Dewey and the Existentialists

Perhaps I should have called this posting America’s own philosophers – forgotten and abandoned – because that is really what it is about. But I studied the existentialists first, and then the American Pragmatists – so that is the context I put them in.

Americans have been against any kind of theorizing for a long time, preferring to think of themselves as practical people. This is in direct contradiction to their beginnings, when the founding fathers were well-acquainted with the ideas of the European Enlightenment – and America was seen as its first great hope. This brilliant start did not last long – and was finally destroyed by the American Civil War. And even later, for the entire Western World, by WWI – followed quickly by WWII.

The American Pragmatists were a counter-current to America’s long decline which began at that time. Eventually, in the middle of the 20th Century, they were forgotten entirely.  This is another part of the American Tragedy, because they were brilliant thinkers, and very much a part of the American Tradition.

The Existentialists, by contrast, had much less to say – but were enthusiastically adopted by the French, who after WWII badly needed something to bolster their national prestige. The Americans, who won the war, were content to give the French a philosophical victory – without even realizing it.


John Dewey: The Lost Individual

John Dewey was a philosopher, and sometimes he writes as one – carefully and logically. The following passage , which I am copying from the book Classical American Philosophy, page 383, has this same lucid, calm, academic style. Bear in mind, however, that what he is describing is our modern version of Hell.

The development of a civilization that is outwardly corporate – or rapidly becoming so – has been accompanied by a submergence of the individual. Just how true this is of the individual’s opportunities in action, how far initiative and choice in what an individual does are restricted by the economic forces that make for consolidation, I shall not attempt to say.

It is arguable that there has been a diminution on the range of decision and activity for the many along with the exaggeration opportunity of personal expression for the few. It may be contended that no one class in the world in the past has the power possessed by an industrial oligarchy.

On the other hand, it may be held that this power of the few is, with respect to genuine individuality, specious; that those outwardly in control are in reality as much carried by forces external to themselves as are the many; that in fact these forces impel into a common mold to such an extent that individuality is suppressed.

Stability of individuality is dependent on assured objects of belief to which allegiance firmly attaches itself. But the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.  It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief as the present. Individuals vibrate between a past that is intellectually too empty to give stability and a present that is too diversely crowded and chaotic to afford balance or direction to ideas and emotion.

Judged by this standard, even those who seem to be in control, and to carry the expression of their special abilities to a high pitch, are submerged. They may be captains of finance and industry, but until there is some consensus of belief as to the meaning of finance and industry in civilization as a whole, they cannot be captains of their own souls – their beliefs and aims. They exercise leadership surreptitiously and, as it where, absent mindedly. They lead, but it is under cover of impersonal and socially undirected forces.

This is not only true of those at the top. It is also true of the many specialists on whom they depend. They are the ones who create the new techniques and new technologies that enable it all work together. They are valuable when the have the special skills in demand at the moment – but these never last long.

John Dewey, Part Two

America has had its thinkers, but they have been ignored – and John Dewey is a case in point. I once heard a good educator described as “Someone who had a bad case of John Dewey – but got over it.” On other words, he realized that America had rejected Dewey, and so he did too.

This is tragic. Dewey understood us well, and we could have learned from him. The following is from the book Classical American Philosophy, page 334, in a section called The Reconstruction of Culture.

Dewey’s social and political writings focus on the task of creating a genuinely democratic society, a society in which individualism and community flourish. Individual and community, the private and the public, do not stand in necessary opposition; instead, they require each other, and any opposition between them marks not a metaphysical fact but a historical social problem that demands conceptual and political reconstruction.

This reconstructions is needed, Dewey argues, because rapid cultural change has submerged the individual by overturning traditional loyalties and attachments that constitute the basis of real individuality. This reconstruction has been paralyzed by traditional conceptions of individuality as something “ready-made” and in need only of being unrestricted, and so serves laissez-faire economic policies and traditional political liberalism.

These traditional conceptions, blind to their own historical relativity and the developmental character of individuality, once may have served the goals of individuality, liberty, and intelligence, but now, under new conditions, effectively hinder the realization of these goals as they have actual meaning in these new conditions.

I had trouble reading this – because I lack the mental tools, or concepts, to grasp it. Part of me said “This does not compute.” But when I forced myself to look at it carefully, I marveled at how well he understood the situation – especially when he says “rapid cultural change has submerged the individual.”

He did not appreciate the effect of technology (and indirectly, science) on creating this rapid social change. He did, however, remain loyal to democracy, which we have, in effect, abandoned.

John Dewey on Education

John Dewey’s book Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education should well-known to all Americans. Everyone concurs that democracy cannot exist without an educated citizenry. And this is a classic in its field. But almost no Americans are familiar with it.

And it is available instantly for free – via Amazon’s Kindle service. I just downloaded it for the PC Kindle application on my computer. From force of habit I prefer holding a paper copy in my hands, but maybe this will be an educational experience for me.

I can hear you now “But I don’t have any time!” Americans in Lincoln’s time used to love to educate themselves, and spent a lot of time on it.

The first victims of our present situation as been the Americans themselves. They have been eliminated – and everything has followed from that.