English 9133A

Pragmatism and American Aesthetics

Instructor: Professor Kate Stanley
Fall Half Course.

This course traces the legacy of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism in American aesthetics and culture from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present. We will introduce the tenets of classical pragmatism as they are outlined in foundational essays and lectures by William James and John Dewey. Our explorations of the relationship between pragmatism and American aesthetics will begin by examining the fraught relationship between pragmatism and literature. With its emphasis on clear thinking and practical action, the “pragmatic method” of inquiry can seem hostile to literary experimentation. We will focus on William James’s exchanges with his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson and his student Gertrude Stein to consider sites of intersection and divergence between proponents of “the official philosophy of America” and the nation’s literary innovators at the turn of the century. We then turn to Dewey’s influential yet hotly contested account of “art as experience.” We will examine his claim that aesthetic experience should be continuous with daily life alongside counter-claims for art’s autonomous status outside the everyday. Our approach to this debate will be grounded in case studies from the visual arts and music (including Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Anthony Caro, John Cage, and Richard Reed Parry). In our final turn to improvisational music forms like jazz and hip hop, we will ask whether pragmatism can “be made to sing the blues.” One way to test this possibility is to bring the course full circle by aligning Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “experimenter” with Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Louis Armstrong-inspired figure of the “improviser.” Here we might consider if pragmatism’s optimistic orientation towards the future leaves it ill-equipped to confront America’s history of racial inequality and social injustice. We will conclude the course by taking up Joan Richardson’s provocative suggestion that when President Obama aligns himself with pragmatism, he is invoking the term in its rigorously philosophical sense and thus asserting his place in a rich American cultural lineage.

View the course syllabus here: English 9133A. PDF download