Something to Steer by

Richard Rorty

  • John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism by Alan Ryan
    Norton, 414 pp, $30.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 393 03773 8

Early in this century, people who read Lytton Strachey, and liked to think of themselves as modern, prided themselves on lacking a sense of Sin. Nowadays people who read Michel Foucault, and who use the term ‘Post Modern’ with a straight face, pride themselves on not believing in Truth. Strachey and Foucault, the Moderns and the Post-Moderns, share a distaste for romance, for utopian social hope. When the grand old capitalised words go, they suspect, so do grand, stirring visions of the human future.

John Dewey shared Strachey’s and Virginia Woolf’s conviction that Sin had been a really terrible idea. He would certainly have agreed with Foucault that truth will always be intertwined with power, and that subjectivity is a social construction. Yet he was as romantic and visionary as any philosopher who has ever lived. As Alan Ryan says, ‘the dominant tone of 20th-century cultural criticism has been exactly at odds with Dewey’s.’ That tone has grown drier and more brittle as the century has grown older. Dewey was, throughout his long life, as wet as they come.

Ryan rightly remarks that Dewey ‘defended democracy as the modern, secular realisation of the kingdom of God on earth’. But Dewey was convinced that the romance of democracy – the vision of human beings freely co-operating to construct socially a subjectivity beyond their ancestors’ dreams – required a more thorough-going secularism than Enlightenment rationalism and 19th-century scientism had achieved. He would have agreed with Foucault that it requires a radical anti-authoritarianism: a refusal to accept obligations to any non-human power, including Reality. He agreed with Nietzsche that the traditional notion of Truth, as correspondence to the intrinsic nature of Reality, was a remnant of the idea of submission to the Will of God. When Sin goes, he thought, so should the duty to seek for such correspondence. In its place we should put the duty to seek consensus – agreement with other human beings about what beliefs will best sustain and facilitate our projects of social co-operation.

To have a sense of Sin, it is not enough to be appalled by the way human beings treat each other, and by your own capacity for malice. You have to believe that there is a Being before whom we humans should humble ourselves. This Being issues commands which, even if they seem arbitrary and unlikely to increase human happiness, must be obeyed. When trying to acquire a sense of Sin, it helps a lot if you can manage to think of a specific sexual or dietary practice as forbidden, even though it does not seem to be doing anybody any harm. It also helps to anguish about whether you are calling this Being by the name He or She prefers.

To take the traditional notion of Truth seriously, you have to do more than agree that some beliefs are true and some false, and to call ‘true’ those which fit in best with your and other’s previous beliefs. You must agree with Clough that ‘It fortifies my soul to know/That, though I perish, Truth is so.’ You must feel uneasy at William James’s claim that ‘ideas ... become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.’ You must become indignant when Ryan (accurately paraphrasing Dewey) says that ‘to call a statement “true” is no more than to say that it is good to steer our practice by.’

Those who resonate to Clough’s lines think of Truth – or, alternatively, Reality As It Is in Itself, that to which true sentences correspond – as something before which we humans should be humble. To respect Truth and Reality in the proper way, it is not enough to come in when it rains, and to shun bears. To acquire the right sort of respect, it helps if you can manage to become an epistemological sceptic – manage to worry about whether human language is capable of representing the way Reality is in itself, whether we are calling Reality by the names it prefers. To worry in this way, you need to take seriously the question whether our descriptions of Reality may not be all too human, all too influenced by our hopes and fears. It helps to anguish about whether Reality (and therefore Truth as well) may not stand aloof, beyond the reach of the sentences in which we formulate our beliefs. You must be prepared to distinguish, at least in principle, between beliefs which embody Truth and beliefs which are merely good to steer by.

Dewey was quite willing to say of a vicious act that it was sinful, and of ‘2+2=5’ and ‘Elizabeth the First’s reign ended in 1623’ that these sentences are false. But he was unwilling to say that a power not ourselves had forbidden cruelty, or that these false sentences fail to represent accurately the way Reality is in itself. He thought it much clearer that we should not be cruel than that there is a Being who dislikes cruelty, and much clearer that 2+2=4 than that there is any way things are ‘in themselves’. He viewed the theory that truth is correspondence to Reality, and the theory that moral goodness is correspondence to the Divine Will, as equally dispensable.

For Dewey, neither theory adds anything to our ordinary, workaday, fallible ways of telling the good from the bad and the true from the false. But their pointlessness is not the real problem. What Dewey disliked most about both traditional ‘realist’ epistemology and about supernaturalistic versions of religion is that they discourage us. Both tell us that there is something which may remain forever inscrutable, and which nevertheless claims precedence over our co-operative attempts to avoid pain and obtain pleasure.

Dewey, like James, was a utilitarian: he thought that in the end the only moral or epistemological criteria we have or need is whether performing an action, or holding a belief, will, in the long run, make for greater human happiness. He saw progress as produced by increasing willingness to experiment, to get out from under the past. So he asked us to view current scientific, religious, philosophical and moral beliefs with the same scepticism as Bentham once viewed the laws of England: he hoped each new generation would try to cobble together some more useful beliefs – beliefs which would help them construct a subjectivity capable of richer and more diverse forms of happiness.

Nobody can be as wholeheartedly against Sin as the twice-born – the people who once felt themselves to be irredeemably sinful, but later decided that they were actually OK. Dewey’s mother made sure he would feel irredeemable for a good long time by constantly asking him: ‘Are you right with Jesus?’ Dewey was 32 before he finally managed to lose his Christian faith. Even then, however, he fair-mindedly insisted that Christianity would be a good thing if we could only manage to cleanse it of Sin. He tried to cobble together a purified version of Christianity, as a prefiguration of American democracy and pragmatist philosophy. In 1894, at the age of 35, he wrote an essay called ‘Christianity and Democracy’ which Ryan rightly says is a ‘dazzling, and dazzlingly brave, piece of work’. In it he argues that ‘Christianity ... must be the continuously unfolding, never ceasing discovery of the meaning of life.’

The revelation of truth must continue as long as life has new meanings to unfold, new action to propose. An organisation may loudly proclaim its loyalty to Christianity and to Christ; but if, in laying down what is this truth, it assumes a certain guardianship of Christian truth, a certain prerogative in laying down what is this truth ... if in short the organisation attempts to preach a fixity in a moving world and to claim a monopoly in a common world – all this is a sign that the real Christianity is now working outside of and beyond the organisation, that the revelation is going on in wider and freer channels.

Forty years later, in his only book on religion, A Common Faith, Dewey argues that we need to ‘surrender ... the basic division to which supernatural Christianity is committed’, that between the saved and the lost. We need to throw ourselves into a common human adventure: ‘Whether or no we are, save in some metaphorical sense, all brothers, we are at least all in the same boat traversing the same turbulent ocean. The potential religious significance of this fact is infinite.’ That significance is obscured by the ideas of Sin and Truth, for these are individualistic, self-dramatising notions. Dewey thought that Christianity comes into its own only when people stop worrying about the state of their soul, and realise that their subjectivity is the creature of their culture rather than of either an angry or a sweet-tempered deity. ‘The essentially unreligious attitude,’ he said, ‘is that which attributes human achievement and purpose to man in isolation from the world of physical nature and his fellows.’

Heedless of the shock it caused his friends, Dewey insisted on using ‘God’ as the name of a ‘working union of the ideal and the actual’. He excused himself by saying that ‘aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism.’ ‘What I have in mind,’ he continued,

is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation ... [Supernaturalism] regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also afflicted by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.

Dewey ended A Common Faith by saying: ‘The things in civilisation we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community with which we are linked ... Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class or race.’

This passage sums up Dewey’s view of cultural evolution as continuous with biological evolution, and of our common human adventure as taking place within a ‘community of causes and consequences in which we, together with those not born, are enmeshed’. This community, he said, is ‘the widest and deepest symbol of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe.’

Those who admire the dominant tone of 20th-century cultural criticism, or relish despair and defiance, or are anxious to get beyond an increasingly obsolescent Post-Modernism to something really radical, or do not care for Wordsworth, may not get much out of Dewey. Unless you share his sense that an individual life has meaning only to the extent that it is caught up in shared hope and effort, Dewey will strike you as banal, bourgeois and conformist. Unless you resonate, at least occasionally, to the Immortality Ode, he will seem weakly sentimental.

Dewey is best known as a political thinker and activist, and so this religious side of his thought often gets overlooked. Even Robert Westbrook’s splendid John Dewey and American Democracy slighted it. The enthusiastic welcome which that book deservedly received, when it was published in 1991, had the unfortunate effect of causing an equally good book, which emphasised this religious side, to be neglected – Steven Rockefeller’s John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism.

Alan Ryan has given us a third first-rate book about Dewey.[*] He brings Dewey’s radical politics (which was Westbrook’s focus) together with his Wordsworthian sense of the unity of the ideal and the actual (which was Rockefeller’s). Ryan thinks that Dewey was ‘very nearly successful’ in his attempt to ‘unite the religious conviction that the world is a meaningful unity with a secular 20th-century faith in the scientific analysis of both nature and humanity’. Dewey’s uniqueness, for Ryan, lies in ‘the way he combined fierce criticism of the particulars of human existence with a resounding endorsement of the human project’.

Ryan remarks on ‘how much the level [of the secondary literature on Dewey] has been raised by Westbrook and Rockefeller’, and he has obviously profited from reading both. But he did his research from scratch. Starting on this book back in 1988, when he moved to Princeton from Oxford (to which he is now returning), he ploughed through Dewey’s published works, visited the archive in Carbondale to read the unpublished letters, and used Dewey’s life as a guiding thread to help himself get acquainted with 20th-century America. Unlike Westbrook’s and Rockefeller’s, Ryan’s book does not tell us much about Dewey that we could not have learned elsewhere. But the fact that a lot of the spadework had been done already has freed Ryan to adopt a reflective, musing tone rather different from that of his predecessors. His book is not so much a historian’s attempt to dig up the past as a deeply affectionate and respectful (though far from uncritical) appreciation of a man whose romantic hopes resembled Ryan’s own.

Unusually for a British scholar arriving in the US, Ryan exerted himself to master the political, social and intellectual history of his new surroundings. His success can be measured by the fact that his frequent reviews of books on America’s past and present are eagerly awaited by American readers. In his study of Dewey he does a splendid job of (in his words) ‘recapturing the intellectual, emotional and political mood in which a certain kind of American liberalism flourished in the first half of this century’.

Sidney Hook, Dewey’s worthy heir in both politics and philosophy, warned Ryan that ‘no Englishman can make sense of so American a figure.’ I should have been inclined to say the same. But Hook was, and I would have been, quite wrong. Ryan’s foreignness turns out to be an advantage. He gets Dewey just right when he calls him ‘a Midwestern T.H. Green’: his comparisons between Dewey and Green are remarkably illuminating. Like James Kloppenberg (in Uncertain Victory, a pathbreaking history of leftist thought), Ryan treats Dewey as a member of the invisible international college of social democratic theorists that took shape in the generation after J. S. Mill – a college of which Green and the Webbs were the most influential British members. That turns out to be a very rewarding way of bringing out similarities and differences between the history of leftist hopes in Britain and America.

There is no point in trying to summarise Ryan’s detailed chronological account of Dewey’s changing interests and successive achievements over the course of his 93 years, except to remark that Ryan mingles whole-hearted praise for Dewey’s triumphs with measured criticism of his failures. His affection for Dewey is well this side of idolatry.

Of Dewey’s educational theories, Ryan acutely says that it is far from clear ‘how he could square his enthusiasm for community vitality with his adamant insistence on a secular and liberal approach to schooling’. Dewey was no more able than most liberal anti-clericalists to come to terms with many people’s need for very old-fashioned, supernaturalistic forms of religion. American liberals have usually thought that if you have Whitman you no longer need St Paul, and have hoped that devotion to the nation’s democratic ideals – a civic religion – would sooner or later displace other-worldly forms of religion in the hearts of their countrymen. They have been disappointed, generation after generation. For the fiercely intolerant Southern Baptists of Georgia, as well as for the good-hearted but goofy New Agers of California, a civic religion is not nearly good enough.

Ryan deepens his criticism of Dewey when he says that he ‘relied on something too much like the idea of a pre-existing harmony between human nature and democracy’. To this charge, Dewey would have rejoined that human nature is thoroughly malleable, and that democracy would eventually produce startlingly new versions of it. But that rejoinder would not quiet Ryan’s suspicion that ‘we are never going to be wholly at case with one another in a modern society’ – that a polity the size of the US, or of the human race, is never going to be much like the Burlington, Vermont of Dewey’s childhood.

Ryan has a deep respect for Dewey’s romanticism, but his own hopes for the human future are not as bright as Dewey’s. He does not foresee, as Dewey did at the end of his Reconstruction in Philosophy, an age in which ‘philosophy shall have co-operated with the course of events and made clear and coherent the meaning of the daily detail, science and emotion will interpenetrate, practice and imagination will embrace. Poetry and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life.’ Ryan thinks, plausibly, that there will never be an end to inequality and conflict, even though social democratic politics may manage to make inequality much less acute, and conflict much less dangerous.

It is easy to agree with Ryan against Dewey in this prediction about the human future. Still, I think that Ryan is too dismissive of Dewey’s attempt to keep his Wordsworthian sense of oneness with the universe alive, if only for purposes of private comfort and joy. Ryan agrees with Sidney Hook that, in A Common Faith, Dewey tried to stretch the term ‘God’ too far. Towards the end of his summary of Dewey’s discussion of religion Ryan says: ‘As myself an aggressive atheist, I am not persuaded that the usefulness of such ways of talking has much bearing on their truthfulness; to put it unkindly, one might complain that Dewey wants the social value of religious belief without being willing to pay the epistemological price for it.’

That passage, of course, put my pragmatist back up. As I said at the outset, the whole point of pragmatism is to stop distinguishing between the usefulness of a way of talking and its truth. We pragmatists do not think that beliefs come with epistemological price tags attached – though some, but not all, of them come with social price tags. If you have a belief which differs from that of your fellow citizens, and this difference interferes with some project on which you and they are engaged, then you owe them some justification for your idiosyncratic assertions. You owe them an argument.

But this obligation does not exist when the eccentric belief in question is not relevant to shared projects – when science, politics, sports and the like do not require agreement on the topic of the belief. Your beliefs about God, Clough and Wordsworth – and about Plato and Derrida, for that matter – do not, or at least should not, come with a social price tag. In a properly tolerant democratic society, nobody would worry much about their fellow citizens’ religious, aesthetic or philosophical views. For everybody would agree that these views are for weekends, not for the projects of social co-operation which occupy our workdays. As Rawls reasonably suggests (and makes part of his definition of ‘reasonableness’ in his Political Liberalism), we liberals should set aside our differing views about the meaning of life when we get together to decide what to do. Ryan is wrong to suggest that Dewey wants to hang onto religion for its ‘social value’. Dewey thought that the social value of traditional religion could be taken over by a civic religion, but that non-civic religious traditions would still offer a lot of comfort and joy to certain individuals.

I find it discouraging that, after slogging through every word written by the greatest pragmatist of all, Ryan is still unable to take the pragmatists’ view of Truth seriously. Had he done so, he would never have described ‘the crux between Dewey and his religious critic’ as follows:

Although we learn our understanding of the world in a community and employing the resources of a culture, we cannot help asking whether our interpretation of the world is right ... The fact that we learn to interpret the world by belonging to a community does not answer the question of whether what we say about the world is mass projection of our hopes, fears and whatever else rather than an account of how the world really is.

If Ryan had been convinced by Dewey that we need to further secularise our notion of Truth, he would not think that question worth asking.

We pragmatists think that the central message of James’s and Dewey’s work is that there is no point in trying to divest ourselves of our hopes and fears when trying to form our beliefs. For we cannot divide the process of belief-formation up into the bit that we contribute and the bit the world contributes, and then ask how well the two contributions mesh. Once we stop trying to make that division, we shall still distinguish between more and less useful beliefs, but not between beliefs held on merely subjective grounds and those held on properly objective ones.

Of course, we can, if we are in an ungrateful mood, describe the beliefs held by our ancestors as mass projections of their hopes and fears. But that is because we, thanks to our knowledge of their misfortunes, now have rather different hopes and fears. Our descendants, if they display the enterprise we expect of them, will, having witnessed our misfortunes, view our funny little interpretations of the world as we view pre-Copernican beliefs about the heavens, or pre-Freudian beliefs about sex. The claim that we now have an interpretation of the world which gets it right, an interpretation set free from hope and fear, is, for us pragmatists, just a self-deceptive way of praising the interpretation which chimes with our hopes and fears, rather than with somebody else’s.

Does all this mean that we pragmatists think people can recite the Creed on Sundays while working away as evolutionary biologists or astrophysicists the rest of the week? That such people do not offend against Reason? That they have no epistemological obligation to make everything hang together? Yes, that is what we think. Lots of biologists and physicists do exactly that, and Dewey held them blameless, because he thought their behaviour harmless. All religious pragmatists need to do is to be reasonable, to keep their religion out of their scientific and political activities. Not dragging one’s religious convictions into politics or science means not having a social price to pay for those convictions. That, we pragmatists believe, is the only sort of price there is.

People who disbelieve in Truth as thoroughly as Foucault and Dewey did – philosophers who think that to call a belief ‘true’ is no more than to say it is good to steer our practice by – do not think there is a big synthetic practice called ‘being rational’ or ‘seeking Truth’ which demands the reconciliation of the Creed and the science textbooks. Such reconciliation would only be necessary if belief in both led to some form of social awkwardness. Reasonable people will try to avoid such awkwardness, and will therefore think of science and religion as non-competitive. Quot disciplinae, tot sententiae. So many non-competitive practices, just so many non-competitive, though perhaps irreconcilable, beliefs reasonably called ‘true’.

[*] Alan Ryan’s book will be published in Britain by Norton in the autumn.