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Pragmatist Aesthetics: Retrospect and Prospect

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Christopher Voparil
Union Institute & University

Paul Taylor
Penn State University

Thomas Alexander
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
United States

Cynthia Gayman
Murray State University

Pradeep Dhillon
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Discussant: Richard Shusterman, Florida Atlantic University

Aesthetics does not seem to be one of pragmatism’s prominent themes. Of the classical pragmatists only Dewey provided a substantive study of the field, though Peirce and James acknowledge the importance of an aesthetic dimension in experience. While Dewey’s masterpiece Art as Experience (1934) put pragmatist aesthetics on the map and enjoyed a few decades of influence in the artworld, its reputation in philosophy and philosophical aesthetics was soon eclipsed, even in America, by analytic and continental philosophies of art. Even when Richard Rorty revived Deweyan pragmatism in the Anglo-American philosophical field and repeatedly invoked aesthetic values, he provided no substantive aesthetic treatise or theory, distancing himself from Dewey’s aesthetic views, repudiating the notion of experience, and even characterizing the whole field of aesthetics as “one of Kant’s mistakes.”
At the same time, attention to the aesthetic dimensions of human life foregrounded by pragmatism has proved immensely fertile. Prefigured by the refractions of Deweyan and Jamesian ideas in the thought of W.E.B DuBois and Alain Locke, where notions of experimentalism, indeterminacy, and challenges to dominant rationalist assumptions are given a more acute social relevance, recent thinkers, including Shannon Sullivan, Paul Taylor, J.J. Abrams, and Martin Jay, have identified the aesthetic dimension of pragmatism as a site of agency from which pressing ethical, social, and political issues of race, gender, power, and the body can be engaged and transformed.
A watershed event in the development of this second strand was the appearance of Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics. Published in 1992 and now translated into fourteen languages, the book helped stimulate a global interest in pragmatist aesthetics that spans multiple disciplines and cultures. Its presentation of a contemporary pragmatist aesthetics that combines Deweyan perspectives with analytic and continental insights reintroduced pragmatism as a significant player in the American and international aesthetic field. But now, twenty years after its publication, what has this revival of interest in pragmatist aesthetics actually achieved? How has the field evolved; what has changed since Dewey’s classic work; what particular challenges does pragmatist aesthetics face today; what are its dominant themes, directions, and projects? How can it best contribute to the advancement of American philosophy and culture, but also to our increasingly global cultural scene?
These questions are not only of narrowly professional interest. In contemporary culture, the aesthetic has become an increasingly central topic. Voices from different philosophical perspectives converge on the recognition of a pervasive aestheticization process in the lifeworld that strongly impacts the fields of ethics and politics and even those of science. Pragmatist aesthetics, because of its central claim that art and the aesthetic should not be compartmentalized but rather deployed to enrich all dimensions of life, provides a crucial orientation for dealing with contemporary aestheticization and transforming it from a worrying anxiety into an opportunity for positive reconstruction of democratic life.
This panel collects some established and new voices in pragmatist aesthetics to address these questions and introduce others. The first paper seeks to chart new territory by considering the prospects for a “third wave aesthetic theory” that thinks through the implications of third wave “new pragmatism” in the context of transforming the culturally-conditioned habits of perception and cognition that perpetuate identity-based privilege. More retrospective, the second paper reads Suzanne Langer through Dewey to highlight their respective contributions to a symbology of culture upon which an aesthetic pragmatist philosophy of culture can be developed. The third paper focuses on the somatic link between ethics and aesthetics, drawing from Shusterman's work to elaborate a pragmatist aesthetics in conversation with Gregory Pappas' recent articulation of it in his John Dewey’s Ethics. Lastly, the fourth paper brings recent findings in neuro-aesthetics to bear on Shusterman’s somaesthetics to explore the implications for how we read and engage with artworks from cultures and periods other than our own.


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