Code: PD-10

 

Religious Mystery, Ethical Perception, and Art Criticism: Investigations in Dewey’s Aesthetics

 

Panel Proposal for 2004 SAAP Conference

 

 

Three Confirmed Participants:

 

"Renewing the Problematic: John Dewey on the Consummation of Mystery" 3455 words

 

"John Dewey’s Ethics of Perception" 3441 words

 

"The Perceptual Ground of Criticism in Dewey’s Aesthetics" 3290 words

 

John Dewey’s Ethics of Perception

 

 

For individuals trained in classical approaches to philosophy, the association of ethics and perception may seem misplaced.  Most philosophers have conceived ethics as a set of theoretical formulations concerning how individuals ought to act.  When an individual follows these moral strictures to the letter, living a good life becomes possible. Perception, on the other hand, is traditionally thought to belong a realm of pure passivity; perception is nearly always mere perception.[1]  Near the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition, Aristotle conceives sensation in such wholly passive terms, and, much later, Kant sees perception in basically the same fashion.  For Kant, sensation is a merely receptive faculty requiring understanding so that the raw data it passively receives may be meaningfully ordered.  Ethical questions are decided by reason in its purely practical and active employment.  Free action is only possible insofar as one is no longer in thrall to sensation.  Dewey criticizes the passive role of perception in Kant’s system:

[Kant’s work] takes as its cue to the understanding of perception what belongs only to the act of recognition, merely broadening the latter to include the pleasure that attends it when recognition is prolonged and extensive (LW 10:258).

 

Dewey does not deny that much of the time perception takes place in the mode of mere recognition: Individuals make a home for themselves in the world, and recognition reflects this fact.  A key aim of Art as Experience is to show that this mode of perception is not the only way of perceiving and hence experiencing the world.  Art can serve to transfigure recognition in order to render perception truly perceptive:

Only occasionally in the lives of many are the senses fraught with the sentiment that comes from deep realization of intrinsic meanings.  We undergo sensations as mechanical stimuli or as irritated stimulations, without having a sense of the reality that is in them and behind them: in much of our experience our different senses do not unite to tell a common and enlarged story (LW 10:27).   

 

Perception, like action and thought, tends toward regularity and habituation.  This in itself is not problematic; it only becomes so if these habituated modes of existing come to be seen as the only possibilities.  Art is of utmost significance for Dewey because it stands as the human achievement that opens the way toward unique perceptual and imaginative possibilities.  The artwork can provide the occasion that frees individuals of their habituated modes of perception.  Perception thus plays a dual role for Dewey.  On the one hand, habitual forms of perception consign human beings to the ways of being to which they have grown accustomed.  Alternatively, perception in its aesthetic aspect becomes the vehicle by which humans are freed from habituation in order to realize other possibilities. 

             I approach the relationship between Dewey’s ethics and aesthetics in the following essay by posing two related questions.  Initially, I investigate what perception has to do with Dewey’s conception of ethics. This first question focuses primarily upon the place of habit and the role perception plays in the formation and possible re-formation of habits.  According to Dewey, perception can effect change in our entrenched habits so that we may see and be in the world differently.  Whatever perception is for Dewey, it cannot be limited to the passive role to which much of the tradition relegates it. 

            My second question is related to the first, and it concerns primarily the account of perception Dewey provides in Art as Experience.  What is ethical about such an account?  Art at its best, Dewey tells us at the end of the ninth chapter of Experience and Nature, is the education of perception:

At their worst, these products [of fine art] are "scientific" rather than artistic; technical exercises, sterile and of a new kind of pedantry.  At their best, they assist in ushering in new modes of art and by education of the organs of perception in new modes of consummatory objects; they enlarge and enrich the world of human vision (LW1: 293)

 

Art, in order to truly educate, would need to illustrate possibilities that had not occurred to anyone before and thereby be authentically instructive; such instruction would be the occasion for the realization of new modes of perception and being, rather than a purely intellectual form of education.   How is such an aesthetic education simultaneously a moral education?  For Dewey, this is a question concerning the constitution of new meanings and habits, new ways of conceiving or perceiving the world and dwelling within it.  

 

Habit and In-habiting: The Place of Moral Perception in Dewey’s Ethics

 Moral perception has become a philosophical question of late, primarily due to the work of Iris Murdoch and those concerned with her thought.  For example, Lawrence Blum’s 1991 article "Moral Perception and Particularity" relies upon Murdoch’s work in order to elaborate a theory of moral perception. Blum understands moral perception as that discernment that allows us to relate the given conditions of particular situations to the faculty of judgment.[2]  Blum argues that moral perception bridges the gap between particular situations and universal ethical concepts, something of a blind spot in rule-based ethical theories such as Kant’s.  This insight is not novel; indeed, I will argue in this section that something akin to Blum’s account of moral perception is present in Dewey’s ethics as well, though it plays a very different role.[3]

            According to Blum, an account of moral perception must be included in any moral theory if it is to properly account for moral action.  Moral judgment alone is insufficient because it cannot accommodate the pre-reflective aspect of moral decisions.  Moral perception is pre-reflective yet serves as a motivation to either act ethically, or to conclude that such action is unnecessary and do nothing.  Blum’s examples of moral perception include a couple sitting on a crowded subway car that spot a middle-aged woman with shopping bags who is forced to stand.  The woman turns to the man and asks him why he does not give up his seat for the older encumbered woman.  Blum’s point in this and other examples is that both individuals perceive the middle-aged woman, but only one of them perceives the situation in moral terms.  Blum seeks to show that moral perception transcends mere perception but remains prior to cognitive judgment.  Moral perception is something felt rather than thought.   

            Dewey would agree with much of what Blum writes about moral perception.  The problem with Blum’s account is that it lacks Dewey’s rich conception of habit.  Stating that moral perception is somehow pre-reflective and leaving it at that seems to be sufficient for Blum in this article, but such a negative characterization moral perception would not suffice for Dewey.  Perception is much more than a pre-reflective reception of sense-data that is occasionally moral and hence sometimes serves as a goad to moral action.  For Dewey, perceptions inform and maintain our habitual forms of life.

            It is important to keep in mind the stubbornness of habit for Dewey.  In the unfinished introduction he prepared for Experience and Nature, habit’s obstinacy is well summarized:

Revolutions in the formal organization of human relationships are much easier to effect than revolutions in the hearts and minds of men.  Those who have from infancy drawn their intellectual and moral sustenance from the institutional conditions into which they were born and by the necessities of the case have not known any other do not change their desires and convictions when governments topple and new laws are enacted.  Habituations to the old persist long after the old has changed its form.  Ways of observing, of communicating, of prizing and disapproving are engrained in character and are neither thrown off nor greatly modified by what are deemed revolutions by those who record the course of history (LW 1:336).

 

The inertia of habit has greater force than revolutions that topple governments and bring institutional change.   Truly revolutionary, then, would be something that could transform habit.  Dewey believes aesthetic perception can serve to change our habits.  A possible consequence of habituation is the deadening of perception, such that the only possible form of perception becomes recognition.  Additionally, individuals lose the possibility of imagining and thinking differently.  Habits must be learned and cultivated, even those that come to be considered ‘bad’ habits were acquired with a specific end in view, for most bad habits are only bad relative to a particular context. Habits become potentially problematic when they become ‘second nature’ to us and thereby determine particular courses of action so rigidly that they foreclose on other possibilities. 

            However, habituation for Dewey is not a thoroughly negative phenomenon.  Through our habits, humans in-habit the world and thereby make an unwelcome environment more hospitable.  Habituation provides human beings with a fund of stable meanings that can come to have the force of natural laws.  Habits are the means by which we first become identifiable as individuals, and the means by which we first come to inhabit a shared world.  Thus, Dewey writes toward the end of Chapter Five of Art as Experience,

The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon by further experience.  In their physical experience, things and events experienced pass and are gone, but something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self.   Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world.  It becomes a home and the home is part of our experience (LW 10:109).

 

Perceptions of objects and things experienced in the world are fleeting, but these fleeting perceptions contribute to the cultivation of a stable self, one at home in a world of habituated meaning. Habits are the intersection of the organism and its environment.  They stabilize existence so that the organism can thrive in an often unpredictable and frightening environment.  Dewey takes issue with much of the philosophical tradition because it seeks to transcend the transitory and precarious side of existence in favor of the stability of the ideal.[4]  Overemphasizing either the stable or precarious aspects of existence makes accounting for human meaning difficult.  While it is certainly true that human existence is marked by the search for ideals transcending the transitory moment.  Dewey’s point is that such a search often sacrifices the momentary in favor of those ideals that become valued out of proportion.  Kant’s reason, Plato’s Forms, the theologians’ God: Each of these can become excuses to forget experience as it is undergone in the present in favor of a stable existence thought to undergird this experience.  Dewey’s project requires a return to experience so that we might re-discover the stability inherent within experience.  Habits are paradigmatic examples of such stability.  We cannot forget, however, that experience is rhythmic and that habits can always become endangered by the precariousness of existence. 

Dewey’s account of moral perception and habit is not opposed to Blum’s account.  The point on which they differ concerns the viability of rule-based ethical theories.  Blum holds that his account of moral perception serves to bridge the gap between the general, formal rule and the matter of the concrete situation.  Dewey’s account of ethical perception, in contrast, is not amenable to such prescriptive ethical theories.  Dewey’s ethics begins with an agent immersed in a concrete situation.  Individual agency is due to this interaction within the given situation, and such action is informed by past experiences and their meaning generated into the present.  When the individual poses the question of who precisely she is, the answer must take into account all that the individual has done and all that she has suffered.  Such doing and suffering provides the material of experience, but this fund of past experience is not isolable.   An experience is only significant relative to the fund of past experiences that render it meaningful.  For Dewey, the answer to the question of what is to be done must always be decided by beginning from the particular context from which this question arises.  His ethics is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and any prescriptive weight it carries must always be measured against the concrete experience from which it originates. Whereas Kantian moral theorists seek to define the moral individual in spite of concrete experience, Dewey’s thought begins with concrete experience and must constantly return to this source in order to remain vital.  The question of this vitality as a key facet of experience and the interplay between the common, stable fund of meaning and the individuality of expression that makes the artwork possible guides the following section, on the ethics of perception in Art as Experience.

 

Individuality and Community in Art as Experience

On some level, art has always expressed the dynamic tension between shared meaning and individual expression.  Even artworks that only retrospectively fit modern categories of art seem to express this relationship.  Objects from the dawn of human history that are thought by art historians to have a common ritualistic meaning, such as the Venus of Willendorf or the cave paintings at Lascaux serve communal purposes.  The reason we so easily (and anachronistically) label such expressions of common life art is because these works still evince the trace of an individual’s hand. The artist begins with common material in order to fashion something qualitatively new.  The artist begins with shared meaning and perceives something new within it.  Great artworks express something never before seen or conceived, and yet the work produced must be recognizable as a work that could have already been seen or conceived.  It must have been within the bounds of the possible, but discovered to have been possible only once it actually exists.  Of course Leonardo could have painted the Mona Lisa.  After all, he did paint it.  Great artworks almost become a matter of course once they have been created because they become a touchstone for meaningful embodiment in new works, thus domesticating he novel meaning embodied in the work of art.  Paintings that were once unique images such as the Mona Lisa become objects of recognition rather than objects prompting aesthetic perception. 

            The integration of the artwork into the fund of communal, habituated meaning is not the end of the story, however.  Great artworks are recognized as such because there is always the possibility for the reactivation of the artwork as an object of aesthetic perception.  The artwork maintains the tension between the artist and the individual viewing the work of art.  The artist seeks to create something in order to forge new possibilities of meaning from a fund of common experience.  As Dewey writes in Art as Experience, "Immediacy and individuality, the traits that mark concrete existence, come from the present occasion; meaning, substance, content, from what is embedded in the self from the past" (LW 10:78).  Art in large measure arises out of the desire to create, but on Dewey’s account, such an urge does not arise from nothing.  The artist creates in large measure from out of her past experience; this fund of past experience is not her own, but instead stems from habituated meaning acquired from living in common.           

The artwork is not only uniquely expresses shared meaning; in addition it can institute the shared meaning that is a primary feature of community:

Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life.  But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.  The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work.  In the degree in which art exercises its office, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity (LW 10:87).

 

Consider the Neolithic cave paintings once again.  The paintings at Lascaux are one of the only clues we have indicating who these people might have been.  Certainly archeologists also may recover tools and other objects among the caves that provide us other clues.  But the discovery of the paintings proves much more meaningful than the discovery of such common objects, for this discovery leads us to do more than surmise the specifics of life for these ancient humans.  In addition, we can surmise based on their art how they may have conceived themselves.  Based on the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, we can for example hypothesize that these people saw themselves primarily out of necessity as great hunters.  This identification was fundamental enough for them to commemorate through painting.  To take another example: When one looks at certain works of Rembrandt, the importance of the rise of mercantilism in Dutch society is illustrated much more plainly than the picture that emerges from a study of shipping records from the period.  The general traits of a society are given form in part through the art its individuals create. 

            Encountering works of art should not be reduced to the mere beholding of the work of art.  Instead, each moment of truly aesthetic perception re-enacts the work.  The artist’s creative desire is replicated in the viewer’s aesthetic encounter with the work.  Every experience is unique.  It is not just the artist who expresses her individuality in the work; each perceiver also potentially affects the meaning of the work through her encounter with it:

A new poem is created by everyone who reads poetically—not that its raw material is original for, after all, we live in the same old world, but that every individual brings with him, when he exercises his individuality, a way of seeing and feeling that that in its interaction with old material creates something new, something previously not existing in experience (LW 10:113).

 

Every artwork can be an occasion for new meaning, thus every artwork is potentially the occasion for the education of perception.  Truly great artworks continue to work at freeing the individual from her exclusive reliance upon the common.  Each viewer can in turn add meaning to what is held in common by communicating this unique experience to others.  In this way, the world we hold in common might escape the drudgery of the commonplace.      

Just as the artwork arises from the interaction of common and unique aspects of experience, every individual shares in the habitual meanings into which she is initiated through imitation and education.  Stating that art ought to be the occasion for the education of perception is the equivalent for Dewey of saying that the arts have a moral function.  As he points out in the Conclusion to Human Nature and Conduct, "Our moral measure for estimating any existing arrangement or any proposed reform is its effect upon impulse and habits.  Does it liberate or suppress, ossify or render flexible, divide or unity interest?  Is perception quickened or dulled?  Is imagination diverted to fantasy and compensatory dreams, or does it add fertility to life?  Is thought creative or pushed to one side into pedantic specialisms?" (MW 14:202-203).  Art is the education of perception, but the education of perception is in turn of moral import.

 Moral education for Dewey is education that seeks to regulate future action. Children are punished, according to Dewey, not because of what they have done but instead in order to regulate future behavior, to begin to change habits or inhibit their formation.  This sort of punishment becomes an aspect of education.  Dewey would agree with Peirce that the individual first becomes an individual through cognizance of ignorance and error, but ignorance and error are insufficient to render the individual a member of a community.[5]  This requires education.  Of course, cognizance of ignorance and error ought to be a feature of education for both that aspect of education that renders us part of the community and that educates perception.  Both aspects of education emphasize the importance of the fleeting present.  Momentary experience is not something to be transcended, but is instead an integral part of what it is to be an individual.  The individual situates herself at the transitory site where the stable past becomes the unpredictable future, where habits can give way to that which is possible.  An education seeking to eliminate ignorance and error would be one that sought to forego the present and hence forsake the individual for the sake of conformism.  An education that sought to eliminate the precarious in favor of the regulated and stable would be an education divorced from the individual and her capacity to perceive, imagine, and think; in short, it would be an education ignorant of the potential within each individual to transform the mundane.            

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The Perceptual Ground of Criticism in Dewey’s Aesthetics

 

 

In his 2001 book Beyond Aesthetics Noël Carroll argued against the commingling of theories of art with theories of aesthetic experience.[i] He claimed that aesthetic theories tend to reduce the problems of art, such as interpretation, criticism and moral and political responses to art, to problems of aesthetics. "Speaking very roughly," he wrote, "the problems of art theory fall more on the side of culture, while those of aesthetics fall more on the side of nature. Mixing these problems together – confusing art theory and aesthetics – will guarantee that we will solve none of them" (41). Carroll believed theory and culture were distinct from aesthetics and nature, and this dualism pervaded his philosophical ideas on art.

            Dewey’s 1934 Art as Experience obviously presented Carroll with a prime example of the aesthetic reductionism he wanted to avoid.[ii] Dewey situated art and its cultural implications within a broader understanding of naturalistic experience. He also dissolved the dualisms between art and culture on the one hand and aesthetics and nature on the other by stressing the continuity and emergent qualities of culture from and within nature. In essence, Dewey’s aesthetics committed all the mistakes Carroll thought we needed to avoid to adequately understand art today.

            In this paper I will investigate the relationship between art and aesthetics. Carroll is not only a philosopher of art but also in the center of many contemporary discussions in film studies. As such, his philosophical views are important points to debate in hopes of extending the reach of Dewey’s aesthetics into film studies. From Dewey’s aesthetics I draw the claim that perception is criticism in germ, and that the habitual nature of perception undermines any effort to separate theory from criticism, art from aesthetics or culture from nature.

            The claim that perception is criticism in germ develops in response to three questions arising from Carroll’s work. First: Can a response to art, whether aesthetic or nonaesthetic, be wrong? Second: Are interpretation and criticism distinct from theory? And third: Is art separable from aesthetics? For Dewey all the answers would have been in the negative, the reasons for which result in undermining Carroll’s argument and establishing a theory of criticism emergent from perception.

            In his first chapter, "Art and Interaction," Carroll set out to divest the notion of the aesthetic from the philosophy of art. His concern was that "The aesthetic definition of art privileges aesthetic experience to the exclusion of other nonaesthetic forms of interaction that the art object can be designed to promote" (7).  He believed that aesthetic responses are not the only criteria "of a successful interaction with art," that other responses such as interpretation of a work and identification of structure(s) of a work should not be "disregarded" as "characteristic and appropriate mode[s] of participating with artworks" (10). Carroll believed the scales were tipped in favor of aesthetic responses when art was reduced to aesthetic experience. "It does not seem to me," he wrote, "that any given type of response is necessary to having an appropriate interaction with the artwork. With some artworks, we may only be able to respond in terms of aesthetic perceptions while with others only interpretive responses are possible" (19).

            Carroll’s position rests heavily on the notion of an appropriate response to a work of art, thus implying the possibility of inappropriate responses to a work of art.[iii] This position is wrong from Dewey’s perspective because Carroll implied the value of the artwork and our response to it was determined solely in the making of the object, prior to any spectatorial interaction. In Dewey’s opinion "The conception that objects have fixed and unalterable values is precisely the prejudice from which art emancipates us" (LW 10: 101). Dewey believed that values were made by art, not instilled into them for easy distribution and consumption.

            Beyond the question of value remains the possibility of responding incorrectly to art. Carroll’s assumption rests on the idea that our interaction with art is reducible to an epistemological concern – did we get the point of the movie or understand it correctly? In essence, interaction with art is a verifiable activity, and Carroll not only separated art from aesthetics, he subsequently maintained the reduction of both to knowledge.

            Dewey argued against any such reductionism. Instead, he felt the qualitative aspect of experience constituted the ground of any other mode of experience, be it moral, political or epistemological. "Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics," he wrote, "and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration" (LW 10: 352). The possibilities insinuated by art cannot be found in any other mode of relation because they exist prior to our knowledge of them. Knowing and using them requires a process of distillation removed from the qualitative experience of art, yet always conditioned by it. Dewey wrote that the "future is a promise like a halo around the present" (LW 10: 24). With these words he meant that we are surrounded with possibilities, and setting forth on a particular path cannot extinguish the halo. An artwork similarly provides a halo of possibility when we encounter it. First and foremost this halo is felt, not known.

            Intimately tied with this discussion is a conception of reality, for Carroll implied that our response to artworks could be inappropriate or wrong. Alternatively, if one had the correct response, the implication is that one could never encounter the same work differently in the future. Correctness is a function of knowledge though, and Dewey’s philosophy serves to undermine this reduction. Furthermore, Dewey believed that things "are what they are experienced as."[iv] With this view Dewey argued against those who reduced reality to a function of knowledge. The ultimate concern for Dewey was not the stasis of knowledge, but the process of learning and transforming ones habits.[v] Therefore, considering an encounter with art to be incorrect misses the point of the artwork entirely. First, second, third encounters and responses are all real, and hopefully all different. Boredom results when subsequent encounters are not different, and in this case we do not enjoy the possibility for growth and learning. When we do see things differently we realize change and growth has occurred, but only if we regard previous responses as real, not incorrect.

            The question of the division of theory and criticism deepens the issue of responses to art. Intrinsic to Carroll’s work was the idea that theory and criticism are activities of a different kind. Theorizing about art constitutes an attempt to understand the material component of an artwork. Criticism, whether demonstrative or interpretive, aims to enhance the experience of the spectator. In Beyond Aesthetics Carroll distinguished these two forms of criticism into aesthetic and nonaesthetic categories (42). He distinguished theory from criticism in two books on film: Theorizing the Moving Image and Interpreting the Moving Image. To put the matter simply, Carroll believed in a distinction between the material and the meaning of an artwork and developed a system of theory and meaning to account for this belief.

In fact, it is common to find cognitive film theorists staking out such distinctions in prefaces to their books. Anderson, Small, and Bordwell also have made this move.[vi] Criticism for them takes up the role of interpretation of images. Theory is the abstract endeavor of understanding how images are perceived and constructed. By committing to this dualism terms need to be created to bridge the gap between perception and interpretation, seeing and meaning and experience and significance. These terms denote structures that cannot be accounted for experientially, thus more problems arise in defining the nature of art and aesthetic experience.

            Dewey’s philosophy dissolved the distinction between theory and criticism by situating both activities within the broader framework of perception. In response to confusion in critical writings Dewey wrote, "The arts of science, of politics, of history, and of painting and poetry all have finally the same material; that which is constituted by the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings. They differ in the media by which they convey and express this material, not in the material itself" (LW 10: 323). The material of art is experience and the means by which experience is expressed to others is a medium. These terms do not constitute a dualism in the way Carroll’s notion of matter and meaning provide the objects for theory and criticism.

            A key point to for consideration is the nature of sense perception. Cognition conditions nonaesthetic activities but does not operate in aesthetic experiences in Carroll’s view. Thus, any discussion of meanings relies upon interpretation, and thus cognition, whereas aesthetic experience never extends beyond the senses into cognition. Dewey viewed sense perception in a dramatically different way. "Sense itself" was "the meaning of things present in immediate experience" according to Dewey (LW 10: 28). The senses, or sensory organs, performed an interpretive function in their natural capacity to feel, hear, touch, taste and smell (LW 10: 28). Hearing an event and seeing an event are two discriminations of the same event filtered by the two senses. Furthermore, Dewey held that "Sense qualities are the carriers of meanings, not as vehicles carry goods but as a mother carries a baby when the baby is part of her own organism" (LW 10: 122). Meanings are immediately available to us through our senses. Knowledge and cognition are not necessary conditions for the ability to perceive meaning.

Dewey’s philosophy offers us the chance to preclude the theory/criticism distinction by recognizing that perception itself is habitual and selective. Victor Kestenbaum’s study of Dewey’s theory of habits succinctly identified the selective nature of our pre-cognitive perceptions. Kestenbaum argued, perceiving "quality is the outcome of qualification" and qualification is the "dialectic of body and world" provided by "organic habits."[vii]

The fact that perception is habitually selective provides a foundation for a theory of criticism that is intrinsic to the perceptual act. Dewey’s major renovation in aesthetics was to situate the aesthetic as an intensification of experience, not a different kind of experience. Likewise, I believe it is possible, and quite fruitful, to see that criticisms fundamental activity arises from the basic acts of selection of particular things from the overabundance of things available to us. This view of criticism is anathema to Carroll’s stance separating theory from criticism, wherein perception is unallied and bereft of meaning.[viii]

            Under Carroll’s view criticism constitutes the development of meaning from static perceptions. Following Dewey, perceptions deliver meanings immediately, and the work of criticism is the analysis and synthesis of these directly perceived meanings (LW 10: 313). Here again the question of the distinction between theory and criticism arises. Traditionally, theory is thought to consist of the intellectual process abstracted from things present. But in reality there is constant reference to the object of abstraction, not a decisive split between the two operations. If perceptions from artworks are static impressions then abstraction and consequent judgments will always yield similar results. But if perceptions are habitually conditioned criticism becomes a dynamic enterprise with a wide variety of viewpoints. The result of a static theory of perceptions, as with the reduction to knowledge, is a deadening of critical discourse in the public sphere. If art and its meanings are merely objects of knowledge then the only credible aim is to get it right once and for all. A theory that holds meaning intrinsic to perception and learning equal to knowledge values the varieties of aesthetic experiences enjoyed by diverse members of a community.

            Answering the question of the relationship between theory and criticism orients the discussion of the relationship of art to aesthetics. Just as meaning is implicit in perception, so too is art implicit in experience in Dewey’s philosophy. Carroll, however, focused the first part of his book toward separating art from aesthetics in hopes of freeing up discussions of art. He wrote:

[W]hen the philosophy of art becomes aesthetics, the agenda of what philosophers in this area will and will not talk about is subtly set. Art history and the relation of art to morality, politics, and, indeed, to the world at large – topics of deep concern to theorists of art in nonanalytic traditions – for example, are primarily ignored or even actively denied to be issues of philosophical interest (21).

 

He offered two reasons why aesthetic theories flourished. First, grounding art in experience allowed for easy development of theories of criticism and appreciation of art and of its value to our lives. Second, the only way to have a good definition of art was to tie it to beauty and aesthetic experience (39-40). With such a view, Dewey’s aesthetics was an easy target.

            To counter the proliferation of aesthetic theories, Carroll offered a deflationary account of aesthetic experience. His theory

identifies aesthetic experience in terms of the content of certain experiences whose objects it enumerates as, first and foremost, the design of artworks and their aesthetic and expressive qualities. It does not propose some common feature between these two kinds of experience … that constitutes the essence of aesthetic experience (60).

 

Aesthetic experience in this account "involves either design appreciation, quality detection or both," or some other characteristic yet to be discerned (60). With this view Carroll hoped to make room for nonaesthetic responses to artworks in philosophical discussions. Again, he tried to deflate the definition of aesthetic to make room for rational, interpretive and cognitive responses to art.

Carroll’s deflationary attitude also characterized his critique of Dewey’s aesthetic theory. He raised four basic points in his discussion of Dewey’s aesthetics (49-51). First, he characterized Dewey’s account of aesthetic experience as both a structural and a phenomenological description of such experience. This characterization is incorrect because the identification of generic traits of experience is not a phenomenological endeavor.[ix] Moreover, Carroll claimed a pragmatic account of aesthetic experience was both structural and also focused "squarely on the content" of such experience (49). In seeking the "irreducible traits" of experience Dewey cannot be accused of seeking either the form or content of experience.[x] For Dewey those categories were derived from experience by reflection, and thus weren’t constitutive of experience.

            Second, Carroll saw Dewey as reading back into everyday experience the traits he could identify from aesthetic experience, whereas Dewey began with an analysis of experience in general and then moved to aesthetic experience.[xi] Dewey thought aesthetic experience was an intensification of everyday experience as evidenced by his phrase, experience "is art in germ" (LW 10: 25). 

Third, Carroll limited his discussion to consider the "aesthetic experience of artworks," and chastised Dewey for overextending the reach of his concept of aesthetic experience (41, 50-51). Aesthetic experience was ideal experience for Dewey, and he did not limit it to encounters with artworks, nor did he require the presence of an artwork to enjoy aesthetic experience.[xii] The potential for aesthetic experience is always with us, whether we stand in a museum or not.

Finally, Carroll identified three overgeneralized traits of Dewey’s aesthetic experience: duration, qualitative unity, and temporal integration and closure (51). In response to the idea of duration in all aesthetic experiences, Carroll argued, "Some paintings just overwhelm you in one shot. Pow!" (51). Dewey’s ideas in the essay, "Qualitative Thought," laid out the pre-reflective, qualitative characteristic of the world in which we live.[xiii] Dewey argued that a situation, something that may simply strike us as an ejaculatory comment – akin to Carroll’s "Pow!" – is never just a simple, instantaneous outburst. It is a matter of a developing history, configured by habits of perception. In "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," Dewey established his view that human perception is not a passive response to external stimuli but an active participant in the surrounding world.[xiv] Thus, Carroll’s belief that an artwork can just overwhelm a person misses the active stance of perception the person must inhabit for such a response to occur.

Next, Carroll suggested the notion that a governing tone can be found in aesthetic experiences of artworks such as John Cage’s 4’33" or a film by Antonioni which conveys only chaos is impossible (51). Dewey’s description of experience in the "Introduction" to Essays in Experimental Logic, underscores the qualitative aspect of situations Carroll neglected. Situations are marked by a "pervasive quality," and it is this qualitative aspect of the experience that gives rise to the possibility to identify something as disorganized or chaotic.[xv]

Finally, Carroll tied his rejection of Dewey’s notion of duration to his dismissal of the idea of closure, for if an aesthetic experience is as fast as "Pow!" then no time exists for anything to be closed. Carroll also noted that the sublimity of some paintings "envelops you all at once" (51). Dewey’s perspective on this point is already clear, as closure is a qualitative aspect of the situation, not temporally identified. And the recognition of the feeling Carroll asserted only comes after the experience, and he thus committed the fallacy of reading into experience the trait(s) he could identify. Dewey was a more precise student of experience in this regard.

These arguments serve to show exactly where Carroll and Dewey would disagree. Such deflationary tactics make no sense when viewed through Dewey’s lens. It is well established and known that for Dewey the qualitative world, the world in which we immediately live, was the ground for all other modes of experiencing the world whether cognitive, moral or political. In fact, all forms of experience possess a qualitative character – it is not left when one inquires or acts, it always conditions what we ask and how we act.

Dewey believed that

A primary task … is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience (LW 10: 9).

 

Importantly, Dewey saw distinctions in degrees of experience, but all experiences shared common traits – what Carroll disparaged as essences. Both philosophers wanted to account for the vast reactions to and experiences of art, but only Dewey saw experience in its continuity. "In short," he wrote, "esthetic cannot be sharply marked off from intellectual experience since the latter must bear an esthetic stamp to be itself complete" (LW 10: 45). This claim reiterates the previous argument that all experience bears a qualitative dimension that serves as the ground for possible interactions, that aesthetic experience is merely the "clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally completed experience" (LW 10: 53).

            From Dewey’s point of view, Carroll’s attempt to demarcate aesthetic and nonaesthetic responses to art promulgates a wrong-headed dualistic view of experience. Dewey thought the rise of industry and mechanization partly responsible for the fracturing of experience into component parts (LW 10: 15). He wrote, "theories which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing, are not inherent in the subject-matter but arise because of specifiable extraneous conditions" (LW 10: 16). Recalling that the subject-matter of art is experience clarifies Dewey’s point. The distinctions and classifications we make in experience affect the way we look at experience.[xvi] Dewey argued that although industrialization and compartmentalization of human life have taken hold in various forms of institutions, experience itself remains unified and art expresses this unity (LW 10: 26). Neglect of this fundamental unity leads to philosophies that isolate experience in different forms and then construct methods for reuniting various forms of experience. "Ultimately there are but two philosophies," Dewey wrote. "One of them accepts life and experience in all its integrity, mystery, doubt, and half knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and art" (LW 10: 41). This is the philosophy of Dewey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Unless, of course, it is that pure theoretical beholding that is next to godliness for Aristotle.  Cf Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, esp.1178b9-1179a32.  An exception to this passivity of perception can be found in the work of Leibniz.  

[2] Lawrence Blum, "Moral Perception and Particularity," Ethics, Vol. 101, no. 4, pp. 701-725.

[3] Of course, one could return to the Aristotelian conception of phronesis, which is that sort of knowledge that allows one to determine the proper course of action in particular situations.  Blum cites Martha Nussbaum as a thinker concerned with discovering accounts of moral perception in ancient ethical theories.  In addition, he sees Kant as one who understood the need for a link between the particular situation and theoretical rules.  Judgment fulfilled the function of moral perception for Kant, for it is in judging that agents subsume given particulars under universal categories.  Perception alone is much too impoverished (merely receptive) to accomplish such a feat.

[4] Much of Experience and Nature, for example, takes up this theme. 

[5] C. S. Peirce, "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man," Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol. 1 (1867-1893), pp. 11-27.   On page 20, Peirce writes:

A child hears it said that the stove is hot.  But it is not, he says; and, indeed that central body is not touching it, and only what that touches is hot or cold.  But he touches it, and finds the testimony confirmed in a striking way.  Thus, he becomes aware of ignorance, and it is necessary to suppose a self in which this ignorance can inhere.  So testimony gives the first dawning of self-consciousness. . . .Ignorance and error are all that distinguish our private selves from the absolute ego of pure apperception.   



[i] Carroll, Noël, Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[ii] Dewey, John, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Volume 10: 1934 Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Cited in text by (LW 10: xx).

[iii] I am reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry caused a minor scandal by making out with his girlfriend during Schindler’s List, and this seems to me the type of response Carroll must consider inappropriate.

[iv] Dewey, John, "The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism," The Middle works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 3: 1903-1906, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, p. 158-167, p. 158.

[v] Dewey wrote, "Experience is the result, the sign, and the reward of that interaction of organism and environment which, when it is carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication" (LW 10: 28). The implication is that Carroll’s argument for interactions with art without a full grounding in experience, much less a conception of the aesthetic, will never bring us to understand art as a transformative force in our lives.

[vi] Ibid, and Edward S. Small, Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994; Noël Carroll made his claim in the form of two books, Theorizing the Moving Image edited by W. R. Henry Breitrose, Cambridge Studies in Film Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 and 1998s Interpreting the Moving Image edited by D. A. William Rothman, Cambridge Studies in Film Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; David Bordwell set forth his criticism of film criticism in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1989, and his theory of theorizing in "Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory," in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

[vii] Kestenbaum, Victor. The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey: Habit and Meaning Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977, p. 63, 26.

[viii] Joseph Anderson stakes out this distinction in his book, The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville: 1996, p. 3.

[ix] Phenomenology generally understood aims to identify phenomena, as the name implies, while Dewey’s effort as characterized in his article "The Subject-Matter of Metaphysical Inquiry" (see citation below) was to identify the generic traits of experience, whether aesthetic or not.

[x] Dewey, John. "The Subject-Matter of Metaphysical Inquiry," The Essential Dewey, V. 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy Edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1998 (1915), p. 177.

[xi] Dewey’s Art as Experience began with "The Live Creature," situating human existence in general, and only then progressed to "The Live Creature and ‘Ethereal Things’" to show the intensification possible in experience. Finally, well into the book, Dewey discussed "Having an Experience," which by all indications was the one chapter of Dewey with which Carroll was familiar. This progression shows how Dewey developed his thought, that aesthetic experience must be placed within the larger scope of experience, and that it is not a different kind.

[xii] See the opening chapter of Art as Experience for the negative impact museums have on aesthetic experiences, c.f. Malraux’s Museum Without Walls.

[xiii] "Qualitative Thought," found in Hickman and Alexander, V: 1 p. 195-205.

[xiv] The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," Hickman and Alexander, V: 2, p. 3-10.

[xv] The "Introduction" to Essays in Experimental Logic is found in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 10: Essays on Philosophy and Education, 1916-1917 Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press: 1985, p. 320-365. Reference is from p. 322-323.

[xvi] Perhaps the strongest statement Dewey made to illustrate the continuity of human culture and experience was his 1925 book Experience and Nature, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981. In a 1949 draft of a revised introduction to the book Dewey claimed, "Were I to write (or rewrite) Experience and Nature today I would entitle the book Culture and Nature (361). This reflection indicates his commitment to the view of continuity of experience, and its intrinsic tie with nature.

 

 

 

 

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Renewing the Problematic: John Dewey on the Consummation of Mystery

 

 

Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and art. (LW10: 41)

 

John Dewey’s thought aims to provide resources for tackling the concrete problems of existence head-on without superstition, mystification or otherworldly consolation, to creatively respond to the exigencies of life in a decisive, meaningful and no-nonsense manner. But does Dewey really think all problems should be solved, that the proper response to a problem is always to solve it? Or can one still be a Deweyan and think certain problems require intensification and affirmation rather than resolution and overcoming?

In this essay, I wish to explore these questions by considering the side of Dewey’s thought concerned with ‘accepting and deepening experience in all its uncertainty, mystery doubt and half-knowledge’. I concede from the start that this aspect of Dewey’s thought is underdeveloped by Dewey himself who is far more a problem-solver (though not in any simple utilitarian sense of the term) than a problem-preserver. Hence, my focus in what follows will be quite narrow. Instead of surveying Dewey’s work for instances where mystery is discussed and affirmed, I will attempt to highlight throughout what I take to be a somewhat neglected dimension of consummatory experience: what I am choosing to call ‘the renewal of the problematic’ or the way in which all consummation preserves and intensifies the mysterious dimension of existence.[xvi]

My essay is divided into two parts. In the first part, I offer a close reading of Chapter 2 of Dewey’s Experience and Nature, entitled "Existence as Precarious and as Stable". My argument here will be that, for Dewey, the stable and the precarious are not two realms of being or forces in the world, but rather they constitute a unified structure of nature which Dewey calls ‘the problematic’ and which I see good reason for also calling ‘the mysterious’. In the second part of the essay, I consider the relationship between the problematic or the mysterious and Dewey’s notion of consummatory experience. Here my task will be to understand what Dewey means when he writes that the consummatory is the union and harmony of the stable and the precarious (LW1: 269). I argue that, given that the stable and the precarious are already unified as the problematic or mysterious structure most constitutive of nature, consummation unifies the stable and the precarious only in the sense of renewing and intensifying them as a whole structure, not in the sense of uniting them in a third state or higher reality. I conclude the essay by briefly considering the ramifications of this understanding of consummatory experience for Dewey’s claim that the aesthetic in its most intense forms is religious. 

 

1.  The Precariously Stable Unity of Existence: The Mystery of the Problematic

           

In this section of my essay, I hope to develop a conception of the mysterious from Dewey’s thought by examining in close detail Chapter 2 of Experience and Nature, entitled "Existence as Precarious and as Stable". In this chapter I believe we can find a rich and subtle definition of mystery as the unity of the stable and the precarious which Dewey calls ‘the problematic’: the most basic, inescapable and all-pervasive trait of nature. 

In Experience and Nature, Dewey employs what he calls the denotative method in order to offer a rich description of experience as it is lived and undergone in ordinary and extraordinary everyday life. Experience, for Dewey, is primarily practical in nature which means it is an affair of both doing and knowing, giving and taking, reflecting and deciding. Furthermore, in Dewey’s estimation, experience is not cast out from nature so that the former intends or is imposed upon the latter; rather, experience is natural and nature is experiential: experience and nature pervade and interpenetrate one another so as to be irreducibly joined. Dewey understands his philosophy of natural experience as a foray into metaphysics, that is, as an attempt to denote generic traits of existence. (LW1: 50) Such denotation is not simply valuable for its own sake. Rather, Dewey’s metaphysics of experience is carried out for the sake of reconstructing experience: to deepen and enrich our lives requires denoting – taking note of – what we hope to achieve, the situation in which we find ourselves, the resources available to us, and the things that stand in our way.

Significantly, the first generic trait of existence Dewey notes is the "uncertain, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and hazardous" (LW1: 43) character of life. "Time is brief," Dewey writes,

…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. Although persistent, they are sporadic, episodic. (LW1: 43)

 

Dewey begins by pointing out the precarious and ambiguous dimension of existence because he thinks it has been systematically neglected and devalued by traditional metaphysics which instead privileges the fixed, stable and unchanging. Dewey says explicitly that his goal in this regard is not to convince us of the validity of pessimism. (LW1: 45) Instead, Dewey thinks empirical philosophy must include the precarious as a pervasive quality of existence if we are to maintain a robust and holistic list of generic traits. Furthermore, Dewey insists that the stable is just as basic and fundamental as the precarious, and criticizes philosophies (such as, on Dewey’s account, those of Heraclitus and Bergson) which deify or pedestalize change and process. Existence for Dewey is then a mixed bag consisting of both kinds of every extreme; life is always a little bit of everything even when a lot of one thing.

Dewey writes that traditional metaphysics separated the precarious and the stable into ‘two separate realms of being’ – typically, those of appearance and reality – and then found itself with the problem of how to ‘adjust or reconcile’ the divided regions (LW1: 52). Dewey is sympathetic with the philosophical drive to discover and secure an ultimate, unchanging reality once and for all. "The facts," Dewey writes, "of the ongoing, unfinished and ambiguously potential world give point and poignancy to the search for absolutes and finalities" (LW1: 51). Thus, Dewey does not rule out the importance of absolutes for practical life, but instead urges us to adopt them as ideals "to inspire and guide conduct" rather than as refuges from the struggle of choice (LW1: 51).[xvi]

This struggle is born from and reckons with what Dewey takes to be the irreducible mixture of the stable and the precarious constitutive of natural existence. In this sense, Dewey understands the metaphysical quest for certainty as a creative response to an existential problem which tends to forget this fact in attempting to logically reconcile change and permanence, appearance and reality in a dialectical whole. This attempt, Dewey claims, is unnecessary insofar as the stable and the precarious are always intertwined – "present," Dewey writes, "in conjunction and interpenetration" (LW1: 57).

Hence, the classical attempt to sort out and classify separate regions of being can, Dewey says,

…tell us a good deal about experience as it exists: namely, that it is such as to involve permanent and general objects of reference as well as temporally changing events; the possibility of truth as well as error; conclusive objects and goods as well as things whose purport and nature is determinable only in an indeterminate future. (LW1: 56)     

 

Dewey is claiming that we can figure out what experience is as a whole by looking at how others have picked it over and pulled it apart. Experience as a whole is not for Dewey a metaphysical construct or ideal; instead, it is our factical, everyday situation in which, of which and from which everything is planned and accomplished. Dewey calls this whole "[t]he union of the hazardous and the stable, of the incomplete and the recurrent" (LW1: 57) and "the conjunction of the precarious and the assured…the repetitious and the varying, the safe and sane and the hazardous" (LW1: 67).

For Dewey, then, the stable and the precarious form a unified structure which he names ‘the problematic’ in order to capture the sense in which everyday thought and action attempts to creatively transform experience in order to render good things more stable and bad things less stable (LW1: 51). In this sense, life for Dewey is a problem for which we are constantly working to find solutions. There are problems in life according to Dewey not because of historical immaturity or strategic failure but rather because life itself is problematic. Dewey makes the point that life is always problematic by pointing out the extent to which uncertainty and instability remain despite our best efforts to the contrary. For instance, Dewey writes that by means of science and technology "we have secured a degree of power of prediction and of control…we have made the world more comfortable to our needs, a more secure abode" (LW1: 45). But then he is quick to add the following: "But when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated" (LW1: 45).  For Dewey this fact of life is not reason for lamentation and fatalism; on the contrary, it is the source, possibility and content of all hope and despair, success and failure, triumph and tragedy. Life is first and always problematic and it is up to us how we decide to deal with this mixed blessing. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that life is not for Dewey wholly what we make of it; for while it is within our powers to make ourselves at home in the world, we will never be able to make the precarious entirely stable, or render stability completely precarious.

As I indicated above, I think we can fruitfully understand the problematic in Dewey as the mysterious.  In Experience and Nature, Dewey speaks of the mysterious in terms of the ineffability of immediately experienced qualities of natural existence. (LW1: 74) Though Dewey himself does not make this move, I would like to argue that his notion of the naturally mysterious is the defining characteristic of the problematic. For I believe that when we contemplate the problematic in reflective thought, or come face to face with it in action, we describe it as mysterious; furthermore, I would say that any sense we have of a supernatural mystery is ultimately grounded in a more fundamental sense we have that nature itself is mysterious in its ordered and diverse complexity. Let me indicate now why I think Dewey would agree with me here.

We have seen that Dewey insists that we don’t know what we’re going to get in life; furthermore, we can’t know, and life is precisely the process of coping with the fact that existence is fundamentally problematic: a constant, pervasive mixture of stability and insecurity. Life is mysterious from a Deweyan standpoint not because it ultimately consists of nothing but flux, nor because it is secretly eternal or is moved in mysterious ways by a distant and hidden supernatural power; rather, it is mysterious because it doesn’t ultimately consist of anything – of any one thing. Formulated differently: life is neither wholly fixed nor changing, therefore, it is mysterious. Thus, the Deweyan mystery of life is not the completely unknown and unruly, but the partially known and manageable; what is mysterious is not that we can’t know anything about life but rather that we can’t know everything about it. And I would argue that this fact makes life all the more mysterious since it means that we can’t even count on the certainty of absolute uncertainty. In other words, the acuteness of Deweyan mystery consists in the fact that even mystery is not entirely mysterious; life is mysterious not despite but because of our ability to understand, predict and control it: the mysterious unity of existence is constituted by its lack of ultimate unity and identity.           

           

2. Preserving the Problematic: The Consummatory Renewal of Mystery

 

 

In the last section, we saw that Dewey understands existence as a unified structure of the stable and the precarious which he calls ‘the problematic’. Furthermore, I argued for understanding the problematic as the mysterious dimension of nature which can be modified but never overcome.  In this section, I turn to examine the relationship between the mysterious and what Dewey calls ‘consummatory experience’. In particular, I wish to argue that all consummatory experience preserves, intensifies and renews the mystery of life. To do this, I will be focusing on Dewey’s definition of the consummatory as the union and harmony of the stable and the precarious (LW1: 269). I hope to show that the consummatory does not unify the stable and the precarious in a third state but rather brings their fundamental unity as ‘the problematic’ to the center of experience.

Consummatory experience is the aesthetic end of conscious, intentional effort aimed at the immediate enjoyment of lived meanings. To understand the consummatory then it is important to grasp what Dewey means by ‘ends’, and this in turn will enable us to comprehend the union of the stable and the precarious in consummation. All ends for Dewey are aesthetic, which does not mean ‘beautiful’ but rather directly enjoyed, had and undergone (LW1: 70). We will remember that the problematic nature of life makes both success and failure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, possible, and makes the occurrence of both in the same event likely. Since for Dewey life is ongoing, by ‘ends’ he does not mean divine or absolute ends. Rather, ends for Dewey are "temporal, not absolute" (LW1: 83), that is, they always finish a particular beginning and give way to a new beginning. As such, they are finite, inherently fragile and transient: "unique, unstable and passing" (LW1: 96). The end of means is where means begin again, not where they come to an absolute end. And ends are all the more final and intrinsically valuable precisely because they don’t come to a full stop. In this way, all natural ends complete rather than transcend their particular means. Hence, ends for Dewey are always ends-in-view: they are "both expectant and commemorative" (LW1: 85-6) they are "fulfillments, conclusions, completions, [and] perfections" which proceed from "prior reflection, deliberate choice and directed effort" (LW1: 86).  In other words, ends-in-view cannot be accidental or spontaneous in which case they are just terminations or interruptions – mere hiccups in time rather than complex developments of time.   This is precisely the difference between ends as "endings" and ends as "fulfillments": the former are terminations, while the latter are completions (LW1: 92-3). For Dewey then, there is, as he says, no rest save in process (LW1: 98).

            Consummation is a unique kind of end-in-view. It is the completion rather than the cessation, the maturation rather than the arrest, of energies directed toward the fulfillment and enjoyment of meanings. As such, consummatory experience is qualified as ‘an experience’; it is, Dewey writes, "a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency" (LW1: 42). An experience is "complete in itself," Dewey says, "standing out because marked out from what went before and what came after" (LW1: 43). This does not mean that it breaks from the past and resists the future; on the contrary, it stands out as the culmination of a history and projection of a new one. As such, consummation is the concentration and compression of time, effort and energy into an experience of a single, felt quality pervading its various parts (LW1: 44).  Dewey calls this concentration of time ‘rhythm’: the ordered variation of change and intensity. (LW1: 158-9) Rhythm is time transformed from a successive sequence of now-points to a dynamic, balanced flow of accumulation and conservation, expansion and contraction, resistance and release. Hence, rhythm restores to time a dramatic sense of tension and development.

Importantly, Dewey writes that rhythm is the basic temporality of nature: "As far as nature is to us more than a flux lacking order in its mutable changes, as far as it is more than a whirlpool of confusions, it is marked by rhythms" (LW1: 154). If nature consisted of pure flux time would continually overflow and outstrip itself; if it consisted of permanent stability time would rest comfortably in an eternal moment. But since nature is a mixture of both order and variation, it is rhythmic; like the movement of breathing, nature expands and contracts in a regular, ongoing cycle (LW10: 152). In other words, rhythm is the very temporality of the problematic or the mysterious.

 What does this discussion contribute to our understanding of Dewey’s claim that the consummatory is the union and harmony of the stable and the precarious? (LW1: 269) Dewey writes the following about rhythm: "There is rhythm in nature before poetry, painting, architecture and music exist" (LW10: 152, emphasis mine). And only on this basis, Dewey continues, can aesthetic experience culminate rather than superimpose upon nature. (ibid.) This means that when Dewey argues that the consummatory unifies the stable and the precarious he definitely does not mean that consummation converts the stable and the precarious into an ultimate third term or state. This is because the consummatory is rooted in, constituted by and developed from nature as rhythmically problematic. The consummatory then does not unite the problematic in a higher realm of being thereby surpassing the problematic; instead, it intensifies nature as problematic – as partial and incomplete. In this sense, the consummatory is, Dewey writes, an "event in which nature otherwise partial and incomplete comes fully to itself" (LW1: 269), but this fullness is only the intensification of nature’s fundamental partiality and incompleteness. Consummation achieves this by gathering the stable and the precarious in their already unified state as the problematic or mysterious. Gathering here means then not collecting, combining or reuniting, but rather enabling and preserving; consummation allows the problematic to be both stable and precarious in their simultaneity, and brings their inseparable relationship to the forefront of experience. The consummatory does this by demonstrating and performing the problematic in the very instability of its structure: as an end-in-view, it is a fragile finality, or order on the verge of change; as rhythmic, it is a developmental process, or order in variation. The consummatory then is itself problematic. For to have an experience is to both become and undergo the strange harmony and union of the stable and the precarious; it is to turn the problematic upon itself in order to double back upon and thereby double up the mystery of nature. In doing so, we cultivate and culminate, regain and renew, our sense of and sensitivity to the naturally mysterious.

In this essay, I have attempted to show that nature for Dewey is ‘the problematic’: a unified structure of the stable and the precarious. I argued that we can justifiably understand the problematic as the mysterious in the most naturalistic sense of the word: the inescapable complexity and diversity of natural life. I then took up the issue of the consummatory in relation to the problematic or the mysterious and claimed that consummation preserves and increases the mystery of nature by virtue of its problematic, temporal structure as a rhythmic end-in-view. Let me conclude now by briefly considering my argument as it relates to Dewey’s discussion of the religious dimension of consummatory experience. Mystery is a word often used to describe the content of religious experience. Dewey himself is not opposed to thinking of aesthetic experience as mystical in nature: "I have had occasion to speak more than once," he writes, "of an intense esthetic experience that is so immediate as to be ineffable and mystical" (LW10: 297). Dewey thus claims that, in its most intense forms, aesthetic experience is religious, for it is capable of "[introducing] us into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences" (LW1: 199).  In this movement of immersion, we regain, Dewey says, a sense of wholeness, of belonging to the universe, which we naturally call religious (ibid.). But our union with the larger totality is, I have shown, always problematic and mysterious, for it consists in an experience which is by its very nature mysterious: final as temporary, complete as incomplete, full as partial, and unified as diverse.  We must then conclude that, for Dewey, what we might call ‘aesthetico-religious consummation’ makes us whole again only in making us incomplete again, that it brings us security only by throwing us into question.  For there is no rest for the mysterious save in the intensification of itself.