Joseph Kallo (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale)

Dewey on Stasis in the Consummatory: Groundwork for Comparing Dewey and Zen Buddhism

            I have heard numerous discussions about the similarity of the philosophy of John Dewey and the particular form of Buddhism known as Zen. I have myself considered the idea of a detailed comparison of the two philosophies for a number of years and the area which I've always believed would prove most interesting for examination is that of esthetics. In many ways Dewey's work in Art as Experience represents a foundation and touchstone for nearly all of his other areas of interest, and in it we find a reexamination of the general notion of 'stability' which amplifies his earlier concern with the subject in Experience and Nature. Dewey's ideas concerning stability figure centrally into an understanding of the picture he wishes to offer of the esthetic experience, and a concern with stability also figures in as one of the most important concerns of the practitioners and students of Zen Buddhism. To try to treat both the Deweyan and Zen perspective on the notion in a single work of this size would be foolish, and instead of this I would like, in this work, to lay the groundwork for such a comparison by taking up Dewey's treatment of stability as it emerges in Experience and Nature and comes to fruition in the consummatory as described in Art as Experience. In Dewey's work we will find an emphasis on stasis, albeit a stasis distinct from the way the idea is traditionally treated, which will cast some doubt on similarity between Dewey's thought and Zen.

I. Experience and Nature

            I would like to begin my task with an examination of Dewey's Experience and Nature as it is there that he offers one his most a propos discourses on the idea of stability, and an understanding this earlier work lays a foundation for seeing how the idea relates to the esthetic. Though the work can be read as an extended comment on the topic of stability and its opposite, I' d like, for thematic reasons, to confine my look to the third chapter supplemented by reference to Dewey's essay "Postulate of Immediate Empiricism"[1]; specifically I would like to look at the way Dewey's denotative method informs his description of the relation between stability and instability as it appears in the third chapter "Existence as Precarious and Stable".  Dewey's denotative method is bi-faceted. On the one hand, denotation is a method of pointing to immediacy of the present, and this is an immediate present not in the sense of a cognized taking-in of the world but an immediate apprehension of the situation which presents itself. This aspect of the denotative method is most clearly exemplified in Dewey's description the experience of being frightened by the tapping of a shade in a quiet room. Our initial shock of fright is soon replaced by resolution of our fear as we discover that the noise was not caused by some imagined danger but by the wind and the shade. At this point we may be inclined to say that the fear we felt was in some sense false; the fear was not an appropriate response to the world given our (newly found) knowledge of the source of the sound. Dewey's central claim in the "Postulate of Immediate Empiricism" is that such a depiction of the situation is, misleading. In fact, the sound was indeed frightful and simply having knowledge about the source of the sound does not obviate the fact that the sound was experienced as frightful. As we will soon see, the attempt to revise the original frightful experience in light of knowledge gained about the experience is an error we are particularly apt to make given our preference for the stable. Such an attempt, though, begins with an erroneous conception of experience. "Things . . . in the ordinary or non-technical use of the term 'thing'--are what they are experienced as."[2]

On the other hand, Dewey's denotative method takes up the organic nature of experience; it is an historical inquiry. Dewey's denotation is concerned with 'situations' or 'happenings" In Art as Experience Dewey describes an experience, the consummatory, as arising from a process of doing/undergoing. The felt immediacy of experience has a history; it exists because of the relations in which it stands. The beauty of Dewey's denotative method is the way in which it holds these two aspects of the thing in balance. An experience is taken as a stark immediacy, a that, and is seen as arising from and organically connected to the web of relations which make it up.

The basis for this denotative method, and a comprehensive account of Dewey's thoughts on stability and instability, is found in "Experience as Precarious and Stable." In this essay Dewey brings to the forefront our deeply ingrained tendency to give precedence, both philosophically and more generally, to things which are stable over those in flux. This is done, in a large sense, in opposition to our experience of the world which is largely made up of the changeable. As Dewey says particularly well:

Man finds himself living in an aleatory world; his existence involves, to put it baldly, a gamble. The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable.[3]

We need look no farther than our own experiences to see the veracity of Dewey's words. We live in a world which is largely made up of a flux of experiences which we try diligently to order and form into repeatable, recognizable patterns. The flux of the changing weather patterns were a bane of early man until he realized that generally warmer weather follows the periods of cold, and that planting seeds near the end of the period of cold would guarantee (again, a search for certainty and stability) food through the coming months.

This search for the stable continues into our philosophic lives when we adopt philosophic systems which, in one way or another, offer some explanation of being which pins being down to definite thing. We can see this tendency in most philosophic systems, and Dewey goes as far as to suggest that the various philosophies are recipes for innovative ways of explaining away the fundamental contingency of experience. This is, Dewey suggests, yet another instance of what he calls "the philosophic fallacy."[4] In order to survive in the world we must develop a very strong ability to selectively emphasize certain portions of our experience over and above others. When we are crossing a busy street we must allow into the focus of our experience only the comings and goings of the cars in front of us. If we suddenly lost the ability to focus in this way and we, for instance, allowed our focus to include things like the birds flying overhead, we'd soon meet our end.

Likewise, we focus on the stable in existence because, as has been suggested, in it we find the important features which sustain our lives. The problem, which Dewey sees as an instance of the most pervasive philosophic problem, comes when we take our emphasis and, in a sense, put the content of it under us in order to found our project. We value stability because it helps us sustain our lives, but then we take another step and make the stable that which is most ontologically real. Instead of recognizing that the stable aspects of experience are indeed important, but are also one facet of experience which includes a healthy dose of the precarious, we privilege the stable over the unstable. This mistake, as Dewey points out, can be found in nearly every major philosophy.

Dewey's treatment of stability, then, is not so much an addition to the history of dealings with the topic as much as it is a subtraction. Dewey suggests that if we simply pay attention to our experience we will find the mix of the precarious and stable. If we work against our ingrained tendency (due in no small part to our education in the tradition of philosophy) to privilege the stable, we will find no clue in our experience which suggests that the stable is more real than instability. In fact, the content of ordinary experience is filled with the unstable and changeable. It is no accident that the thinkers who are most interested in establishing a separate realm of unchanging reality are the ones who are most distrustful of direct experience of the world.

With this exegesis of Dewey's stand on the relation of stable to precarious we can turn now to an examination of the role of the stable and precarious in the experience of the live creature as Dewey discusses it in the second chapter of Art as Experience.  In Experience and Nature, Dewey is careful to point out our mistaken privileging of the stable, and in his work on esthetics we will see that once the stable is stripped of its ontological priorness and precariousness is allowed a real role in experience, the result is a description of experience which is truly robust.

II. Stability and The Live Creature

In many senses, the interaction of the live creature with its environment can be seen as a play of the relation between the stable and precarious, and in this play we can also find the seeds of the esthetic experience. Near the beginning of Art as Experience Dewey describes life itself as the play of the stable and unstable:

Life itself consists of phases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it . . . And, in a growing life, the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed. If the gap between organism and environment is too wide, the creature dies . . . Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives.[5]

The organism goes through alternating phases of close involvement and separation from the surrounding world. In a real sense, this is just another way Dewey makes the point that the world consists of both the stable and the unstable. At times the organism is involved with the world around it and it actively participates in the order it finds. At other times the creature loses contact with "the march of the surrounding things" and is denied the stability which the "march" offers.

There are several points which should be made about the treatment that Dewey offers the relation of stability to instability in the first chapter of Art as Experience. Perhaps most notable when compared with the treatment of stability in Experience and Nature is Dewey's emphasis on the importance of stability in the life of the creature. In Experience and Nature, Dewey is seeking to bring to our attention the tendency we have to take the stable as more ontologically fundamental than instability. As his task is to highlight the misunderstanding of the role of stability, he focuses on showing how it is not as fundamental as we take it to be. In Art as Experience, Dewey is more concerned to show how experience is a blend of the two, and, as a result, Dewey is free to develop the characteristics experience yields about stability. Dewey takes for granted the fact that stability is not the ontological bedrock traditional philosophy represents it as, and this assumption allows Dewey to treat the presence of stability in experience more directly.

Dewey clearly held that stability was indeed a crucially important portion of our experience:

Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder--in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves.[6]

Dewey is aware of the centrality of stability to our experience of the world, but his notion of stability at this point is very much distinct from the ontological stability of traditional philosophies. Instead of this, Dewey sees stability as the result of a process; it is a balance which is arrived at after a process of give and take between organism and environment. He says of this

There is in nature, even below the level of life, something more than a mere flux and change. Form is arrived at whenever a stable even though moving, equilibrium is reached . . . Wherever there is this coherence there is endurance. Order is not imposed from without but is made out of the relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another. Because it is active . . . order itself develops.[7]

Stability is indeed crucial to both the survival and flourishing of the life of the organism, but this stability is not an organism-independent feature of the world; it is actively developed and created in the interaction between creature and environment. Foreshadowing his work on doing/undergoing in the next chapter, Dewey further suggests that the interactions between organism and environment which result in stability are rhythmic in nature.[8] The rhythmic give and take between organism and environment establishes the order; this order is not simply temporal but "order that is spatially . . . patterned."[9] The resulting stability is not a stasis but a balance brought about by the rhythmic process.

            Those familiar with Art as Experience will recognize the similarity between this description of stability wrought of a tense rhythm between organism and its environment and the consummation which follows the rhythmic doing and undergoing of the esthetic experience. In fact, they are the same process different only in "where the emphasis falls."[10] Dewey is explicit about this:

For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bear within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.[11]

The consummated esthetic experience which Dewey also  describes as an experience depends on the sort of stasis which Dewey has described in the early chapters of Art as Experience. In order to determine just how stasis and the consummatory experience relate, we need to first examine the nature of the consummatory experience itself.

III. Stability and Consummation

Some time ago I had an experience which still, years later, stands out in my mind as one of the most intense in my life. It was Easter morning and I had recently moved to Albuquerque New Mexico. I decided to spend the day hiking the La Luz trail which winds up from the outskirts of the city to the top of the Sandia Mountains which tower over the city; I made the decision to take the 14 mile hike in spite of friends' suggestions that the still-present snow would make the journey very difficult. As I left my truck to begin the trail I could, in fact see it snowing up higher on the mountain. To make a long story shorter, I ended up running into snow which made finding the trail impossible. Being at this time unfamiliar with the effect of altitude on one's judgment I went with my inclination to "just follow the cleft that looked like it was where the trail should be." It was, after all a breathtaking morning. Instead of a trail, the cleft turned out to be a rugged cut in the side of the mountain filled by the recent snow. After several hours of climbing all the while being faintly aware I should turn back I began to near the top only to be confronted by a rock wall of approx. 20 ft separating me from the summit. I was, at the time, a very avid rock climber--in fact I'd moved to Albuquerque with rock climbing in mind. Even so, climbing rock in the snow, with gloves on, and with a nice case of altitude sickness is not such a good thing to do even for an experienced climber. Nonetheless, I ended up climbing the face, sitting on the summit for the span of three quarters of a cigarette and then descending off the mountain--itself no simple task. Even as I sat in the truck before pulling out of the trailhead parking lot enjoying the 20 degrees of greater warmth brought by loosing 5000 ft of altitude, the day began to take on a monumental quality.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this experience in my mind, and the reason I offer it here, is the stark presence of the intertwined processes of doing and undergoing. Dewey suggests that to understand the having of an experience we think of a sentient rock rolling down a hill. One possibility would be for the rock to be aware of the path of its decent but to have no control over its progress. The resting place it finally finds is determined exclusively by the nature of the natural forces which act upon it--it is only a spectator to its decent. Another possibility would be that the rock would have complete control over its progress; twisting and realigning itself to compensate for the hills and furrows it encounters so that when it finally stops, it stops in a place of its choosing. A rock, on the other hand, which was both receptive to the effect of the terrain upon it as well as actively involved in guiding its decent would come to rest at a place that neither it nor the natural features of the hill it just rolled down could have determined; this rock has had an experience. In my drive to ascend the mountain I had a predetermined goal in mind which it seemed the mountain itself worked against. I was trying to fulfill my goal of a beautiful hike, but the world around me seemed bent upon interrupting those plans. I had an agenda which the mountain itself interrupted. When I finally made it back to the truck (actually later while I was sitting in a nice hotspring) I could see the hike for what it was: a give and take between myself and my plans and the mountain and its rules.

We have an experience then, when we fall into a rhythm with the world which involves as much of our active parsing of experience as it does our reception of the content of experience. Having an experience is having experience in which we are both active participants in and passive receptors of the world. Neither the activity nor the receptivity is willy-nilly to use Dewey's phrase. The activity is "that kind of action which will result in an object satisfying in direct perception."[12]  The activity of doing is the type of activity which will bring about the desired perception. That is, the activity of doing is pointed toward and engaged with the passivity of undergoing. The undergoing, thoi4gh, is not simple passivity but: "a process consisting of a series of responsive acts that accumulate toward objective fulfillment." [13] Undergoing is undergoing with an eye toward bringing about further doing. The doing and undergoing of an experience are not, then, rigidly distinct modes of facing the world but intertwined, self- referential, aspects of the building experience.  "What is done and what is undergone are thus reciprocally, cumulatively, and continuously instrumental to each other."[14]  In the rolling rock example, the rock is trying to actively direct its decent while responding to the features of the terrain. The activity of its plans are interrupted by a bump or pothole, which in turn produces and works into a revised plan. My plan for a peaceful ascent of the Sandias was interrupted repetitiously, each time leaving me taking in the situation and forming a new plan of action.

The interrelated processes of doing and undergoing culminate in the felt unity of the consummated experience. This moment makes the experience cohere into an experience as Dewey describes. In my example, as I sat in the truck after getting off the trail, the experiences of the day were drawn together into a cohesive whole. Instead of random efforts to do this or that, the trip that day took on a felt singular quality. Just as Dewey suggests that we might look back upon a memorable meal and remember it as that meal as opposed to one meal of the general category of meals, so too my experience that day was very much a that. As I have said, even now the events of that day hang together--they make the basis of a good cohesive story.

Most crucial for my purposes here, though, is the point that the consummatory nature of my experience on the La Luz was fundamentally an experience of stasis. The moment in which I looked back on my day I saw it not as a fuzzy indeterminate collection of events, but as a razor sharp sequence of actions which led to a definite end. It is no wonder that Dewey suggests that the re-involvement of the organism with its environment--the moment when stasis is produced from the indeterminate--is analogous to the consummatory summation of the esthetic experience; the consummatory moment is the experience of the drawing-together of the disparate parts of the experience into a cohesive, static, unity. That meal and that hike up the La Luz are events which stand out in my memory as definite experiences with definite beginnings, bodies and, most importantly, ends. It is the experience of these events as static which gives them the quality of being an experiences--the quality of thatness.

If the consummatory is indeed the experience of the static, light is shed on a sentence in Art as Experience which I have always found intriguing, especially in the context of making comparisons between Dewey's esthetics and Zen Buddhism. On 23 Dewey says that "the live creature adopts its past." Given the preceding discussion, we can see that this must be the case. In order for the developing esthetic experience to cohere into an experience, the events which  lead to the consummation must be "owned" by the person having the experience. The esthetic meal depends upon the participants enjoying and seeing the progress of the various courses. If we were to suddenly find ourselves at the dessert with no "owning' of the events which lead to it, the meal fails to cohere into a consummatory moment. Though trying to pin a single thinker down as being as spokesperson for Zen is probably not a productive task, it is true that much of the Zen literature suggests that kensho or enlightenment, comes only through abandoning the past for the present.[15] Nonetheless, most discussions which I hear comparing Zen and Dewey focus on the similarity which can be found between kensho and Dewey's consummatory moment. In fact, I do not see how they can be taken as similar. The consummatory is, for Dewey, an owning of the past which coheres in a felt, static unity. Kensho, on the other hand, is a leaving behind of the past for only the present.

The idea of owning the past also suggests a further comment which should be made concerning the relation of the static to the consummatory. In my discussion here I have suggested that the consummatory moment is the experience of the static, but it should be borne in mind that this static is the dynamic balance discussed and not the static of "the most real" as it is most often cast. That is, I am making the same assumption here that Dewey makes in Art as Experience: I assume that we have read and assented to Dewey's work in the relevant portions of Experience and Nature. The felt experience of the consummatory is one of stasis, but this stasis is reached through, and constituted of, the progressive moments of the experience  which make it up. My experience was of that hike, but the thatness was constituted by my interaction with my environment and not of some fundamental quality of "Hike." When we have a consummatory experience we experience a portion of our world as static, but we should not, if we take Dewey's advise, then begin to call the content of that experience that which is most real.

Further, lending even more support to the claim that Dewey's notion of stasis is distinct from more traditional notions, the stasis of every consummatory moment has within it the potential for a renewed esthetic involvement. Each consummatory experience is potentially the ground from which a new experience will grow. Dewey says of this,

Consummation is relative; instead of occurring once and for all at a given point, it is recurrent. The final end is anticipated by rhythmic pauses, while that end is final only in an external way. For as we turn from reading a poem or novel or seeing a picture the effect passes forward in further experiences, even if only subconsciously.[16]

Once again, this is dependent upon the organism "owning" its past. If I were to set out on a hike up the La Luz this afternoon, my experience would be shaded by my day on the trail years ago. In fact, my previous experience on the trail could be the ground for another esthetic experience of the place. If I were to now have the peaceful hike I was searching for before, I might draw the experiences together into a more rich understanding of the trail in all (or at least more) of its many facets.   This is, of course, not necessary; I could simply be disappointed that the trail wasn't as exciting as I remember it. The point is, though, that the stasis of the consummatory moment contains the seeds for the growth of further experience.

IV. Conclusion

My purpose here has been to lay the groundwork for a fruitful comparison of the work of Dewey and that of the Zen thinkers. It seems that discussions of the two systems of thought always return to the similarity of their views on things esthetic. Both Zen and Dewey value the experience of the ordinary as a portal to the esthetic. More precisely, they both recognize that the ordinary is itself potentially esthetic. Though I have offered no explicit account of the Zen perspective on the nature of the esthetic, such was not my purpose here, I have hinted that the initial similarity belies a more fundamental disparity concerning the nature of the esthetic. The Zen focus on presentness involves a forgetting of the past. For Dewey, on the other hand, the esthetic involves the experience of stasis which necessitates an "owning" of the past: both the immediate past of the esthetic experience and the more general past in which the experience is situated.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Middle Works 1899-1924, Vol 3. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale:    Southern Illinois University Press, 1977.

---- Late Works 1925-1953, Vol. 1. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

---- Late Works 1925-1953, Vol. 10. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

[1] Dewey, Middle Works 3,158.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dewey, Later Works 1, 43

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Dewey, Later Works 10, 19.

[6] Ibid.,20.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 20.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 56.

[13] Ibid., 58.

[14] Ibid., 56.

[15] cf. Beck, Joko. Nothing Special.  Harper: San Francisco, 1993. "In time we lose all interest in our past." p.44

[16] Dewey, Late Works 10, 142.