explaining Dewey’s pragmatism

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, we read chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems, which exemplifies pragmatism as a method or as a theory of knowledge and value. This year, we are also reading a lecture by Hilary Putnam entitled “The Three Enlightenments” (from “Ethics without Ontology”), which I find helpful for elucidating Dewey’s method.

Putnam distinguishes three stages of enlightenment, of which the last is the “pragmatic” stage inaugurated by Dewey. We can consider Putnam’s three stages using an example–voting–that he does not use himself.

1. The Greek stage of enlightenment is exemplified by Socrates’ going around Athens, asking “why?” Socrates won’t do or endorse anything until his “why?” question is answered. As Putnam says, Socrates seeks “reflective transcendence” as he tries to throw off both “conventional opinion” and “revelation” and make his own reason the only judge.

If Socrates encountered our practice of regularly voting for our leaders (which, of course, originated in his culture), he would say, “Why do you do that?” We could not reply: “Because it’s in the Constitution.” Or “Because it is our custom.” We would have to give a reason that could overcome his skepticism.

2. The Age of Enlightenment stage repeats this skepticism but adds two big ideas capable of offering answers: the social contract and natural science. Actually, each offers a potential justification of voting. If society is and ought to be a social contract, then giving everyone a vote to select their leaders is a means of renewing the contract. Or one could say that voting is a right that people would demand before they entered the contract in the first place. Further, we can study whether voting leads to good outcomes, such as social welfare. That kind of investigation employs the tools of natural science to study a social phenomenon.

3. The third stage is Deweyan and pragmatic. It is a “criticism of criticisms.” It rejects enlightenment reason. For instance, the concept of a social contract is an invention. Even if we accept it, it does not answer all the “Why?” questions. Why should there be a social contract? Why should persons be equal? Further, no empirical study of voting can vindicate it by demonstrating its positive outcomes. Why, after all, should we value those outcomes? Why did we decide to measure them as we do?

In contrast, Dewey would say that he was formed by a society in which voting is a norm. He does not have a vantage point completely independent of that society. That is the basic reason that he and the rest of us vote. It is not appropriate to ask the “Why?” question as if one could stand apart from this society. That kind of skepticism leads nowhere. As Dewey puts it (p.158), “philosophy [once] held that ideas and knowledge were functions of a mind or consciousness that originated in individuals by means of isolated contact with objects. But in fact, knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted, developed, and sanctioned.”

However, we do not have to continue doing what we have done. It is appropriate to ask whether we should change our political system. The evidence we need to make that decision is much more than data about causes and effects.

As Putnam says, Dewey is “simultaneously fallibilist and anti-skeptical.” To be fallibilist is to presume that what you believe today may be wrong. To be anti-skeptical is to believe that you ought to go forward even if you cannot answer every “Why?” question adequately. Putnam adds that “traditional empiricism is seen by pragmatists as oscillating between being too skeptical, in one moment, and insufficiently fallibilist in another of its moments.” For instance (a pragmatist might argue), empirical political science is too skeptical when it treats value-judgments about matters like democracy as mere matters of subjective opinion; but it is insufficiently fallibilist when it treats data about things like voting as reliable bases for deciding what to do. And political philosophy is insufficiently fallibilist when it strives for permanent answers to questions like, “Should we vote?” The answer will be different a century from now.

Putnam writes:

For Dewey, the problem is not to justify the existence of communities, or to show that people ought to make the interests of others their own [that much is natural and unavoidable]; the problem is to justify the claim that morally decent communities should be democratically organized. This Dewey does by appealing to the need to deal intelligently rather than unintelligently with the ethical and practical problems that we confront.

So what about voting (as an example of a social practice that we should assess)? It is what we have inherited, so we must start with it. It has arisen as a tool for making our social life more intelligent–or it is useful for that purpose, regardless of its original reasons. But it is merely a tool, and there may be better ones.

[We] must protest against the assumption that the [democratic] idea itself has produced the the governmental practices which obtain in democratic states: General suffrage, elected representatives, majority rule, and so on. … The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences. …

The strongest point to be made in behalf of even such rudimentary political forms as democracy has already attained, popular voting, majority rule and so on, is that to some extent they involve a consultation and discussion which uncover social needs and troubles.

See also “Dewey and the current toward democracy.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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