Pragmatism in Aesthetics

Kate Gordon

THE argument of this paper is that aesthetic experience illustrates and confirms the teachings of pragmatism. It is stated that (1) the work of the artist is to objectify new or striking emotions, that (2) the subject of the aesthetic enjoyment accepts these emotions and acts out their meaning, and that (3) the ultimate meaning of beauty is to he found in concrete acts, and the function of art is to produce new experience.

Pragmatism has been defined as : "The doctrine that the whole 'meaning' of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences, consequences either in the shape of conduct to be recommended, or in that of experiences to be expected if the conception he true ; which consequences would he different if it were untrue, and must be different from the consequences by which the meaning of other conceptions is in turn expressed. If a second conception should not appear to have other consequences, then it must really he only the first conception under a different name. In. methodology it is certain that to trace and com-

( 462) -pare their respective consequences is an admirable way of establishing the differing meanings of different conceptions." [1] For pragmatism, as I under-stand it, "significance " is a much more engrossing category than is "existence." The pragmatist looks to the event, the outcome, the result in experience of a conception or of a thing. Dewey [2] says that "things . . . are what they are experienced as." Thus, the writing pad is the to-be--written-upon; a mountain is the looked-up-at, the driven-over, the to-be-tunnelled-through, etc. To put it negatively, that which amounts to nothing for experience is nothing; that which is somehow "there" but never by any chance "here" for anybody is pure fiction.

Perhaps the difference between pragmatic and other attitudes can be illustrated by the type of reality and worth which they would assign, let us say, to the character assumed by an actor on the stage. There is a popular opinion that the actor who is playing a part is less himself at that moment than one who assumes nothing, the part is regarded as something foreign, which more or less obscures the real character. The pragmatist would hold that assuming a character is as good as being it if one assumes it thoroughly, and the more parts one undertakes the more is one a personality. In " The Tragic Muse" the young actress said to her interlocutor: "And do you think I've got no char-

( 463) -acter ? " to which he, pragmatically. replied : "Delightful being, you've got a hundred !"

Significance and meaning are terms which have no place in a purely mechanical conception of the world ; in nature one thing does not "mean" an-other ; things do not "signify" except in a purposive order. All things, according to pragmatism, are either hindrances or furtherances to some purpose. (It should not he necessary to add that in making all things relative to purpose one is not reducing everything to psychology. Certainly there are purposes in ethics, in logic, in æsthetics, in sociology, and in what not?) Given a purpose or an activity, it is possible to analyze in it certain termini, an end towards which, and one from which, the process moves, but it would be quite perverse to say that these points "determine" the process in the sense of being independent objects which exert compulsion upon it, Rather is it true that the process is the ground or determining source of the termini. Instead of two points determining a line it is the line which determines the points. This is in harmony with the assertion that objects are constituted by purposes.

This brief statement about pragmatism is not intended for an argument, for I do not understand that an ultimate philosophical attitude can be argued. Pragmatism is the disposition to look for final explanations in terms of purpose, and for reality in experienced satisfactions. With this dis-

( 464) -position I should like to approach the field of aesthetics. Esthetic discussion may be classified for this purpose under three general heads: (1) the artist's standpoint ; what are the motives to art production? what is meant by "self-expression," and by "objectification of emotion" ? in what way does art "relieve" emotion? (2) the standpoint of the appreciator or admirer of art; what is the nature of aesthetic enjoyment? whet is the meaning of "internal imitation" and the motor elements in aesthetic consciousness? the significance of "disinterestedness," "objectivity,""immediacy,""absorption of subject in object" ? (3) the origins and functions of art. These questions can here be touched of course only in the most summary way.


The term "artist" should not be limited, in aesthetic discussion, to mean merely the acknowledged masters or even the whole professional class, but should include everybody who has seriously tried to express his emotion through one of the recognized media of artistic production. Hirn[3] says : "If the notion of art is conceived in its most general sense, every normal man, at some time of his life at least, is an artist —in aspiration, if not in capacity." The standpoint of the aspirant must

( 465) indeed have something in common with that of the successful master, for the latter is considered to have expressed not only his own feeling but also that of others.

The motives to art production may he extremely varied, the artist may work for money, for love, out of emulation, or fear, etc. (just as among primitive people arts were practised for the sake of conveying information, of stimulating fighting and working power, of exercising magic influence, etc.

without having the product necessarily vitiated as a work of art. Yet the genuine art motive, that which is there apart from any specific external pressure, is somewhat different from any of the motives mentioned. The art-impulse has been derived, according to different authorities, from the tendency to imitate, the tendency to attract by pleasing, to employ surplus energy ; from' the desire for self-exhibition, for self-expression to relieve emotion, and to objectify feeling. It is allied. to the instincts of play and of sociability. These tendencies overlap each other and probably all are operative in artistic activity, hut the categories of self-expression and objectification of emotion give perhaps the most comprehensive and just characterization of the meaning or the art-impulse. When one experiences greet pleasure or j(7, the first wish is to keep it up just as it is, but that foiling one is impelled to express the experience by portrayal, to seek an image which will revive the feel.-

( 466) -ing. Not only, however, is this true of joy; for when an uncommon terror, or a peculiar grief, has been endured there is a wish not to let the memory of it wholly (lie, we want to record the fact in order sometime to find the interpretation of it. We may say in general that whenever there is a striking emotional experience, or a feeling not fully grasped, there is a desire to express, fix, and objectify that feeling, to put it into permanent and appealing form.

There is always a social reference in this desire for expression. Often this reference is patent, so much so that one writer makes the desire "to at-tract by pleasing" the basis of art. The desire for permanence and objectivity is, however, itself ultimately social; for only that which makes an impression on the social order is truly rendered objective or permanent, only that which appeals deeply to people is the monument more lasting than bronze. The artist in working for others need not mean by society any definite living per-son or group of persons, he may figure it as posterity, an ideal group or an ideal person, or even himself in the character of critic, but the reference is there nevertheless and remains social in its essence. With a sincere artist this wish to impose his experience on others is not an undue exaltation of himself but is the legitimate and normal desire to establish and preserve whatever novel emotions or supreme moments his experience may have held.

( 467) When these moments are once translated into a medium which will, as it were, be responsible for them then an important part of the artist's desire is accomplished. He may rest relieved by his work of art. The art-impulse is imitative in the sense that it tends to reproduce or iterate an experience which the artist has had ; it is self-expressive and self-exhibitive in that the artist stamps his idea upon society ; it works off surplus energy in the sense of relieving emotional pressure. Its spontaneity together with its constructive and its imitative elements suggest the play-instinct, while the instinct of sociability is at the bottom of the social reference mentioned. The complete objectification of emotion is an end and a satisfaction. of the art-impulse, but, as we have seen, this very end implies that the emotion felt by the artist is to be taken up into the social process and lived out,


The second group of questions involves a discussion of the standpoint of the observer, or better, the admirer of art. The generally current descriptions of his state of mind. say that his pleasure is disinterested, objective, and universal, that esthetic value is immediate rather than discursive or "consecutive," that art widens the sympathies, that it has the form of purposiveness but represents no

( 468) purpose. Some writers add that an element of pain or melancholy is aroused by beauty.

The disinterestedness of esthetic enjoyment is expressed also as a detachment from desire, as a stilling of the will, impersonal contemplation. The immediacy of aesthetic value is supposed to distinguish it from ethical or logical. or economic values ; for these latter may be means to an end, they may be valid because they contribute to some other thing than themselves, whereas in beauty there is no ulterior ground, no reference which accounts for the value. Further, the admirer of beauty feels the value to he objective and universal. that is, he feels his pleasure to be "the quality of an object." Beauty he holds to be sharable, and to he addressed normally to a group rather than to an individual. The sensuous element in beauty is also some guarantee of its objectivity; the beautiful is always something which we may see or hear or touch, which gives resistance and stimulation to the senses. The fact that art widens the sympathies follows from its universal character.

It is not, I think, sufficiently dwelt upon in aesthetics that every moment of aesthetic susceptibility is to some extent a risk and. an adventure. The absorption of the subject in the beautiful object is a subjection of mind analogous to a mild hypnosis. Our motor responses and "internal imitations" are often, possibly always, the basis of our interest, the means to our emotional appre-

( 469) -ciation, and by these we accept and realize the suggested feelings. Unlike a logical, an ethical, or an economic absorption in which propositions and plans of action are considered, and a judicial attitude preserved, aesthetic absorption is in a thing, an object whose dynamic possibilities are not clearly known. it is more of an unconditional surrender, and more like encountering a person than a principle. The work of art may stimulate interests and reactions which are most unlooked for. That is where the adventure conies in.

The characteristics of the aesthetic consciousness, then, are a remoteness from immediate self interests, a suggestible and imitative attitude towards the object, and an allegiance to a reality felt to be independent of oneself. But back of the producer's desire to objectify emotion and back of the admirer's acceptance of it after it is objectified is the desire of both for the emotion itself. In every normal person there is an instinct for excitement, a curiosity about the untried and a liking for whatever is novel and stirring. It is this which sets the artist hunting for new emotions to objectify, and this which first draws the observer into the neighborhood of the work of art.

( 470)


Mediating between the producer and the admirer stands the work of art itself. It is the end term of two processes, being the goal or ending point of the artist's endeavor, but the starting point or at least the point of redirection for the activity of the admirer. An inquiry concerning origins and functions of art is an inquiry for the other two termini of the art process — the beginning of the art-producing and the end of the art-enjoying emotion. If art production is based on emotion we have first to ask where the emotion comes from. We may distinguish a psychological and a social origin for it, though we recognize that for primitive mind the individual and social interests were not clearly differentiated.

The theory of emotion [4] which regards it as a phenomenon of interrupted habit, states that emotion is the consciousness of conflicting impulses. Impulses which meet with no resistance get carried smoothly into action, and the rule is that their owner knows and feels very little about them; but let an impulse be checked, or rather — since only an impulse can check an impulse — let there be a conflict between impulses and the affair appears in consciousness and appears an emotion. In feeling, at least, the theory would say that strife is

( 471) the father of things. Imagine a primitive man approached by an enemy ; his fighting instinct is aroused and he starts forward to make an attack. If resistance is feeble the act of destruction is shortly completed and does not rise far into the emotional or ideational level. But if the enemy assumes a terrible and threatening air the act of destroying him is at least postponed a little. The instinct of fear is touched in the aggressor and the impulse to cower and run tends to cheek his attack. At once there is emotional stir, the fighting impulse reined-in becomes conscious anger, the overt act thus blocked remains a mere attitude, and the result is an angry man in a fighting posture. The most desirable thing at that moment in the world would be some means of fixing his resolution and augmenting his strength. Now the primitive per-son who wants to do something but dares not, finds a satisfaction in going repeatedly as far as he does dare. Repeated threats and feints and posturings thus take the place of a real fight. I believe that such a situation would account psychologically for the origin of that fundamental form of art — the dance. When an act has been intercepted the actor records that moment, and in a sense objectifies his emotion, by the repetition of that part of the act which he is able to perform, namely the attitude. If the posture were repeated often enough, to fall. into a rhythm it would then constitute a dance — a work of art. According to

( 472) this account, the objectification of emotion is an objectification of conflict, and whoever preserves an emotion preserves an ungratified impulse, a problem unsolved or a purpose unfulfilled. The performance of mimetic dances after a deed is complete, a victory won, we may, it is true, ascribe to the desire to revive and prolong the joy of success, but this type of commemoration also has a reference to the future. The memory of one feat is kept as a stimulus to the next, and also as a means of attaining social consequence.

As to the social origins of art, we are told that the different forms of art were evolved as useful accessories to certain definite ends, that the function of the artist was to direct and incite the efforts of a social group. The praesul or group leader in beating out the rhythm for concerted action, and in performing a pantomime of the movements to be made, furnished concrete imagery for his group — the stimulus of a literal example. In their historical beginnings the arts were useful devices for attaining success in specific types of activity. In the interests of the fight and the hunt, of love and religion, of magic and work, wherever, in a word, primitive man wanted to exert his power the arts came in to stimulate and enhance it. The status of art seems to have been purely instrumental... Bücher [5] says that if one asks a Bulgarian laborer to sing a harvest-song in winter time the answer is sure to be:

( 473) "Es sei eine Schande, ein solches Lied zu singen, wenn nicht die Zeit dafür sei." The function o art, then, was not at first so much a stilling as it was a prodding of the will.

The function of modern art is of coarse a separate question. With the big changes that have come in our social economy, one would not expect to find so important a function wholly unchanged. In the modern social order occupations and ideas are much more numerous in kind. With the division of labor has come the multiplication of types, and the more democratic ideal. Our ideal community is not one in which every man is a hunter or a warrior with the biggest one as leader, but rather a community in which every person is doing something a little different from every other, one in which each member holds a position and performs a service which is unique, and therefore one in which every one leads in something. Now in such a society of individuals what place would there be for an artist of the primitive sort ? With everybody wanting to do a different: thing it would be impossible to be a praesul and to give to each a literal example of what he was to do. As a matter of fact the modern artist works as a rule for a public not present to him in the flesh, and often for persons whom he will never see. This, added to the fact that his public represents widely divergent interests makes the notion of personal example quite remote. And. yet I

( 474) believe that with one very important difference the function of modern art is essentially the same with that of primitive art. The difference is that modern art instead of giving a stimulus to a specific act gives a stimulus of a much more general kind, and leaves each individual to live out for himself the meaning and the end of it.

To assert that the function of art is to stimulate to ends, of whatever sort, is, on the surface anyway, a direct contradiction of the idea that art quiets the will and absolves from desire. Now the terms "disinterestedness" and "freedom from desire," and the notion that certain values are immediate and not grounded on absent things do stand unquestionably for a certain truth ; hut, if I under-stand what that truth is, they express it badly. Literal disinterestedness is an artifact. What the term. is used to signify is that some interests (not all) are in abeyance. The whole point for aesthetics is to distinguish which interests are ignored and which are thereby fostered when one contemplates beauty. The difference seems to be one of small present interests as against larger and more remote ones. Art, though it no longer sets one on to instant deeds, has yet a far-reaching influence upon action. Thus there is no one particular act which a plaintive melody could be relied upon to stimulate, but it might very well induce a mood of tenderness or pity, the results of which, though not known, we must not suppose lost. A beautiful

( 475) object, even a familiar one, has something in it always novel and re-creative, and in this sense represents a change from preceding experience and interests, so that the beauty seems not to depend upon the preceding interest for its value. It is not apparently mediated or arrived at but given. is not like an "answer" in arithmetic which, in-significant by itself, needs the preceding problem which it answers to give it a meaning. To say, however, that beauty is really an "immediate value," or that its meaning is completely ex-pressed in its form is a contradiction in terms, and a denial, it seems to me, of the most vital element in all aesthetic moments. Value, meaning, significance, these must always by definition imply a standard or involve a reference. The pragmatic attitude on the subject would be that the meaning of a beautiful object is to be sought not in itself but in its final reference to concrete acts ; that the aesthetic moment, like any other, must be placed in a purposive order, that there is no such thing as a completely given value.

Evidence is not wanting that the person going through the aesthetic experience demands a reference to some purpose. Recent theories regard aesthetic consciousness as a consequent rather than a cause of art production ; they say that aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty is developed by first appreciating art. The aesthetic consciousness would thus be a moment not given by nature but

( 476) determined by art, that is, developed within a human process. Again, in modern theory, the conception of the characteristic or the significant is given chief place in the definition of beauty, and the categories of congruity and fitness are also considered relevant. Now nothing is merely characteristic, etc., it is characteristic or significant of, congruous with, fit for. All those notions involve a reference. Finally, it comes out in experimental tests on æsthetic problems that the isolation of the æsthetic object is a source of disturbance to the subject. Persons asked to choose the more beautiful of two colors. the more pleasing of two circles of different size, and the better of rectangles of different proportions often find it unnatural and difficult to make a choice irrespective of some use to be made of the color or the form. Some say that they have no "favorite" color in the abstract, but have different favorites for different purposes. One person among my subjects who had been trying to choose among rectangles (including the golden section) at last exclaimed : ".Heaven knows I would be glad to yearn for one of those things to please you," but declared it impossible to like them apart from some imagined purpose (i. e., as used for a picture-frame, a book-cover, etc.). My experience has been that questions like "Which is longer, or darker, or bluer," etc., are accepted and answered as a matter of course, but that the questions "Which is better or more beautiful, which do you prefer,"

( 477) are troublesome and often call out the demand for further explanation. Another fact which suggests the dependent nature of beauty is tin part sometimes played by the object's position in a series of objects. Martin[6] found that changing the relative position of simple curves could change their relative æsthetic value. In unpublished tests of my own on circles of different sizes and rectangles of different proportions the soma point came out, the choice seemed to be affected. by the position which the figure held in the series presented. For example, in a graduated series lettered a, b, c, d, etc., figures a, h, and e were shown together and the subject chose b as most pleasing ; then b, c, and d were presented and the subject chose e. Now since b and c were together for comparison both times it would seem that it was not the figure itself but its position which determined the preference. In this example the middle figure was chosen both times.[7] These facts point to the conclusion that aesthetic experience is less able to stand by itself than has been supposed.

If it were granted, however, that the æsthetic moment did derive its value from a purpose and was not in any literal way free from desire, there would still remain to be explained that feeling of freedom which is so often observed as accom.-

( 478) -panying the appreciation of beauty. Freedom, as any one would agree, rests upon the power of choice, hence there is no freedom unless there are at least two things to choose from. And, conversely, the person who has possible alternatives is a free agent, and the broader the field of his possibilities the greater his sense of freedom. Ac-cording to the theory of emotion cited above every emotion represents more than one possible action — is in fact the consciousness of conflicting impulses. The very presence of emotion is there-fore an appropriate situation for the sense of freedom, being a moment of suspended choice, or balance of alternatives.

If art is stimulative is it possible to name some of the concrete acts which it instigates ? If it has meaning, exactly what does it mean to have us do ? It is not, I think, possible always, or even often, to name the precise outcome in action of a work of art. It has already been said above that the stimulus of art is generic rather than specific, and I should like to dwell a little at this point on that distinction. The works of Millet and Breton must certainly modify the attitude of many people to-wards the laborer of the field, yet it is impossible to say exactly what acts those pictures inspire ; acts of charity perhaps, but they certainly do not solicit gross and obvious charities, nor would these express the intention of the pictures. The picture of the Man with the Hoe inspired Markham's

( 478) poem, and picture and poem inspire their public with a sense of social responsibility and. a feeling of awful compassion. The result of this should be some bettering of social conditions, that is, better social conditions would. express the ultimate intention of such works of art (whether that were consciously intended by the artist or not), but just how to get better conditions, exactly what to do we must find out not from the work of art but rather from social science. Art inspires merely the emotional stage of the reform. To take another illustration, martial music is believed to have an effect upon the action of soldiers, but while it may inspire courage it takes the intelligence of military science to narrow the emotion into the effective and desired concrete act. Here, too, art carries the actor only as far as the emotional stage of action. Ile feels urgently that he must do something, but art furnishes only in a general way the notion of what he shall perform.

The meaning of art is thus a felt meaning not a definitely known one. This is the striking difference between aesthetic appreciation and logical judgment. Every judgment is something of an equation, a balancing process in which a certain equivalence is predicated. One thing is said to be another, that is, every subject about which any-.thing is judged is in a manner balanced by its predicates. ,Now with aesthetic appreciation there is not just that kind of balance present; the

( 480) beautiful object is there as the subject about which one's feeling hangs, but its precise valuation in the way of definite predicates is wanting. It deserves predicates but they are at the moment unknown quantities. The work of art has a weight and a meaning, but at the moment of felt effect it has not yet been fully translated into that meaning. It is this felt but undefined significance which makes the mystery of great art — the face of Mona Lisa so full of significance, is equally full of mystery and of things unknown: one is not sure even whether her smile is sinister or benign — if indeed it is a smile.

The function of art, then. is to preserve and present meanings at their emotional stage, before they have become explicit, definite, or solved. Since every emotion is an unsolved problem or a conflict, the artist is he who discovers and founds problems, and his business is to put them into persistent form. The artist part of each of us is the part which leads us into emotional complexities and hazards, and this impulse is satisfied only when we are involved in an objective situation. This impulse is at bottom very much the some as that which leads one in any sport to wish for a hard game. It is the experimental or ad-venturous side of our nature, and the satisfaction of the impulse is reached when one is confronted by a stiff opposition. As some one bas said, "On ne reste que sur ce qui resiste." On the intellect-

( 481) -ual level this desire seems to me no other than the desire for an objectively real world in which to think and feel and act. Every one can at times sympathize with Rasselas in his wish to escape from the Happy Valley.

Much of the criticism of pragmatism rests upon the feeling that pragmatism does not do justice to the difficulties of the human situation, does not recognize the stubborn character of objects and oppositions. We may answer this (aside from the answer that nowhere is opposition more difficult or real than between different purposes) by saying that one may recognize opposition itself as part of a purpose and as satisfaction of cri impulse.

Finally, the pragmatic view of aesthetics recognizes the aesthetic moment as a problem, not as a solution, a beginning rather than an end. The pragmatic view of art, I should say, is this, that art is not essentially an imitation of life — a. copy of something done and finished before art took it up, but that life is a copy and imitation of art. If art is the "image of life" it is more a prophetic than an historic image. Thus, Henry James has created for us many situations, put things in our lives that were not there before ; and Meredith has made persons. After seeing a Turner one sees more form and color in a sky. We see beauty in nature because we see it as a picture. The genre in art has given us an interest in common things,

we can see them at last because we see that they are a pageant. In other words, art if it is stimulative and instrumental must he prior to that which it effects. Life and nature are in a vital sense experienced as products of art.


  1. "Dict .of Phil. and Psy."
  2. Journal of Phil. Psy. and Sci. Method. Vol. II. No. 15.
  3. "The Origins of Art," Chap. II.
  4. Dewey, Phil. Rev., Vols. I.and III. Cf. also Angell, Psy., Chap. XIX
  5. "Arbeit u. Rhythmus”
  6. Psy. Rev, Vol. XIII, No. 3.
  7. Cf. also Witmer, Phil. Stud., IX, p. 128, for a like result.

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