The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 23 The Aesthetic and the Consummatory

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IT has been the inspiration of universal religions, of political democracy, and later of industrial democracy to bring something of the universal achievement, of the solemn festival, of common delight into the isolated and dreary activities which all together make possible the blessed community, the state, the co-operative society, and all those meanings which we vaguely call social and spiritual.

In this intersection of what Professor Dewey has called the technical and the final, this attempted grasping of the consummation of the complex efforts of men in society to infuse meaning into the detail of existence, aesthetic experience may be isolated as a separate phase. What is peculiar to it is its power to catch the enjoyment that belongs to the consummation, the outcome, of an undertaking and to give to the implements, the objects that are instrumental in the undertaking, and to the acts that compose it something of the joy and satisfaction that suffuse its successful accomplishment.

The beatitude that permeates the common striving of men after an infinite God of their salvation belongs to the cathedral. The delight which follows upon successful adjustment of one's body to the varied reactions to the elements of a landscape flows over into the landscape itself. The pleasure that imbues our bodily and social balance of reaction to a human form inspires the statue. The felicity that animates harmonious movements of men runs through the dance. To so construct the object that it shall catch this joy of consummation is the achievement of the

(455) artist. To so enter into it in nature and art that the enjoyed meanings of life may become a part of living is the attitude of aesthetic appreciation.

I have presented aesthetic experience as a part of the attempt to interpret complex social life in terms of the goals toward which our efforts run. The other parts are the religious, political, educational, hygienic, and technical undertakings, among others, which attempt to look into the future of our common doings and so select and fashion the ends we want that we can direct and interpret our immediate conduct, These endeavors do not carry with them the satisfactions that belong to finalities. They are infected by the interest which belongs to the fashioning of means into ends, to the shaping and testing of hypotheses, to invention and discovery, to the exercise of artisanship, and to the excitement of adventure in every field. It is the province of action, not that of appreciation. Our affective experience, that of emotion, of interest, of pleasure and pain, of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, may be roughly divided between that of doing and enjoying and their opposites, and it is that which attaches to finalities that characterizes aesthetic experience.

And the intellectual attitudes are as markedly different. In the fashioning of means into ends, in the use of tools, and in the nice adjustment of people and things to the accomplishment of purposes, we give attention only to that which forwards the undertaking; we see and hear only enough to recognize and use, and we pass from the recognition to the operation; while in appreciation we contemplate and abide, and rest in our presentations. The artisan who stops to sense the nice perfection of a tool or a machine has interrupted its use to appreciate it and is in an aesthetic mood. He is not interested in its employment, he is enjoying it. T he statesman who turns from the construction of his speeches, the ordering of his statistics, the meeting of political opposition, the whole technique of putting across his projects for bettering conditions and life of children, to the picture of their healthful and joyous life is for the time being no longer in action. He is savoring the end that he is fashioning

(456) into practicable politics. When the individual stops in his common labor and effort to feel the surety of his colleagues, the loyalty of his supporters, the response of his public, to enjoy the community of life in family, or profession, or party, or church, or country, to taste in Whitmanesque manner the commonalty of existence, his attitude is aesthetic. In the arts it appears in appropriate decoration, that which infuses the spirit of the meaning of the instrument into its structure and adornment, that which informs our equipment and mediate efforts with the significance and splendor of their accomplishments. It adds distinction to utility and poetry to action, "the joy of elevated thoughts, the sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused" to our best and finest efforts. It comes in healthful pulses in the most strenuous enterprises, as we stop in climbing great mountains to gather not only breath and refreshment but the charm and magnificence that each fresh étape reveals. From time immemorial men have dedicated them as festivals and solemn concourses.

While this aesthetic attitude which accompanies, inspires, and dedicates common action finds its moment of ideal finality in future achievement, the material in which its significance and beauty is fashioned is historic. All the stuff with which the most creative imagination works is drawn from the storehouses and quarries of the past. All history is the interpretation of the present, that is, it gives us not only the direction and trend of events, the reliable uniformities and laws of affairs, but it offers us the irrevocableness of the pattern of what has occurred, in which to embody the still uncertain and unsubstantial objects we would achieve. We import the finalities of past victories and defeat-, into the finalities of the uncertain future. The solidity and definiteness and clarity of our undertakings are the donation of the past.

All this is healthful and normal. In its perfection it reaches the field of the fine arts, but it involves the creative imagination and aesthetic appreciation of the least artistically endowed of

(457) those who are fortunately engaged in the rewarding undertakings of life. But those that can import the aesthetic experience into activity must be fortunately engaged and engaged in rewarding undertakings. And this means more than the mere adaptation of means to end, the mere successful co-operative fashioning of the goods which are enjoyed in common. The enjoyment of its ultimate use must be suggested by the intermediate steps in its production and flow naturally into the skill which constructs it. It is this which gives joy to creation and belongs to the work of the artist, the research scientist, and the skilled artisan who can follow his article through to its completion. It belongs to co-ordinated efforts of many, when the role of the other in the production is aroused in each worker at the common task, when the sense of team play, esprit de corps, inspires interrelated activities. In these situations something of the delight of consummation can crown all intermediate processes.

It is unfortunately absent from most labor in a modern competitive industrial society. But the thirst for enjoyment is still there, as is the imagination, deprived of its normal function. When the goal is too far removed in time and method of approach, the imagination leaps to the ultimate satisfactions which cannot be fused with the uninteresting detail of preparation, and daydreaming supervenes and cuts the nerve of action. Normal aesthetic delight in creation is the recovery of the sense of the final outcome in the partial achievement and gives assurance to the interest of creation. In daydreaming it is the very lack of connection between means and the end that leads one to the Barmecide feast of an end that is not expressed in terms of means. In the aesthetic appreciation of the works of great artists, what we are doing is capturing values of enjoyment there, which fill out and interpret our own interests in living and doing. They have permanent value because they are the language of delight into which men can translate the meaning of their own existence.



I. The artist is attempting to create something, to make it objective enough so that other people can appreciate it. He is trying to embody his own idea of something beautiful so that other people may share in his pleasure. There is always an intellectual content, but more emphatically there is an emotional experience. The artist is trying to embody an emotional experience. Of course, you cannot separate the emotional experience from the character of the object itself; you cannot get work of art by a bare expression of emotions. What you have to get is an object which answers to the emotional attitude of the artist, and which will also convey that emotion to others.

2. The critic undertakes to present a work of art to his readers in such a way that the reader will be able to get hold of the value embodied and to see how far it is successfully brought out in the object itself. The difficulty is, of course, to state clearly what the value is and to find out how far this value is brought out in the technique of the artist. Criticism must consist in bringing out, first of all, the values, the emotional content, which is there; and, secondly, in showing how the artist has by his technique succeeded in bringing that value to expression.

There is no science in the statement of value. You can to a certain extent get hold of value outside of art. You can in the field of the social sciences more or less definitely state what the values in human history are, and you can show how far the technique of presenting them has gone. In art you go back to emotional responses which are very difficult to define. The principal task of criticism is to bring the value itself into experience. The great critic is able to present the work of art to his audience so that the audience is able to feel that value as he himself feels it; then he turns to the work of art and shows why and how it has succeeded in bringing out that value.

3. There is a certain type of art which belongs to the ancient

(459) world which we cannot reproduce. The Greek statues presented ideas to the Greek communities which modern art cannot do. Our statuary is of a different type. This illustrates the fact that the type of expression continually varies with the situation. It is a means of expressing a communion of values which are found in emotional attitudes. The language of one period differs from the language of others, and the way in which we can express emotions differs. We can never set up a final standard. We do not get the same feeling from classical works of art that the ancient world did. We can appreciate them only in so far as we put ourselves back into the period, taking, as it were, the attitude of the Greek citizen of the time, and so making it possible to enter into those effects. We cannot, however, set up any absolute standard.

4. There are, of course, involved in thinking and involved in art certain norms. The drawing must present successfully the idea. You can point out whether the object is correct in terms of the idea that lies back of it, what the functions of it are. So you criticize the forms of verse, its measure, its rhyme. Those are standards, but they are, after all, subsidiary, and you have to come back ultimately to the reaction of the object upon a self.


  1. Reprinted in part from an article, "The Nature of Aesthetic Experience," International Journal of Ethics, XXXVI (1926), 384-87.
  2. Taken from student notes.

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