Parallelism between the philosophy of John Dewey and the art of Dorothy Canfield
Wilson, Doris Bradford
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This study is concerned with philosophy as represented by John Dewey, America's foremost philosopher and educator, and with art as represented by Dorothy Canfield, an American writer who is intensely interested in clarifying our way of life. Philosophy is itself a phenomenon of human culture. It does not deal with eternal truths, but is significant as a revelation of the predicaments, protests, and aspirations of humanity in a changing world. We shall think of philosophy as meaning. Philosophy marks a change of culture and is additive and transforming in its place in the history of civilization. As these remarks indicate, philosophy as meaning is subject to alteration since meanings serve as tests of the values which tradition submits and for those which emotion suggests. Failure to satisfactorily meet this test denotes the necessity for change and revision. Since philosophy is the conversion of existing cultures into consciousness which is coherent and compatible with facts known, every civilization results in an imaginative formulation of itself unless it accepts unquestioningly traditions inherited from past ages. If we do not have a philosophy which is a sincere outgrowth and expression of our civilization, it is because the imagination is fettered by an intellectual timidity that reverts to the past for its ideas. It is a worship of science and a suspicion of philosophy that prevent attainment of a true philosophy which might be reconciled with science. Philosophy is an attempt to comprehend so that one may adopt an outlook on life. When we consider facts and laws of science to discover what sort of permanent disposition toward the world these laws require of us, we are approaching the philosophic. We do not thus create a ready-made, complete scheme of action, but we acquire a certain equilibrium helpful in coping with other and future experiences. Education is the vantage point from which to penetrate the significance of philosophic discussions. If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions toward nature and fellow-beings, philosophy may be defined as the general theory of education. Another function of philosophy is criticism. This is inevitable since a search for meanings and values demands a judgment, which results in criticism. Judgment requires thoughtful inquiry, knowledge, sensitivity, and experience; it is not enough to accept the judgment of another. It is the responsibility of philosophy to appraise values by taking cognizance of their causes and consequences through an intelligent use of the logic of experience, including the conclusions of science. Art, the second term of our study, cannot be considered in isolation from esthetic perception. The true artist is not only gifted in the powers of execution but in an unusual sensitivity to the qualities of things, which makes his work satisfying to himself and to the perceiver. Before an object is perceived as a work of art, the re-creation of the object by the percipient is necessary. An understanding of the nature of elemental experience is also needed in this discussion. Experience is the interaction of an organism and environment in an attempt to come into harmony with its surroundings. The value of an experience can be judged only by worthwhile reflection of the experience on the ground of what it moves toward and into. The true work of art evokes and organizes, through imagination, an experience similar to that of the artist himself. Art is the most direct and complete manifestation of experience as experience; therefore, it particularly challenges the imaginative ventures of philosophy. Like philosophy, art presents the first dissatisfaction with existing conditions and the first intimation of a better future. Surely an art which clarifies objects otherwise dumb, inchoate, and restricted cannot be deemed "immoral." We now approach John Dewey's conception of fundamental forces in American life. The first is democracy, a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It is a means for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is a way of life, social and individual. The certain way of assuring a genuine and practical democracy is through socializing intelligence so that individual efforts may unite in the accomplishment of common ends. So long as business and its outcome are private, social fulfillment must be unknown. We must substitute for private gain a cooperative effort and sharing for enrichment. Thus democracy will set free and develop the capacities of human individuals without respect to race, sex, class, or economic status. Education is an important force in American life. According to John Dewey, "getting from the present the degree and kind of growth there is in it is education." Thus education is not to be obtained merely from formal schooling. Each experience is an education and this makes learning a continuous process. It is the responsibility of the experienced to patiently guide and direct the way of the inexperienced by using methods that will develop insight, understanding, and genuine thought. There is no moral independence for child or adult; the process of growing and developing Is restricted to no age limit. It is the business of every institution, whether democratic or educational, to set the Individual free to reach the full stature of his possibility. The individual must learn complete self-reliance if he is to be happy and useful. Since society is the interactions of individuals, it is highly important that the individual attain a degree of harmony within himself that he may bring to his social relations a deeper insight and understanding. Work is a necessary element in American living. Practical activity should not be regarded as onerous and toilsome while intellectual activity is associated with leisure; nor can play and work be distinguished from one another according to the presence or absence of direct interest In what is doing. Because every occupation leaves its impress on the doer, it is important that the social condition under which it is performed should be improved so far as possible. To this view Dorothy Ganfield adds the idea of work as moral discipline, as solace in time of stress and emergency, as a life-line to which one may cling, gaining strength and courage. Intelligence in morals is a matter of supreme concern in the life of any civilization. In this discussion we do not think of morals as boxed, fixed, and final; we do think of them as the result of judgment as to what is satisfying and valuable according to experience. This Judgment is based on true thinking. This involves surrendering preconceived notions or formulae for meeting situations. Then we face the facts of the situation if we are courageous and honest, and begin the pattern of reflective thinking. The reward of such thought is to transform a situation in which there is obscurity, doubt, disturbance, conflict into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, harmonious. These fundamental points in the philosophy of John Dewey have been used as a frame of reference by which to test the validity of the novels of Dorothy Ganfield as an art form. By means of this parallelism of philosophy with art we find that Dorothy Canfield's works perform the functions of real art as exemplified by John Dewey. Her novels, if perused by the experiential reader, constitute a challenge to modern thinking and living by presenting, in art form, the same philosophic principles as are propounded by John Dewey. The novels are stirring isn their clarification of the American way of life and deserve the whole-hearted attention and appreciation of every thinking individual.
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