Recently published by SUNY Press, American Aesthetics: Theory and Practice explores the distinctive contribution to philosophical aesthetics made by the American philosophical tradition, including especially philosophical pragmatism and process philosophy. What follows is an abridged transcription, lightly edited to increase clarity, of David Rohr’s interviews with the volume’s editors, Walter Gulick and Gary Slater. An abridged video of the interviews can also be viewed below.
So I’m here with Dr. Walter Gulick, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Montana State University, Billings, and we’re here to discuss this volume that just came out, American Aesthetics: Theory and Practice, which he edited with Gary Slater. So thank you so much for being here and being a part of this interview. I want to start with a very broad question. A lot of people who see this interview might not have any background for understanding what this book is all about. So, could you say a little bit about your understanding of philosophical aesthetics? What’s its purpose? How does it relate to art, art creation, and going to museums and whatnot?
Well, the basic idea behind the book is that there’s a very rich tradition within American pragmatism primarily, and to some extent process thought, that has been overshadowed by a lot of recent, more analytic approaches to aesthetics. There’s a sense of reclaiming the importance of the American aesthetic tradition for a number of reasons. One is that it’s a very comprehensive kind of approach where it looks at aesthetics, not just narrowly as about beauty as is so often done, but sees it as embedded in perception as such, and particularly in perception as it becomes more clarified. So for me, notions like coherence, for instance, a very basic notion to philosophy and to argumentation is basically an aesthetic kind of evidence. It’s based on a feeling of completeness and comprehensiveness and so forth. And there are lots of ideas like that that I think are essentially aesthetic in their character that get set aside when aesthetics is looked at only as a study of the arts and so forth. Now this book, American Aesthetics, is primarily about how aesthetics relates to the arts, but not entirely. For instance, there are three essays by Thomas Leddy, David Strong, and Robert Corrington that looked at aesthetics as connected to how we live our lives. I love that kind of approach. But there are sections that are about theoretical approaches to aesthetics. So we had people like Wesley Wildman, for instance, Robert Neville or Randy [Auxier) or Nicholas Gaskill or Gary Slater who are setting forth a broader theoretical approach to aesthetics. But they’re also, and this I think is very important about the book, there’s also an emphasis upon how it’s all practice.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection portrays nature as red in tooth and claw, with fierce competition between and within species determining that only the fittest survive and reproduce. Or does it? Although the preceding interpretation predominated late into the twentieth century, in recent decades biologists have begun to appreciate that cooperation is how many species remain competitive and that mutualism between species is as successful an evolutionary strategy as parasitism.
Unlike parasitism where an organism like a tick or tapeworm exploits another organism, mutualism refers to an interspecies relationship that benefits both species. For example, almost half of land plants depend upon fungi to supply their roots with water and minerals, the fungi in turn receiving sugars from the plant’s roots. Many bird species share mutualistic relations with large animals like water buffalo and crocodiles, making easy meals from ticks and other parasites that prey upon the larger animals. Fruiting plants and the animals who consume their fruit also relate mutualistically: the animals receive sugar-rich nutrition while the plants’ seeds are carried far and wide, increasing their chances of reproducing.
In a new article in Theology and Science Stephen Scaringe and Wesley Wildman argue that the recent recognition of widespread mutualism and symbiosis between biological species is a harbinger of a deeper realization with profound theological significance: “at a fundamental level, there are no separate life forms … living organisms only come into existence contingent or dependent on other species and organisms, and every living entity is perpetually dependent for its continued existence on other life forms, which in turn only exist contingently on other life forms.” Recognition of our inextricable interconnectedness with other organisms can be destabilizing, upsetting our clear-cut personal and collective identities. Destabilizing or not, Scaringe and Wildman predict that the continued growth of biological and ecological understanding will soon render this conclusion inescapable.
Anticipating the widespread acceptance of the conception of life as mutually constituted and contingently existent, Scaringe and Wildman reflect on the theological implications of this dawning awareness. In particular, they suggest that this conception of life demands a thorough rethinking of the idea of free will, problematizes conceptions of salvation that depend upon a clear distinction between persons and their bodies, and challenges conceptions of humanity as exercising divinely given dominion over the rest of nature. If Scaringe and Wildman are correct that the idea of life as mutually constituted is destined to prevail, we can hope that this idea will lead, not only to a more profoundly relational metaphysics, but also to a humbler, more caring way of relating to the organisms and ecosystems that sustain all human persons, societies, and civilizations.