John Dewey was the most celebrated and publicly engaged American philosopher in the twentieth century. His naturalistic theory of “experience” generated new approaches to education and democracy and re-grounded philosophy’s search for truth in the needs of life as it is shared and lived. However, interpretations of Dewey after the linguistic turn have either obscured or rejected the considerable role that he gives to the non-discursive dimension of experience. In Dewey and the Aesthetic Unconscious: The Vital Depths of Experience, Bethany Henning argues that much classical American philosophy implicitly recognizes an unconscious dimension of mind that is distinct from Freud’s theory. Although the unconscious that emerges within American thought has never been treated systematically, it found its fullest expression in Dewey’s work, particularly in his theory of aesthetic experience. This dimension of mind illuminates the continuity between nature and culture, and it provides us with an account of why artwork is often successful at communicating meanings from the ecological and intimate dimensions of life, where discourse often fails. If the relationship between the human and the organic world has emerged as the definitive question of twenty-first century life, then the aesthetic unconscious stands as a resource for our ecological and intimate well-being.
Bethany Henning is the Besl Chair for Ethics/Religion and Society in the Philosophy Department at Xavier University.
Chapter One: The Aesthetic Confrontation with Nature
Chapter Two: The American Unconscious
Chapter Three: The Feel of the Flesh, the Emergence of Mind
Chapter Four: Eros and the Primacy of the Aesthetic
Chapter Five: Uncomfortable Art and American Trauma
Chapter Six: From the Organic Plentitude of Being
About the Author
“At long last, an author pushes American philosophy toward a deep and detailed engagement with depth psychology in its most viable form (that which was defended by Paul Ricoeur). In doing so, she shows how the depths of the aesthetic unconscious, as plumbed especially by Dewey, both illuminates and is illuminated by the insights of Freud, Lacan, Ricoeur, and other psychoanalytic theorists. Far more than this, she illuminates the unconscious, aesthetic and otherwise, in the spirit of pragmatism - for this work truly unblocks the road of inquiry, opening paths of creative engagement in surprising and promising ways.”
"Bethany Henning gives us a book that is a remarkable piece of scholarship. In it, she not only recovers some neglected yet important elements of John Dewey’s philosophy, but her analysis also proves to be timely and relevant, offering insightful analyses and criticisms of America’s fractured culture."
Bethany Henning eloquently contributes significantly to scholarship on John Dewey's aesthetics, creatively and with a feminist eye. Stretching back to Puritanism, she situates Dewey in a long tradition of American aesthetic sensibilities, enriches the enfleshed character of experience, and expands Thomas Alexander's introduction of "eros" to better describe the intensity of aesthetic feelings. In good pragmatist spirit, Henning is not content with merely good-sounding theory but applies her analysis to show how aesthetic experience is often unsettling and connected with the religious.