Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nature, Communication, Meaning and the Aesthetics: Dewey's Experience and Nature

There is a deep connection between meaning, communication and aesthetics.  One can see Dewey's chapter on "Nature, Communication and Meaning" in his book Experience and Nature, as suggesting what this can be.  (This discussion will be limited to the abridged version of this chapter to be found in Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy edited by John Stuhr.) The idea that meaning is a function of cooperative behavior as well as response to a thing as entering into behavior sets up the basis for all communication which is aesthetic in nature, including those forms of communication involved in the arts.  Further, there is a dimension of the everyday in Dewey's comment that "a directly enjoyed thing adds to itself meaning, and enjoyment is thereby idealized."  He goes on:  "Even the dumb pang of an ache achieves a significant existence which can be designated and descanted upon; it ceases to be merely oppressive and becomes important....because it becomes representative..."  This heightening of significance of the dumb pang takes it beyond the strictly ordinary into some other domain...not quite aesthetic, but getting there.  To understand the aesthetic we need to understand the vast range of human experience that is not aesthetic but provides the grounds or basis for aesthetic experience.

Any aesthetic relation to the surrounding environment or to a particular object will have the multivalent quality Dewey has described in terms of relation between object, person communicating and person communicated to.  Dewey describes it in this way:  "The meaning of signs ...always includes something common between persons and an object.  When we attribute meaning to the speaker as his intent, and also something, we take for granted another person who is to share in the execution of the intent, and also something, independent of the persons concerned, through which the intent is realized."  Meaning is a "community of partaking" between these three things.

Dewey goes on to discuss tools and the ways in which they can help us to project potential efficiencies.  Fire, for example, when it is used to cook is "an existence having meaning and potential essence."  This is especially true when fire is the result of actions used to generate it.  This is going to be the basis for any thought of the world as containing aesthetic objects and experiences. 

Dewey then refers to language as the tool of tools and in doing so refers back to the ways in which tools take on meaning in ceremony and institutional setting.  "The notoriously conventionalized and traditional character of primitive utensils and their attendant symbolizations demonstrates" that tools are used in this way.  For a stick to retain its meaning as a lever, "the relationship between it and its consequence" must be distinguished and retained, and this is effected through language.  Spears, urns, etc. may be "institutionalized as tools."   Further "communication is a condition of consciousness," which means that aesthetic experience, which is a form of consciousness, would be impossible without communication.  

The issue concerning aesthetics which Dewey raises for me in this writing is whether we can even speak of aesthetics separate from meaning.  It seems that aesthetic experience is not only experience where the sensuous and formal are prominent but also the contextual and meaningful.  It too has to be triadic.  The aesthetic insofar as it is related to art is also related to tools.  Artworks must be artifacts.  Tools have meaning.  They are items of everyday life with their own relatively primitive yet art-like in some ways aesthetic dimension.   This is what I have tried to described as "heightened significance" of the aesthetic.

Dewey argues that it follows that "every meaning is generic or universal" in the sense that it is "common between speaker, hearer and the things to which speech refers" and is also "a method of action, a way of using things as means to a shared consummation..."  In sum, "meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretations being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence" ... clearly a pragmatist notion of meaning.  Here he opposes the traditional Aristotelian notion of meaning and of generalization as arising out of comparison of particulars.  Rather, he sees generalization as spontaneously carried as far as it will go, as when a child uses a word as much as she can in new ways, and only then is it limited by conditions of use in a social context.  Thus meaning and generalization is like metaphor in being promiscuous in interpretation, at least at first.  

The picture I get out of Dewey is that of a first layer or level of meaning that provides a basis for our understanding of higher, more complex levels of meaning that can be called aesthetic.  So, for example, he speaks of a traffic policeman using his whistle, and that this action is more than just a stimulus of the moment, but is situated within a set of consequences in terms of coordinating movement and even in terms of fines and imprisonment if one fails to respond.  The essence of the whistle blow is "the rule, comprehensive and persisting, the standardized habit, of social interaction" for which the whistle is used.  This is not aesthetic, nor is it art.  But it does provide the basis for other actions and events which do have a distinctly aesthetic character.

It is not surprising then that when Dewey goes on to discuss fire he sees it phenomenologically as something "not merely physical" but entering "into human action and destiny."  At this moment there is an aesthetic dimension, but at the level of everyday aesthetics, not at the level of art aesthetics.  He writes that fire "enters experience; it is fascinating to watch swirling flames; it is important to avoid its dangers and to utilize its beneficial potencies."  The fascination aspect of this experience of fire is aesthetic.  He goes on: "the ultimate meaning, or essence, denominated fire, is the consequence of certain natural events within the scheme of human activities, in the experience of social intercourse, the hearth and domestic alter, shared comfort, working metals, rapid transit, and other such affairs."  Fire is deep and rich with meaning, for example as something that can have such aesthetic or quasi-aesthetic qualities as giving shared comfort along with personal or family based associations of the hearth and alter and more practical and business-related associations involving metals and transit.  This. of course, is distinguished from the scientific approach to fire which ignores such meanings in order to enhance control.

Dewey, however, is concerned about our current "sharp separation between meanings determined in terms of the causal relationship of things and meanings in terms of human association" where the latter are seen as unimportant or merely private.  At the same time, he gives credit to the sciences, and to mathematics in particular, for disconnecting themselves from "human situations and consequences" and freeing themselves from the moral and the aesthetic in order to achieve what they achieve.  Here, in the science/math perspective, the essence of something is entirely intellectual without any implications with regards to consummatory experience.  The problem is that in doing this it becomes instrumental by way of detaching itself from the things towards which it is instrumental, i.e. valuable experience.  

Of course science can be not only instrumental but also aesthetic itself, or as he puts it, an object of intrinsic delight.  This is true also for philosophy (although it is hard to see philosophy as instrumental.) To be frank, this is a personal thing as much as a general point:  Dewey obviously loves doing philosophy.  And, in fact, this is true for me too.  Doing philosophy, one might say, is part of my everyday aesthetic experience.  As Dewey rightly says,  "Few would philosophize if philosophical discourse did not have its own inhering fascination."  But, as he also observes, this is not the goal of philosophy or of science or math, which relates rather to the function of their subject matters.  

At this point in the chapter Dewey turns to art and religion.  (One senses that he turns away from math with some relief.)  This forms a culmination of his discussion of communication:  "Letters, poetry, song, the drama, fiction, history, biography, engaging in rites and ceremonies hallowed by time and rich with the sense of the countless multitudes that share them, are also modes of discourse that, detached from immediate instrumental consequences...are ends for most persons."  Discourse becomes both instrumental and final here.  Further, as Matthew Arnold held, poetry (standing for art in general) is a criticism of life insofar as it "fixes those standards of enjoyment and appreciation with which other things are compared" and sets us on a path of action both for individual and community.  The "staple objects of enjoyment," including not only the arts but also recreation, amusement and ceremony, do the most to "determine the current direction of ideas and endeavors in the community" by which life is judged.   

So, in the end, communication in its highest form is both instrumental and final, giving us both a world of meaning and one in which there are objects valuable to the individual and the community. This second form, the final purpose of communication, is ultimately aesthetic:  it is "a sharing whereby meanings are enhanced, deepened and solidified in the sense of communion" -- and the resultant objects are "worthy of awe, admiration, and loyal appreciation" as they are means to making life "rich and varied in meanings."  As ends they free man from isolation into a realm of shared meaning.  

Dewey concludes (after one of his typical blasts against the social conditions of our times):  "When the instrumental and final functions of communication live together in experience, there exists an intelligence which is the method and reward of the common life, and a society worthy to command affection, admiration and loyalty."  So, a chapter which addresses the nature of communication and meaning ends with a vision of an ideal society in which the arts, in the broadest possible sense of that term, are both means conducive to a great society and ends in themselves. 

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