2011 SAAP Paper Submission
Reconsidering John Dewey’s Relationship with Ancient Philosophy
ABSTRACT: Dewey’s comments on the ancients often appear as constituting a significant tension. On the one hand, upon a variety of occasions, Dewey offered outright polemics in which he condemned the lasting influence of Greek philosophers as deleterious. Indeed, there is within Greek philosophy a clear presence of the origin of what Dewey famously called “the quest for certainty,” a quest that has led Western philosophy into many dualisms, whether they be dualisms between reason and emotion, mind and nature, individual and community, or between theory and practice. This can be seen, for example, with reference to aspects of Plato, whom Dewey criticizes for his conception of the absolute superiority of theory over practice, a conception Dewey recognizes as retained within twentieth-century philosophy, i.e., within contemporary philosophy that systematically denies any possibility of intelligent, meaningful concern with the social realms of human existence. On the other hand, he also, and quite often, has very sympathetic things to say about the Greeks. For example, we know that Dewey draws heavily from Aristotle to construct his own rich and expansive American philosophical naturalism. Further, Aristotle and Dewey have conceptions of philosophy itself which are quite similar, with both in their own ways conceiving of philosophy as practical wisdom. Not a lot of attention has been focused on this tension in Dewey, and it has been quite some time since (Anton, 1965; Anderson, 1967; Betz, 1980). I proceed in this paper by articulating my understanding of the dimensions of this tension, utilizing, where appropriate, some of the insights of the above scholars – among a few others. I conclude with some brief remarks towards putting this tension into Deweyan perspective.
John Dewey has occasionally had an ill-deserved reputation as one with little appreciation for or engagement with intellectual history and tradition, perhaps best exemplified in light of his battle of the nineteen-thirties with Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago and close friend of the dogmatic Aristotelian/Thomist philosopher Mortimer Adler. Alan Ryan summarizes it for us:
Hutchins was a devotee of teaching students timeless truths in general and those uncovered by Thomas Aquinas in particular. Dewey thought that there were no such truths to teach and that Hutchins would paralyze the minds of students by telling them that every serious thought about the human condition had been produced by the end of the thirteenth century. Hutchins thought Dewey wanted to throw the traditional humanities into the street and replace them with modern and dubious social sciences.1
Ryan goes on to identify the “minimal truth” of Hutchin’s accusation as having to do with Dewey’s belief that recent philosophers have been overly inclined to study perennial questions of academic tradition, as opposed to engaging with contemporary social problems.2 However, the accusation that Dewey is somehow simply opposed to the humanities and to the significance of taking history seriously is patently false, which Ryan for his part recognizes.3
My discussion here adds to the dialogue on such issues through discussion of Dewey’s relationship with ancient philosophy, in which I not only demonstrate that those who would call Dewey an a-historical thinker are simply wrong, but, more importantly, I shall try to indicate some of the complexity of Dewey’s relationship with ancient philosophy, while also taking into account some of the past scholarship related to this general issue.
More specifically, what is at issue here is that, at least upon a broad survey of them, Dewey’s comments on the ancients often appear as constituting a significant tension. On more than just a few occasions, Dewey offered outright polemics in which he condemned the lasting influence of Greek philosophers as deleterious.4 (It is also worth taking note, as Frederick R. Anderson has pointed out, that when Dewey speaks of “Greek philosophy” he is referring almost exclusively to Athenian philosophy, and so not, for example, to the Epicureans, Stoics, or Skeptics.5) Indeed, there is within Greek philosophy a clear presence of the origin of what Dewey famously called “the quest for certainty,” a quest that has led Western philosophy into many dualisms, whether they be dualisms between reason and emotion, mind and nature, individual and community, or between theory and practice. This can be seen, for example, with reference to aspects of Plato which, in the words of biographer Steven C. Rockefeller, Dewey criticizes “…because they lack the faith that every human being is capable of forming a true idea of the ideal and striving to reach it.”6 Yet he also, and quite often, has very sympathetic things to say about the Greeks. Especially striking, for example, is Dewey’s report of Plato as having been and remaining “…my favorite philosophic reading.”7 Also, with regard to Aristotle, in addition to a poem he wrote about the Greek master, Dewey draws heavily from Aristotle to construct his own rich and expansive American philosophical naturalism.8 Further, as Richard Bernstein has noted, Aristotle and Dewey have conceptions of philosophy itself which are quite similar, with both in their own ways conceiving of philosophy as practical wisdom.9
Not a lot of attention has been focused on this issue in Dewey, and it has been quite some time since. I refer to three articles in particular: John Anton’s “John Dewey and Ancient Philosophies” (1965), Frederick M. Anderson’s “Dewey’s Experiment with Greek Philosophy” (1967) – which I have already mentioned – and Richard Betz’s “Dewey and Socrates” (1980).10 I would like to proceed in this paper by articulating my understanding of the dimensions of this tension, utilizing, where appropriate, some of the insights of the above scholars – among a few others. I conclude with some brief remarks towards putting this tension into Deweyan perspective.
Now, let us turn to some of the negative evaluation of Greek philosophy: if we somehow lacked what is our Greek intellectual heritage, it seems, in Dewey’s view, that a whole host of pernicious philosophical problems might well not have made any appearance on the contemporary scene. Regarding Kant’s synthesis of empiricism and rationalism in the second chapter of his 1920 Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey writes that “It is evident that this development represents merely a transitional stage…”, having attempted to put new wine into old bottles.11 Having tried to do so, this development failed to gain a liberated articulation of the significance of knowledge’s power for directing and reshaping nature, for the voice of ancient Greece remained itself powerful enough to strongly affect our modes of thought, and to constrain truly modern forces and goals.12 Moreover, we can identify the legacy of the ancient Greeks as something retained by the modern philosophical tradition as a whole, with the moderns and many of their contemporary successors retaining the classical view, as Dewey explains in The Quest for Certainty (1929), “…that practical activity is an inferior sort of thing, necessary simply because of man’s [sic] animal nature and the necessity for winning subsistence from the environment…”13 This dichotomy of theory and practice is one of great significance and concern for Dewey in his analysis and diagnosis of the development and contemporary state of philosophy, a dichotomy he believes leads philosophical work into a kind of indifference or irrelevance to life. This dualistic heritage has its root in Plato, who thought of his method of reason as totally different in kind from any techne or “craft,” and Anton has pointed out that “An essential part of the polemical Dewey is his insistence that the Greek emphasis on the cognitive mode of experience was rooted in a leisure class theory.”14 Indeed, it seems fair to say that ancient Greek metaphysics was influenced by the fact that so much of the practical work of doing was denigrated due to its cultural association with the lower or slave class.15
In the first chapter of Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey reminds us of the contrast Plato constantly draws: of the shoemaker being a judge of good shoes, but not of whether or when one should wear shoes, or of the doctor as a good judger of health, but not of whether it is better to have health or to die.16 For Plato, such knowledge is intrinsically inferior, and it “…needs to be controlled by a higher kind of knowledge which will reveal ultimate ends and purposes, and thus put and keep technical and mechanical knowledge in its proper place.”17
That is, as Dewey indicates, for Plato, the ideal philosopher is not just another kind of craftsperson. Instead, Plato emphasizes the need for such a higher sort of knowledge, and so
does Aristotle, as Dewey makes clear in the Conclusion of his Human Nature and Conduct (1922), where he chastises them both for having either “…set up a transcendental meaning and reason, remote from present experience and opposed to it…”, or for having insisted on some special type of meaning attainable only by modes of knowing inaccessible to most people and the plurality of their lived experiences.18
With apparent reference to the logical positivist movement in the Introduction to his 1946 collection entitled Problems of Men (i.e., human problems), Dewey maintains that this ancient conception of the absolute superiority of theory over practice is retained in twentieth-century philosophy, which holds onto “…the notion that philosophy’s concern is with superior reality, taking its cue in search for it, mainly from mathematics and quasi-mathematical symbolisms…”19 According to Dewey, such contemporary philosophy systematically denies any possibility of intelligent, meaningful concern with the social realms of human existence. He writes that such philosophizing “…holds that the practical affairs of men [sic] which are of highest and deepest significance are matters of values and valuations, and that therefore they are by their very nature incapable of intellectual adjudication…”, that is, of either condemnation or justification upon rational grounds.20 As Dewey sees it, such contemporary philosophy has fully retained the Greek view that theory is in every way greater and more excellent than all types of practical concerns, “…the latter consisting of things that change and fluctuate in contrast with the eternity of Being.”21 Yet such recent philosophizing actually “…goes, so to speak, the classic doctrine one better.”22 The ancient Greek model maintained that the practical affairs of human existence are at least kinds of knowledge, although, to be sure, vastly inferior to the higher philosophical knowledge of theory. However, there are recent developments in philosophy according to which “…moral affairs, concerned as they are with ‘intrinsic’ values, or ‘ends-in-themselves,’ are wholly outside the reach of any sort of knowledge whatever.”23 At any rate, we see quite clearly Dewey’s identification of the root of this problem in ancient Greece.
Now for all of his energetic work at tracing various destructive dualisms back to their Greek roots, Dewey also offers us a kind of sympathetic portrait of praise and affinity for ancient voices. While our pernicious dualisms have ancient roots, Betz has reminded us that “…Dewey and Socrates appear to be of the same mind…”, that is, with respect to their understandings of
the nature of the philosophical enterprise.24 Also, as we already know, Dewey reports Plato as his favorite philosophical reading, and in the same place Dewey remarks that he views himself as within the Socratic/Platonic tradition in that he stands with “…the dramatic, restless, co-operatively inquiring Plato of the Dialogues…”, with “…the Plato whose highest flight of metaphysics always terminated with a social and practical turn, and not to the artificial Plato constructed by unimaginative commentators who treat him as the original university professor.”25 Indeed, as a Socratic inquirer, Dewey understands philosophy as a powerful method for advancing human transformation and growth. It is a kind of critical thinking applied to our quest for wisdom, and he understands ancient philosophy as indicating a condition helpful for this. I refer here to Dewey’s 1941 essay “The Objectivism-Subjectivism of Modern Philosophy”, in which Dewey says that, as contrasted with the classical modern philosophical project, ancient philosophy is naïve in the best sense of the term, “…using that word to designate a condition in which the distinction between the subjective and the objective is not made.”26 That is, as Dewey goes on to note, one might say that ancient philosophy involved a fusion of qualities that today we tend to distinguish between, that is, if it were not the case that such fusion is suggestive of antecedent differences that are in fact happily lacking in the Greek attitude.27
Moreover, in the Introduction to Problems of Men, Dewey associates himself with Socrates and calls for the activity of philosophy to return to the Socratic vision, writing that “Present day philosophy cannot desire a better work than to engage in the act of midwifery that was assigned to it by Socrates twenty-five hundred years ago.”28 Pronouncements such as this from Dewey are no doubt driven, as Anderson has emphasized, at least as much by his well known impatience with contemporary philosophy as by his admiration for Socrates or Plato.29 At any rate, while the above comment was written about six years before Dewey’s death, this general theme runs back at least thirty years earlier in Dewey’s career.30
In the eleventh and final essay of his 1910 The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, Dewey closes with a striking characterization of his own philosophy as a sequel to Socrates’ dictum “…that ‘an unexamined life is not one fit to be led…’”31 Similarly, in the decade following, Dewey characterizes himself as part of a reawakening of the Greek tradition. I refer here to the reply Dewy is reported to have given to some Columbia University graduate students in the 1915/1916 school-year. Their question is purported to have been about how Dewey would classify himself as a philosopher, to which Dewey is said to have swiftly responded that the answer is easy – he readily classified himself as part of a revival of Greek Philosophy, one in which, as Betz has said, Socrates is very much a friend of Dewey in that both conceive of philosophy as a cultural criticism necessary for “…the re-examination of traditional values.”32 In terms of when it began (first half of the twentieth-century), this revival, as Anton has noted, coincided and is indebted to, the new philological work producing better editions of Greek philosophy, the influence exerted by Darwinian evolutionary theory on philosophy, the various post-Hegelian studies dealing with cultural/intellectual history, and the emphasis upon language and classical studies in the growing American graduate programs of the time.33
During this same period of time as Dewey’s 1916 remark to his Columbia students, near the beginning of his German Philosophy and Politics (1915), we find Dewey openly expressing a kind of admiration for Plato and the Republic. He holds, despite the mystical and transcendental coloring of his philosophy, that Plato’s work is among the great illustrations “…of the mutual relationship of philosophy and practical social affairs…”, a mutual relationship Dewey himself of course strived to cultivate.34 Further, in the contemporaneous work Schools of To-Morrow (1915), Dewey approvingly credits Plato as unique among the ancients in his having given attention to the topic of play with respect to philosophy of education.35
It is, of course, only ten years later that Dewey publishes Experience and Nature (1925), and a special dimension of that work is Dewey’s frequent references to Greek philosophy. He employs the Greeks as part of the articulation of his own naturalistic metaphysics or, as Dewey
also calls it, empirical naturalism.36 In attempting to state the experiential implications for philosophy and for how, in terms of lived experience, to understand nature, Dewey utilizes approaches and insights of the Greeks which allows him to transcend many of the methods and assumptions of modern philosophy (in particular, mind/body dualism). In this, there are many convergences and continuities with Aristotle.
As Dewey’s student John Herman Randall, Jr., recognized, for Dewey, similar to Aristotle, particulars (what Dewey calls “situations”) are what constitute the real world, with the importance of universals being that they make up the meaning of and relations between such
particulars.37 Also, following the general approach of Aristotelian naturalism, for Dewey, the
work of metaphysics complements and is continuous with empirical inquiry, although it moves beyond the work of any singular science. The task is one of reflecting upon the varieties of topics examined by the sciences and of identifying the aspects of things that are irreducible and universal, aspects of reality which Dewey refers to as the generic traits of existence, which, as Thomas Alexander points out, is a theory owing quite a bit to Dewey’s Columbia colleague Frederick Woodbridge.38 Such a metaphysics is an empirical inquiry into what lived experience reveals about the common (“generic”) characteristics of the diverse number of those things we experience, and this being the case, there is no part of human experience deemed irrelevant to such an understanding of nature’s metaphysical dimension.39
Also, in his later article “Anti-Naturalism in Extremis” (1943), Dewey opens by clearly and explicitly identifying Aristotle as an ancient representative of the sort of philosophical
naturalism that Dewey himself is championing.40 For Aristotle, human beings are part of the
natural order of the world and not somehow removed from it, and this is certainly the case for Dewey as well. As Dewey points out, Aristotle is the first real (post-Socratic) historical instance of naturalism, into which only later on a dogmatic supernaturalism is injected, such that the dominant trend in philosophy later became very much anti-naturalistic, that is, until relatively recently in history.41
Further, Dewey, earlier in his career, turns to Aristotle for help in formulating his ethics. Aristotle helps enable Dewey to develop a theory of the moral self which does not merely take into account the lives of others, but a theory according to which the moral self is dependent upon others for its very existence itself.42 In Human Nature and Conduct, for example, he cites agreement with Aristotle, writing that, “…as Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man [sic] are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character, not.”43 Dewey agrees with Aristotle that it is the quality of one’s moral character which constitutes the only real guarantee of moral deliberation being sufficiently impartial, just, and wise.
There are, of course, significant points of divergence as well, such as Dewey’s distinction between Aristotle’s somewhat flat characterization of habit as simply the repetition of similar activities versus Dewey’s more robust understanding of habit (in the second chapter of Human Nature and Conduct) as “…an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts except as, under special conditions, these express a way of behaving…”, which involve “…special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts.”44 There is also Dewey’s acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the tendency of organisms to adapt which makes for a sharp contrast to the Greek master. This is because while both found their views about human flourishing and the virtues upon a biological understanding of humans, and while Dewey admires Aristotle for this, Dewey operates within a framework of biological flux, whereas Aristotle, it is well known, holds species to be unchanging. Moreover, Dewey diverges in yet other ways from Aristotle: for example, in The Quest for Certainty, Dewey classifies Aristotle as being among those representatives of what Dewey disapprovingly calls the spectator theory of knowledge.45
So, while greatly influenced by Aristotle and Athenian philosophy more generally, Dewey does not simply accept all of Aristotle uncritically. Had he done that, of course, we would likely not ever talk about Dewey as offering much in the way of original contributions to the philosophical conversation of our over two-thousand-year-old Western philosophical culture. Rather, as we have seen, Dewey also criticizes Aristotle as well – and not only Aristotle, but also elements from Plato, as I have pointed out. He simultaneously applauds and criticizes the ancients.
In terms of the criticism, it would not be enough to simply say that Dewey criticizes the tendency to denigrate practical activity. Rather, he is criticizing and rejecting the whole range of the dichotomy between theory and practice as manifested historically in ancient philosophy. The biggest reason for this is that it has contributed to the tendencies today for philosophy to exist as irrelevant to lived human concerns and problems, whether we find that with respect to the logical
positivism encountered by Dewey during parts of the first half of the twentieth-century, or, for that matter, with respect to some of the more recent trends in philosophy.
On the other hand, Dewey finds more in the ancients to applaud than one might initially guess. I have tried to indicate some of what he finds praiseworthy. Dewey is influenced by and applauds Plato and Aristotle, as he puts it in the Conclusion of Human Nature and Conduct, for having “…found the good in meanings belonging to a conscious life, a life of reason, not in external achievement...”, for having “…exalted the place of intelligence in securing fulfillment of conscious life.”46 As such, Greek philosophy is to be praised for having avoided subordinating our conscious lives to some external obedience, and for having avoided conceiving excellence as differing from the excellence of living.47
Now, with all of this in mind, I do not yet have my own systematic argument for best explaining Dewey’s seeming ambivalence, but it is clear to me that Dewey’s relationship with ancient philosophy is properly viewed within the context of his tendency to articulate his own positions dialectically, that is, in conversation with the history of philosophy. At any rate, if Dewey is part of the revival of Greek philosophy, then the revival is to be understood, to use Dewey’s term, as a reconstruction of the (incomplete) truths he recognizes in the Greeks. When he turns to philosophy’s past, it is, of course, never for appreciating it merely for whatever its intrinsic value. The purpose, rather, is to employ it. The orientation of Dewey toward the history of philosophy, and most certainly including ancient Greek philosophy, is an instrumental one. To be clear, this should not be taken as devaluing the importance of history, but instead as intensifying it. Within the context of such intensification, perhaps the tension I have described in Dewey does not have to be thought of as ambivalence, but rather as a function of his work of philosophical reconstruction. At any rate, it should not surprise us that a philosopher of Dewey’s ambition and scope would have rather nuanced views of the ancients with whom he has more contact and for whom he has more respect than the once president of the University of Chicago would believe.48