Monday, February 10, 2020

Mark Johnson's The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought: and the neglect of beauty

There is little I disagree with in Mark Johnson.  I have been reading his The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought:  The Bodily Roots of Philosophy, Science, Morality, and Art  (2018).  Johnson is every bit as much a Deweyan as I am.  That makes the little areas in which we might disagree interesting (to me).  What I think generally (our one point of disagreement) is that, with all his emphasis on meaning, Johnson neglects, or misses out on, the importance of beauty.  So he says, "Qualities are what we live for - the fresh, soft, translucent greens of leaves in early spring contrasted with the hardened, fatigued, dessicated greens in early fall..."   (227)  "This is the stuff of our lives." (227) There is something wrong here.  It is not the qualities we live for but rather the ways in which these qualities can be experienced as enhanced in a pleasurable way, or, to put it another way, experienced as objects of beauty or sublimity.   

Something is telling about Johnson's focus on contrast.  Contrast between qualities is interesting, and one may think about the contrast between two qualities of leaves in different seasons.  But this is not the "stuff of our lives."  The stuff of our lives is the quality of the leaves we experience now (say, in the Spring) and it is only really stuff of our lives, only really important for us, if it is experienced as beautiful.   After giving a  poem by William Stafford, Johnson writes (by way of summarizing the point of the poem), "The air, the water, the memories---all cool and refreshing.  And while it lasts, there you are, too, present, just present, taking it in, feeling the morning and the world and peace.  And that is the meaning of it all."  (227)  Well, you might think that a particular intense aesthetic experience is the meaning of it all, but again it is not the qualities alone by themselves.  The qualities have a quality:  and it is that quality, commonly called beauty, that gives life meaning.   

Johnson may be right that this is essentially Dewey.  As he puts it "Dewey's claim about the primordial qualitativeness of our lives would seem almost trivial, were it not for that fact that it is hard to think of a philosophy that does justice to this insight" i.e. that qualities are the "stuff of meaningful experience."  (227)  Johnson stresses the idea of the prevasive unifying quality in Dewey.  He refers to this as "Dewey's big idea." And there is reason to think it is! 

But notice this passage from Johnson, which refers to our ability to immediately recognize a Picasso in a museum: "there is a pervasive unifying quality of this particular work you are now engaging....[a]nd the meaning of that particular work is realized, as a horizon of possibilities for meaning, in and through its qualitative unity"  (231).  Johnson then quotes from Dewey.  But what I wish to stress here, and I will give the quote from Dewey to show this, is that the quote agrees with me and not with Johnson.  The quote does not support the position that Johnson is trying to support...i.e. that it is all about meaning.  

Here is the quote from Dewey:  "The total overwhelming impression comes first, perhaps in a seizure by a sudden glory of the landscape, or by the effect upon us of entrance into a cathedral when dim light, incense, stained glass and majestic proportions fuse in one indistinguishable whole.  We say with truth that a painting strikes us.  There is an impact that precedes all definite recognition of what it is about."  (Dewey, 1987, 150)  (Johnson, 231).  The point is that this impact precedes meaning, precedes "what it is about."  Focus on the term "sudden glory."  The pervasive unifying quality is precisely the profound beauty or perhaps sublimity of the object. (Or at least it is completely bound up with that beauty.) 

So it is missing something to say that, for Dewey, "art reveals, through immediate presentation of qualities unified in a comprehensive whole, the meaning and significance of some aspect of the world." (232)  This is true but it is not meaning alone that  makes experience meaningful.  Beauty, "the glory of it," is what counts, and without that, art, and any aesthetic experience, would be almost pointless, and certainly incomplete.  

Another quote from Dewey, also quoted by Johnson regarding the qualitative unity is: "There is no name to be given it.  As it enlivens and animates, it is the spirit of the world of art."  (Dewey, 1987, 193)   The animation, the making it so that we feel the work as something highly real:  this is what we mean when we say that it has an aesthetic aura (the term I prefer somewhat to "beauty"). 

Finally, at the end of his chapter on "Dewey's Big Idea for Aesthetics," Johnson makes clear what his problem is, that he thinks aesthetic theory fetishizes "the aesthetic." It is quite possible that he would think that this is what I am doing here.  (240)  But his path is perhaps more dangerous:  he has reduced the aesthetic to the meaningful.   He is worried that the aesthetic road will separate art from life "as if ordinary living was not an aesthetic undertaking" ---and I agree that this would be bad.  

He has an additional worry.  He says, "It is perfectly acceptable to speak, as Dewey sometimes does, of 'aesthetic experience' when we are trying to observe that certain experiences are marked out as meaningful unities....But what is not acceptable is to treat 'the aesthetic' as  some quality or feature that descends ....upon a certain select set of experiences."  (240)  I get the worry.  But it is equally not acceptable to reduce the aesthetic to merely meaningful unities...unless, of course, the word "meaningful" packs within it the idea of aesthetic experience.  The quality of  the aesthetic does not "descend":  it is those experiences in their (usually highly pleasurable) intensity. 

But Johnson's final paragraph begins with a sentence with which I fully agree:  "Dewey's entire philosophical orientation is founded on his insight that all experience, perception, understanding, imagining, thinking, valuing, and acting begins and ends in the aesthetic dimensions of human experience."  (241)  And I will end on that positive note.      

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