Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey on the Aesthetics of Nature

Dewey in Art as Experience does not have much to say about the aesthetics of nature.  But he has an interesting passage on "the absorption of the aesthetic into nature" when he discusses the experience of W. H. Hudson, the Argentine/British author and naturalist to the effect that one is only properly alive when one is experiencing nature.  Dewey also associates aesthetic experience of nature with acute mystical experience (also using a quote from Hudson.)  The hoary aspect of the tree made it "more intensely alive" for Hudson.  Emerson is also quoted as having a similar experience in nature.  This is in the chapter "The Live Creature and 'Ethereal Things'."  A striking quote is "There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meaning and values" that would normally be considered spiritual.  He then observes that the art of architecture similarly absorbs sensuous form. He also mentions on page 209 in "The Common Substance of the Arts" that a painting of a tree can make it "more poignant than before."  And on pg. 97 he observes that a linear outline can help us recognize the general species of a tree.  In another passage that may be taken as related to the aesthetics of nature, in "The Common Substance of the Arts," Dewey observes that we are always aware of "something that lies beyond" and, again, associates this with mysticism:  the experience of the tree is as a "part of a larger whole."  The "sense of the including whole"  is characteristic of ordinary experience as well, even of a tree.  Dewey also has a discussion of nature in his chapter "The Natural History of Form."  There he stresses continuities between man and nature, the antithesis of nature not being art but "stereotyped convention."  (pg. 158)  Here, he notably says that art using natural materials proves that "nature" is not limited to what philosopher normally call nature, but includes also the complex of our interactions with what they call "nature."  

Arnold Berleant "Engaging Dewey - The Legacy of Dewey's Aesthetics." 2009 has addressed Dewey's view's relevance to the aesthetics of nature.  "The aesthetic experience of natural events may indeed exemplify an experience, moving over a course to consummation. But much appreciation of nature focuses on momentary events and specific details: the sight of a full moon suspended in a black sky and casting its ethereal light over the earth’s surface or the discovery in the spring of the delicate blossom of an anemone hidden amid the dead debris on the forest floor." He adds that such things do not exemplify the "fulfilled course of an experience" in Dewey's sense.  

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