Kelvin Booth


Art and Immediate Meaning: But Is It Knowing?


Is art a form of knowing? Science and intellectual reflection make life more intelligible through concepts about things rather than through direct experience of things. In contrast, art imparts to life a greater sense of intelligibility by presenting meanings in the form of clarified and heightened experience. But is the growth of meaning and intelligibility afforded by art properly called knowledge? Calling art a form of knowing (not just knowing-how-to-do) runs the risk of conflating two kinds of experience: the apprehension of immediate meanings and the conceptual understanding that is paradigmatic of knowledge. There is much more to experience and meaning than knowledge. Knowing involves “knowing about.” Knowing about direct experiences and immediate meanings is a step removed from having them. Knowledge, as John Dewey asserts, is largely instrumental in character while esthetic experience engendered by art is largely consummatory. To call immediate experience a form of knowing can misrepresent the consummatory nature of esthetic experience, which has its own kind of felt meaning. Art illuminates those immediate and non-instrumental meanings that elude concepts. I will attempt to clarify what Dewey means by immediate meaning, its relationship to knowing, and its role in art. I will then show how this relationship helps us understand the continuity between art, science and daily life—a continuity that is often obscured by many philosophical theories and by the fragmentation of modern life. Once we understand the role of immediate meaning, we will see how reflection on art, in Dewey’s words, “solves more problems which have troubled philosophers and resolves more hard and fast dualisms than any other theme of thought.”


Dr. Kelvin Booth, who makes his home “off the grid” near Lillooet BC, is a senior editor for Philosophical Frontiers and has most recently worked as a lecturer for Thompson Rivers University. Previously he taught at Southern Illinois University where he also received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Before embarking on an academic career Dr. Booth was a professional musician, a marketing team leader for a nutrition company, and a publisher of the New Catalyst Quarterly, a magazine devoted to bioregional arts, culture and politics with a world-wide circulation. He has also been a student of classical American pragmatism for over three decades. He has presented at numerous academic conferences on a diverse array of topics, including American pragmatism, the philosophy of nature, Chinese philosophy and the philosophy of mind. Currently he is exploring the contributions that bioregionally themed art can make toward strengthening local community, and is writing a book on animal mind and embodied cognition.