Filling the Hole in Sense:Between Art and Philosophy
John Dewey argued in his Art as Experience that the significance of art as experience was of incomparable importance for the adventure of philosophical thought. He claimed that while both move in the medium of imaginative mind, art provides a "unique control" for the "imaginative ventures of philosophy." In this article I examine, relying on a range of sources, some pivotal implications of this claim and especially how various forms of art and aesthetic experience can exemplify and further ways of formulating, presenting, and critically engaging focal issues, both methodological and substantive, of the tasks of philosophy. The originary context of philosophy is agonistic, wresting meaning from the noise of meaninglessness or discerning order in a seeming world of chaos, not merely that of winning an argument. Both philosophy and art have attempted to fill a "hole in sense" by various practices, discursive in the case of philosophy and nondiscursive or "presentational" in the case of art. But art forms offer us models for a plurality of philosophical approaches to the task of enabling us to maintain and restore our existential and experiential balance within what Dewey called the "moving unbalanced balance of things."
philosophical methods, forms of abstraction, art, philosophical model, John Dewey, Susanne Langer[End Page 50]
On the last page of the chapter "The Challenge to Philosophy," in Dewey's 1934 Art as Experience, we find the following passage: "My intention throughout this chapter has not been to criticize various philosophies of art as such, but to elicit the significance that art has for philosophy in its broadest scope. For philosophy like art moves in the medium of imaginative mind, and, since art is the most direct and complete manifestation there is of experience as experience, it provides a unique control for the imaginative ventures of philosophy. … The significance of art as experience is, therefore, incomparable for the adventure of philosophical thought" (1987, 309; hereafter cited as AE). This is precisely what Dewey attempted to show in his indispensable masterpiece.
Art, on this conception, is not to be conceived of primarily or exclusively as a problem of or for philosophy to resolve. Rather, art in its various forms could be considered as exemplifying how to arrive at solutions to focal problems that philosophy itself, as a reflective conceptual practice, has, along with other factors, given rise to: its claim to totality and comprehensiveness and the need for system, the primacy of discursive rationality as ultimate measure for delimiting the thresholds of sense, the existential need to integrate experience in light of the gap between actuality and possibility that marks the dispersal of our lives in time and in the structures of everydayness. Such focal problems make up the motivating matrix of John Stuhr's proposals for philosophical practices in his essay "Lost, Looking Around, and Looking Ahead" (this issue).
There is also another type of gap pointed out by William James, whose work informs Dewey's aesthetics at the deepest level: the radical pluralism of multiple realities or universes of meaning in which we live and which make up the web of intentional bonds linking us to various dimensions of experience, each with its own distinctive feel and organizing principle. In Some Problems of Philosophy we find the following passage: "Different universes of thought thus arise, with specific sorts of relation among their ingredients. The world of common-sense 'things'; the world of material tasks to be done; the mathematical world of pure forms; the world of ethical propositions; the worlds of logic, of music, etc.—all abstracted and generalized from long-forgotten perceptual instances from which they have as it were flowered out—return and merge themselves again in the particulars of our present and future perception" (James 1911, 52). [End Page 51]
A central descriptive and critical task of philosophy is to reflect upon and mediate between these universes of thought, which clearly involve different patterns of experience with their different subjective feels and intentional structures. Philosophy is not to duplicate, or substitute for, the knowledge embodied in these universes but to uncover and to analyze the types of knowledge that they exemplify, based upon what James called the "specific sorts of relation among their ingredients."
A special merit of the pragmatist tradition in its various configurations is not to devalue or rank any form of knowledge against some a priori standard. It aims to do justice to all modes of experiencing and to discern and develop ways of outlining and relating the complementary factors entering into the root model that underlies the "flowering out" of the various worlds of meanings that make up the matrices of our lives. Each of these worlds "challenges" philosophy in some way, and the pragmatist tradition has engaged them so as to foreground the experiential and participatory matrices of our forms of world engagement, criticizing especially the spectator, or what Dewey called the "kodak fixation," models. Peirce's semiotic characterization of the "bottomless lake of consciousness," James's fine-meshed descriptions of the flux of consciousness culminating in his radical empiricism, and Dewey's expansion of his core idea of a spiraling, open-ended, and dynamic "circuit of behavior" offer a set of analytical matrices focusing on how we respond constructively, in multiple modes, into experiential situations and just to them. These core insights have been taken further in creative ways by later participants in the continuing evolution of pragmatism's methodological and conceptual investigations.
On Dewey's conception, a pragmatist aesthetics, in line with pragmatism's principal philosophical goal, holds that it is art's distinctive informing and revelatory power, both in its practices and in its products, to maintain and restore experiential and existential balance in our various forms of participation in what he called in Experience and Nature the "moving unbalanced balance of things" (1925, 341), nature in process, a nature out of which we have emerged, in which we follow our life paths, and into which we shall return. Maintaining and restoring our balance is to bring us close to experience so that we can find our way in it both practically and intellectually and also so that we do not just pass through experience but, rather, come to dwell in, perceptually organize, and embody in distinctive kinds of forms its qualities and harmonies as ends in themselves. [End Page 52]
This is the point of Dewey's pivotal and well-known distinction between instrumental and consummatory experiences. It is exemplified in Dewey's distinction between a kind of generalized "indexical" use of tools and signs, things that point beyond themselves in various ways, and the construction of objective forms of/for experience, where the Jamesian "ingredients" are indwelt for their own sake and produce or express a distinctive kind of significance. This is the originating matrix of the intertwined domains of art and the aesthetic. Art and the aesthetic dimension quite generally for Dewey are a transfiguration of significance grounded in various forms of integrations: of "actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning" (AE, 301). When Dewey claimed that it is "to esthetic experience … the philosopher must go to understand what experience is" (AE, 278), the aim was not just to understand it but to be challenged by it. What a work of art does, Dewey argues, is to "concentrate and enlarge an immediate experience. … [T]he meanings imaginatively summoned, assembled, and integrated are embodied in material existence that here and now interacts with the self. The work of art is thus a challenge to the performance of a like act of evocation and organization, through imagination, on the part of the one who experiences it" (AE, 278).
Art as Experience, and, indeed, Dewey's whole philosophical project, with its multiple topics of concern, was devoted to this task. Dewey's book is a kind of handbook for delineating from the aesthetic side the "tasks ahead" for those forms of philosophizing that historically have proceeded, at times obsessively, agonistically, and argumentatively, toward ultimate, totalizing, explanatory systems and conceptual constructions and analyses that are imposed upon experience rather than being guided by and growing out of it. Such a reflective taking the measure of philosophy by art is itself paradoxically a task of or for philosophy, not for art itself, which is not concerned directly with philosophy but, rather, with creating forms that reveal or constitute dimensions of experience and significance accessible in a unique way. Philosophy itself can, indeed must, live up to the challenge of art and aesthetic experience without trying to supplant it or diminish its role in uncovering the essential structures of experience.
Art challenges philosophy to come to grips with our models of experience by illustrating experience's radical diversity and novelty and to explore the material forms of presentation in which works of art appear and their relevance for philosophical reflection. Vincent Colapietro, relying upon [End Page 53] fertile hints from Dewey and others, writes in "The Actuality of Philosophy Thought Over Once Again" (this issue) that philosophy presents us with the continuous task of "thinking things over" with whatever analytical resources lie at our disposal, to engage the "matter at hand" that grabs us and induces continuous reflection and participation. Following his lead, we could say that the paradoxical importance of art for philosophy comes from its simultaneous heteronomous relation to philosophy as well as our sense that it uncovers something that we most need and which art uniquely offers. Art furnishes us with what philosophy, as a set of discursive practices, ideally strives to provide—existential and conceptual balance—but toward which philosophy can often, but not always, merely point the way without delivering us to it. Such a situation, according to Raymond Tallis, is due to a tendency latent in the overweening double-faced effects of the logic of discursivity, which defines philosophy.
In his Summers of Discontent, Raymond Tallis claims that human beings suffer from a permanent "wound in consciousness." In a kind of echo of Saint Augustine he writes: "There is an incurable wound in the present tense—the only tense that human consciousness really has" (2014, 46), into which the past and the future tenses are enfolded. Such a wound, Tallis argues, keeps us absent from experiencing our experience. It is a factor in our permanent tendency as what he calls the "'explicit animal' caught in its diaphanous discursive web to substitute a conceptual scheme for [the] experience itself, which will always outrun, surpass, or fail to live up to our concepts and the expectations based on them, which are always 'surrounded by a nimbus of the unsaid'" (2014, 66). The "summers of discontent" that the title of Tallis's book alludes to are exemplified in the common experience of looking forward to something such as going on vacation and, when the time arrives, of being haunted by its not measuring up to expectations or being anxious or distressed about its eminent coming to an end or undergoing constant interruptions that impede our ever being fully "on vacation" or being with the present.
Such a permanent tendency, according to Tallis's way of putting it, is rooted in the contrast between ideality, which is abstract, and actuality, which is concrete, a contrast Dewey also noted in a text cited earlier where [End Page 54] it is art's role to fuse the two. For Tallis this contrast is prelimned in the difference between the paradigmatic gesture of the pointing finger and systems of linguistic symbols that both name and relate. The dual processes of indication, rooted in the pointing finger, and consequent symbolization, effected by language, divide up the significant joints in reality, discerning the differential markers in the sensory field and producing a web of abstract terms and relations by means of which they are stabilized and captured. This is completely consonant with the pragmatist approach to language's relation to experience: language is an instrument of control in the broadest sense. The uses of indication and symbolization, on both Tallis's and Dewey's account, are first and foremost oriented toward the control or formulation of experience, both practically and intellectually. Indication and symbolization, it must be said, also in their own ways bring us close to experience, but paradoxically they also distance us from it. The movement from mere pointing and relying on perceptual indexes to symbolization based on general classifications and relations clearly is the work of a specific kind of abstraction and of higher-order intellectual processes. But, as I will point out, there is another kind of abstraction that rather than distancing us from experience makes it present in novel and inexhaustible ways.
Dewey in Art as Experience speaks generally and loosely of the non-aesthetic combined two-factored indicative and symbolic uses of language in which we pass through a sign configuration functioning as a conceptual lens to what it brings into focus as being "instrumental." But he does not deny the utter uniqueness and defining feature of human language as effecting or enabling the emergence of new forms of meanings far beyond the "instrumental" in any restricted way. In Experience and Nature Dewey famously called language "the tool of tools, the nourishing mother of all significance" (1925, 134). However, a nourishing mother is not identical with her offspring, of which art is clearly one of the most striking. Her offspring's unique signifying powers may not mirror her in some essential ways, and indeed the "mother" of all significance may, in the last analysis, not be language itself but, rather, something even more fundamental, something anterior to language. At any rate, Dewey does not use instrumental for language in a demeaning sense as merely "useful." Language's discursive usefulness is to lead us to a world that exists independently of our means of apprehending it, a world that, nevertheless, controls it even if the creation of our linguistic means of apprehending is due to us and is a creative achievement that marks us as the explicit animal. Language, in the discursive mode, [End Page 55] aims to map the territory of experience, but it is not the territory itself, which can be accessed in multiple other ways. There are many different linguistic maps of the territory of experience, with different formal structures. There is another mode of language's semiotic instrumentality, or use value, that does not lose itself in making the world present through abstract naming and relating accomplished by nonisomorphic linguistic systems, but where the language becomes irretrievably and inseparably part of the territory itself. Language here has a different use, to enhance and create forms of perception, where the linguistic frame and what it frames are constitutively correlative. These linguistically embodied forms of perception "realize" an experience, rather than just pointing us toward one.
Tallis ascribes to art a distinctive power, "on the far side of use" (2014, 47), if not to heal the wound in consciousness introduced by the rift between ideality and its future expectations of fulfillment in the actualities of experience, at least to minister to it and help us live with it, precisely the role of Dewey's consummatory experiences. An artwork, Tallis argues, gives us a sense of arrival, a sense of being in the presence of something and not just being on the way to or being given directions to something we have not yet attained or something that is merely an instance of a class or a natural kind. Ideality is concerned with expectations that have to be fulfilled in experience. It is ideality's openness that allows an infinity of fulfillments because no one instance of fulfillment can exhaust a concept that is, as already noted, "surrounded by the nimbus of the unsaid" (Tallis 2014, 66).
On Tallis's thoroughly naturalist position, which parallels Dewey's, art's essence is "to enhance human awareness: to italicize that useless thing called human consciousness" (2014, 119). This is the concentration and enlargement of immediate experience that Dewey ascribed to aesthetic experience. Such highlighting is performed by occasions of experience of any sort that constitute or reveal unique and not just generalized oases of sense in the disparate and unintegrated dimensions of our everyday lives, an existential situation with many factors. Art performs its italicizing function, Tallis argues, by embodying consciousness in forms, by realizing an idea concretely and not "abstractly" in the discursive sense, in the way language works with concepts. "A work of art," Tallis writes, "is a concretely [End Page 56] realized idea. … The fundamental tendency of art is to extend the 'mindful' through form" (2014, 51). This idea is extended to experience as a whole by Dewey: "Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. … Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an agent, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment" (AE, 142). Integral fulfillment can take many forms and is not restricted to art but is the defining feature of the "aesthetic" quite generally, a way of attending to experience that dwells in it for its own sake and that does not lead us to experience but, rather, constitutes one. This way of attending is not merely passive but interpretive and constructive. It is part of the flowering out of experience into works of art by exploiting the symbolic pregnancy of experience itself.
Writing in her 1942 Philosophy in a New Key out of a rather different philosophical tradition, Susanne Langer, expanding on insights from Gestalt psychology, outlined the many ways "meaning accrues essentially to forms" (1957, 91) or enters into organized wholes in the sensory field. These forms emerge out of, and are seen in, the continuum of experience and enter into symbolic transformations of experience in both discursive and nondiscursive modes, processes that Dewey (1998b, 205 n. 4), for his part, called going out into symbolization. For Tallis the artistic forms in which ideas are realized are exemplars and mediators of presence, satisfying the "hunger to be entirely where one is" and showing us the logic of such presencing, whose goal, as is philosophy's, is to fill "the hole in sense" (2014, 46), but clearly by different means than trying to denote or represent in an arbitrary semiotic system. If we follow Tallis, arriving through the artwork at the "filled time" of the present and having the sense of being there with what fills it is an experience, not an argument or a theory. In art, according to Tallis, we are not thinking about or describing a form, we are thinking with or constructing a form. By actively attending to its production and through it to what it makes present, we encounter a significance surrounded by the aforementioned concretely realized idea, surrounded by the nimbus of the unsaid but nevertheless meant. Such an experience with an artwork is what Vladimir Jankélévitch, speaking of music in Music and the Ineffable (1983), called the "drastic" encounter with art, an encounter that interrupts us and brings us to a halt without "saying" anything to us. For Tallis an artwork is "at once experienceable in minutiae … and known as a whole: the idea and the experience, the moment in time and the arrested form, are brought together and we, who could not arrive, arrive. The world is [End Page 57] captured in a moment and the moment flowers out into a world—the world we could not, when we lived it moment by moment, grasp as a whole—so that we reciprocate its grip on us with a grip as strong" (2014, 67).
This "grip," Jankélévitch, speaking of music but clearly extendable to all art, ascribes to the work's "charme," analogous to Dewey's "aura" that grasps us prior to all analysis, its "magic accord" that effects vibrating resonances in what Peirce called "the bottomless lake of consciousness" (1958, VII: 547). In such encounters, one's life, as Tallis puts it, a veritable "river of succession—the moments that passed through us as a procession of inchoate and warring forms—broadens and deepens to a lagoon" (2014, 67). But the lagoon, it must be admitted, has hidden currents and is not stable or placid, since, as Jankélévitch writes, in the wake of a work of art we often find not existential complacency but an "incomprehensible disquiet churned up" (1983, 75), a vortex of resonances, which can be re-evoked by future encounters, as in recapitulation and repetition in music, with their tensive feel of both backward reference and augmentation and deepening of "the same." Philosophical discourse also exhibits this tensive feel inasmuch as, to continue Colapietro's idea, it appropriates and reconfigures a past reservoir of attempts to "think things over." Each "repetition" fuses a past into a present lured by the problematic situations in which we find ourselves. This is what Dewey called the "funded" nature of thought and experience.
The river of succession that makes up our lives pulls us on toward other experiences, other pragmatic concerns, and other seekings after explanations that attempt to "make our ideas clear." But art does not explain; it opens onto realms where explanations play no role. The forms of attending, if not their contents, induced by art are embedded in experience as a whole, even if they cannot be permanently practiced in the multiple universes of meanings in which life takes place, with its constant oscillation between undergoing and doing that is the hinge of Dewey's model of the self-environment relation, a spiral or widening gyre of interactions. They are like mountains arising on a plane, to use one of Dewey's memorable images.
Dewey wrote famously in Art as Experience that the philosopher should go to aesthetic experience to understand what it is that constitutes experience in the fullest sense. And the paradigmatic aesthetic experience is the experience generated by artworks. Such experience is marked by (a) completeness, in that the material experienced "runs its course to [End Page 58] fulfillment" (AE, 36); (b) uniqueness, due to the experienced whole or form carrying with it "its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency" (AE, 37); and (c) a unifying and nonreified emotion functioning as a kind of "moving and cementing force" that "provides unity in and through the varied parts of an experience" (AE, 44). Dewey enumerates elsewhere in the great chapter "Having an Experience" more explicitly these further aesthetic characteristics of the aesthetic interaction: continuity of experiencing, as opposed to breaking the experiential occasion; cumulation of items, entailing fullness of elements; conservation of elements, so that nothing is lost in a self-enfolding and funded stretch of experience; tension, due to differential weightings of elements in the process of being integrated due to the organization of energies resident in and informing the experience; and anticipation, rooted in the dynamic vectorial nature of the various components of the stream of consciousness, with what James called its "ever not yet" quality drawing it toward completion. At the same time Dewey wanted to draw special attention to "the factor of resistance" or difficulty, which is manifested in the interruptive nature of the artwork. (See Jackson 1998 and Innis 2016 for more extensive treatment of this aspect.)
An artwork is first and foremost an articulate form, just as language itself is. Both of them result from the "going out into symbolization" that Dewey saw arising out of the attempt to explicate and clarify problematic situations, Colapietro's matters at hand, that make up the field of human existence. Anterior to language and art is the comprehension of form itself. And for considering the significance of art for philosophy it is the "form of the form" that is of prime importance, as well as such forms' detachment from a private individualized subjectivity. Consider in this regard the following pivotal text from Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form: "The comprehension of form itself, through its exemplification in formed perceptions or 'intuitions,' is spontaneous and natural abstraction, but the recognition of a metaphorical value of some intuitions, which springs from the perception of their forms, is spontaneous and natural interpretation. Both abstraction and interpretation are intuitive, and may deal with non-discursive forms. They lie at the base of all human mentality, and are the roots from which both language and art take rise" (1953, 378). [End Page 59]
The pivotal human process of "going out into symbolization" from experience follows, according to Langer, two different paths or trajectories, carried out in two forms of abstraction: generalizing abstraction in the case of discursive symbolization and presentational abstraction in the case of presentational symbolization. This semiotic rift, rather different from the experiential rift, which both Dewey and Tallis are also concerned with in different ways, is not able to be stitched up in any permanent way, since it is based on two different "logics," even if it is only beings endowed with self-reflexive discursive powers that have developed another autonomous path of symbolization in which art along with myth and ritual are grounded. At the same time, they have a common root: the perception of form by acts of abstraction that interpret and shape the world in different ways by mediating insights that have different degrees and possibilities of "effability." The "tellable" and the "sayable" are not the limits of significance, and the "untellable" and the "unsayable" are not to be "passed over in silence." They all have specific types of ways of arriving at insight into the significances of different orders and inform different structures of consciousness (see Langer 1967–82 for a systematic exploration of abstraction; see also Innis 2009 for a full critical discussion of Langer's model of mind).
Generalizing abstraction divides experience into classes and abstract patterns of relations, rooted in perception, to be sure, relying upon the diacritical power of recognizing differences in its sortings of the "significant joints" in experience and setting them into relations. The prime achievement of language is that it tries to extend its power over all of experience and leads to what we could call the "logocentric temptation." Langer, however, shows that presentational abstraction divides or shapes the field of experience into forms that articulate or make explicit a significance resident in an object or natural occurrence that enables it itself to function as a symbol, whether natural or transformed into an artifact of some sort such as a ritual or a work of art, using the natural object or event as the symbol. This is the semiotic pivot: thinking about forms or thinking with forms. The very materials of experience, circumscribed wholes, are transformed into symbolic structures: visual forms, sounds, gestures, and so forth, whose untranslatable import, a distinct physiognomy, is inseparable from their material embodiment. These forms, transformed into artworks, become what Michael Polanyi called in Meaning "so many closed packages of clues, portable and lasting" (Polanyi and Prosch 1973, 87). It is these that hold us in their grip for those integral moments. [End Page 60]
Presentational abstraction is the semiotic key to understanding how artworks as material artifacts can engender the experiencing of experience. As Langer writes in Philosophy in a New Key, the rise and development of presentational symbolism effected "a new departure in semantic. … The recognition of vague, vital meanings in physical forms—perhaps the first dawn of symbolism—gave us our idols, emblems, and totems; the primitive function of dream permits our first envisagement of events. The momentous discovery of nature-symbolism, of the pattern of life reflected in natural phenomena, produced the first universal insights. Every mode of thought is bestowed on us, like a gift, with some new principle of symbolic expression. It has a logical development, which is simply the exploitation of all the uses to which that symbolism lends itself" (1957, 201).
The shaped materials, including linguistic materials, that make explicit, articulate, and embody what Langer calls the "forms of feeling" do so by potentiating the symbolic structures of experience itself, which Emerson in Nature clearly showed we can apprehend independently of formal art even if they are its ground, including the ground of language. They are not about experience but exemplifications, indeed occasions, of it. They contain experience, or possibilities of experience, in a structured form that is finite and limited. Such a form is not by any necessity linked, by a discursive logic, to other forms in a system, which life, with its conflicting demands and multiple dimensions of concern, is clearly not. Each art form, a significant whole but incapable of being the whole of significance, is a unique unit composed out of materially unique elements. It does not have, to use Polanyi's distinction, a representative meaning but, rather, an existential meaning constituted by multileveled patterns of internal relations. But they are both forms of "articulation." Writing in his Personal Knowledge Polanyi remarks: "A patch of colour, a musical note are so substantial in themselves, that they can speak their part in articulating a relationship with other patches of colour, or other musical notes, without pointing beyond themselves. Instead of denoting some-thing—whether an external object or their own use—they emphatically present their own striking sensuous presence" (1958, 193–94). Objects and relations can and do appear in this play of sensuous presences, but Langer is surely right to hold that it is the form of appearing that determines the unspeakable felt import made explicit and presented for our contemplation and interpretation in the formed material before us. This is especially the case with music, whose paradigmatic importance for [End Page 61] and challenge to philosophy as a set of discursive practices has been discussed in a short and disturbing work by Vladimir Jankélévitch that I have already alluded to.
Jankélévitch ascribes to the experience of musical works an essentially episodic or epiphanic character, a character not restricted to music but which also belongs to other art forms, especially painting, in which one is caught by a kind of sudden magical aura immanent in and emanating from the work, a phenomenon already noted. This is the distinctive "quality" that grips us without an explicit effort on our part. "Being gripped" is something undergone, not something we do. Dewey (see 1931, 1998b, 1998c) makes this notion one of the central pillars in his account of aesthetics not just in Art as Experience but in his seminal essays on qualitative thought, affective thought, and the ultimacy of Peirce's theory of quality (see Innis forthcoming). There is a certain spontaneity to the event, which clearly also is dependent on a kind of openness on the part of the perceiver. Such an openness is a kind of antecedent willingness embedded in habits of receptive attending. These habits have to be cultivated against the inertial force of language's dynamic drive toward general classification.
Jankélévitch, like Langer, is insistent that music is not a kind of language. It does not have ideas "to line up logically with one another" (Jankélévitch 1983, 18). It is not that music has no "ideas" lined up and (to be) developed, since it clearly does. For Jankélévitch there is certainly a "logic" governing the types of musical forms he is most devoted to or has an affinity with, predominantly the works of French modernism, but it is not essential to his argument. The ideas are musical ideas, products of a form of reverie governed by improvisation that "means nothing and yet means everything" while at the same time expressing no communicable sense, outside of the very forms of experience it confronts us with. Rather, Jankélévitch thinks that a musical form is "an image of life, spontaneous outpouring and progress that cannot be foreseen" (1983, 21). We are caught up in the dynamics of its shaped time, just as we are caught up in the "shaped spaces" of a painting emerging out of what Kandinsky called its "elements"—point, line, plane, color, form.
The first challenge to philosophy here is to foreground the epiphanic or episodic nature of philosophical reflection rather than its predominantly [End Page 62] argumentative character. It is questionable whether in fact they are ineluctably opposed to one another. The paradoxical achievement of artistic forms as finite fragments, as what Iris Murdoch in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals called "authoritative limited wholes" (1992, 3), is to intimate and express and to both force and train us, as she shows in The Sovereignty of Good (1970), to attend to a surplus of sense. They do so by being significant wholes that, while being unable to capture in their symbolically pregnant forms the whole of significance, nevertheless can make it or its dimension appear in nuce in and through themselves, as in Bach's Mass in B Minor, Mozart's Requiem, and Mahler's Symphony No. 7. Jankélévitch argues that music in its essential "objectlessness" cures us or at least relieves us temporarily of the search for discursively explicit meanings, while admitting that there is no absolutely "tacit" music in terms of an experienced felt content, which can be seen as "illuminating" something inconceivable, yet paradoxically thought about, but not in concepts. The mysterious, inconceivable origin of the universe in the big bang, the physicist Victor Weisskopf used to say, is perhaps better made intelligible in the opening chords of Haydn's The Creation than in the elegant equations of physics. The oratorio is what Tallis called a concretely realized idea. Music is audible, something in the world, and is yet paradoxically caught in a peculiar dialectical tension between noise and silence: it silences through sound for a finite time the noise of existence, which in itself leans toward chaos. Philosophy tries to make sense of the noise of existence. Its diaphanous medium is concepts, while music, and all art as well, overcomes the noise of existence with embodied "Ideas" that carry us away by the intrinsic powers of their material embodiments, in whose very materials our lives in time are inextricably incarnated.
While Jankélévitch explores the philosophical implications of the ineffable nature of music, Michel Henry in Seeing the Invisible, relying on a conceptual framework based on Husserlian phenomenology, uses a similar reflection on the foundations of abstract art formulated in Kandinsky's theoretical writings to situate painting as paradigm art within a nonrepresentational framework, linking it, in a specific way, with music. Henry's claim is that, like music, painting, in its essence, is not "about" the world, [End Page 63] not about representing a world that is already complete and in no need of duplication, a position close to Jankélévitch's repudiation of "resaying." Thinking that there is such a need is to exacerbate the wound of consciousness introduced by the achievements of conceptual abstraction and the unrest and sense of incompletion and dispersion of everydayness. Henry's book engages a profound paradox: the content of a painting, and a fortiori of all art, is not its theme or "object," which can be "named" or "seen." It is "life" or "subjectivity." Life, as he characterizes it, is "invisible" and not an "object" but is nevertheless accessible through the visible and felt in our bodies, what Dewey called a "total organic resonance." The inner and the outer, according to Henry, are inextricably joined but not identical. While the visible belongs to the domain of "objectivity," the invisible belongs to the domain of the flux of life, of embodied subjectivity, with its accompanying somatic tonus. It is precisely the epiphanic experiences of integrated subjectivity mediated by art, experiences in which we dwell for their own sakes, even for the briefest of moments, that minister to the wound, which, paradoxically, belongs to or defines the essentially tragic being-toward-death that marks our existence. Painting is a way of "listening to the inner resonance dwelling in each particular object" (Henry 2009, 135).
Life, as Henry puts it in a way that will not be unfamiliar to readers of Peirce, James, and Dewey, is a flux of subjective and affective tones, or what he calls "tones and tonalities" that arise from processes of being affected. But affected by what? Not really, according to Henry's interpretation of Kandinsky, by what appears in a painting, the world as a matrix or web of objects and relations that are represented or made present by the painting as a sign configuration with its object. The essence of a painting is not to "tell" us about the world or represent the world again as object. Its logic is not to bring a preexisting world into view in another medium but, by means of its sensible "elements"—point, line, plane, color, form—to embody and exploit the expressive possibilities of the variable engendering matrices of the felt tones and tonalities of appearing and not just of an appearance. It is these toned forms of appearing that augment and inform the subjective flux of our lives and give it what Peirce called its material quality, which we are made aware of by means of our encounter with artworks as their embodiments. In making us aware of these toned forms of life, painting—and indeed all art forms—makes us aware of or present to ourselves and leads us to experience our experience and not just the world. The toned forms of life: art makes us aware of these and teaches us how to perceive and challenges us to "measure up" to them. [End Page 64]
Here we arrive at the centrality of the theory of quality that informs the analyses of Peirce and Dewey. Dewey (AE, 97–98) quotes approvingly the following passage from Albert Barnes's The Art in Painting: "When we cannot find in a picture representation of any particular object, what it represents may be the qualities which all particular objects share, such as color, extensity, solidity, movement, rhythm, etc. All particular things have these qualities; hence what serves, so to speak, as a paradigm of the visible essence of things may hold in solution the emotions which individualized things provoke in a more specialized way" (1937, 52). It is the exploitation of these elements as the generative matrix of painting, and not the representation of the objects alone, that mediates the experiencing of our experience that Henry describes under the rubric of life, the ultimate "content" of painting. The experiential interaction with a painting is a paradigm of being led by the felt "magical accord" of an appearing form, which is a materially embodied creative gathering gaze. Our being gathered in the moments of appearing is another way of describing healing the wound or filling the hole in sense by letting go of argumentation and giving oneself over to the present.
Jankélévitch explores this topic with regard to the nondenotative character of music, with its "countless associations" (1983, 74) occurring in a kind of Peircean play of "musement." There is, on Jankélévitch's account, a certain passivity to "following the music," of "being with" or "being in" the sound, not dissimilar to Klee's notion of "letting a line wander." Is there not something similar happening in Emerson (and in others, to be sure): letting a thought wander? Are not perhaps the essay form and the aphorism close to the epiphanic and episodic nature of art? Is there not an essential place for this kind of writing in the future tasks of philosophy, which must perform the past as well as engage the present? John Lysaker's "Giving Voice to Philosophy" (this issue) and his After Emerson (2017) are engaged ways of illustrating this possibility. It exemplifies thought as a process of self-interruption, reflexive sequences of breaking off and returning through reformulations to the matter at hand that Colapietro saw as the world's challenge to philosophy. Jankélévitch writes of philosophical dialogue as being a kind of "interrupted serenade." [End Page 65]
Perhaps we could also think of philosophical discussion and reflection as analogous to playing chamber music, with different voices performing different lines with the joint aim of "realizing the topic" or coming to an "understanding" of vitally important aspects of the complex, multivoiced, and often inharmonious "melody of existence." Stuhr in this issue and in Pragmatic Fashions (2015) has provocatively argued that such discussion and reflection do not just involve a philosophical approach to or use of a wide variety of arts such as poetry, drama, music, graphic novels, music, and addresses. For him, as he proposes, rightly understood, "these arts are philosophy," understood not just as, following Dewey, "creative criticism" but as uncovering and fostering the social process of "a striving on behalf of an ideal never fully reached" (Stuhr, this issue), which both Dewey and Tallis foregrounded with different aesthetic emphases.
Jankélévitch points out that forms of music do not have to be "expressive" in the normal sense of imposing themselves massively on us by trying to make a point via a kind of gigantism and striving toward grandiosity (a remark partly to be explained by his aesthetic preferences for musical modernism and its self-imposed minimalism). There are clearly miniatures in music as well as in painting and other art forms. Monumental painting exists alongside the miniature in museums, and concerts are planned with complex mixtures of large-scale and small-scale works. In art as well as philosophy, one size does not fit all. This is an important philosophical lesson. Beethoven's string quartets are no less embodiments of musical significance than his symphonies, and philosophical insight is not wedded to the treatise or "the big book." Dewey wrote in his Essays in Experimental Logic that "thinking is a reconstructive movement of actual contents of experience to each other" (1916, 176). The notion of a reconstructive movement of thought is essential to philosophy, as Colapietro argues. Artworks emerge against a large background of previous works but without attempting to displace them. Each exhibits, or, rather, is, a way of organizing experience, just as the philosophical essay can be seen as organizing a thought against the complex background of philosophical traditions, performing those traditions in multiple ways and modes. And indeed, as an example connected with the present topic, Dewey's great 1896 paper on the inadequacy of the reflex arc concept (see 1998a) presented in nuce the approach to an intricate web of topics regarding the intertwining of perceiving and acting that would occupy him in later years. The great fragments of Peirce are rich mines or reservoirs of insights whose systematization has been left [End Page 66] to others. Thus, just as Peirce rightfully said that we are in thought rather than thought being in us, so in the case of our experience of art it is perhaps better to say that we are "in" the experiences presented in them, just as we are "in" a play or game or are "put into play" by them, an essential dimension of the aesthetic encounter (see Innis 2007).
There is another possible lesson here for philosophical writing and its nature. The originary agon of philosophy is an agon of wresting meaning from the noise of meaninglessness, not of winning an argument. Even the inexpressiveness of music, its abnegation of striving for effect, which Jankélévitch is devoted to, consists in its implying "innumerable possibilities of interpretation, because it allows us to choose between them" (1983, 74) while recognizing that they are not mutually exclusive, something I have in minimal fashion attempted here. In the case of philosophy this would entail a commitment to the mutuality of complementary insights without repudiating the ideal of objectivity. These possibilities of interpretation are manifested in what Jankélévitch called, as previously noted, the "incomprehensible disquiet churned up" in the wake of a work of art (1983, 75) or in the wake of our encounters with "limit situations" that confront us and are articulated in multiple modes, including the aesthetic mode of the sublime, in what Karl Jaspers called "ciphers." Such situations heighten subjectivity and bring us to ourselves, putting our awareness into italics, as Tallis so felicitously put it. By reason of their disquieting power they give us a heightened sense of being present to something that pulls us out of ourselves and discloses to us the space of our own existence by shattering its taken-for-grantedness.
Such engagement, pulling us away from the discursive lattices of our lives, Polanyi writes, "dissolves the screen, stops our movement through experience and pours us straight into experience; we cease to handle things and become immersed in them. … As we lose ourselves in contemplation, we take on an impersonal life in the objects of our contemplation" (1958, 197). This is a kind of epiphanic moment. A child fascinated by a slug moving across a stone and oblivious to everything else, which Tallis mentions, is in its own way as remarkable or exemplary as the enraptured activity of the creative mathematician or artist. They manifest, as Polanyi puts it, the "impersonality of intense contemplation" as "a complete participation of the person in that which he contemplates and not in his complete detachment from it" (1958, 197). This complete participation is what Polanyi called "indwelling" and indeed "can be consciously experienced" [End Page 67] (1958, 195). What Tallis means by "experiencing our experience" is the experience of the crossing of a threshold that lights up "the present moment" of filled time and gives it a distinctive "tone." Such experiences effect or realize our presence to the moment and fulfill time not by pointing to a future but by realizing the present, into which clearly the past and future are enfolded by recollection and anticipation in occasions that have distinctive feels.
But if we follow the analytical paths exemplified in Peirce, Dewey, and Polanyi especially, the realms of discursive ideality and the spheres of action can themselves also be dwelled in for their own satisfaction, as can all the Jamesian universes of meaning flowering out of their experiential matrices. Polanyi writes: "A valid articulate framework may be a theory, or a mathematical discovery, or symphony. Whichever it is, it will be used by dwelling in it, and this indwelling can be consciously experienced" (1958, 195). Theoretical speculation, including philosophical speculation, with its drive toward totality and comprehensiveness, has an aesthetic quality of its own, but it, too, is not a state we can rest in. Still, insofar as we dwell in a theory for its own sake, reflecting upon its intellectual beauty, we likewise attempt to heal through contemplation the wound in consciousness. But theory, in the end, has an intrinsic drive toward completion and universality, while this is not the case with art and aesthetic experience. They manifest different forms of restlessness, and so does philosophy.