This writer has sometimes puzzled friends and critics alike by expressing a firm, though qualified, admiration for John Dewey. John Dewey?! You mean that arch-secular humanist, that despiser of religious “supersitition,” that progressivist despoiler of our once commonsensical public schools? Yes, that John Dewey. He got an awful lot of things quite wrong, but Dewey did understand, as few intellectuals today do understand, that the American democratic experiment is indeed an experiment. He knew that it is an experiment that cannot be sustained without a public philosophy, and that such a public philosophy must be grounded in moral truth. Those were some of the great things that John Dewey got right. Regrettably, the public philosophy he proposed was, in our judgment, wrong on its merits, and it was and is shared by few Americans. A philosphical foundation for democracy that is neither understood nor accepted by the people who constitute the democracy in question is of limited use in sustaining that democracy.
We have sometimes described the purpose of this journal and its related enterprises in terms of “advancing a religiously grounded public philosophy for the democratic experiment in freedom and virtue.” John Dewey would have been at home with such a formulation, except the religion that he had in mind was his very uncommon “common faith” that he contrived as a replacement for the “traditional religion” that he thought hopelessly outdated. Much of what Dewey got right, however, is brilliantly and readably set forth by Robert B. Westbrook of the University of Rochester in a major new book, John Dewey and American Democracy (Cornell). Westbrook laments the fact that relatively few thinkers today pay much attention to Dewey. Even more lamentable, many who are interested in Dewey have come to him through Richard Rorty, the philosopher turned literary critic who claims to be Dewey’s apostle in our time.
As faithful readers know, this writer has his own problems with Richard Rorty (see “Joshing Mr. Rorty,” December 1990). Robert Westbroook’s concerns are closely related to those problems. He begins by noting, very delicately, that Rorty’s appropriation of Dewey “is a controversial one.” Rorty himself has on occasion admitted that his self-identification with Dewey should not be taken too literally. “Sometimes,” Rorty says, “when we think we are rediscovering the mighty dead, we are just inventing imaginary playmates.” Exactly, says Mr. Westbrook. He then goes on to detail some of the dramatic differences between Rorty and Dewey:
Rorty urges philosophers to abandon claims to knowledge and rest content with ‘edifying,’ ‘therapeutic’ criticism; Dewey, while also warning sternly of the ‘conceit of knowledge,’ worried as well that philosophy that was merely edifying would degenerate into little more than an expression of ‘cloudy desire.’ Rorty sees philosophy as playful; Dewey insisted it was, as an intellectualized wish, hard work. Rorty argues that there is no need for social theorists to consider such topics as ‘the nature of selfhood, the motive of moral behavior, and the meaning of human life.’ Dewey thought that as a social theorist he had to say something about such things. ‘On the Deweyan view,’ Rorty says, ‘no such discipline as ‘philosophical anthropology’ is required as a preface to politics’; Dewey’s view was quite otherwise. Rorty seeks to deconstruct philosophy; Dewey sought to reconstruct it. As Richard Bernstein has said, what Rorty slights or dismisses as ‘trivial’ or ‘mistaken’ in Dewey’s thought is his primary concern with ‘the role that philosophy might play after one had been liberated from the obsessions and tyrannies of the ‘problems of philosophy.’ Perhaps the best way to sum up briefly the differences separating Dewey and Rorty as philosophers is to say that, while both ruthlessly undercut the quest for certainty, Dewey believed effective cultural criticism still might profit from the general ‘ground-maps’ that philosophers could provide. Finding such maps useless and unnecessary, Rorty argues for cultural criticism that flies entirely by the seat of its pants.
Although Westbrook doesn’t put it quite this way, he suggests that Rorty, very unlike Dewey, is something of a poseur, a morally as well as intellectually frivolous figure. “Pressed by critics to make clearer his moral and political commitments,” writes Westbrook:
Rorty has said enough of late to suggest that his social hope as well as his view of the responsibilities of philosophy differ significantly from Dewey’s. Refusing to accept the ethical postulate conjoining self-realization and the social good which was at the heart of Dewey’s ethics throughout his career, Rorty has argued for a ‘liberal utopia’ in which there prevails a rigid division between a rich, autonomous private sphere that will enable elite ‘ironists’ like himself to create freely the self they wish—even if that bares a cruel, antidemocratic self—and a lean, egalitiarian, “democratic” public life confined to the task of preventing cruelty (including that of elite ironists). For Dewey, of course, democracy was a “way of life” not merely a way of public life—an ideal that “must affect all modes of human association”—and he would not have accepted Rorty’s contention that ‘there is no way to bring self-creation together with justice at the level of theory’ for that would have required him to give up a principal article of democratic faith. Rorty contends that the belief that ‘the springs of private fulfillment and of human solidarity are the same’ is a bothersome Platonic or Christian hangover. If so, Dewey suffered from it.
John Dewey deserves to be rediscovered, and John Dewey and American Democracy should help that to happen. Dewey had the right project, no matter how flawed his prosecution of it. Like other public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, John Courtney Murray, and Reinhold Niebuhr, he understood that the self-evident truths on which this experiment is premised are not self-evident to most people; they have to be rediscovered and rearticulated in every generation. Dewey’s great mistake was to think that he could break those truths away from their necessary and continuing dependence upon biblical religion. He lived in a time when the best and the brightest were miseducated to believe that traditional religion was simply beyond the pale of plausibility for the truly enlightened. The cultural hegemony of that rationalist dogma is no longer very secure. Indeed it is collapsing all around us. Perhaps some young scholar reading John Dewey and American Democracy will aspire to become a new John Dewey, only this time advancing a public philosophy that is in critical conversation with a common faith that is enduringly common.