Aesthetic Play as Ethical Practice: Rethinking Moral Life through Kant, Schiller, Gadamer, and Prison Theater
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TThis dissertation investigates how aesthetic play supports moral life, with the Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) prison theater program as its centerpiece. This project responds to the ascendancy of instrumental rationality and technological thinking in ethical reasoning, as diagnosed by Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and others. I argue that moral life patterned after aesthetic play rehabilitates practical wisdom and interpretation in our age while also cultivating our capacity to make contextualized moral judgments. I understand aesthetic play through the heritage of Kant’s aesthetics and suggest that play between reason and imagination teaches us to accommodate both universality and particularity in moral judgments. The ethical potential of Kant’s third Critique is unfolded in my analysis of Schiller and Gadamer, followed by a turn to theater studies and field research into the SBB program. For Kant, aesthetic judging is analogous to moral judging, and so aesthetic experience is preparatory for moral life. For Schiller, aesthetic play unifies the rational and sensuous aspects of human being, allowing us to realize the highest expressions of morality and freedom. For Gadamer, aesthetic play models the way we engage with others in all contexts. Play means engaging with others, letting them ask questions and make demands, and responding by playing along. I suggest that these characterizations of aesthetic play model a view of moral life that resists instrumentalization. Acting theory after Stanislavski emphasizes truthfulness on stage and integrity to the character. Furthermore, many theater theorists understand their work to be ethical, as theater helps us understand a broader range of possibilities for human experience. The role of play and improvisation in theater further develops our moral aptitude to adapt and exercise wisdom in our interactions with others. SBB demonstrates how the ethical aims of theater can be implemented. SBB boasts a recidivism rate 60 percentage points below the national average, suggesting that collaborative creative play might indeed transform our character. I conclude that aesthetic play helps us reimagine ethical life and cultivates our capacities for good judgment, interpretation, genuine listening, and practical wisdom in responding to a changing situation—the very moral aptitudes that calculative moral reasoning suppresses.
Davis, Karen Eleanor (2017). Aesthetic Play as Ethical Practice: Rethinking Moral Life through Kant, Schiller, Gadamer, and Prison Theater. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from