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Entries in John Dewey (2)


Dewey Does Ethics

Updated on July 8, 2015 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

As noted earlier, I've recently become interested in American Pragmatism as a serious school of philosophy. After having given it exceedingly short shrift in my college days and ignored it for some 40 years I was recently awakened to its possibilities after reading Robert Brandom's account of its role in his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas and listening to him connect pragmatism to the English analytical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy in a presentation he made at Cambridge a while back which is available in full on YouTube. Most recently an old professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper he'd written on John Dewey to read and offer some feedback on. Until then I hadn't thought much of Dewey though I'd only read a little of him as an undergrad. But the Marantz paper offered a picture of the man which struck a chord in my own thinking.

Heretofore, I had largely equated pragmatism with William James and, indeed, I'd recently completed reading James' Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (available in a single volume with an introduction by A.J. Ayer asserting that James' pragmatism was very much in line with the English empiricists and, indeed, the logical positivists and other analytic schools). Surprisingly, James in those books repeatedly alludes to Dewey and the importance of his work, indeed suggesting that John Dewey was a better expositor of Pragmatism than he was. James, of course, is considered the most influential and best articulator of pragmatism among the three founding fathers of that school (C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey). So I was naturally further intrigued by his allusions and deference to Dewey. I ended up getting hold of what I found billed as one of Dewey's most definitive works of philosophy, the one that best summarized his views on philosophy and its various concerns: Reconstruction in Philosophy. The book consists of a series of lectures by Dewey, some of which are quite good (especially the first, I thought) and some only middling because they are somewhat repetitive and sometimes fuzzy in their explication. Still, it's a worthwhile book, even if it's only a bit more than 120 pages. If one can bear with Dewey's penchant for repetition and sometimes difficult constructions, it's a valuable work indeed.

I won't attempt to explicate the overall picture of philosophy Dewey is at pains, in that material, to present. But his take on ethics does offer a useful antidote to some of the metaphysical excesses and conceptual confusions that bedevil so much of traditional ethical theory. Dewey starts by rejecting the idea that anything can be intrinsically good or bad, i.e., good or bad in itself. The classic distinction which divides ends from means and suggests that all value claims must involve some ultimate valuation, some end towards which everything else of value is only a means, is mistaken he thinks. He rejects entirely the idea that goodness (or badness) is fixed in this sense and suggests, instead, that what's good or bad is, as with most everything else, only that for someone and so is dependent on that individual's, that valuer's, interests for its valuational status, interests which may be variegated and without discernible limit from individual to individual. (He does not, by this, mean to suggest that human beings are not finite creatures with limited capacities and needs which such finitude suggests, of course.)

For Dewey, that which is good is so only to the extent it is good for someone and being good for someone depends on its meeting specific needs that individual has. Such needs may vary from individual to individual (there are no fixed goods in the universe in Dewey's view that exist independent of those who count them as good, no bottom line principles of action to which we must adhere). All our valuational choices, including our moral ones, will depend on who and what we are and what that entails for us in terms of actions. Goodness and badness is realized in action not contemplation or speculative theorizing, just as, for Dewey, is the case for all of knowledge. Action comes first, not thought -- for thought, on his view, occurs only within the context of acting agents. . . .

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A Jamesian Wittgenstein?

A former professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper of his on Richard Rorty and another on John Dewey recently for some comments. I have never been much for American Pragmatism, not since, as an undergraduate, I read a bit of William James and John Dewey and thought them somewhat soft as thinkers. I also concluded, probably because of the way an instructor at the time presented the two, that American Pragmatism really amounted to an argument that the truth is just whatever works and that's the whole story. This just seemed superficial and wrong to me and I gravitated, instead, to what seemed the more rigorous Analytic tradition in England. Later, I discovered Wittgenstein and his approach opened things up for me in a way that made analytic philosophy seem rather limited, too. I learned, eventually, that Wittgenstein was not well read in philosophy however, although he apparently liked Schopenhauer (at least in his youth) and, at some point in his career, had read William James. That surprised me because it seemed to me that there was a huge gap between James' seemingly superficial pragmatic vision of philosophy and Wittgenstein's penetrating understanding of how language shapes and reflects the way we understand things. Yet, years later I discovered that more and more thinkers were finding in Wittgenstein a pragmatic strain linking him firmly to the work of people like James, especially in light of his almost off-hand remark about 'meaning as use' (Philosophical Investigations). This approach forms the basis for understanding semantics in pragmatic terms, an approach to meaning in language that has taken hold in later Anglo-American philosophical thought. Marantz' papers reminded me of all this and were suggestive, as well, in their treatment of Rorty and Dewey.

A number of modern thinkers, Robert Brandom among them, have argued that Wittgenstein in fact stands in a long tradition of pragmatists going back at least as far as Kant and coming up through Hegel to the classic American Pragmatists (Peirce, James and Dewey) and flowering in the efforts of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (no less!) to find a modern voice in the work of people like the American philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Richard Rorty. Pragmatism was back -- indeed if Brandom is right, it never left us. Only some, like me, had failed to notice. A year ago I picked up a book in a used book store by William James. Two books actually in one volume: Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. This volume, with an introduction by A.J. Ayer, consolidates two sets of lectures delivered by James, the first set in Boston as the Lowell Lectures in 1906 and later at Columbia University (with some slight changes according to Ayer) in 1907. The first set was published in 1907 as Pragmatism. The text of that work forms the first part of the volume I bought, which I finally started reading just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, it contains elements which anticipate and predate Wittgenstein's influential On Certainty. In fact, some of the similarities are astounding . . .

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