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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 10-16

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Shusterman's Pragmatist Aesthetics

Thomas Leddy
San Jose State University

I should admit from the start that I am deeply sympathetic to Shusterman'sperspective. I, like Shusterman, consider myself a pragmatist committed to a critique of analytic aesthetics from a revived Deweyan perspective. I, too, favor Hegelian themes of holism, historicism, and organicism, but without Hegel's absolutism. I am also sympathetic to what Shusterman calls Dewey's somatic naturalism. Moreover, I agree that although there are no ahistorical positive essences, there are relative, historicized essences. Thus, most of what I will say is a matter of encouraging Shusterman to be consistent with his own pragmatist nature, and to give up certain remaining bonds to analytic aesthetics. I will leave discussion of Shusterman's theories of popular music to others.

Following the tradition of analytic anti-essentialism, Shusterman critiques "the wrapper model" of the definition of art (Leddy 1998, 125-28), which holds that a good definition will give us necessary and sufficient conditions for "work of art." Shusterman raises good objections to Dickie's institutional definition of art and to Carroll's art-identifying strategy: the first fails to capture the evaluative dimension of art, and the second causes theory of art to collapse into art history. Shusterman also rightly stresses that contemporary analytic aesthetics ignores the important relations between art and everyday aesthetic experience, including not only experience of nature, but of the body.

Shusterman favors Dewey's concept of art as experience but criticizes his definition of art as experience, arguing that it leads to the mistake of ranking works of art by their ability to provide aesthetic experience. We cannot, Shusterman contends, measure the magnitude of aesthetic experience or prove our verdicts to others, nor can the nonpropositional evidence provided in aesthetic experience do the "serious, [End Page 10] detailed epistemological work of critical justification" needed (PA 56). But does he really believe that any method could give us quantitative measures of value for works of art, or that the critic's business is to prove his evaluations? Does he really wish to call for some detailed epistemological work of critical justification? This seems out of spirit with his pragmatism.

Elsewhere, Shusterman states "since experience itself is mute, it must be supplemented by detailed practical criticism": for it "cannot in itself explain" the value of artworks (1999, 155). This assumes that aesthetic experience somehow excludes detailed practical criticism, or that detailed practical criticism is not experienced. Rather, detailed practical criticism is one way through which we experience a work of art.

Shusterman has done nothing to support his claim that Dewey's definition of aesthetic experience is, as he puts it, "explanatorily impoverished" (PA 55). To do that, he would have to show that the definition fails to explain something, or to explain it richly enough. It is doubtful that a good philosophical definition explains anything in a science-like sense. Dewey gives no formal definition that explains in a noncausal way why any particular thing is or is not a work of art. Rather, as Shusterman himself notes, Dewey believed that a definition is good when it helps us have more and better experiences. As Shusterman also observes, defining art as experience reminds us that experience is ultimately what art is about.

Shusterman may think that by itself, promoting greater aesthetic experience is a sufficient task for a philosopher. But this is only an offshoot or, at most, an aspect of philosophical work. The value of defining art as experience is not simply to get us to see the aesthetic value of things that could be reclassified as art, but rather to illuminate the nature of art itself. Although Shusterman rightly wishes to avoid rigid essentialism, he must hold to some overall notion of the nature of art in order to give reasons for extending the concept of art in the way he wishes. He accomplishes this extension through Dewey's definition of art and then, paradoxically, denies it.

Shusterman wants us to choose "the spirit of piecemeal...


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