A review of The Education of John Dewey: A Biography, by Jay Martin, and John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics, by Steven Fesmire.
Two recent books about John Dewey and his thought show the resilience, prominence, and breadth of Dewey's ideas. At the same time, both authors incorporate certain Deweyan weaknesses into their work, both in style and substance, which compromise their contributions in ways that Dewey's work itself is flawed.
Jay Martin's notable work is the first biography of Dewey since new materials were made available through the Center for Dewey Studies at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale. Jo Ann Boydston, general editor of The Writings of John Dewey calls it "terrific" and hails it the "definitive biography" of Dewey. The book is a smoothly written and well-organized overview of Dewey's personal and professional life, although Martin gives less attention to Dewey's writing and ideas than does the other leading Dewey biographer, George Dyknuizen, in The Life and Mind of John Dewey(1973).
Martin helpfully places many of Dewey's important works in the context of the activities in which they occurred. He takes those occasions to provide concise but superficial summaries of each text. For example, he reveals that Dewey compiled Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) from lectures delivered at Waseda University in Japan during his extended visit there, as well as from talks later given in China. But the reader learns more about John Dewey's sightseeing and Alice Dewey's activity with the women of those countries than the significance of, and controversies surrounding, Reconstruction.
As we would expect from a new biography, The Education of John Dewey offers many insights into Dewey's personal life that, while not especially revelatory, are always of interest and never tedious. Of particular interest to many will be Dewey's mother Lucinda's overbearing Congregationalism, the effect of which, we might suppose, was to later backfire with Dewey's hostility to conventional religious practice. The story of Dewey's courtship of his future wife, Alice Chipman, is an especially humane portrait. This humanity, though, seems particularly flawed when, as a septuagenarian, Dewey fell in love with Roberta Lowitz, a travel reporter in her thirties. Given her apparent emotional instability, Lowitz appears to have been an unfortunate romantic choice. Roberta's personality disorder produced a deep divide between Dewey and his natural children (he adopted Roberta's two children), thus bringing a bitter conclusion to Dewey's otherwise laudable patrimony. Martin's book expands our appreciation of Dewey's daughter and collaborator Evelyn, who was a progressive education reformer in her own right. According to Martin, she wrote more of Schools of Tomorrow (1915) than she is credited for. Not only did she make most of the school site visits that form the core of the book, but she also wrote the sections of the text involving those observations.
In his many writings and political activities, Dewey's was fiercely opposed to capitalism and hostileat least in theoryto the unregulated institution of private property. Dewey condemned a government that maintained and fostered "the private property of predatory and stupidly selfish interests." He was not simply a modern liberal but a thoroughgoing socialist favoring government ownership of industry wherever it was feasible and extensive regulation where it was not.
Though everything Dewey wrote revolved around education, Martin notes that Dewey sought a comprehensive philosophy under which all his intellectual interests might be subsumed. Late in his career he tackled art in Art as Experience (1934), arguing that the merit of art is in the experience of the beholder, not in its intrinsic genius or beauty. Dewey also sought in Logic, the Theory of Inquiry (1938), to redefine logic as merely a quest guided by observation and hypothesis, thus demonstrating how wedded he was to the scientific method in every intellectual undertaking conceivable. Martin offers a tragicomic account of Dewey's endeavor, while in his nineties, to write a comprehensive text on philosophy. The anticipated title was Naturalism and Dewey expected it could be the summation of his life's work. But he lost the only copy of the manuscript in New York on a return to his Fifth Avenue apartment after a trip away: "My heavens, my brief case isn't here."
Though Martin may not intend such an interpretation, the careful reader will perceive Dewey's naiveté and susceptibility to various promises of secular salvation as he encountered them. Especially interesting is the influence that reformer Jane Addams had on Dewey when they first met at Hull House in Chicago. By this time, Dewey was established in his career at the University of Chicago and rapidly gaining academic prestige. Martin explains that "Hull House became his new church, 'justice'...his watchword, Jane Addams his pastor, and instrumentalism his creed." It was Addams, perhaps more than any other, who helped Dewey forsake his tentative neo-Hegelianism. She then shepherded him to his final resting place of naturalism in which progress and democracy became the new objects of his faith. Revealing also is Dewey's relationship with Franklin Ford, a newspaperman and intellectual "snake-oil salesman," with whom he collaborated in the publication of the derided and mercifully short-lived Thought News. Dewey, to his credit, disentangled himself from Ford before the escapade inflicted any real damage to his reputation. Martin records that late in life Dewey himself admitted, "I seem to be unstable, chameleon-like, yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible influences; struggling to assimilate something from each and yet striving to carry it forward."
The primary failing of Martin's book consists in its superficial character and its occasional hagiographical tone so that the biography suffers from a general lack of serious criticism. Martin's work is marred by such off-putting generalizations as, "He had not simply become a man known to the whole world; he had become a philosopher of the world whose thought reached beyond national boundaries and specific concerns into the farthest reaches of the world, in his time and ours." Dewey is not remembered today for his professional prominence nor his massive birthday celebrations. He is known for his controversial and divisive educational philosophy. But to read Martin is to learn little of this except an occasional dispute surrounding Dewey's writing. For these flare-ups, Dewey is typically awarded a badge of honor for intellectual courage and principled politics. In these disputes, moreover, Dewey gets the benefit of every doubt. He "demolishes" Walter Lippman's criticisms of Dewey's "outlawry of war" proposals. In his debates with University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins over traditional versus progressive education, Martin assumes that at a certain point, Hutchins had "had enough," so that traditionalist Alexander Meiklejohn had to jump into the ring to make some argumentative headway. He apparently could not.
Martin also offers the clichéd defense that Deweyan school abuses were the work of his over-zealous followers who simply misunderstood his philosophy. Nowhere does Martin hold Dewey accountable for at least some of his radical, and often confusing, notions. Instead, Martin summarizes Dewey's writing in glowing but glib terms: "To read his books in order, one after the other, is to get a picture of a mind moving toward deeper insight and sharper refinement." Few of even Dewey's most ardent supporters go this far. Neither does Martin distinguish between what Dewey wrote that is important, and what he wrote that was fashionable. Dewey was far less an intellectual pioneer than he is often portrayed. He was riding the crest of a wave of socialism, secularism, nihilism, and a passion for evolutionary theory that had begun to form half a century before he began to write. More than anything else, Dewey had a great sense of timing.
Martin also is guilty of certain "Deweyisms" worthy of the philosopher himself. Martin describes his biography as one in which he stands above controversy and simply presents Dewey qua Dewey through Dewey's "experience." Dewey tried the same thing. Though his tone was often strident, and his attacks on tradition virulent, he would occasionally assume a disingenuous pseudo-statesman's posture and exhort his readers to rise above "-isms" and other political unpleasantness. Martin lacks Dewey's craftiness, yet he still asks us to believe that an apolitical biography of Dewey is possible.
Martin on occasion employs the same ambiguous language that Dewey was wont to use. In describing Dewey's Experience in Nature (1925), Martin writes, "Continued growth comes only with continued striving, not with finding and concluding, only with never yielding." Here and elsewhere, Martin merely repeats Dewey's own questionable ideas with no further analysisor at least an acknowledgement that critical examination is called for if one is to make sense of Dewey.
In the summer of 1928, Dewey received an invitation by the Soviet education minister to lead a group of educators on a visit to the U.S.S.R. Martin reports,
In Moscow Dewey attended a conference organized by Professor A.G. Kalashnikov of the pedagogical department Moscow Technical University. Ten days later Kalashnikov sent Dewey a two-volume set of the Soviet Pedagogical Encyclopedia for 1927, with a note: "Your works, especially, 'School and Society' and 'The School and the Child' have very much influenced the development of the Russian pedagogy and in the first years of [the] revolution you were one of the most renowned writers." At present, he continued, Soviet "philosophico-socialist [sic]" theory differed a bit from Dewey's recommendations, but still, those "concrete shapes of pedagogical practice, which you have developed in your works, will be for a long time the aim of our tendencies."
Such an unwelcome endorsement does seem to worry Martin. On the contrary, he defends Dewey from the startling implications of this communication by insisting that Dewey always made a distinction between the Russian people, whom he admired, and "Marxist theory and Soviet politics," of which he always disapproved. This distinction was lost on most of Dewey's critics at the time. Some still fail to appreciate the disclaimer.
To be sure, Dewey's political philosophy, to borrow from a phrase from Ortega y Gasset's description of Spanish politics, is an "invertebrate." Dewey shows virtually no appreciation for the institutional and procedural backbone of democratic life. His thought and politics, moreover, are often tinted by his anti-Americanism. Except perhaps in her ideals, Dewey's America was a poor example for the other countries in which he showed political interestChina, Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. Rather, the U.S. system had become obsolete since it rests upon "ragged individualism" and revolutionary change was needed at home just as it was needed in Asia and the Mideast. But all Dewey can offer is an amorphous mass of wishful thinking barely strung together by poorly defined conceptions of "communication," the "public," and "community."
Although Dewey enjoys a reputation as a pragmatist and for his efforts to merge schooling and "real life" experience, in truth, he had difficulty seeing the difference between artificial experimentation and actual experience. Martin explains that Dewey conducted an on-site study in Philadelphia's "Little Poland" in summer of 1918, run by a small staff of administrative assistants and graduate students. Yet his project led him to draw erroneous conclusions about the wider struggles in Poland itself. Martin writes, "By generalizing the international Polish situation as based on the local faction in Philadelphia, Dewey had in fact badly misconceived the problem." The State Department wisely rejected his recommendations for U.S.-Polish relations.
Martin is also guilty of the same philosophical non sequiturs of which Dewey was often culpable. He concludes his work with this unconvincing appeal:
For the foreseeable future we Americans, along with most of the rest of the world, will be deeply engaged in a ceaseless "war against terror." We are now, and will long continue to be, plunged into uncertainty, indeterminacy, and ambiguity. John Dewey speaks profoundly to this condition, for he counsels us constantly to live without the comfort of preconceptions, but instead to investigate and examine our world as it daily presents its surprising alarms to us. Quest must be our condition, no more than warranted assertability our aim. Dewey's philosophy equips us to strive and not to yield in dangerous, dark times. His vision insists on ever-new revision, then new and better visions. He is the indispensable philosopher for our twenty-first century. Drawing on him, we may just barely be able, tentatively and tenuously, to bear the world of terror that is ineluctably our fate but may also become our triumph.
What is it, though, about Dewey's thought that is useful in the war on terror? His political naiveté? His unjustified optimism in human nature? His lack of appreciation (and perhaps understanding) for the all important structure and processes of democracy? Martin writes, "From 1919 to 1934 he visited Japan, China, Turkey, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and South Africa, advising government officials, national groups, and local educators on the reformation of their school systems in relation to the growth of democracy." Butto put it crudelywhat good did he do in those places? What harm? Martin notes Dewey's significant influence on education in China, but fails to explain what that means. Given China's twentieth century political trajectory, such praise is in need of clarification. Though Dewey was lionized upon his visit to Japan, his intellectual and political influence apparently did nothing to deter the rise of globe-shattering militarism in that country.
Despite its flaws, Martin's biography is important and useful. It is sure to assume prominence among the other major biographical works on Dewey. These include the aforementioned Dyzhuizen biography, and the intellectual biographies of Steven C. Rockefeller (John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism, 1991), Robert B. Westbrook (John Dewey: and American Democracy, 1991), and Alan Ryan (John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, 1995).
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Martin gives little attention to Dewey's place in the history of American pragmatism, but it is Dewey's pragmatism that is one of the twin motifs of Steven Fesmire's John Dewey & Moral Imagination. Fesmire's project involves building upon Dewey's idea of social interaction and pragmatic ethics to construct a mode of ethical reasoning driven by his other theme, the use of the moral imagination. As Fesmire correctly notes, Dewey's conception of the moral imagination has been largely ignored. (That is because Dewey rarely discussed the idea.) Fesmire hopes that this invigorated use of the moral imagination might replace what has been lost since the modern dismissal of objective truth. Fesmire is to be commended for recognizing the post-modern vacuum where moral substance once existed and seeking a more meaningful remedy to arrest the rapid descent into rank relativism. Fesmire hopes his project might prompt a "Copernican revolution" in ethics, thus recalling Dewey's appropriation, in the final chapter of The Quest for Certainty (1929), of the phrase associated with Kant.
Fesmire's is a bold attempt to craft a new ethical paradigm superior to "good consequences (utilitarianism), duties and obligations (Kantianism), rights (libertarianism and welfare ethics), or virtues (virtue ethics)." All of these systems, Fesmire maintains, are "set in a winner-take-all opposition to one another," although it is not clear why Fesmire's proposal would not be "in opposition" to the systems it seeks to replace. As we noted above, the proposal for a kind of "middle way" above the fray of competing ideas is characteristic of Dewey's rhetoric and is reflected in Fesmire's proposal just as it is in Martin's biography. Indeed, Dewey himself explained late in his career that his work was the attempt to find a "via media." In Experience and Education (1938), for example, Dewey condemned "isms" and "either-or" propositions; earlier in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) he attacked "dualisms" as indicative of immature thinking. Fesmire would do well to admit, however, that the effect of Dewey's philosophy was anything but conciliatory. More broadly, it is utopian to expect that any attempt to eliminate "-isms" can be undertaken without the opposition of some other "-ism."
Fesmire's effort, however noble, is especially weakened by tying his proposal to Dewey's vague notion of "habits," the precise meaning of which is impossible to ascertain from Dewey's writing. At one point, Fesmire tries to save Dewey from himself in this regard by venturing a more precise definition of this ambiguous notion in which habits are now social customs that shape individual character. We don't know, however, if Dewey would approve of, or even recognize, Fesmire's iteration. More importantly, the idea of habits was one of Dewey's tactics for attacking the time endorsed belief in personal character as the basis of morality. But in this, Fesmire appears thoroughly Deweyan as he joins contemporary (Dewey-inspired) "communitarians" in scorning the "mythical encapsulated individual," and at this point Fesmire seems to regress to Dewey's ambiguity about "habits." Fesmire also follows Dewey in deprecating the centrality of the faculty of the will in human moral choice.
Although Fesmire aspires to steer ethics away from crude relativism, his project is, unfortunately, fundamentally contradictory insofar as pragmatism is inherently relativistic. Fesmire is correct that the exercise of the moral imagination is needed to correct the thoughtlessness of modern life. There is a certain elegance in the third part of Fesmire's argument in which he crafts his conception of moral imagination as "moral artistry." Indeed, the better developed our moral imagination, the better equipped we are for the challenges of, for example, bioethics and new definitions of war. But a sharpened tool can cut both ways if it is not guided by prudence, informed by wisdom, and tied to principle.
The best one can hope for is that the reflection Fesmire recommends will lead to the re-discovery of the foundational truths to which moral imaginationif it is to be productive and not dangerousmust be anchored. Otherwise, the imaginable may become the unimaginable.