- Anesthetic Experience
After decades of neglect, the full strength of pragmatism is finally being uncovered partially due to the drumming of Richard Rorty. Although John Dewey is given his proper place within the pantheon of pragmatist philosophers, a lack of attention to Dewey's experiential philosophy has contributed to a view of him as a lesser social philosopher. Most historians of pragmatism view Dewey's experiential philosophy narrowly in relation to the metaphysical and epistemological consequences of radical empiricism and underplay the scope of its social implications. In response, I will argue that in Dewey's theory of aesthetic experience lies an easily overlooked social/political approach that predates, by almost half a century, recent social theoretical concerns in phenomenology and everyday-aesthetics that take notice of experience and prompts inquiry into sometimes obviously important, but dismissed as irrelevant and mundane, paths.
While working to build his aesthetic theory from the qualities of normal, healthy experience, Dewey diagnoses a rarely recognized experiential ailment—what might be called the anesthetic malady. This illness generally results when experience is deprived of meaning due to the poverty of the predominant forms of activity available in one's environment. Dewey thinks that healthy, vital experience is an interested, coherent process leading to meaningful fulfillment; as such, it can be said to be an experience. The diagnosis and alteration of those activities, situations, and structures that prevent experience from being an experience is a crucial task for philosophers concerned with identifying the optimum conditions for human flourishing. At the most basic level, Dewey argues that critical attention should principally be directed to the relations people have with their environment For [End Page 97] assessing the quality of experience he emphasizes the importance of the body, type of activity, and, most importantly, our relationship with space.1
In "Having an Experience" Dewey examines the neglected aesthetic dimension of ordinary experience. For Dewey the aesthetic is no "intruder in experience from without": it is not some rare museum or nature bound phenomena linking one with the platonic heavens or a form of disinterested spectatorship; rather, it is "the clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally complete experience" of a live creature.2 The aesthetic is a quality of an experience where there is the fulfillment of a movement unified by a pervasive quality. Thomas Alexander explains that an "experience is one which has been successfully transformed through intelligent action so as to be an inherently complete and dynamically moving whole which realizes the sense of meaning and value as deeply as possible."3 We note an-experiences in ordinary parlance, since due to their significant completeness they are set in relief against the majority of our lives. Dewey explains that experience in the "vital sense is defined by those situations and episodes that we spontaneously refer to as being 'real experiences'; those of which we say in recalling them, 'that was an experience.'" We recognize them with phrases like "remember the time" because their integration beckons their demarcation in the stream of life. In contrast to "inchoate experience" that characterizes the rest of the general stream, an "experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts" (HE, pp. 555–56). Coherence gives healthy experience, good or bad, its glowing significance.
Perhaps Dewey has not adequately described what has traditionally been thought to be aesthetic experience. Partially the problem is that he is obsessed with wholes, but the aesthetic does not always come in neatly packaged chunks: it seems to be more of a glimmer on the flowing stream of experience than any nuggets panned. The aesthetic might be better described as an attitude taken toward experience, than the effect of an experience being unified by some other quality.4 Nevertheless, it is not crucial that Dewey has perfectly identified the [End Page 98] aesthetic or described it wide enough to take into account all aesthetic qualities and experiences; he has pointed out another quality or sub-type...