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,, 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.]

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