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Robert B. Tapp
What Beyond Reason?
Howard B. Radest
One World at a Time
Vern L. Bullough
Beyond Reason and Science: A Radical Challenge
Carol Wintermute
The Aesthetic Pillar of Humanism
J. Calvin Chatlos
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Gerald A. Larue
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The Humanist Institute

The Aesthetic Pillar of Humanism

Carol Wintermute

Humanism is in danger of being dismissed as merely a faith in science and the practice of ethical reasoning. It needs to be much more, to be viewed as a life perspective that takes into account the richness and varieties of human experience. The naturalistic philosophical viewpoint has often set these two giant pillars, science and reason, on the front stoa by the entry to the temple of understanding and ignored the fact that the whole building would collapse if it weren't for the unrecognized support of the smaller but essential pillars, which ring the edifice. Aesthetics is one of these stanchions or it may even be the keystone to the entry arch.

Aesthetics is at the heart of the criticism that humanism is coldly intellectual and emotionally crippled. The creations of the human personality in the arts, too often, are taken for granted by humanists, enjoyed and dismissed as adornments that enhance, but don't sustain life's meaning and are not a means for finding truth.

How can a movement devoted to physics and metaphysics be so blinded by these dazzling subjects that it cannot reunify one of its essential philosophical parts to its whole? Aesthetics addresses both the cognitive and the affective aspects of our nature. It is impossible to exist at only one end of the continuum between thinking and feeling. But humanism appears to be trying to operate from the head, desperately trying to hold the heart in check or at least keep it from displaying itself in public.

One obvious way to overcome the duality of mind and emotion is to embrace the study of aesthetics and weave it back into the fabric of our discourse. It is a legitimate and important path to human understanding.

There is a natural relationship between aesthetics and science and philosophy that recognizes the equal contributions of each in seeking truth without putting them in competition with each other for being the final authority. Science gives us verifiable knowledge. Philosophy presents us with systems of meaning for comprehending the universe, and aesthetics leads us to understanding human experience.

It is my intention in this first of two articles on aesthetics, to briefly trace some of the problems our humanistic philosophical forbearers encountered, in defining what art is and what art does. I will not be following the detour taken by those who see art as serving theology. The main road leads us from Plato to Immanuel Kant with only some minor stops in‑between to take in the Renaissance critical theorists and the Earl of Shaftesbury's contributions. The humanist path eventually leads to John Dewey's door, wherein lies the integration of the mind and emotion in the aesthetic dimension. In his framework art refers to the experience of this world, not some other, which rids us of another bothersome duality, which pits this world of everyday experience against some other realm of reality. It then points us to a humanist "spirituality,", if you will. Dewey's aesthetic broadens the humanist horizon in that truth can be found in the artistic experience as well as in science and reason.

Humanism is in danger of being dismissed as merely a faith in science and the practice of ethical reasoning. It needs to be much more, to be viewed as a life perspective that takes into account the richness and varieties of human experience. The naturalistic philosophical viewpoint has often set these two giant pillars, science and reason, on the front stoa by the entry to the temple of understanding and ignored the fact that the whole building would collapse if it weren't for the unrecognized support of the smaller but essential pillars, which ring the edifice. Aesthetics is one of these stanchions or it may even be the keystone to the entry arch.

Aesthetics is at the heart of the criticism that humanism is coldly intellectual and emotionally crippled. The creations of the human personality in the arts, too often, are taken for granted by humanists, enjoyed and dismissed as adornments that enhance, but don't sustain life's meaning and are not a means for finding truth.

How can a movement devoted to physics and metaphysics be so blinded by these dazzling subjects that it cannot reunify one of its essential philosophical parts to its whole? Aesthetics addresses both the cognitive and the affective aspects of our nature. It is impossible to exist at only one end of the continuum between thinking and feeling. But humanism appears to be trying to operate from the head, desperately trying to hold the heart in check or at least keep it from displaying itself in public.

One obvious way to overcome the duality of mind and emotion is to embrace the study of aesthetics and weave it back into the fabric of our discourse. It is a legitimate and important path to human understanding.

There is a natural relationship between aesthetics and science and philosophy that recognizes the equal contributions of each in seeking truth without putting them in competition with each other for being the final authority. Science gives us verifiable knowledge. Philosophy presents us with systems of meaning for comprehending the universe, and aesthetics leads us to understanding human experience.

It is my intention in this first of two articles on aesthetics, to briefly trace some of the problems our humanistic philosophical forebears encountered, in defining what art is and what art does. I will not be following the detour taken by those who see art as serving theology. The main road leads us from Plato to Immanuel Kant with only some minor stops in‑between to take in the Renaissance critical theorists and the Earl of Shaftesbury's contributions. The humanist path eventually leads to John Dewey's door, wherein lies the integration of the mind and emotion in the aesthetic dimension. In his framework art refers to the experience of this world, not some other, which rids us of another bothersome duality, which pits this world of everyday experience against some other realm of reality. It then points us to a humanist "spirituality." if you will. Dewey's aesthetic broadens the humanist horizon in that truth can be found in the artistic experience as well as in science and reason.

The later article will look at a humanist aesthetic and explore how it is being challenged by postmodern reactions, especially from feminists and multiculturalists.

What is Art? What Does it Do?

Art is universal and yet has so many forms by different practitioners from so many cultures that it can seem purely individualistic. What it is, is wrapped up with what we understand that it does. There is a vast history of views about what art does and they are full of problems for humanists.

A natural view says that art mirrors reality. This understanding is in direct competition with science and philosophy. Art is either similar to what these two tell us and is thereby a testable proposition or it is different from what science and philosophy say and speaks to other realities besides the ones of this world. It is assumed in this view that understanding is the highest achievement of which humans are capable. If art is important then it must offer some kind of understanding of some kind of reality.

Plato had problems with art. At times he seems to suggest that it is inadequate to give us knowledge of reality and at others he seems to suggest that its truth is the highest we can know. Art for Plato is a proportioned and measured, thereby beautiful, an imitation of the Ideal. The artist who combines techne with divine inspiration is capable of presenting us a worthy truth. Thus Plato has left us with our first problem; art is either a poor imitator of reality, because you can't test its truth or it is a good imitator of another realm of reality. Its only truth is contingent on acceptance of the Ideal reality as the repository of knowledge.

Another natural view of art is that it is something which speaks to our emotions and gives us pleasure by gratifying our senses. This view assumes that the highest achievement of humans is to give pleasure. The obvious problem with this view is that much of art is sorrowful and painful. If we held to pleasure as the greatest good, then many of the most moving and significant works of art would have to be discarded. While I never knew a humanist to spurn pleasure, few would deem it the supreme value in life.

After the Greeks, aesthetics is sidelined by theology. Art is simply an adornment for Gods temple and the beautiful is evidence of God's design. It was not until Renaissance critical theorists began to look again at techniques of art creation, explore art as form, discover rules for execution and examine the purpose of art, that aesthetics was seen as a valuable way to explore reality. These critics made the scholarly world aware of how far Christian theology had gone in deviating from classical aesthetics.

The Renaissance reclaimed art as beauty. Beauty is harmony of proportion that presents a whole, which is carefully constructed according to a fixed number, a certain relation, order and symmetry. That whole reflects nature in all its perfection. But this is kind of Neoplatonisin was merely a rehashing of the same old stuff. It took Shaftesbury to revitalize Neoplatonic aesthetics. He finds beauty in nature and rhapsodizes about it. Nature for him has spiritual qualities that make it possible for humans to experience beauty, which has an infinite value in itself. The artist enlarges on nature and makes us realize its value as a manifestation of divine harmony. The audience partakes in the beauty of nature and art as expressive of an underlying spiritual reality.

A humanist might appreciate Shaftesbury's connection to nature, but have problems, again, with his duality that has spirituality located in the divine and not the mind. It is true that this natural view of art is neither in competition with science or philosophy for giving us truth and understanding, nor is it a kind of activity that gratifies our senses. Yet it still leaves us on the highway to heaven.

Now let's take a look at Kant. He makes aesthetics a central part of philosophy. Kant uses aesthetics to bridge the gap between theoretical and practical philosophy. He takes up where Shaftesbury left off, by suggesting that beauty in nature and art is expressive of an underlying spiritual reality.

He identifies aesthetics with the domain of human experience, which is equal to the cognitive and moral domains. In the natural (cognitive) domain we find conformity with the law. In the freedom (moral) domain we find final purpose. In the art domain we find purposiveness (practice or activity). Understanding, reason and judgment correspond to these three domains. These, in turn, correspond to cognition, desire and the experience of pleasure and pain.

The bottom line for Kant is to explain the validity of judgments of beauty and sublimity, which belong to the domain of art. Art achieves a judgment of beauty when it strikes a universal note in all people, who then share a common taste. There are no rules for it, because it is unique. This idea gives rise to Romanticism's idea of the artist as genius.

What individuals share in judging a work of art, beautiful or sublime, are not just their personal emotional responses to it, but the universal value found in its form. Form in Kant's sense is that which satisfies the function of the particular art and at the same time is beautiful by appealing to the universal taste. A work of art is beautiful if it looks like or corresponds to nature. Beautiful art is possible only through genius. Genius is the real foundation of human nature and speaks to human feelings.

The genius has an imagination rich with aesthetic ideas. This imagination arouses thought but cannot be encompassed by a system of concepts. Art is now being defined as symbol. The artwork must be done is such a way, that the respondent is able to grasp the expression that the artist has symbolized. The outward expression of aesthetic ideas is the form—musical, poetic, architectural, et cetera—which is then the proper object for a subjective judgment of taste. The form is a symbol of both the beautiful and morally good.

Thus what is found to be sublime in art, the beautiful and the good, is a sense of that which surpasses any possibility of representation. This concept of art belonging to, or symbolizing, something beyond reality is not found in science or moral reason. While it solves the problem of art competing with these knowledge areas, it puts us right back to square one with Plato's aesthetic pointing to the Ideal.

With Kant's aesthetic, all we can do is analyze people's responses to art and catalogue them because there is no single essence or fundamental concepts in aesthetic experience. Only the singular and unique genius has access to aesthetic concepts, which s/he expresses in symbols that refer to this spiritual realm of beauty and good.

Kant exerted great influence in the western views of art until the middle of the 20th century. Therefore, art was considered neither a form of knowledge nor a form of practice but a form of expression, primarily emotional, yet not intended to shed light on emotion or to arouse it.

Kant sets us on the trail that leads to the German Idealists who identify reality as mental or spiritual in essence. This equating of the spiritual with mental connects aesthetics back to human experience and to a central place in philosophy. With these Idealists aesthetics is the keystone of the arch. Spirit is defined as something absolute that manifests itself in self‑consciousness and then in religion and philosophy. Art reveals this spiritual reality and is the crowning achievement of human creativity.

Aesthetics is restored to high ground in Idealist formulations. But it is still relegated to being a referent, which is human mental activity, yet seems very much like some absolute specter from beyond this world. This is a problem for naturalism and the reason why aesthetics in this country is the poor relative in the philosophical family. When philosophy in the U.S. and England became realistic/naturalistic/positivistic, aesthetics, as defined by the Germany Absolute Idealists, was about something unrelated to this Anglo‑Saxon sense of reality. This group based their reality on empiricism, observation, and scientifically verifiable facts, which did not leave room for speculation about original causes and other realities.

It would seem that we're right back at the starting point with the problem of aesthetics in competition with science. Naturalism could be viewed as demanding that conceptions about art be subjected to scientific method and reasoning. Art is therefore limited in what it can reveal and provides little in the way of verification. Many naturalists see art as valuable only as it meets utilitarian needs, instrumental purposes and expresses noncognitive sentiments.

Dewey and Art

This is where Dewey steps in to bring some resolution to these recurring dilemmas. As a student Dewey was much taken with the Absolute Idealists. It was Charles Darwin's influence that had a profound effect on his mature thinking. It is not hard to see that Dewey encapsulates the process of evolution in his conception of experience. Experience is the personal interaction of self and environment and the subsequent changes in both. For Dewey the human spirit is both a biological entity and a social phenomenon that is formed and developed by experience. The process of experience is his philosophical center and aesthetics the heart of it. Art is the unification in experience of those means that lead to a fulfillment. It is where experience is most unified and complete that we find art. The unity that is achieved is characterized by a dynamic flow of intellectual and emotional responses between artist and audience. The aesthetic experience is appreciating, perceiving and enjoying that which was lovingly rendered and speaks to the quality of the human spirit that was intended to be displayed. Art, for Dewey, is the highest human achievement.

He says that for the philosopher to understand experience, s/he must look to aesthetic experience because herein lies an unclouded and unimpeded integrity. Integrity is a whole that emerges from the interaction of creator and environment. Art is the uncontaminated experience of progressively developing inner meaning and reaching a consummatory conclusion out of the interchange between artist, material form, and consumer. Dewey says, "art is an immediate realization of intent." [1] Further he says,

The conception implied in the treatment of aesthetic experience ... is, indeed, that the work of art has a unique quality, but that it is that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences. [2]

This would imply that Dewey finds that art speaks truth and would, therefore, be in competition with science. He avoids this trap by saying that "science states meanings; art expresses them." [3] The scientific statement is useful as direction toward an experience. It is a signboard. If it disclosed something about the inner nature of things, then it would be competing with art. But it doesn't. Dewey says, it "operates in the dimension of correct descriptive statement." [4] It can only point to experience. Art constitutes one.

Dewey points out that because art is expressive, it is a language, or many languages depending on it vast number of forms. Because our everyday life calls for the language of speech, we tend to think that this language predominates and therefore that meanings expressed in other modes, like art; can be translated into words. But he tells us that this is not true because art relates what cannot be conveyed in any other way. To translate it, is to change it.

In art we have a triadic relationship: the speaker, what the speaker says and the one spoken to. The artwork is the connection. While the artist is working, s/he must step back and vicariously become audience to see if the connection is coming through. What the artist is saying is the substance and how it is said is the form. Dewey realizes that there are many problems in trying to determine whether aesthetic value lies in one or the other. For example, the question arises as to whether beauty "is another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence upon material, or is it the name for aesthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?" [5]

Dewey's answer is that the material is the stuff of common human experience. The artist assimilates this material and in a distinct way, reissues the material in a public form that now becomes a new object. In time perceivers may recognize that new object as relating to older objects that refer to common experience. The new object or artwork then becomes acknowledged as a universal expression. The material is public; the way of saying it is private. If the product is a work of art, it cannot be duplicated because it is unique.

The perceiver can look at art intellectually or emotionally to satisfy a certain need, but looking at art aesthetically, s/he will create an experience that is new. The raw material of the artwork is of the same old stuff of the world, but bringing one's individual experience to it creates an interaction with that old material and produces something in meaning that had not been experienced previously.

Dewey tells us that a work of art is only art "when it lives in some individualized experience." [6] Both artist and audience continue to find new and different meanings in the aesthetic interchange, every single time they connect with the artwork. The universality is not to be found in a single correct interpretation of the work, but in the recognition that one's own experience is called into relation to a common aspect of human experience by the artwork. Productions, which are not art, fail to continue to evoke a response that is intense and freshly relating to a truth of one's own experience. Form provides the connection from common human experience to personal insight and then to the shared universal experience.

For Dewey form and substance are really indistinguishable. The artwork "is matter formed into aesthetic substance." [7] Skilled observers can make the distinction between what is done (substance) and how it is done (form), but the aesthetic act itself is what it is, precisely because of how it was done; it is the integration of substance and form.

The quality of the experience is what binds all the constituent elements and makes it a whole. It is an immediate awareness, not one of reflection. Reflection may provide clues to any element that is discordant in the triadic relationship of common experience, individual insight and personal understanding. But aesthetic perception is an instant elicitation of a sense of wholeness and belonging to the universe in reaction to a work of art. It produces what Dewey calls "a feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity." [8]

Dewey points to a kind of spirituality based on aesthetics, which a humanist can find palatable. It is similar to the phenomenon described as peak experience by humanist psychologists. The term spirituality, however, may be found repugnant to some humanists who find it too closely tied with religion. For Dewey a religious feeling has nothing to do with established religions. It is an adjective that describes "experiences having the force of bringing about a better, deeper and enduring adjustment in life".… [9] Dewey says that the immediate sense of connection with the whole universe of human experience

explains...the religious feeling that accompanies intense aesthetic perception. We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world, which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. We are carried beyond ourselves to find ourselves. [10]

Art operates on a deeper plain to bring into focus that undefined but enveloping whole that accompanies normal experience. This intense feeling and intellectual clarity provides us with that fulfilling sense of unity with the life‑stream.

The unity and clarity result from the artist's ability to use his/her medium as a go‑between for the substance and form. The substance is internalized common human experience brought into form by the artist's medium, which magnifies, concentrates, and makes tangible the connection. Brushstrokes are a means to painting clouds, but they are also integral to the aesthetic effect by demonstrating movement and texture in an amplified way. Brushstrokes are a means to a painting and at the same time are incorporated in the outcome. Means and ends are one and the same in the aesthetic relationship.

Dewey's aesthetic experience is imaginative. Imagination is the gateway through which meaning enters the aesthetic interaction. It is imagination that makes the conscious adjustment between prior experience and the artist's vision as expressed in the artwork.

Conscious perception of art assimilates the past with the present by way of imagination that reconstructs that past, giving it a new, fresh meaning.

During this interaction process, thoughts and emotions may be floating and unattached to the aesthetic experience though they are embodied in it. Imagination dominates in the aesthetic process because it connects these floating thoughts and feelings of the here and now to the vast past. Imagination concentrates and enlarges on the now and taps into the repository of the then, to make the connection that provides us with wider and deeper meaning and value than we can reach in our everyday life experience. The artist uses imagination to evoke the connection of present to past, which is embodied in the art form. The audience uses imagination to receive and organize the elements of the aesthetic experience.

Dewey said, "aesthetic experience is experience in its integrity." [11] This pure experience is freed from factors that subordinate it to something beyond itself whether that be the world of gods or ideals. Because of the wholeness and integrity of aesthetic experience, the philosopher must to go to it to understand the nature of experience itself.

Dewey sums up the aesthetic experience in these words:

 Imaginative vision is the power that unifies all the constituents of the matter of a work of art, making a whole out of them in all their variety. Yet all the elements of our being that are displayed in special emphases and partial realizations in other experiences are merged in aesthetic experience. And they are so completely merged in the immediate wholeness of the experience that each is submerged; it doesn't present itself in consciousness as a distinct element. [12]

For Dewey imagination is not just some special faculty. It is what holds all the elements of aesthetic experience together in a conclusion. No one element can be selected out to explain aesthetic experience. It is not just emotion, reason, sense, or activity. It is all of these. Art is not just pleasurable beauty that is imitation of nature, which is harmony of form, or is illustrative of some point. Beauty in art exists in substance and form. It is found in the ordering of particular elements and unifying them into a whole and that bears meaning and truth, which is grasped by all our faculties. The aesthetic experience can be all of these and more for Dewey. He believes that art is preoccupied with imaginative experience and that constitutes the heart of it moral potency.

In Art as Experience, Dewey quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our nature and the identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively. [13]

In response Dewey says:

While perception of the union of the possible with the actual in a work of art is itself a great good, the good does not terminate with the immediate and particular occasion in which it is had. The union that is presented in perception persists in the remaking of impulsion and thought. The first intimation of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistic, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration. [14]

Dewey's aesthetic philosophy solves some major problems encountered by humanists in the history of the naturalistic tradition. He also elevates aesthetics to its former status as a major domain of knowledge and human achievement, which is a counterbalance to science and reason, ethics and other philosophies but not a challenge to their areas of authority. With aesthetics firmly lodged in the house of experience, it does not compete with science in the area of verifiable knowledge. Unlike other areas of philosophy, his aesthetic is not a logical system of meaning but a process that results in finding meaning. Reason is the intellect at work to solve problems and make decisions. Dewey's aesthetic does not challenge in this arena, because its cognitive element is part of the process of making connections to vast areas of human experience that results in deeper understanding of the human condition. Ethics is a system of moral behavior and judgment. Dewey's aesthetic centers on the imagination as the catalyst for linking past and present actions to future possibilities for behaving in a way satisfying to self and others. It opens the way for new material to be entered into the ethical gristmill.

With Dewey's aesthetic a humanist can work with the concept of transcendence without leaving this world. Art is not a symbol for an ideal or another world of reality. Dewey's aesthetic touches on that which takes us out of the mundane to the superior heights and great depths by exploring the nature of the very material of our daily living. Some humanists may call this spirituality, but I think the term has been co‑opted by religions. It may have other references that tie it to a realm of higher thinking and feeling experience but it's too late to reclaim that heritage. It is not the purpose here to propose something in its place, only to note that this particular elevating and illuminating experience is completely the stuff of this contactable world. Dewey has eliminated dualism by rooting the aesthetic branch of philosophy in the world where humans live and breathe. His aesthetics has dignity and importance in the areas of knowledge and understanding. It adds much to the humanist perspective in terms of the expressive aspect of our nature. This richness of the aesthetic experience gives life its vitality, depth, significance and hope. Art makes the whole adventure worthwhile.

But art, wherein man speaks in no wise to man,

Only to mankind—art may tell a truth

Obliquely, do the deed shall breed the thought." [15]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 



[1] Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 618.

[2] Ibid., 579.

[3] Ibid., 617.

[4] Ibid., 618.

[5] Art and Its Significance, Stephen David Ross, ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 211.

[6] Ibid., 212.

[7] Ibid., 214.

[8] Ibid., 214.

[9] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 14.

10 Ross, op. cit., 214.

[11] Ibid., 219.

[12] Hofstadter and Kuhns, 643.

[13] The Moral Writings of John Dewey, edited by James Gouinlock, (Amherst, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994), 235.

[14] Ibid., 236.

[15] Hofstadter and Kuhns, 646.


© 1999 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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