Richard Rorty on John Dewey´s unwanted metaphysical pragmatism

(paper from New School Univ, NYC 1993)

”For some years, when ever I thought I had found something general and useful to say, it sounded like an echo of something I had once read. When I tried to run it down, I was constantly led back to Dewey.¨
Richard Rorty, 1985

Richard Rorty’s indebtness and fascination of John Dewey are too vivid and complex to summarise in one short paper like this one. Rorty’s commentaries and theoretical expansions range from Dewey’s epistemology to his writings on politics, theology, art and much more. Since I have neither read all the Early, Middle and Later Works of Dewey, nor all the relevant books on the history of pragmatism, but read about all Rorty has written on Dewey, I can only give an overview of what Rorty says in this matter. The accuracy of his Dewey- interpretation is something I must leave for another occasion, although I will state some criticisms of Rorty from other Dewey scholars together with some minor personal remarks.

In the first part I will concentrate on Rorty’s use and critique of Dewey’s efforts to rewrite metaphysics in a new philosophical kind of mixed thought, ’naturalistic metaphysics’. This theme in Rorty’s writings occurs mostly in the 1970s, with the 1977 essay ”Dewey’s metaphysics” in focus. In the second part, I will bring up some of Rorty’s considerations on Dewey’s political, social and ethical writings. These aspects of Dewey corresponds with Rorty’s voluminous writings during the 1980s. Third part deals with the hope for social change that Rorty sees in Dewey.

I. Rorty’s critique of Dewey’s metaphysics

Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey are the three most important philosophers in our century, Rorty claims in Philosophy and the mirror of nature. All three had had an early dogmatic period when they tried to build systems, and a later when they abandoned their attempts and turned to edifying thought (or so Rorty claims). In Dewey’s case, he tried to construct a naturalised version of Hegel’s vision of history, without foundations on the glassy essence of mind or need for certainty.

This occurs most clearly in Dewey’s 1925 lecture series and book Experience and Nature. Dewey had distinguished earlier in the essay ’An empirical survey of empiricism’s’ three conceptions of experience; the classical antique concept empeireia, depreciated by Plato as habit, custom and thoughtless action, 2) Locke’s new empiricist version of experience as fresh, personal, coercive, sensational forms and 3) 19th and 20th century practices of science, experimentative, hypothetical, objective and verificationist. But this third view of experience was still ’more or less inchoate’, as Dewey himself said .

Rorty sees both merits and failures with Dewey’s holistic notions of experience, recollection etc, but in the end views the whole project of a naturalistic metaphysics as barren. He finds good things to say, though, on Dewey’s way to the metaphysics of experience. There are lines that can be developed Rorty maintains, in other directions than Dewey saw. Where Dewey went wrong, Rorty have even construed a successful imaginary Dewey, a ’hypothetical Dewey who was a pragmatist without being a radical empiricist and a naturalist without being a panpsychist’, to show that Dewey was not totally all off the track to a new kind of anti- foundational reconstructive thinking, although the price might have been too high. The question in the following debate seems to be whether Dewey actually reached that goal or not, as new kind a metaphysician or failed as a traditional one with hopeless premises.

Rorty states the main problem with Dewey’s metaphysics as the failure to merge evolutionary biology, Locke and naturalistic empiricism with socio-historical narratives like Hegel’s. Dewey, along with other early 20th century thinkers as Bergson, James, Whitehead etc, had tried to view mind and matter, idealism and materialism, culture and nature, as a matter of degree rather than two distinct areas of terrestrial life. Dewey’s ’holistic naturalism’ stressed the continuity of existence between organic and inorganic ’events’. No ontological breaks are to be seen in nature. The distinctions between the physico- chemical, psycho- physical and mental are rather ’levels of increasing complexity and intimacy of interaction among natural events’.

Rorty views this strategy as problematic. ’The problem with this way of obtaining continuity between us and the brutes is that it seems to shove the philosophically embarrassing discontinuity back down to the gap between, let’s say, viruses and amoebae’. The contrasting effect of ’experience’ with invariant nature is thereby lost. Where should the contrasting line of the experiencer and his/her experience be drawn ?

Dewey could have taken the linguistic turn à la Rorty, contrasting language-users with non-language-users. ’He could then have gone on to note that the development of linguistic behaviour – of social practices which used increasingly flexible vocal cords and thumbs to produce longer and more complex strings of noises and marks – is readily explicable in naturalistic Darwinian terms’. Language is a more suitable notion than experience, Rorty thinks, for pragmatic uses.

The attempt to find a definition of the word ’true’ that seemed to haunt both James and Dewey was better served, Rorty holds, by making truth to be a predicate of sentences, rather than something experienced. This is not because formulating philosophical problems in terms of sentences rather than in terms of psychological processes is clearer. But that the malleability of language is a less paradoxical notion than the malleability of nature or of ’objects’.

R.Westbrook however, finds a lot of linguistic emphasis, elaborated and made essential to man, just in Experience and nature, the very book Rorty thinks hopelessly idealistic and too heavy laden with metaphysical questions and answers. But in this study of experience, language is the ’peculiar form’ for human beings, and stands according to Dewey, as communication, as ’a wonder by the side of which transsubstantiation pales’.

Dewey actually said that communication is ’infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more accommodating, than events in their first estate’, thereby granting language more coherence than experience, I believe. The question is whether one should leave all ’events’, and ’the world well lost’, using words and meanings as the only guiding principles in a Davidsonian-Rortyan way. Problems of solipsistic idealism and linguistic relativism arise and Putnam’s realism gets a point, though . . .

In the essay ’Dewey’s metaphysics’ Rorty makes some claims as to why the project failed, and some meta-philosophical claims. ’It is easier to think of the book [Experience and Nature] as an explanation of why no one needs a metaphysics, rather than as itself a metaphysical system’. The kind of philosophy that Rorty praises Dewey for, are books like his Reconstruction of Philosophy and The Quest for Certainty, which were valuable ’historico- sociological studies of the cultural phenomenon called metaphysics’. By taking the best out of previous systems of thought and then after serious detailed intellectual work view their problems as not much of use, Rorty grants Dewey status as a ”first-rate” philosopher. Only similar meta- philosophical parts of Experience and Nature get praise from Rorty. The rest is too bland and idealistic.

Dewey himself agreed to a certain extent with Rorty’s comment that he was at his best bringing up internal problems in philosophy and rereading its best attempts in a new light. ’If there is any worth in Experience and Nature, it is not, I should say, this ”metaphysics” which is that of the common man, but lies in the use of the method to understand a group of special problems which have troubled philosophy’. Rorty brings also up Dewey’s later characterisation from 1948 of Experience and Nature where Dewey wrote that it should be understood and rebaptised as Experience and Culture rather than anything naturalistic in metaphysics. The interpretation of this later passage is not without doubt from other commentators, e.g. Sleeper.

The heavy anthropocentrism in Dewey’s metaphysics that his contemporaries (especially Santanya) saw and criticised does not bother Rorty, rather the opposite. Dewey gives almost too much to naturalism, where he should gone ’Hegelian all the way’ instead. Dewey’s positions towards the tasks of philosophy are important here for Rorty who claims that Dewey oscillated between two views on his profession; a ’therapeutic’, like helping Wittgensteinian flies out of bottles, and a scientific, empirical, important and constructive. Dewey had to be helped from getting too scientific.

In an introduction to a volume of Dewey’s Later Works, Rorty points out the strategy of Dewey the professional philosopher and theoretician of social science, and Dewey the activist and social reformer. The volume consists of Dewey’s popular writings on education, philosophy, and ’inquiry’, where a tension surfaces between ’pragmatism’s conception of inquiry (in any sphere, not just philosophy) as a response to particular historical circumstances, and the traditional conception of inquiry as the discovery of eternal ”objective” truths.’

Dewey himself was happy with both positions, one where he openly stated his preferences, another where he neutrally used ’scientific method’, ’reflective thinking’ or ’psychology’ to promote certain goals in social or cultural thought. Rorty sees the latter scientific strategy as ’an unfortunate aftereffect’, and due to Dewey’s upbringing where certain topics such as ’the nature of judgment’, ’of reasoning’, or ’ of science’ were suitable areas for professional ’philosophical research’.

The problem for Dewey was, according to Rorty, that his recommendations of certain lines of thinking must be wide enough to leave room for free play of the mind but narrow enough to point to certain social and cultural goals. He wanted to praise certain (radical liberal/social- democratic) ways of thought, but feared to fall into an empty formalism and continued therefore to search for a middle ground in between a well- defined procedure, a recipe, and an uninteresting recommendation to be open- minded, critical, experimental. Rorty finds here several incoherencies in these attempts, e.g. Dewey’s almost Feyerabend- inspired passages ’against method’, along with many ’pro- method’ passages . But the optimism in Dewey’s own time and his status as an academic philosopher did not seem to make the different positions he held too far from one another. Like Rorty, Dewey did not want to put one audience before one another, and certainly he did not think of his fellow philosophy professors as his ’real audience’, in contrast with today’s self- marginalization of philosophy by logical empiricists.

Dewey’s mix of experimentation in science and metaphysical thinking leads to banalities Rorty thinks and refers to an old debate between S. Hodgson and Dewey in the 1880’s, on the metaphysics and the psychology of experience. Hodgson thought already then that Dewey’s notion of experience was too blank and transcendental. Rorty joins this critique. Who needs a discipline on ’the basic types of involvement ?’ – he asks. Rorty sees too much idealism, transcendence, and Kantianism in Dewey’s efforts (inspired by T.H. Green) to uphold that intuitions without concepts are blind. Dewey wanted his notion of ’transactions with the environment’ to sound both Darwinian and Kantian (p. 84), Rorty holds in his critique and continues with criticising Dewey’s anti- dualism.

Dewey seems to confuse two ways to revolt against dualism. One way is the Hegelian holistic notion of the Absolute, the other one is to describe phenomena in a non- dualist way of continuous ’raw feels’ as Locke did. This is only possible if Locke and Hegel are kept separate .

To do equal justice to Hegel and naturalism is a contradiction in terms, Rorty (and Santayana) claims. No man can serve both Locke and Hegel and cross the line between physiology and sociology. ’Nothing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies in which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge’ (p. 78). Rorty refers to Dewey’s thinking of knowing and the known. To constitute the knowable by the cooperation of two unknowable as the events ’ unknown’ and ’unknowable’ is unintelligible Rorty argues.

Summary of Rorty’s critique:

1) The ’empirical method’ Dewey uses is unintelligible. 2) Dewey’s critique of the implicit social bias in other metaphysical systems contradicts his own ’observational’ and proposed neutral method. 3) His own ’naturalistic metaphysics’ is a rival instead of a complement to the sciences. 4) Only way out of problem 3) is to generalise from facts, but this leads to banalization. 5) If naturalistic metaphysics yields important knowledge, other cultural and intellectual areas besides philosophy benefits too.

But Rorty thinks all in all that what Dewey accomplished was not little. He opened up new avenues for cultural developments, by helping us put aside a spirit of seriousness which artists traditionally lack and philosophy are traditionally supposed to maintain. This (almost ironic) theme is echoed in the Jamesean style of Rorty’s later writings. But Dewey, who came down with the disease he was trying to cure by (re)constructing a metaphysics, was a common- sense philosopher after all. The merits of Dewey was not his reconstruction of new systems of thought or methods, but that he had a ’sharp nose for what was going on, and a genius for describing it’ in terms which broke conventional standards, Rorty exclaims with praise.

Now over to some Dewey scholars – Edel, Sleeper and Boisvert – who’ve discussed Rorty’s interpretations of Dewey’s metaphysics.

A. Edel claims that Rorty does not see that Dewey’s ’guiding principles of the conception of intelligence’ were more fully worked out . Edel’s critique relies on the importance of Darwin behind Dewey.

Edel claims that intelligence as shown in modern psychology and biology are active in experience in a way that builds a new kind of epistemology for Dewey, a non- Aristotelian, non- rationalist, non- empiricist, and pragmatic. But pragmatism is not a total overcoming of traditional epistemology or philosophy, Edel says, but overcoming of certain (Cartesian, dualist) problems. Not all conceiving of metaphysics is foundational, Edel argues with Rorty and we should not deny Dewey the right to try. Dewey’s own metaphysics as ’theory of interaction ’ deals ’concretely with how the study of human life should be carried on’. Interaction for Dewey is not mysterious, but based on his work in close cooperation with social and natural scientists. What was lacking for Dewey was a new vocabulary. He worked within sets of beliefs and presuppositions that was not well suited to his purposes .

Edel brings up an interesting discussion of the merits and disadvantages of knowledge v. self- formation/Bildung, where he tries to show that when Dewey always emphasised learning, new knowledge (intelligence in action) he also and foremost put forward habit- formation and growth of knowledge before any self- formative goals.

R. W. Sleeper applies Dewey’s critique of James’ sloppiness also to Rorty. The seriousness and sense for the tragic in human finite life are lacking in Rorty’s writings on Dewey. Dewey was giving up a vocabulary, not what the words of that vocabulary had stood for’ Sleeper argues and finds evidence in the a fore- mentioned later note Dewey wrote 1948. ’And while I think that the words [metaphysics, metaphysical] used were most unfortunate, I still believe that that which there were used to name is genuine and important’.

In interpreting Dewey’s metaphysics as an explanation of why nobody needs metaphysics at all, Rorty himself fails to see that what Dewey is explaining is why nobody needs a metaphysical system of the traditional (foundational) sense. He misses Dewey’s proposal of a new use for the term metaphysics and the anti- foundational meaning in such a innovative use. Dewey’s metaphysics is more a question of perspective (’generic traits’ as a precarious perspective) than a matter of categories or first principles.The logical writings are what could save Rorty for viewing Dewey as a naive optimist and too scientist, Sleeper argues.

R. Boisvert believes that Rorty does not understand Dewey’s thought of the constitution of knowing and the known. He describes Dewey’s attempt to focus on the not yet known in defence. ’The solution is not yet known, but it is certainly knowable’. Dewey can assert with perfect consistency that events or aspects of events are unknown, but that they are knowable, Boisvert argues. Dewey did not try to develop a philosophy that would allow a ’clear-cut manner for justifying knowledge claims’. Like Heidegger, Dewey realised that only by a radical reworking of the tradition could philosophy break away from the now sterile generative ideas of modernity .

Such a radical reworking involves addressing questions about the nature of experience- which has always been the province of metaphysics. And metaphysics is not something we can dismiss, Boisvert says, with Ortega y Gasset and Dewey. ’Dewey realised that some orientation is 1) always present and 2) important for those concerned with living well. Such a [metaphysical] orientation may either go unrecognised and uncritically assumed, or the attempt may be made to formulate it carefully so that it can be evaluated thoroughly. Experience and Nature is an attempt to accomplish the latter’. Rorty, however, does not appreciate the unavoidable presence of metaphysical assumptions, viewing it more as an illusory itch that does not need to be scratched.

If we are to overcome the overcoming of metaphysics, Dewey’s writings are a good place to begin, according to Boisvert. And Dewey himself even claims that the arch- philosopher Plato is a good beginning, not the systematic Plato that Rorty saw as ’the pioneer of a mistaken path’ (a boring ’original university professor’, as Dewey said), but the Socratic Plato, who had a passionate concern for important contemporary issues along with the recognition that this concern is linked inevitably with First Philosophy. Boisvert’s defence of Dewey stresses the importance of these links between the philosophic and the political thinking in Dewey, which I will bring up in the next part.

Now I will here note some remarks by Rorty on Edel’s and Sleeper’s papers. Rorty does not want to preserve any high-brow notion of Dewey, pragmatism, or even philosophy. ’Making use of Dewey as an instrument for our present purposes seems to me hindered rather than helped by preserving Dewey’s idea that there is something called ’philosophy’ which needs to revised and revitalised by new ideas in the rest of the culture’. He does not agree with Dewey and Sleeper that philosophy have a constructive task to fulfil. The Deweyan notion of ’an indeterminate situation’ is nothing stronger or more metaphysical than a situation in which we do not know which words to use, Rorty says, again turning the discussion linguistic.

Rorty defends himself in the pragmatist camp by telling how he tries to adapt pragmatism to a new changed environment, bringing John Dewey into the 21th century. He thinks a poetic intelligent practice, or whatever keeps conversation fertile, instead of a experimental scientific, is more align with our time. I do not think Rorty really cares if one calls this attitude pragmatic, or as coming from pragmatism or even Dewey at all .

II. Rorty’s liberalism and Dewey’s.

Dewey’s did an immense and constructive effort to work through problems in the present. His attack on the mirror- imagery was bound together with a hope for and vivid sense of a new society. The two sides hang together for both Rorty and Dewey; a fierce attack of old dogmas in traditional epistemology together with a plea for edifying thought/metaphysics of experience, and a concern for the contemporary social, political and moral problems. The difference between them is that while Dewey still believed he sometimes had to construct something in theoretical terms more aligned to his mundane efforts, Rorty just wishes that he should have abandoned metaphysical and traditional philosophical language altogether, especially in politics. How Rorty sees Dewey’s use of anti- metaphysics in practical matters as something worthwhile is stated in a (Hegelian) quotation from Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, in Rorty’s ’post-political manifesto´ Contingency, irony and solidarity:

’When it is acknowledged that under disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with the precarious values embedded in social traditions, that it has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies, it will be seen that the task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day’

What Rorty tries to save here is the articulation of Enlightment liberalism (in its better 20th century version in the West ) while dropping the foundations for Enlightment rationalism that have grown stale and ineffective (unless one is fighting German conservatives as Habermas did and still does for which Rorty only has praise). As for Habermas and Bernstein, Rorty thinks that they both refrain from loosening the intellectual and epistemological foundations for democracy, but not Dewey:

’That shift from epistemology to politics, from an explanation of the relation between reason and reality to an explanation of how political freedom has changed our sense of what human inquiry is good for, is a shift which Dewey was willing to make but from which Habermas hangs back. Habermas still wants to insist that ”the transcendent moment of universal validity bursts every provinciality a sounder”’ .

Dewey tried to ’blow up’ (Rorty’s term) the flexibility and optimism of the American life- style to a philosophical system, by replying to critical commentators that ’any philosophical system is going to be an attempt to express the ideals of some community’s way of life. Dewey was quite ready to admit that the virtue of his philosophy was, indeed, nothing more than the virtue of the way of life which it recommended’, Rorty argues.

What other merits does Rorty see in Dewey’s quest for democratic liberalism more specifically ? The practical and humble attitude where Dewey himself stood back from theoretical considerations is foremost. Like ’. . . in the period 1920- 1960 – the period in which American social democrats nodded briefly and respectfully in Dewey’s direction and the got down the details of reform and reeducation’. That Dewey’s politics boils down almost to the later ’end-of-ideology’ – thesis from the 1950’s is a conclusion that Rorty does not hesitated to draw, which led to strong critique from other more radical Dewey scholars like Bernstein.

Bernstein sees this as a ’gross distortion’ of Dewey’s radical democratic liberalism and ideal of political freedom and community . Bernstein echoes actually Adorno’s critique of pragmatism as being too narrow and limited because it hypostasizes situations as eternal, along with similar critiques from the left. Dewey’s politics grew out of a need to reconstruct democratic communal life and was certainly not a ’an aesticized pragmatism’, as the kind Rorty promotes according to Bernstein which is against Dewey’s primary inner social and political concerns.

This ’apologia for status quo’ is a misreading of pragmatism that not only Rorty makes, but it is the everyday notion of ’pragmatic’, and unfortunately also pragmatism. Blended together with liberal democracy, it does not excite anyone as pragmatic liberalism did for Dewey (and his time) and still does for Bernstein, who evokes Dewey’s radicalism. ’If radicalism be defined as perception of the need for radical change, then today any liberalism which is not also radicalism is irrelevant and doomed’, Dewey wrote as quoted by Bernstein.

If we step down from Rorty’s meta-philosophical discourse, there are lots of practical decisions to make but where Rorty’s interpretation leaves us with few clues, except for the values of ’instrumental rationality’, ’accommodation’, ’science when not controversial’, ’common sense’, etc. The different competing conceptions of the self, of society, politics etc., which ones that should become pragmatically relevant are not without importance. If social practices and not theoretical are decisive, which shall we choose or give room to? After one has gone beyond the Either/Or of the Cartesian Anxiety, one still must struggle with questions of policies and problems of men. If appeal is only to the current social norms of the present, pragmatism does not make a tempting alternative

However, in contrast to Bernstein, Kolenda on the other hand sees a conservative and anti-utopian strain as already inherent in Dewey, which Rorty unfortunately takes over. ’In the end justification for Dewey stops at seeing what other do, at appealing to the de-facto norms of the day. To the extent that Rorty is prepared to follow Dewey in this respect, he is unnecessarily accepting serious constraints on the scope of the conversations concerning social and moral matters’. But this interpretation is too general, unsophisticated and would not stand a substantial critique I believe. Dewey himself argued against the status quo thesis, of course. Rorty quotes him affirming art before the present social codes, saying that the inhabitants of a liberal utopia instead would ’agree with Dewey that ”imagination is the chief instrument of the good/ . . . /art is more moral than moralities. For the latter either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo. [and] The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable”’.

One other radical Dewey scholar besides Bernstein that most recently criticised Rorty and brings up the social criticism of Dewey is Robert B.Westbrook. The distinction between public practical/non-ideological life and private ironic/theoretical life is one that Westbrook finds at ultimate odds with Dewey’s conception of democracy as a ’way of life’, not merely public life. The communitarian side of Dewey, that Bernstein also emphasised, is lost when experience is not viewed as shared, which is central to the whole theory of experience. ’It is simply dead wrong to read Dewey’s liberalism, as Rorty has done, as celebrating a politics centered on ”our ability to leave people alone”’ , Westbrooks argues forcefully.

III. Rorty’s Deweyan hope

Not the metaphysician, not the liberal but the inspiring and hopeful social reformer John Dewey is what Rorty likes to praise most (along with Cornel West). In a stance between rigid left – and right-wing camps of current American political debates, Rorty views Dewey as someone who both was loyal to and critical of his society. ’What is most admirable in Dewey, what makes him a paradigm to be imitated, is not his criticism of a stitched-together monster called ”liberalism”, but his tone – that extra-ordinary combination of courtesy and passion, decency and romance, loyalty and skepticism’.

Rorty’s reflections of the public figure John Dewey, being ’The Great American Public Intellectual’ tells us something of this power. Dewey had the same position as Russell had in Britain, Sartre in France and, perhaps, Jürgen Habermas has in present Germany, Rorty writes. ’Not since Dewey has a philosophy professor in this country become a moral exemplar, a source of inspiration to generations of idealistic young people.’

The romantic but moral, Jamesean side of Rorty is less emphasised, but very important. He is a moralist like William James. He wants the intellectuals to stop worrying about ’what goodness is’, but start using their energies to fighting the ’thugs’ of former Soviet Russia, Paraguay, and South Africa, or the ’band of hypocrites’ that run American national politics. In this he sounds very much like Dewey, Bernstein writes with sympathy. ’When Rorty writes in this manner, when he calls upon journalists and intellectuals ”to function as citizens, to use the mechanisms of democratic gust, to help prevent the rich from ripping off the poor, the strong from trampling on the weak” and to help keep alive the social hope for reform, he is echoing the radical democratic impulses of Dewey’ .

IV Final remarks.

Richard Rorty does not believe that pragmatism can survive as a philosophical tradition without being transformed. Its visions of a new better society, of an enhancement of common people’s lives, of an experimental attitude in theory etc. may be best served by reconstructing pragmatic figures like Dewey without paying too much attention to preservers of tradition. Maybe that’s a position Dewey himself would have taken was he Richard Rorty trying to breathe life into an olde tyme pragmatist.


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