Panel Title – Dewey on Art, Religion, and Experience: Reading Art as Experience with A Common Faith

Panel Abstract: The philosophy of John Dewey can contribute much to the attempt to recognize the bonds linking the aesthetic and the religious. Indeed, Dewey's thought is particularly well suited for the project of establishing continuity between modalities of experience that others have assumed are radically distinct. This is because Dewey's philosophy aims to dissolve the dualisms that fragment our experience of the world: high art vs. common art; experience vs. nature; the sacred vs. the profane, etc. Furthermore, Dewey devoted an entire work to both art and religion, publishing Art as Experience and A Common Faith in the same year (1934). Regarding this fact, Thomas Alexander has even remarked that A Common Faith is, in many respects, the last three chapters of Art as Experience, where Dewey turns to fully consider the religious and social significance of the aesthetic. [1]

However, very little has been written about the relationship between aesthetic and religious experience in Dewey's thought.[2] This panel seeks to begin exploring this relationship not only in order to contribute to Dewey studies, but also to demonstrate how Dewey's views on this subject can benefit our cultural understanding of the ways in which human meanings may achieve optimal expression through the combined powers of art and religion. In order to clarify the relationship between the aesthetic and the religious in Dewey's writings, so that we may thereby begin to liberate cultural meanings located in the intersection of art and religion, the interpretative strategy of this panel consists in reading Art as Experience and A Common Faith in relationship to one another. In so doing, we hope to elucidate the important themes and objectives that connect these two texts, and to thus allow Dewey's most sustained reflections on art and religion to speak to our contemporary views concerning the relationship between two of the most profound expressions of human meaning and value.

"Dewey on the Religious Dimension of Aesthetic Experience" seeks to delineate Dewey's unique conception of what the paper names "aesthetico-religious experience" by examining Dewey's remarks in Art as Experience concerning the religious quality of aesthetic experience in relationship to the conception of religious faith developed in A Common Faith. From this examination the paper concludes that the religious dimension of aesthetic experience is that aspect which binds man to the problematic whole of nature, and to the imaginative horizon of the unity of ideal ends.

"Dewey on Imaginative Individuality in Aesthetic and Religious Experience" aims to clarify one aspect of the relationship between religious and aesthetic experience in Dewey's writings: the role and character of individuality in religious and aesthetic phases of experience. The paper focuses on individuality as the aesthetic site of habits and imagination, ideas and ideals, whose active relation Dewey considered religious and divine. The author thus concludes that individuality is the aesthetic and religious nexus of creative change in society, in and through which habits and imagination are integrated to reconstruct society according to ideal ends.

"Instituting Art and Religion: Nature, Experience, and Criticism in Art as Experience and A Common Faith" examines the parallel institutions of art and religion in Dewey's thought.  The paper begins by examining Dewey's conception of political institutions. In the second part, the aim is to demonstrate that modern religious, artistic, and philosophical institutions are problematic because they institute a rigid distinction between humanity and nature, and they deny their origins in the everyday problems of humankind.  The final section examines Dewey's conception of criticism as it pertains to the aesthetic and religious aspects of experience in order to assess Dewey's solution to the problem of artistic and religious institutions.

Dewey on the Religious Dimension of Aesthetic Experience


In Art as Experience John Dewey writes that aesthetic experience can take on religious quality and significance (LW10: 197-199; 275). In this essay I will explore the following question with regard to this claim: According to Dewey, what makes aesthetic experience religious? In exploring this question I will focus on the related phenomena of wholeness and unification in order to delineate Dewey's unique conception of what I am choosing to call "aesthetico-religious experience." My overall claim in this paper is that, for Dewey, aesthetic experience becomes religious at a certain peak level of intensity when the problematic character of nature is brought to the center of experience; furthermore, I will argue that the religious dimension of aesthetic experience is that aspect which binds man to the problematic whole of nature, and to the imaginative horizon of the unity of ideal ends.

The Religious in Art as Experience

Let us begin our investigation into the religious dimension of aesthetic experience by looking at exactly what Dewey says about the relationship between the religious and the aesthetic in Art as Experience. Those familiar with Dewey's thought know that throughout his writings Dewey works diligently to acknowledge the continuity that exists between different modalities of experience. Thus, rather than two separate and distinct kinds of experience, aesthetic and religious experience are for Dewey just two different degrees of cultivated, ordinary experience. Furthermore, the aesthetic and religious modalities of experience can and do exist in conjunction with one another; thus, religious experience can be deeply aesthetic, and it is possible to have an aesthetic experience that is religious in quality. The latter is of course my focus in this essay, and thus it is important to note Dewey's insistence upon the possibility of aesthetico-religious experience. In Art as Experience, for instance, Dewey writes: "I have had occasion to speak more than once of an intense esthetic experience that is so immediate as to be ineffable and mystical" (LW10: 297). And, significantly, Dewey reiterates this point in A Common Faith when he makes the following bold assertion: "There is the mysticism of intense aesthetic experience independent of any theological or metaphysical interpretation" (CF 36).

What is it about an intense aesthetic experience that qualifies it as mystical? Dewey answers: "[A]ny experience becomes mystical in the degree in which the sense, the feeling, of the unlimited envelope becomes intense – as it may do in experience of an object of art" (LW10: 197). Thus, for Dewey, aesthetic experience becomes mystical when the feeling of being in the presence of, or partaking in, the whole ("the unlimited envelope") is greatly intensified. Here we should point out that aesthetic experience is particularly ripe for taking on a religious dimension, insofar as the latter designates for Dewey a quality of unification or wholeness. Dewey characterizes aesthetic experience in its developed phase as an experience, or experience with its own irreducibly unique quality and self-sufficiency. This quality pervades the constituent parts of the experience, qualifying the experience as a unified whole: that meal, that song, that movie. Hence, unity and wholeness are already defining characteristics of aesthetic experience prior to its acquiring religious significance or quality.

But whereas aesthetic experience thus harbors the possibility of the religious, an aesthetic experience becomes religious for Dewey only at a certain peak level of intensity in and through which the whole – not just the unified structure of aesthetic experience, but the unity of "the universe," "the unlimited envelope" (LW10: 197-99) – is sensed immediately and directly. In general, we can then say that in Art as Experience Dewey holds that aesthetic experience becomes religious when it gives us a sense of the whole or "the universe." For instance, in his most sustained reflection on the religious dimension of aesthetic experience Dewey writes the following:

A work of art elicits and accentuates [the] quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole which is the universe in which we live. This fact, I think, is the explanation of that feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an object that is experienced with esthetic intensity. It explains also the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception. We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves. I can see no psychological ground for such properties of an experience save that, somehow the work of art operates to deepen and to raise to great clarity that sense of an enveloping undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience. This whole is then felt as an expansion of ourselves....Where egotism is not made the measure of reality and value, we are citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves, and any intense realization of its presence with and in us brings a peculiarly satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves (LW10: 199).

This is a particularly rich passage for the topic under consideration here. In this passage Dewey says explicitly that aesthetic experience becomes religious when it introduces us into the whole. He then clarifies this by saying that aesthetic experience only makes our everyday sense of belonging to a whole beyond ourselves clear, direct and immediate. In other words, aesthetic experience does not access a special transcendent realm of wholeness, but instead it intensifies our ordinary sense of wholeness. This is why Dewey writes that aesthetic experience introduces us into a world beyond this world that is nonetheless just the ordinary world of common experience. It is especially important to point out Dewey's description of aesthetic experience as capable, upon reaching a religious peak of intensity, of expanding our sense of self: by introducing or re-introducing us back into the whole, the self is expanded to include the entire universe.  But Dewey does not say that the self becomes or dissolves into the whole; instead, the self is directly related to, and united with, the whole beyond the self, thereby binding one to nature. 

In this sense, aesthetic experience, in the measure that it takes on religious significance, exemplifies what Dewey calls "natural piety," a concept he develops in A Common Faith. For Dewey, natural piety is the ability to appreciate the ways in which nature exceeds the mastery of humanity not despite but because it does not participate in or symbolize a supernatural realm. In short, natural piety is the recognition of and reverence for the fact that man is neither the measure of nature nor the center of the universe (CF 36). Thus, Dewey writes that, "The essentially unreligious attitude is that which attributes human achievement and purpose to man in isolation from the world of physical nature and his fellows" (CF, 25). And: "A religious attitude....needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe" (CF, 53).

In sum, for Dewey, aesthetic experience is religious insofar as it binds man to the natural whole beyond humanity; and it becomes religious precisely at the point at which the self feels most intimately bound to the larger totality. Thus, aesthetic experience may be said to be religious to the extent that it unifies self and world. In the following passage, Dewey specifies two ways in which aesthetic experience, in its religious phase, unifies man: by binding him to others, and by binding him to nature. 

The sense of communion generated by a work of art may take on a definitely religious quality. The union of men with one another is the source of the rites that from the time of archaic man to the present have commemorated the crises of birth, death and marriage. Art is the extension of the power of rites and ceremonies to unite men, through a shared celebration, to all incidents and scenes of life. This office is the reward and seal of art. That art weds man to nature is a familiar fact (LW10: 275).

Here Dewey further clarifies what makes aesthetic experience religious. We saw above that Dewey thinks aesthetic experience becomes mystical or religious when it introduces us (back) into the whole. However, Dewey greatly qualifies the meaning of this definition. According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is religious not because it annihilates the self into the universe, but rather because it relates – and thereby binds – the self to the universe or the whole. In the quote currently under consideration we see Dewey calling the whole "nature." Aesthetic experience is religious in binding man to man, but also by binding all men to nature. The latter is more fundamental than the former insofar as nature is the larger whole of which all humans are a part. The religious dimension of aesthetic experience is then that which achieves direct contact and communion with nature. It remains to consider two further questions that follow from this conception of the relationship between the aesthetic and the religious: What is nature? What is the nature of the self's communion with nature when aesthetic experience becomes religious? I turn now to consider each of these questions in turn, the first by looking at Experience and Nature, and the second by examining A Common Faith.

Nature in Experience and Nature

The question regarding Dewey's conception of nature is important to take up in this context in order to avoid misunderstanding the "mystical" powers of aesthetic experience. In particular, we should be careful not to attribute to Dewey the view that aesthetic experience is capable of penetrating "the veil of Maya" and accessing some remote naturalist version of the thing in itself. Dewey's attempt to demonstrate the continuity that exists between experience and nature is intended precisely to develop a metaphysics that does not posit or assume a distinction between appearance and reality, phenomenon and noumenon, the sensible and the supersensible. This is no doubt why, in Experience and Nature, Dewey does not discuss aesthetic experience as an experience of nature. Indeed, aesthetic experience is simply a highly developed phase of ordinary, everyday experience; and Dewey even writes that any experience is aesthetic in the measure that it consists of an intelligent effort to possess and enjoy lived meanings (LW10: 59). Even more significantly, experience does not intend or superimpose upon nature; instead, experience emerges from and is deeply rooted in nature. What's more, experience must constantly contend with and make use of the conditions of nature. For instance, Dewey insists that the most fundamental (generic) trait of natural existence is the unified structure of the stable and the precarious that he names "the problematic." All experience, for Dewey, is always both stable and precarious simply because experience is thoroughly natural. Thus, rather than discussing aesthetic experience as a form of intentionality directed to nature, or as a form of mystical intuition (in the manner, for instance, of Schelling or Schopenhauer) capable of revealing nature in itself as a supersensible "back-world," Dewey simply examines how aesthetic experience transforms the stable and the precarious.

In doing so Dewey argues in Experience and Nature that aesthetic experience is the culmination of nature in and through which the stable and the precarious are unified (LW1: 269). In Dewey's estimation, such unification is manifested in the rhythmic quality of what he calls "an experience." For Dewey, an experience is the fulfillment of energies directed toward the immediate enjoyment of meaning and value. Thus, an experience is the dramatic consummation of a temporal development and, as such, it exhibits rhythm. Significantly, Dewey defines rhythm as ordered variation of change and intensity (LW1: 158-9), that is, rhythm is the temporal unity of the stable (order) and the precarious (variation and change). Whereas all aesthetic experience is rhythmic and thus unifies the stable and the precarious, aesthetic experience takes on religious significance when the stable-precarious unity is brought to the forefront of conscious experience, qualifying the experience as problematic and imparting a sense of the natural whole beyond the self. However, because nature for Dewey is already a unified whole of the stable and the precarious (a unitary structure Dewey names "the problematic"), the rhythmic temporality of an experience affirms and renews, rather than creates, the problematic unity of nature. Hence, aesthetic experience becomes religious upon encountering the deepest, most all-pervasive meaning of natural existence: the problematic character of the world, which Dewey understands as the condition for all value (LW1: 57). 

We still need to consider how Dewey's conception of the religious dimension of aesthetic experience in Art as Experience – according to which aesthetic experience becomes religious when it senses the whole of nature as the unified stable-precarious structure of the problematic – compares to Dewey's discussion of the religious in A Common Faith.  In what follows I want to focus on how Dewey's discussion in A Common Faith of religious faith as the unification of the ideal and actual can help to further clarify and deepen the conception of aesthetico-religious experience found in Art As Experience. In particular, I believe that examining the relationship between the ideal and actual in religious faith provides another perspective from which to understand the structure and value of aesthetico-religious experience in Dewey's thought.

Unification in A Common Faith  

Let us begin our discussion of Dewey's A Common Faith by reviewing some of this text's central themes and objectives in order to demonstrate its compatibility with Art as Experience. One of the fundamental purposes of A Common Faith is to draw a sharp distinction between religion and the religious. Dewey writes: "The heart of my point [in this book] that there is a difference between religion, a religion, and the religious; between anything that may be denoted by a noun substantive and the quality of experience that is designated by an adjective" (CF, 3). Dewey is arguing that being religious is quite different from belonging to a particular, organized religion. Thus, Dewey calls the religious a "phase of experience" (CF, 2) and argues that it "denotes nothing in the way of a specifiable entity, either institutional or as a system of beliefs....[Instead] it denotes attitudes that may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal" (CF, 9-10).

It is important to note that Dewey does not separate religion from the religious in order to bring the two back together again later in a more integrated and harmonious fashion; instead, he insists that religion must give way to the religious. He writes, "The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be bridged. Just because the release of these [religious] values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved" (CF, 28). Dewey's position on this matter is then anything but ambiguous: the religious, which all people potentially have in common whatever the social, economic and cultural differences that separate them, should replace religion and religions. 

Dewey argues that if the religious is "rescued through emancipation from dependence upon specific types of beliefs and practices, from those elements that constitute a religion," and deeply integrated into our ordinary, everyday experience, "many individuals would find that experiences having the force of bringing about a better, deeper and enduring adjustment in life are not so rare and infrequent as they are commonly supposed to be" (CF, 15). Thus, the religious for Dewey is a comprehensive attitude that may pervade many different aspects of experience. Dewey argues that it is a mistake to define a uniquely religious type of experience different in kind from aesthetic, scientific, instrumental, moral and/or political experience: "[R]eligious as a quality of experience signifies something that may belong to all these experiences. It is the polar opposite of some type of experience that can exist by itself" (CF, 10-11).

What precisely does Dewey mean by "the religious" in A Common Faith? Dewey answers this question quite clearly: "Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality" (CF, 27). The religious then for Dewey signifies a faith in the possibility of actualizing ideals despite all obstacles. Dewey further argues that such religious faith accomplishes the deepest existential adjustment, namely, the unification of self and world. Here then is Dewey's most complete definition of the religious: the unification of self and world through faith in ideals. In focusing on the unifying powers of religious faith Dewey refers to the original sense of religio, which means "to bind,"[3] and insists that religious binding occurs in art as well as morality: "According to the best authorities, 'religion' comes from a root that means being bound or tied" (CF, 23). And: "The religious attitude signifies something that is bound through imagination to a general attitude. This comprehensive attitude, moreover, is much broader than anything indicated by 'moral' in its usual sense. The quality of attitude is displayed in art, science and good citizenship" (CF, 23).

Though here Dewey argues that the religious can accompany any modality of experience (including the aesthetic), it would seem that there is a crucial difference between the religious dimension of aesthetic experience highlighted in Art as Experience and the conception of religious faith that Dewey discusses in A Common Faith. Whereas aesthetico-religious experience senses the whole, and encounters it as the larger universe to which the self belongs, Dewey insists that religious faith projects the whole as an imaginative ideal, "not a literal idea" (CF, 19). Furthermore, the binding that occurs in religious faith is "an ideal, an imaginative projection" which Dewey says leads us to conclude that "the idea of a thoroughgoing and deepseated harmonizing of the self with the Universe....operates only through imagination" (CF, 19).

However, I believe this difference is only superficial for several reasons. First, imagination for Dewey is not the faculty of fantasy, but rather the existential interface between the ideal and actual. Hence, Dewey's imaginative whole is not an imaginary whole; it is rather the ever-receding horizon and trajectory of human ideals, the open-ended unity of ideal ends. On this interpretation, the unification of self and world through religious faith is nothing other than the project – the projection – towards the actualization of ideal ends.  

If in Dewey's estimation imagination is action oriented by ideals rather than the creative faculty of fanciful ideas, then the difference between imagining and sensing the whole is negligible at best.  This is because neither the natural whole of aesthetico-religious faith, nor the ideal whole of religious faith, is a closed and completed whole. The whole of religious faith remains open precisely because it is the ideal object of imagination and thus remains genuinely ideal. As Dewey writes, "All possibilities, as possibilities, are ideal in character" (CF, 23) – they admit of actualization rather than existing in an atemporal heaven or being the property of a supernatural Being (CF, 47-8), but not such that they are "antecedently existing actualities" (CF, 21). Instead, ideals exist as ideals; they exist as possibilities, not as absolutely ideal or eternally actual. The whole of aesthetico-religious experience, on the other hand, remains open because it is a problematic whole which means for Dewey that it is always essentially unfinished and incomplete.

Nonetheless, it appears that the whole of aesthetico-religious experience (the natural whole) is different from the whole of religious faith (the ideal whole). However, Dewey does not strictly differentiate between nature and ideality so as to warrant this distinction. Instead, Dewey insists that in sensing the unlimited envelope of nature aesthetico-religious experience integrates and unifies "actuality and possibility or ideality" (LW10: 301). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Dewey identifies the problematic as "an indispensable condition of ideality" (LW1: 58). Dewey's point is that living in accordance with ideals would not be possible if nature did not consist of both order and variation, the stable and the precarious: without order we could not establish new habits, and without variation we could not break old ones. Dewey's position here is not, however, that the stable-precarious unity is identical to the actual-ideal structure; however, he wishes to indicate that the two structures always occur in conjunction with one another such that to sense the problematic whole is also to imagine the actualized unity of ideal ends.

Sensing the natural whole and imagining the ideal whole always occur together – and thus aesthetico-religious experience exhibits religious faith – since, for Dewey, an experience is the result of intelligent effort directed toward aesthetic experience, that is, toward the human ideal of the direct possession and enjoyment of lived meanings. Furthermore, in encountering firsthand the problematic character of the natural world, aesthetic experience in its religious phase taps into the condition and source of all value and ideality; thus, such experience reinvigorates our imaginative capacities while also sensitizing us to the ideal ends to which they strive. In these ways, aesthetico-religious experience affirms the problematic character of existence at the same time that it projects itself upon the horizon of imagination, thereby renewing our bonds with both nature and culture.

Dewey on Imaginative Individuality in Aesthetic and Religious Experience

"We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God'" (ACF 34).

Dewey's conception of God brings us to the intersections of the old and new in experience and with these junctions habits and imagination unfold as moments of creation. My ultimate aim in this paper is to clarify one aspect of the relationship between religious and aesthetic experience in Dewey's writings. That one aspect is the role and character of individuality in religious and aesthetic phases of experience. This project results more in resubstantiating their similarities and continuity in experience than in identifying divisions and incompatibilities. In individuality habits, imagination, ideas and ideals, and the old and new come together in the active relation Dewey considered divine. Individuality is the nexus of creative change in society, integrating habits and imagination to reconstruct society according to ideal ends.

Dewey's most consistent treatment of the interrelationship of these functions is found in Human Nature and Conduct, but in order to get to the sense in which these are the final source of creative development requires a broader view than that given in his groundwork for a social psychology. To find this broader view I turn to his treatment of habits, imagination and ideals in A Common Faith, which, along with analysis from some passages from his early Lectures on Ethics and a later essay, "Time and Individuality," indicates the importance of individuality in human society. After the individualized nature of religious experience is ascertained the continuity it shares with aesthetic experience gains resolution. Both exhibit transformative capacities in the form of ideals, and both gain their qualitative distinctness in the effects they produce in an individual's bearing in life.

At first glance the idea that these texts deals with habits in any way more significant than Human Nature and Conduct is convoluted. But in A Common Faith Dewey dealt most generally with habits, in that text using the more colloquial term 'attitudes,' and how they function not just as the general will of an individual but also as a motivating force for society. The three chapters of A Common Faith serve a distinct purpose. Chapter 1 establishes the habitual importance of the religious quality of experience in an individual's life. Chapter 2 examines the concept and function of faith as an imaginative ideal unifying and projecting an individual self as an ideal. Chapter 3 situates the individual with faith in the social environment. A closer examination of this essay reveals its importance to Dewey's philosophical concerns with society, creativity and freedom.

In the first chapter of A Common Faith Dewey separated the religious quality of experience from any particular religion. He felt the "religious denotes attitudes that may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal" (ACF 8). "The religious quality," he noted, resides "in the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its productions" (11). Identifying an activity with the adjective 'religious' signals an adjustment has occurred in an individual's general attitude. To describe religious adjustments Dewey distinguished them from accommodations and adaptations - both adjustments in the general sense but heading to the extremes away from religious adjustments. Accommodations are "particular and limited" alterations of "our own particular attitudes" in the face of "conditions we meet that cannot be changed" (ACF, 12). When we find these conditions persist, "we become inured, habituated, or, as the process is now often called, conditioned" (12). The main characteristics of accommodations are their particularity - they don't affect the whole person - and their passivity (12). Adaptations are active "attitudes toward the environment" enacted to change conditions "to meet our wants and demands" (12). "Instead of accommodating ourselves to conditions," Dewey wrote, "we modify conditions so that they will be accommodated to our wants and purposes" (12).

Both accommodations and adaptations are generally adjustments, but Dewey used 'adjustments' to refer to "changes in relations to the world in which we live that are much more inclusive and deep seated" (12). These changes "pertain to our being in its entirety" and are "enduring" due to their broad scope (12). While "this attitude includes a note of submission" passivity is not the dominant quality of an adjustment due to the fact that it is voluntarily enacted (13). Dewey summarized the religious adjustment as "a change of will conceived as the organic plenitude of our being, rather than any special change in will" (13). We know from Human Nature and Conduct that when Dewey wrote of will he meant the entire matrix of habits of an individual (HNC 32). The religious experience thus alters the entire balance of an individual within her environment.

This shift in attitude, still drawing from the first chapter of A Common Faith, makes use of imagination as a binding factor. The function of imagination constitutes the topic of the second chapter. Imagination binds together (in the sense in which Dewey understands religion as a binding factor) the "general attitude;" drawing together the many habits of an individual. Imagination provided Dewey with the method to unify an individual's particular habits, and, in an analogous way, connects the first and third chapters of A Common Faith by uniting the individual with society. Chapter 1 focuses on the nature of the religious habit or attitude and the scope of its grasp. What makes the general attitude available to us is the imaginative projection of a self as a unity (ACF 23). At some point in experience an individual "becomes conscious of some phase of himself

...which has not become realized in experience. He projects that as an ideal, takes what in one sense is a certain fact and part of himself, as a fact, and on the basis of that projects his ideal. ... The fact that it is projected as an ideal means that it has not come out before in its adequacy ... He stands in the place of the ideal and looks back at himself (at his experience, powers, habits) and gets a new revelation of himself, a new insight into his instincts and powers as dependent upon the past. (LE 234)

Dewey claimed this description of the ideal self was also a "twofold reciprocal definition of the self" (LE 234).

The crucial issue for Dewey in the discussion of religious experience was not changing any particular beliefs or habits, but changing "the method by which any and every item of belief is to be arrived at and justified" (ACF 23). A belief in the scientific method, generally understood, was Dewey's aim. The method of scientific inquiry would not "disturb the faith that is religious" (23), for it leaves open the possibility of recognizing new possibilities in the environment (ACF 30). Through imagination, "things unrealized in fact come home to us and have power to stir us" (30). According to Dewey ideals have "undoubted" authority over individuals to the extent that the "apparatus of dogma and doctrine" is ultimately unnecessary (33).

Imagination brings ideals to us by "laying hold of possibilities offered to thought and action" (33). Possibilities gain one's conscious focus as images. The recognition of a possibility via imagination is the transformation of past experience into an ideal. Two clarifications need to be made this claim, however. First, imagination does not grasp hold of past experience in full and bring it back to consciousness as originally experienced. Dewey recognized, "[t]he original experience is a good deal more than an image, something qualitatively different" (LE 237). What imagination draws from past experience is an image, and this image is the result of the selectivity of an individual's present imagination. This notion, for example, accounts for the possibility of drawing different images, different meanings, from the same remembered experience. Imagination isolates "certain phases, qualities or values in that original experience" which "some crisis some way" has rendered problematic and in need of change (237, 235). Thus, "[t]he image represents a reconstruction of past experience with a view of controlling our future experiences" (238). In these 1901 lectures Dewey taught that imagination made images "so as to be adapted to the needs of further experience" (238). At that time he did not have the terminology later developed to distinguish adaptation from accommodation, and both from adjustments of a religious order. But it is fruitful to read back into his earlier work later developments, enriching his ideas. Viewed in such a way, imagination, prodded by some present need, retrieves an image of past experience in such a way that its formation suggests the mode of its reconciliation with a pressing ideal aim or end.

The imaginative excavation of past experience is the reconstructive process and function of an ideal image. The image brought to mind is a possible course of action. "[T]he fact that it is an image instead of a previous experience is its value" because it can be hypothetically evaluated (238). Importantly, the process of image formation recalls the opening passage of this paper. In A Common Faith Dewey claimed the "active relation between the ideal and the actual" deserves the name "God" (ACF 34). Since "Every image is a projection or a construction," Dewey retains a continuity of experience instead of breaking it into kinds like religious, political, intellectual, etc. (LE 239). To the degree in which an image reflects no change from the experience from which it arose it is less creative than others affording many avenues for change (240). Images less novel in reconstructing past experience may in fact be less conscious and less ideal. Dewey noted that all conscious images are novel in quality, and the more repetitive of past experience (the more habitual) an image becomes, the less conscious we are of it (241). So while most images presented to one's consciousness indicate possibilities, some will constitute such ingenious and fresh options as to seem qualitatively distinct from one's habituated experience. In actuality they occupy the far end of a continuum of possible experiences. Images capable of far-reaching and revolutionary change actually operate more as symbols or ideas (refined images) than as images (240). The religious quality in experience comes when images, "in the midst of effort to foresee and regulate future objects," bring a sense of "[p]eace in action" to the process such that an individual is "sustained and expanded in feebleness and failure by the sense of an enveloping whole" (HNC 181).

In these early lectures from which much of this analysis draws Dewey already thought in terms of habits. He believed the closest physiological analogy of the image was to be made in terms of habits. The image modifies "the structure through which the activity is exercised" (LE 241). The less tension created by the modification, by the image, the less conscious we are of the image as a part of that experience (241). However, "if there is tension, then these various and partial activities which are partial because of their conflict, are brought to consciousness more or less distinctly ... Tension is readjustment of the habit so it will not work towards its accustomed end but towards some new end (241, 242). Again, these ideas reflect Dewey's emphasis upon continuity in his philosophy. They represent the seeds of his mature refinements found in A Common Faith, refinements carried further in "Time and Individuality" with the belief that imaginative reconstruction of one's self in the deliberative process is the means of becoming an individual with a qualitatively unified sense to life.

In "Time and Individuality" Dewey discussed the important, even dependent, relationship of human individuals and time. As an early assertion in the essay, he claimed, "Temporal seriality is the very essence, then, of the human individual" (TI 220). The character of an individual develops, and these marked changes constitute qualitative adjustments in an individual. For Dewey, the important issue was determining whether or not we experienced novelty (221). Dewey believed the life of human individuals consisted of constantly changing and novel circumstances and not simple rearrangements of previous orders. "Individuality conceived as a temporal development," he wrote, "involves uncertainty, indeterminacy, or contingency" (224). Thus, the individual engaged in the reconstruction of her life exists in the "mystery of time." "It is a mystery because it is a mystery that anything which exists is just what it is" (225). The challenge confronting individuals is constant vigilance, "for individuals become imprisoned in routine and fall to the level of mechanisms. Genuine time then ceases to be an integral element in their being" (225). The point of departure, that moment when a person asserts individuality, is just that meeting of old and new when habits are actively reshaped by imagination in light of an ideal. "The direction, the quality of change, is a matter of individuality," according to Dewey (225). The primary decision is whether or not an individual exerts an active choice or surrenders to passivity. In Dewey's terminology it is a choice between a life dedicated to human intelligence and a life without faith in human ability. Even though "progress is not inevitable," as he wrote, "it is up to men as individuals to bring it about. Change is going to occur anyway, and the problem is a control of change in a given direction" (225).

Dewey closed this essay with two related claims. First, freedom is rooted "deep in the existence of individuals as developing careers in time" (225). If individuals do not exercise their abilities to adjust within an environment then they "abdicate" individuality and freedom. His second claim was that art is the visible "manifestation of individuality" within the status quo (226). It is the projection of an ideal due to discontent with present circumstances. Art is tied with individuality because, "[t]he free individuality which is the source of art is also the final source of creative development in time" (226). By consciously acting and becoming individuals Dewey thought people could change themselves and society. The unique intersection of imagination and habits occurring in individuals allows for the possibility of change in personal and thus social environments. Certainly, for Dewey, change in an individual is never isolated from change in one's surroundings.

"Time and Individuality" highlights the importance of individuality as the root of freedom and source of creativity. Turning to A Common Faith shows Dewey connecting the individual to society by way of imaginative ideals; this description is analogous to the relationship of impulses and habits mediated by imaginative deliberation (what Dewey also called intelligence) in Human Nature and Conduct. What is left to show is the social place of religious experience in A Common Faith and then comment on the relationship of religious and aesthetic experience in Dewey's framework.

Dewey believed human society was nearing the point of accepting the "revolution in the 'seat of intellectual authority'" he felt had already taken place (ACF 23). With acceptance of this revolution would come the realization that we no longer need look upon our own natures as corrupt or a mere reflection of the divine, but that we could see ourselves the source of ideals traditionally associated with the divine (48). The obstacle preventing realization of human divinity is the static tendency of society, of habits. "Vested interests," Dewey wrote, "...are powerfully on the side of the status quo, and therefore they are especially powerful in hindering the growth and application of the method of natural intelligence" (51). Just as habits channel and limit an individual's native impulses the status quo limits creative approaches to pressing social concerns. He felt devotion "to intelligence as a force in social action" was "[o]ne of the few experiments" yet to be tried (52-3). As odd as it may be to find the call for social action in an essay on religious experience, it is consistent with Dewey's thought. In Human Nature and Conduct Dewey claimed, "Religion as a sense of the whole is the most individualized of all things, the most spontaneous, undefinable and varied. For individuality signifies unique connections in the whole" (HNC 226). It is through the imagination, as it selects, shapes and reconfigures past experiences in light of present conditions, that individuals relate to the social environment and future possibilities.

The emphasis, then, upon faith in the application of intelligence to situations in the life of the community must be understood ultimately as faith in individuals' ability to transform themselves by means of an imaginative reconstruction of habits. The interconnected operations of habits and imagination found in religious experience carries over into Dewey's understanding of aesthetic experience. In his treatment of aesthetic experience Dewey again emphasized the tension of reorienting perceptual habits, the ideal source of this tension, and the fundamental importance of imagination for meaningful experience.

Published in the same year as A Common Faith, Art as Experience, when put next to Dewey's religious treatment, constitutes an explication of the development of human imagination and how it transforms an individual's life and the life of a community (AE 87). Just as Dewey identified the nature of adjustment in the early pages of A Common Faith he also elaborated the aesthetic attitude in Art as Experience. The similarities are remarkable. Perception, more involved than "bare recognition," "is an act of reconstructive doing, and consciousness becomes fresh and alive. This act of seeing involves the cooperation of motor elements even though they remain implicit and do not become overt, as well as cooperation of all funded ideas that may serve to complete the new picture that is forming" (AE 59). Similar to the active passivity of the religious adjustment, the aesthetic attitude is "possible only through a controlled activity that may well be intense.

Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have first to plunge ourselves into it. When we are only passive to a scene, it overwhelms us and, for lack of answering activity, we do not perceive that which bears us down. We must summon energy and pitch it at a responsive key in order to take in" (AE 59, 60).

The receptive stance of both the aesthetic and religious phases of experience allows an individual to see possibilities. The aesthetic brings one to see "a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves" (199). Artworks prod us to see the world in particular ways, to show certain ideals in the world. "Through selection and organization," Dewey wrote, "those features that make any experience worth having as an experience are prepared by art for commensurate perception ... In art the forces that are congenial, that sustain not this or that special aim but the processes of enjoyed experience itself, are set free. That release gives them ideal quality" (190). As religious experience orients an individual on a new trajectory through recognition of unacknowledged possibilities, so too aesthetic experience describes the perception of ideals.

In either characterization of experience, religious or aesthetic, imagination is the process through which ideals gain entrance to our lives. Dewey described imagination as "a way of seeing and feeling things ... at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world. When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination" (271). This statement also reflects the modification of habits occurring in aesthetic experience. But imagination is more integral to human life than as an aspect of religious and aesthetic experience. For Dewey, "Imaginative experience exemplifies more fully than any other kind of experience what experience itself is in its very movement and structure" (286). The reconstructive process Dewey described in his Lectures on Ethics is characteristic of "all conscious experience ... Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings [from prior experience] can find their way into a present interaction; or rather ... the conscious adjustment of the new and old is imagination" (276).

The common ground of religious and aesthetic experience is evident from Dewey's writing. The central place of habit and imagination in both A Common Faith and Art as Experience connects the two more strongly than any distinctions arising from their disparate effects may serve to distinguish them. With his emphasis on imagination in both texts, Dewey highlighted the importance of individuals in his philosophy. Individuals bear the burden and capacity to change themselves, for they "will always be the centre and consummation of experience, but what an individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life" (WB 27).

Works Cited

Dewey, John. A Common Faith, The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953, Vol. 9: 1933-1934 Essays, Reviews, Miscellany, and A Common Faith. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989 (cited in text as ACF).

_____. Art as Experience. The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953, Vol. 10: 1934. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987 (cited in text as AE).

_____. Human Nature and Conduct. The Middle Works of John Dewey 1899-1924, Vol. 14: 1922. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988 (cited in text as HNC).

_____. Lectures on Ethics 1900-1901. Edited by Donald F. Koch. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991 (cited in text as LE).

_____. "Time and Individuality." The Essential Dewey, Vol. 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy p. 217-226. Edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998 (cited in text as TI).

_____. "What I Believe." The Essential Dewey, Vol. 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy p. 22-28. Edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998 (cited in text as WB).

Instituting Art and Religion: Nature, Experience, and Criticism in Art as Experience and A Common Faith

Dewey conceives of the institutionalization of art and religion in similar terms.  The museum and the church both arose for Dewey as modern phenomena; they are inextricably tied to modernity.  This paper examines the parallel institutions of art and religion in Dewey as they pertain to political and moral questions of who exactly we moderns are.  The paper begins by examining Dewey's conception of political institutions before turning in the second section to Dewey's description of religious and artistic institutions.  In these two sections, I delineate what Dewey finds dangerous about these institutions before turning in the conclusion to Dewey's his conception of possible alternatives, alternatives that require both religious and aesthetic aspects of experience.

1.  What is a Deweyan Institution?

We must state at the outset that Dewey never thinks of institutions in general; institutions for Dewey are always specifically political, religious, or artistic.  Dewey conceives institutions in three separate but related ways: First, the term designates the initial act of founding a given institution, such as a school, government, or museum.  As an example of the first sense, one can look to Dewey's discussion of the founding of American institutions of government in "Freedom and Culture":

Part of the fortunate conjunction of circumstances with respect to us who live here in the United States consists. . . .of the fact that our forefathers found themselves in a new land.  The shock of physical dislocation effected a very considerable modification of old attitudes.  Habits of thought and feeling which were the products of long centuries of acculturation were loosened.  Less entrenched dispositions dropped off.  The task of forming new institutions was thereby rendered immensely easier (LW 11: 186)

However, the founding of the United States was a fortuitous act not wholly guided by intelligence.  It depended upon the good fortune of individuals finding themselves in an utterly foreign place, in which meaningful habits had to be discarded and new ones developed in order to answer the challenges of the changed environment.  Dewey's main point in this passage is that the founding of these government institutions was a largely fortuitous one, rather than a process guided by intelligence.  Additionally, the novelty and harshness of the conditions in which early settlers demanded that they break free from old habits and establish new (and in this case, better) institutions than those they had left behind.     

Secondly, the term "institution" designates the institution as having been founded and instituted. Institutions are instituted or founded, but once founded they can come to have an existence seemingly independent of this initial act of founding and independent of the individuals who founded it.  Institutions can come to exercise a dangerous authority over individuals' lives.  We come to forget that men and women founded these institutions.  Such institutions (for example, those largely defining our current political life), while certainly relevant to the lives of individuals, are seemingly intractable.  This is evident in the sense of apathy that many feel in the current political climate.  However, many actors in the current political system rely upon this very apathy in order to maintain the status quo.  For Dewey, this apparent permanence and intractability are two of the most dangerous features of institutions, for they reinforce the stability of present conditions at the expense of future possibilities for change.

The third sense of institution is the meaning that they embody.  Stable institutions accrue an historical meaning and significance as they increasingly become a part of daily life.  For example the schools each of us have attended come to have a personal meaning continuous with their shared, social meaning.  Institutions comprise a set of meaningful relationships that come to reflect their importance in individuals' lives.  However, the danger of institutions is that this link to the shared life of individuals may be forgotten.  In this case, institutions become dead and no longer a vital part of their participants' lives.  They are still meaningful, to be sure, but the individual no longer feels he or she has a stake in this meaning.          

For Dewey, institutions, whether democratic, religious, artistic, or some other sort, cannot be separated from habitual ways of being.  Indeed, institutions are nothing more than institutionalized and depersonalized habit.  Institutions undergird much of human existence, hence they provide human existence with a necessary sense of security and stability, but one cannot help but feel that for Dewey, they are in many cases little more than a necessary evil.  At least, they become so when they become as depersonalized and intractable as early twenty-first century American political institutions.  When this occurs, they lose their status as beneficial aspects of our lives and must be changed.           

These utterly depersonalized and autonomous political institutions institute the rigid distinction between the public and private spheres that Dewey's thought attempts to undo.  If the rigid distinction between public and private is thought an intractable feature of political institutions, then an individual's apathy regarding her own apparent powerlessness to alter established institutions becomes justified.  The individual becomes little more than an interchangeable element in a given institutional apparatus, because she believes herself unable to change the status quo even if so desired.  Individuals seem to have power only over their own private affairs, and the sphere of possible public action as defined by thinkers such as Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, and Dewey himself disappears.[i]  In order to critique and change institutions, we must not lose the sense of continuity between the private and public spheres.  Philosophy, as we shall see in the concluding section of this paper, depends upon us not forgetting the relationship between the private sphere of the individual and the public sphere of political action.  Dewey makes this fact clear in many places.  An explicit reference to the conflict between the state and the individual occurs in the Re-introduction to Experience and Nature composed twenty-five years after the text's original publication:

The identification of the distinctively human with the inner and private made psychology or whatever was taken to be the science of the inner and private a prime factor in originating and propagating the creed of economic laissez-faire liberalism or individualism.  The legal and political inheritance from feudalism obstructed, deflected and distorted the movements that constituted "the orbit of innovation"—the liberation of the activities of individuals from the heavy hand of precedent, tradition, and government. 

Because the innovative movements had organized embodiment only in voluntary associations of persons having no official status, the conflict of the new with the inherited institutional order was conceived to be a conflict between irreconcilable antagonists—the individual and the state (LW 1: 356-357).

Dewey goes on to state that the conflict was between a free individual and a state that could only exercise power negatively, could only act to restrict this freedom.  

Dewey illustrates both the necessity and danger of institutions in his discussion of philosophy in the first chapter of Experience and Nature.  Traditional philosophies, like traditional religions, appeal to a realm of permanence and stability in order to justify themselves and provide comfort in a hostile world.  Whether it is the Platonic Forms, the God of the Shcholastics, or the modern cogito, philosophers seek an authority freed from the vagaries of experience.  This exhaltation of the stable features of existence are a feature of what Dewey terms the "fallacy of selective emphasis."  Once philosophers have found this ultimate meaning, they hypostatize it and use it to authorize a denigration of fleeting, momentary experience:

The permanent enables us to rest, it gives peace; the variable, the changing is a constant challenge. . . .The permanent answers genuine emotional, practical and intellectual requirements.  But the demand and the response which meets it are empirically always found in a special context; they arise because of a particular need and in order to effect specifiable consequences.  Philosophy, thinking at large, allows itself to be diverted into absurd search for an intellectual philosopher's stone of absolutely wholesale generalizations, thus isolating that which is permanent in a function and for a purpose, and converting it into the intrinsically eternal, conceived (as Aristotle conceived it) as that which is the same at all times, or that which is indifferent to time (LW 1:32-33)

Although Dewey is referring here to a philosophical process, in which certain general and stable features of existence are granted an authority to the exclusion of the precarious features of existence, the same analysis holds for institutions, especially economic and political ones, although Dewey held out the greatest hope that educational institutions could counterbalance the harmful effects of these institutions, although this hope appears increasingly dubious.[ii]  The question for the following section concerns the role Dewey thought that artistic and religious institutions might play in this scenario: Are these cultural expressions beneficial, constructive, and forward-looking, or are they instead dangerous, destructive, and concerned with the present state-of-affairs?  As we shall see, the picture is too complex to be reduced to an either-or proposition.  For Dewey, artistic and religious institutions could serve both to maintain the inertia of the status quo as well as serve as engines for social change. 

2.  The Place of Artistic and Religious Institutions in Society and Nature

If experience is another word for art in Dewey's thought, it is another word for nature as well.  Dewey writes at the beginning of Chapter Nine of Experience and Nature that "experience is exemplified in the discrimination and skill of the good carpenter, pilot, physician, captain-at-arms; experience is equivalent to art" (LW 1:166).  Experience is another name for what the Greeks called techne.[iii]  According to the Greeks, art poorly mimicked the grand order of nature, while science perfectly reflected it.  As Dewey writes,

Greek thinkers nevertheless disparaged experience in comparison with something called reason and science.  The ground for depreciation was not that usually assigned in modern philosophy; it was that experience is "subjective."  On the contrary, experience was considered to be a genuine expression of cosmic forces, not an exclusive attribute of animal or human nature.  It was taken to be a realization of inferior portions of nature, those infected with chance and change, the less Being part of the cosmos.  Thus, while experience meant art, art reflected the contingencies and partialities of nature, while science—theory—exhibited its necessities and universalities.  Art was born of need, lack, deprivation, incompleteness, while science—theory—manifested fullness and totality of Being (LW 1:266).

While theoria marked the permanence that nature embodied, art stood for everything irregular and inexplicable in nature.  However, Dewey wishes to deny the traditional priority accorded the stable aspects of human existence.  This means that both science and art must reflect nature in some fashion, albeit in different ways.  This conception harkens back to the Greek distinction between art and science.  For the Greeks, science reflected the fact that the human being was at home in the cosmos, while all art attempted to grasp the particularities of a natural being.  Both science and art are in some sense "after nature,"[iv] but the scientist discovers the stable patterns inherent in nature itself, while the artist focuses her attention on a particular feature or being within nature.  Art for the Greeks could never give us a sense of the grand stability of the cosmos.  

Dewey begins Art as Experience with the surprising statement that art theory, if it is to fulfill it proper role, must turn away from the artwork, at least temporarily.[v]  The modern artwork has been utterly divorced from the common, everyday experiences of human beings.  Continuity must be restored between the work and common experience.  Aesthetic theory, as Dewey re-imagines it, will provide the bridge between the ordinary and the refined:

The task is to restore the continuity between the refined and intensified forms of human experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience (LW 1:9)

Art as Experience thus has a revolutionary aim: to return art from the particularity of its cultural role to the universality of human experience.  This means that art must be restored to the vital social function it once had.  Furthermore, human experience must not be conceived as somehow divorced from nature but as continuous with it.  Art must be of this world, not something to be enjoyed by an elite few.  This means that art and nature must be much more intimately related than they are for much of modern aesthetic theory.[vi]

But if art for Dewey must return to the earth, religion must as well.  Indeed, the same forces that serve to separate art from experience separate religion from experience as well. "The forces at work are those that have removed religion as well as fine art from the scope of the common or community life" (LW 10:12).  Dewey makes this point more forcefully in A Common Faith.  In this text, it is not just that religion, like museum art, forces a wedge between human communities, but religion makes humans forget that they have a place within the natural realm.  Whereas art separated from experience renders art virtually meaningless for ordinary experience and thereby deadens experience, religions at their worst serve to make common, everyday experience utterly irrelevant for its most fervent believers. Religion separates ideal ends from course of human existence as surely as it separates these ideal ends from natural existence.  Religion causes humans to lose their ties both to each other and to nature.  In other words, religion serves to divorce humanity from experience.[vii]   In this concluding section, I would like to explore ways in which Dewey thought that transformed artistic and religious institutions could serve as means to transform society itself.

3.  The Aesthetic and Religious as Tools for Criticism

Dewey outlines his conception of philosophy as cultural criticism in the concluding chapter of Experience and Nature.  In the previous chapter, Dewey presents art, as he will later in Art as Experience as the cultural expression capable of embodying novel meaning through the medium of shared cultural and natural meaning:

The more extensive and repeated are the basic uniformities of nature that give form to art, the "greater" is the art, provided—and it is this proviso that distinguishes art—they are indistinguishably fused with the wonder of the new and the grace of the gratuitous (LW 1:270).

Art is not only the encoding of shared cultural meaning; additionally, it is the intelligent reorganization of this meaning such that it evokes wonder and grace.  Art employs natural means in order to evoke a shared cultural experience.  Art, through the irreducible materiality of stone, paint, glass, and steel, serves to reinforce Dewey's conception of experience as neither wholly human nor wholly natural but somehow both.   Hence, art serves to express the unity of the human and the natural realms, rather than their radical separation.  The belief that the natural and human realms are radically different is an article of faith of both various modern religious and philosophical viewpoints.   

These views become institutionalized and expressed as a matter of government policy that comes to shape our shared habits and beliefs.  But our entrenched institutional habits generally run counter to the meaning evoked by great works of art.  Dewey contrasts the religious with religion in the first chapter of A Common Faith in order to make a similar point.  In order to distinguish the institutional apparatus of religion from the experiential content of the religious, Dewey writes that "a religion [. . . ] always signifies a special body of beliefs and practices having some kind of institutional organization, loose or tight.  In contrast, the adjective 'religious' denotes nothing in the way of a specifiable entity, either institutional or as a system of beliefs.  It does not denote anything to which one can specifically as one can point to this and that historic religion or existing church.  For it does not denote anything that can exist by itself or that can be organized into a particular and distinctive form of existence.  It denotes attitudes that may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal" (CF, 10-11).  Though the institutions of religion may seek to divorce the otherworldly ideals preached by many religions from the concrete cultural problems faced by human beings, there is still something to be saved from these various institutions.  It is religious experience refined of its otherworldly aspirations that Dewey wants to keep.  But how can a religious experience divorced from much of its most meaningful content have any affect on the lives of humans whatsoever?

Indeed this has been the main complaint against the text since its publication.  Secularists see no reason to keep the language of the sacred, while religionists believe Dewey's language is nothing more than watered-down religion.[viii]  However, what neither side adequately sees is that Dewey conceives of the religious as a critical concept.  In traditional religions, communication becomes an esoteric matter that can by definition be of concern only for the elect who are granted access to it.  In Dewey's reformulation, the religious is an utterly exoteric concept, meant to name an experience that all humanity might share.  The common faith to which the title refers is a faith in the human, rather than a resignation in the default of absolute authority. Dewey's concept of the religious can provide the basis for an acknowledgement of the sacred element of human existence.  However, this idea of the religious will only have critical significance if the idea can be separated from all supernatural connotations.  Dewey aims to show that the religious is a quality of feeling capable of pervading human experience.[ix]

In a very real sense, Dewey intends to carry out in A Common Faith the promise of Art as Experience.  In the latter work, Dewey seeks to return art and aesthetics to the realm of the everyday.  In A Common Faith, Dewey's purpose is to sacralize the commonplace.  The aesthetic and religious both stand as examples of how directed and intelligent action can shape ideals and thereby constitute novel meaning.  Taken alone, aesthetic and religious experience are certainly insufficient to change the dualisms that have come to define our existence, dualisms such as individual and society, nature and culture, religion and secularity, fact and value, and subject and object.  It is the office of philosophy to undermine the dangerous effects that such dualisms can exert upon our experience.   Dewey believes that philosophy must inaugurate a return to the Greek idea of teleology, but with an important difference.  For the Greeks, perfection itself was exalted as the natural telos to which the universe moved (LW 1: 296).  Dewey seeks to undo the priority the Greeks accorded perfection, for, as he writes, "failure by exhaustion as well as by triumph may constitute an end; death, ignorance, as well as life, are finalities" (LW 1:296).  There is no predetermined hierarchy of ends; rather than a hierarchy of predetermined ends to which all action and process tends, Dewey gives us philosophy as the theory of criticism (LW 1:296).  He defines criticism as "a method of discriminating among goods on the basis of the conditions of their appearance, and of their consequences" (LW 1:297); philosophy itself must be "a criticism of criticisms" (LW 1: 298).  The religious and aesthetic aspects of experience are both outcomes of criticism and tools for carrying out further criticism.  Aesthetic and religious experience open individuals to a shared experience independent upon the institutions of contemporary democratic government, for these institutions serve to divide more than they serve to unify.  Dewey never claims that any of his proposals in and of themselves would be sufficient to alter the status quo.  Instead, his hope is that the cumulative effect of his proposals in his various texts might be enough to start people thinking about the inadequacy of present conditions.

[1] This comment was made in personal communication.

[2] One major exception to this is Thomas Alexander's John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience & Nature: The Horizons of Feeling (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987). See especially pp. 254-263. 

[3] For more on the etymological root of the word "religion," see especially Jonathan Z. Smith, "Religion, Religions, Religious," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University Press, 1998), pp. 269-284.

[i] Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) diagnoses many of the same problems  that Dewey does in his political writings.  However, for Arendt the root of the problem lies in the fact that modern political theory sees the human being as part of nature, thus confusing the private realm of natural necessity with the cultural realm of public political action.  For Dewey, humans are irreducibly natural organisms, and problems arise when we forget this fact.  Thus, Arendt's political theory owes much more to the Aristotelian conception of political thought than Dewey's does, although for the Greeks, it was axiomatic that humanity was a part of nature and the cosmos.   

[ii] It is becoming more apparent that Dewey's hope may have been unfounded, and that many of the cherished features of educational institutions are being co-opted in order to become but extensions of economic institutions.  Education is thought to be a means to a successful career rather than an end in itself.  Furthermore, higher education is currently conceived on a business model.  Of course, the question is whether this is something qualitatively different, or a function of nostalgia for a nonexistent time when the ivory tower was free of such business interests and expectations.

[iii] Though this is not quite right: it seems more proper to say that experience was necessary for techne.  Cf. Aristotle's Metaphysics, Book 1. 

[iv] Cf. the posthumously published prose poem by W.G. Sebald, After Nature (NY: Random House, 2002) for a remarkable exploration of the uneasy place of the human within nature.  Sebald's long poem first explores the life of Mathias Grünewald, and then the scientist and explorer Georg Steller, before turning to the author himself, in order to pose the question anew of the relationship between civilization and nature, and humanity's various attempts to forget about the existence of this relationship.  

[v] The remarkable first line of the text sets forth the problem: "By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of arts upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them" (LW 10:9).  He goes on to enumerate two reasons for this ironic perversity: First, because of brute materiality or 'thereness' of the work, it is separate from experience.  The second reason is an intensification of the first, for as artworks gain an iconic status, they become further divorced from the concerns of ordinary experience. 

[vi] Two exceptions can be found to this general disjunction between art and nature in modern art theory: First, the work of Kant, for whom nature speaks through the genius.  Second, Adorno's aesthetic theory ties art to nature much more closely than, for example, the work of Hegel, for whom art is exalted solely as a social and culture phenomenon.

[vii]Although at times Dewey's attitude in texts such as Art as Experience and A Common Faith seems to be nothing more than Romantic nostalgia for a bygone time in which ideals grew of natural and social rather than supernatural and otherworldly sources and art expressed a concern for both human society and nature, his prognosis differs from the nostalgic one in at least two ways:

(1) Dewey never lost hope that the institutions of art and religion could be transformed, and this was always a future task rather than a return to the past.  Individuals and groups must aim to transform the present with an aim toward bettering the future.  Dewey is not searching for another renaissance of culture; instead, his purpose is always to seek out the new: to transform the meanings latent within present conditions in order to forge something qualitatively different.  This was what he thought great artists did, which is a reason he looked to art in order to formulate his conception of criticism.

(2) Romantic nostalgia almost invariably leads to pessimism when one realizes that the past is gone and that there can be no return to the glorious age that one seeks.  However, Dewey never gave in to the pessimism entailed by Romantic nostalgia.  Instead, his approach was distinctively modern: Not only did he hope that novel experiences could transform our sedimented habits, he thought that science provided a model, though its instrumental and experimental methodology, to make this happen.  As important as this experience was for Dewey, his thought avoids the pitfall of scientism, because he thought that science itself was but one aspect, albeit a vital one, of modern human experience.  Equally as important for human experience were the institutions of art and religion.

[viii] For an exploration of Dewey's conception of a common faith set in the context of American pragmatism's complex relationship with religion, see Richard J. Bernstein, "Pragmatism's Common Faith," Pragmatism and Religion: Classical Sources and Original Essays (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2003).  This book contains many other insightful essays on this topic, most notably those of Anderson, Boisvert, and Rockefeller.

[ix] See John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 10-11:

Those who hold the notion that there is a definite kind of experience which is itself religious, by that very fact make out of its something specific, as a kind of experience that is marked off from experience as aesthetic, scientific, moral political; from experience as companionship and as friendship.  But "religious" signifies something that may belong to all these experiences.  It is the polar opposite of some type of experience that may exist by itself.  The distinction comes out clearly when it is noted that the concept of this distant kind of experience is used to validate a belief in some special kind of object and also to justify some special kind of practice.