Thursday, May 7, 2015

Aesthetics as a Core Sub-discipline of Philosophy, argued from Dewey’s “Experience and Philosophic Method”

This summary and discussion is based on the abridged selection of the first chapter John Dewey’s Experience and Nature, “Experience and Philosophical Method,” which is found in John Stuhr’s Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy.  The main thesis of my discussion is that if Dewey is right (and I think he is) then (1) aesthetics is a core subdiscipline of philosophy ranking up there with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics, and (2) the fact that aesthetics does not have this role is due to the various fallacies Dewey uncovers in the philosophic tradition prior to pragmatism.  This has implications not only for aesthetics but for our culture in general insofar as its assumptions are to a large extent those of traditional philosophy.  The irony of the essay, but not a negative one, is that it is a turn to a philosophic method modeled after the methods of science which proves the point.  Taking experience as the central concept, and primary experience as the starting point, both science and the value-related disciplines of ethics and aesthetics, penetrate reality.   

Many would question associating the terms “experience” and “naturalism” in what Dewey calls "naturalistic empiricism," experience being too unimportant in nature, and nature being complete apart from experience.  Some even hold that experience is a veil that shuts us off from nature, unless it can be transcended by something like reason or intuition.  An opposite school of thought sees nature as mechanistic.  On this view, seeing experience in naturalistic terms would be to deny ideal values associated with experience. 

One cannot argue against these positions, but perhaps we can change the way we see the meanings of these terms.  Nature and experience do work harmoniously together when experience is seen as the only method for knowing nature, and nature, so disclosed, “deepens, enriches and directs the further development of experience.”  (460)  (The philosophical theories Dewey opposes, going back to Descartes and his treatment of the piece of wax, denudes nature of richness, taking away all of the sensuous and associated qualities from the piece of wax.  Dewey seeks to return us to the primary experience of the wax.  He is deeply anti-Cartesian in this respect.)  In the natural sciences the union of nature and experience is seen as natural:  empirical method is required for genuine science.  Reason, calculation, and theory must terminate in experienced subject-matter which itself is the same for the scientist and the ordinary man, i.e. the same rocks, stars, and animals.  This indicates that experience is not just a thin layer of nature but penetrates deep into it, bringing things up from these depths. 

Some would argue that since experience comes late in evolution it has slight significance.  It is true that it occurs only in specialized conditions in highly organized creatures.  But, when it happens, it allows access to portions of nature.  For example, a geologist living now can tell us of things that happened millions of years ago.  He or she may determine that something we see now is a fossil through collation of observations and through comparison of data, translating “observed coexistences into non-observed inferred sequences.”  The geologist also predicts experiences and brings them about, producing in experiment what he or she has inferred.  (401)

So, experience is not only in nature but of nature.  Things interacting are experienced.  Some would say that a tiny part of nature cannot incorporate its vast reaches.  Well, to answer this, we just have to study experience.  And when we do, we find that science itself would not exist if experience did not penetrate nature.  In natural science we typically treat experience as a starting point, a method, and a goal, the goal being discovery of nature.  Also, with respect to the idealist objection that mechanism trashes our values and ideals, note that experience actually presents aesthetic and moral traits which then, we may suppose, reach down into nature as much as do mechanical structures.  The traits of such subject matters are as genuine as those of the sun and the electron (462) and “their ideal qualities are as relevant to the philosophic theory of nature” as those found by physics.

Dewey then tells us that Experience and Nature will seek to discover the “general features of experienced things and to interpret their significance.”  He calls the empirical method he is describing “denotative method.”   Non-empirical methods in philosophy fail “to use refined, secondary products” as pointing back to primary experience.  These methods exhibit three problems.  First, there is no verification.  Second, “the things of ordinary experience do not get enlargement and enrichment of meaning” in the way they do in science.  Third, the subject matter of philosophy is, in them, arbitrary and abstract in the sense of being without contact with ordinary experience.  Since the objects philosophers reach using these so-called “rational” methods are seen as supremely real, the question is raised why ordinary objects exist at all.  This does not happen in the natural sciences!  They don’t turn the subject-matter into a problem.  Rather “they become means of control, of enlarged use and enjoyment of ordinary things.” (Note the reference here to the enhancement of aesthetics of everyday life reached, somewhat surprisingly, by way of scientific method.)  If they generate new problems these are of the same sort and may be resolved by the same methods.

So we now have a test of philosophy’s value:  “Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful?”  (463). (We may infer that a philosophical theory in which aesthetic theory is on the periphery fails in this respect.)  In illustrating the meaning of empirical method we must recognize that the term “experience” means not only what men do, suffer, strive for, love, believe, and endure, but how they do all these things -- the processes of experiencing.  Within experience, there is no division between act and material or between subject and object.  “Life” and “history” are equally double-barreled, in James’s sense.  Life is only broken into external conditions and internal structures through reflection.  History, similarly, is both the deeds and the interpretation of those deeds.  Only empirical method of this sort can do justice to the integrity of “experience.”  It must get together again what has been torn apart. 

Why is the whole distinguished into subject and object?  The non-empirical method begins with subject and object as separate, and so wonders how an outer world can affect and inner mind, or how the mind can penetrate the world.  It makes the fact of knowledge unnatural.  It becomes either materialist or idealist.  (464)  The naturalistic empiricist, however, finds these distinctions only useful up to a point.  Holding the physical in temporary detachment from the psychological does lead to tools, technologies, and mechanisms which can better regulate our lives.    

The history of the physical sciences is that of the possession of tools for dealing with life and action.  But ignoring the connection with life makes the world seem indifferent to human interests.  It can then be a source of oppression.  When objects are isolated from that “through which they are reached and in which they function,” experience is reduced to experiencing as complete in itself or as experiencing only itself.  The conception of experience as “subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly as physical objects” is destructive to philosophy itself.

It is true that attitudes themselves independently of their objects may be the subject-matter of reflective experience:  they cannot be the subject-matter of primary experience.  When they are not abstracted we get truths like this: that the person who hates finds the object of hatred obnoxious and despicable.   That is, the object experienced is experienced as obnoxious.  (This can also be inter-subjective or even "objective" to a degree:  we might agree that Jones is obnoxious and both experience him as such.)  It is true also that philosophy takes us away, at least temporarily, from primary experience. 

Philosophers tend to identify objects of knowledge with ultimately real objects.  For example, Spinoza held that emotion is confused thought and, when not confused, becomes cognition.  “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” without some unacceptable mystical connotation. (465)  Actually, reverie and desire are relevant to philosophy, as are possibilities present to imagination.  This includes magic, myth, politics, painting and the ethical issues surrounding incarceration.  The social and political life are as important in the philosophical construction of reality as chemistry.

Also, ignorance should be studied as much as wisdom.  In general, whatever is actual is possible, and the occurrence of an illusion is not itself an illusion.  Most significantly, experience includes more than what is currently known, and, whereas knowledge needs to include only the distinct and explicit, the vague and the obscure also exist.  There are reasons for liking the distinct and evident, but the dark, the potential and the possible are also there.  So we cannot assume that nature is all distinct or explicit as do those who divide it from experience.

So, the great vice of philosophy is “intellectualism,” i.e. the assumption that “all experiencing is a mode of knowing” and that all subject-matters may be reduced to the terms of science.  Intellectualism goes against the facts of experience.  Things are to be acted on and enjoyed even more than to be known.  Indeed, if you isolate as real only the aspects of things that are known then you exclude “the characters which make things lovable and contemptible, beautiful and ugly, adorable and awful.”  This is why the valuable in things is considered a problem in philosophy.

Actually, thought and knowledge are subordinate to these other things.  The problem is that when real objects are identified with the objects of knowledge then things related to feeling and willing are relegated to an isolated mind, and the self becomes an alien in the world.  This favoring of the cognitive over desire, action, and passion, is a case of the “principle of selective emphasis.” Yes, we need selective emphasis to think, but in ordinary life and in science we do this for a purpose and do not deny what is left out.  (467)  In philosophy, it is ignored that what is left out is as real as what is chosen.  Philosophy assumes, wrongly, that the qualities of poetry and friendship aren’t as clearly real as those of matter.  People naturally take what is most valuable to them to be the most real.  This is OK in everyday life, but philosophers tend to become rigid in focusing on what is dear to them as “real.”  Philosophical simplifications are due to choice in the sense of concern for the good.  Philosophers then transfer what they find good into “fixed traits of real Being.”  Ultimately we can explain these choices in social-economic terns since philosophers belong to a leisure class, and hence they convert what they find most interesting into reality. 

Traditional philosophies have gone astray because of their failure to connect their results with “the affairs of everyday primary experience.”  The three sources of fallacies mentioned are (1) complete separation of subject and object, (2) exaggeration “of features of known objects at the expense of the qualities of objects of enjoyment and trouble, friendship and human association, art and industry,” and (3) the isolation of results of selective emphasis.  Non-empirical philosophies are still of some value simply because they do not escape experience even when they want to, and insofar as philosophers have been reflective and are not given to indulging unchecked imagination in their theories. 
They have simply “failed to note the empirical needs that generate their problems” or “return the refined products back to the context of actual experience” where the “full content of meaning” is found, as well as the original impulse for inquiry.

Dewey nonetheless sees the chapters that follow in his book at drawing on the great philosophic systems as “guides back to the subject-matter of crude, everyday experience.”  When we look at primary experience we find it crammed with things that need analysis and control.  Its deficiency (commonsense philosophy is crude, conventional and prejudiced) gives rise to secondary or reflective experience.  The problem with most contemporary philosophy is rather that it borrows its conclusions from special analysis, especially the popular sciences of the day. Descartes and Spinoza, for example, drew their ideas from geometry.  And the problem with this is that, whereas in science “refined methods justify themselves by opening up new fields of subject matter for exploration” and modify theory and ways of inquiry based on new facts, in philosophy this leads to explaining away features of gross experience based on theory.  (I am reminded of Norman Malcolm whose Wittgensteinian behaviorism led him to deny the very existence of dreams.)  So philosophers when transferring into their theories refined conclusions borrowed from the sciences do so just to discredit old subject-matters and “to generate new and artificial problems” regarding the reality and nature of gross experience.  For example, the findings of physical science are used to make the reality of emotions, purposes and enjoyments in question.  

In sum:  “What empirical method exacts of philosophy is two things:  First, that refined methods and products be traced back to their origin in primary experience, in all its heterogeneity and fullness” acknowledging the problems out of which they arise and secondly, that things be “brought back to the things of ordinary experience” for verification.  Just as science gives us a result that is a “designation of a method to be followed and a prediction of what will be found when specified observations are set on foot,” so too should philosophy. 

Philosophy may also provide this special service of studying life-experience, experience which has been “overlaid and saturated with the products of reflection of past generations.” Thus philosophy, in this regard, is a “critique of prejudices.”  Yet these results of past reflection may, if referred back again to primary experience by way of further reflection, may become “organs of enrichment” rather than sources of distortion.  So empirical philosophy is a matter of divesting ourselves of “intellectual habits” or vestments of culture, looking at them, and perhaps putting them back on so as to achieve a “cultivated naiveté” by way of reflective thought. 

In conclusion, the “larger human value of philosophy” is to overcome the cloud cast over “the things of ordinary experience” i.e. the things of action, affection and social intercourse, by traditional non-empirical philosophies.  Thus these things do not get “the intelligent direction they so much need.”  It is serious that philosophers have denied “that common experience is capable of developing from within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will create inherent standards of judgment and value.”  Much of current cynicism and pessimism results from this.  Contrary to the false sophisticates, “life is or can be a fountain of cheer and happiness” and we must overcome the philosophical tendency to “obscure the potentialities of daily experience for joy and for self-regulation.”  In short: we should promote “a respect for concrete human experience and its potentialities.”

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