Richard Gilmore (Concordia College, Moorhead, MN)

Meaning as Hard Won Grace: Naturalism and Spiritualism in Dewey’s Art as Experience

. . . all good things . . . come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
--Norman Maclean

            Art as Experience begins with a call for a restoration of continuity between our various experiences, specifically of art, but he clearly means this call for continuity to extend to all areas of our experience.  His diagnosis of the illness that these discontinuities signal for him is that of the "compartmentalization"[1] of our lives.  Richard Shusterman sums up this diagnosis of Dewey’s in terms of self-alienation, he says, glossing Dewey, "we are dividing the human creature against herself, forcing her to choose between capacities (emotional, intellectual, sensory) which are naturally at work together, thus creating inner conflict and a sense of self-alienation from part of oneself."[2]  The reasons for this compartmentalization of our experiences are many, but Dewey, for the specific problem of compartmentalization of art, identifies capitalism as part of the problem.[3]  In this, it seems to me, Dewey anticipates Jean-François Lyotard’s identification of efficiency, the logic of maximum performance, as the primary source of postmodern terror.[4]  In Art as Experience Dewey will propose a curative regimen for the illness of alienation that the compartmentalization of our lives causes.  This regimen will derive from his analysis of experience and the way that experience becomes meaningful.  His analysis will be essentially naturalistic, but this naturalistic analysis will have a normative dimension that will point in the direction of a way of living that might best be described as more spiritual.

            In Art as Experience John Dewey describes experience as "clothed in meaning."  It is an interesting metaphor.  One interesting aspect of the metaphor is its formulation in the passive, as though meaning were something that happened to an experience rather than something that we put into the experience.  This, it seems to me, is the essence of Dewey’s naturalism.  By naturalism I mean something like Strawson’s description of the naturalism which he sees as deriving from Hume.  He describes this naturalism as follows:

Where Nature thus determines us, we have an original non-rational commitment which sets the bounds within which, or the stage upon which, reason can effectively operate, and within which the question of the rationality or irrationality, justification or lack of justification, of this or that particular judgment or belief can come up.[5]

Wittgenstein’s formulation of this type of naturalism uses the metaphor of a "bedrock" of experience for where the pursuit of justifications for beliefs comes to an end.  He says at section 217 of Philosophical Investigations, "If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned.  Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’"[6]  Strawson’s description nicely captures the "original non-rational commitment" element of naturalism, while Wittgenstein’s formulation serves to highlight the delimiting quality of naturalism, naturalism as the place where explanations come to an end.  Dewey’s naturalism, it seems to me, certainly incorporates both of these elements into it, but goes further in another direction because of his concentration on the problematic of meaning.  How do our experiences acquire meaning?  Dewey’s answer to this question will be naturalistic, it will have something to do with just how we are, biologically, or even, for Dewey, organically, by nature.  But in locating and identifying the dynamic by which experience does acquire meaning, Dewey opens up all sorts of possibilities for understanding our experience as well as for generating new experiences and new meanings.

            The reference to an experience being "clothed in meaning" has its home in Chapter Four of Art as Experience where Dewey is trying to get at the raw materials, as it were, of experience.  All experience begins, he says, with an "impulsion."  An impulsion is like an impulse, but comprised of a more complex interlacing of forces.  It is a movement "outward and forward"[7] of the whole organism.  Dewey describes the origins of an experience in the following way:

Impulsion from need starts an experience that does not know where it is going; resistance and check bring about the conversion of direct forward action into re-flection; what is turned back upon is the relation of hindering conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experiences.  As the energies thus involved reinforce the original impulsion, this operates more circumspectly with insight into end and method.  Such is the outline of every experience that is clothed with meaning.[8]

As this description of the development of an experience proceeds we can see both the underlying naturalism as well as the great descriptive acuity and precision of it.  An experience begins with a need.  (That is naturalism; where the need comes from, ultimately, is mysterious and must be attributed simply to nature.)  Our desire initiates movement (also naturalistic) that encounters resistance.  Resistance gives rise to re-flection.  (That too is naturalistic, but moving in the direction of a more complex analysis.)  We look to our resources, skills we have, techniques we have employed in the past, special abilities that we might possess that might be brought to bear in overcoming this resistance in order to achieve the satisfaction of our need.  Suddenly the need itself begins to develop associations, connections with other past needs, a narrative develops around the need.  An infant’s squall becomes a quest.  Our experience gets clothed in meaning. 

            Dewey speaks of this as a "transformation," a "transformation of energy into thoughtful action."(60)  His naturalism is made explicit later in this discussion.  He is identifying the origins of art in an infant’s smile:

The child may cry now for a purpose, because he wants attention or relief.  He may begin to bestow his smiles as inducements or as favors.  There is now art in incipiency.  An activity that was "natural"—spontaneous and unintended—is transformed because it is undertaken as a means to a consciously entertained consequence.  Such a transformation marks every deed of art.[9]

"Natural" has quotation marks in this quote because Dewey wants to restore the continuity between nature as it is commonly used, to designate the spontaneous and unintended, with what is also natural for Dewey, the transformation of something spontaneous and unintended into something meaningful, which, however, seems also to occur spontaneously for Dewey.  Art as Experience is the title of the book, and experience, in Dewey’s sense, is art.  For an experience to be an experience it must involve this transformation that Dewey says "marks every deed of art."  Earlier in Art as Experience Dewey makes explicit this idea that an experience is the result of art.  Chapter Three is entitled "Having an Experience" and there he outlines the necessary conditions for having an experience.  For one thing, an experience has a unity[10] and a sense of consummation[11] and this sense of a unity and of a consummation is, for Dewey, the basis of the esthetic.  The esthetic itself, the esthetic quality of experience, Dewey describes as emotional.  He says, "the esthetic quality that rounds out an experience into completeness and unity is emotional."[12]  This idea—that the esthetic "rounds out an experience into completeness and unity," that, as Giles Gunn has put it, "the aesthetic is that to which experience as such aspires,"[13] that this quality of experience is essentially emotional, i.e., non-rational, spontaneous—is the heart of Dewey’s naturalism.

            The great strength of naturalism is its descriptive power.  Its weakness is its prescriptive or normative pusillanimity.  If it is all nature, what is there for us to do?  There is, it seems to me, a tension in Dewey’s thought on the nature of our agency, of our ability to act or to construct meanings.  There is the naturalistically elliptical reference to our experience getting "clothed in meaning," but Dewey also speaks of perception as "an act of reconstructive doing"[14] and he says, "The esthetic experience . . .is thus seen to be inherently connected with the experience of making."[15]  The beginning of a resolution to this tension can be found in Dewey’s analysis of the notion of spontaneity. 

            After citing a passage from a letter from Van Gogh to his brother Dewey says, "Such fullness of emotion and spontaneity of utterance come, however, only to those who have steeped themselves in experiences of objective situations; to those who have long been absorbed in observation of related material and whose imaginations have long been occupied with reconstructing what they see and hear."[16]  Later in that same paragraph Dewey says, "‘Spontaneity’ is the result of long periods of activity, or else it is so empty as not to be an act of expression."  Earlier Dewey makes a reference to the need for apprenticeship, "Every one knows that it requires apprenticeship to see through a microscope or a telescope, and to see a landscape as a geologist sees it. . . ."[17]  What Dewey is talking about here seems to be a dispositional account of spontaneity.  What is spontaneous for us is what we have prepared ourselves to be spontaneously receptive to or productive of.  Preparation takes the form of practicing until we have habituated ourselves to a certain kind of response in certain kinds of situations.  What we are to practice at, however, remains a little unclear. Dewey begins another description of this notion of spontaneity with a reference to the "miracle of mind."

The miracle of mind is that something similar [to "physical things . . . physically being caused to act and react upon one another"] takes place in experience without physical transport and assembling.  Emotion is the moving and cementing force.  It selects what is congruous and dyes what is selected with its color, thereby giving qualitative unity to materials externally disparate and dissimilar.  It thus provides unity in and through the varied parts of experience.[18]

"The miracle of mind" that Dewey is referring to here is a reference to the amazing work that gets done by emotion in the construction of our experience.  Experience now seems to be constructed, and certainly the reference to "qualitative unity" refers to the construction of meaning, but the role of agency remains unclear.  Dewey says that perception itself will be creative.  "For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience."[19]  This can only mean something like that in perception that is a real perception, i.e., an experience, we emotionally connect various elements of the object of perception in a way that first emotionally, then experientially unifies it.  This unity Dewey identifies with something like a drama, "All emotions are qualifications of a drama and they change as the drama changes."[20]  Emotions, when they are parts of real experiences, seem to operate narratively.  Practicing in preparation for certain types of dispositional development would, then, seem to involve a kind of narrativizing of our experience, although it is not at all clear that these narratives need be verbal.  As Dewey says, "There are values and meanings that can be expressed only by immediately visible and audible qualities, and to ask what they mean in the sense of something that can be put into words is to deny their distinctive existence."[21]

            Later, in a passage on love between the sexes, the whole idea of agency is once again somewhat muddied, but with some strongly suggestive material that is well worth further examination.

If the emotion of love between the sexes had not been celebrated by means of diversion into material emotionally cognate but practically irrelevant to its direct object and end, there is every reason to suppose it would still remain on the animal plane.  The impulse arrested in its direct movement toward its physiologically normal end is not, in the case of poetry, arrested in an absolute sense.  It is turned into indirect channels where it finds other material than that which is "naturally" appropriate to it, and as it fuses with this material it takes on new color and has new consequences.  This is what happens when any natural impulse is idealized or spiritualized.  That which elevates the embrace of the lovers above the animal plane is just the fact that when it occurs it has taken into itself, as its own meaning, the consequences of these indirect excursions that are imagination in action.[22]

            This very naturalistic description of how certain experiences can become spiritualized seems to leave out any room for agency, and yet also seems to suggest that this move toward something like the spiritualization of experience is something uniquely and particularly human.  The point on which I would like to focus attention is on the concept of ‘diversion.’  What seems to characterize the artist—and it seems that for Dewey what is requisite for the very possibility of having an experience is that one be creative, be, essentially, an artist—is an attitude about how to handle these "diversions."  Of the artist Dewey says, "The artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works."[23]  What makes having an experience possible is the emotional work of unifying experience, of, say, narrativizing the parts of our experience into some kind of unity that makes random experience into an experience.  What seems to make this emotional work possible, what is there for us to do, is to maintain an attitude of openness, of receptivity, of willingness to be diverted.  It is precisely in these diversions that new meanings accrue and increased complexity is achieved.  Complexity, for Dewey, is the primary measure of living well.  "As an organism increases in complexity, the rhythms of struggle and consummation in its relation to its environment are varied and prolonged, and they come to include within themselves an endless variety of sub-rhythms.  The designs of living are widened and enriched.  Fulfillment is more massive and more subtly shaded."[24]

            That which will be a source of increased complexity, of increased meanings in our lives, therefore, will also be the sources of our more massive fulfillment.  There seems to be a quality of the spiritual in all experience given the ways in which Dewey characterizes the experience of an experience.  The kinds of descriptions that Dewey gives for the emotional quality of an experience, that which makes an experience esthetic, which is what makes an experience an experience, invoke a notion of the spiritual.  He speaks of having an experience in terms of a "felt harmony,"[25] as "vivid consciousness,"[26] as a sense of "consummation;"[27] the esthetic always has an element of "passion"[28] and involves the feeling of the experience being "controlled" or of "being guided by a purpose."[29]  Interestingly, what would certainly kill the capacity for spiritual experience for Dewey would be something like a belief, a determined resistance to being diverted.  But from within the attitude of openness to diversion, the potential for spiritual experience would seem to be unlimited and pervasive.  After recounting an especially vivid experience by W. H. Hudson Dewey makes the following remarks:

I do not see any way of accounting for the multiplicity of experiences of this kind (something of the same quality being found in every spontaneous and uncoerced esthetic response), except on the basis that there are stirred into activity resonances of dispositions acquired in primitive relationships of the living being to its surroundings, and irrecoverable in distinct or intellectual consciousness.  Experiences of the sort mentioned take us to a further consideration that testifies to natural continuity.  There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves—that is in the abstract—would be designated "ideal" and "spiritual."[30]

            By Dewey’s analysis, Nietzsche’s nihilism and Lyotard’s sense of the terrorism that is integral to the postmodern age are undone by our natural propensity to meaning.  Nihilism and postmodern terror are, of course, meanings too, but meanings from which we can be diverted by means of an attitude of being receptive to diversion, an attitude that makes us emotionally responsive to the narrative possibilities in our experience, to the unlimited "capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values" which Dewey appropriately identifies as the spiritual.


                [1] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1980), 20.

                [2] Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1992), 16.

                [3] Art as Experience, 8.

                [4] Jean-François Lyotard, "The Postmodern Condition," in The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory, ed. Steven Seidman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 27.

                [5] P. F. Strawson, Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 39

                [6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., inc., 1968).

                [7] Art as Experience, 58.

                [8] Art as Experience, 60.

                [9] Art as Experience, 62.

                [10] Art as Experience, 37.

                [11] Art as Experience, 35.

                [12] Art as Experience, 41.

                [13] Giles Gunn, Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 87.

                [14] Art as Experience, 53.

                [15] Art as Experience, 49.

                [16] Art as Experience, 72.

                [17] Art as Experience, 53.

                [18] Art as Experience, 42.

                [19] Art as Experience, 54.

                [20] Art as Experience, 41.

                [21] Art as Experience, 75.

                [22] Art as Experience, 76-7.

                [23] Art as Experience, 48.

                [24] Art as Experience, 23.

                [25] Art as Experience, 44.

                [26] Art as Experience, 53.

                [27] Art as Experience, 35.

                [28] Art as Experience, 49.

                [29] Art as Experience, 50.

                [30] Art as Experience, 29.