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Beneath the ordinary: toward a Deweyan aesthetics of place

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John Dewey, ordinary experience, place

Abstract (summary)

A prominent undercurrent in the tradition of American philosophy concerns the endeavor to recover hope through a return to the ordinary and everyday. Ralph Waldo Emerson envisions and inaugurates such a path for the American scholar: I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state.... Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. ([12] 56) Emerson's call for the American scholar seeks to not only democratize the objects of our concern, but to engage in a wholesale reconstruction in how we know, how we choose, indeed, even in how we perceive, all in an attempt to make the world readily available again. No longer should we view everyday experience as a shade of some pure and distant truth, as an ephemera that blinds or distracts us from the genuine target of our understanding. For Emerson, the pursuit of knowledge is not undertaken by those who clamber out of the cave and forsake what is "near, low and common" for that which is eternal, infinite, and beyond. Not merely disparaging the metaphysical quest for certainty and its search for the fixed, the final, the transcendent and absolute, Emerson is renewing (and reversing) the Socratic call for paideia, demanding that the American scholar undergo a "conversion of the soul" such that we can see our world for what it is. Only this time we are to find and fashion the truths of this world not by escaping it, by denying the veracity of sensation or setting the soul free from the body, but by turning our eyes back toward that which sits at our feet, by reclaiming what has become all too familiar such that it can once again stand forth and become "warm with the currents of new life" ([12] 57). Emerson's demand is that we summon those words and works that best enable us to fulfill our proper office, which is not to disregard or disown the throes of ordinary experience in favor of an interminable a priori truth, but to rediscover, reclaim, and rewrite the potency of the everyday, whereby the scholar will take as his or her role "to cheer, to raise and to guide men by showing them facts among appearances" ([12] 58). Such a project is fundamentally imaginative, striving to recover the threads of thinking in the face of bewilderment, to poetize when circumstance confounds agency and fate overwhelms intelligence, and find the way out of despair through the recognition that our words and actions are rife with meaning when we are overwhelmed by the specter of conformity. In a word, Emerson's is a project of hope that restores purpose, value, and promise to what has too often been dismissed as "low and common."

Publication Information

Beauclair, A. (2021). Beneath the Ordinary: Toward a Deweyan Aesthetics of Place. Pluralist, 16(3), 1–28.


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