Feb 7, 2015
Today on Mere Rhetoric, we talk about John Dewey. John Dewey was a big ol’ deal, even back in his day. Just after his death in 1952, Hilda Neaby wrote”Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages, not just a philosopher, but the philosopher.”
And what does a person have to do to be compared to Aristotle? I mean to be compared in a serious way to Aristotle, because I’m like Aristotle because, you know, I enjoy olive oil on occasions, not because I’m the philosopher. I think one thing Neaby means is that Dewey was involved in everything. Just like how Aristotle had huge impact in politics, theology, science and rhetoric, John Dewey seemed to have a finger in every pie. By the time he died at age 92, he had written significantly on education, politics, art, ethics and sociology. But it’s not enough to be a big freakin’ deal a hundred years ago, but Dewey is a big deal in rhetoric today. It’s rare to search too many issues back in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly or Rhetoric and Public Affairs without hitting on an article either directly about or draws on Dewey, and books about Dewey are popping up all over the map. John Dewey is hot real estate.
So because John Dewey is such an important thinker for rhetoricians today, we have to take more time than today to talk about him. That’s right-- a Mere Rhetoric two-parter. A to-be-continued. A cliffhanger. If that cliff is carefully divided, I guess and that division is this: today we’ll talk about John Dewey’s contribution to aesthetics, his book Art as Experience and responses to that book from contemporary rhetoricans. Next week we’ll talk more about his politics, the dream of his pragmatism, what he means by Individualism Old and New and the famous Dewey-Lippmann debate. So that’s what we’ll be doing the next two weeks. So let’s get started on the first part of this Dewey-twoey.
Like many great thinkers, Dewey started his career by realizing that what he thought he wanted to do, he really, really didn’t. In Dewey’s case it was education. It’s ironic that Dewey became one of the 20th century’s most important voices in education because he did not teach secondary or primary school for longer than a couple of years each. Good thing he had a back-up plan as a major philosopher. He joined the ground floor of the University of Chicago and became one of the defining voices of the University of Chicago style of thinking, although he eventually left, somewhat acrimoniously, and taught at Columbia for the rest of his career. Somewhere along the way, though, he became president of the American philosophical association and published Art as Experience.
The title kind of gives away Dewey’s claim--he situates art in the experience which you have with art. As he says “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience” (1). But he also means the opposite, that experience can be art. Instead of thinking of art as something that happens in rarified situations behind glass and velvet ropes, Dewey opens up “art” to mean popular culture, experiences with nature and even just a way of living.
Being in the moment is a big part of this artful living. If you’re experiencing or rather, to use the particular philosophical parlance Dewey insists on “having an experience” then you are totally being in the moment: “only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturning is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what is now is” (17). In such a view, any time we live the moment artfully, in full presence of being, we’re having an artful experience.
In having an experience, you have some sort of awareness and some kind of form.
As Dewey says, “art is thus prefigured in the very processes of life” (25).
This idea may sound radical. How can sitting in a crowded bus be art the way that the Mona Lisa is art? But Dewey is insistent. He sighs, “the hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived” (27-28).
That’s not to say that there can’t be objects of art that concentrate the sensation of having an experience. But it’s the whole experience. For example, “Reflections on Tintern Abbey” isn’t really about Tintern Abbey any more than it’s about Wordworth and evenings and homecomings and 1798 and that sycamore and all of it. It expresses a complete experience of Wordsworth. And that expression is always changing as times change.“the very meaning,” Dewey writes “of an important new movement in any art is that it expresses something new in human experience” (316). Meanwhile the art that remains after the moment passes and the movement becomes cliche. “Art is the great force in effecting [...] consolidation. The individuals who have minds pass away one by one. The works in which meanings have received objective expression endure. [...] every art in some manner is a medium of this transmission while its products are no inconsiderable part of the saturating matter” (340)
And the value of art is moral. First off, Dewey says that“The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic’s office is to further this work, performed by the object of art” (338).
Pretty cool stuff, huh? But wait, there’s more. The process of having an experience, that complete being, has its own moral value, or so argues Scott Stroud in John Dewy and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, aesthetics and morality. There he claims “I want to examine how art can be seen as a way of moral cultivation” (3) because“At various places, Dewey’s work provides us with tantalizing clues to his real project--the task of making more of life aesthetic or artful” (5) Put in other words: “art can show individuals how certain value schemes feel, how behaviors affect people, etc.--in other words, art can force the reflective instatement (creation) of moral values” (9)
Stroud connects the pragmatists like Dewey with mysticism in Eastern philosophy and medieval monastic Christianity. Remember how Dewey is all about having an experience, really being in the moment? So Stroud says, “The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated bahits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals” (11).
“The important point,” writes Stroud, “is that attentiveness to the present is a vital way to cultivate the self toward the goal of progressive adjustment and it is also a vital means in the present to do so” (69)
For Stroud, as for Dewey“the art object [...] imbued with meaning partially by the actions of the artist, but also because of the crucial contributions of meaning that a common cultural background contributes to the activity of producing and receiving art objects” (97)--the way that the artistic object is received popularly and by critics. And for that aim “criticism does more than merely tell one what an important work of art is or what impression was had; instead, it gives one a possible orientation that is helpful in ordering and improving one’s past and future experiences” (122). And in that, criticism, or even appreciation, is also a moral act.
Stroud’s argument has immediate application of the artful life. He ponders “How can we render everyday communication, such as that experiences in mundane conversations with friends, cashiers, and so on, as aesthetic?” (170). To answer this, he draws on dewey to suggest that we avoid focusing on a remote goal, cultivate habits of attending to the demands of the present communication situation and fight against the idea of reified, separate self (186-7).
Next week we’ll continue our Dewey Twoey by talking about Dewey’s political and educational contributes and Individualism Old and New and modern responses to it. Between then and now, I hope you have the chance to enjoy some great art, even if that great art is popular art, or even just this moment you’re in ...right ...now.