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A Propaedeutic to the Philosophical Hermeneutics of John Dewey: "Art as Experience" and "Truth and Method"
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.1 (2001) 1-13

1. Introduction

Readers of Art as Experience and Truth and Method might be struck by several elective affinities. Beyond prurient interest, the value of a comparative analysis would consist in richer readings of Dewey and Gadamer in the light they mutually cast on each other's philosophy of experience. There is an antidote for cliches here. Reading Dewey through the lens of Truth and Method, we can read past the misconceptions that pragmatism is hostile to tradition and traditionary authority and that it is a version of scientism that exalts "technique" above phronesis. Conversely, reading Gadamer through the lens of Art as Experience, we can read past the misconceptions that philosophical hermeneutics is a version of linguistic idealism, that Gadamer is a "closeted Hegelian" whose idea of a "fusion of horizons" is an apologetics for Absolute Spirit, and that he must be read as a political conservative despite his recurrent protests to the contrary.

However tempting these more ambitious themes, this essay has a more modest, propaedeutic focus, namely, to explore the common ground Dewey and Gadamer apparently share in their respective developments of a philosophy of experience. In brief, Dewey's construction of art as experience finds remarkable support in Gadamer's conceptualization of hermeneutic experience (to the effect that all experience-- Erfahrung--is hermeneutic), and vice versa. Furthermore, unless one understands the underlying philosophy of experience operative both in Dewey's pragmatism and in Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics as practical philosophy, one is bound to misunderstand both pragmatism in relation to tradition, and the character of tradition itself as funded by the ongoing, open play -- the "adventure," as both Dewey and Gadamer say -- of experience as it is had (Dewey) and as it happens (with the resonances of the German verb, geschehen, for Gadamer). But the full sweep of this theme is likewise too ambitious for present consideration. Instead, interweaving texts from Art as Experience with Truth and Method, I propose only to show how Gadamer comes to his account of the elements of hermeneutic experience (TM, 265-379) by way of his critique of "aesthetic consciousness" and "aesthetic differentiation" in "Part I: The question of truth as it emerges in the experience of art" (1-169). Dewey elaborates a like critique in Art as Experience. In this connection, then, we may be in a position to interpret Dewey's answer in Art as Experience to Gadamer's crucial questions: "Is there to be no knowledge in art? Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it?" (97).

2. Playing the Field

Dewey's and Gadamer's respective critiques, under the broad banner of Cartesianism, of the classical modern philosophy of the subject -- or consciousness, or reflection -- are well enough known not to require elaboration here. Both seek to overcome the epistemological framework of subject/object dualism that sets the theme of the classical modern project. Both also honor the memory of Hegel in their attempts to reconstruct a philosophy of experience, what can be called a unified field theory of experience. Like Heidegger in Being and Time, Dewey and Gadamer each attempt to reverse the classical modern orientation toward epistemology as first philosophy, and it would be as fair to say of Dewey as of Gadamer that each seeks phenomenologically to shift the grounds of inquiry into the concrete existential phenomenon of understanding from epistemology to ontology.

For Dewey, primary experience occurs in the field of transactions between the "live creature" and environing conditions. It is not merely psychological or subjective but inclusive, encompassing both the subjects who experience and the subject matter (die Sache) of experience, both the "how" and the "what" of experience taken together in their mutual organic connections. Likewise, Gadamer's famous excursus on "play" (Spiel) is strategically situated in Truth and Method to develop a phenomenological verification of essentially the same conception. Here, Gadamer analyzes "play" as "the clue to ontological explanation" (TM, 101-34) and the "starting point" (101) of his investigation: "it is not aesthetic consciousness but the experience (Erfahrung) of...

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