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" 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.

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