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Essay Review: The Undiscovered Dewey and Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America

by Jim Garrison - June 24, 2009

Title: The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy Author: Melvin L. Rogers Publisher: Columbia University Press ISBN: 978023114486-5, Pages: 352, Year: 2008 Title: In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America Author: Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Publisher: The University of Chicago Press ISBN: 9780226298245, Pages: 208, Year: 2007 Melvin L. Rogers has written a magnificent book that rivals any of the more than three dozen I have read on Dewey over the years. By happy coincidence, I had just finished Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s (2007) impressive, In a Shade of Blue when I was asked to review Rogers’ book. I asked the journal if I could review both Glaude and Rogers together. For reasons that will become clear, the editors kindly agreed. Glaude, the William S. Tod professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, ingeniously intersects Dewey with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others to rethink the possibilities of... (preview truncated at 150 words.)

Title: The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy

Author: Melvin L. Rogers

Publisher: Columbia University Press

ISBN: 978023114486-5, Pages: 352, Year: 2008

Title: In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America

Author: Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 9780226298245, Pages: 208, Year: 2007

Melvin L. Rogers has written a magnificent book that rivals any of the more than three dozen I have read on Dewey over the years. By happy coincidence, I had just finished Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s (2007) impressive, In a Shade of Blue when I was asked to review Rogers’ book. I asked the journal if I could review both Glaude and Rogers together. For reasons that will become clear, the editors kindly agreed.

Glaude, the William S. Tod professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, ingeniously intersects Dewey with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others to rethink the possibilities of black identity in ways attentive to the role of religion in African-American experience. While he does not concentrate on Dewey as much as Rogers, he does make extensive and valuable use of him. To do so, he makes Dewey sing the blues. He reconstructs Deweyan pragmatism for his own creative purposes in ways Dewey, the philosopher of reconstruction, would have applauded. Glaude asserts: “I argue that pragmatism, when attentive to the darker dimensions of human living (what we often speak of as the blues), can address many of the conceptual problems that plague contemporary African American political life” (p. x). While Dewey could have been better on issues of race, he was sturdy for his day, and Glaude shows that he is readily reconstructable for ours.

Dewey is a Darwinian that does for all forms, all essences, and all identities what Darwin does for species. Identities, including personal, ethnic, racial, and cultural identities, are relatively stable, but in a contingent, pluralistic, and perilous universe, they are constantly evolving. Aware of this fact, intelligent creatures such as Homo sapiens can influence the course of evolution by shaping the environment that ultimately shapes them. For beings such as ourselves, the cultural environment in which we co-evolve with others is as vital as the physical environment. We are participants in, not spectators of, the affairs of nature and our creative acts matter in the course of events.

Glaude calls attention to Dewey’s immensely important essay, “The Influence of Darwinism On Philosophy.” There Dewey explains we must embrace contingency and change while rejecting most of western metaphysics including the notions of fixed essences (eidos), ultimate foundations and origins (arche), and perfect, fixed, and final ends or teloi (entelecheia).1 “Our activity in the world,” writes Glaude, “is one of constant adaptation and adjustment in light of the limit conditions of existence” (p. 23). More than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Human beings require intelligent action to survive and thrive. Glaude realizes that this is how we should understand Dewey’s theory of inquiry. He also realizes that Dewey rejects “the quest for certainty,” which Dewey depicts as “the quest for peace which is assured, an object which is unqualified by risk and the shadow of fear which action casts” (cited in Glaude, p. 23). Dewey rejects the claim to certainty advanced by dogmatic science with its reliance on abstract, decontextualized, supernal Reason as surely as he does the claims of dogmatic religions with their reliance on an abstract, decontextualized, supernatural God.

In a chapter titled, “Tragedy and Moral Experience: John Dewey and Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Glaude shows that Dewey does not have “a naïvely optimistic faith in science” (p. 18). Furthermore, he recognizes a fact that only a few of even the best Dewey scholars ever mention. Glaude remarks that for Dewey “our moral lives are characterized by conflicts of moral values” and that such “conflict is internal and intrinsic to every moral situation” (p. 21). Glaude calls attention to the following passage in Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct: “Conflict and uncertainty are ultimate traits” (cited in Glaude, p. 21). Elsewhere Dewey declares: “If values did not get in one another’s way, if, that is, the realization of one desire was not incompatible with that of another, there would be no need of reflection” (LW.7.210). We calculate when values are commensurable and we deliberate when values are incommensurable.2 The conflict of incommensurable values is the stuff of tragedy. Glaude shows that Dewey did not think that deliberation could always harmonize such conflict, only that intelligence is our best hope. For Dewey, techne (the arts of making, creating, calling into existence) is the only alternative to tuche (luck), or as he puts it: “Intelligence is the key to freedom in act . . . . Luck, bad if not good, will always be with us. But it has a way of favoring the intelligent and showing its back to the stupid” (MW.14.210). In a Darwinian universe, we can no more hope to ultimately escape tragedy any more than we can hope to evade death and extinction. Nonetheless, if we act intelligently, it greatly enhances our hopes of living long and well.

For Dewey, “the thing actually at stake in any serious deliberation is not a difference of quantity, but what kind of person one is to become, what sort of self is in the making, what kind of a world is making” (MW.14.150). The self here could be an individual identity, a people, or a community. One of Glaude’s epigraphs to his second chapter titled “‘Black and Proud’: Reconstructing Black Identity” is from Dewey’s 1932 Ethics:

Now every such choice sustains a double relation to the self. It reveals the existing self and it forms the future self . . . . Consequently, it is proper to say that in choosing this object rather than that, one is in reality choosing what kind of person or self one is going to be. (LW.7.286-287)

Deliberate, intelligent choice allows us to consciously create our selves rather than simply allowing events to buffet us about. Glaude avails himself of these possibilities while realizing that we remain vulnerable to contingency and, hence, luck. Many events will always remain beyond our control. We will often be unable to reconcile conflicting values and must learn to live with the tension. Personal and social tragedy remains unavoidable. Glaude is not a timid thinker.

In another Deweyan epigraph Glaude identifies a sentiment pervading Dewey’s writing about inquiry, science, and intelligence, although most ignore it:

For humility is not caddish self-depreciation. It is the sense of our slight inability even with our best intelligence and effort to command events; a sense of our dependence upon forces that go their way without our wish and plan. (cited in Glaude, p. 17)

The universe may slay us, yet we can nonetheless rely on it, for the forces of the universe also brought us into existence. This is what Dewey means by “natural piety” (see LW.9.18). Dewey is not overly optimistic about what inquiry, including scientific inquiry, may achieve, and even then, he realizes we will need the cooperation of forces beyond our control.

While reading Glaude I often thought how readily generalizable the book was to all issues dealing with the creation of individual and cultural identity as well as contemporary political life. Melvin L. Rogers achieves just such a generalization.

In his acknowledgements Rogers gives “special mention” to “Eddie S. Glaude” as the one who “first sparked my interest in Dewey and read several versions of this project.” He then concludes: “I hope this work complements his important book, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America” (p. xvi). Rogers’ book compliments Glaude’s so well they deserve being reviewed together as not only providing a new line of Deweyan scholarship, but a powerful new way of looking at politics in America and beyond.

Powerful thinkers think large and architectonically. Dewey was such a thinker and any profound and opulent appreciation of his work requires similar scope. Rogers, a professor of politics who teaches political theory, has these requisites. In addition, he is as clear and concise as he is well structured.

In chapter 1, titled “Protestant Self-Assertion and Spiritual Sickness,” Rogers makes his hermeneutic, interpretive entry in the same place as Glaude by examining Dewey’s thinking about existential contingency and logical uncertainty arising from his Darwinism. He situates Dewey among three major late 19th and early 20th Century responses to Darwinism that remain culturally prominent in the 21st Century.

One response is that of Charles Hodge who sought to refute Darwinism because he felt Christianity could not accommodate it. Today his disciples are often on the evening news. Next, Rogers identifies two components to Max Weber’s disenchantment with the modern world. For Weber, science, represented best by Darwin, undermines the roots of moral life and leaves us with a sense of “alienation, hopelessness, and the problem of meaning” (p. 38). It also establishes scientists as the supreme authority, which reduces “politics to mere calculation and a displacement of the citizen by the expert” (p. 38). Finally, the liberal Protestants felt “humans were estranged from God,” because “human agency,” especially in its “social context, was central to their outlook,” therefore accepting “Darwinism did not necessarily lead to disenchantment” (p. 41). Maintaining this view, as Rogers recognizes, means denying contingency along with the pursuit of the quest for certainty that terminates God emerging at the end of history (entelecheia as eschatology). The liberal Protestant commitment to social meliorism remains a political force, although less visible than the fundamentalist.

In chapter 2, Rogers convincingly argues that Dewey’s theory of inquiry provides a strong response to a contingent, ever-evolving, and pluralistic universe. Insofar as it is possible, we may,

invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account; man constructs a fortress out of the very conditions and forces which threaten him. He builds shelters, weaves garments, makes flame his friend instead of his enemy, and grows into the complicated arts of associated living. (LW.4.3)

Inquiry is among these arts. Dewey states: “Thinking is preeminently an art; knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking are works of art, as much so as statuary and symphonies“ (LW.1.283). He also says, “Scientific thought is . . . in its turn, a specialized form of art” (LW.5.252). Rogers shows us how to use Dewey’s theory of inquiry as an instrument in the service of the complicated arts of associated living. These include the arts of creating moral norms, ideal ethical values, social institutions, and the self.

While discussing the function of chapter 2 in his Introduction, Rogers cites from Dewey’s Art as Experience: “Art is prefigured in the very processes of living” (p. 16). In chapter I, Rogers had already identified the parallels between Nietzsche and Dewey regarding “the advent of nihilism that follows from the eclipse of the transcendent” (p. 53). Rogers effectively shows that Dewey too has an “aestheticized vision of the self” that responds to the problem of nihilism, but one that pursues self-creation through pluralistic democracy and without Nietzsche’s notion of an isolated Obermench that is a monster of creation (p. 56). Rogers examines the narrative nature of the self, and he is right. We need others who tell the stories of their lives with a different vocabulary, plot line, and grammar if we are ever to author stories of our lives different from those told by our community of birth.

Rogers titles chapter 3: “Faith And Democratic Piety.” Here he notices something even most Dewey scholars ignore or misinterpret. In our times, the two principle ways of avoiding contingency and tragic conflict are either secular humanism with its appeal to rational certainty or dogmatic religion with its appeal to the certainties of faith in an antecedently existing God. Dewey’s sense of faith and natural piety seeks a middle way. Unlike secular humanists, Dewey rejects excessive reliance on science and scientific rationality while simultaneously rejecting appeals to the supernatural. Rogers develops Dewey’s idea of “piety” in ways that resemble Glaude while also employing Dewey’s notion of “faith” in unseen ideals. The result is what Steven C. Rockefeller (1991) calls “religious humanism” and Rogers calls “natural religion.”

Dewey acknowledges the significance of moral ideals in providing guidance to our lives. Action guiding ideals exist in our individual and collective character. Such ideals involve belief in things unseen, but only in the sense that they are unifying possibilities created by our imagination. As ends-in-view of inquiry, they nonetheless may guide moral and religious action and inquiry. For Dewey, faith involves trusting such ideals and being willing to sacrifice for them. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech is a good expression of such faith in creative action guided by moral ideals.

In his introduction Rogers emphasizes that Dewey has “a critical piety that blocks the past from having a permanent claim on how we move forward” (p. 18). Culture may have us before we have it, but we may use intelligent inquiry to rethink the meanings, norms, and values of the past while creating portraits of an improved future. Rogers exploits Dewey’s distinction between customary and reflective morality, the latter of which requires the intervention of intelligence to determine the consequences of culturally entrenched norms and the possibility of creating new ones.

Unlike images of self-creation advocated by Nietzsche and those he influences such as Michel Foucault, Dewey portrays self-creation as supported by critical natural piety or “a kinship with nature” (p. 108). Faith in ideals that provides the norms of moral and even religious action also provides support.

Chapter 4, “Within The Space Of Moral Reflection,” addresses two major issues. The first relates to Hodge, Weber, and liberal Protestantism’s belief that we cannot live a moral life without sacred foundations. Second, he shows how Dewey embraces the incommensurability of radical value pluralism. Following Glaude, Rogers insists Dewey fully realizes that conflict often terminates in tragic choice. Ultimately, the necessity of managing conflict arises out of a Darwinian biological imperative upon the organism to functionally coordinate a plurality of trans-actions with its environment. Rogers makes much of the fact that our minds and selves emerge when we participate in social trans-actions. For Dewey, to have a mind is to have linguistic meaning, and to have meaning involves coordinating our actions with other human beings. Such coordination requires what Rogers calls “mutual responsiveness.” He shows how our moral responsiveness emerges without breach of continuity from our responsiveness to the natural world.3

Rogers shows how inquiry can evolve moral norms, along with aesthetic and even the cognitive norms of inquiry itself (see Dewey’s, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, LW.12.11). One might not think that inquiry can create norms, until they recall that for Dewey, science is an art. Rogers registers this creativity and connects it to mutual moral responsiveness and self-creation. Few attend to the fact that Dewey likens deliberation to “dramatic rehearsal.” Rogers exploits this idea by connecting Dewey’s work to those of others that explore the notion of the narrative self. Imagining ideal possibilities, including ideas (hypotheses), ideals, moral norms, and such is critical to Dewey’s theory of inquiry. So too is harmonizing the emotions.4

Rogers also notes something usually overlooked. Because we are participants in the events of nature, situations become problems because individuals and communities of inquiry participate in them. Thus, individuals and communities may re-create themselves in the course of inquiry. Finally, since nothing guarantees an inquiry will result in an enduring harmony, there is no assurance that the self being implicated in an inquiry will not experience tragedy. As Rogers observes, all of this arises from the unity of the self and its acts. The consequences of acts eventually come full circle to alter the thinking actor. In the context of moral inquiry, however, self-creation is social due to the need to coordinate our selves with others in webs of mutual responsiveness. Dewey’s concept of social self-creation contrasts sharply from the notion of selfish self-creation championed by Nietzsche and Foucault.

Rogers provides a very successful response to Hodge, Weber, and the liberal Protestants’ concerns about the existential issues surrounding Darwinism and modern science by wrapping a great deal of Deweyan scholarship and original thinking around the notion of “mutual responsiveness.” Chapter 5, titled “Constraining Elites And Managing Power,” uses the same focal concept to respond to Weber’s concerns regarding the risks of replacing the citizen by the expert.

Rogers dialectically positions himself between Dewey’s contemporary Walter Lippmann, to whom The Public and Its Problems is a reply, and our contemporary Sheldon Wolin. Lippmann stands in for several generations of so-called “democratic realists” that would transform government for and by the people into government for the people by representatives advised by scientific experts. Among other things, these people claim that modern science and the modern state is too complex for average folks who are more interested in other things anyway. Wolin stands in for those that believe government should remain for and by the people. He also represents those that think social change is episodic (revolutionary and such) rather than continuous. There is much more nuance to these positions than I have portrayed, as are the positions of Hodge, the liberal Protestants, and Weber. Rogers gives much more refined depictions and replies than my review suggests.

Deliberation must first define and then solve problems. When the situation concerns the public good, the public must participate in the definition. Experts may contribute, but they are only one among many. “The public,” according to Dewey, “consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (LW.2.245-246). Rogers defends the following claim: “A democratic understanding of collective problem-solving thus envisions deliberation as emerging from the relationship among experts, political representatives, and the larger public” (p. 195). Publics have a sense of their needs, desires, interests, beliefs, and values, although sage politicians and astute experts may help them properly name and know them. More importantly, the politicians and experts cannot complete their inquiries without properly knowing the public they serve. For Dewey, wisdom concerns the Good, which always lies beyond knowledge alone.5 Rogers calls attention to the following analogy: “The man who wears the shoes knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied” (LW 2.364). Pursuit of the good that is the goal of the art of shoemaking requires mutual responsiveness, as does the art of statecraft.

Rogers’ Darwinian insight shows that democracy is constantly evolving and in this regard, “the public represents a permanent space of contingency” (p. 196). The state, whose institutions eventually come to care for the consequences that concern various publics, is relatively stable and necessary (in the sense of being necessary “for” regulating consequences). One of the most fundamental ideas in Dewey’s philosophy is the play between the relatively slow moving stable aspects of existence and the relatively swift moving precarious aspects. In a section titled: “Discontinuity Between the Public and the State,” Rogers shows that by considering state institutions relatively necessary and stable and the public as relatively contingent and precarious, we can appreciatively split the difference between Lippmann and Wolin.

By connecting issues of religion, science, art, morality, politics, and the creation of personal and public identity, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. and Marvin L. Rodgers have given us a large and unified vision of Dewey. Indeed, I have only touched on a few of their many themes. Their vision is fit for a new Century with new problems. Whether they agree or not, educators must come to terms with this remarkable new line of scholarship.


1. See Garrison (1999).

2. Dewey offers a devastating critique of Utilitarianism’s assumption that we can order all values in a hierarchy and simply calculate the good. For decades, Utilitarian assumptions have dominated economics and public policy. See Mousavi and Garrison (2003). The hidden appeal of rationalistic government planning models is they make the false promise of a world without tragic choice.

3. A great deal of empirical work confirms Dewey’s claim that the acquisition of linguistic meaning requires the ability to take the attitude of another toward a third object. See Michael Tomasello (2008).

4. Dewey writes: “Rationality, once more, is not a force to evoke against impulse and habit. It is the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires” (MW.14.136).

5. See “Philosophy and Democracy” (MW.11.43).


Dewey, J. (1976). The Middle Works, 1899–1924, (J.A. Boydston (Ed.)). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, J. (1981). The Later Works, 1925–1953, (J.A. Boydston (Ed.)). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Garrison, J. (1999). John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, and the metaphysics of presence. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXV(2), 346-372.

Mousavi, S., & Garrison, J. (2003). Toward a transactional theory of decision making: Creative rationality as functional coordination in context. Journal of Economic Methodology, 10(2), 131-156.

Rockefeller, S.C. (1991). John Dewey: Religious faith and democratic humanism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15678, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:13:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Jim Garrison
    Virginia Tech
    E-mail Author
    JIM GARRISON is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. His work concentrates on philosophical pragmatism. He is a winner of the Jim Merritt award for his scholarship in the philosophy of education and the John Dewey Society Outstanding Achievement Award. Jim is a past-president of the Philosophy of Education Society as well as the John Dewey Society and is currently serving on the board of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. His most recent book is an edited volume: Reconstructing Democracy, Recontextualizing Dewey. SUNY Press, 2008.
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