23. Aesthetics and Education, Part 1

Many Enlightenment philosophers, such as G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754), had argued aesthetic experience was potentially intellectual.  They argued that the sole difference between sensation and thought is that thought is distinct and sensation is confused. In order to make something distinct, we need to distinguish all its parts through a process of abstraction and definition. The task in approaching aesthetic experience rationally is to take a confused sensation, sort out its parts, and transform it into a clear thought or set of thoughts.

But many subsequent thinkers were influenced by Alexander Baumgarten’s (1714-62) claim that sense perception can have a standard of perfection all its own.  This standard should be one that emphasizes what individuality and singularity sensations have. The standard of perfection should be richness and vividness of detail in the perception.  But this implies that the perception must be indistinct or confused to some extent. After all, all perceptions are fused with many other elements in the continuity of experience.

The American philosopher John Dewey, in his book Art as Experience (1934), follows in Baumgarten’s footsteps. Consider this passage about  William Wordsworth’s poem Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:

“The poetic as distinct from the prosaic, esthetic art as dis­tinct from scientific, expression as distinct from statement, does something different from leading to an experience. It constitutes one. A traveler who follows the statement or direction of a sign-board finds himself in the city that has been pointed towards. He then may have in his own experience some of the meaning which the city possesses. We may have it to such an extent that the city has expressed itself to him—as Tintern Abbey expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem. The city might, indeed, be trying to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry and all other resources that would render its history and spirit perceptible. Then there is, if the visitor has himself the experience that permits him to participate, an expressive object, as different from the statements of a gazetteer, however full and correct they might be, as Wordsworth’s poem is different from the account of Tintern Abbey given by an antiquarian. The poem, or painting, does not operate in the dimension of correct descriptive statement but in that of experience itself. Poetry and prose, literal photo­graph and painting, operate in different media to distinct ends. Prose is set forth in propositions. The logic of poetry is super­propositional even when it uses what are, grammatically speaking, propositions. The latter have intent; art is an immediate realiza­tion of intent.” [1]

Aesthetic experience is not a matter of propositions getting analyzed and verified.  It is not a matter of quantities being measured, conceptualized, and symbolized. Rather, it is a matter of experiencing rich qualities, and relationships.  It is about being immersed in the transactions of experience and feeling the connections that lead to consummations.

If this is the case then educators can turn to art to overcome, to some extent, the limitations of abstract, indirect descriptions that inevitably accompany the transference of information.

For part two of this series, go here.


[1] Art as Experience, Volume 10 of The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953.  Edited by Jo Ann Boydston 17 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981-1990), p. 91.

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