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The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent

reviewed by David Granger - 2006

coverTitle: The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent
Author(s): Victor Kestenbaum
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226432165, Pages: 261, Year: 2002
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Of the revitalizing scholarship on Dewey that has emerged over the last thirty years or so, one of the more notable early contributions was Victor Kestenbaum’s fine book The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey: Habit and Meaning (1977). It is no exaggeration to say that this book and its provocations helped set the tone for much of the succeeding writing on Dewey’s theory of habit and meaning, this theory being, by all accounts, a key entry point into Dewey’s philosophy. In this latest offering, consisting of a series of nine similarly themed essays (three of which have been published previously), Kestenbaum seeks to build on and extend that seminal work. He does so by scrupulously examining the nature and place of the transcendent in Dewey’s philosophy, early, middle, and late. In proceeding thus, Kestenbaum basically accepts the common belief that Dewey did not break completely with idealism in his professed move “from absolutism to experimentalism.” However instead of claiming that this resulted in a confused welter of ideas (as is also common), he contends that Dewey often managed to obtain an uneasy but propitious alliance of sorts between elements of his idealism and his pragmatic naturalism. Thus Kestenbaum would have us believe that “at least one version of pragmatism, John Dewey’s, has an important place for the ideal, intangible, and transcendent” – by which he means “whatever is significantly discontinuous with the ordinary, the everyday, the taken-for-granted and which eludes reflective verification.” This stands in sharp contrast to “the view that pragmatism generally, and Dewey’s in particular, is simply a philosophical apology for what Tocqueville called the American ‘taste for the tangible and the real’” (p. 1).

Kestenbaum finds evidence, or at least intimations, of the transcendent at points throughout Dewey’s corpus. However he focuses chiefly on several key areas, sifting carefully through Dewey’s inquiries into the ideal (moral, aesthetic, and religious), the good, subjectivity, deliberation (“dramatic rehearsal”), imagination, and faith. In the process, he brings to light places (or moments) in these inquiries where Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism is seemingly stretched to the limit, and even, at points, beyond. Kestenbaum recognizes that other of Dewey’s proponents -- most notably Thomas Alexander (1987), Russell Goodman (1990), and Steven Rockefeller (1991) -- readily acknowledge that Dewey’s idealism left clear traces in his later work and likewise accord a central place to his aesthetics. But unlike these writers, Kestenbaum wishes consciously to avoid the temptation to envelope these traces within Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism. Instead, he sets out to “give Dewey’s transgressions a sustained and appreciative hearing” (p. 1). That said, I would venture that readers sympathetic to the viewpoints of Alexander, Goodman, and Rockefeller are among those most likely to find much of what Kestenbaum has to say here compelling or at least worthy of serious consideration.  

One of the many strengths of The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal is Kestenbaum’s willingness and ability, in fleshing out his thesis, to draw from both pragmatist philosophy and pragmatist literary criticism, as well as the pertinent work of other major luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Edmund Husserl, Iris Murdoch, Michael Oakeshott, and Wallace Stevens. This is, I take it, part and parcel of his aspiration to stretch his interpretations beyond the usual bounds of Dewey scholarship, and he manages quite well both argumentatively and thematically in holding things together. (Though I would have liked to have seen him acknowledge more the preeminence of sociality in Dewey.) At the same time, Kestenbaum makes it clear that some of the essays adhere more closely to the ‘letter’ of Dewey, while others are more tailored to the ‘spirit’ of his inquiries. Moreover, he says, “Given the nature of my argument, it should not be surprising that quite often what I take to be the spirit of Dewey lacks a letterlike equivalent in the text” (p .8). Another notable attribute of the book is Kestenbaum’s use of various strategies of redescription to bring to light aspects of Dewey’s thinking that tend to remain only on the perimeter of his inquiries or that he merely gestures towards now and again (much of which might be denoted “unsayable”). And in what might look at first blush like simple redundancy and hence a liability, he repeatedly revisits certain key concepts (e.g., habit, ideal) so as to recontextualize them in ever new and illuminating, and almost always atypical, ways. This allows for a richness and depth of interpretation that belies popular claims to the effect that Dewey’s philosophy is concerned only with the concrete foreground of experience and nature.

Chapter 1, “Under Ideal Conditions,” nicely sets the stage for the rest of the book with a passage that synopsizes Kestenbaum’s take on Dewey’s ‘primacy of meaning thesis’:

Truth sets limits for itself beyond which it cannot go and still present itself as truth. Meaning is pleased to venture further from the ordinary, further from ordinary explanations and ordinary verifications. Such transcending arcs of meaning do not detour around the mundane, nor do they simply collide with it. They pass through it and penetrate it. A transcendence-penetrated mundanity is not only possible in Dewey’s philosophy, it is, I propose, a requirement and outcome of what I term his ‘primacy of meaning thesis.’ (p. 21)

Whereas much of philosophy locates its raison d’être in the quest for truth, Dewey holds that human intelligence and its various conduits, native and acquired, are better employed in the quest for meaning. (Alexander (1993) calls this “the human erōs.”) And meaning, for Dewey, as Kestenbaum argues in Chapter 7, is necessarily flattened and diminished when conceived on the model of truth, just as human beings are much more than dispassionate epistemic subjects. (Stanley Cavell (1988) views such thinking as a form of skepticism.) What is more, Kestenbaum urges that, “In its transcendent moments, meaning, and thus reason, lives beyond its means, beyond its history and habits” (p. 22). One such moment in Dewey’s own life, I would suggest, was the “mystic experience” he claimed to have had while a young schoolteacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, an experience that provided him with an ineffable sense of bliss and oneness with the world, and which, according to Rockefeller, would take on even greater import in the 1930s after his pragmatic naturalism fully matured.

Yet, pace Rockefeller, Kestenbaum also wants to say that

Pragmatic occasions of intangible idealities and transcendencies are not merely flashes of unlikelihood, ordinary departures from the ordinary. Dewey’s pragmatism is an oscillation between moments when the ideal and transcendent are absorbed by the actual and immanent, and moments when they resist such absorption. On these occasions, the ideal ‘outruns’ the actual, leaving our practices and habits, and pragmatism itself, in a less certain state (pp. 25-26).

When through our strivings for greater meaning the ideal “outruns” the actual, we implicitly ask more evidentiary grounding from experience than it can provide. The attendant sense of longing or struggle that this evokes leaves us with divided, rather than whole, selves, “divided in what we have been and what we can be, divided in what we have known and what we do not know; we are even divided in what we can see and what cannot be brought before our senses” (p. 34). Thoreau, in Walden (1937/1854), says of this transitory condition that we are put “beside ourselves in a sane sense,” and he contrasts it with the torpid indolence of “[t]he mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation” (p. 122). Such transitory “spiritual disorder” is, to Kestenbaum’s way of thinking, a natural part of human striving, of the human condition in an aleatory world such as ours (p. 34).

Kestenbaum additionally notes that this tentative surrender of the actual and its empirical grounding, and the uncertainty that this necessarily occasions, often prompts certain nautical imagery in Dewey’s writings, including, as Philip Jackson (2002) has observed, in his poetry (the latter of which, though clearly not written for public consumption, reveals some of Dewey’s personal struggles in reconciling the actual and the ideal). The necessity for action in the face of uncertainty means “putting out to sea” in hopes of friendly winds and weather that will make the situation navigable. For ideal ends can at best be only dimly perceived, and even in the best of conditions we cannot be exactly sure where we are headed, or if we will ever even arrive. Nonetheless, we have no choice but to “put out to an uncertain world with less than certain resources” (p. 114).

One of the human resources that we potentially have at our disposal in such situations is a kind of vigilance that Kestenbaum examines in Chapter 4, “Humanism and Vigilance.” He explains it this way:

It is the quality of vigilance we keep over our field of awareness or consciousness – our habits of mind – which sets the limits to the depth and imaginativeness of our responses to the world, including moral, practical, aesthetic, and religious ones. A creedal view of humanism destroys what is most essential to humanism – the appeal to vigilance. (p. 86)

This seems to me virtually identical to the activity that Dewey (1925/1981) terms “cultivated naiveté” in Experience and Nature. Dewey describes it as ongoing interpretive dialectic between self and world that resists closure, and whose purpose is to help us recover and critically renew our relations with the constituents of our experience through a tentative act of “intellectual disrobing.” (Ross Posnock [1991] has remarked on the insights that Dewey himself gleaned through this cultivated naiveté while visiting the Soviet Union and later as chair of the Trotsky Commission.) Genuine humanism, for Kestenbaum, is this habit of vigilance – “the middle term between presence and absence, the play of presence and absence made habitual” (p. 87). And this makes it a necessity, he would have us believe, for the fundamentally “spiritual enterprise” of education (p. 122).  

Kestenbaum maintains that “students, teachers, and professors ‘deal in intangibles and invisibles.’” He means by this that the self being educated “is not fully specifiable, determinable, or investigable…and that self-realization involves accessible and not so readily accessible dimensions” (p. 122). The transformative interplay of the declared (accessible or known) self and undeclared (inaccessible or unknown) self is what makes education a spiritual enterprise. By way of illustration, Kestenbaum examines the customary activity of “choosing or declaring a major in college” (p. 124). He points out that this activity asks “students to declare or announce a self, an actual self and a possible self” (p. 125). And yet in marking this activity as a specific event, a one-time life choice rather than an opportunity for self-discovery, we essentially deny the indeterminacy and fragility of the undeclared self. We deny, that is, the prospects for a self-transcending “educational adventure” in the process of choosing a major (p. 131). Think, for instance, how problematic it is that we ask students to declare a major in teacher education at only eighteen or nineteen years of age. What might this forced declaration mean for these students’ undeclared selves? To what extent are we compelling them to assimilate or bypass their undeclared selves? And what does our current infatuation with professional values and norms mean for the kinds of teachers (or selves) our students are to become? What wisdom and virtues as future teachers are potentially lost to this denial of the undeclared self? Such provocative questions are elicited recurrently throughout The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal. They are the kinds of questions, Kestenbaum believes, that one can readily find at many points in Dewey inquiries along the frontiers where “the natural and the transcendental touch” (p. 137).


Alexander, T. M. (1987).  John Dewey’s theory of art, experience, and nature: The horizons of feeling. New York: State University of New York Press.

Alexander, T.M. (1993). The human eros. In J. Stuhr (ed.), Philosophy and the reconstruction of culture: Pragmatic essays after Dewey (pp. 203-222). Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Cavell, S. (1988). In quest of the ordinary: Lines of skepticism and romanticism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Dewey, J. (1925/1981). Experience and nature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Goodman, R. B. (1990). American philosophy and the romantic tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, P. W. (2002).  John Dewey and the philosopher’s task. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kestenbaum, V. (1977). The phenomenological sense of John Dewey: Habit and meaning. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Posnock, R. (1991). The trial of curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the challenge of modernity. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Thoreau, H. D. (1854/1937). Walden and other writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Random House.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 141-146
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11880, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:54:27 AM

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About the Author
  • David Granger
    SUNY Geneseo
    E-mail Author
    DAVID GRANGER is associate professor of education in the School of Education at SUNY Geneseo. His research, which focuses on Dewey studies and aesthetic education, has been published in Educational Theory, Studies in Philosophy and Education, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, The Journal of Curriculum Studies, and Educational Change, as well as several edited volumes. He recently completed a book on Deweyan aesthetic education.
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