John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality , by Scott Stroud

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona]On: 28 October 2014, At: 02:40Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    John Dewey and the Artful Life:Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality, byScott StroudRobert Danisch aa University of WaterlooPublished online: 03 Apr 2013.

    To cite this article: Robert Danisch (2013) John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism,Aesthetics, and Morality, by Scott Stroud, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 43:2, 202-205, DOI:10.1080/02773945.2013.774251

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  • Book Reviews

    John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality, by Scott

    Stroud. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. x 229pp. $69.95 (hardcover), $51.06 (paperback).

    Scott Strouds John Dewey and the Artful Life investigates the relationship between

    art and moral value from the perspective of American pragmatism. The goal of

    investigating this relationship is to make a case for artful communication.

    Stroud uses John Deweys pragmatism to argue that everyday, mundane instances

    of rhetorical practice can be made more artful and thus can be valuable forms of

    moral cultivation. It is this insight that rhetorical theorists will find most interest-

    ing. Advancing this claim requires an explanation of aesthetic experience, an

    attention to how art is integrated into our practical, goal driven pursuits, and

    an explanation of orientational meliorism (the belief that the ways in which

    we attend to our experiences holds the potential to make things better). Stroud

    uses Deweys aesthetic theory to argue that our orientation to the present moment

    can render life more meaningful and more satisfying, which will ultimately lead to

    moral cultivation. This potential is contained within both the ways that the art

    objects we surround ourselves with communicate to us, and how we choose to

    communicate to others within our present, everyday circumstances. Dewey does

    not provide a clear definition of art but he tries to explain how lived experience

    can be improved and how aesthetics can help in that task. It is this insight that

    Stroud uses to tie aesthetics to morality. The book combines work in philosophy

    and rhetorical theory and belongs to the larger, recent attention to the relationship

    between American pragmatism and communication (Nathan Cricks work, for

    example, has also traced the relationship between Deweys aesthetics and rhetorical

    theory).

    The first few chapters of the book deal mostly with aesthetic theory and prag-

    matism. On the surface, these initial chapters may not be of interest to rhetorical

    theorists. However, Strouds intention, ultimately, is to show how a pragmatist

    aesthetics can inform communication practice. Pragmatism has often been recog-

    nized as an important resource for communication theory (see, for example, James

    Careys work), but little attention has been paid to the ways in which pragmatist

    aesthetics relates to communication or rhetoric. In the absence of any scholarship

    that offers a sustained consideration of the link between pragmatist aesthetics and

    communication practice, Stroud begins with a more general exploration of

    the value of aesthetic experience. The initial argument is that much work in

    Rhetoric Society Quarterly

    Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 202208

    ISSN 0277-3945 (print)/ISSN 1930-322X (online) # 2013 The Rhetoric Society of AmericaDOI: 10.1080/02773945.2013.774251

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  • aesthetics after Dewey has understood aesthetic experience as separate from moral

    activity and has argued that the value of art is different in kind from the value of

    moral activity. Stroud critiques these positions by showing that theoretical acc-

    ounts of aesthetic experience that focus too much on dualisms between internal=external or intrinsic=instrumental aspects of an artwork miss something impor-

    tant. Deweys pragmatic take on aesthetics does not accept such dualisms and

    instead tries to dissolve the apparent philosophical problems associated with these

    distinctions. In order to do this, attitude becomes the primary feature of aes-

    thetic experience. This amounts to an attention to the way the subject approaches

    the art object and the role that such an approach plays in the type of experience

    had, the quality of such experience, and the content of such experience (29).

    Clearly this kind of aesthetic theory de-emphasizes the art object and instead sees

    the experience itself as the central issue in aesthetics. This is what Dewey offers that

    other philosophers of aesthetics do not. Chapter 3 gives an extended reading of

    Deweys aesthetic theory and fleshes out the meaning of such a position. This

    requires, most importantly, the explanation of Deweys argument that ends should

    not be separated from means. The separation of ends and means keeps indivi-

    duals from enjoying labor, since it is a habit of thought, a way that they look at

    what they are doing (50). The habit of separating means and ends must be aban-

    doned if Stroud is to successfully advance the case for artful communication. In

    these early chapters, the focus is on fairly technical philosophical arguments.

    The purpose of this focus is to clear the ground for the positive project that comes

    later in the book, and to demonstrate why Deweys aesthetics is superior to other

    aesthetic theories.

    Chapter 4 carries the reading of Dewey further by showing how aesthetic experi-

    ence can be linked to the experience of moral cultivation. Moral cultivation, for

    Dewey, requires attentiveness to situations and relationshipsthe same kinds of

    habits that facilitate the absorption characteristic of aesthetic experience. Deweys

    early ethical writings concern self-realization and an attention to character, and

    Strouds extended analysis of Deweys early ethical work is sharp, detailed, and

    carefully done. What he makes clear is that for Dewey what is of moral value

    is that which conduces to the endpoint of progressive adjustment of character

    to environment (67). Agent and act are parts of a single activity, not separate

    entities. This implies that a keen attention to the present situation is the vital

    part of the kind of conduct that issues from such a position. Stroud does an excel-

    lent job explaining why attention to the present is so important. At this point, the

    relationship between art and morality becomes clear: Art is important to moral

    matters largely because it is (commonly) connected to a type of experience that is

    called aesthetic. What is this experience in its most rudimentary form? It is atten-

    tion to a present situation, adjustment and growth in the light of that situation,

    and the harmonious unfolding of that situation with the funding of past experi-

    ence and present potentials (73). A series of examples and an analysis of rhythm

    in aesthetic experience follow this argument. These examples are meant to show

    Book Reviews 203

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  • the value of experiencing activity in a certain way (87). Art is valuable because

    the subject and the object closely fuse and are integrated because the focus of

    attention is on the immediate material of experience (89). This is an instantiation

    of the habits necessary for moral cultivation. Accordingly, attention to and

    absorption in the development of activity, be it that of art or of life, is what a fully

    flourishing, growing, and adjusted human must continually strive to attain (92).

    The initial four chapters primarily deal with questions of philosophy and pro-

    vide criticism of existing aesthetic and moral theory and explication of Deweys

    position on art and morality. The last three chapters, in contrast, provide a more

    positive project and more concretely link these philosophical arguments to work

    in Communication and Rhetoric. The philosophical argument of the book is that

    aesthetic experience is an instantiation of the endpoint of moral cultivation (atten-

    tion to a concrete situation in the present). Chapter 5 considers the use of art

    objects in invoking reflective or deliberative experience. Chapter 6 outlines the

    orientation toward activity that we ought to take if we are to follow a Deweyan

    line of thinking and acting and how to make more of lifes experience aesthetic.

    Chapter 7 makes the case for Artful Communication and its role in moral cul-

    tivation. All three of these chapters advance the general project of what Stroud

    calls orientational meliorism.

    Art objects, according to Stroud, hold the power to create intense experiences

    that are saturated with meaning and purpose, so much so that their employment

    as means is equivalent to the end they aim at (135). Art, therefore, has commu-

    nicative power in that a reflective dimension of deliberation and a process of dra-

    matic rehearsal issue from the ways in which art objects frame and focus attention.

    Because of the communicative power of art, our ability to become a progressively

    adjusted and growing agent is enhanced by aesthetic experience. This is what

    Stroud is afteran explanation of the connection between art and meliorism

    (the idea that things can be made better). The latter part of the book is replete with

    examples, from Viktor Frankl to Saving Private Ryan, of the ways in which the

    kind of orientation made possible by artworks can be melioristic, or can aid in

    the growth or development of individual character. Strouds innovation with prag-

    matism is to make the link between orientation and meliorism explicit and to

    show the work that can be done by combining these two projects.

    This work is perhaps most clear, and most pertinent to rhetorical theorists and

    communication scholars, in the chapter on Artful Communication. Stroud

    recommends three maxims for producing artful communication. First, a rhetor

    (or communicator) should avoid focusing on remote goalsthis prevents the sep-aration of ends and means. All present activities are intrinsically valuable and too

    much attention to the results of communication can render a communicative act

    non-aesthetic. Second, a rhetor ought to cultivate habits of attending to the

    demands of the present communication situation. Third, one should avoid the

    danger of focusing too much on the self. Following these three maxims will

    presumably aid an individual in experiencing a kind of intense absorption.

    204 Book Reviews

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  • Ultimately, the key to the artful life lies in attending to what one is faced with

    now (205). And the payoff is that cultivating the self by improving ones orien-

    tation to the present holds the potential of improving the community to which

    one belongsthis was an article of faith for Dewey and other first generationpragmatists.

    Like any reading of Dewey, Stroud emphasizes and selects some features of his

    philosophy at the expense of others. The best feature of this book is that it expli-

    cates a concrete path toward meliorism, one embedded in aesthetic experience and

    focused on orientation. However, this perspective ignores what Dewey had to say

    in The Public and Its Problems about community and the conditions within which

    communication happens. It also downplays the pragmatist commitment to asses-

    sing the consequences of a proposition. These are not meant to be strong criti-

    cisms of Strouds project. And to say that he does not get all of Dewey right

    would be an unfair criticism. But the book turns on the assumption that improv-

    ing our orientation to the world will have positive consequences for us as agents

    and for our community. Individual, moral cultivation may be made possible in

    that way, but is social justice, the alleviation of suffering, or the achievement of

    a fair and equitable society possible from such an account? It seems Dewey also

    attended to the moral dimension of these issues, which occupy a space beyond

    orientation and aesthetic experience and pose difficulties for modern large-scale

    democracies (and the rhetorical theorists who attempt to explain how communi-

    cation can promote social justice in such democracies).

    Robert DanischUniversity of Waterloo

    References

    Carey, James. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Hyman, 1989.

    Crick, Nathan. Democracy and Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming. Columbia:

    University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

    Founding Fictions, by Jennifer R. Mercieca. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University ofAlabama Press, 2010. 274 pp. $53.00 (cloth).

    The changing definitions and expectations of citizenship is an important topic with rel-

    evance tomany fields. The copious number of texts associatedwith nationhood and the

    subtle nuances that must be considered when tracing the movement of a nations his-

    tory presents an arduous task for any researcher. Yet this is the task to which Jennifer

    Mercieca commits herself in her recent study of the changing definitions of American

    citizenship: Founding Fictions. The book is a self-described meta-rhetorical history

    (3), andMercieca believes that this approach has the potential to conceptualize the role

    Book Reviews 205

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