Richard Rorty on John Dewey

Richard Rorty on John Dewey


[music]>>RICHARD RORTY: My uncle and aunt who taught
at the University of Wisconsin were friendly with Max Otto, who was a disciple of Dewey’s,
and who tried to write a sort of practical version of pragmatism, bringing pragmatism
more closely in touch with public life. I read Otto at the time that I met him but
I don’t remember his works very well now. The only other philosophy professor who I
was in touch with in my teens was Sidney Hook, who was a friend of my parents. So, as it
happened, the only philosophy professors I met when young were disciples of Dewey. At an early age I knew there was such a thing
as pragmatism, but as soon as I got to Chicago I was told that it was a bad thing because
people like Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was chancellor of the university, and Mortimer
Adler, who was an influential figure on the Chicago scene, were inclined to say that Dewey
was a relativist, and that we needed moral absolutes. There was a lot of neo-Thomism in the air,
and Leo Strauss was also an opponent of pragmatism. So, between Adler’s neo-Thomism and Strauss’s
quasi-Platonism, there was a good deal of anti-pragmatism around. So I suppose at Chicago I learned more what
was wrong with pragmatism than what was right about it. Until he was thirty he was still a believing
Christian and tried to arrange his philosophical thoughts around the truths of Christianity. After he broke with the Christian religion,
between the ages of, let’s say, thirty and eighty, he produced a series of books on various
topics, which I don’t think fall neatly into periods. Everyone has his favorite Dewey books. My favorite is Reconstruction in Philosophy
and A Common Faith, which, separated by a considerable period. Other people like Experience and Nature. I don’t. His prose is remarkably boring. It’s very difficult to assign Dewey to students
because they go to sleep halfway through the assignment. He wasn’t exactly a bad writer and there are
occasionally some vivid phrases and some quotable bits, but compared either to James or Royce,
he’s a bore. I think that if you ask about the influence
of Hegel in the period after Darwin, there are various figures who tried to put Hegel
and Darwin together and of these Dewey was perhaps the most successful. That is, he shared Hegel’s historicism and
Darwin’s naturalism and managed to synthesize the two. I think that James and Schiller and Dewey
thought of themselves as fomenting an intellectual revolution, which was partially successful
in the culture as a whole, but not particularly successful within the boundaries of philosophy
departments. I’m not sure that the philosophical world
was much interested in this enterprise so Dewey has never been very popular among his
fellow philosophy professors, but he happened to be the intellectual who best spoke up in
public for the social democratic measures of the progressive era and New Deal. So he was an important figure in American
public life even though the philosophy professors didn’t have any great use for him. He kept up a steady stream of articles on
the political issues of the day, trying to see the events of his time as leading up to
a better America of the future. He had a utopian vision of social democracy
and, indeed, participatory social democracy, a dream that will probably never come true. But by keeping that utopian vision before
the public he did influence the public mood to some extent. It’s true that the United States didn’t approach
the kind of welfare state that became the norm in Europe in the period after the Second
World War. On the other hand the difference between this
U.S. in 1905 as the progressives were getting started and in 1965 after Johnson had gotten
the civil rights legislation passed is enormous. So there was a very considerable shift toward
the political left in the first half of the twentieth century and Dewey had as much with
that as any other American intellectual. I don’t think you can single Dewey out as
having made a particular political contribution. He just stood for the right causes for a long,
long time. He was in favor of women’s suffrage. He was against racial discrimination. He was in favor of increasing the power of
the trade unions. These were all things that came to pass more
or less in the course of his lifetime. I don’t think you can find much of a connection
between what Dewey said to the philosophy professors and what he said to the general
public. The questions that he took up in response
to people like Russell or Royce are just too remote from politics for one to claim that
the one presupposed or entailed the other. In general I don’t think there’s much connection
between the kinds of things philosophy professors talk about to their colleagues and the kinds
of things they talk about when they play a role in public affairs. Philosophical ideas are confined to one percent
of the population and they tend to be cosmopolites who are not easily identified with their country. I think democratic governments are run by
experts. The only question is which experts are going
to be in power at any given moment. Dewey’s dreams of participatory democracy
will never come true. I think American universities and Western
universities generally have served society very well indeed. They’ve supplied experts who could then be
associated with politicians who were voted in or voted out by the masses. That’s the best we can expect. [music]

13 Comments on "Richard Rorty on John Dewey"


  1. @randyhelzerman I hope that's not true! Keep watching the channel and I'll do my best to prove you wrong. Thanks for the comment.

    Reply

  2. That's a pretty dismal viewpoint. Utopian to want to see a progressive shift of power from the elites to the people? That's so utopian? It denies the real progress that has been made. It gives up hope in something greater. Please, as brilliant as Rorty is, I'd prefer to spend my time studying Chomsky and Parenti. Settling for left elites over right elites just doesn't seem like a stopping point for humanity. (Who takes Dewey's work further? I know that Chomsky supports Dewey.) 

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  3. It's refreshing to me to see a person say so little of what anyone wants to hear. When he says something it is only because it seems to be true to him, that's very valuable. It may well be unrealistically optimistic to think that pure democracy will every happen, or that if it did it would actually result in more human well-being. It may not be expedient for those who desire change, but is it true? Truth might be dismal, nature makes no guarantees. I would much rather he state his position clearly, than attempt to inspire. THAT would have been boring.

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  4. Rorty has give us a deeply insightful and informed summary of Dewey's attitudes and influence on American intellectual and cultural life, along with a realistic assessment of the limitations of social democracy and the enterprise of philosophy.

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  5. Everything he said here was true, except the part about democracy being run by experts lmfao. As far as Congress, the senate, and the cabinet go, the overwhelming majority couldn't even come close to being experts of much. As educated as most may be, they are very clearly still movitaved by emotion, and very rarely rationality.

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  6. I love that there's a picture of Emerson, who according to Harold Bloom invented the American Mind, for bad and for good

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