For reasons diverse enough to need their own book, tonight I’m reading Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics. Not merely from a growing interest in art and aesthetics as such, but as a sort of exploration of why we work and think and act the way we do.
For some definition of “we” that seems to be growing quickly in our culture: Craftsmen, folks with adaptive lifestyles, those with “grit”, Editors.
To imagine there is no aesthetic sense in the experience (that is, the making or learning) of science and engineering is ridiculous. Worse, I think the prevalent academic denial of the importance of such aesthetic experience in science and engineering is what’s ruining it: pushed it out of reach, attenuated it into a specialist esoteric “advanced” pile of disparate things, enabled its makers to treat laymen as boors and enabled laymen to treat makers as unintelligible nerds, and privileged the incessant novelty of concepts over reproducibility and applicability in the professions.
Have you ever noticed how each specialty, each discipline in the academy tends to find the smallest number of competent specialists, and grow the field of boorish laymen to include not just the uneducated but the differently educated specialists of other fields? Yes, we need to advance the frontiers of theory and practice. We also need to ship. That’s our job too. You need to ship your work not to a journal where it will sit on a shelf behind a firewall, but to people who will act upon it.
It needs to be experienced. Like a work of art on a shelf on a museum store-room, it’s dead until it’s experienced.
In other words, I nod a lot reading this book.
For example, last week’s conference reminded me that the wall between “Theory and Practice” is an important cultural distinction in my “field”. Shusterman on his “field”, and the need to coalesce “theory” and “practice” into a single experiential whole:
Thus, though our theoretical imagination is always largely constrained by established practice, it is not confined to slavish conformity and reactive repetition. For changing circumstances and encounters with other practices can provide new nourishment and alternative orientations. Since no practice is defined for all possible situations, there will always be a need of imaginative projections and creative decisions as to which of the possible projections should actually be pursued, decisions which are apt to be contested and which again raise second-order problems of how to justify those decisions. Since no practice exists in utter isolation, unaffected by others, there remains the need to relate, coordinate, or arbitrate between different practices. As long as our practices present us with such problems and admit of improvement, theory will not only be possible but necessary.
Conceived in this pragmatist fashion, which recognizes the primacy but also the problems of practice, theory is not exterminated but revitalized by the loss of its traditional status as transcendental cognitive privilege. For, once we give up the foundationalist view of theory as revealing the invariably necessary principles for practice, and further relinquish its hope of apodictic, incontestably final justification; once we instead see our practices (and our theories) as contingent products whose encounter with changing situations has necessitated continual adjustment, clarification, justification, and improvement; then theory’s abiding role as critical reflection on practice is secure and seemingly ineliminable.