23. Aesthetics and Education, Part 1

One problem that faces global education is avoiding superficial, or even dangerously inaccurate, descriptions of a culture. So much of our access to other cultures comes through indirect sources that, unfortunately, can be full of oversimplifications, radical misunderstandings, stereotypes, projections, and racist and sexist interpretations.  One way to discuss this failure and propose a partial solution to it is to bring in aesthetic experience.  Aesthetic experience is not a matter of propositions getting analyzed and verified.  It is not a matter of quantities being measured, conceptualized, and symbolized.  Rather, it is about integrated wholes, qualities, and organic relationships.  It is about being immersed in the transactions of experience and feeling the connections that lead to consummations.

Many Enlightenment philosophers, such as Leibniz and Wolff, had argued aesthetic experience was potentially intellectual.  They argued that the sole difference between sensation and thought is that thought is distinct and sensation is confused.   In order to make something distinct, we need to distinguish all its parts through a process of abstraction and definition. The task in approaching aesthetic experience rationally is to take a confused sensation, sort out its parts, and transform it into a clear thought or set of thoughts.  But many subsequent thinkers, like John Dewey, were influenced by Alexander Baumgarten’s (1714-62) claim that sense perception can have a standard of perfection all its own.  This standard should be one that emphasizes what individuality and singularity sensations have. The standard of perfection should be richness and vividness of detail in the perception.  But this implies that the perception must be indistinct or confused.  After all, all perceptions are fused with many other elements in the continuity of experience.  This fusion of elements in the process of perception means that there is something in sensation that cannot rise to distinct thoughts. John Dewey helps clarify this point with reference to Tintern Abbey.  In doing so, he opens up a connection between aesthetics and understanding other cultures:

“The poetic as distinct from the prosaic, esthetic art as dis­tinct from scientific, expression as distinct from statement, does something different from leading to an experience. It constitutes one. A traveler who follows the statement or direction of a sign-board finds himself in the city that has been pointed towards. He then may have in his own experience some of the meaning which the city possesses. We may have it to such an extent that the city has expressed itself to him—as Tintern Abbey expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem. The city might, indeed, be trying to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry and all other resources that would render its history and spirit perceptible. Then there is, if the visitor has himself the experience that permits him to participate, an expressive object, as different from the statements of a gazetteer, however full and correct they might be, as Wordsworth’s poem is different from the account of Tintern Abbey given by an antiquarian. The poem, or painting, does not operate in the dimension of correct descriptive statement but in that of experience itself. Poetry and prose, literal photo­graph and painting, operate in different media to distinct ends. Prose is set forth in propositions. The logic of poetry is super­propositional even when it uses what are, grammatically speaking, propositions. The latter have intent; art is an immediate realiza­tion of intent.” [1]

Is it possible that certain aesthetic experiences can reveal the meanings that actual things possess rather than meanings that point to what things possess (as in abstract formulas, directions, theories, etc.)?  To be sure, aesthetic experience is not immune from deceptions of all sorts. But I think Dewey is right to point out that it can, in some cases, help us overcome deception and receive a more authentic expression of a person, place, or thing. This analysis can be used to give conceptual underpinning to the claim that a genuine engagement and appreciation of another culture entails the embodied appreciation of aesthetic experience. If we want to grasp the meaning of a culture and its activities we need to be aware of the limitations of abstract, indirect description. First hand aesthetic experience of a culture is one way to avoid these limitations. But perhaps the art of other cultures can help us avoid them as well.

For part two of this series, go here.

[1] Art as Experience, Volume 10 of The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953.  Edited by Jo Ann Boydston 17 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981-1990), p. 91.

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