Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dewey on Desire, Valuation, and Evaluation: A Motivation for Pragmatic Phenomenology


First substantive post in awhile … first I begin with some criticism of Dewey, my own explanation of its failure, and James Gouinlock on Dewey's failures that I am attempting to rectify in "pragmatic phenomenology."

Dewey was often accused of committing both the naturalistic and is/ought fallacies.  He claimed that we can evaluate our "desires, aims, and purposes" by determining if they are "desirable."  He says this from a Hume-like standpoint, whereas valuative process are what determine when, where, how, and what we think or conclude, although he was closer to Max Scheler's Ordo Amoris than garden-variety Hume.  Morton White famously criticized him for converting de facto desiring into de jure normative valuation.1  Specifically, Morton accuses him of having "'generated a normative or de jure proposition by performing a suitable operation on merely de facto propositions'" (LW 17:482).

For Dewey, "desirable" does not mean "what can be desired" in the sense that something is desirable first and desired second.  He is not claiming, as was historically claimed and still needing to be defended, that we can convert de facto desiring into a de jure normative valuation.  Rather, it means that we desire something first and then see it as desirable only in a subsequent reflective moment.  The first moment is a valuation, while the second is an evaluative moment not necessary to the first in which evaluation might occur.  

Dewey also does not mean that we make these distinctions immediately from a third person view, as those who scream "naturalist fallacy!!!" are likely to do.  Rather, in any actual situation, the desirable is a horizon of possible coalescing desireds that may or may not exist.  What Dewey is recommending when making the desired/desirable distinction, is that we lead our present desires along to some possible future fulfillment.  He is not commiting a confusion of is from ought, but rather stating the psychological--or dare I call it a phenomenological--point that in any actual situation we are led to think of what might be from where we are and have been.  His ethics is horizonal and progressive; just as the sunlight horizon differs from where we stand, the horizon of our moral ideals differ.  Hence, he thinks non-horizonal norms, or static ideals, misconstrue the actual human conditions and limitations in which we find ourselves and are therefore unhelpful at being moral in addition to being disingenuine since their creators propose an ideal position that they cannot actually have.

However, I agree with James Gouinlock's criticism.

“If White were to address himself to Dewey's actual argument, the analysis would have to be directed at three questions: (1) Is it indeed true that the qualities of experience are functional constituents of continuous natural processes? (2) Can the methods of experimental intelligence be used to reconstruct natural processes in a deliberate way? (3)  Has Dewey in fact presented distinctions which are appropriate for recognizing the principal phases of experience from the problematic to the consummatory?” (224).2

My dissertation and subsequent work has been aimed at addressing questions  (2) and (3), whereas I rely on scholars such as Mark Johnson for (1).  My criticism, noted in Victor Kestenbaum's recent work, is that we need a structural account of the "function constituents of continuous natural processes" to determine--on Dewey's own ground--if the methods of experimental intelligence to accomplish what is promised.  In short, the answer is no.  However, they may be corrected and expanded to perform the task, which has been my task.

1. Morton White, "Value and Obligation in Dewey and Lewis, Philosophical Review 58:4 (July 1949): 321-330
2.  James Gouinlock. "Dewey's Theory of Moral Deliberation," Ethics Vol. 88, No. 3 (April 1978): 218-228. Reprinted in John Dewey: Critical Assessments, edited by J. E. Tiles. New York: Routlege, Chapman and Hall, 1993.

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