Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dewey and Dialectic: Second Waltz

A respected and established Dewey scholar challenged my claim that Dewey employs dialectical thinking. I would like to respond and also dispel some misconceptions that may result from reading my post. I do not think that my responses will satisfy that scholar, but at least I might minimize the potential for misinterpretations.

Dewey is not a Hegelian, and even in his early idealist days he never was a doctrinaire Hegelian. I referenced the scholars who have pushed this debate. I do not believe that any of them are claiming that Dewey is a Hegelian. What I claim is that Dewey uses dialectical mechanics in his thought, and in his 1890-1910s work, he still work in an idealistic style that demonstrated his commitment to dialectical thinking. Not Hegel’s dialectic, but something else and perhaps new. I also maintain that he kept these mechanics, though they became more attenuated with time so as to be almost invisible by the 1930s. I attribute this the inclusion of more influences and Dewey’s aversion to what I call “systematic”—or what some might call “formal”—thinking.

I very briefly explained the two dialectical movements that Dewey employs, which I think of as “negative” (discrimination and analysis to components or plurality) and “positive” (synthesis or combination to a whole or unity). I will give an example for the latter from “The Evolutionary Method in Morality, Part 1”:

"Indeed, the entire significance of the experimental method is that attention centers upon either antecedent or consequent simply because of interest in a process.  The antecedent is of worth because it defines one term of the process of becoming; the consequent because it defines the other term.  But are strictly subordinated to the process to which they give terms, limits" (115-116).

In this case, in a historical process, the antecedent (past) and consequent (future) terms are “strictly subordinated to the process.” Here, the dyad of antecedent and consequent give rise to the process as a whole. Later, Dewey makes it clear that the process is not linear and characterizes it in terms that I would call dialectical.

"The analogy with the terms of an algebraic series is more than a metaphor.  The earlier terms do not develop the later ones.  The earlier term is just as incomprehensible in itself as is the later one.  Taken together, they constitute elements in a problem which is solved by discovering a continuous process or course which, individualized by the limiting terms, shows itself first in one form and then in the other" (116).

To take his words as a Hegelian dialectic, or to indicate any necessity, would be to radically misunderstand both Dewey and my claims. I am merely noting—through hundreds of pages of analysis that I have written and referenced—that the patterns repeat again and again. E.g., we coordinate 1) act and 2) sensation towards the 3) overall meaning of the activity in context. It suspect that it is this same pattern that lead Larry Hickman to declare that 3 is Dewey’s favorite number, although he takes a strong Peircean reading of Dewey.

I could stop writing “dialectic” and write “logic of evolutionary morphology.” I avoid the potential confusion, but then lose the sense in which Dewey is a triadic thinker. Or maybe I should just agree with Hickman.

John Dewey, "The Evolutionary Method as Applied to Morality," in _The Philosophical Review_, Vol. 11, No. 2 (March 1902): 108-124.

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