Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tragic Pragmatism

Someone asked where the rubber meets the road in my work.  In response, I offer a paragraph from the introduction to my book, which I will finish editing this summer.

"As much as Dewey has so many answers to contemporary problems, he left so many glaring questions. He rarely dwelled on the negative implications of his model. The possibility of reflective and cognitive control of the direction of thought occurs only within a “problematic situation,” when our activities meet resistance, and we “feel a difficulty.” We stub our toe, are confronted with angry protesters, or are rebuked for racist/sexist/gender insensitivity, feel that dissonance, and then we reflect. If desiring organizes our activity and may become reflective only in the face of resistance, then to what faces are we sensitive? Can we not be oppressors without realizing it? Dewey’s recognition of the material, bodily, social, cultural, and other factors that constitute mind is not followed by an explanation of how a person without a virtuous character may overcome bad habits, which is a crucial oversight since “habit” functions as “transcendental” in the Kantian sense for Dewey, as noted by Victor Kestenbaum. A habit is a “condition for the possibility of experience” in the sense that a physiological “habit” coordinates sensori-motor perceptual action and associates phenomenal qualities with meanings such that appearing a certain way is perceived as “being a no-good bum.” Habits function as limits of meaningful experience that we do not experience as such, and without a hermeneutic rehabilitation of our own habits as described by John Stuhr, then we may be at the mercy of the arbitrariness of our upbringing. Dewey and I disagree with Aristotle when he claimed in the Ethics that nothing could be done for the character of a person who was poorly educated. Transformation is possible."

My book is motivated by a singular concern. How is it possible that people can be honestly hypocritical? How can they believe they are doing good, when they do evil, yet experience the actions as good? This is an ancient question best asked, in my view, by the scholastic tradition. They named ignorance as the fundamental problem and sought its causes in defects of the will or judgment. Judgment entails the thinking of a concept, and if we understand judgment in a Kantian way, as the synthesis of the sensible manifold, then I would agree.  The honestly hypocritical, who are perhaps tragic subjects, seemingly cannot think of their actions as evil. No amount of discussion ameliorates this, because the problem is much deeper. This book offers a theory of judgment and imagination, explored in the vocabulary of American pragmatism, to support the focal question of how impulse becomes intelligent and how we might become aware of our own unconscious motivations.

Those familiar with Dewey scholarship will recognize that this is a long-running debate in the secondary literature.  Let me be clear for them: Dewey has no philosophical conception of tragedy and human limitation, which opens Deweyan thought to hubris.  The critical vulnerability is methodological, which means that correct application of Deweyan inquiry can still lead to ruin.  How often can you say that perfect formally correct application of a theory can fail so fantastically?  Yes, scholars, I am aware of the many, many responses, and I insist that they are beside the point or hide behind fallibilism.  We Deweyans can do better.  We can fix the problem.  Sadly, fixing formal problems has no necessary practical effect, but it is a start.


  1. sounds like a worthy project. is you work much different than Shannon Sullivan's work on owning/revealing whiteness?

  2. DMF,

    I do not know her work sufficiently to comment. I am primarily working on the technical points, and my expectation was that she is not, at least one this level. I do not write or study the applications as a scholar. I live them as a man and am content with that. Besides, if I were to wage into that scholarship, I think I would fare poorly as I do not have the temperament for it. I might, however, be tempted to become a public moralizer.

    Another way to phrase my post: how is hubris possible? I think that hubris/hypocrisy/vincible ignorance are the primary generators of every day evil, and not evil intent. Evil intent is rare in my view, and the scholastics argued back and forth whether it was even possible (aside from theological reasons). I think, along with "radical evil" studies, that it is possible but not widely-applicable.