Pragmatist Notes, part II

To be set on fire by a thought or scene is to be inspired. What is kindled must either burn itself out, turning to ashes, or must press itself out in material that changes the latter from crude metal into a refined product. Many a person is unhappy, tortured within, because he has at command no art of expressive action. What under happier conditions might be used to convert objective material into material of an intense and clear experience, seethes within in unruly turmoil which finally dies down after, perhaps, a painful inner disruption.

Persons who are conventionally set off from artists, “thinkers,” scientists, do not opperate by conscious wit and will to anything like the extent popularly supposed. They, too, press forward toward some end dimly and imprecisely prefigured, groping their way as they are lured on by the identity of an aura in which their observations and reflections swim. Only the psychology that has separated things which in reality belong together holds that scientists and philosophers think while poets and painters follow their feelings. In both, and to the same extent in the degree in which they are of comparable rank, there is emotionalized thinking, and there are feelings whose substance consists of appreciated meanings or ideas.

The psychology underlying this bifurcation was exploded in advance by William James when he pointed out that there are direct feelings of such relations as “if,” “then,” “and,” “but,” “from,” “with.” For he showed that there is no relation so comprehensive that it may not become a matter of immediate experience. Every work of art that ever existed had indeed already contradicted the theory in question. It is quite true that certain things, namely ideas, exercise a mediating function. But only a twisted and aborted logic can hold that because something is mediated, it cannot, therefore, be immediately experienced. The reverse is the case. We cannot grasp any idea, any organ of mediation, we cannot possess it in its full force, until we have felt and sensed it, as much so as if it were an odor or a color.

Whenever an idea loses its immediate felt quality, it ceases to be an idea and becomes, like an algebraic symbol, a mere stimulus to execute an operation within the need of thinking. For this reason certain trains of ideas leading to their appropriate consummation (or conclusion) are beautiful or elegant. They have an esthetic character. In reflection it is often necessary to make a distinction between matters of sense and matters of thought. But the distinction does not exist in all modes of experience. When there is genuine artistry in scientific inquiry and philosophical speculation, a thinker proceeds neither by rule nor yet blindly, but by means of meanings that exist immediately as feelings having qualitative color.

Santayana has truly remarked: “Perceptions do not remain in the mind, as would be suggested by the trite simile of the seal and the wax, passive and changeless, until time wears off their rough edges and makes them fade. No, perception falls into the brain rather as seeds into a furrowed field or even as sparks into a keg of gunpowder. Each image breeds a hundred more, sometimes slowly and subterraneously, sometimes (as when a passionate train is started) with a sudden burst of fancy.” Even in abstract processes of thought, connection with the primary motor apparatus is not entirely severed, and the motor mechanism is linked up with reservoirs of energy in the sympathetic and endocrine system. An observation, an idea flashing into the mind, starts something. The result may be a too direct discharge to be rhythmic. There may be a displace of rude undisciplined force. There may be a feebleness that allows energy to dissipate itself in idle day-dreaming. There may be too great openness of certain channels due to habits having become blind routines – when activity takes the form sometimes identified exclusively with “practical” doing. Unconscious fears of a world unfrienly to dominating desires breed inhibition of all action or confine it within familiar channels. There are multitudes of ways, varying between poles of tepid apathy and rough impatience, in which energy once aroused, fails to move in an ordered relation of accumulation, opposition, suspence and pause, toward final consummation of an experience. The latter is then inchoate, mechanical, or loose and diffuse. Such cases define, by contrast, the nature of rhythm and expression.

-John Dewey, Art as Experience


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