John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, and social reformer who developed theories that changed philosophical perspectives and contributed extensively to education, democracy, pragmatism, and the philosophy of logic, politics, and aesthetics in the first half of the twentieth-century.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859, Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. Following his graduation Dewey taught for a few years until he concluded that teaching at primary and secondary schools did not suit him. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University to study for his PhD. After teaching at the University of Michigan and then at the University of Chicago, Dewey finally settled at Columbia University.
Dewey contributed substantially to various philosophical and interdisciplinary fields throughout his life, including aesthetics. He was, along with historians Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, and economist Thorstein Veblen, one of the founders of The New School, a private research university in New York City founded in 1919. In 1899 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.
The principle of aesthetic philosophy is linked with theories of beauty, and the philosophy of art. Dewey’s most well-known work on aesthetics is his book, Art as Experience (1934). This was originally a speech he delivered at the first William James Lecture at Harvard University in 1932. Art and aesthetics, Dewey suggested, are intertwined inextricably with the culture and surroundings in which they stand. Therefore, to understand art and its aesthetic value, it is necessary to look at it within life and the outside experiences in which the art exists. As aesthetic experience bears organic origins, Dewey argued in Art and Experience that aesthetic experience can be recognised in everyday experiences, events, and surroundings.
Dewey’s theory on aesthetics has been a point of reference across various disciplines, which include psychology, pragmatics, democracy, and education, as well as new media; examples of which include computer animations and virtual worlds. His work has also been an inspiration to figures such as A.C. Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation, an art museum and educational institution. Barnes’s ideas of art in life, and the massive art collection he eventually accumulated in Philadelphia, were somewhat inspired by Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, and he attended a seminar by Dewey in 1918 at Columbia University. Likewise, Dewey’s philosophy on aesthetic art drew some inspiration from the collections at the Barnes Foundation.
Dewey led a successful career which established him as a great, revered figure of modern western philosophy, and his work is still relevant to this day. Dewey lived a long, fulfilling, and successful life and career until his death on 1 June 1952 from pneumonia, aged 92.
Featured Image Credit: painting by Robert Delaunay, 1912, ‘Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif)’ oil on canvas via Wikimedia Commons