Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Quality and Aura: Another Deweyan argument for the primacy of aesthetics in philosophy

I am interested here in the relation between what I have called "aura" and what Dewey calls "quality." (These thoughts are inspired by Robert E. Innis's brilliant "The 'quality' of philosophy on the aesthetic matrix of Dewey's Pragmatism," in The Continuing Relevance of John Dewey:  Reflections on Aesthetics, Morality, Science and Society ed. Larry A. Hickman et. al. Rudolpi 2011.) Dewey, following Peirce, speaks of Firstness as "sheer totality and pervading unity of of quality in everything experienced, whether it be odor, the drama of King Lear, or philosophic or scientific systems" experienced.  I am not entirely comfortable with the notion of a unique pervading quality that unifies each thing experienced since this has the slight odor of naive realism. However, consider another take on this, somewhat at angles with Dewey's and Peirce's original idea, but largely in accord with it. That is, (and here I am speaking in my own voice) anything can be perceived as having a pervading quality.  Let's say that this is the same as what I have described in my book as "aura."  Let's say that when something is perceived as having a pervading quality this is a quality that is emotionally charged, filled with a sense of potentiality, and seems to make the object or situation involved go beyond itself, makes the thing seem to be alive, and gives it aesthetic charge (which we humans generally experience as a kind of pleasure).  The point of divergence from Dewey and Peirce is that they would insist (I think) that King Lear has one proper pervading unity, whereas my idea is more relativist, i.e. that there are different possible readings of King Lear that can give rise to a pervasive quality, each such quality being different.  So whereas their account is of "the given permeating total quality of anything experienced" I speak of the given permeating total quality that anything experienced can have if it is experienced "as," which is to say that the experience of that thing has been heightened or intensified in the way described.  Articulation of such experience is usually in terms of some metaphor, i.e. some one word or phrase that takes on a special non-literal meaning insofar as it is what the object or situation experienced is experienced as.  King Lear has its Firstness, but on my account, this would be different for different powerful or good readings/interpretations of that work.  What Dewey refers to as a "total undivided quality" is, on my account, the quality of something experienced as with aura.  I would agree with Innis as to the "primacy of the aesthetic in world-building" but probably in a different sense than his, i.e. that this primacy is a matter of the inception moment of the creative process in science, art, art appreciation/interpretation, religion, philosophy, business, invention, etc. in which the thing or situation seems filled with meaning and possibility, and in which this "feel" guides future developments in the creative process, i.e. in world-making.  (I would allow the feel itself to evolve, perhaps unlike Dewey or Innis).  I agree with Innis that this is not a matter of the quale of primitives such as "red" but rather a "projection of a world." Despite the above-mentioned divergences, my account is completely in accord with Dewey's statement that "considered in itself, quality is that which totally and intimately pervades a phenomenon or experience, rendering it just the one experience which it is" and that this quality is "ineffable."  The only problem I have with Dewey here is that he makes a distinction between the quality as "first, present, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent" and the quality of descriptions of this very quality or the correlated situation that may follow.  The subtle difference I hold to is that the pervasive quality is an aspect the creative process that is not just at the first point but can come and go, and when it is there it certainly has these characteristics, but that this can happen during the process of description too. Thus, on my view there is a continuity between originary and descriptive experience so that descriptive experience is not one removed from the originary but is just one more iteration or mode, i.e. of thinking. That is, the creative process is not just a matter of first the feeling and then the articulation of the feeling. Thus I would strongly disagree with Innis when he says (perhaps agreeing with Langer) that "art, as thematic, is derivative from this prior matrix of qualitative world-building."  (45)  This seems a major error. However,  I certainly agree with Peirce's idea that, as Innis puts it, images, diagrams and metaphors "are all rooted in a shared quality, or firstness..."  A manifestation in short of the object experienced as object with aura is that it is paired with metaphors, images, etc., since it is a way of "seeing as."  This is a matter of seeing what I would call "essences" although such essences are historicised, unlike the Platonic or Aristotelian ones:  thus when Dewey speaks of the sentence "The red Indian is stoical" as a sentence which does not simply attribute a property to the Indian or place him in a class but rather that the Indian is "permeated throughout by a certain quality...he lived, acted, endured, stoically" we are, in my language, speaking of the Indian as being seen as essentially stoical i.e. under the metaphor of the "stoic."  Again, this should be historicized and not essentialized in the traditional Platonic/Aristotelian sense, which would leave us, for example, with a racist (in this case) static understanding of the Indian.  Rather "the red Indian is stoical" would be better seen in this context as a powerful metaphor, if paired with a wide variety of other materials and experiences, that might work well in some context or situation not described here or by Dewey (e.g. as the pervading idea or theme of a novel by James Fenimore Cooper).  

It should also be observed that there is an important relation between the pervasive quality and the notion of an organic whole: as something, for example a painting is seen, effectively, under a metaphor and "as" in this way, it is seen in such a way that each part seems internally related to every other part.  Again, this can happen effectively under different interpretations.  We can then see the pervasive quality as "articulated in the members of the configuration" as Innis puts it.  Note also that this is, as Innis observes, the background to all propositional symbolization.  Noteworthy in this regard is Innis's claim that "Peircean semiotics, for its part, is based on an explosion of the claim of uniqueness and exclusive of propositional - linguocentric symbolization" (48)  If this is true of Peirce then I have misjudged and under-rated Peirce who I have generally seen as a minor character next to Dewey, someone roughly equivalent of the contemporary analytic philosopher of a realist science-centered stamp.   

If, in the end, these findings go far beyond art to discussions for example of thinking in general and if it is right that, as Dewey puts it "existentially, thinking is association as far as the latter is controlled"  association meaning"connection of objects or their elements in a total situation having a qualitative unity" and if qualitative unity is a matter of aesthetics, then it is aesthetics that forms the basis of philosophy, not epistemology or logic in the traditional formalist non-Deweyan sense.