Just one more species doing its best
- 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.
Dewey viewed things in this holist, relationalist way all his life. But after he turned Darwinian (in the 1890s) he stopped thinking of the universe as somehow ‘spiritual’ in character, as Great Evolving Self. Instead, he started thinking of human selves and human languages as just devices which evolution had recently cobbled together. More important, he stopped thinking of the universe as having an intrinsic nature, as something which one might get right once and for all. The universe is just what languages describe, and there are as many languages, as many alternative descriptions, as there are purposes to be served by such descriptions. Darwin’s language, for example, is not to be preferred to Hegel’s because it corresponds better to reality, or is more ‘scientific’, but simply because using it will get us more of what Dewey thought we ought to want. The same goes for the pragmatists’ theory that truth is what works: Dewey thought that theory would work better, for the purposes he thought most important, than previous theories.
So there is no way of winning through, as both Hegel and Russell thought we might, from appearance to reality. Dewey junked the appearance-reality and subjective-objective distinctions and just talked about more or less successful beliefs, more or less successful rules for guiding action to fulfil one or another want. For him, the nice thing about Darwin was not that he got human beings right, but that he made available a way of describing human beings which enabled us to discard a lot of unfruitful questions which had been posed by other ways of describing them. The nice thing about the pragmatist theory of truth is not that it gets truth right, but that it frees us from a picture which has been holding us captive, a picture which has made us less hopefully and cheerfully experimental than we might become once we have shrugged it off.
Russell thought that the holism which Dewey took over from Hegel and T.H. Green made it impossible for Dewey to tell us ‘about the nature of things before they are inquired into’. It does indeed. From Dewey’s angle, such a request is like asking to be told about how things are without using any particular description of them. Russell was also right in thinking that Dewey’s holism, when combined with his claim that inquiry begins with a ‘problematic situation’ rather than with ‘data’, meant that Dewey had no place for ‘logically separable particulars’ and that what Dewey called a ‘situation’ could not ‘embrace less than the whole universe’. But Dewey thought that the reason we deal only with tiny bits of the universe is not that the universe is ‘really’ made up of ‘logically separable particulars’ but rather that no human practice, and thus no language, can attend to more than a few nodes in an infinite web of relations. When he asked himself, ‘What is the real fact, the existent reality behind both the word and the meaning it stands for?’ he gave the same answer as Wittgenstein was to give: ‘social usage’.
Darwin does not show that the conception of knowledge which Russell shared with Locke and with Plato – knowledge as something more than ‘the removal of doubt’, more than knowing how to go on – is wrong, and that the one which Dewey shared with the later Wittgenstein is right. On a Deweyan view, ‘getting the nature of knowledge right’ is the wrong way to put it. For him, the only question is about which conception of knowledge raises fewer problems, is more efficient to work with. But efficiency is, of course, relative to what you want. Russell and Dewey wanted different things. It is not clear how we can get beyond this clash of values. It is not clear how to argue about whether describing oneself in Darwin’s rather than Plato’s vocabulary can, or should, take away ‘intellectual joy’. It is not clear what could settle the question of whether Russellian ‘humility’ toward ‘objective truth’ is a more or a less dangerous form of power-worship than Dewey’s thorough-going Darwinism.
In his very useful and perceptive account of Dewey, J.E. Tiles starts off by describing how Russell and Dewey passed each other by – each refusing to answer the other’s questions, and getting more exasperated with each other as the decades went by. Later in his book he uses Bernard Williams as a contemporary foil for Dewey, and this is an excellent choice. Dewey enjoyed debunking what he called ‘the alleged discipline of epistemology’ and ‘the epistemology industry’: he was convinced that the whole tradition of philosophy-as-epistemology which runs back to Descartes and Locke must be set aside if we are to reap the benefits of Darwin’s naturalism. In this respect, Williams is Dewey’s diametrical opposite, for Williams is convinced that Descartes’s ‘project of pure inquiry’ and Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities are the beginnings of epistemological wisdom.
Williams speaks for the vast majority of analytic philosophers (and, in particular, for the employees of the vast ‘realism v. anti-realism’ industry founded by his Oxford colleague Michael Dummett) when, following Locke, he insists that physical science is less bound up with human interests and needs than are, say, chess, novel-writing or the munitions industry. The question of whether any area of human culture could be less bound up with human interests and needs than another – whether there is such a thing as seeking for truth for its own sake, without any admixture of practical deliberation – is the central issue between pragmatists and their opponents. Williams’s recent writings have helped bring this question to the fore. But Tiles’s confrontation of Dewey and Williams does not do much to help us decide that question, and, once again, it is not clear what could. Tiles says, rightly, that Dewey would accuse Williams of neglecting context, but this is merely to say that Dewey was a holist and Williams is not. The question of whether to allow one’s holism to eliminate one’s commonsensical conviction that there are ‘logically separable particulars’ having natures of their own prior to being described, or whether to allow common sense to brush holism aside, remains as perplexing as ever.
Williams is what Janice Moulton has called an ‘adversarial’ philosopher, in the tradition of Ayer and Russell. (Russell once told Sidney Hook that his first question on meeting a man of outstanding intellectual reputation was ‘Can I take him, or can he take me?’) This way of doing philosophy, which has survived the death of logical empiricism and still sets the tone of analytic philosophy in both Britain and America, makes much of the goal of ‘getting it right’, and of the need for knock-down arguments. Dewey, by contrast, was non-adversarial, in the sense that he almost never gave a head-on reply to criticism. He exasperated his opponents by trying to move out of the range of their vocabulary, by dissolving their problems rather than offering solutions to them, and by transferring issues to the fuzzy, hard-to-discuss area of conflicting values. That was because he thought it was those values which were at stake, and that the ‘more precise’ issues which his critics raised were just ways of evading the important questions.
The non-adversarial stance which Dewey adopted – his preference for undercutting, outflanking, and shifting ground, as opposed to standing up and knocking down – is in part responsible for his widespread neglect. Even so broad-minded and widely-read a philosopher as Arthur Danto has said that he finds Dewey’s work without interest, because lacking in ‘structure’. Ayer found (and, I imagine, Williams finds) in Dewey only a rubbery amorphous mass of neologisms (‘problematic situation’, ‘transaction’ etc), a mass which cannot he penetrated by questions phrased in the vocabulary moulded by Descartes, Locke and Kant; it can only he ridiculed en bloc, as Russell ridiculed it. What Donald Meiklejohn once said about Dewey’s ethical theory is true of the whole of Dewey’s thought: you do not so much get convinced by any single argument as ‘go round and round in circles until you begin to feel at home’. You either gradually give up on the dualisms he criticises and learn to enjoy life without them, or else you insist that they are essential to clear thinking. In the latter case, you will conclude that Dewey, by abjuring their use, rendered himself incapable of clear thought. You either (like Russell, Ayer and Williams) work with what Dewey called ‘the whole brood and nest of dualisms which have, on the whole, formed the “problems” of philosophy termed “modern” ’, or you walk away from these dualisms, thereby running the risk of looking naive, unstructured, childish and forgettable.
The widespread forgetting of Dewey by analytic philosophers parallels the forgetting of Hegel by most German philosophy professors of the second half of the last century. The neo-Kantians were convinced that clear thought could he revived, and philosophy made properly professional, only by deploying the Kantian dualisms which Hegel had tried to extirpate. For after an early polemical period, the period of Faith and Knowledge, Hegel began writing books like The Phenomenology of Spirit and The Science of Logic – books which were as insouciant of contemporary debates and as impenetrable to standard modes of criticism as, a century later, Dewey’s Studies in Logical Theory was to be. Hegel survived as a topic of discussion in Germany only because some of his readers, notably Marx, picked up various strands – mostly political strands – in his thought and cut them off from the Hegelian System and from Hegel’s talk of Absolute Knowledge. Only much later, and mostly in other countries, did writers like T.H. Green and W.T. Harris (Dewey’s teacher) begin to revive Hegel’s wholesale holism and his powerful critique of the Lockean presuppositions which had been retained by Kant. Similarly, once the initial hullabaloo about the pragmatist theory of truth had died down (by, say, 1920) Dewey began to be neglected by the rising young philosophical generation. As a result, people began to think of him as the prophet of a social-democratic utopia rather than as somebody with controversial views about truth, knowledge and mind. It was only much later that philosophy professors like Quine and Sellars once again began to appreciate the power of holist criticisms of the empiricists’ claims to grasp ‘logically separable particulars’, and to expose the tensions lurking within the logical positivism of Russell, Carnap and Ayer.
Tiles’s Dewey pays relatively little attention to Dewey as social critic, and is designed primarily for philosophy professors – people who will he intrigued by the nitty-gritty details of the debates between Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy, Evander McGilvary, D.J. Prall and others. Tiles’s discussions of these details is incisive and perspicuous, and he has done a great service to Dewey by restating Dewey’s side of the argument clearly and sympathetically. I confess, however, that I find those details somewhat tedious, and those debates distractions from what was most original in Dewey’s thought. Unlike Tiles, I regret the fact that Dewey did not always try to dissolve or dismiss problems, but sometimes tried to offer solutions to them. I regret that, as he grew older, he became less willing to shove metaphysics and epistemology aside and more willing to offer an epistemology and a metaphysics of his own.
Tiles prefers the more systematic and less polemical Dewey, and I have the opposite preference. Tiles has a point when he criticises me for being ‘in the end no more prepared to take seriously and develop the philosophic position for which Dewey argued than are those who remain firmly within the analytic tradition’. There is, indeed, a lot of Dewey, notably his ‘metaphysics of experience’, which I think it best to discard. Tiles and I agree that Dewey wanted the ‘whole philosophic tradition going back to Descartes’ to be discarded, and that he ‘wanted a new and more fruitful philosophy to grow in place of what he regarded as moribund’. But Tiles (like Ralph Sleeper in his The Necessity of Pragmatism) wants this new and more fruitful philosophy to centre on something like the ‘metaphysics of experience’ which Dewey offered in Experience and Nature (1924) or like the account of inquiry he offered in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1939). I regard both of these books as thoroughly unsuccessful attempts to pour new wine into old bottles. Tiles says, accurately and appreciatively, that Dewey, ‘who at one time expressed hostility to any kind of metaphysical enterprise, had by 1915 softened his attitude and accepted that philosophers could advance hypotheses about “ultimate, that is irreducible, traits of existence” ’. I wish that his attitude had remained harder, for advancing such hypotheses seems to me of little help in furthering what Dewey elsewhere describes as ‘the task of future philosophy ... to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day.’
To my mind, the quasi-Nietzschean Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) is Dewey at his best and the quasi-Bergsonian Experience and Nature is an unfortunate regression. This is because I disagree with Dewey that ‘meanings do not come into being with language.’ I think that they do, and that it is vital to preserve and emphasise (as Sellars and Quine do) the distinction between intentional and non-intentional discourse. It seems to me that the alliance between Dewey and the later Wittgenstein which Tiles suggests will only work if Deweyans give up on the attempt to use notions like ‘meaning’ in reference to the non-linguistic.
I would argue that it is only thanks to what Gustav Bergman called ‘the linguistic turn’ – and, in particular, to Quine’s, Sellars’s, Putnam’s and Davidson’s holistic and anti-dualist philosophies of language – that we are in a position to appreciate the power of Dewey’s holism, and thus of the historicism which he shared with Hegel, Marx, Croce and Collingwood. Just as Marx had to throw out the transcendental stuff in Hegel to get to the parts he wanted, so, it seems to me, we have to throw out the Bergsonian, pan-psychist, ‘radical empiricist’ stuff in James and Dewey – all that talk about the real nature of ‘lived experience’ and how it was ‘misdescribed’ by Locke and Hume – to get to the good parts. Locke and Hume’s atomistic descriptions of experience were, in my view, not misdescriptions: they did not fail, as James and Dewey said they had, to describe experience accurately. Rather, the empiricists’ atomism is the only language-game, the only philosophical practice, which has ever given the term ‘experience’ any interest. Trying to hang onto ‘the description of experience’ once one drops the empiricists’ ‘sense-data’ is like trying to hold onto the form-matter distinction after one has replaced Aristotle’s cosmology with Newton’s. Once we discard Humean atomism, we should give up the idea that experience is a fruitful philosophical topic. We should move on to language.
If we skip the books I would prefer to skip, then we can see the transition from Dewey the anti-epistemological and anti-metaphysical Darwinian to Dewey the social critic as natural and easy. We can see why Dewey came to think that the task of philosophy was to serve as a handmaiden to political and cultural criticism. For the pragmatist view that knowledge is a means to action leads you away from questions about the nature and attainability of truth – not to mention questions about what experience is really like – to questions about how to get what you want. That view led Nietzsche to a quixotic individualism, but it led Dewey to celebrate democratic politics. It led him, especially after World War One, to write less and less about truth and knowledge and more and more about the need for constant social change, change which would enlarge the range of democratic choice.
This is a natural transition because the effect of pragmatism is to politicise philosophy – to switch our attention from ‘the powers of the human mind’ to the socio-cultural conditions of human inquiry. It tells us that there are no objects of loyalty or sources of comfort other than actual and possible human communities: that there is nothing like Truth or Reason or The Scientifically-Knowable Nature of Reality towards which we need he humble, or on which we can rely for support. It tells us that we are as friendless, as much on our own, as the panda, the honeybee or the octopus – just one more species doing its best, with no hope of outside assistance, and consequently no use for humility. The best we can do is to take full advantage of our ability to use language by becoming ever more social animals, banding together in ever more complex ways for mutual support. Given this view, it is natural for philosophy to shelve epistemology and metaphysics and to concentrate on politics: on suggestions about how to form bigger, better, more flexible and adaptable support groups. Dewey’s Darwinism links up with his Hegelianism, and specifically with Hegel’s claim that history is a story of increasing freedom, to produce the claim that democratic politics and a pragmatist view of truth are made for one another. As Dewey said in 1899:
Democracy is possible only because of a change in intellectual conditions. It implies tools for getting at truth in detail, and day by day, as we go along. Only such possession justifies the surrender of fixed, all-embracing principles to which, as universals, all particulars and individuals are subject for valuation and regulation. Without such possession, it is only the courage of the fool that would undertake the venture to which democracy has committed itself – the ordering of life in response to the needs of the moment in accordance with ascertained truth of the moment.
In books like Reconstruction in Philosophy and The Quest for Certainty (1929), Dewey told a neo-Hegelian story about how we moderns are gradually, thanks to the inspiration provided by experimental science and the new technologies with which that science is intertwined, breaking free of Greek notions about getting The Way the World Is right. In these books, the pragmatist view of truth and knowledge is commended on the ground that adopting it will enrich our lives by making society and culture more flexible, tolerant and experimental. Nietzsche, in The Twilight of the Idols, had told a somewhat similar story about how overcoming Greek appearance-reality distinctions would make a new form of life possible, but Nietzsche’s vision was of strong, proud, whip-carrying male individualists. Nietzsche was still working within what Habermas has called ‘the philosophy of subjectivity’. Dewey was what Habermas calls ‘a philosopher of communicative reason’.
As Habermas has said, American pragmatism is ‘the third productive reply to Hegel, after Marx and Kierkegaard – the social-democratic branch of Young Hegelianism’. In one of his earliest essays, Dewey paraphrased Hegel by saying that ‘the full significance of personality can be learned by the individual only as it is already presented to him in objective form in society.’ Towards the end of Reconstruction in Philosophy Dewey wrote: ‘The increasing acknowledgment that goods exist and endure only through being communicated and that association is the means of conjoint sharing lies back of the modern sense of humanity and democracy.’
Although the transition from a pragmatist view of truth and knowledge to the question ‘What can we philosophers do to smooth the road for social-democratic politics?’ is a natural one, Dewey was wrong to suggest that all pragmatists must necessarily incline towards social democracy. Considered simply as a set of views about truth, knowledge, language and the like – as a debunking of the problematic which Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant built up around these notions – pragmatism offers no guidance for political choice. Pragmatism cannot, indeed, answer Hitler. Nietzsche was, in his remarks on truth, knowledge, language and selfhood, a good debunking pragmatist: but his contempt for bourgeois society might well have led him, as a similar contempt led Heidegger, to support the Nazis.
However, this inability to answer Hitler is not the result of pragmatism being a wicked or an inadequate philosophy. Philosophy is just not the right place to look for responses to mad tyrants, or Nietzschean bully-boys, or complacent, heartless Thatcherites and Reaganites. Philosophical views about truth and knowledge and selfhood are not the right weapons to reach for when coping with such opponents. Anti-pragmatists fool themselves when they think that by insisting, and claiming to demonstrate, that moral truths are ‘objective’ – are true independent of human needs, interests, history – they have provided us with weapons against the had guys. For the fascists can, and often do, reply that they entirely agree that moral truth is objective, eternal and universal: they insist, however, that those who hope for an egalitarian co-operative commonwealth have allowed sentimentality to impede their vision of these eternal truths, and so have fallen into irrationality.
A Darwinian-Deweyan view according to which we are all alone, and have no powerful allies – such as God or Reason – against the fascists, is, pace Russell, no likelier to lead to ‘the intoxication of power’ than one which assures us that God or Reason is with us. For the latter assurance is equally available to the bad guys, and argument about what God or Reason really prefers is unlikely to get very far. The only connection between pragmatism and social democracy, it seems to me, is that anti-pragmatism is frequently a useful strategy for governments which have no use for social democracy – e.g. those of Pius IX, Nicholas II, Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan. Such governments find it useful to insist that there are universal, objective truths. This insistence supports their claim that certain basic social practices (the ones favourable to their continued rule) are beyond the reach of experiment, and that the preservation of these practices takes precedent over everything else.
Dewey made much of the fact that traditional notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘universality’ were useful to the bad guys, and he had a point. But he did not show that one could not consistently be both a fascist and a pragmatist. (Mussolini, for example, used to express admiration for pragmatism – though it is not clear whether he knew much about it.) If we want an additional connection between pragmatism and social democracy, I think it can only be found in the entirely contingent fact that a lot of those who have held the views about truth and knowledge common to Nietzsche and James happen to have been Americans – and, more specifically, Americans who have read, or indirectly imbibed, Emerson’s Essays and Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. They have been people more or less intoxicated with the romance of American democracy, with the idea that in America all things are possible, that in the United States there will begin, as promised on the dollar bill, a novus ordo seclorum, that there is something real and important called ‘The American Newness’.
That last phrase was used by Irving Howe as the title of his 1985 Massey Lectures, at the beginning of which he quoted Jefferson’s ‘this chapter in the history of man is new’ and Emerson’s description of himself as ‘a seeker with no past at his back’. Recent writers on pragmatism – notably Russell Goodman, in his American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, and Cornet West, in his The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism – have rightly emphasised the way in which James and Dewey take certain Emersonian ideas and attitudes for granted. I suspect that unless one has some acquaintance with, and sympathy for, this Emersonian bravura and bounciness, Dewey’s social and political writings will seem as childish as his theory of truth did to Russell. Some of the mingled scorn and condescension with which Dewey has been received in Europe is, I think, due to the feeling that this transatlantic bumptiousness and optimism is absurd.
Westbrook uses Dewey’s suggestions about ways to expand the sphere of democratic decision-making, his need to sketch ever-widening democratic vistas, as the guiding thread of his intellectual biography of Dewey. It is a good choice, and the result is by far the best book yet written about Dewey – a gripping narrative as well as a triumph of patient and arduous scholarship. Westbrook gives very good summaries of Dewey’s books, and admirably clear accounts of the sorts of controversy which Tiles discusses in more detail, but his great contribution is to place these books and controversies in the context of Dewey’s romantic pursuit of a fully egalitarian, fully democratic America. No one before Westbrook gave us the full history of Dewey’s political activities. The Dewey who emerges from this book is someone of whom we have lost sight.
Dewey was (at least in the books of his I prefer) a revolutionary in philosophy, but he was a reformer in politics. He was for ever helping out in settlement houses, organising committees, writing letters to the newspapers, calling on the public to rally against the powerful. Though in no sense a blind optimist, he had no doubt that America’s heart was sound; more generally, he rejected Weber’s suggestion that a worm lurks at the heart of modern liberal societies. This conviction, and his consequent refusal to use apocalyptic or revolutionary rhetoric, made him look like a compromising simpleton to many American radicals. Insofar as the American Left remembers Dewey, it is as a mere do-gooder. Westbrook is concerned to change this image by showing that Dewey’s was ‘a more radical voice than has been generally assumed’. He treats Dewey as, ‘among liberal intellectuals of the 20th century, the most important advocate of participatory democracy’.
I am somewhat dubious about the contrast Westbrook draws between ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘liberal realism’ (West-brook’s great bugbear), but I agree that Dewey kept Emersonian romance alive in a period when people like Walter Lippmann, and lots of technocratic New Deal bureaucrats, were pooh-poohing it in the name of ‘practical politics’. Westbrook makes a good case for saying that Dewey was ‘a liberal steadily radicalised by his distinctive faith in thoroughgoing democracy’. But this radicalism was never a matter of urging that present institutions or practices be torn up by the roots; it was simply the insistence that no institution or practice is sacred, and that we should keep trying to imagine alternatives.
The Great Depression led Dewey to conclude that capitalism wasn’t working and needed to be replaced, but he had no clear agenda for its replacement, and the deep distrust of the Communists which he shared with Sidney Hook led him to be reviled by Marxists as ‘the philosopher of American imperialism’. Towards the end of his life, Dewey’s anti-Communism overshadowed his radicalism; he turned from criticising capitalism to criticising the people who had rallied around Henry Wallace. Westbrook is made uncomfortable by this turn, but since I think that what has been called ‘the romance of American Communism’ was a disaster for the American Left, and that the Cold War was a good war, I am inclined to shrug off Westbrook’s claim that ‘Dewey’s contribution to the Cold War climate of fear cannot be dismissed.’
Westbrook’s book and Blake’s Beloved Community complement each other beautifully. The four ‘Young Americans’ (as they were called) whom Blake discusses were often harshly critical of Dewey, but all four shared Dewey’s hope that America would be wonderful and different and unlike all other nations. As Blake says, these men shared with Dewey ‘a communitarian vision of self-realisation through participation in a democratic culture’. Blake’s book, though admirably organised and deftly written, is necessarily less focused and dramatic than Westbrook’s single-heroed saga: but Blake succeeds very well in conveying the sense, prevalent among American intellectuals in the Twenties and Thirties, that America had betrayed its own dreams and needed to be saved from itself. The writers whom Blake discusses had a lot to do with making America self-conscious about its intellectual and literary heritage; as Alan Trachtenberg says in his introduction to Blake’s book, the Young Americans inaugurated the academic discipline called ‘American Studies’. This discipline was an attempt to place contemporary American culture in the context of Emerson’s prophecies, and to ask whether it was Walt Whitman or George Babbitt, President Lincoln or President Harding, who represented the ‘real’ America. Mumford, Frank and Brooks did in their essays what Sinclair Lewis did in his novels: made Americans wonder whether Emersonian and Whitmanesque prophecies were still plausible given the corruption and philistinism of the Gilded Age and of the Twenties, the sadism of the lynch mobs, and the willingness of the state to collaborate with the capitalists in keeping labour subservient. Such writers saw American culture as debased, and they tended to see Dewey as an apologist for that culture.
Their reading of Dewey was often, I should argue, superficial. But they did raise good questions, the same questions as were later raised by American intellectuals who had read Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault and other European sceptics about the Enlightenment. Is constitutional democracy enough? Do present practices leave room for their own reform? Can the hope for an American newness, for the constant expansion of participatory democracy and of democratic vistas, survive centralised control of the mass media, the bureaucratisation of every aspect of life, and a garrison state? Aren’t there, in fact, lots of worms eating at the heart of modern liberal societies?
Anyone who reads Westbrook and Blake in tandem will get a very good idea of what American intellectuals were arguing about between the wars, and of the way their debates foreshadowed those now going on between pragmatic liberal reformers, on the one side, and revolution-minded Post-Modernists, on the other. In particular, reading these two very good books will help one realise that the ‘liberal individualism’ of which one hears so much in the works of the Post-Modernists was quite absent from the thought of America’s most influential liberal theorist. Dewey was as romantic a communitarian as Frank and Mumford were, or as Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah are. But his romanticism was more radical. His vision was of a community bound together by romance alone, by a shared quest rather than shared principles, a shared willingness to experiment rather than settled convictions. His attempt to get us beyond the philosophers’ God-surrogates – beyond the worship of Nature, or Reason, or Truth, or Power – and to have us put our faith in ourselves alone was not a symptom of simple-mindedness. Dewey’s ‘cosmic impiety’ was the product of a bolder philosophical imagination, and a more passionate social hope, than those of any of his critics, past or present.