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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 46-60
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Expression, Imagination, and Organic Unity:
John Dewey's Aesthetics and Romanticism
We are presently witnessing a renewed interest in the aesthetics of philosopher and educator John Dewey. And it would seem that this interest marks a significant intellectual reorientation and not simply a passing fad.The publications Educational Theory, Studies in Philosophy and Education, The Journal ofAesthetic Education, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, among others, have for some time now been seeing articles which look to accentuate Dewey's aesthetics while tempering his oft-cited and criticized scientism. 1 Many of them take their lead from Thomas M. Alexander's acclaimed John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience and Nature or Richard Shusterman's Pragmatist Aesthetics. 2 Two recent books by noted educators, Jim Garrison's Dewey and Eros and Philip W. Jackson's John Dewey and the Lessons of Art, offer ideas on how the fruits of Dewey's more poetic side might be used toenhance his relatively prosaic writings on education. 3 I have come to find my own work of late pursuing a similar path.
Yet I have also found that appeals to this more poetic Dewey are not without their potential hazards. Dewey's classic books, Human Nature and Conduct, Experience and Nature, Democracy and Education, and others are in their radical wholism always a challenge for readers schooled in the dichotomies of conventional Western metaphysics, dichotomies such as self and world, mind and body, or even art and nature. In Art as Experience, though, Dewey further complicates things by using English romantic writers William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (both favorites from his youth) to explicate some of his central ideas; particularly, I would submit, those dealing with expression, imagination, and organic unity. For in using the romantics in this way, he inadvertently encourages the idealist and subject-object readings of his aesthetics that continue to undermine his thesis of art [End Page 46] as experience. Perhaps the poetic Dewey would not exist for us without the early influence of the romantics. No one can say for sure. But their writings arguably remained with him in one form or another throughout his life. (Indeed, Wordsworth, Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and American romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson receive among them no less than sixty citations in the Index to the Collected Works edition of Dewey's aesthetics.) My aim in this essay, accordingly, is to suggest how one might understand Dewey in relation to the romantics so as to avoid the kind of misunderstandings and confusions that their juxtaposition in Art as Experience readily invites. 4 It is my hope with this to offer something, however small, to further the cause of Dewey's aesthetics in revitalizing the prevailing functionalist discourse on the means and ends of education.
In one of the more quotable lines from his Preface to Lyrical Ballads,Wordsworth states that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." 5 Many of Wordsworth's readers have taken this as suggesting that the meanings expressed in poetry are the consequence of the poet's excess vitality spilling directly and uninhibitedly onto the empty page. (Hence, the account goes, his censure of the mediating artificialities of so-called "poetic diction.") The poem or expressive object, then, is essentially the externalization of the internal, such that the poet's mind communicates its creative energies to the images of the external world in a more or less instinctual fashion. 6
But this interpretation is at best only partially accurate. Dewey, for one, is quick to remind us of the important rider Wordsworth attaches to the above statement: "[Poetry] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." 7 Wordsworth is not looking to offer a definition of poetry, much less presuming to define it as the sheer outpouring of feelings. He is instead trying to describe the process of poetic creation, and in a...