The aesthetic turn in the face of nihilism
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This thesis outlines one's overcoming of nihilism by consulting two figures, Martin Heidegger and John Dewey. Each thinker holds a pivotal role for art, such that, a turn to the aesthetic allows the individual to overcome this nihilistic age. I intend to show that Heidegger and Dewey mutually inform each other's project. Heidegger is able to shed light on Dewey's project; however, Dewey ultimately takes Heidegger's thought a step further. Heidegger understands the current age to be overcome with nihilism as a consequence of modern technological enframing as well the end of classical religious sensibilities. Heidegger, like Dewey, relies on aesthetics to correct this dilemma. Because of Heidegger's diagnosis of the problem, we can see a new context for Dewey's thought. Dewey does not speak in the language of nihilism, however, through Heidegger, we can see that they share a similar concern. Where Dewey takes Heidegger's thought a step forward is in regard to Dewey's emphasis on personal experience. This emphasis shifts the responsibility of overcoming nihilism away from Heidegger's poet and onto the individual. Dewey understands aesthetics to be a process of experience and art to be the culmination of this experience. This shift in responsibility is placed upon the individual because the individual is the arbiter of their doings and sole recipient of their undergoings. Consequently, the individual bears the consequences, and therefore the responsibility, of their experiences. Meaning, each individual holds the tools necessary to overcome nihilism inherent in one's own experience. The name for the process of properly weathering one's doings and undergoings is called the aesthetic life. The turn to personal responsibility, in the aesthetic life, allows the people to be the genesis of change rather than necessitating a leader, or poet. A community of people engaged in the aesthetic life is understood as democracy. Dewey's formulation of democracy, then, is not only a work of art but it also prevents the return of nihilism through the creation of a society always creating more possibility for its citizens.
Craig, Benjamin Taylor (2008). The aesthetic turn in the face of nihilism. Master's thesis, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from