The Literary Work as Pragmatist Experience

  • Erik Bjerck Hagen


Early on in Art as Experience John Dewey states that ‘the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience’.1 This seems like an exciting and dynamic way of apprehending a work of art, but also one that may lead to chaos and relativism. The idea was certainly too anarchistic for Monroe C. Beardsley, who quickly dismissed it before proceeding to defend Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics in a manner rare among analytic philosophers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.2 Since the 1980s, Dewey and other pragmatists have had a major revival, and Dewey’s notion of the work of art has been taken up – explicitly or implicitly – by for example Richard Shusterman, Joseph Margolis, and Stanley Fish. In their hands, the work has lost most of what it once possessed of semantic identity and stability. For them it exists as a highly volatile field of meaning, and any strong interpretation is assumed to have the power to change (rather than merely to describe or to illuminate) any given work. Indeed, in pragmatist aesthetics a work is seen as identical to what someone at any given moment can get away with saying about it.3 Still, also in pragmatist aesthetics interpretation continues to be seen as very much a regulated discipline though the interpretive communities imposing the regulation may be diverse and the reading practices they define even more so. And literary critics working within a pragmatist perspective still feel able to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable interpretations. The need for dialogue and consensus seems to increase rather than to decrease as the literary work appears to lose its former stability.


Literary Work Literary Experience Aesthetic Experience Literary Text Authorial Intention 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Erik Bjerck Hagen

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