The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 17-25
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The Two-Dewey Thesis, Continued:
Shusterman's Pragmatist Aesthetics
Paul C. Taylor
University of Washington
I owe Richard Shusterman a great debt. As I struggled to take up John Dewey's aesthetics for my dissertation topic, an encounter with Pragmatist Aesthetics 1 inoculated me against the doubts of my colleagues and advisors. I had found in this Richard Shusterman a kindred spirit, someone who also wanted to bring Dewey into conversation with George Dickie and Arthur Danto, someone who also resisted the idea that, as I was being encouraged to realize, Dewey's work was obsolete, that Art as Experience was a historical relic. And, what sometimes seemed best of all, this someone seemed eager to join the conversation on Dewey's behalf without adopting the famous murkiness of Dewey's prose.
The conversation that Shusterman helped me to help Dewey join was a philosophical one, and since the favored way of registering gratitude for influential work in such conversations is with criticism, I'll take this opportunity to explore a worry that I've had but left inarticulate almost since that first graduate-school encounter. It seems to me that Shusterman subscribes to a way of reading Dewey that we might trace to Richard Rorty, an approach that posits two Deweys, one good, one less so. On the good side, there is an edifying, therapeutic thinker who looks past, or seeks to expand, the limits of professional philosophical practice. But on the bad side, there is a systematic philosopher, a metaphysician-epistemologist-philosophical anthropologist who tries to solve philosophical puzzles on their own terms, more or less, rather [End Page 17] than diagnosing and dissolving them. This is of course a more jaded, say, more Rortian, picture of Dewey's unconscious duplicity than Shusterman himself would give. And it is only a small part of a body of work that continues to influence and inspire me. But a picture something like this does emerge as Shusterman attempts to respond to one of the obvious and historic objections to a Deweyan approach to aesthetics.
People have long claimed that the notion of aesthetic experience is too vague to serve as a definition of the concept of art. Shusterman responds to the version of this worry that implicates Dewey in two steps. First he grants that talk of aesthetic experience doesn't take us far towards a definition. Then he rejects the imperatives of philosophical definition. A bifurcated, Rortian picture of an inconsistent Dewey emerges at each step, though I'm not sure that it's ever fully motivated. I'll summarize the picture and what strikes me as its motivation, then I'll explain my doubts about it.
As I've said, Shusterman begins by granting the infirming, as he says, "slipperiness" of the notion of aesthetic experience, conceding that "[t]hough it undeniably exists, it does not exist as something we can clearly isolate and define." Dewey himself, Shusterman points out, "seems clearly committed to the indefinability (and indeed discursive unknowability) of aesthetic experience," though we'll see later that this commitment is a problem (PA 56). Shusterman is willing to concede this point because the infirming murkiness of the notion of aesthetic experience is grounds for criticism only against the backdrop of the traditional philosophical approach to definition, premised on the theoretic goals of accurate representation and successful, say, "bright-line," compartmentalization. Since the pragmatist aims to "achieve more and better concrete goods in experience" rather than to solve "abstract philosophical puzzles," defining art in terms of aesthetic experience is perfectly acceptable if the definition helps enrich experience, irrespective of its inadequacy as a philosophical definition (PA 57). To assert that art is experience is an act of theoretical activism, meant to revise our existing practices and conceptions for the better.
The first problem, the first motivation for Shusterman's Rortian reading, is that Dewey wavered in his commitment to the pragmatic goal of theoretical activism. Dewey's account of art...