Dewey's Aesthetics: The Tragic Encounter with Nature

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  • Dewey's Aesthetics: The Tragic Encounter with NatureAuthor(s): Bertram MorrisSource: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter, 1971), pp. 189-196Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for AestheticsStable URL: .Accessed: 13/05/2014 04:18

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    Dewey's Aesthetics: The Tragic

    Encounter with Nature

    DEWEY INTENDED his philosophy to be the philosophy of experience, and its ripest fruit is to be found in his philosophy of art. Art is the distillation of experience in its most intense and clarified and vivid form. It is the mirroring of man in his emergence from nature-not the alone man, nor the man of the lonely crowd, but the man richly endowed with qualities and attitudes that come from human and civic associa- tions. Dewey's major task, I believe, is to accommodate within experience the contin- uum of man from his physical to his social being. In pursuing it, Dewey is forced to assault ordinary language with the result that his philosophy has variously come to be regarded as nonsense, romanticism, or, by the more sympathetic, as one of the great contributions to intellectual thought-this last being the opinion I share. My intent, however, is not to eulogize but indicate the sweep of his thought and to point up the crucial elements that make it not only ago- nizingly difficult to understand but deeply rewarding.

    Even if it is correct to assume that the theme most central to Dewey's philosophy is that of the "continuity-discontinuity" of experience, no one has been more aware of

    BERTRAM MORRIS is professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. His most recent book is Institutions of Intelligence, published by the Ohio State University Press. Delivered at a symposium on Relevance of John

    Dewey Today, Antioch College, May 19, 1969.

    the fragmentation of experience than Dewey, and no one has more consistently applied his talents for overcoming fragmen- tation than he. Bitterness, strife, divided al- legiance, man and nature, God and man, inner and outer, spiritual and physical, yes, even aesthetic and nonaesthetic-the list of divisiveness is without end. The seamless web of nature turns out in men's lives to be thoroughly seamy. Why? Have we miscon- strued experience? Do men impose discon- tinuities upon nature? Or, is nature that way in itself? Is man condemned to a futile task of trying to bring together disparate things that refuse to be brought together? Does intelligence require him to reject all that is old for the sake of a brave new world? These are some of the many per- plexities that clearly underlie Dewey's phi- losophy.

    Fortunately, we may limit consideration of these perplexities to ways in which they figure in his philosophy of art. From this somewhat narrowed point of view, we may hope to see how they bear upon the interre- lations of art and life, and especially as art and life gain meaning by complementing each other. Then it may be easier to ob- serve that in relation to life art is precious, not because it is art but because it exercises the human powers of perception and mem- ory and imagination, and creates a link in the present between past and future. True, art is to be enjoyed with abandonment and irresponsibility, but only as constituting a

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  • 190

    romantic phase of the fugitive present, which soon calls for a more considered sense of human fulfillment. Idle joy has a way of passing over into serious engagement which rejuvenates the past and also welcomes a future. James Joyce comes to a similar posi- tion when at the conclusion of A Portrait of the Artist he wrote: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Even if Joyce never succeeded in forging such a conscience, he certainly did welcome life. In this success, he never lost track of what the artist is, however trying it might be to follow the mazes he constructed. Yet for all our assent to the term experience, there still remains much that is opaque in it.

    Dewey attempts to clarify the term by dis- tinguishing between "experience" and "an experience," and this is a help. Experience refers to the actual connections in human encounters, whereas an experience is that limited, intense perception which has a be- ginning, a middle, and an end, and which he identifies with art. A sizeable problem of Dewey's aesthetics is to discern how he copes with the relation between the two. At the outset of Art as Experience, he excites the reader by insisting that the task of the philosophy of art is "to restore continuity between refined and intensified forms of ex- perience that are works of art and the every- day events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experi- ence" (p. 3). And restating the same notion, he defines the problem of the philosophy of art to be "that of recovering the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living" (p. 10). In thus suggesting what aesthetics is all about, he immediately sets the reader on the track of the instrumental- istic point of view, namely, that point of view which acknowledges experience in whatever mode it appears, and which con- stantly searches out the connections that make it meaningful.

    To proceed we need some strategy by which we can come to the fullest possible understanding of what the instrumentalistic aesthetic has to offer, both with respect to the first rate, that is, philosophical, ques-


    tions it copes with and with respect to what counts as appropriate answers to them. The questions are three. How does art relate to nature? What is aesthetic about art? Why is art a social phenomenon? There lurk exas- perating difficulties in each of these ques- tions, and in searching for answers we dis- cern unsuspected depths of experience, leading us all the way from complex meta- physical issues about the physical world, to the need for a reexamination of what we can possibly mean by something's being unique, and, finally, to a host of subtleties pertaining to that kind of life that we call culture. Even though volumes are required to set forth the elaborations of these ques- tions, I shall nevertheless try to restate them briefly as they relate directly to Dew- ey's philosophy of art. The questions are each of a different order, yet they all con- tribute to the continuity which is the seam- less web of experience and nature.


    How does art relate to nature? A tradi- tional answer is that art copies nature. Plato said it, and Dewey believes it too, but not the way Plato believed it. Plato was probably thinking about the kind of fore- shortening that Apollodorus discovered in making a two-dimensional bunch of grapes look like a three-dimensional bunch.

    Possibly, however, Plato meant some- thing different, such as some kind of "inner mimicry" which would relate experience to nature. But if he did, he certainly did not give us any clear idea of what this could mean. Dewey could have meant that a copy is a kind of inner mimicry, but he clearly rejects this language because he does not like to talk about inner and outer, since for him they do not make sense. They are not like the inside and outside of a rubber ball, which do exist, but like the inside and out- side of an idea, which do not exist. Closer to what Dewey actually means is that art sets up rhythms in man, which are also found in nature. And this is so, but they are not copies, for perception is an activity, not a copy of nature. Or even if it were a copy, we should note that what we respond to in art is not, say, to the sea, but to the omi-

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  • The Tragic Encounter with Nature

    nous rhythm of A Rough Sea by Turner or to the playful rhythm of La Mer by De- bussy. Our response then is not to what Turner or Debussy may have taken as his model, assuming that there was such a model in nature. Rather it is to the paint- ing or to the music, and this is not the model but the thing itself. So again it ap- pears that we have not really made much headway by assuming that art is a copy of nature.l

    But even if there is a sense in which art corresponds to nature as its model that somehow gets incorporated in it (and we really cannot rule