John Dewey at 150: Reflections for A New Century
reviewed by Terri Wilson - July 26, 2010
This new volume of essays celebrates the life and the 150th anniversary of John Deweys birth. First published as a special issue of Education and Culture, these ten essays, edited by A.G. Rud, Jim Garrison, and Lynda Stone, offer reflections on Deweys relevance to contemporary issues, problems, and debates.
By assembling a collection of essays in honor of Dewey, this kind of volume also offers a response to the question: Why return to Dewey? More specifically, what might it mean to celebrate Deweys life and work? For the editors of this volume, celebrating Dewey means critically reconstructing his philosophy in light of current questions and issues. With this end in mind, they have asked each contributor to offer reflections for the twenty-first century (p. 2).
Perhaps given this broad charge, the essays cover a wide range of ground. Contributions address religion, moral education, scientific knowledge, technology, community, and cosmopolitanism, among other issues. In this sense, the choice of topics seems more eclectic than thematic. Practically speaking, readers may find themselves drawn to one or two essays on particular topics or questions. Its important to note, however, that this wide range of topics and viewpoints was intentional. As the editors note, the contributing authors were chosen for their diversity of interests in Deweys philosophy as well as differing interpretations of his work (p. 1). In reading the volume, I found that thinking through some of these latter differencesdifferences of interpretation, or methodoffered a rewarding vantage point for thinking about the work that this volume might do as a whole. Each of the contributors offers a different answer to the question, Whyand howshould we celebrate Dewey? Taken as a whole, we start to hear some different reasons for returning to Dewey, and some different ways of working with him.
Each essay takes up the task of reconstructing Dewey in a slightly different fashion, but a few differences of emphasis distinguish some contributions from others. Some essays, for instance, reconstruct Dewey by placing him in conversation with a contemporary phenomenon or issue. In effect, they ask, What would Dewey say about this? Examples of this approach include Larry Hickmans essay, Secularism, Secularization and John Dewey, which considers how Dewey might have responded to a recent survey of American religious beliefs. Drawing on published writings and correspondence, Hickman presents Dewey as a proponent of secularismbelieving that religion is a matter of individual choicebut not as an agent of secularization (p. 28). In effect, Dewey was not anti-religious, but held out hope that religion might be reconstructed to emphasize what he termed a common faith (p. 29). Another example of this approach is found in Craig Cunninghams essay. He explores Deweys educational thought through a framework of participatory learning. He contends that recent technological advances have created spaces and opportunities to enact this vision of teaching and learning in new ways. In effect, he places Dewey into conversations about how new forms of digital technology may be educative.
Related to this approach, other essays use Dewey as a resource for reconstructing particular debates, conversations or problems in philosophy, education, political science, and sociology. For Jiwon Kim, Deweys understanding of aesthetic experiencewith its emphasis on emotions, imagination, and embodied experienceoffers an important corrective to dominant approaches to moral education. Leonard Waks takes a similar approach to a different topic: cosmopolitanism. He focuses on the debates about how cosmopolitanism might create and sustain governing institutions and structures. For Waks, Dewey provides two crucial insights for this debate. His theory of inquiry offers a way to reconstruct the divide between the theory and practice of cosmopolitanism, and his emphasis on the artistic elements of communication offers a different framework for thinking about how to communicate across cultures and cultural differences. In both of these essays, Deweys account of aesthetic experience offers insights for contemporary moral and political debates.
Other contributions lean more towards a critical reconstruction of Dewey. Examples here include both Naoko Saito and David Hansen, who point towards different gaps in Deweys account of cosmopolitanism. For Saito, Deweys account of mutual communication and cooperation can slide into the assimilatory discourse of globalization (p. 85). Hansen points in a slightly different direction: towards the problematic tone of American exceptionalism found in Deweys discussion of how to best support cosmopolitan ideals (p. 111). For Saito, reconstructing Dewey involves drawing on external voicesin her case, Emerson and Cavellto help demonstrate the limitationsand remaining strengthsof Deweys pragmatism. Hansen takes a different approach, finding internal resources in Dewey to reconstruct a vision of ground-up cosmopolitanism rooted in the ordinary, everyday gestures of human life (p. 116). For Hansen, education provides a context where Deweys cosmopolitan insights are most helpfully tethered to everyday practice.
Nel Noddings is more critical in her assessment of Deweys position on religion. She claims that Dewey makes several arguments in A Common Faith that actually undermine the position he wanted to defend, namely, that religious belief might be reconciled with reflective secularism (p. 11). In this sense, Noddings is willingin her reconstructionto move beyond Dewey, and to point towards errors and gaps in his understanding of religion in public life. Barb Stengel also understands reconstruction in terms of critical assessment. Her contribution examines the Deweyan foundations of ideas now familiar to feminist and critical scholars: the significance of the other as a source of understanding, the continuity of experience, and the significance of everyday experience. While her essay is not directly critical of Dewey, Stengel stresses the importance of treating these ideas dynamically, not statically. By this, she means that we should consider these ideas as tools, not as truths. His familiar moral ideas are important, she writes, not because they are Deweys, but because they are good ideas. If and when they no longer move us, they will be abandoned, replaced with other tools, other ideas, that prove their worth in lived experience (p. 83). Here Stengel urges reading Dewey pragmatically and critically, something that might involve challenging Deweys words, his blind spots, even, ultimately, his standpoint. It may mean jumping through Dewey, taking only some of his residue with us (p. 83).
Gert Biesta takes up Stengels call to read Dewey pragmatically and critically by tackling the question of just what reconstructing Dewey implies. He examines Deweys appreciation for the scientific method, arguing that his philosophy does notas oft characterizedcelebrate science, but instead criticizes the limits and dominance of a scientific worldview. To make this claim, he distinguishes between Deweys belief in the scientific method and the particular argument in which this belief functioned. For Biesta, Deweys appreciation for the insights of the scientific method was not an argument for an uncritical view of science. In contrast, Deweyin exploring the scientific method from the inside outaimed to demonstrate the limits of scientific knowledge and scientific rationality. In this sense, Biesta cautions that certain dimensions of Deweys thinking (his beliefs) should not be considered abstractly, outside of Deweys overall process of bringing philosophy to bear on the actual problems he saw (his arguments).
Biesta draws on this distinction to advocate for a particular way of reading Dewey. As he writes, As long as we approach Deweys philosophy just as a philosophy, that is, as long as we engage with his work at the level of his beliefs rather than in function of the wider problem he sought to address, we severely restrict the opportunities that his pragmatism has to offer for dealing with the problems that characterize our global condition at the dawn of the twenty-first century (p. 31). In this sense, Biesta draws on how Dewey himself understood and defined the role and office of philosophy. For Dewey, the distinctive office, problems and subject matter of philosophy grow out of the stresses and strains in community life in which a given form of philosophy arises, and that, accordingly, its specific problems vary with the changes in human life that are always going on (p. 9). Philosophy is the reconstruction of everyday experience. For Dewey, the problems and issues of philosophy should change in response to the stresses and strains of community life. In this sense, Dewey calls on philosophers not to study philosophy, but to engage in the ongoing problems and concerns of human practices, communities, and institutions. Biesta poses a similar call to himself and other scholars of Deweys philosophy, writing: we should resist the temptation to take the content of Deweys philosophy in itself seriously. As long as we read Deweys philosophy as an account of how things really are, we are in a sense repeating the very mistake that Dewey identified as being at the heart of the crisis in culture. This is why we should read his entire work pragmatically, that is, as an attempt to address a particular problem, not as an attempt to do philosophy in the traditional, representational sense (p. 39).
In this sense, Biesta urges us not to treat Dewey as a collection of philosophical writings, but as an exemplar of how to do philosophy. It is not so much about what Dewey said, but about how he reshaped our understanding of certain problems. In many of the powerful essays in this volume, celebrating Dewey involves careful and critical reconstruction of his philosophy in light of contemporary issues and debates. To a certain extent, Dewey would applaud these efforts. Many of the essays raise compelling questions and insights into deep social and cultural questions, particularly about how we might communicate across cultures, nationalities, and religious identities. Yetin Biestas emphasiswe might imagine Dewey urging the contributors not to celebrate his philosophy, but to enact his philosophic method. In this sense, perhaps Dewey might envision an additional volume of essays, ones thatwhile perhaps never mentioning his nameoffer examples of sustained inquiry into the problems that grow out of the stresses and strains of community life (p. 9).