The Political Theory of John Dewey
reviewed by Fred Brown - 1971
In one sense this work is a promise betrayed. Respecters of Dewey's thought are aware of the extreme scarcity of works, critical or otherwise, which stem from a genuine understanding of his philosophy. Any contribution to remedy this situation would be welcome, since critical appraisal and assimilation of Dewey's philosophy are delayed not so much by honest rejection of his work as by the persistence of those misapprehensions which occurred throughout his career.
In truth the promise evoked is stated more clearly in Richard McKeon's careful and generous foreword than by Somjee himself, whose very title is enough to raise eyebrows among Dewey scholars. Dr. McKeon begins with a remarkably fair statement of Dewey's thought in relation to politics. He even remarks that the philosopher ". . . lived to see the development of international politics and the United Nations after the second World War . . .," a bit of information apparently unavailable to some of Dewey's more "contemporary" critics, who have made commonplace the "knowledge" that the earth-shaking events of Freud and World War II came after John Dewey and taught "us moderns" the shallowness and inadequacy of his "unrepentant enlightenism."1
McKeon then stirs our hope of things to come by saying:
When I read Professor Somjee's manuscript and discussed its chapters with him, I was convinced that he was right in presenting Dewey's political theory as a major stage not only in the evolution of Dewey's thought but also in the development of modern views of political thought and action. Somjee had presented the philosophical grounding of Dewey's political theory and in so doing he had clarified the development of Dewey's philosophy.
In this reviewer's not especially humble opinion, Somjee has failed impressively in his effort to present "the philosophical grounding of Dewey's political theory," and far from "clarifying the development of Dewey's philosophy," has presented us with a rehash of all too familiar obfuscations.
between Dewey's first premises and our day, there bristles a series of revolutionary doctrines and cataclysmic events that change the very character of inquiry. Two world wars, the dark episodes of Hitler and genocide, the Russian Revolution, the relativistic revolution in physics and psychology. . . ." And by first premises Bruner did not mean earliest, for he was "limited by the premises of his philosophical position."
Somjee's own thesis is less clear and considerably less complimentary to his subject than McKeon's. We learn in his preface, for instance, that "In recent political theory few books have had the impact on the formulation of essential problems of the discipline of David Easton's Political System. . . ." Of Easton's theses he writes, "Today all these are, more or less, accepted canons of ... political theory." But Easton's inspiration has come from various sources, many of which "can be tracked back to the writings of Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam and George Catlin. . . . These four [including David Easton] political scientists have formulated far more sophisticated conceptual frameworks than Dewey. Nevertheless, these pages would substantiate the view that Dewey is the forerunner of them all" (emphasis added).
I sometimes sputter that our most pervasive sins are "contemporocentrism" and academic one-upmanship. The first I hope is self-explanatory and well illustrated by the reference from Bruner. As for Somjee's contribution to contemporocentrism, he writes: "The range of possible concepts towards the formulation of empirically oriented theory of politics, as presented by Dewey, doubtless has an antiquarian air about it; nevertheless, his discussion is stimulating and not wholly devoid of relevance to our ways of setting about the subject."
Academic one-upmanship is the familiar tendency of putting down a big name (preferably one already unpopular with the right people) as a sure-fire device for academic advancement without the adventure of defending an original thesis at the risk of sailing upon controversial waters.
Ambiguity, unfortunately, pervades throughout the book. On the one hand, Somjee expresses sympathy and understanding towards the Deweyan position; on the other, he gives us "criticisms" of Dewey's alleged "position" which have become familiar to us from the mouths of those who accept what Dewey called "that mixture of the epistemological and the ontological which flourishes so abundantly in the post-medieval systems so commonly called modern."2
Evidence that Somjee does represent "that mixture" criticized by Dewey will be found, for example, on page 21, where after devoting some time to development of the usual hopeless misinterpretation of Dewey's "experience," he says: "Experience itself is nothing but human reaction to the external world . . ." (my emphasis). What follows immediately is almost as bad, but no one who had succeeded in following Dewey's argument could blandly proceed to make such a statement.
To Somjee's credit it should be observed that he was aware himself of some uncertainty as to the reasons for his interest in Dewey and frankly admitted as much in a paragraph which may throw some light upon the genesis of his conflicting feelings:
I have repeatedly been asked by friends as to why I, an Indian with graduate training in Britain, have taken an interest in Dewey. In my attempted answers, so far I have convinced neither them nor myself. Some of these have been as follows: Tremendous emphasis on social and economic reconstruction, which my generation in India has known, might have been responsible for my interest in a thinker who always ends up on a note of reconstruction. But I am not very sure. My initial attraction to him, as I remember, was largely due to his extraordinary faith in the possibility of human growth. This too, however, could be traced back to my native background, where growth has become an ideal in a society which stagnated for centuries.