The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 26-38
[Access article in PDF]
Pragmatism and Criticism:
A Response to Three Critics of Pragmatist Aesthetics
When John Dewey defined philosophy as "a criticism of criticisms," his point was philosophy's essential connection with values. He was not trying to promote the ideal of the philosopher as a carping, derivative fault-finder, preoccupied with recursively rechewing the critical cud of previous criticisms. Instead, Dewey's vision of philosophy insisted on imaginative reconstruction, with fresh ideas; and one reason he praised art was for its creative potency in suggesting fruitful new ideas beyond the current conventions of science and morality. Criticism remains a central moment in philosophy as it is also in the creation of art, but it should not be pursued for its own sake nor even, primarily, for the sake of policing the proper interpretation of past authors, for getting them right for the sake of historical accuracy.
Unfortunately, "criticism of criticisms" in the sense of polemical fault-finding constitutes the dominant image of philosophy today, promoted by the institutional structures of academic philosophy. We are essentially trained in the discourse of critical counterassertion, of polemically taking to pieces any philosophical position. When I was a young analytic philosopher more than a decade ago, I remember a sensitive dance student who, baffled by my critical style, compared my analytic way of doing aesthetics to the image of being presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and then ripping each blossom to pieces, petal by petal, with maddening precision and relentless rigor.
The philosophical culture of polemical critique is reinforced by the structural logic of our professional institutions, such as the author-meets-critics structure that engendered this exchange in which I respond [End Page 26] to Paul Taylor, Tom Leddy, and Antonia Soulez. All this confrontational staging tends to force the critical commentator to magnify possible differences of opinion with the author, even if those differences are only minor ones of tone or emphasis. My commentators admit this awkward problem with admirable candor, and then they bravely soldier on to elaborate their subtle criticisms, while stressing (especially in the case of Leddy and Taylor) their fundamental, overriding sympathy with the bulk of my vision. Though I am similarly tempted by the polemical logic of this event to respond blow by blow to each of their specific criticisms, I will try to resist that temptation and concentrate on pursuing the main issues that their critique raises. I am less interested in proving that my formulations in Pragmatist Aesthetics are perfectly right than in advancing the discussion of its topics. As a pragmatist, I regard books as tools of thinking; and tools can always be improved, even if they are in their second edition! I am very grateful to my commentators for pointing out places where my formulations might have been clearer.
One point that could be made clearer is my relationship to analytic aesthetics. Though my commentators rightly recognize that I use pragmatist orientations to criticize certain presumptions, projects, and theories of analytic aesthetics, it would be wrong to conclude that I therefore reject analytic aesthetics tout court and hold that pragmatism and analysis constitute two clearly defined and entirely incompatible approaches for aesthetics. Instead, each is a complex, contested tradition with very different strands. If recent analytic aesthetics has been preoccupied with defining art by necessary and sufficient conditions, this was the very opposite of the analytic approach advanced by Wittgenstein, Morris Weitz, Paul Ziff, and others, which was decidedly anti-essentialist. Different strands of analytic philosophy and pragmatism often fruitfully intersect in the aesthetics of a single philosopher: Nelson Goodman, Richard Rorty, Joseph Margolis are examples; some would even add Wittgenstein. Surely my own work in pragmatism continues to deploy certain strategies and lines of argument developed from analytic philosophy, when they seem helpful. Thus, just as my critique of recent analytic definitions of art deployed Deweyan perspectives, so it also deployed analytic philosophy's own (largely Wittgensteinian) arguments against essentialist definitions. Likewise, I use...