Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Dewey's Dynamic Concept of "An Experience" as Developed in his Book Art as Experience
Dewey is one of the few philosophers who has provided a truly dynamic account of aesthetic experience (in Art as Experience). Kant merely talks about aesthetic experience in terms of rather vague relations between the imagination and the understanding giving rise to the experience of beauty. Hume speaks of the action of the critic as a rather mechanical ticking off of what is good and bad even in the minute particulars of a work of art. Bell provides us with a little circle in which the good critic experiences the special aesthetic emotion in response to significant form which itself is defined as relations of lines and colors that give rise to the aesthetic emotion (which he sees as rapturous). But Dewey talks about the experience of art in ways that we had not seen since Aristotle spoke of tragedy. Although Dewey does not mention it, Aristotle's views on tragedy work as a nice starting point for understanding Dewey's view of aesthetic experience. For Aristotle a good tragic work of art has a beginning, middle and end and also has magnitude, by which he means a proper length, i.e. one that can be encompassed by our minds, in particular our memory. Aristotle defines tragedy in such a way as to emphasize plot over the other elements and to stress the catharsis of pity and fear in the audience. Dewey, too, stresses that an experience has a natural starting and ending point. Moreover, he sees our lives as a thing of histories, by which he means that we have many stories in our lives, each with its own plot. He too stresses that his object (in this case aesthetic experience) in a consummation that is emotional in nature, much like Aristotle's catharsis. So one could say that Dewey extends Aristotle's analysis of tragedy to aesthetic experience generally. Dewey, moreover, has a similar starting point to that of Aristotle: the live creature interacting with its environment. I want to stress two other features of Dewey's approach to "an experience" that relate to its dynamic nature. The first is the notion of the pervasive quality. This is a hard one since it is very difficult to see whether Dewey is right that each example of "an experience" does indeed have a pervasive aesthetic quality, a "feel" all of its own. On one level the pervasive quality can simply be seen as the feeling of rightness or perfection when the fulfillment occurs. Yet, clearly he means by this not simply a pervasive quality or beauty or sublimity, he is not just talking about a general aesthetic quality, but rather a pervasive quality associated with emotion. As he puts it, each integral experience has an emotional quality which evolves and develops throughout the experience. Another way of putting this is his point that emotions themselves are not simple things, for example the simple experience of fear, but aspects of experience that evolve over time and in relation to specific objects. Emotions, as he observed, are not just things in the mind, but are emergent from the interaction of live creatures. The emotion of love has this quality: it is not a thing of a moment or a specific feel, but rather something that (and here again we have a reference to theater) evolves on the stage of life in relation to specific others and even to shared objects and events. The second point is that Dewey sees "an experience" as dynamic in that as the experience moves forward through its distinct phases it carries the past phases through the present and projects them into the future. This is particularly evident for example in our experience of music. But it can also be seen in our experience of works of visual art, for example in looking at Matisse's "Joie de Vivre" one moves from one figure to the next taking in each figure and its relation to the other figures in the scene. So in sum "an experience" is complete and unified, it is separated from other experiences that are much less organized, having its own clear beginning and end, the end being a consummation rather than a mere cessation, the parts being distinct and yet almost paradoxically flowing from one to the next in a developmental stage, taking place as if it were a story or in some cases as a story, involving a developing "feel" or emotion, and pulling the past into it in such as way as to project forward to the culmination. Dewey's thinking is also deeply humanistic here in that aesthetic experience is not limited to art but rather expanded to life experiences in general including both life experiences that are everyday (for example, solving a problem, playing a game) and ones that are special and dramatic (for example, a fabulous meal, a storm that sums up all a storm can be, the breakup of a friendship.) Moreover, these experiences are understood, as I said above, on the model of a form of art, Greek tragedy (and this is not, by the way, explicit) so that the dimension of conflict and suffering plays an equally important role. Dewey stresses that "an experience" may involve suffering, but that this may be overcome in the final consummation (read, catharsis.) What Dewey perhaps fails to do in discussing "an experience" is to more explicitly call for improvements in society that encourage richer living, i.e. more experiences that are integral, whether that be in the realm of the arts, the practical world, or in the intellectual world of philosophy and science. That is, the notion of perceiving things as dynamic this way is one that should be promoting as an educational goal. Here is where, for example, our current view of critical thinking is lacking: Dewey's logic insists that thinking is only real when it constitutes "an experience" and where the conclusion is not just the result of some mechanical connection of premises but may indeed come before the premises temporally. In Dewey's view, thinking at its best is a dynamic activity in which an emotion or a "feel" evolves to a point of culmination. It is not hard to show the profound rightness of Dewey's aesthetic theory for art, but perhaps more important to show it for critical thinking itself. Dewey's thinking is related of course to everyday life not only in that he appreciates certain life phenomena as constituting aesthetic experiences but also as recognizing that these life experiences take the form of a drama, that, for example, we can speak of life situations as tragic or comic, as being moving, as beautiful or sublime. Art is a kind of intensification of life, and life, therefore is a prelude to art. Art and life are dynamically interrelated, enhancing each other as they go. To paraphrase one of my student's comments: having experiences is the way of life and integral experiences form an important part of living itself.