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9: A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy

I know of no better way to close this work than to discuss a philosopher whose work at its best so well illustrates the way in which American pragmatism (at its best) avoided both the illusions of metaphysics and the illusions of scepticism: John Dewey. One concern informed all of Dewey's vast output; even what seem to be his purely epistemological writings cannot be understood apart from it. That is Dewey's concern with the meaning and future of democracy. What I want to select for attention from Dewey's thought is a philosophical justification of democracy that I believe one can find in his work. I shall call it the epistemological justification of democracy and, although I shall state it in my own words, I shall deliberately select terms from Dewey's own philosophical vocabulary.

The claim, then, is this: Democracy is not just one form of social life among other workable forms of social life; it is the precondition for the full application of intelligence to the solution of social problems.

At the beginning of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams draws a very useful distinction between two senses in which one might attempt to justify ethical claims. The more Utopian sense is the following: one might try to find a justification for ethical claims which would actually convince the sceptic or amoralist and persuade him to change his ways. Williams rightly concludes that this is an unrealistic objective. He then continues: “If, by contrast, the justification is addressed to a community that is already an ethical one, then the politics of ethical discourse, including moral philosophy, are significantly different. The aim is not to control the enemies of the community or its shirkers, but, by giving reason to people already disposed to hear it, to help in creating a community continually held together by that same disposition.”1

The conception of moral philosophy that Williams suggests here seems to me to have been exactly Dewey's conception. Yet Williams’ book ignores not only the historical figure John Dewey, but the very possibility of the justification that Dewey gave. When Williams comes to discuss strategies of justification based on conceptions of human flourishing, “human flourishing” gets taken in an entirely individualistic sense. For example, Williams writes, “On Aristotle's account a virtuous life would indeed conduce to the well-being of the man who has had a bad upbringing, even if he cannot see it. The fact that he is incurable, and cannot properly understand the diagnosis, does not mean that he is not ill” (Ethics, p. 40). An objective justification, in the only sense that Williams considers possible, is one that could be given to each human being who is not “ill”. In short, the only hope for an objective foundation for ethics2 that Williams considers is what we might call a “medical” justification—an objective justification for ethics would show that in some non-question-begging sense of “ill”, the amoral and/or immoral man is ill. The only place that such a justification could come from, according to Williams, would be “some branch of psychology”, and Williams is sceptical about that possibility, although he says that “it would be silly to try to determine a priori and in a few pages whether there could be such a theory”.3 The aim mentioned earlier, “not to control the enemies of the community or its shirkers, but, by giving reason to people already disposed to hear it, to help in continually creating a community held together by that same disposition”, has been given a radically individualistic interpretation.

However, when Williams explains why it is unlikely that there will ever be a “branch of psychology” which will provide us with objective foundations for ethics, he makes a very interesting remark: “There is … the figure, rarer perhaps than Callicles supposed, but real, who is horrible enough and not miserable at all but, by any ethological standard of the bright eye and the gleaming coat, dangerously flourishing. For people who want to ground the ethical life in psychological health it is somewhat of a problem that there can be such people at all.”4 Note the reference to “any ethological standard of the bright eye and the gleaming coat”. In Williams’ view, an objective standard of human flourishing would regard us as if we were tigers (or perhaps squirrels). Bernard Williams, at least at this moment, is thinking of a standard of human flourishing that ignores everything that Aristotle himself would have regarded as typically human. Dewey, on the other hand, is thinking of us primarily in terms of our capacity intelligently to initiate action, to talk, and to experiment.

Dewey's justification is not only a social justification—that is, one which is addressed to us as opposed to being addressed to each “me”—it is also, as I said at the outset, an epistemological justification, and this too is a possibility that Williams ignores. The possibility that Williams considers is a “medical” justification; a proof that if you are not moral then you are in some way ill. If we tried to recast Dewey's justification in such terms, then we would have to say the society which is not democratic is in a certain way ill; but the medical metaphor is, I think, best dropped altogether.

The Noble Savage and the Golden Age

Although John Dewey's arguments are largely ignored in contemporary moral and political philosophy, his enterprise—of justifying democracy—is alive and well. John Rawls's monumental A Theory of Justice, for example, attempts to produce both a rationale for democratic institutions and a standpoint from which the failures of those institutions can be criticized; this could also serve as a description of Dewey's project. But outside of philosophy, and to some extent even inside philosophy there are those for whom the very enterprise of justifying democracy is wrong-headed. One sort of objection comes from anthropologists and other social scientists, although it is by no means limited to them. A case I have in mind is an essay by Stephen Marglin and Fredérique Marglin, a radical economist and a radical anthropologist.5 These writers reject the idea that we can criticize traditional societies even for such sexist practices as female circumcision. The Marglins defend their point of view in part by defending cultural relativism; but besides their extreme relativism, I think there is something else at work—something which one finds in the arguments of many social scientists who are not nearly as sophisticated as the Marglins. Not to be too nice about it, what I think we are seeing is the revival of the myth of the noble savage. Basically, traditional societies are viewed by these thinkers as so superior to our own societies that we have no right to disturb them in any way. To see what is wrong with this view, let us for the moment us on the case of sexual inequality in traditional societies.

It is important in discussing this to separate two questions: the question of paternalistic intervention and the question of moral judgment, moral argument, and persuasion. It is no part of Dewey's view, for example, that benevolent despots should step in wherever there are social ills and correct them:

The conception of community of good may be clarified by reference to attempts of those in fixed positions of superiority to confer good upon others. History shows that there have been benevolent despots who wish to bestow blessings on others. They have not succeeded, except when their actions have taken the indirect form of changing the conditions under which those live who are disadvantageously placed. The same principle holds of reformers and philanthropists when they try to do good to others in ways which leave passive those to be benefited. There is a moral tragedy inherent in efforts to further the common good which prevent the result from being either good or common—not good, because it is at the expense of the active growth of those to be helped, and not common because these have no share in bringing the result about. The social welfare can be advanced only by means which elicit the positive interest and active energy of those to be benefited or “improved”. The traditional notion of the great man, of the hero, works harm. It encourages the idea that some “leader” is to show the way; others are to follow in imitation. It takes time to arouse minds from apathy and lethargy, to get them to thinking for themselves, to share in making plans, to take part in their execution. But without active cooperation both in forming aims and in carrying them out there is no possibility of a common good.6

Those who object to informing the victims of sexual inequality—or of other forms of oppression wherever they are to be found—of the injustice of their situation and the existence of alternatives are the true paternalists. Their conception of the good is basically “satisfaction” in one of the classic Utilitarian senses; in effect they are saying that the women (or whoever the oppressed may be) are satisfied, and that the “agitator” who stirs them up is the one who is guilty of creating dissatisfaction.

What the radical social scientists I mentioned are in fact proposing is what Karl Popper has called an “immunizing strategy”, a strategy by which the rationales of oppression in other cultures can be protected from criticism. This is based on the ides that the aspirations to equality and dignity are confined to citizens of Western industrial democracies. The events of Tienanmen Square in the spring of 1989 are a more powerful refutation of the view than any words I could write here.

At the other extreme, at least politically, from the “noble savage” argument against attempting to justify democratic institutions is an argument that I seem to detect in the recent writings of Alasdair MacIntyre.7 In these books, MacIntyre gives a sweeping philosophical résumé of the history of Western thought which does indeed endorse the idea that one system of ethical beliefs can “rationally defeat” another system; which does indeed insist that there can be progress in the development of worldviews; but which is haunted by the suggestion that that progress fundamentally stopped somewhere between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, and that we have been retrogressing ever since.

If I am disturbed by the suggestion that I describe as haunting MacIntyre's writing, the suggestion that we have been retrogressing ever since the late Middle Ages (a suggestion that has been put forward in a much more blatant way in Allan Bloom's best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind), it is because the politics which such views can justify are nothing less than appalling.

What the defenders of the Noble Savage and the defenders of the Golden Age have in common is that their doctrines tend to immunize institutionalized oppression from criticism. The immunizing strategies are different, but they have this in common: they abandon the idea that it would be good for the victims of oppression to know of alternative ways of life, alternative conceptions of their situation, and to be free to try for themselves which conception is better. Both Noble Savagers and Golden Agers block the path of inquiry.

Dewey's Metaphysics (or Lack Thereof)

From what premises does Dewey derive the claim that I imputed to him, that is, the claim that democracy is a precondition for the full application of intelligence to the solution of social problems? As we shall shortly see, the underlying “premises” are some very commonplace assumptions.

Dewey believes (as we all do, when we are not playing the sceptic) that there are better and worse resolutions to human predicaments—to what he calls “problematical situations”. That this is so is not something Dewey argues on a priori grounds.8 But neither are Dewey's premises drawn from some branch of psychology. Here it is instructive to recall Peirce's (as well as Dewey's) arguments for the scientific method itself: in the two famous articles in Popular Science Monthly in which Peirce launched the pragmatist movement,9 he argued that we have learned from experience that the method of authority, the method of tenacity, and the method of What Is Agreeable to Reason don't work. In a similar vein, Dewey's Logic conceives of the theory of inquiry as a product of the very sort of inquiry that it describes: epistemology is hypothesis.10 In short, Dewey believes that even if we cannot reduce the scientific method to an algorithm, we have learned something about how to conduct inquiry in general, and that what applies to intelligently conducted inquiry in general applies to ethical inquiry in particular.

This would not be the view of the scientistic metaphysicians I have been criticizing. In their view, one cannot suppose that intelligent people are able to tell better resolutions to problematical situations from worse (after experimentation, reflection, and discussion); one first has to show “ontologically” that there is a “fact of the matter” about better and worse resolutions to problematical situations. This is, for example, what bothers Bernard Williams; for Bernard Williams the only way in which there could be facts about what forms of social life are better and worse would be if such facts issued from “some branch of psychology”. Lacking such a branch of psychology (and Williams thinks it very unlikely there will ever be one) we have no basis for believing that one form of social life can be better than another unless the judgment of better or worse is admitted to express only a “local” truth, a truth in a language game which presupposes the interests and practices of “some social world or other”. For Williams the distinction between facts which are “local” in this way and facts which are “absolute” is omnipresent; there can not be “absolute” facts of the kind Dewey thinks intelligent people are able to discover. Dewey, as I read him, would reply that the whole notion of an “absolute” fact is nonsensical.

However, it is a fact about analytic philosophy that, while at one time (during the period of logical positivism) it was an antimetaphysical movement, it has recently become the most prometaphysical movement on the world philosophical scene. From a metaphysical realist point of view, one can never begin with an epistemological premise that people are able to tell whether A or B; one must first show that, in “the absolute conception of the world”, there are such possible facts as A and B. A metaphysical-reductive account of what good is must precede any discussion of what is better than what. In my view, the great contribution of Dewey was to insist that we neither have nor require a “theory of everything”, and to stress that what we need instead is insight into how human beings resolve problematical situations:

[Philosophy's] primary concern is to clarify, liberate, and extend the goods which inhere in the naturally generated functions of experience. It has no call to create a world of “reality” de novo, nor to delve into secrets of Being hidden from common sense and science. It has no stock of information or body of knowledge peculiarly its own; if it does not always become ridiculous when it sets up as a rival of science, it is only because a particular philosopher happens to be also, as a human being, a prophetic man of science. Its business is to accept and to utilize for a purpose the best available knowledge of its own time and place. And this purpose is criticism of beliefs, institutions, customs, policies with respect to their bearing upon good. This does not mean their bearing upon the good, as something itself formulated and attained within philosophy. For as philosophy has no private store of knowledge or of methods for attaining truth, so it has no private access to good. As it accepts knowledge of facts and principles from those competent in science and inquiry, it accepts the goods that are diffused in human experience. It has no Mosaic or Pauline authority of revelation entrusted to it. But it has the authority of intelligence, of criticism of these common and natural goods.11

The need for such fundamental democratic institutions as freedom of thought and speech follows, for Dewey, from requirements of scientific procedure in general: the unimpeded flow of information and the freedom to offer and to criticize hypotheses. Durkheim offered similar arguments up to a point, but came to the conclusion that political opinions should rest on “expert opinion”, those without expertise being required to defer to the authority of the experts (and especially to sociologists).12 While Dewey may not have known of Durkheim's essay, he did consider and reject this view, and he did so for frankly empirical reasons: “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all.”13 Here Dewey links up with another of his themes, that privilege inevitably produces cognitive distortion: “All special privilege narrows the outlook of those who possess it, as well as limits the development of those not having it. A very considerable portion of what is regarded as the inherent selfishness of mankind is the product of an inequitable distribution of power—inequitable because it shuts out some from the conditions which direct and evoke their capacities, while it produces a one-sided growth in those who have privilege” (Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, pp. 385–386). Thus, if a value as general as the value of democracy is to be rationally defended in the way Dewey advocates, the materials to be used in the defense cannot be circumscribed in advance. There is no one field of experience from which all the considerations relevant to the evaluation of democracy come.

The dilemma facing the classical defenders of democracy arose because all of them presupposed that we already know our nature and our capabilities. In contrast, Dewey's view is that we don't know what our interests and needs are or what we are capable of until we actually engage in politics. A corollary of this view is that there can be no final answer to the question of how we should live, and therefore we should always leave it open to further discussion and experimentation. That is precisely why we need democracy.

At the same time, we do know that certain things stunt our nature and capacities. Dewey was well aware that equality and freedom can conflict, and that there is no easy solution when they do conflict; but he would, I think, feel that this conflict is too much emphasized in present-day political philosophy. In Dewey's view, there is simply no doubt that inequality, on the scale that exists today, stunts our nature and capacities, and thus leads to unfreedom on a massive scale. If we are to talk about “conflicts between equality and freedom”, we should also talk about the ways in which inequality leads to unfreedom.

Dewey and James

While Dewey's social philosophy is overwhelmingly right, as far as it goes, his moral philosophy is less satisfactory when we try to apply it to individual existential choices. To see why, consider the famous example of an existential choice that Sartre employed in his Existentialism and Humanism.14 It is World War II, and Pierre has to make an agonizing choice between joining the Resistance, which means leaving his aging mother alone on the farm, or staying and taking care of his mother, but not helping to fight the enemy. One of the reasons that Dewey's recommendation to use intelligently guided experimentation in solving ethical problems does not really help in such a case is Dewey's consequentialism. Pierre is not out to “maximize” the good, however conceived, in some global sense; he is out to do what is right. Like all consequentialist views, Dewey's has trouble doing justice to considerations of right. I am not saying that Dewey's philosophy never applies to individual existential choices. Some choices are just dumb. But Pierre is not dumb. Neither of the alternatives he is considering is in any way stupid. Yet he cannot just flip a coin.

There are, of course, problems of individual choice which can be handled just as one should handle social problems. If, for example, I am uncertain as to which school my child should attend, I may decide to experiment. I may send the child to a school with the idea that if it doesn't work out, I can take her out and put her in a different school. But that is not the sort of problem that Pierre faces.

What some philosophers say about such a situation is that the agent should look for a policy such that if everyone in a similar situation were to act on that policy the consequences would be for the best, and then do that. Sometimes that is reasonable; but in Pierre's situation it isn't. One of the things that is at stake in Pierre's situation is his need to decide who Pierre is. Individuality is at stake; and individuality in this sense is not just a “bourgeois value” or an Enlightenment idea. In the Jewish tradition one often quotes the saying of Rabbi Susiah, who said that in the hereafter the Lord would not ask him “Have you been Abraham?” or “Have you been Moses?” or “Have you been Hillel?” but “Have you been Susiah?” Pierre wants to be Pierre; or, as Kierkegaard would say, he wants to “become who he already is”. This is not the same thing as Wanting to follow the “optimal policy”; or perhaps it is—perhaps the optimal policy in such a case is, in fact, to become who you already are. But doing that is not something that the advice to use the “scientific method” can help you very much with, even if your conception of the scientific method is as generous as Dewey's.

There are various possible future continuations of Pierre's story, no matter what decision he makes. Years afterward, if he survives, Pierre may tell the story of his life (rightly or wrongly) depicting his decision (to join the Resistance or to stay with his mother) as clearly the right decision, with no regrets or doubts about it, whatever the costs may have turned out to be. Or he may tell his story depicting his decision as the wrong decision, or depicting it as a “moral dilemma” to which there was no correct answer.15 But part of the problem Pierre faces at the time he has to make the decision is that he doesn't even know that what he faces is a “moral dilemma” in that sense.

It was precisely this sort of situation that William James was addressing when he wrote the famous essay “The Will to Believe” (which James later said should have been titled “The Right to Believe”). Although this essay has received a great deal of hostile criticism, I believe that its logic is, in fact, precise and impeccable; but I will not try to defend that claim here. For James it is crucial for understanding situations like Pierre's that we recognize at least three of their features: that the choice Pierre faces is “forced”, that is, these are the only options realistically available to him; that it is “vital”—it matters deeply to him; and that it is not possible for Pierre to decide what to do on intellectual grounds. In such a situation—and only in such a situation—James believes that Pierre has the right to believe and to act “in advance of the evidence”. The storm of controversy around “The Will to Believe” was largely occasioned by the fact that James took the decision to believe or not to believe in God to be a decision of this kind. Because religious (and, even more, anti-religious) passions are involved, most of the critics do not even notice that the argument of “The Will to Believe” is applied by James and is meant to apply to existential decisions of the Pierre type (this is clear not only from the essay itself, but from many other essays in which James offers similar arguments). It is also not noticed that it is meant to apply to the individual's choice of a philosophy, including pragmatism itself.16

James believed, as Wittgenstein did, that religious belief is neither rational nor irrational but arational. It may, of course, not be a live option for you, because you are either a committed atheist or a committed believer. But if it is a live option for you, then you may be in a situation completely analogous to the one Sartre imagines (or so James believed). The need to believe “in advance of the evidence” is not confined to religious decisions and existential decisions, for James. It plays an essential role in science itself. Although this assertion is hardly controversial nowadays, it was, according to the testimony of someone present,17 what caused the most controversy when the lecture “The Will to Believe” was repeated for the graduate students at Harvard University. A very nice example of the will to believe in science was related to me recently by Gerald Holton: Max Planck was an early convert to Einstein's theory of (special) relativity, and played an absolutely crucial role in getting that theory the attention of elite physicists. Holton tells me that the physicists in Berlin met with Planck on one occasion and drove him to the wall with their demand that he provide an experimental reason for preferring Einstein's theory over Poincaré's. But Planck could not do this. Instead he said, “Es ist mir eigentlich mehr sympathisch” (It's simply more sympatico to me). Another example is Einstein's own passionate belief in his own general theory of relativity. In a letter to someone, Einstein answered the question of what he would have said if the eclipse experiment had turned out the wrong way by saying, “I would have felt sorry for the Lord God.”

James's point was not just a point about the history of science, although he was quite right about that. His claim—which paradoxically the logical positivists helped to make part of conventional philosophy of science with their sharp distinction between context of discovery and context of justification—was that science would not progress if we insisted that scientists never believe or defend theories except on sufficient evidence. When it comes to the institutional decision, the decision by academically organized science, to accept a theory or not, then it is important that we apply the scientific method. In the context of justification (although James did not use that jargon) James was all on the side of scrupulous attention to evidence. But James recognized, before logical positivism appeared, that there is another moment in scientific procedure, the discovery moment, and that in that context the same constraints cannot be applied.

The situation with respect to religion is, of course, quite different. Even though the physicist or the molecular biologist who invents a theory, or other advocates who find the theory sympathisch, may believe the theory ahead of the evidence, eventual acceptance by the scientific community depends on public confirmation. In the case of religious belief however—pace Alisdair MacIntyre—there is never public confirmation. Perhaps the only one who can “verify” that God exists is God himself.18 The Pierre case is still a third kind of case. In that case, as I already remarked, Pierre may come to feel afterward that he made the right choice (although he will hardly be able to “verify” that he did), but there is no guarantee that he will. James would say that what these cases have in common is that it is valuable, not just from the point of view of the individual, but from the point of view of the public, that there should be individuals who make such choices.

James thought that every single human being has to make decisions ahead of the evidence of the kind that Pierre had to make, even if they are not as dramatic (of course, this was Sartre's point as well). James argued again and again that our best energies cannot be set free unless we are willing to make the sort of existential commitment that this example illustrates. Someone who acts only when the “estimated utilities” are favorable does not live a meaningful human life. Even if I choose to do something of whose ethical and social value there is absolutely no doubt, say, to devote my life to comforting the dying, or helping the mentally ill, or curing the sick, or relieving poverty, I still have to decide not whether it is good that someone should do that thing, but whether it is good that I, Hilary Putnam, do that thing. The answer to that question cannot be a matter of well-established scientific fact, in however generous a sense of “scientific”.

This existentialist note is unmistakable in the quotation from Fitzjames Stephen with which James ends “The Will to Believe”:

What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them … in all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice. If we waver in our answer, that too is a choice; but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him. No one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise, and acts as he thinks, I do not see how anyone can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best, and if he is wrong so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road, we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know if there is any right one. What must we do? “Be strong and of good courage”. Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.19

James's existentialism is all the more remarkable because he had not read a single existentialist writer (except Nietzsche, whom he pitied,20 and whom he certainly did not read with any sensitivity). At the same time, James never fails to see the need for a check on existential commitment. My right to my own existential commitments stops, for James, where it infringes on the like right of my neighbor. Indeed, the principle of tolerance (“our ancient national doctrine of live and let live”) is described by James as having “a far deeper meaning than our people now seem to imagine it to possess”.21 In his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein argued that religious belief (insofar as it does not degenerate into superstition) is neither rational nor irrational, and, indeed, the religious people Wittgenstein knew were a pretty gentle lot. But as both Kant and Kierkegaard remind us, there are certain specific diseases of the religious impulse. Kant speaks of fanaticism, idolatry, sorcery, and superstition, and Kierkegaard repeatedly mentions both fanaticism and idolatry, adding that there is the constant danger that the religious person may be worshipping an “idol” even though he or she says all the right words. If reason (or “intelligence”) cannot decide what my ultimate commitment should be, it can certainly decide from long and bitter experience that fanaticism is a terrible and destructive thing. In James, a sympathetic understanding of the need for commitment is always tempered by a healthy awareness of the horrors of fanaticism.

If Dewey is not as sensitive to the limits of intelligence as a guide to life as James was, the problem is, perhaps, Dewey's dualistic conception of human goods. For Dewey there are fundamentally two, and only two, dominant dimensions to human life: the social dimension, which for Dewey meant the struggle for a better world, for a better society, and for the release of human potential; and the aesthetic dimension. To the criticism that he saw fundamentally saw all of life as social action, Dewey could and did always reply that, on the contrary, in the last analysis he saw all “consummatory experience” as aesthetic. The trouble with this answer is that a bifurcation of goods into social goods which are attained through the use of instrumental rationality and consummatory experiences which are ultimately aesthetic is too close to the positivist or empiricist division of life into the prediction and control of experiences and the enjoyment of experiences to be adequate. James, I think, succumbs less than Dewey to the temptation to offer a metaphysics of value.


I have in this book been trying to say something about how philosophical reflection can and must go on—about what philosophical reflection can and cannot be. I have argued that the decision of a large part of contemporary analytic philosophy to become a form of metaphysics is a mistake. Indeed, contemporary analytic metaphysics is in many ways a parody of the great metaphysics of the past. As Dewey pointed out, the metaphysics of previous epochs had a vital connection to the culture of those epochs, which is why it was able to change the lives of men and women, and not always for the worse. Contemporary analytic metaphysics has no connection with anything but the “intuitions” of a handful of philosophers. It lacks what Wittgenstein called “weight”.

At the same time, I have argued that philosophy must not become a pseudo-scepticism (or nihilism) which announces that it has been discovered that there is no world, no truth, no progress, and so on. My argument has not been directed against technicality—argument and rigorous analysis—nor against engagement with literature. I fully grant that the positivists, for example, did a great service to philosophy by showing how the methods of modern mathematical logic could be used to carry the investigation of a great many philosophical arguments and issues much further than it had been carried before; and the deconstructionists, for all their faults, have called attention to aspects of literature—in particular, to aspects of philosophical literature—which the tradition has neglected. But philosophy cannot be either para-science or para-politics. If I have taken Wittgenstein as an example of a kind of reflection that avoids both of these temptations, it is because of his relentless honesty and his very real compassion, his constant effort to understand sympathetically forms of life which he himself did not share. If I have taken John Dewey as a model, it is because his reflections on democracy never degenerate into propaganda for the status quo. It is true that the optimism about human potential that Dewey expresses is not something which has been proved to be right, nor does Dewey claim that it has been proved to be right. But, as Dewey emphatically points out, neither has pessimism about human potential been proved to be right. On the contrary, whenever we have given previously oppressed groups a chance to display their capacities, those capacities have surprised us.

I would like to close by saying a little more about this critical dimension of Dewey's thought. When Dewey speaks of using the scientific method to solve social problems he does not mean relying on experts. Dewey emphasizes that, as things are, experts cannot solve social problems. Experts belong to privileged classes and are affected by the rationalizations of which Dewey spoke. They are an elite, and as an elite they are accustomed to telling others what to do to solve their social problems. But the solution to social problems, Dewey argues, requires not that we tell other people what to do, but that we release their energies so that they will be able to act for themselves. (An example that comes to mind is the energies that were released when the workers in Poland formed Solidarity.) Dewey's social philosophy is not simply a restatement of classical liberalism; for, as Dewey says, the real fallacy of classical liberalism

lies in the notion that individuals have such a native or original endowment of rights, powers, and wants that all that is required on the side of institutions and laws is to eliminate the obstructions they offer to the “free” play of the natural equipment of individuals. The removal of obstructions did have a liberating effect upon such individuals as were antecedently possessed of the means, intellectual and economic, to take advantage of the changed social conditions, but left all others at the mercy of the new social conditions brought about by the free powers of those advantageously situated. The notion that men are equally free to act if only the same legal arrangements apply equally to all—irrespective of differences in education, and command of capital, and that control of the social environment which is furnished by the institution of property—is a pure absurdity, as facts have demonstrated. Since actual, that is effective, rights and demands are products of interactions and are not found in the original and isolated constitution of human nature, whether moral or psychological, mere elimination of obstructions is not enough. The latter merely liberates force and ability as it happens to be distributed by past accidents of history. This “free” action operates disastrously as far as the many are concerned. The only possible conclusion, both intellectually and practically, is that the attainment of freedom conceived as power to act in accord with choice turns upon positive and constructive changes in social arrangements.22

We too often forget that Dewey was a radical. But he was a radical democrat, not a radical scoffer at “bourgeois democracy”. For Dewey the democracy that we have is not something to be spurned, but also not something to be satisfied with. The democracy that we have is an emblem of what could be. What could be is a society which develops the capacities of all its men and women to think for themselves, to participate in the design and testing of social policies, and to judge results. On such a conception, it would be fundamentally misguided to think that majority rule, by itself, amounts to democracy. A majority which does not listen to opinions it finds uncomfortable is not engaging in the intelligent conduct of communal inquiry any more than is an elite which does not allow the majority to decide; and the intelligent conduct of communal inquiry is what democracy is all about, for John Dewey. By the same token, Dewey's civil libertarianism is not a simple giving of priority to something called “freedom” over something called “democracy”; civil liberty is necessary for democracy.23

I have said something about why I take Wittgenstein as a model, and something about why I take Dewey as a model. Their virtues are in a sense complementary, but I think they have this in common, that Dewey at his best and Wittgenstein at his best illustrate how philosophical reflection which is completely honest can unsettle our prejudices and our pet convictions and our blind spots without flashy claims to “deconstruct” truth itself or the world itself. If the moral of a deconstruction is that everything can be “deconstructed”, then the deconstruction has no moral. When Wittgenstein, as I read him, deconstructs pet philosophical categories, or when Dewey challenges us to ask how far we are really living our democratic faith, the effect can be to change both our lives and the way we see our lives; and that is the role of philosophical reflection at its best.

  • 1.

    Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 26–27.

  • 2.

    Although Williams also considers the Kantian strategy, he concludes that it is unworkable, and that if any objective justification could be given—which he doubts—it would have to be along Aristotelian lines. See chap. 3 in Williams, Ethics.

  • 3.

    Ibid., p. 45.

  • 4.

    Ibid., pp. 45–46.

  • 5.

    “Towards the Decolonization of the Mind,” in Fredérique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin, eds., Dominating Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

  • 6.

    John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, rev. ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1932), p. 385.

  • 7.

    These arguments are set forth in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1980) and its successor, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1988).

  • 8.

    In this respect Dewey differs radically from Habermas, who in many ways agrees with Dewey that democracy is a prerequisite for rational social decision making with respect to ends as well as with respect to means, but wishes to establish this by a “transcendental argument”. For a discussion of the similarities and differences between Dewey's views and those of Habermas and K.O. Apel, see the version of this chapter published in the Southern California Law Review 63 (1990): 1681–1688.

  • 9.

    “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” and “The Fixation of Belief,” reprinted in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 5, Pragmatism and Pragmaticism, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965).

  • 10.

    For an elaboration of this claim see Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam, “Dewey's Logic: Epistemology as Hypothesis,” in Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society 26:4 (1990):407–434.

  • 11.

    John Dewey, Experience and Nature (LaSalle, Ind.: Open Court, 1926), pp. 407–408.

  • 12.

    Emile Durkheim, “Individualism and the Intellectuals” (1898), reprinted with an introduction by Steven Lukes in Political Studies 17 (1969): 14–30.

  • 13.

    The Moral Writings of John Dewey, ed. James Gouinlock (New York: Hafner/Macmillan, 1976) p. 245 (originally from The Public and its Problems, 206–209).

  • 14.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialisme est un humanisme, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Methuen, 1968).

  • 15.

    A similar point is made by Ruth Anna Putnam in “Weaving Seamless Webs,” Philosophy 62 (1987):207–220. The example she uses is that of a pacifist who has to decide whether and to what extent he is willing to participate in the war effort, for example by serving in a non-combatant capacity. As she says, “sometimes only within the frame of a whole life, and sometimes only within the frame of the life of a whole community, can these decisions be evaluated” (p. 216).

  • 16.

    James makes this explicit in chap. 8 of The Meaning of Truth (1909). particularly in footnote 9, where he writes “whether the pragmatic theory of truth is true really, they [the pragmatists] cannot warrant—they can only believe it. To their hearers they can only propose it, as I propose it to my readers, as something to be verified ambulando, or by the way in which its consequences may confirm it”. Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 281.

  • 17.

    E. A. Singer, Jr., describes the reaction of the graduate students in Modern Thinkers and Present Problems (New York: Henry Holt, 1923), pp. 218–220.

  • 18.

    This is not to say that religious belief is unwarranted. What I myself believe is that it is “warranted”, though not by evidence. This stance is intimately connected with the sense of existential decision.

  • 19.

    James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe, first published in 1897 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 33. James is quoting from Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (London: Smith, Elder, 1874).

  • 20.

    See James, Varieties of Religious Experience, first published in 1902 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 296–297, on “poor Nietzsche”.

  • 21.

    James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology, first published in 1899 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 5. The entire concluding paragraph of the preface, from which this quotation is taken, is a paean to tolerance and an attack on “the pretension of our nation to inflict its own inner ideals and institutions vi et armis upon Orientals” (James was referring to the Philippines).

  • 22.

    Dewey, “Philosophies of Freedom,” in H. M. Kallen, ed., Freedom in the Modern World (New York: Coward-McCann, 1928), pp, 236–271; quoted passage on pp. 249–250.

  • 23.

    Thus Constitutional restictions on the unlimited exercise of majority power, such as the Bill of Rights, are not a limitation of “democracy” in Dewey's sense, but a protection of it.

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