The Characteristics of Experience

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

What are the characteristics of experience for Dewey? Experience begins with an impulsion of the whole organism, outward and forward. The organism moves to satisfy a need, but the nature of this motion is determined by the environment and the past experiences of the organism. Emotion always accompanies an experience. Without emotion there is no action.

A work of art does not simply evoke an emotion. The material in it becomes the content and matter of emotion when it is a part of the environment that satisfies a need in relation to the past experiences of an organism. Art objects may be inadequate or excessive in relation to the emotional needs of the spectator. Art is not nature; it is nature organized, simplified, and transformed in such a way that it places the individual and the community in a context of greater order and unity.

Therefore, for Dewey, a work of art represents nature as experienced by the artist. It organizes the public world by taking the scattered and weakened material of experience, then clarifying and concentrating it. However, a work of art does not lead to another experience of the world; it is an experience. Only secondarily, as it becomes a part of the past experiences of a person, does it transform everyday existence. Painters, for example, perceive the world just as everyone else does. However, certain lines and colors become more important to them, and they subordinate other aspects of what they are perceiving to relations among them. What they view as important is influenced by their past experiences, by their theories of art, by their attitudes toward the world, and by the scene itself.