English 9210A

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 Puritans to the present with a special focus on pedagogy. At the heart of this course are the foundational essays and lectures by William James and John Dewey, which introduce the tenets of classical pragmatism. We will study the fraught relationship between pragmatism and literature as it intersects in the classroom and in the genre of the lecture. With its emphasis on clear thinking and practical action, the “pragmatic method” of inquiry can seem hostile to literary experimentation. We will turn to William James’s exchanges with his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson and his students Gertrude Stein and W.E.B. Du Bois to consider sites of intersection and divergence between proponents of “the official philosophy of America” and the turn-of-the-century social and cultural innovators. Next we will 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 studies of artists and musicians who influenced or emerged out of the experimental arts school, Black Mountain College. Our seminar will conclude by tracing a pragmatist-activist line up to the present, studying the work of several contemporary artists, authors, and teachers (Zadie Smith, Maya Lin, Jenny Odell, Eve Mosher) who test whether their “ecology of practices” can motivate interventionist climate action.