Below is a draft introduction of my forthcoming article. The editor requested an abstract and revised introduction that included far more specifics.
This essay on pragmatist aesthetics explains how imagination extends the environment into the possible. While there is no lack of pragmatic theories claiming that imagination extends the environment, few explain how within scholarship on John Dewey. After discussing the incompleteness of Mark Johnson’s scholarship on this question, I engage and expand upon Thomas Alexander’s work to construct a novel Deweyan pragmatic view of the dynamic structure of imaginative function that emphasizes continuity, temporality, and the emergence of meaning. Pragmatist scholars must address the question of how, else they are blind to the limitations of imagination while making promises on its transformative power. Though the present work is rooted in historic scholarship, it promises to flower in contemporary debates in aesthetics, realist phenomenology, and reconciling naturalism and phenomenology.
Dewey scholarship on moral imagination is insufficient because it neglects the dynamic structure of imagination. When reflection erupts into experience and unleashes new possibilities, imaginative function shifts, and the reflectively apprehended meaning of a situation is always different from unreflective experience. Scholars well note the difference of reflection and imaginative rehearsal in rendering thought more intelligent, but without accounting for how imagination extends the environment, the limit of its power remains a mystery. I propose that the question of how is answered by a theory of the functional structure of imagination.
There are two established accounts, Mark Johnson’s and Thomas Alexander’s. I begin by discussing why I have singled-out these two accounts and why Johnson’s answers are incomplete. Johnson is responding to contemporary analytic philosophy of mind, and his engagement with Deweyan pragmatism is instrumental and selective towards that end such that he quietly neglects or misconstrues pivotal theses. Scholars who wish to grow the living tradition, such as myself, cannot uncritically accept Johnson’s work without thereby creating many internal contradictions. For example, we cannot accept Johnson’s early Kantianism about imaginative function and its trace in his later work. Instead, I accept Alexander’s account of how imagination extends the environment.
Imagination presents the anticipated meaning of an action, and thereby lights the present by the lamp of the future. Since imagination is limited to what may be anticipated as meaningful, its light is bounded by memory or “habit” as Dewey used the term. Noting this, I proceed by investigating how habit may limit imaginative projection. However, the emphasis on the temporal structure and continuity of imaginative function inherited from Alexander leads to a creative reinterpretation of Dewey. From a synoptic view of his work and subsequent scholarship, I put together his puzzle pieces in a novel way.
The first piece is an interpretation of his theory of experience, the triadic model of conscious experience, that describes the continuity of the metaphysical, biological, and phenomenological significations of “experience.” Designation of the continuity of the process of experience is crucial to locate when imaginative activity occurs, which is no trivial task when the phases of experience are continuous and emergent. The second piece is a metaphysical explanation of how imagination extends the environment into the possible that builds upon Alexander’s and Jim Garrison’s work on the conversion of natural potentialities into experienced possibilities. That is, I explain how nature has ideas. The third piece establishes that imagination is basic to conscious experience, as imagination and meaning is grounded in bodily dynamics and becomes a conscious event only under particular conditions. The fourth piece explains the particular conditions under which imaginative function becomes explicit and reflective rather than implicit, and implicates the role of Dewey’s theory of emotion in his aesthetics. This piece of the puzzle is revelatory of the transformative power of imagination and its limitations. The habits that render reflective experience meaningful can diverge from emotive habits that guide our unreflective involvement in the world, attentiveness, affectivity, and ultimately our interpretations of a situation. The fifth and last piece of the dynamic structure of imaginative function articulates the gestalt shift in conscious experience occuring during the transition from unreflective to reflective experience. What and how we experience differs before and after the transition such that we may not be aware of schisms between the two. This is a problem, for example, for inquiry and education, which require a unity of what we think and what we do. Else, we think one thing and do another while developing habits that split meaning and action, which is incipient of hypocrisy, false consciousness, ressentiment, etc.