Just one more species doing its best

Richard Rorty

  • The Later Works 1925-1953. Vol. XVII: Miscellaneous Writings, 1885-1953 by John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston
    Southern Illinois, 786 pp, $50.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 8093 1661 7
  • Dewey by J.E. Tiles
    Routledge, 256 pp, £35.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 415 00908 1
  • John Dewey and American Democracy by Robert Westbrook
    Cornell, 608 pp, $32.95, May 1991, ISBN 0 8014 2560 3
  • Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford by Casey Blake
    North Carolina, 370 pp, $38.45, November 1990, ISBN 0 8078 1935 2

A.J. Ayer began his Bertrand Russell with his customary insouciance, saying that Russell was ‘unique among the philosophers of this century in combining the study of the specialised problems of philosophy, not only with an interest in both the natural and the social sciences, but with an engagement in primary as well as higher education, and an active participation in politics’. Dozens of 20th-century philosophers have, I imagine, met those specifications. But the one who comes first to an American’s mind is John Dewey: a man whose engagement in primary and higher education, and whose active participation in politics, were considerably more extensive than Russell’s – and, I should argue, more focused, intelligent and useful.

Dewey was the most prominent intellectual in the United States for much of his long life (1859-1952). Though he earned his bread as a philosophy professor, he wrote on everything. His range is suggested by the table of contents of the last of the 37 volumes of the magnificent new edition of his published works – an edition which it has taken Jo Ann Boydston and her collaborators 25 years to produce. The final volume contains a miscellany of pieces which were omitted from earlier volumes. The earliest (written in the mid-1880s) include ‘The Health of Women and Higher Education’ (women can get educated without getting sick) and ‘What is the demonstration of man’s spiritual nature?’ (‘I cannot find that intellectual belief either with or without evidence has anything to do with the religious life’). One of the last (written in 1950) is a spirited defence of Dean Acheson (then Secretary of State) against the charge that he betrayed South Korea to the Communists.

Though intellectual historians remember Dewey, philosophy professors (even in his native land) have forgotten him as completely as Ayer did. When they do remember him, what often comes first to their minds is Russell’s ridicule. Early and late, from his review of Essays in Experimental Logic in 1919 to his chapter on Dewey in A History of Western Philosophy in 1945, Russell vacillated between treating Dewey as a serious opponent and as a butt, someone whose views could easily be refuted by a fast, witty reductio ad absurdum. When he was in the latter mood, he would become condescending and puckish, and would draw contrasts between bumptious young America and old experienced Europe.

In 1919 Russell traced the pragmatism that Dewey shared with William James to ‘that instinctive belief in the omnipotence of Man and the creative power of his beliefs which is perhaps natural in a young, growing and prosperous country, where men’s problems have been simpler than in Europe and usually soluble by energy alone’. In 1939 Russell said that it was ‘natural’ that Dewey’s ‘strongest appeal should he to Americans’. In 1945, after expressing ‘regret and surprise’ that Dewey had taken offence at the latter remark, he went on to say that Dewey’s was a ‘power philosophy’, one which runs the danger of ‘cosmic impiety’ and, by failing to ‘inculcate the necessary element of humility’, takes us further towards ‘a certain kind of madness’.

Dewey’s fellow Americans have frequently agreed with Russell, both about Dewey’s childishness and about the dangerous effects of his exuberant anthropocentrism. Many American intellectuals of the first half of our century – especially those discussed in Casey Blake’s Beloved Community – targeted Dewey as a symbol of all that was immature, unreflective and dangerous about the United States. In 1926 Lewis Mumford said that ‘the deficiencies of Mr Dewey’s philosophy are the deficiencies of the American scene itself.’ Waldo Frank, writing in 1929, said that ‘it is just to liken John Dewey to a child.’ Entering his ninth decade as World War Two began, Dewey was constantly told that, since he did not share the grown-ups’ belief in ‘objective moral truth’, he could not answer Hitler – and so was, in his careless adolescent way, encouraging Fascism. This sniping did not let up after Dewey’s death: for example, in his 1987 back-to-the-Greeks book. The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom called Dewey ‘a big baby’. Childishness – in the form of a lack of humility and a tendency to power-worship – continues to be the most frequent charge brought against post-Deweyan pragmatist philosophers. The whole tradition from Peirce to Putnam is often seen as having inherited what was worst in Berkeley’s idealism – intrinsic silliness, and a repertoire of arguments which, as Hume said of Berkeley’s, ‘admit of no answer and produce no conviction’.

In his less puckish moods, Russell was inclined to agree that the pragmatists’ arguments admitted of no answer – that every attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of the pragmatists’ claims would boil down to disagreement about what is and is not absurd. ‘In every writer on philosophy,’ he said in 1939, ‘there is a concealed metaphysic, usually unconscious ... Reading Dr Dewey makes me aware of my own unconscious metaphysic as well as of his. Where they differ, I find it hard to imagine any arguments on either side which do not beg the question; on fundamental issues perhaps this is inevitable.’

It is, indeed, hard to imagine a philosophical issue more fundamental and less arguable than the one which Russell said divided him from Dewey: whether ‘what passes for knowledge is no more than a momentary halting-place in a process of inquiry which has no goal outside itself.’ Russell thought that viewing physics and mathematics in this way meant that ‘inquiry can no longer provide intellectual joys, but becomes merely a means to better dinners and more rapid locomotion.’ ‘Ultimately,’ Russell continued. ‘the controversy between those who base logic upon “truth” and those who base it upon “inquiry” arises from a difference of values, and cannot be argued without, at some point, begging the question.’

Those who base logic on ‘truth’ are the people who see inquiry as piling up correspondences with the way things are – as an accumulation of accurate pictures, of things gotten right. Pragmatists like Dewey, by contrast, do not think that there is a Way the World is. So they regard successful inquiry – the sort of success which leads us to congratulate ourselves on having gotten something right – not as accurately representing that Way, but rather as fulfilling the specifications implicit in some human practice. On this view, the formula for the explosive that gives a bigger bang, or the astrophysical theory that predicts the observations made with the new telescope, or the successful proof of the long-debated theorem, are no more accurate representations of reality than is the move that leads to checkmate, or the novel that makes one famous. For astrophysics and chess are equally human practices, neither of which stands in a relation to reality which can fruitfully he described as ‘representation’ or ‘correspondence’.

Russell thought, or pretended to think, that Dewey’s view committed him to saying that ‘the Sun and the planets are much altered by the observations of the astronomers.’ But denying that there is a Way the World is in Itself does not commit one to any paradoxes about the causal relations between stars and astronomers. Causality is one thing, and describability is something else. As astrophysical theory has changed since the days of Gilgamesh, the heavens have been redescribed, but they have not been changed. All Dewey or Putnam need to defend their pragmatism against Russell’s charge is the distinction between saying, ‘We describe the universe as containing stars and planets because we are as we are,’ and saying: ‘The planets and stars would not exist if we did not so describe them.’

It is part of our story about stars and planets that they would indeed exist whether or not anybody ever described them. The pragmatists, unlike some of their idealist predecessors, do not want to change this story. Idealists sometimes said: ‘If there were no minds, there would he no stars.’ Pragmatists say only: ‘If there were no minds, there would he no one to use the term “star”.’ Opponents like Russell ask: but would it not still be true that there were stars? Pragmatists answer that question with another: what is ‘be true’ supposed to mean in a world in which there are no statements to be true nor minds to have true beliefs?

At that point the conversation tends to break down. For questions about what one means by ‘true’ lead one quickly back to the question of whether knowledge is, as Russell said it was, ‘something not essentially concerned with action’, or whether all human language and human inquiry is to be viewed as like the panda’s thumb or the honeybee’s dance – as a means which a certain species of organism has developed for getting what it wants.

What separates the pragmatist from the idealist is the former’s whole-hearted acceptance of Darwinism. Pragmatism is what you get when you combine a Hegelian view of knowledge – knowledge as relative to context, and thus to historical contingencies – with a Darwinian story of how we got here. For evolutionary biology lets you treat the human mind (or, more exactly, the human ability to organise communal projects by exchanging symbols) as no more mysterious, and no more likely to penetrate to the ‘intrinsic’ natures of things, than the octopus’s tentacle. Dewey started out as a Hegelian idealist, but after he stopped being an idealist he remained a Hegelian contextualist. Russell was right when, in 1939, he said that Dewey’s Hegelianism made it impossible for him to accept the notion of ‘empirical data’ which Russell shared with Hume and the Mills. For contextualism means viewing things as without intrinsic natures – viewing them as having no ‘insides’, but as mere nodes in a potentially infinite, and infinitely re-weavable, web of relations to other things.

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