Code: TP-8


An Emotional Turn:

Dewey’s Experience and Nature as a Treatise on the Sublime


            The dynamic of the sublime strikes me as an especially useful one to analyze, especially now, perhaps, in this postmodern age, because it involves the transformation of an experience that is horrible, unsettling, or anxiety-provoking into an experience that is pleasurable, aesthetic, and life-affirming.  I take the great American treatise on the metaphysics of the sublime to be John Dewey's Experience and Nature.  Although Dewey does not explicitly call his subject the sublime, I read the title of this work as denoting the fundamental constituents of the sublime: us, our experience, which we have in response to the huge indeterminacy in which we find ourselves immersed, that is, nature.  Nature, however, does not begin for us as something sublime.  Our early experiences with nature will often suggest that our existence is, as Dewey says, "precarious and perilous" and that what comes to us comes by sheer luck or chance.  Dewey says of this aspect of our condition: "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.  Its dangers are irregular, inconstant, not to be counted upon as to their times and seasons."[1]  Dewey concludes, "man fears because he exists in a fearful, an awful world.  The world is precarious and perilous."[2]  This is an acute description of the initial moment of the sublime.  We, as human beings, have lived individually and communally, temporarily and interminably in this moment.  This condition is, of course, not the experience of the sublime.  It is the experience of the world as more terrifying than pleasurable or aesthetic.

            That we need not exist interminably in this moment, in this condition, takes a discovery.  To make this discovery can be a somewhat arduous and painstaking undertaking, and it will take time.  What the discovery is a discovery of is that there is another aspect to nature, to things in nature, that is initially invisible.  It will take a certain amount of undergoing, training, practice, discipline in order to be able to perceive this aspect of things in nature, but once one has, nature itself is transformed, and access to the sublime is opened.

            Dewey refers to a remark by Herbert Spencer to elucidate this idea.  "When he [Spencer] says that every fact has two opposite sides, ‘the one its near or visible side and the other its remote or invisible side,’ he expresses a persistent trait of every object in experience.  The visible is set in the invisible; and in the end what is unseen decides what happens in the seen…."[3]  I read Experience and Nature to be a kind of manual about how to see the invisible in the visible.  Somewhat paradoxically, the discovery that will render the unseen visible will ultimately be about seeing the continuity between the visible and the invisible.  It will have to do with understanding the continuity between our experience and nature.  To make this discovery we will need a method.  Dewey explicitly describes his overall project in the first chapter of Experience and Nature as replacing the "traditional separation of nature and experience" with a clearer sense of the "continuity" between experience and nature.[4]  He then outlines his method for achieving this goal.

            Dewey correlates these two different ways of regarding nature with different moods, and correlates the different moods with different periods in human history.  "A gloomy temper of life" dominates those periods of human history in which human beings have felt severed from and mystified by nature.  The methods for trying to secure some control over nature tend to be on the order of divination and propitiation.  Dewey mentions pre-fifth century B. C. E. Greece and then the later medieval period as being characterized by superstition and gloom.  The flowering of fifth century Greece, especially in Athens, where nature was viewed as to some degree malleable and subject to our control (especially our own natures as being subject to some sort of moral or ethical control) gave the Athenians a sense of power over their lives that created a pervasive mood of cheerfulness and joy.[5]   What the cheerful Greeks had that the gloomy ones did not have was a method, or, rather, the idea that there were various methods, methods for doing things that were more effective than other ways of doing things.  Dewey refers to these as "instrumental arts."  "Through instrumental arts, arts of control based on study of nature, objects which are fulfilling and good, may be multiplied and rendered secure."[6]  The difference between the gloomy and the cheerful mood is a different way of regarding our relation to nature.  This difference is especially characterized by having a particular kind of method, or, say, the right attitude for discovering all sorts of different methods.         

            The method or the methodological stance that will achieve the kind of understanding of nature that will be empowering and liberating Dewey refers to as the empirical method (or the experimental method or the method of intelligence).  It is a method based on the methods employed in the sciences.  It is a method that begins with material from primary experience and refers back to primary experience for testing.[7]  It is a fallibilistic method, that is, self-correcting, and it is sensitive to the "tendencies" of things as opposed to responding only to the immediate experience of things.  Dewey says, "The idea of tendency unites in itself exclusion of prior design and inclusion of movement in a particular direction, a direction that may be either furthered or counteracted and frustrated, but which is intrinsic."[8]  That is to say, to identify a tendency is not to identify a fore-ordained telos, but to recognize a thing in process, and to see what direction the thing is progressing towards.  Dewey goes on to say, "To assert a tendency and to be fore-conscious of a possible terminus of movement are two names for the same fact."[9]  What is liberating and empowering about this method is "fore-consciousness," an understanding of what is happening and where things are going and how one can influence what will happen or where things will go.

A defining characteristic of the empirical method is discovery.  As Dewey says, "the life blood of modern science is discovery."[10]  That is, the empirical method is not about simply our response to things, but about how things, understood contextually and temporally, really are.  And the things that it is concerned with are not objects so much as "potentialities" or "tendencies;" relations, correlations, characteristics of a situation that will yield probabilities for future conditions.  As Dewey says, "For any object of primary experience there are always potentialities which are not explicit; any object that is overt is charged with possible consequences that are hidden…."[11]  The overriding objective of this method is to identify the implicit potentialities of things, with "things" understood to include all aspects of nature, events, other people, and ourselves.  Dewey says, "The history of the physical sciences is the story of the enlarging possession of mankind of more efficacious instrumentalities for dealing with the conditions of life and action."[12]  That is to say, what the empirical method will reveal is properties of things and of situations, properties that we will be able to make use of when we need to.

            For Dewey, this empirical method is not just for scientific experimentation, but for philosophy, and not just for philosophy as a specialized academic discipline, but as the name for "reflective analysis"[13] in general, so that anyone and everyone might use the empirical method, and the more the better.  Of course, we all do use the empirical method in many aspects of our lives.  Any operation in which we respond to a problem we encounter with experimentation, with exploration, with trying different options, and which ends in some kind of discovery--this works, that does not--is an example of the empirical method in action.

                        A primary physical manifestation of the process of thinking, of employing the empirical method, is tools.  "The first step away from oppression by immediate things and events was taken when men employed tools and appliances."[14]  Dewey defines a tool as "a thing in which a connection, a sequential bond of nature is embodied."[15]  This is an appropriately pregnant definition of a tool.  It suggests that our human connection to nature is manifested in our connection to our tools, which are themselves embodiments of connections to nature.  This embodiment itself is not so much immediate as futural.  A tool represents "a sequential bond of nature" which I read to mean that a tool represents a means by which a sequence of events can be initiated, directed, and chosen.

            To use a tool is to respond "to things not in their immediate qualities but for the sake of ulterior results, immediate qualities are dimmed, while those features which are signs, indices of something else, are distinguished."[16]  In so far as anyone has ever used a tool successfully they have worked with the invisible in the visible, the unseen in the seen; they have demonstrated the knowledge of nature as a mixture of the precarious and the predictable.  To use a tool is to have and to generate meanings, and the "tool of tools" is language.[17]  Language raised to the level of art, as in poetry and literature, becomes a criticism of life.  By that Dewey means that such arts as literature and poetry "supply the meanings and terms of which life is judged, esteemed and criticized."[18]  The criticism of criticism, for Dewey, is philosophy.  As Dewey says, "philosophy is inherently criticism, having its distinctive position among various modes of criticism in its generality; a criticism of criticism, as it were."[19]  One way to effect the emotional turn from the anxious and anaesthetic to the sublimely pleasurable and aesthetic, I want to suggest, is to do philosophy.

            The failure of human beings in gloomy times—and I take it to be a truism that gloomy times occur for individuals in certain times of their lives as well as to civilizations in certain periods of their histories—is the failure to trust that the unseen and the directable in the microcosm of their lives (where they will successfully use certain tools) operates in the whole realm of nature as a macrocosm.  They fail to see that there are still greater tools to use to secure greater powers for initiating and directing sequences of events in the world.  For Dewey, to be so empowered is to have the numinous haze of gloom dissipate.  To feel like one has some control in one’s life is the solution to the problem of gloom. It is an understanding of the subtle powers of nature itself, and in that understanding comes a power to work with nature to bring to fruition what is in you and in nature to bear fruit.

            Dewey says, "Poets who have sung of despair in the midst of prosperity, and of hope amid darkest gloom, have always been the true metaphysicians of nature.  The glory of the moment and its tragedy will surely pass."[20]  I read Dewey as saying here that the criteria for being either a poet or a metaphysician are, first of all, to be able to see the transitoriness in every situation, the seeds in every situation of its opposite.  Second of all, however, is required the ability to sing of these things, which I read to signify that the true metaphysician, as well as the poet, is not daunted by this transitoriness, but rather remains in the attitude of celebration and cheerfulness.  Even the gloom entailed by the most hopeful moment entails a still more future hope.  To see this, and to see that this too is something that can be worked with, used, brought to a particular fruition is to be a real metaphysician and a real poet of nature.

            This invocation of poets and metaphysicians gets to the very heart of Dewey’s project in Experience and Nature.  Near the beginning of the second chapter, a chapter entitled "Existence as Precarious and Stable," Dewey says, "the concern is not with morals but with metaphysics, with, that is to say, the nature of the existential world in which we live."[21]  Dewey’s is an existential metaphysics, with all the reverberations of the word "existential".  That is, Dewey is taking on the problem of where the meanings are in a world that is precarious and uncertain.  What Dewey has discovered is that there are ways of interacting with the world, ways of experiencing the world, that naturally yield meanings. 

            An important emphasis here is on the idea that meanings are yielded.  That is, meaning is not something we simply come upon in the world.  Meaning is something that, if we persist in a certain way, that is, with a certain method and a certain kind of open, experimental attitude, over a period of time, will emerge.  If you do not understand this it is likely that you will not believe it.  You will choose not to believe it because to sustain the appropriate attitude and methods takes a certain amount of discipline, which is difficult at first.  What is perhaps most difficult about it is the necessity of muting one’s own desire for resolution; what is most difficult is sustaining the doubt, the ambiguity, the scepticism that must be combined with persistent pursuit, persistent inquiries, persistent attention to the tendencies of things over a sufficient length of time for the meanings to emerge.

There will be, especially initially, an element of faith in this kind of experience, in this way of experiencing the world.  That is, if the world really is ultimately arbitrary and chaotic, and meanings will not, will never, emerge, then this attitude and method are really pointless and counter-indicated.  If, on the other hand, meanings do emerge, and, furthermore, their emergence depends on our activity, our participation, our selecting and directing energies, so that in facilitating their emergence we are empowered as well as edified, then to miss this whole way of being in the world will be itself a kind of tragedy, a waste.  This attitude and method may be difficult to adopt initially, but, according to Dewey, their effectiveness, and the empowerment they yield, will transform the onerous into the frankly pleasurable, so that each moment of experience becomes its own pleasure as well as the preparation for a future satisfaction.

            The metaphysics of Experience and Nature is an inductive metaphysics, not a deductive metaphysics.  That is, Dewey’s metaphysical conclusion that meanings emerge is not derived by some abstract logic from axioms, but rather is derived from the logic of experience itself.  We have all had successful experiences of emergent meanings, the question is, how far we trust this pattern to hold in nature at large and for experience in general.  Dewey’s claim is that the further you can go in experimentally testing this pattern in the world, the further you will see that the world will respond in ways that are surprising, amazing, and, ultimately, meaningful, which is to say, revealing of patterns and tendencies that are gratifying to discover and useful for future projects.

            In his Preface to Experience and Nature Dewey speaks explicitly of the element of faith in this method of relating experience to nature, "It points to a faith in experience when intelligently used as a means of disclosing the realities of nature…."[22]  That is, this faith is not blind but the result of experience intelligently used.  To speak of experience "intelligently used" is to suggest that there is an alternative to that, experience without intelligence.  Experience without intelligence is just experience without the attention to the tendencies of things, without the selective and directive response to tendencies that make experience something we do as opposed to something we simply undergo.  It is the experience of a sequence of immediate opacities as opposed to of imminent and emergent revelations.

            Dewey goes on to say, "There is in the character of human experience no index-hand pointing to agnostic conclusions, but rather a growing, progressive self-disclosure of nature itself."[23]  Nature itself is unfurling, like the bloom of a rose or the curl of a wave.  In so far as we experience nature ‘intelligently’, our delight will follow naturally upon the revelations of the unfurled rose, which we have anticipated and hoped for.  An even more striking metaphor for me is the idea of experiencing nature as like catching a wave.  To catch a wave takes study, knowledge, practical skill as well as a kind of intuitive responsiveness to the dynamic of a particular wave.  To live one’s life catching the wave of nature is to have one’s experience be art.

            What needs to be seen, according to Dewey, is that

science is an art, that art is a practice, and that the only distinction worth drawing is not between practice and theory, but between those modes of practice that are not intelligent, not inherently and immediately enjoyable, and those which are full of enjoyed meanings.  When this perceptions dawns, it will be a commonplace that art—the mode of activity that is charged with meanings capable of immediate possession—is the complete culmination of nature….[24] 

Art is the culmination of nature.  Nature itself aspires to art, which is only to say that the processes of nature are those of bringing to fruition the tendencies of things.  When we live in the fullest, most intelligent experiential way we are, like nature, identifying the tendencies of things and working with those tendencies to bring them to a fruition that is most satisfying to us.  To catch the wave is to do what nature does.  It is to be aligned with nature in oneself.  It is to be natura naturans, nature naturing, to use Spinoza’s phrase.

            To be able to do this is part of what I call the American sublime.  I call it the American sublime because of how closely this conception of the sublime is tied to the lineaments of American pragmatism, being empirical, fallibalistic, melioristic, futural, and empowering.  It is the transformation of the potentially awful and terrifying into the satisfying and useful for some future purpose.  It is the transformation of the horrible into the aesthetic.  It is a description of this transformation that pervades the classics of American philosophy, in the works of Thoreau and Emerson, James and Dewey.  It is profoundly futural, and so revolutionary, coming out of America’s severance with its own past by means of its own revolution

            This American sublime is a departure from the Kantian sublime of the third Critique.  There the resolution of the terrifying into the satisfyingly aesthetic was attributed to a ratification of our separateness from nature.  That is, for Kant, the sublime moment comes when we recognize something about ourselves that is untouchable by, and distinct from, all of the principles of nature.  We recognize our own internal unity, our Ding an sich-ness, our potential autonomy from nature and our potential capacity for morality.  The Deweyan American sublime finds the sublime moment in a very different recognition.  It comes from the recognition of our deep continuity with nature.  We are nature, we are in nature and nature is in us.  Whereas this possibility was itself horrifying to Kant, rendering us mere objects in the clock-works mechanism of nature, for Dewey this recognition is the very source of our autonomy, of our freedom and power.  Nature, for Dewey, is not a pre-established clock-works mechanism.  It is in process, as are we.   In so far as we understand the processes of nature, we can work with them, and working with them we can make choices.  As Dewey says, "choice is not arbitrary, not in a universe like this one, a world which is not finished and which has not consistently made up its mind where it is going and what it is going to do."[25] 

            Kant’s separation of our human nature, of the ultimate grounds of our consciousness, from nature as a whole makes the concept of freedom only clear as a negative concept and so, ultimately, mysterious.  Dewey directly connects our consciousness with nature.  It is an expression of nature in us.  Dewey goes on to say, "When consciousness is connected with nature, the mystery becomes a luminous revelation of the operative interpenetration of the efficient and the fulfilling."[26]  For Dewey freedom is an explicitly positive concept of our intelligent engagement with nature.  To realize this is to have the terrifying as well as the mundane transformed into the sublime.  The luminosity of this revelation is what makes the experience of the sublime aesthetic.


[1] John Dewey, Experience and Nature in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-53, Volume 1: 1925 edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern University Press, 1988), 43.

[2] Experience and Nature, 43-44.

[3] Experience and Nature, 44.

[4] Experience and Nature, 9.

[5] Experience and Nature, 103-4.

[6] Experience and Nature, 103.

[7] Experience and Nature, 15.

[8] Experience and Nature, 279.

[9] Experience and Nature, 279.

[10] Experience and Nature, 21.

[11] Experience and Nature, 28.

[12] Experience and Nature, 20.

[13] Experience and Nature, 26.

[14] Experience and Nature, 105.

[15] Experience and Nature, 101.

[16] Experience and Nature, 105.

[17] Experience and Nature, 134.


[18] Experience and Nature, 159.


[19] Experience and Nature, 298.


[20] Experience and Nature, 96.

[21] Experience and Nature, 45.

[22] Experience and Nature, 4-5.

[23] Experience and Nature, 5.

[24] Experience and Nature, 268-9.

[25] Experience and Nature, 67.

[26] Experience and Nature, 265.