Deweyan Pragmatism

Deweyan Pragmatism1

Randy L. Friedman

    Dewey’s philosophy of religion, which admittedly does not occupy a great deal of his writing, represents a decisive move on his part beyond James. Many have pointed out that it was James who turned Dewey from Hegelianism to what becomes his instrumentalist rendition of Jamesian pragmatism.2 In this article, I will concentrate on what Dewey borrows (and changes) from James: a notion of experience meant to bridge the gap between traditional philosophical rationalism and empiricism (and meant to take the place of both), and an emphasis on meliorism. I agree with those who argue that Dewey “naturalizes” James.3 James’s moral multiverse and his relatively uncritical approach to religious experience are replaced by a rather transparent religion of pluralism (or democracy) and a notion of moral faith which points from individual experience toward the pluralistic, democratic community. It would be more accurate to say that religion itself, any religious tradition, and religious experience, are replaced by the religious function in experience, through which the beliefs of the many and their aspirations form the working hypotheses of a progressive community. Faith in the existence of some religious Being is replaced by moral faith in the future, a faith which does not point to a divine Being beyond our own existences. James describes religious experience in psychological terms. Dewey wants to move beyond description. And he wants to move beyond the category of religious experience, beyond the idea that there is a special and unique type of experience which reflects a unique reality. For Dewey, the religious aspects of experience only point forward. In Dewey, James’s pragmatism becomes instrumentalism. Where James may be satisfied to accept certain beliefs and experiences (including “special” beliefs and experiences) at face-value and to judge them by their consequences, Dewey demands a reconstruction of the meaning of a belief before he is willing to discuss its value; and value, for Dewey, involves the power to exert an influence at the level of community and address and redress social problems.
    Dewey reviewed James’s Pragmatism in 1908. His article offers a glimpse of his interpretation of James’s thought in general. For Dewey, Jamesian pragmatism is best understood as a “method of treating conceptions, theories, etc., as working hypotheses, as directors for certain experiments and experimental observations” (Dewey 1908, 86). This simple description points to the core of Dewey’s inheritance of James. Dewey likes that James chooses pragmatism as the better alternative against rationalism. The difference between the meaning or function of beliefs (conceptions, theories, etc.) in rationalism and pragmatism is significant, and Dewey works through it when he presents James’s account of truth:

Truth means, as a matter of course, agreement, correspondence, of idea and fact, but what do agreement, correspondence, mean? With rationalism they mean ‘a static, inert relation,’ which is so ultimate that of it nothing more can be said. With pragmatism, they signify the guiding or leading power of ideas by which we “dip into the particulars of experience again,” and if by its aid we set up the arrangements and connections among experienced objects with the idea intends, the idea is verified; it corresponds with the things it means to square with. The idea is true which works in leading us to what it purports.4

     Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this quick restatement of James, we can appreciate the forcefulness of Dewey’s James. For Dewey, this is the best James. James stands alongside him in rejecting the metaphysical exile of ideas to the Realm of Ideas. For both, it seems, ideas are aspects of experiences and point us back into experience. They are tools for work, guiding principles. Ideas find their value through work—they are working hypotheses to be tested. The “correspondence of idea and fact” is not a fixed relationship of form to particular. Ideas can be verified only as they play out in the world of working. An idea works itself into a fact.
    Dewey distinguishes himself from James over a technical but crucial difference in their notions of truth and divinity. Dewey identifies two working notions of truth in Pragmatism. The first deals with ideas as ideas. He will set against this truths, “where the meaning of the object and of the idea is assumed to be already ascertained” (Dewey 1908, 89). The truth of an idea is discovered as it sets about working through “the stream of experience.” “In other words,” Dewey writes:

an idea is a draft drawing upon existing things, an intention to act so as to arrange them in a certain way. From which it follows that if the draft is honored, if existences, following upon the actions rearrange or readjust themselves in the way the idea intends, the idea is true. When, then, it is a question of an idea, it is the idea itself which is practical (being an intent) and its meaning resides in the existences which, as changed, it intends.5

    Dewey’s point is that the meaning and truth-value of an idea is tied to its practical consequences, but is not exhausted by them. Its value as “true” is something to be worked out. In Dewey’s description we find hints of the social or communal aspects of his philosophy. An idea is set at play upon existing things, and affects other existents, which must rearrange or readjust themselves. In this sense, the truth of an idea reverberates, influencing other ideas and concepts and theories as it works itself out in the world of working. Or, better still, the meaning of an idea is found by looking forward through its reverberations, its expanding circles of influence and interrelation.6 5
    The second “formula” for truth or meaning Dewey identifies in Pragmatism deals with truths. Here Dewey brings together two passages in James reviewed in Chapter Three: “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?“; and there can be “no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact, and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody.”7 Dewey’s analysis is helpful, especially when we take into account James’s descriptions of religious beliefs in Varieties of Religious Experience. In this second kind of truth, the subject is taken to be an idea whose meaning is already assumed or pre-given; “it is implied that the conception, or conceptual significance, is already clear, and that the existences it refers to are already in hand.”
    The question for this second version of truth is of its “value if believed.” For the first, idea as working hypothesis, Dewey emphasizes their “meaning as programs of behavior for modifying the existent world” (Dewey 1908, 90). James, judging only the value of ideas whose meaning is pre-given or assumed, lets the content slip by unexamined. For some ideas, then, Dewey writes, “it is difficult to see how the pragmatic method could possibly be applied . . . it seems unpragmatic for pragmatism to content itself with finding out the value of a conception whose own inherent intellectual significance pragmatism has not first determined by treating it not as a truth, but simply as a working hypothesis and method” (Dewey 1908, 92).
    This marks a significant break between James and Dewey. Dewey makes this explicit when he handles a passage in which James writes about “the notion of God [which] guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved.” “Here, then,” James continues, “in these different emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our attitudes of hope and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the real meanings of materialism and spiritualism.”8 Dewey’s disagreement with James over his suggested understanding of God runs this discussion of the two kinds of truth into the divide between James’ supernaturalism and Dewey’s naturalism. Dewey’s reaction is worth citing at length:

Does the latter method of determining the meaning of, say, a spiritual God afford the substitute of the conception of him as a “superhuman power” effecting the eternal preservation of something; does it, that is, define God, supply the content for our notion of God? Or, does it merely superadd a value to a meaning already fixed? And, if the latter, is it the object, God as defined, or the notion, or the belief (the acceptance of the notion) which effects these consequent values? In either of the latter alternatives, the good or valuable consequences can not clarify the meaning or conception of God; for, by the argument, they proceed from a prior definition of God . . . If the pragmatic method is not applied simply to tell the value of a belief or controversy, but to fix the meaning of the terms involved in the belief, resulting consequences would serve to constitute the entire meaning, intellectual as well as practical, of the terms; and hence the pragmatic method would simply abolish the meaning of an antecedent power which will perpetuate eternally some existence. For that consequence flows not from the belief or idea, but from the existence, the power. It is not pragmatic at all (Dewey 1908, 91).

    The solution to this problem in Jamesian pragmatism will be found in and through what Dewey terms “reconstruction,” the recalibration and reconception of traditional philosophical and religious categories (the subject of a later section in this paper). The content of God, so to speak, should not be fixed, and then limited to or expressed through a personal, mystical experience. Religious experience can turn toward dogmatism, which allows, requires, or proves the fixed notion of an idea or belief, such as faith in God’s existence. But abolishing the pre-given or assumed meaning of a belief is not practical enough for Dewey. Referring to an exchange with James, in which James gets him wrong, Dewey writes, “I have never identified any satisfaction with the truth of an idea, save that satisfaction which arises when the idea as working hypothesis or tentative method is applied to prior existences in such a way as to fulfill what it intends” (Dewey 1908, 94). Neither a pre-given meaning of an idea, nor the reduction and identification of that meaning to the consequences of the idea ring true for Dewey.9 Dewey takes from James two characteristics of truths: they are made, not provided a priori; and their value is dynamic, not static (Dewey 1908, 94). 9
    In three other early essays on pragmatism, Dewey expands on his understanding of the value and meaning of ideas. James describes truth as something which happens to an idea. For Dewey, meaning happens to an idea. This characterizes his experimental theory of knowledge: “An object becomes meaning when used empirically in a certain way; and under certain circumstances, the exact character and worth of this meaning becomes an object of solicitude. But the transcendental epistemologist with his purely psychical ‘meanings’ and his purely extra-empirical ‘truths’ appears to assume a Deus ex Machina whose mechanism is preserved a secret” (Dewey 1906b, 304). It is obvious that Dewey would not display the same patience, or embark on the same descriptive psychological project James does in Varieties. The position that the meaning of any idea or belief can be passed over in favor of a judgment on its value in the life of the believer is tantamount to supporting an absolutist or monistic position. Deweyan pragmatism requires a complete de-mythologization: “To read back into the order of things which exists without participation of our reflexion and aim, the quality of which defines the purpose of our thought and endeavour is at one and the same stroke to mythologise reality and deprive the life of thoughtful endeavour of its reason for being.”10 10
    This critical difference with James appears in Dewey’s later essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism.”11 Here, Dewey argues that pragmatism does not make action the end of life, does not “subordinate thought . . . to particular ends.” He seems to take Peirce’s side against James, arguing that “the role of action is that of an intermediary. In order to be able to attribute a meaning to concepts, one must be able to apply them to existence. Now it is by means of action that this application is made possible. And the modification of existence which results from this application constitutes the true meaning of concepts” (LW II, 5). 11
    Dewey emphasizes the “diversity of meanings” available to any given conception. “The greater the extension of the concepts,” he writes, “the more they are freed from the restrictions which limit them to particular cases, the more it is possible for us to attribute the greatest generality of meaning to a term.” Dewey throws his support behind James’s pluralistic philosophy, which both describe as competing with (and preferable to) philosophical monism. Dewey writes that “Monism demands a rationalistic temperament leading to a fixed and dogmatic attitude. Pluralism, on the other hand, leaves room for contingence, liberty, novelty, and gives complete liberty of action to the empirical method, which can be indefinitely extended” (LW II, 5, 8). I assume that the extension of the empirical method reaches back toward those ideas whose meanings have been assumed. 12
   This may be one of the consequences for Dewey of what he describes as James’s “revision of English empiricism, “a revision which replaces the value of past experience, of what is already given, by the future, by that which is as yet mere possibility” (LW II, 13). What for James is radical empiricism, Dewey claims as immediate empiricism (Dewey 1905b, 393). It provides Dewey with a kind of philosophy which does not lean on anything other than experience. Though, for Dewey, “all labels are obnoxious and misleading,” he wants to be clear about his empiricism: “Empiricism, as herein used, is as antipodal to sensationalistic empiricism, as it is to transcendentalism, and for the same reason. Both of these systems fall back on something which is defined in non-directly-experienced terms in order to justify that which is directly experienced” (Dewey 1905b, 393). James makes this point himself in his recalibration of traditional British empiricism. For Dewey, empiricists and rationalists alike err on the side of absolutism, believing that experience is mere appearance, that “cognition is imperfect, giving us only some symbol or phenomenon of Reality (which is only in the Absolute or in some Thing-in-Itself)—otherwise the curtain-wind fact would have as much ontological reality as the existence of the Absolute itself: a conclusion at which the non-empiricist perhorresces, for no reason obvious to me—save that it would put an end to his transcendentalism” (Dewey 1905b, 396). Dewey runs metaphysics and epistemology together. If truth is exiled to a realm of Being in which humans (and existence) cannot play, then there really is no point in speaking about meanings happening to an idea, or about the value of an idea or belief being determined through practice and action. 13
    Dewey’s admittedly ‘popeye-d’ empiricism comes to the “truism that experience is experience, or is what it is” (Dewey 1905b, 399). Or, reality is how it is experienced and nothing more. Combined with Dewey’s understanding of the experimental nature of belief, immediate empiricism is best understood (as is Pragmatism) as a “method of philosophical analysis” that provides the tools for discovering the meaning of concepts and theories through experience—”go to experience,” he writes, “and see what it is experienced as.” This, too, recalls James and his distinction between Kennen and Wissen, with the emphasis on knowledge as acquaintance. To discover the meaning of something, we put it in play, as opposed to trying to hunt down a pre-given or original essence (known to Reason alone). For Dewey, immediate empiricism sounds the end of “philosophical conceptions . . . as stimulants to emotion, or as a species of sanctions;” and presents a “larger, more fruitful and more valuable career [for them] considered as specifically experienced meanings” (Dewey 1905b, 399). 14
    Throughout his discussions of experience and belief, Dewey emphasizes the background and consequences of the social or communal career of meaning(s). In fact, his conception of truth is much less a theory of truth than a theory of philosophy, which points away from traditional philosophical inquiry (both idealistic and empiricist) and toward reconstruction. This type of philosophy is supported by and meant to support democracy (or democratic ideals), which is in essence the political version of what James calls pluralism. Dewey terms his rendition of pragmatic philosophy instrumentalism to emphasize the further horizon of the experiments of belief, and the social setting or community from which they arise. Both beliefs and the philosophy that describes them as working hypotheses are instrumental in expanding the terms and complexities of the discussion which, abiding no special beliefs, transforms the community into a laboratory of experience. It may be the case that Dewey only allows for one special belief, instrumentalism. 15
    Dewey’s pragmatism “assigns a positive function to thought, that of reconstituting the present stage of things instead of merely knowing it” (LW II, 18). The “American Enlightenment” Dewey envisions is fueled by a type of philosophy which looks forward to a better future for which it actively works. In “Philosophy and American National Life,” Dewey offers this as the most basic definition of Instrumentalism: a philosophy “which shall be instrumental rather than final, and instrumental not to establishing and warranting particular sets of truths, but instrumental in furnishing points of view and working ideas which may clarify and illuminate the actual and concrete course of life” (MW III, 77). 16
    The Jamesian qualification of a difference which makes a difference, for Dewey, requires philosophy to “respond to the demands of democracy” (MW III, 74). This involves, among other things, a respect and appreciation for “the inherently significant and worthwhile place which the psychical, which the doubting, hoping, striving, experimenting individual occupies in the constitution of reality” (MW III, 75). This is where the ideals of pluralism hit the road. American thought requires “an absence of dogmatism, of rigidly fixed doctrines, a certain fluidity and socially experimental quality” (MW III, 76). 17
    In an essay twice printed by Dewey, “Beliefs and Existences,” he continues his attack on his understanding of the fixation of belief.12 The central error and evil of philosophy is the disconnect it imposes between existence and the meaning of beliefs and concepts. The content of a belief is inextricably connected with its forward direction. For James, the argument was with those who would seize a spinning top to grasp its motion. Here, too, the correction is in favor of continued action, an appreciation of the belief in its natural habitat: “Belief, sheer, direct, unmitigated personal belief, reappears as the working hypothesis; action which at once develops and tests belief reappears as experimentation, deduction, demonstration; while the machinery of universals, axioms, a priori truths, etc., is the systematization of the of the way in which men have always worked out, in anticipation of overt action, the implications of their beliefs with a view to revising them in the interests of obviating the unfavorable, and of securing the welcome consequences” (Dewey 1906a, 124). The personal attitude is that which provides a belief with its working meaning, through experimentation. “All such fixities,” Dewey writes, “whether named atoms or God, whether they be fixtures of a sensational, a positivistic or an idealistic system, have existence and import only in the problems, needs, struggles, and instrumentalities of conscious agents and patients. For home rule may be found in the unwritten efficacious constitution of experience” (Dewey 1906a, 117). Dewey is making at least three points: meaning is not fixed, and cannot be reduced from beliefs at work; philosophy must point itself forward and engage in the project of the reconstruction of reality; and the objects of belief are not mind-independent. Again, displacing belief from experience, from its context, is the ultimate harm of traditional metaphysics. It strips belief of that which gives it meaning, by dividing it from its nature. 18
    After reviewing the basic terms of his argument for a notion of belief which looks forward toward its meaning, Dewey turns his attention to the category of special beliefs (Dewey 1906a, 128). Dewey tells his version of the story of the movement of Christianity away from “deliberate passionate disturbance . . . when the demand for individual assertion by faith against the idea of the total subordination of the individual to the universal . . . to become a theory, a theology, a formulation” (Dewey 1906a, 118). Eventually, the distinction drawn between this world and the world beyond (or above) gives rise to two classes of belief, natural and supernatural. Science and scientific inquiry plow the grounds of nature and produce knowledge, while the supernatural world, the realm of the moral and spiritual is given over to belief.13 Working at odds with science in order to protect itself, religion turns apologetic about its core beliefs or assumptions. “We build them a citadel and fortify it; that is,” Dewey argues, “we isolate, professionalize, and weaken beliefs . . . Hug some special belief and one fears knowledge; believe in belief and one loves and cleaves to knowledge” (Dewey 1906a, 128, 129). 19
    Dewey brings a thoroughgoing naturalism to bear on all types of belief, especially those special beliefs which linger beyond the reach of experience and experiment. When Dewey writes that free thought emancipates belief, he warrants experimentation in an ever broadening community of inquiry. Naturalizing special beliefs means eliminating their exemption from the experiments of knowledge and learning. It may be more accurate to say that naturalizing special beliefs here means ruling them out altogether. 20
The Move of Experience and Nature
    One of Dewey’s central philosophical texts, Experience and Nature, enjoyed revision into a second edition in his lifetime, in the span of four years. It marks his most concerted effort at presenting and explaining empirical naturalism (which is also called naturalistic empiricism and naturalistic metaphysics). As we have seen in his essays on pragmatism, Dewey maintained that the protection of some beliefs—their immunity from correction and reconstruction—marks a disastrous turn in the history of ideas. Introducing this work, Dewey spells out how he collapses the worlds of science and faith (morality), or, more accurately, naturalizes belief, to make it jibe with science (see Dewey 1929a, xiv). James provided the standard of difference. Dewey now adds a naturalistic or naturalism qualification. Every belief must be available for revision and recalibration. The “inclusive integrity of experience” is meant to replace to traditional distinctions between Reality and Appearance and of science and faith (See Dewey 1929a, 48). 21
    To this end, Dewey points towards James’s description of experience as double-barreled: “it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality” (Dewey 1929a, 10-11). Again, Dewey emphasizes that all ideas and beliefs must be made available (or, empirical) “so that they may be confirmed or modified by the new order and clarity they introduce into it.” The central consequence of Dewey’s naturalistic empiricism is that ideas and beliefs now “acquire empirical value; they are what they contribute to the common experience of man” (Dewey 1929a, 19). There is no meaning or value attached to an idea that does not come through experience (and which is not susceptible to revision). Ideas are no longer taken to be transcendental. Learning requires that “one go to his own experience, and, discerning what is found by use of the [empirical] method, come to understand better what is already within the common experience of mankind” (Dewey 1929a, 34). 22
    By collapsing or including ideas and beliefs into what James calls the stream of experience (along with Bergson and Husserl), and naturalizing these aspects of experience, Dewey does not become a relativist or skeptic. In fact, through his conception of experience as the replacement of an outdated and ultimately harmful metaphysics, Dewey becomes a pragmatic realist. In the first chapter of Experience and Nature, he writes, “That esthetic and moral experience reveal traits of real things as truly as does intellectual experience, that poetry may have a metaphysical import as well as science, is rarely affirmed, and when it is asserted, the statement is likely to be meant in some mystical or esoteric sense rather than in a straightforward everyday sense. Suppose however that we start with no presuppositions save that what is experienced, since it is a manifestation of nature, may and indeed must, be used as testimony of the characteristics of natural events” (Dewey 1929a, 19-20. Emphasis is mine). I am not arguing that Dewey is a Realist, in the traditional philosophical sense of the term. To do so would ignore the move Dewey explicitly makes beyond the reality-appearance distinction. Dewey’s concern is not with what there is, but on what ought to be.14 23
    In his treatment of Experience and Nature, Richard Gilmore argues that testimony requires a strenuousness and an openness which speaks of discovery. He writes, “what the discovery is a discovery of is that there is another aspect to nature, to things in nature, that is initially invisible. It will take a certain amount of undergoing, training, practice, and discipline in order to be able to perceive this aspect of things in nature, but once one has, nature itself is transformed, and access to the sublime is opened.”15 Discovery becomes a process of making continuous what has been torn asunder, the individual and nature, the visible and the invisible. Though Gilmore does not refer back to Emerson, the language he uses recall Emerson in Nature.16 24
    Thomas Gardner picks up on this process and demand in Dewey. He argues that, for Dewey, experience “discloses nature.” It does so in two ways: “nature is the object of experience, in a very real, if common-sense way. Experience is also in nature, it is the “transaction that takes place between objects of nature when at least one of those objects is a human organism.” Gardner points back to Dewey’s contention that traditional metaphysics counts as real only selected features of experience and denigrates the rest. This is where he locates the source of Dewey’s emphasis on the positive or melioristic possibilities of philosophy: “By isolating the ‘good’ traits found in existence/experience (i.e., stability, certainty, completeness, etc.) and transforming them into the fixed traits of real Being, the traditional metaphysicians build an intellectual refuge from the ‘bad’ traits found in existence/experience (i.e., precariousness, uncertainty, incompleteness, etc.). According to Dewey, they encourage escape from the evils of nature rather than control over them” (Gardner, 395, 396, 399). 25
Pragmatism as Reconstruction
    In some ways, Dewey ‘out-pragmatizes’ James. This is most evident in his presentation of reconstruction as the technique both of naturalizing Jamesian pragmatism, and focusing it, especially where it is applied to religion. Working forward from James, Dewey turns to a reconception and rejuvenation of experience (empiricism). He questions the need to look outside of experience “to supply assured principles to science and conduct” (Dewey 1957, 77). Reconstruction carries with it two (connected) meanings, philosophical and democratic. They are complimentary, because the reconstruction of philosophy trains philosophy on the institutions of democracy and the aspirations of democratic society. Dewey’s leading principle in “Philosophy and the American Life” and “The Development of American Pragmatism,” guides his work in education theory as well as philosophy. Pragmatism becomes instrumentalism when it concerns itself with the “positive function of reconstituting the present stage of things instead of merely knowing it;” and when it identifies or projects “an idea or ideal which, instead of expressing the notion of another world or some far-away unrealizable goal, would be used as a method of understanding and rectifying specific social ills.”17 This is the cause for and of philosophy, according to Dewey, “an attempt to find an intelligent substitute for blind custom and blind impulse as guides to life and conduct” (Dewey 1957, 126). Knowledge becomes instrumental as it becomes experimental. 26
    In the chapter “Moral Reconstruction,” Dewey applies reconstruction “in the moral and social disciplines.” The first consequence of Dewey’s naturalization of belief is the adaptation of the “pragmatic rule” of looking forward to determine the meaning and consequences of an idea (Dewey 1957, 162, 163). Coupled with the melioristic task Dewey sets for philosophy, we arrive at his basic reconstruction of the “burden of the moral life from following rules or pursuing fixed ends over to the detection of the ills that need remedy in a special case and the formulation of plans and methods for dealing with them” (Dewey 1957, 165). Fixed ends, like fixed meanings (of beliefs, ideas), are symptomatic of the rationalistic, monistic philosophies which Dewey and James find so repugnant. The “belief in fixed values” is taken to be a form of fanaticism, which differentiates between ideal and material goods, to the detriment of “those interests of daily life which because of their constancy and urgency form the preoccupation of the great mass.” The solution is to apply the method of the natural sciences, as Dewey sees it, to the reconstruction of moral life. “Inquiry, discovery take the same place in morals that they have come to occupy in sciences of nature. Validation, demonstration become experimental, a matter of consequences” (Dewey 1957, 168, 1701-171, 174). 27
    This rendering of moral ideals and principles does not make them less substantial than when they were simply understood as given, or accepted as pre-existent or a-priori. When the fixed values of beliefs are unmoored, set free, they become, in Dewey’s words, “the unforced flowers of life.” Dewey does not abandon the religious possibility. He seems to respect and in some sense demand its reappearance as a force in the life of the community. His task, and the one he addresses forcefully in A Common Faith, is to recover the vital sources (and functions) of religion. 28
The Reconstruction of Religion
    The most interesting reconstruction Dewey performs is found in the three short lectures of A Common Faith. In this gem of a book, Dewey turns his attention to the category of religious belief. His reconstruction of religion into the religious aspects of experience runs the same course as his reconstruction of philosophy. Religion, for Dewey, is best brought forward through its particular functions in and of experience, not as the dogma and doctrine of traditional religions. Dewey’s naturalistic account of religious experience is thoroughly anti sui-generis. The religious is not privileged or unique; in fact, the translation of religion is meant to direct it away from the rigid principles of religious traditions and toward the service of a pluralistic and democratic community.18 His approach, which he likens to the scientific method, is meant to be “open and public,” and not, like doctrine, “limited and private” (Dewey 1934, 39). Openness also means that he will not follow the part of James’s definition of religions in Varieties as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James 1961, 42). 29
    Dewey sets the stage for his reconstruction of religion by asking about the role and place of supernaturalism in religion. The simplest definition of religion is the one with which Dewey begins. It is characterized by belief in unseen powers (“something unseen and powerful”) to which “obedience and reverence” is shown and from which emanate or through which are identified certain “moral motivations.” Dewey is very quick to distance himself from any strict definition or delineation of the fundamental characteristics of religion, arguing that “there is no such thing as religion in the singular. There is only a multitude of religions.” Religion is described as weighed down by “historic encumbrances,” which prevent “the religious quality of experience from coming to consciousness and finding the expression that is appropriate to present conditions, intellectual and moral.” Dewey here sounds very much like Emerson in his “Divinity School Address.” Part of the reconstruction of religion, then, is the rarefaction of the religious from particular religions. Dewey’s language is almost identical to that used earlier in “Beliefs and Realities”: “I am not proposing a religion, but rather the emancipation of elements and outlooks that may be called religious. For the moment we have a religion, whether that of the Sioux Indian or of Judaism or of Christianity, that moment the ideal factors in experience that may be called religious take on a load that is not inherent in them, a load of current beliefs and of institutional practices that are irrelevant to them” (Dewey 1934, 4-5, 7, 9). 30
    It is difficult at this very early stage in his argument to break down Dewey’s conception of ideal factors. But we can identify at least two themes that resound from his earlier work in pragmatism. First, the focus on present conditions will lead to the identification (or assignment) of a melioristic purpose to the religious. Also, the transformation of religion carries with it a naturalization of religious beliefs. Dewey argues that “the religious function in experience can be emancipated only through surrender of the whole notion of special truths that are religious by their own nature, together with the idea of peculiar avenues of access to such truths.” He argues that an individual’s previous religious training and education floods the experience, coloring it—and justifying or providing it with meaning, pre-given (Dewey 1934, 33, 35). This first step allows Dewey to level the playing field. Through a turn to experience, dogma is replaced by religious beliefs that are now working hypotheses whose meaning is no longer assumed or accepted by virtue of their status as religious beliefs. Perhaps this move on Dewey’s part is what he finds lacking in James’ description (and endorsement) of certain religious experiences in Varieties—that is, these experiences reflect but do not reflectively reconstruct religious beliefs. 31
    Dewey does recognize some purpose in experience which he identifies as religious. In part, this is expressed in the instrumentality or value of the religious: “If this function were rescued through emancipation from dependence upon specific types of beliefs and practices, from those elements that constitute a religion, many individuals would find that experiences having the force of bringing about a better, deeper and enduring adjustment in life are not so rare and infrequent as they are commonly supposed to be” (Dewey 1934, 14). The more important aspects of the religious, are the ideal factors that make it religious. It is helpful to re-emphasize Dewey’s usage of religious in place of religion; it represents only attitudes and not a “special entity . . . institution . . . or system of beliefs” (Dewey 1934, 9-10). 32
    Though it may seem that Dewey has conflated the “content” of religious belief with its melioristic function or consequence, this is not the case. The contents of religious beliefs vary, though the category may be judged by the consequence of the belief. Dewey, through his naturalistic explanation of the religious aspects of experience, is not attempting to describe the “manner and cause of its production,” but that functional aspect of the experience which is melioristic (Dewey 1934, 13-14) 33
    To prove his point, Dewey drops the language of “religious” in favor of “accommodation” and “adaptation.” (“Instead of accommodating ourselves to conditions, we modify conditions so that they will be accommodated to our wants and purposes. This process will be called adaptation.”) Religions claim, according to Dewey, to bring about this particular “change in attitude.” Dewey wants “to turn the statement around and say that whenever this change takes place there is a definitely religious attitude. It is not a religion that brings it about,” he argues, “but when it occurs, from whatever cause and by whatever means, there is a religious outlook and function” (Dewey 1934, 15, 16, 17). This move brings Santayana (and Emerson) back into the discussion. 34
    Dewey turns to Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion in which Santayana describes the relationship between these two categories. The passage he quotes reads: “Religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs. Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life; and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry. Poetry has a universal and a moral function, for its highest power lies in its relevance to the ideals and purposes of life” (Dewey 1934, 17). Dewey takes two things from this passage. First, he agrees with the connection Santayana draws between the imagination and the ideal, or ideals. Second, Dewey notes that the difference between something that intervenes and one that only supervenes “is the difference between one that completely interpenetrates all the elements of our being and one that is interwoven with only special and partial factors (Dewey 1934, 18). Emerson reappears when Dewey begins his discussion of the harmonizing of the self. The religious adjustment which brings the self in harmony with a greater universe comes to be through the functioning of the imagination (“imaginative extension”): “The whole self is an ideal, an imaginative projection.”19 The imagination leans forward and takes the individual with it into the future. The self develops and progresses as it fulfills the projections of the imagination. 35
    Religious faith undergoes a similar conversion under Dewey’s pen. As he describes earlier in Reconstruction, faith has often been set apart or against knowledge. It is often placed in or “given to a body of propositions as true on the credit of their supernatural author.” Reason comes into play to structure and justify the faith or explain away (apologetics) discrepancies in the body of propositions. Dewey maintains that “religion necessarily implies a theology” (Dewey 1934, 20). But there is another kind of religious faith which is attractive to Dewey, moral faith: “Apart from any theological context, there is a difference between belief that is a conviction that some end should be supreme over conduct, and belief that some object or being exists as a truth for the intellect. Conviction in the moral sense signifies being conquered, vanquished, in our active nature by an ideal end . . . Such acknowledgment is practical, not primarily intellectual” (Dewey 1934, 20-21). 36
    The turn Dewey is attempting finds its expression in the title of the second lecture in Common Faith, “Faith and its Object.” He is at pains to explain that intellectualizing the object of moral faith points faith in the wrong direction. Its object is ideal and so, too, imaginative. He writes: “They have failed to see that in converting moral realities into matters of intellectual assent they have evinced lack of moral faith. Faith that something should be in existence as far as lies in our power is changed into the intellectual belief that it is already in existence.” Dewey’s idealism (not to be confused with philosophical Idealism) moves forward into the world of working; while “intellectual schemes of idealism convert the idealism of action into a system of beliefs about antecedent reality” (Dewey 1934, 21-22, 23-24). 37
    Finally, Dewey must add the one quality that makes “moral faith in ideal ends . . . religious.” As Emerson and James before him, Dewey turns to emotion: “The religious is ‘morality touched by emotion’ only when the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unify the self.” Dewey adds that the attitude expands the usual meaning of the “moral” to include “art, science and good citizenship” (Dewey 1934, 22, 23). But the emphasis here is on the deep emotion at the heart of moral faith. The connection with Emerson and James may be found in James’s “The Psychology of Belief” and Emerson’s Nature. Both describe this particular emotion as deep and powerful, revealing frequently ignored or overlooked natural connections. For Dewey, religious seems to be an adjective which modifies a particularly powerful adjustment in many spheres of life. In this light, Dewey may out-naturalize or secularize Emerson and James. But Dewey does come very close to Emerson’s understanding of the necessity and power of a kind of faith or religious experience which opens the individual to her relation with nature. 38
    Since Common Faith is an attempt by Dewey to reconstruct religion, he turns his attention to a reconstruction of the central conception or figure of most religious traditions, “God.” By naturalizing the supernatural, Dewey brings together experience, community, and moral faith. His exercise begins with a re-definition of “God” which strips it of ontological weight and meaning, and reconstitutes it as “the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion, the values to which one is supremely devoted, as far as these ends, through imagination, take on unity” (Dewey 1934, 42). 39
    Reconstruction of religion includes a turn away from the kind of descriptive psychology of religion in James’s Varieties and toward the recognition of a community purpose or community of purpose. It is not the individual experience which attracts Dewey, but the function of the religious aspects of experience in and through community, the collective or unity of ideal ends arousing us to actions. Dewey is interested in the social function of the idea of a God. For Dewey, “God” is the “active relation between the ideal and the actual.”20 Again, by ideal, Dewey does not mean removed from the world. Ideal is the projective or progressive possibility of imagination. 40
    Progressive becomes an important motivation of Dewey’s reconstruction. In addition to his discussion of fanaticism, Dewey blames the “supernaturalization” of the ideal, with a conservatism, an escape from human responsibility for human problems. He argues that “men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing. Depending upon an external power is the counterpart of surrender of human endeavor. Dewey’s reconstruction removes the possibility of the “accidental” and transfers responsibility for social change to the social realm—to individuals acting in concert. 41
    By naturalizing James, Dewey avoids a great number of the problems which attach to anyone working through James’s writings on religion. James description of “something mental that pre-exists, and is larger than” a person in Human Immortality is but one example of many (James 1956, 58). When James discusses religious experience, he comes to the brink of (and perhaps he occasionally crosses into) confessing to the existence of the ghosts in and around the machine. Even when he describes religious experiences in terms of their spiritual value, he ends up arguing that some beliefs in some supernatural existences are particularly helpful. Dewey avoids what Richard Gale identifies as James’s own “divided self.” 42
    Deweyan pragmatism is functional and instrumental and divorced completely from the supernatural. If philosophy is to serve the role Dewey envisions for it, then experience must be able to change reality.21 Again, this pragmatic realism is not at all philosophical Realism.22 It is my contention that this aspect of Dewey’s thought is exactly what has been missed by commentators such as Rorty. Dewey’s empiricism is not an abandonment of philosophy as a force for change. It is also not a surrender to the chaos and confusion which come with experience or are so often the content of life in the world of work (and play). Dewey’s approach requires imaginatively directing experiences through some common faith to the problems which a responsible community, that respects its democratic and pluralistic essence, must face. In this sense, Deweyan pragmatism is instrumentalist. Unlike James, Dewey does not accept and describe the content of special beliefs. His pragmatic method holds the content of ideas to revision, and so requires an attention to the meaning and value at-play of ideas 43
    Dewey’s Emersonian inheritances are not far afield. His attention to the melioristic value and function of traditional religious categories renews them as it reconstructs them. Dewey is concerned with the virtue of piety as well as with the adjustment that follows the recognition of belonging to a larger whole. Like Emerson, Dewey finds this force only once it has been liberated from its supernaturalist aspect. Only by replacing adherence with imagination and dogma with experimentation “is it possible to expedite the development of the vital sources of a religion and art that are yet to be. When philosophy shall have co-operated with the course of events and made clear and coherent the meaning of the daily detail, science and emotion will interpenetrate, practice and imagination will embrace. Poetry and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life” (Dewey 1957, 212-213). 44

Binghamton University (SUNY)


1 In honor of Professor John E. Smith. The author wishes to thank Michael R. Slater for his insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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2 See Backe, Buxton, and Phillips. All focus on the Dewey’s early essay “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” as a turning point in Dewey’s thought (though all do not agree on the centrality of James in Dewey’s reconsideration of his own Hegelianism). As is widely quoted, Phillips argues that “James’s Principles had a revolutionary impact on Dewey; he started to abandon Hegelian ideas and adopt a naturalistic position” (Phillips, 565). Buxton agrees that “before 1890, Dewey’s views were clearly dominated by absolute idealist philosophy; after this date his familiar functionalist ideas became more clearly recognizable” (Buxton, 451). But Buxton argues persuasively that there was more than one cause for Dewey’s shift. Backe takes the argument a step further by dismissing the notion that Dewey abandoned Hegelianism completely. He concludes: “While James seems clearly to have influenced Dewey by placing psychology in the biological world and by providing Dewey an avenue by which to abandon the obscure notion of an absolute self-consciousness, Dewey did not abandon Hegel’s notion that truth can be found in the organic whole” (322).

3Richard Gale makes his case in “John Dewey’s Naturalization of William James” (Gale 1997).

4 Dewey 1908, 85. The passages from Pragmatism are from pp. 198, 205-206, 80.

5 Dewey 1908, 88. Dewey cites Pragmatism, 53.

6 By “circles,” I mean to bring to mind Dewey’s Emersonianism: “I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back” (Emerson 1996, 412).

7 Dewey 1908, 89. He is citing Pragmatism, 45, 50.

8 Dewey 1908, 91. The passages are from pp. 106, 107. The italics are added by Dewey.

9 This points to an important distinction between James and Peirce. Peirce most certainly did not identify the meaning of any thought with the action it brought. Actions are always singular while beliefs, for Peirce, are general or conceptual. “It follows,” Professor Smith adds, “that thought and action, however they are related, can never be identical” (Smith 1978, 15, 24).

10 Dewey 1906b, 307. Dewey seems to equate metaphysical realism with a mythologized view of reality, and anti-realism with a demythologized view of it. Of course, Dewey’s notion of democracy and secular society is never thoroughly demythologized and may be shown to rest on certain “myths” of liberal democratic philosophy and national identity. Michael R. Slater has pointed out that it is one thing to criticize the position that we can assume the truth of a given belief and pass straightforward to consider its practical value; it is another to criticize the position that we already know the meaning of the concepts we use—to criticize this is patently absurd. At any rate, there is some ambiguity on Dewey’s part.

11 This is taken from his Collected Works: The Later Works, 1925-1953, Vol. 2: 1925-1927. I will use the abbreviation LW II, for this and similar citations from his CW.

12 The title of the essay was eventually changed from “Beliefs and Realities.” See MW III, 83.

13 Dewey 1906a, 121. Dewey calls this the “bargain struck between science and faith.” See Westbrook, 419.

14 This was suggested by a reviewer of the paper.

15 Gilmore, 274. Following Borges’s interpretation of Heraclitus’s fragment on the river, nature is not the only thing which is transformed in and through discovery. The individual and her beliefs also change.

16 See Emerson, 1996, 25, 24: “The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world. The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass. The visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible.”

17 LW II, 18. See n.25. Dewey 1957, 124. Thanks to Mathew C. Day for pointing out Dewey’s affinity for Bacon. Dewey praises Bacon for “discovery of new facts and truths to demonstration of old;” testing received truth through experience and not accepting it as dogma; See Dewey 1957, 31, 33, 38, 82, 93.

18 The similarities between Dewey and Mordecai Kaplan’s notions of reconstruction are striking. See Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993; and, Allan Lazaroff, “Kaplan and John Dewey,” in The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, New York: New York University Press, 1990.

19 Dewey 1934, 19. Dewey acknowledges this as the source of religionists’ claim that the adjustment reflects “an influx from sources beyond conscious deliberation and purpose”( Dewey 1934, 19). Dewey points to this as a possible explanation for James’s references to unconscious factors in Varieties.

20 Dewey 1934, 51. Dewey rejects the “mystical” type of union which suggests a form of escape or a uniting with something (conceptual) already given (52).

21 See Dewey 1929a, 5.

22 See note 14.

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