JOHN DEWEY

Dates: 1859-1952

Nationality: American

American philosopher and writer. He wrote major works on metaphysics, ethics, logic, social philosophy and particularly the philosophy and theory of education. He was one of the group of American philosophers, including Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and George Herbert Mead, who developed the philosophical view known as American Pragmatism. Dewey’s major work in aesthetics, Art as Experience (1934), summarizes important features of his general philosophy as well as being one of the most influential works of 20th-century Anglo-American aesthetics.

The central notion in Dewey’s thought is that of ‘experience’. For Dewey experiencing the world is an interaction between the whole organism and the environment, rather than a relation between a subject and a distinct object. Much of human experience is incoherent and meaningless, but sometimes we have an ‘experience’ that stands out from the surrounding flux. Every experience allows us to achieve self-knowledge and to guard against alienation, and it has a distinctively aesthetic quality. An experience is an individualized, self-sufficient whole, pervaded by a single emotional quality and characterized by a certain rhythm of tension and relaxation (difficulty and solution of difficulty). It is also a unity in which the completion of the experience has a meaning or significance that sums up and in a sense contains all the previous phases of the experience. This description can apply to hoeing the garden, testing a scientific theory, or merely having a conversation. For Dewey a meaningful life should include many such experiences. However, an experience that is predominantly aesthetic—rather than intellectual or practical—is one in which the peculiar features of the experience as he defined them are clarified and intensified: an aesthetic experience is one in which we are predominantly aware of the experience’s tension and relaxation, its unity, its pervasive quality and the cumulative nature of its meaning. The best examples of aesthetic experience are our experiences of (interactions with) objects of fine art.

Robinson, Jenefer. “Dewey, John.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T022534>

True art is universal and true to human nature. This universality excludes such lower senses as taste and smell from the beautiful. It also excludes the feeling of ownership and any reference to external ends. Art cannot, however, be defined. For we cannot know ahead of time what qualities will appear beautiful. Nonetheless, we can still say that harmony constitutes beauty. Harmony is defined as the feeling that accompanies agreement of experience with the self’s ideal nature. Art attempts to satisfy the aesthetic in our nature, and it succeeds when it expresses the ideal completely. The ideal, in turn, is the “completely developed self.” So the goal of art is to create the perfectly harmonious self.

Dewey then makes claims about the various fine arts, ranking them according to their level of ideality: architecture is the least ideal art, although it is most fit for religious expression; sculpture ranks higher in that it is less tied to use and is usually associated with a human ideal presented in the human figure; painting is more ideal in that its sensuous side is limited to pigment on a two-dimensional surface and it represents man’s passions and needs; music is more ideal yet as its material is not in space, its beauty manifests man’s soul, and harmony is at its core; poetry, is fully ideal, having little that is sensuous in it, concentrating as it does on the vital personality of man himself (and nature as only a reflection of this); finally, within poetry, drama gives us the highest ideal in that it deals with humans in action, overcoming the limitations of epic and lyric poetry.

Finally, in this work Dewey held that in saying that something is beautiful we objectify our aesthetic feeling. The great artist is impelled to creation, but the ordinary individual recognizes it. Aesthetic judgments operate according to principles of taste. These give us the characteristics of the objects which feeling calls beautiful. Taste is a matter of individual feeling, not of dry rules, and thus only a man of artistic nature is the right judge of works of art. Finally, aestheticism is the degeneration of aesthetic feeling, for it is simply love of the pleasures of beauty rather than a key to objective beauty in nature.

Leddy, Tom. “Dewey’s Aesthetics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/dewey-aesthetics/>

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