Cover image for John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality By Scott R. Stroud

John Dewey and the Artful Life

Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality

Scott R. Stroud


$77.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05007-2

$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05008-9

240 pages
6" × 9"

American and European Philosophy

John Dewey and the Artful Life

Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality

Scott R. Stroud

“Scott Stroud’s fine volume is the most complete and wide-ranging treatment of Dewey’s aesthetics ever to appear. In the best pragmatist spirit, it uses its comprehensive scholarship to help us reconstruct not only art but many dimensions of our shared human experience.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Aesthetic experience has had a long and contentious history in the Western intellectual tradition. Following Kant and Hegel, a human’s interaction with nature or art frequently has been conceptualized as separate from issues of practical activity or moral value. This book examines how art can be seen as a way of moral cultivation. Scott Stroud uses the thought of the American pragmatist John Dewey to argue that art and the aesthetic have a close connection to morality. Dewey gives us a way to reconceptualize our ideas of ends, means, and experience so as to locate the moral value of aesthetic experience in the experience of absorption itself, as well as in the experience of reflective attention evoked by an art object.
“Scott Stroud’s fine volume is the most complete and wide-ranging treatment of Dewey’s aesthetics ever to appear. In the best pragmatist spirit, it uses its comprehensive scholarship to help us reconstruct not only art but many dimensions of our shared human experience.”
John Dewey and the Artful Life carefully reconstructs John Dewey’s account of aesthetic experience, links it to forms of moral cultivation, and extends pragmatism’s meliorist project. Joining philosophy and practice, Scott Stroud both advances our understanding of pragmatist aesthetics and points us toward ways of everyday living that would adjust us better to our circumstances and work, call us to greater mindfulness about the moral possibilities of our situated presents, and help us communicate in a fuller manner aesthetically and ethically.”
“Scott Stroud’s John Dewey and the Artful Life is an attempt to respond to our contemporary lives of Thoreauvian quiet desperation. Though he trades heavily on the aesthetics of John Dewey, Stroud does more than present a historical analysis. He engages Dewey’s ideas in the work of bringing artfulness to the full range of our everyday experiences as a mode of self-cultivation. The upshot is that, for Stroud, philosophy can direct us to the sorts of aesthetic experiences that can help ameliorate our social inertia and cynicism. Through argument and example, Stroud builds a strong case for his pragmatic uses of Dewey’s thought.”
“Stroud’s book is admirable in stressing the importance of subjective melioration within one’s own life. Indeed, reading this book has led me to try to change some of my own habits: to be more present-oriented, for example. In sum, this is an exceptionally impressive book. It not only adds to contemporary reinterpretations of Dewey’s thought in aesthetics and ethics but also raises serious issues concerning fundamental assumptions predominant in contemporary aesthetics. Moreover, it provides new material in the growing field of everyday aesthetics, especially in the area of communication and in the role that everyday aesthetics plays in the good life. Anyone interested in aesthetics or ethics, and particularly in the relation between the two, will benefit from reading it.”
“Scott Stroud’s innovative investigations of the intimacies of aesthetic and moral experience invite his readers to engage a type of artful mindfulness that is at once integrative and melioristic.”
“Educators interested in art and aesthetics, for example, will likely find his discussion of the importance of attentiveness and orientation intellectually stimulating. Similarly, readers interested in the relationship between education and moral cultivation will probably value his discussion of orientational meliorism. Finally, rhetoric and communications scholars should appreciate Stroud’s argument for the aesthetics of everyday communication. All in all, the book is a first-rate contribution to the literature on Dewey’s theory of art, art education, and his philosophy of art.”

Scott R. Stroud is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.



1 The Problems of Art and Life

2 The Value of Aesthetic Experience

3 Dewey on Experience, Value, and Ends

4 Aesthetic Experience and the Experience of Moral Cultivation

5 Reflection and Moral Value in Aesthetic Experience

6 Orientational Meliorism and the Quest for the Artful Life

7 Practicing the Art of Living: The Case of Artful Communication

8 Beginning to Live the Artful Life





The Problems of Art and Life

Many people complain about the lack of beauty in everyday life. On a cold winter day in Washington, D.C., the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell tried to do something about it. In the middle of the morning rush hour, he stood, unannounced, in a corner of a bustling metro station and played some of the greatest compositions the Western world has produced. Not only did he play great music, but he also used a legendary instrument to do so—his 1713 Stradivarius, rumored to have been purchased for $3.5 million. What was his purpose in pretending to be a common street musician? Bell wanted to see how people focused on hurrying to work would react to an unexpected encounter with art. During his 43-minute performance, 1,097 people passed by and heard his masterful playing; only 7 stopped and listened for more than a minute. Twenty-seven people paused long enough to throw some change into his violin case. A performer who typically commands $1,000 a minute for his performances earned around $32 that morning in the station. Many commuters, driven by their hurried schedule or shielded by the music of their own iPods, passed by and failed to notice him. The only people who seemed to be interested in him and absorbed in the sounds he was creating were children—as they were dragged to day care by a rushing parent who seemed to have no time to listen to this street musician. Experts and ordinary people alike later judged this experiment to bring great art into the subway to be an extremely discouraging sign for integrating art into everyday life.1

What sense is to be made of this experiment? Does it really show that our modern selves have become so numbed by the burdens of work, the sounds of corporatized music on personal players, and our frequently ugly surroundings that real art stands no chance of making headway into our lives? One may feel a vague suspicion that this experiment leaves out another way of thinking through the problems of an anesthetic, fragmented, and hurried life. Must the only way to get art back into everyday life involve the tradition-bound classical masters of music or painting? Think of the individual listening to popular music on his iPod. Surely such a person missed the opportunity to hear a great, albeit incognito, violinist during his subway commute. But is this something to bemoan in and of itself? Reframe the situation, and perhaps one can see the way I want to approach the question of integrating art into daily life—is there a significant difference between the person absorbed in his popular music while riding the subway and the person worrying about the upcoming meeting at work? The former does seem engaged and absorbed in what he is listening to and what he is doing, whereas the latter seems distracted and focused on distant matters. I submit that the former is integrating art into the activities of living, more so than the latter—and that both people need not attend to the world-class violinist to bring art into life.

What I am getting at here is the question of how to integrate art into the practical, goal-driven pursuits that we take to be particularly important. These pursuits obviously include the activities of everyday living, as well as the never-ending task of improving what we do, how we do it, and who we are. Does art have an important role to play in a project of living the best life we possibly can live? Does aesthetic experience have any real connection to issues of moral value and moral improvement? What sort of life would we lead if the experiment I described was conclusive, and our lives were bereft of art? If the term “art” can be taken to be a process of careful and skillful creation, what can we say about the ways we create our lives and our everyday experiences? Could we do this in an artful fashion, in a fashion that has a close connection to that quality of experience we tie to the notion of aesthetic experience? If one can skillfully do things that render more of one’s experience aesthetic in quality, then such activity can be called artful.2 This is what I mean by artful living, and the purpose of this study is to use Dewey’s thought as a way to illustrate its plausibility.

In other words, I intend to explore the concept of aesthetic experience and what it means for our prospects for moral cultivation. Aesthetic experience has had a fairly long and contentious history in the Western intellectual tradition. Following Kant and Hegel, a human’s interaction with nature or art frequently has been conceptualized as separate from issues of practical activity or moral value. Kant’s criteria of disinterestedness in the judgment of taste, combined with similar trends in Schopenhauer’s asceticism and Hegel’s subordination of artistic truth to other forms of consciousness, led many philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to insist on the separation of art from the moral.3 This move, of course, became problematic insofar as it raised the obvious question of the value of art. The remove of aesthetic experience from issues of morality and practice cuts off justificatory paths that lead to the practical, since allowing them to remain united would admit that the value of art is indeed tied to nonartistic practical matters. If the value of art came from its moral efficacy, then morality would have something to say about aesthetic values. In addition, if the value of art is tied closely to the achievement of moral ends, one could imagine a situation in which art would not be valuable since other (nonartistic) means could be marshaled to achieve such a desired effect.

The problem that must be resolved is the issue of how art relates to moral value, specifically the gaining or refining of values that are beneficial in a normative sense. In other words, I want to examine how art can be seen as a way of moral cultivation. Moral cultivation can be understood in a simple sense as analogous to moral improvement or betterment. How does art help people become more moral or virtuous? This way of phrasing the question raises the specter of art losing its intrinsic value, the same worry that motivated writers in the twentieth-century traditions of aesthetic experience and aesthetic attitude. If art is effective at moral improvement, a goal for which other means can be employed to reach, then art seems like just another method or tool that can be selected or ignored for the purpose of moral improvement pending judgments of efficacy, desirability of moral improvement, etc. This is the worry that is enunciated by those wishing to do justice to the aesthetic value of art, a value that is supposedly unique to art and the experiences it spawns. Is the value of Joshua Bell’s violin playing in the subway solely registered by its ability to entertain? Or to improve the lives and characters of the subway goers? If it is valued only insofar as it has such practical effects, then it seems that it loses such value with its palpable failure to reach the majority of the commuters who rushed by the performance. And if it could produce such effects, one might wonder if another violinist could do the same at less cost. This is the problem of connecting art to moral improvement: the artistry seems to lose its immediate value and worth.

This book attempts to see if there is a way to solve or dissolve these problems. The analysis in the following chapters will challenge the relevance and usefulness of two commonly held distinctions: between the intrinsic and instrumental value of an art object, and between what is internal to and external to an art object in content and meaning. In challenging these distinctions, new ways of conceiving of the relationship between artistic value and moral value become evident. A key thinker uniquely positioned to motivate such a reevaluation of the value of art is John Dewey. Dewey not only offers a way of rethinking value and ends/means relationships, but he also places the experience of art at the pinnacle of his systematic thought. Indeed, in Art as Experience (1934) he posits that the experience of art is an exemplar of consummatory experience (what he calls “an experience”) in general. Thus, Dewey seems to be a profitable starting place for an examination of art and its moral value. The problem that Dewey’s account must solve, of course, is the relationship of aesthetic experience to moral cultivation. A key move that Dewey wants to make in his aesthetic theory is intimated in his analysis of the lay of the land in Experience and Nature (1925), where he states the options available for aesthetic theories: “There are substantially but two alternatives. Either art is a continuation, by means of intelligent selection and arrangement, of natural tendencies of natural events; or art is a peculiar addition to nature springing from something dwelling exclusively within the breast of man, what name be given to the latter” (291). Dewey wants to select the former alternative as the most defensible starting point for a theory of the aesthetic.

Dewey’s approach is diametrically opposed to most standard accounts. A typical example might be that of Berys Gaut, who starts from the position that “the notion of the aesthetic has its primary application to works of art, and its application to natural objects is derivative from this primary application.”4 For Dewey, art and the aesthetic are to be part of the continuum that includes normal, everyday experience. The aesthetic does not primarily or exclusively denote rarified cultural practices and experiences such as that of fine art. The challenge is how to elucidate what makes this quality of experience so different (while being related in key ways) from other types of experience. The other type of experience that this study will focus on is that of moral activity and improvement, or moral cultivation.

What motivates Dewey’s work in aesthetics is connected to this division of the possible ways of theorizing about art. Dewey is opposed to the sterilized notion of art, which he dubs the “museum conception” of fine art. Such a view, still prevalent today, indicates that art is far removed from ordinary life and even sequestered in the hermitic confines of museums—places of pure observation. Such a notion of the point of art and its value is often connected to Dewey’s rejected reading of art as a peculiar addition to nature, specifically its remove in kind from the affairs of nature and daily activity. According to Dewey, art is a part of the natural range of experiences, and art is a vital part of the full human life. To take such an excellent experience out of ordinary life is to do violence both to life and to the art objects being preserved from the reach of human activity. His aesthetic theory attempts to naturalize talk of aesthetic experience, all the while doing justice to its importance in adding value to human life and activity. Dewey’s definition of art will be less of what Richard Shusterman calls a “wrapper definition” that attempts to cover the entire extension of a concept, and more of an evaluative characterization of what the best forms of art aspire to be like.5 My analysis in the following chapters will attempt to link aesthetic experience to moral cultivation in Dewey’s aesthetic theory. Dewey was not very specific on this point, but I believe he left enough clues for a useful account to be created out of his theory of aesthetic experience. Thus, in contrast to detailed historical accounts of Dewey’s aesthetic theory, my account will use Dewey and his ideas to construct something that directly engages today’s problem of relating art and experience. If anyone would be favorably disposed to such a pragmatic appropriation of concepts, moves, and themes to answer contemporary challenges, it would be Dewey.

At various places, Dewey’s work provides us with tantalizing clues to his real project—the task of making more of life aesthetic or artful. Of course, he tethers the aesthetic quality of experience to experiences in general (once they hit a certain qualitative high point, what he calls “an experience”), yet he continues to focus most of his analysis in his aesthetic work on traditional artistic practices (e.g., painting, sculpture, dance, etc.). I want to develop the idea that more (if not all) of life’s everyday activities could be rendered as artful or aesthetic, and I will explore this theme in the context of his developed aesthetic theory in the following chapters. For now it will be helpful to illustrate his wide, albeit undeveloped, approach to matters of art and everyday activity with a passage from an early work, Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891): “If the necessary part played in conduct by artistic cultivation is not so plain, it is largely because ‘Art’ has been made such an unreal Fetich—a sort of superfine and extraneous polish to be acquired only by specially cultivated people. In reality, living is itself the supreme art; it requires fineness of touch; skill and thoroughness of workmanship; susceptible response and delicate adjustment to a situation apart from reflective analysis; instinctive perception of the proper harmonies of act and act, of man and man” (316). Here we see an early version of his later critique against the division of art from life, of the aesthetic from “normal” activity. Here we also see the notion of artful living. I will argue that Dewey’s work holds the resources to not only provide a satisfactory and interesting reading of how aesthetic experience relates to moral value and cultivation, but also of how one can cultivate the sort of approach to life that can render more of it artful.

The argument I will make for how one can cultivate an artful approach to life is simple. Many readings of the relation between the aesthetic and the moral err in simple ways by presupposing certain foundations for such a relationship between art and morality. Dewey gives us a way to reconceptualize ends/means and experience in such a way as to locate the moral value of aesthetic experience in the experience of absorption itself, as well as in the experience of reflective activity brought about by some art object. The endpoint of Dewey’s moral theory is a progressive adjustment or growth of an individual in light of some concrete situation, and aesthetic experience exemplifies such an absorptive attending to one’s concrete situation. This experiential reading lets us make sense of art’s moral value and provides the foundation for a more expansive reading of aesthetic experience not related to traditional artistic practices. The key (but not the only) part to aesthetic experience is the orientation of the subject involved, which allows for a program of altering or improving the quality of our experience by altering our orientations and deep-seated habits. More of our concrete, everyday experience (such as communication or work activity) can be made more aesthetic (more unified, consummatory, and meaningful), and thus can be considered artful living.

I will start at the dispute that motivates this overall project—the relationship between aesthetic experience and moral value. Chapter 2 will introduce the problem and set the stage for a Deweyan analysis of aesthetic experience. I will examine some major ways the separation of aesthetic value (taken here in the same way as artistic value) from moral value is evidenced in writers in the modern tradition. I will explore the debates that played out over the aesthetic value/practical value issue in some theories of the aesthetic attitude and with theorists of the intrinsic value of art. For the former, I take as representative the work of Jerome Stolnitz, whose reading of aesthetic experience strongly separates it from moral activity in both value and attitude. I also consider the theories of Malcolm Budd on the intrinsic value of art objects, as well as the noncognitivist position taken by theorists who argue against a truth value in literary art. Both of these latter positions extend the internal/external distinction of the art object’s properties from the aesthetic attitude camp, and add to it the separateness in kind of aesthetic value. In the case of Budd, instrumental value has no place in aesthetic experience, and does not deal with attention to artistic qualities. For the literary noncognitivists, the value of an artwork must be within the work itself, and cannot be replaceable in an instrumental sense.

These thinkers, along with many of the other advocates and critics of the aesthetic experience tradition, miss the Deweyan reading that has ends/means and intrinsic/extrinsic value on a continuum, not as mutually exclusive. They point out some important characteristics of what can be called aesthetic experience, but their insistence on reified dualisms leaves out the consideration of a Deweyan alternative reading. The important point is to find a way to talk about the special degree of quality in aesthetic experience without making this value a special kind of value (viz., intrinsic), or reducing talk of this value to the production of products or effects (making it an instrumental value). Due to their fear of the latter, proponents of the intrinsic value of art and aesthetic experience believe that theirs is the only way to fully incorporate the phenomena and value of artistic activity. This, however, can be seen as an illusion based on the way they conceptualize the problem.

An important pragmatist strategy is often the dissolving of seemingly intractable problems, and this is the sort of solution I will offer in chapter 3. There, I build a Deweyan account of aesthetic experience that I call “experiential.” I explore a variety of working distinctions Dewey makes concerning experience and reflection, intrinsic and instrumental value, ends and means. Some experiences for Dewey are immediately had, whereas others have a certain puzzling quality about them that forces one to reflect on what is valued, what one should do, etc. Both immediate experience and reflection, however, can be seen as experiences that a subject undergoes. In chapter 3, I will discuss a Deweyan notion of intrinsic value that does justice to its immediately experienced value, as well as to its more instrumental and reflective phases. The point of my argument is to show that value does not reside in the object in a strong ontological sense, and that experiencing an art object can have both sorts of value. I will eventually argue that aesthetic experience is morally cultivating on both levels, so I illustrate how Dewey connects means and ends in activity, both of the immediately meaningful kind and that characterized by reflective consideration of events and situations not directly present to the observer. Both sorts of experience can be approached by a subject in a way that separates means from ends, or in a way that unifies means and ends, activities and desired goals. It is the latter attitude or orientation that will feature prominently in the subsequent chapters.

What should any activity that is related to moral development aim for? Chapter 4 considers aesthetic experience in its immediacy to an experiencing subject, as well as its relation to the goal of moral development. In order to argue that such aesthetic experience is morally cultivating or valuable, a theory of moral improvement and value must be advanced. Thus, I begin this chapter by constructing an account of moral cultivation of the self based in Dewey’s early work on ethics—his Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics and The Study of Ethics. These works are an important part of his drift away from idealism and they hold a common theme to his later pragmatism—that of the constant and ongoing adjustment of individual to environment. Attentiveness to the situation is integrally connected to character and moral activity, and I will explore these linkages. After giving such a reading of moral value and cultivation of self, I will argue that aesthetic experience is morally cultivating because it is an experience of such attentiveness to situations. I do not claim that this ends moral improvement, but instead that it is an instance of the activity and end of moral cultivation—progressive adjustment to or growth in one’s surrounding situation. In the case of art objects, I flesh out Dewey’s account of rhythm as a key feature that makes attention to an art object attention to a present situation. I conclude the chapter by widening my scope and drawing on Crispin Sartwell’s analysis to argue that more than just art objects can be experienced aesthetically. Dewey only hints at such a possibility in his aesthetic work (by focusing on conventional artistic practices almost exclusively after chapter 3 of Art as Experience), but the preceding analysis shows that what is moral about conduct is a certain way of attending to whatever present situation one is in (such as not being focused on a remote goal), and thus, in not making the present a mere means to a distant end. Aesthetic experience is the attention to and absorption in the rich present, and such a present can be that of viewing art objects or of participating in any other sort of activity. What is important is the way that activity proceeds. This is moral cultivation, and this is how aesthetic experience can be immediately valuable.

Before I develop the position that more of life can be rendered artful in a wide sense, I must consider the case of art objects traditionally conceived. Chapter 5 will approach the morally edifying aspects of the aesthetic encounter with art objects from its reflective phase. I will approach this phase of experience in three ways. First, I will examine how art can be used to impel audiences to think. Dewey called art the most universal form of communication, and I will construct an account of how he could have meant that. Art objects, exemplary objects of aesthetic experience, can be used to convey points about experience through experience. Thus, art can show individuals how certain value schemes feel, how behaviors affect one, etc.—in other words, art can force the reflective instatement (creation) of moral values. Second, I will discuss the auditor’s activity of interpreting works of art and their possible meaning. Dewey walks the fine line between authorial intentionalism and auditor constructivism, so I will attempt to find the Deweyan middle ground that takes advantage of the thrust of both of these opposing positions. Criticism is a reflective orientation of the auditor that is sensitive to possible meaning as well as to the critic’s own role in the construction of meaning. Thus, aesthetic experience has the reflective value of encouraging further reflection on the materials of the present (viz., the art object). Third, I will argue that deliberation, or the experiential enactment of various possible lines of conduct in art objects (for instance, in narratives) provides a testing ground for the instatement of values and action strategies by an auditor.

Developing the theme that the key to aesthetic experience lies in the way a subject approaches an art object or activity in general, chapter 6 will expand this sort of Deweyan analysis of aesthetic activity to my general project of orientational meliorism—the meliorating of one’s experience by intelligently adjusting one’s deep-seated orientations toward self, others, and the value of an activity. I consider the importance of embodied habits (heuristically labeled here on a continuum running from more mental to more physical) to the activities of life, as well as to the connection between attention and one’s mental orientation. Extending the discussion initiated in chapter 3, I argue that the connection between means and ends is largely a subjective artifact of mental orientation, and that one can change how one orients oneself toward these constituents of activity. Thus, one can literally reimagine the value of one’s activity and its connection to larger projects in such a way that it is not rendered mere drudgery or as a mere means to an end. The promise of Deweyan pragmatism is that it can give you ways to make more of your life artful or aesthetic. Ways to practice such a regimen of orientational meliorism include both embodied methods (say, meditation or Alexander bodywork) and mental methods (say, cognitive therapy in rethinking how one sees an activity). Both embodied and mental practices attempt to inculcate habits of attending to the present situation that are intelligent, adaptable, and beneficial in making one’s individual and relational experience more meaningful. To illustrate the power of this way of meliorating common experiences, I end by examining work activity that many consider to be drudgery. How can one render more of one’s work activity aesthetic or artful? This discussion connects my Deweyan reading of aesthetic activity to current research in positive psychology and explores cognitive strategies individuals can use to reimagine their work experience to make it possess the unity and quality of the aesthetic.

Chapter 7 explores an important practical application of the experiential reading of aesthetic experience developed in the preceding chapters. I connect this expansive reading of aesthetic experience to the challenge of making our everyday communicative activity artful or aesthetic. Such activity is often done blindly, routinely, and for instrumental purposes; my Deweyan take on aesthetic activity, however, entails that such communicative activity can be enhanced by mindful attention to its particular details. I will examine some of the reasons why Dewey’s reading of the expressive in art would seem to preclude everyday communication from being truly artful or expressive in the same way museum pieces are. This will turn out not to be the case if one focuses on the connection between aesthetic experience, expression, and the orientation of a subject toward activity. I end this chapter by exploring some ways that everyday, mundane communication can be made to possess the intrinsic absorption that Dewey finds so characteristic of artistic activity. Chapter 8 considers some common objections to the account that has been developed in the preceding chapters, and provides various responses to such objections.

There is a way to approach art and activity that will render them more unified, meaningful, and ultimately more satisfying, both in one’s solitary projects and in one’s relations to others in a community. This theme is evident in Dewey’s work, but is not fully explicated or developed in light of contemporary concerns in aesthetics. The promise of Dewey’s aesthetics is not merely in providing an airtight definition of art or a theoretical reading of the relationship between art and moral value. Instead, Dewey theorizes to meliorate or improve lived experience. The insight of Dewey’s work on art is that what makes art aesthetic is not any particular property of that particular human practice, but rather its tendency to encourage the sort of absorptive, engaged attention to the rich present that is so often lost in today’s fragmented world. The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated habits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals. The purpose of this book is not to end debate on the relationship between art and morality, but instead to explore ways that Deweyan thought can guide us in our attempts to meliorate our orientations toward life in order to foster and recover the sense of enthralled absorption in the activities we are engaged in. Life is always lived in some present, and it is here that the battle of life is fought; one can come armed with habits that foster engagement with that present, or one can bring in ways of viewing the here and now (be it an art object or a work task) as a mere means to achieve something in the remote future. Both of these approaches will affect and tone the quality of lived, transactive experience. Dewey’s point, which I will explore at length in this work, is that the former approach is constitutive of artful living.

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