their results with “the affairs of everyday primary experience.”  The three sources of fallacies mentioned are (1) complete separation of subject and object, (2) exaggeration “of features of known objects at the expense of the qualities of objects of enjoyment and trouble, friendship and human association, art and industry,” and (3) the isolation of results of selective emphasis.  Non-empirical philosophies are still of some value simply because they do not escape experience even when they want to, and insofar as philosophers have been reflective and are not given to indulging unchecked imagination in their theories. 
They have simply “failed to note the empirical needs that generate their problems” or “return the refined products back to the context of actual experience” where the “full content of meaning” is found, as well as the original impulse for inquiry.



Dewey nonetheless sees the chapters that follow in his book at drawing on the great philosophic systems as “guides back to the subject-matter of crude, everyday experience.”  When we look at primary experience we find it crammed with things that need analysis and control.  Its deficiency (commonsense philosophy is crude, conventional and prejudiced) gives rise to secondary or reflective experience.  The problem with most contemporary philosophy is rather that it borrows its conclusions from special analysis, especially the popular sciences of the day. Descartes and Spinoza, for example, drew their ideas from geometry.  And the problem with this is that, whereas in science “refined methods justify themselves by opening up new fields of subject matter for exploration” and modify theory and ways of inquiry based on new facts, in philosophy this leads to explaining away features of gross experience based on theory.  (I am reminded of Norman Malcolm whose Wittgensteinian behaviorism led him to deny the very existence of dreams.)  So philosophers when transferring into their theories refined conclusions borrowed from the sciences do so just to discredit old subject-matters and “to generate new and artificial problems” regarding the reality and nature of gross experience.  For example, the findings of physical science are used to make the reality of emotions, purposes and enjoyments in question.  



In sum:  “What empirical method exacts of philosophy is two things:  First, that refined methods and products be traced back to their origin in primary experience, in all its heterogeneity and fullness” acknowledging the problems out of which they arise and secondly, that things be “brought back to the things of ordinary experience” for verification.  Just as science gives us a result that is a “designation of a method to be followed and a prediction of what will be found when specified observations are set on foot,” so too should philosophy. 



Philosophy may also provide this special service of studying life-experience, experience which has been “overlaid and saturated with the products of reflection of past generations.” Thus philosophy, in this regard, is a “critique of prejudices.”  Yet these results of past reflection may, if referred back again to primary experience by way of further reflection, may become “organs of enrichment” rather than sources of distortion.  So empirical philosophy is a matter of divesting ourselves of “intellectual habits” or vestments of culture, looking at them, and perhaps putting them back on so as to achieve a “cultivated naiveté” by way of reflective thought. 



In conclusion, the “larger human value of philosophy” is to overcome the cloud cast over “the things of ordinary experience” i.e. the things of action, affection and social intercourse, by traditional non-empirical philosophies.  Thus these things do not get “the intelligent direction they so much need.”  It is serious that philosophers have denied “that common experience is capable of developing from within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will create inherent standards of judgment and value.”  Much of current cynicism and pessimism results from this.  Contrary to the false sophisticates, “life is or can be a fountain of cheer and happiness” and we must overcome the philosophical tendency to “obscure the potentialities of daily experience for joy and for self-regulation.”  In short: we should promote “a respect for concrete human experience and its potentialities.”




Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Dewey on Experience, Nature and the Aesthetic in "Experience and Philosophic Method."

In Experience and Nature Dewey writes "If experience actually presents esthetic and moral traits, then these traits may also be supposed to reach down into nature [as do traits observed by science] and to testify to something that belongs to nature as truly as does the mechanical structure attributed to it in physical science."  He further says, "The traits possessed by the subject-matters of experience are as genuine as the characteristics of sun and electron...when found, their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature as are the traits found by physical inquiry."   I suspect that this point is true, and if it is then the arts, which explore these traits in ways that the sciences cannot, have equal validity to the sciences. This would make aesthetics, which studies the arts and aesthetic experience generally, fundamental to philosophy.    

Dewey further writes "just as long as these attitudes [e.g. acts of thinking, desire, purposing, affection, reverie] are not distinguished and abstracted [from experience], they are incorporated into subject-matter.  It is a notorious fact that the one who hates finds the one hated an obnoxious and despicable character;  to the lover his adored one is full of intrinsically delightful and wonderful qualities."  (12)  So one wonders, what about this is moral and what is aesthetic value?  I find it increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.  The aesthetic dimension is to be found in the fact that the object is perceived and in the fact that it has an affective element, in particular in the case of "obnoxious" a negative feel, and in the case of "delightful" a positive one.  

Another quote which is to the point:  "That esthetic and moral experience reveal traits of real things as truly as does intellectual experience, that poetry may have a metaphysical import as well as science, is rarely affirmed, and when it is asserted, the asserted, the statement is likely to be meant in some mystical or esoteric sense rather than in a straightforward everyday sense."  (19)  and  "The features of objects reached by scientific or reflective experiencing are important, but so are all the phenomena of magic, myth, politics, painting, and penitentiaries."  (20)

What, for me, is of greatest value in the first chapter of Experience and Nature, is the way in which Dewey provides a pragmatist philosophical basis for placing aesthetics and aesthetic experience at the very center of philosophy.  He says that the empirical method requires that "refined methods and products be traced back to their origin in primary experience, in all its heterogeneity and fullness; so that the needs and problems of which they arise and which they have to satisfy be acknowledged."  Primary experience is just experience aesthetically, as opposed to mechanistically, encountered...encountered in a way in which heterogeneity and fullness are stressed.  His second point is that "the secondary methods and conclusions be brought back to the things of ordinary experience, in all their coarseness and crudity, for verification."  Dewey is calling on philosophers to ground their thinking in everyday life.  

I will conclude with a passage that parallels some of the thrust of interest in everyday aesthetics as it relates to these larger issues of philosophical method: "The most serious indictment to be brought against non-empirical philosophies is that they have cast a cloud over the things of ordinary experience.  They have not been content to rectify them.  They have discredited them at large." (38)  These things, the things of everyday life, need not rejection but "intelligent direction."  In his democratic manner he argues that "philosophies have denied that common experience is capable of developing from within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will creates inherent standards of judgment and value."  In particular he rails against some philosophers (in this case "transcendental philosophers"...here I would disagree with him since Emerson would count as such) have "probably done more than the professed sensualist and materialist to obscure the potentialities of daily experience for joy and for self-regulation."  It is creation of a "respect for concrete human experience and its potentialities" that has been his goal in this first chapter of his book.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mudimbe on The Invention of Africa

V. Y. Mudimbe wrote The Invention of Africa in 1988.  A selection of this appears as "The Invention of Africa," in the Stephen David Ross anthology Art and Its Significance.  My comments will be based on that.  Mudimbe applies Mikel Foucault's ideas as developed in The Order of Things to the representation of Africans by Europeans.  He also makes a rather obscure comment about African tourist art which I will discuss at the end.  The point about European art focuses on changes that occurred in painted representations of Africans from the 15th century to the end of the 18th and then moves to the reception of African art (mainly sculpture or, if you prefer, fetishes) in the 19th and 20th centuries.  He begins with a work by Burgkmair, his painting "Exotic Tribes" of 1511 (see In Genea, fig. 7).    Mudimbe imagines that Burgkmair uses a white model to create the central male figure, and fits the work into standards of Italian contraposto, much like Michelangelo's David, but from behind.  Looking at this painting, and others by Europeans representing Africans up until 1600, he finds that they all seek similarities between whites and blacks.  This leads him, in something of a conceptual leap, to note that this parallels the formalist method of Roger Fry who, in 1920, argued that one can analyze such works in terms of design, by which he meant expression by way of colors and masses.  Yet, Mudimbe argues, this neglects what he refers to as "invisible traces."  The painting can be seen as charming and decorative (as Fry might), yet it really expresses the "discursive order," as Foucault would put it.  Thus we have an instance of the conflict between formalists and contextualists.

Mudime finds in this painting a "double representation" the first of which is to assimilate such "exotic" (African) bodies into the Italian style of the time, reducing the differences, while taking the white body as the norm.  But the other level is to note distinctions and even to classify types.  The second level comes to dominate in paintings of the next century.

Then, representation of Africans change (probably due to the increasing use of Africans as servants and slaves in Europe and in the Americas.) Works showing blacks by Rubens, Rembrandt and Rigaud, all in the 17th century, related to "another order" based on new taxonomies.  These modes of classification culminate in Linnaeus, whose Systema Naturae, coming out in 1735, classified Homo Sapiens into four races:  European, Asian, American, and African.  (Linnaeus also typified the characters of each, for example, the Africans as lazy.)  When African art is discovered in the 19th century this same set of classifications, which of course helped to justify enslavement of Africans and ultimately the racism of colonialism, is in play.  The African artwork, in particular the "fetish," is seen as childish and primitive to the extent that someone like Mary H. Kingsley, writing in the late 19th century, argued that the Africans are incompetent in practical arts and could not produce even a fourteenth rate piece of cloth or pottery.  (This wildly false claim is amazing given that Kingsley was sometimes a sensitive observer of African life in other respects.)  

Mudimbe then says "These objects, which perhaps are not art at all in their 'native context,' become art by being given simultaneously an aesthetic character in their initial function and significance," and argues, somewhat obscurely, that it is impossible for these to put Western racist assumptions into perspective precisely because the standards by which the arts exist can only themselves exist within the "power-knowledge" of a particular culture.  So, the fetishes are seen as "wonderful," or rather, "savage," i.e. lower on the evolutionary scale.  This gives rise to the paradox of Fry (returning now to the formalist/contextualist issues) saying that the Africans may produce great artists but not "a culture in our sense of the word."  Fry says this largely because he thinks that for culture to exist there has to be not only a creative artist but "the power of conscious critical appreciation and comparison" (something that he personally has, in spades).  (Roger Fry, "Negro Sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club," 1920)  Mudimbe of course rejects Fry on this  and sums up by saying that the power-knowledge of an epistemological field allows one culture to dominate another.  Fry concludes his essay by arguing that the Negro artist, who can have profound imaginative understanding of form, would also accept cheap illusionist art with enthusiasm.  Many have noted that this is the shock ending of an otherwise positive essay on African sculpture.

The selection ends with a discussion of tourist art, in which cult objects are manufactured for the tourist trade and which there is consequently little context between the consumer and the artist and in which consumer demand trumps artistic creativity.  (Mudimbe neglects that some "tourist art" is really quite good and could be defined in other ways, for example as art made for a world art market.)  

A good further discussion of Fry on this can be found in
Marianna Torgovnick Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern LivesUniversity of Chicago Press, 1991.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

How Dewey’s “The Postulate of Immediate Experience” Makes the World Safe for Aesthetics and Challenges the Dominant Paradigm of Philosophy as Absolutist



In 1905 Dewey wrote an amazing little article, “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism.”  I am basing my comments here on the article as it appears in Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy ed. John J. Stuhr. Oxford U. Press, 2000.  The article is not, strictly speaking, about aesthetics and it is written long before Dewey’s great Art as Experience (1934).  However it challenges certain assumptions of the dominant paradigm of philosophy, and in particular the dominant paradigm of empiricism, in a way that, if successful, would give aesthetics a much more significant role in philosophy than hitherto.  The importance of the article has yet to be digested, and the dominant paradigm remains much the same today.  (Dewey himself develops the concept of experience further in the above-mentioned book, and there ties it much more closely to aesthetic experience.)  In essence, Dewey, is trying here to mark out a path for philosophy which is between the extremes of Hegelian absolutism and the kind of empiricism typical of a scientistic and mechanistic worldview.  But that does not mean that he is anti-science.  To the contrary:  whereas most contemporary philosophy is committed to the sort of rationalism that radically separates man and nature, Dewey begins with the fundamental Darwinian insight that man is fundamentally a live creature interacting with his environment.  The most important notion in Dewey’s philosophy is experience, not the experience of a detached spectator, but that of someone as a physical organic being consciously engaged with its surroundings in an objectively real world.  (Thus the position is not a form of idealism.) One interesting result of Dewey’s essay is his insight that mechanistic forms of empiricism are not, in principle, much different from the absolutist Hegelianism.  Hegelianism is largely moribund today. Yet mechanistic empiricism has inherited the gods-eye point of view of the Hegelian Absolute, but without God.  By hewing to a strict equation of reality and truth, the mechanistic empiricist drains experience of its value components, its particularity, and its richness, rendering it merely epiphenomenal.  Dewey’s essay, by stressing how things are experienced as, draws our attention to the phenomenological complexity of things, the ways in which they are funded with meanings.  This is, of course, what art also draws our attention to.  Whereas the mechanist like Descartes would strip the piece of wax of its quale, Dewey stresses, as the artist typically would, that the many ways that the wax is experienced as is the reality of the piece of wax.  I suspect that philosophy’s unwillingness to embrace this perspective is part and parcel with the ongoing battle between philosophy and art going back at least to the time of Plato who, himself, saw it as an ancient debate.

In an unfortunate editorial excision, the first paragraph of Dewey’s essay is missing from the edition I am using.  So will quote it entirely here.

"THE criticisms made upon that vital but still unformed movement variously termed radical empiricism, pragmatism, humanism, functionalism, according as one or another aspect of it is uppermost, have left me with a conviction that the fundamental difference is not so much in matters overtly discussed as in a presupposition which remains tacit : a presupposition as to what experience is and means. To do my little part in clearing up the confusion, I shall try to make my own presupposition explicit. The object of this paper is, then, to set forth what I understand to be the postulate and the criterion of immediate empiricism."

Dewey begins, then, by observing that criticisms of pragmatism and humanism are generally based on a tacit assumption about what experience is and means.  Here follows a summary of the rest of the article along with some of my own comments.

“Immediate empiricism” (which Dewey advocates) says that things are what they are experienced as.  The true description of something is of this.  To describe something truly is to describe what it is experienced as being.  If, therefore, one type of person’s description of a horse is different from another’s there is no reason to believe that one is more real than the other.  This, of course, seems relativistic.  It should be noted, however that in his examples he stresses different types of people with different areas of expertise, for example, assuming that each person is experiencing a horse, he speaks of the psychologist’s horse and the logician’s horse, and only once mentions an individual with a particular need independent of any such discipline, i.e. the timid man who wants a safe horse.  So, it seems that the horse experienced is experienced within the constraints of different domains, and therefore this is not a radical or individualistic relativism.

The question in each of these instances is what sort of experience is denoted?  The contrast is not between Reality and different phenomenal representations of that Reality but between what Dewey calls “different reals of experience.”   It is wrong, however, to translate this point into the idea that things “are only what they are known to be.”  This, Dewey claims, is the logical mistake or “paralogism” made by the various forms of idealism.  Knowing is not the only mode of experiencing.  Further, it is a fallacy to say that Reality is what it would be to an all-comprehensive knower, or even what it is to a finite knower. The business of philosophy (with respect to the experience of knowing) is to determine what sort of experience knowing experience is, as compared to, for example, aesthetic or economic experience.   The question here is, how do we experience things as known things?  One of the main roots of philosophical "evil" (he uses that term!) is the idea that things absolutely are what knowers would find them to be.  

We should stop and reflect here since this claim is both radical and contrary to anything most philosophers since the ancient Greeks would accept.  Dewey is in essence putting the various kinds of experience, including aesthetic experience, on the same level as knowing experience.  Now one could take another direction and argue that all forms of experience, including aesthetic experience, can have a cognitive side.  He will now address that issue.  Following the typical pragmatist practice he uses a thought experiment based on an everyday experiment.  (Peirce and James also feature disturbing noises in their examples!}

For example, a noise is experienced as fearsome but when I experience it as a known thing (a shade tapping in the wind) I find it harmless:  the experience has changed and the thing as experienced has changed, or to put it differently, “the concrete reality experienced has changed.”  It has changed from noise as fearsome to noise as wind-curtain fact.  This change has happened through cognition.  Although a critic might argue that the entire experience is cognitive and that the earlier part is simply a less perfect cognition, the key for the "immediatist" (Dewey’s name for his own position here) is to ask what the fright is experienced as. Dewey argues that there is no reason to assume that the experience is one of “I-know-I-am-frightened” rather than simply “I am frightened” or even just “fright-at-the-noise.” The “I-know-I-am-frightened” experience can be had, but it is of a different sort, and of a different thing. 

So we must distinguish between a thing as cognitive, and one as cognized.  To have a cognitive experience is to have an experience with implications that are fulfilled in that thing experienced as cognized, i.e. as transformed in that way.  The fright-at-the-noise is  cognitive but not cognized.

Many will note a fundamental puzzle here.  Dewey seems ambiguous as to whether he is talking about one or two things.  The main line is that the one thing (noise-as-fearsome) is replaced by another (noise-as-not-fearsome) and yet we are also told that we have learned something about the first thing.  Do we really have replacement rather than continuity when continuity is such a key thing for Dewey in general?  I do not know how to resolve this problem, but perhaps Dewey, does...so, returning to the summary:

Dewey now holds that the words “as” and “that” can explain the empiricist position (i.e. his version of empiricism). Things are as experienced and, to give an account of this is to tell what that thing is experienced to be, i.e. that is is so and so.  One might want to say that each a thing has a quale.  But Dewey insists that a thing experienced does not so much have a quale as is a quale. He illustrates the issue by discussing the famous Zollner illusion from psychology textbooks in which lines that are really parallel appear to be divergent.  For Dewey, the experience of the lines as divergent is still a “concrete qualitative thing” or what he calls a “that.”  Indeed, he thinks this is the key to the question of objectivity for the empiricist.  The lines of that experience are divergent: they do not merely seem so.  It is in the concrete thing as experienced that logical rectification is contained.  This happens by way of the concrete experience developing into a corrected experience.  (So we have continuity here, but without the reality/appearance distinction we usually use playing any role at all.) The second corrected experience is not more real than the first.  But it is truer.  So, in this methodology, truth is disconnected from “more real.”  This is what makes the claim so radical.  Truth is seen, in the end, in a pragmatist way, as the worth of a concrete experienced thing:  "only by taking that experience [of the divergent lines] as real and as fully real, is there any basis for or way of going to an experienced knowledge that the lines are parallel." 

Dewey then observes that determinate experience is the only principle of objectivity.  I may only have a vague impression that there is something that looks like a table, but this is the thing experienced and, qua real, is as real as any vision of an Absolute.  It is this vagueness, however, not general vagueness that is real.  A gain in clearness must grow out of some element in the experience itself.  If an experience of convergent lines is illusory it is because of the thing as experienced not because of something external to it.  It is the tension of its elements that effect its reconstruction, or as Dewey also puts it, “the experience of convergent lines contains within itself the elements of the transforming of its own content.” There is no need, therefore, for something to which all experiences are attached (i.e. the Hegelian absolute).  Dewey then talks of the hypothetical all-knower (God) as no more real than anything else.  Such a God, he hypothesizes, may have its own determinate quale which may be transformed through a continuous series of experienced reals. I suppose he is trying here to think along with the Hegelian absolutists.  Yet, in the end he asserts that the empiricist, unlike the Hegelian, does not see experience as a grandiose remote thing or an indefinite total but simply as experience of some thing.

He concludes his essay by noting that although nothing can be deduced from the postulate of empiricism, you can learn a method of philosophical analysis.  He thinks that this is the same as the method of the scientist.  It is that if you wish to find what a philosophical term means, determine what the thing is experienced as.  This method does not allow for off-handed demonstrations of God, freedom, etc.  But such philosophical conceptions are no longer useful as stimulants or sanctions.  Nonetheless, they remain useful as experienced meanings.  [In the Stuhr edition the … is incorrect.  The essay ends here with a period.]