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.

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