Discovering Dewey

I am currently taking a reading course, led by Professor Kia Höök at KTH (the Royal Institute for Technology in Stockholm), about the concept of experience. The first work on our list was John Dewey’s Art as Experience. I had never heard about this prominent American philosopher (born 1859, dead 1952 at 92!) nor read anything even closely related to esthetic theory before, so as you can imagine, this made for quite a challenging read! Dewey’s style is, to say the least, far from straightforward, and the concepts he attempts to define, describe and analyze in this book are all abstract and complex processes –each sentence requiring careful examination and reflection. Attempting to interpret and make sense of the book contents with others through seminars was very helpful, and I must confess I am not sure I would have managed to stick to reading the whole piece had I not had this support.

However, in spite of those difficulties, I very much enjoyed learning about Dewey’s philosophy, at the core of which lies the concept of experience. Dewey sees (what he calls esthetic) experience as an interaction between an individual and her environment – an interaction characterized by the full engagement of the individual. Throughout such an experience, the individual’s past knowledge and history are combined with the material being interacted with, which eventually leads to this the individual’s “transformation” and growth. For Dewey, having esthetic experiences (in one’s daily life, not least at work) is a vital human need and aspiration. For instance, in Art as Experience, he criticizes the way the standardization and extreme simplification of chain factory work prevents workers from having such “esthetic” experiences – creating an unhealthy working environment.

As my research focuses on the impact of technology on nurses’ work environment, Dewey’s mention of this particular development from the industrial revolution struck a chord. It made me want to look at my research topic through the lens of experience, from the perspective of which several interesting questions arose. For instance, what constitutes what one could call “the nursing experience”? In other words, what kind(s) of experiences are specific to the nursing activity – and how do nurses’ current digital tools support or hinder the occurrence of such experiences? As having an experience has something to do with making sense of an activity, another way to formulate the question could be, what makes nurses’ work, from their own perspective, meaningful? From there, the question becomes whether the use of computerized systems is connected to the feeling that the way these systems are used makes sense from a nursing perspective. Do nurses’ digital tools enable them to give meaning to their daily work and, if not (or not fully), how could we (re)design those tools so as to make their use more meaningful for the nurses using them, and support nurses in having (more) esthetic experiences of their work / at work?

Of course, Dewey’s Art as Experience has not only made me reflect on my research, but also on my own (work) life. It is for example impossible not to search for examples of esthetic experiences in one’s more or less recent past, and to try to understand what made such experiences possible, while reading the book. To conclude, I can say that despite it being a difficult read, it is definitely a rewarding one – even though one read is probably not enough to get a good grasp on everything Dewey is saying.