Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey: Modernities and the Traveling of Pragmatism in Education

reviewed by Naoko Saito - October 12, 2006

coverTitle: Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey: Modernities and the Traveling of Pragmatism in Education
Author(s): Thomas S. Popkewitz (Ed.)
Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1403968624, Pages: 302, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

No doubt, the scope of this book is unparalleled in the scholarship of John Dewey and pragmatism. It is an adventurous project of “historicizing” (p. 8) the idea of Dewey as the “uniquely” American philosopher in the modern era (p. viii), while at the same time decontextualizing it, as it were, from its original context (i.e., North America) and transferring and re-contextualizing it in the scenes of education in the international field–in as many countries as Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, China, and Japan. Centering on the themes of Dewey as an “indigenous foreigner” and on “traveling libraries” (p. 8), this is an experimental endeavor as it tests the forces of a philosophy, and in particular, foreign contexts. As these metaphors demonstrate, the originality of this book lies in its recapturing of Dewey’s philosophy in the process of its travel rather than in the supposedly fixed, unified concepts trapped in the original text. Popkewitz announces in the beginning the stance of the whole book: there is no single identity to Dewey as an author, as the “originator” of thought whose texts exist “independent of their textual use and the cultural practices that produce them” (p. 8). There are different “deweys,” and hence, “plural selves and multiple modernities” (p. 6). This position is basically sustained in the succeeding chapters. To borrow Burto’s phrase in the chapter on Mexico: “There is no room for an essentialist reading of this traveling library” (p. 198). Following this line of thought, each chapter illustrates the multiple identities of “dewey,” and hence, supports Popkewitz’s initiating remark that there should be no “correct reading” of Dewey. Situated in particular cultural, historical, social, religious, and political contexts of each country, Dewey gradually exhibits his multiple identities.

There are, however, among the discussants, common themes in their reading of Dewey’s pragmatism: the formation of the “modern self”; “the individual as an agent of change”; “regulation of time in the planning of agency” (in connection with Dewey’s concept of action); and “the inscription of science as a method of living” (as associated with “rational inquiry” and “experimental method,” a characteristic of pragmatism) (pp. 16, 24). These are frameworks through which Dewey is projected as a representative of modern America, who was and has been received by each culture in its peculiar process of modernization. With these frameworks presented in the beginning, the reader has some anticipation of how this original representation will undergo a process of traveling and how this will disclose the possibilities and limitations of Dewey’s pragmatism and its application in education. Succeeding chapters respond to this anticipation in diverse and rich ways, but with a common direction to the answers they offer: that the reception of a foreign philosophy within an indigenous culture is at the mercy of the contingency of particular historical, political, and cultural contexts. As Qi puts it in her discussion on Dewey in China, “[The hero] is socially constructed and historically contingent” (p. 275). Multiple manifestations of modernity in different contexts and periods of time demonstrate the fact that modernity is neither universal nor a fixed concept. At the end of the book, the reader is left with a sense that the idea of original identity dissipates in the dynamic process of travel and in an intriguing interaction of the foreign and the indigenous. The book succeeds in fulfilling the promise that it makes in the beginning.

Based upon the positive appreciation of the book, I would like to narrow down its content to a more specific question that arises in the process of reading the book: the idea of translation as an aspect of travel and as manifested in the relationship between the foreign and the indigenous. As I read each chapter, the following questions recurred: What does it mean to translate a philosophical thinking into different contexts and language? How can we measure the success of translation? Each chapter offers responses that are subtly different, and each also makes the reader realize that translation is not simply a matter of switching one word for another in simple correspondence. Interestingly enough, each of the authors uses different terms to capture the diverse implications of the “translation” of Dewey’s philosophy in each specific cultural context. Olsson and Petersson, for example, illustrate the way that translation is turned towards the “instrumental” use of Dewey’s thought in the Swedish political context: “Dewey was here already before he arrived” (pp. 41-42). In the case of Switzerland, Trohler claims that translation is a matter of “reduction” into an “apolitical” and “psychological” reading of Dewey” (p. 78). He also characterizes the associated concept of “transfer” as “unpredictable, because it depends on the interests and activity of the receptors” (p. 77). In Belgium, as shown in the chapter by Coster, Depaepe, Simon and Van Gorp, the process of translation made it possible for Dewey’s ideas not only to be “used” but to be “misused” (p. 103). In the case of Colombia, Saenz-Obregon suggests that the translation of Dewey’s work has had the effect of “neutraliz[ing] some of its radical potentialities” (p. 248). In Yugoslavia, according to Sobe, Dewey as a “harbinger” of modernity was “enchanged and disenchanted to fit local conditions” (pp. 148-49). Most interestingly, Bilgi and Ozsoy point to the “selective translation” of Dewey’s work in Turkey and suggest that such translation is the process of “extraction,” “distortion” (pp. 163-164), and worse, “transmogrifications” (p. 172). Or in the case of Mexico, Burgos says that “Dewey gets Mexicanized” through being “fused with a salvation narrative” (pp. 196-197). With these diverse dimensions and subtle layers of translation, Dewey himself has been transformed into another invisible translator—one who plays the role of a catalyst in elucidating the possibility of language that had been awaited by the indigenous: in varying degrees he is cast as the long-awaited liberator.

With these multiple dimensions of translation, there seems to be little hope of finding common ground between the original thought and language with the results of these various translations, and for that matter, any hope in any search for a universal meaning. Perhaps as Bilgi and Ozsoy nicely put it: “[W]hat makes these ideas universal is the translation process itself” (p. 155). Another danger is also suggested as the price of an anti-essentialist reading of a philosophical text and of multiplying Dewey into “deweys”: This is an unintended form of assimilation entailed by the process of translation—that is, the assimilation of the “original” authorship at the hands of the reader in the recipient culture and language. This can seem to be the inevitable fate of translation.

With respect to these dangers, there are three related questions and criticisms that can be addressed to the book. First, in the characterization of Dewey initially set up by Popkewitz and in the general thrust of the book, another aspect of Dewey’s philosophy is overshadowed, or worse, omitted: that is, Dewey as the uniquely American figure who is not only a representative of American modernity and democracy, but also a critic of that modernity and democracy, as if he were an outsider within his indigenous culture. It is especially the later Dewey who realizes the sense of the tragic in the fate of American democracy. He thus emphasizes the need to cultivate aesthetic perception for the “construction and criticism” of democracy, and the significance of a receptive mode of experience. This is not to destroy the basic line of his pragmatism as represented by Popkewitz—the concept of active agency, the planned action, and the mode of problem-solving thinking. Still, it should be acknowledged that there is a shift of emphasis in the later Dewey. In most of the chapters of the book, this hidden dimension of Dewey’s pragmatism is invisible; Dewey is projected as a representative of power and progress, and as a figure of enlightenment. It is as if Dewey were assimilated into the modern vocabulary of agency, action, and science. This is probably the price of diffusing the authorial role in particular multiple contexts. If there is any one significant drawback in the book, it is this decontextualization of Dewey from American democracy, and hence, the accommodation of Dewey in a cosmopolitan ship traveling around the world.

The second question inspired by the book—not so much a criticism of the book itself—is concerned with the extent to which the recipient culture itself was and has been radically destabilized at its core in the process of translation. If the assimilation of a foreign thought into an indigenous culture is a fate of translation, it may often be the case that the core of the original culture (as the recipient of foreign thought) cannot readily be penetrated, and that it may seem impervious to deconstruction. From the discussion of each chapter—with perhaps the exception of the chapter on China where Dewey played an ostensibly crucial role in destabilizing and reawakening Chinese identity in a revolutionary period—it is not clear how much Dewey’s philosophy was accepted by each of these cultures as a whole (that is, not just by select individuals who were influenced by Dewey or the representative translators of his philosophy). In this respect, Ohkura, in his discussion of the Japanese reception of Dewey—from the perspective of the “ambivalence of the modern Japan”—illuminates the difficulty (and even the impossibility) of translating a foreign philosophy in such a way that it touches the deeper level of the complex identities of the modern Asian self. The question is then raised: To what extent could Dewey as a foreigner have served not merely as the object of an already preconditioned reception but also as a critical partner for indigenous people—not only for selected scholars, translators, or people in political power, but also for the general public in the daily practices of their ordinary lives? As Dewey himself suggests, such critical partnership is a condition for democracy as a way of personal living (Dewey, 1988)—as a mirror to reflect an individual’s limitations in terms of a horizon of possibility, of the yet-to-come.

Third, though the contribution of its “historicizing project” is not to be doubted, the book seems to underestimate the significance of a philosophical reading of the original text. By “philosophical,” I do not simply mean the “faithful” and “correct” reading of the fixed text, which Popkewitz is rightly cautious about (p. 8). Rather I am suggesting another possibility—of being philosophically engaged in the text in such a way as to use it as an occasion to reflect upon one’s own language and culture. As some of the chapters suggest, Dewey’s texts have been selectively translated. This means that certain aspects of his thought have not been closely attended to. This is a danger typically to be found in the reception of foreign thought: that is, simplifying the complexity of the original text and exhibiting a superficial use of its language. This brings us to the questions of the mode of reading, interpreting, and translating the original text. We can learn to be attentive and receptive to the voice of the original text without assimilating it into our own framework of thinking. Reading and translating can then occasion the possibility of destabilizing the existing framework of one’s thinking and of opening the space of otherness within the indigenous. This is another use of a foreign philosophy to enrich the indigenous culture. It requires, however, a dialogical mode of engagement in the original text instead of the mode of assimilation or appropriation. The historicizing project of the book has the tendency to submerge the voice of the original author in the contingency of particular contexts, insinuating a relativistic abrogation of finding any common ground in cross-cultural dialogue. This is another form of assimilation—a kind of violence to the voice of the author. If any credence is to be given to a “universal” reading of a philosophical text, it is to be found in the hope that it can offer, in its gesture towards the finding of some common ground in the understanding of human nature; but not common in the sense of any complete sharing or matching, or for that matter in any cosmopolitan way. The point is a possibility of the common that is understood to be formed and reformed only gradually, continually, and repeatedly, and only through the kind of patient dialogue and mutual learning that can extend across different cultures and nations. I believe this is what Dewey means by “mutual national understanding” in his writing after his visit to Japan and China in 1921 (Dewey, 1983; Saito, 2003).

The major contribution of Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey is to shift the attention from Dewey as a kind of original transmitter of the modern self to the multiple eyes and voices of his recipients in different cultural and national contexts—those who are in search of their own particular modern selves in their pressing educational projects. With the above questions and criticisms taken into consideration, a new horizon awaits us, especially in this age of post-modern globalization: this is the possibility of a kind of translation that avoids the dichotomy of the universal transmission of the original thought, on the one hand, and its contingent assimilation and distortion, on the other. The meaning of reading a foreign text then is not restricted to the choice between essentialist reading and contextualized reading. As a third way, translation can be a dialogical process of mutual critical reflection on one’s own language and culture, and hopefully, that of the transformation of one’s own identity from within. This is not to assimilate the (original) author into the recipient’s framework, but rather to be open to the voice of the author. It requires the art of translation—an art that requires a kind of self-transcendence. Success in translation can then be measured by the extent to which a culture and its people become critically aware of their own limitations. A foreigner in the indigenous culture can play the role of the prophet who, while standing on the edge of the culture, releases its dormant, receptive consciousness; who sheds new light into the cave, and by so doing, enables its inmates to rediscover their own voices. This is the task of philosophy as translation, one that involves the assiduous process of education. Dewey would not oppose such a vision of translation as a crucial condition of mutual national understanding.


Dewey, J. (1983). Some factors in mutual national understanding. In J. Boydston, (Ed.), The middle works of John Dewey, (Vol. 13). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, J. (1988). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. Boydston (Ed.), The later works of John Dewey, (Vol. 14). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Saito, N. (2003, December). Education for global understanding: Learning from Dewey’s visit to Japan. Teachers College Record, 105(9), 1758-1773.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12780, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 12:03:17 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Naoko Saito
    Kyoto University, Japan
    E-mail Author
    NAOKO SAITO is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Kyoto University, Japan. Her area of research is the philosophy of education, specializing in the American philosophies of Emerson, Thoreau, Dewey, and Cavell. She is the author of The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), and the translator of Stanley Cavell's The Senses of Walden (Tokyo: Hosei University Press, 2005).
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue