Pragmatism, as Tocquevile first suggested, is America's characteristic form of thought. John Dewey was our country's most celebrated and prolific pragmatic thinker, and David Fott rightly labels him America's philosopher of democracy. Fott's book is far more than an introduction to Dewey's thought. it is a comprehensive and pithy account of the strengths and weaknesses-philosophical, moral, and political-of Dewey's way of thinking. Faint praise it is to say that reading Fott is more enjoyable and illuminating than reading Dewey. But it is also true that those who have found life too short to spend much time with Dewey can benefit from this book. Fott shows why to understand Dewey is to understand something about America. By complacently replacing faith in God and in the individual human mind with faith in modern science's technological experimentalism, especially its methodical reconciliation of the individual and the social good, he made philosophy, education, and morality more dogmatic and boring.
Fott misleadingly calls the danger to human liberty in this line of thought "tyranny of the majority" (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume 1), when it is really the tyranny of schoolmaster-experts hiding behind the impersonal authority of science (Tocqueville, volume 2). Fott unfashionably praises individuality, understood as genius or greatness but even as self-centeredness, as the natural antidote to this leveling, scientistic communitarianism. Today's pragmatist Richard Rorty at least grants the individual room for private fantasies, but Dewey is too sober or scientific for such nonsense.
At first glance, the goal of Dewey's emphasis on universalizing the teaching of the scientific method and applying it to all human problems seems to be to provide the individual with the resources to be a critical, democratic citizen by using his or her mind to discover the truth. But Dewey also assumes that the true teaching of science is that the individual is almost exclusively the product of social forces. He also expresses, somewhat inconsistently, his moral revulsion against what he regards as the aristocratic view that the individual might conceive of him or herself spiritually and so have an internal life, a point of view, with which to resist the demands of democratic society. Democracy, for Dewey, is not merely a form of government but a way of life, and all human worth comes through social service.
At one point Fott praises Dewey for not being Rorty, for being free from postmodern romanticism. But in the book's most fascinating section, he faults him for being too free from postmodern concerns and sensibility. He concludes his fine account of Dewey's aesthetics by noticing the absence of the term "sublime." The typical liberal criticism of romanticism is that its mixture of aesthetic experience with politics produces enthusiastic tyranny. And so the postmodern bourgeois liberal Rorty is very careful to privatize the aesthetic realm and to criticize those such as Heidegger and Sartre who attempted to impose their personal obsessions on others through political action. Dewey sees the compatibility of liberal political life and aesthetics only because, for him, the latter is free from sublimity. For him, even aesthetic experience is flat-souled or boring.
For postmodern thinkers such as Lyotard, the sublime is the intensification of artistic experience in an attempt to overcome the human fear of nothingness. But Dewey does not seem to have been moved much by such fear. Fott certainly might have gone further and noticed that in Dewey's many accounts of human experience, including contingency, uncertainty, and so forth, he never discusses the experience of the individual dying alone. The term "death" is as foreign to Dewey's work as "sublime." Maybe Dewey's inability to be moved strongly by death is the deepest reason for his inability to do justice to the irreducibly solitary or private features of human experience, and for why he unrealistically downplays the tension between individual experience and the requirements of social and political life. (It is also the reason for his inability to do justice to human eros, the intimate, social, "consummatory" experiences that connect one self-conscious mortal to another.) Pragmatism, in fact, might be defined as the denial of the truth expressed by existentialism.
Fott observes that Dewey's defense of liberalism differs from the "traditional liberalism" of Locke and others by dispensing with fear. The individual's rights originate with fear, and the individual consents to government to alleviate that fear. Dewey's refusal to acknowledge fear might be termed courageous, but it is more radically self-denial. Locke, more open and truthful about death and individuality, is actually more courageous.
Fott might have added that neither Dewey nor Locke is authentically courageous; neither seems to possess or affirm the virtue required to live well with the truth about human limitations. Perhaps he takes a step in that direction by presenting Socratic or "rationalist" aesthetics as the antidote to the flatness of pragmatism. But his description of that "dialectical" rationalism is rather abstract and unconvincing, and he does not really defend the proposition that classical political philosophy does justice to the experiences that constitute human individuality. Fott rightly criticizes Dewey for dismissing dogmatically revealed religion, but he does little better himself. Could an aesthetics that ranks human activities only according to their reasonableness really do justice to the human experience of the mystery of Being and human being? For Fott, the alternatives seem to be ancient or theoretical and modern or pragmatic rationalism, and one tends to reduce the human good to the mind and the other to the b ody.
Fott does show how ineffectual Dewey's pragmatism really is. Dewey's intention is that "historical relativism" dispel fear. Historicism or relativism deprive human choices of much of their weight, and they engender an optimism that limitations of the present need not be those of the future. But scientific progress cannot really conquer death, and the resulting relativism makes more clear than any absolutism how contingent and temporary human existence really is. Its tendency is to make human beings more fearful, not less. And so Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, among others, has noticed that human beings today are more death-haunted than ever before.
In the decisive sense, all modern thought is pragmatism in some way or another, and it all has failed. Lockean liberalism sets out to conquer fear, and liberals create a political order in which human beings are objectively more secure than ever before. But they are also more fearful, because they have more time to brood and more to lose. Dewey and Rorty try to purge fear and death from human experience by refusing to talk about them. Rorty, more clearly than Dewey, puts his money on the ability of human beings to describe and redescribe themselves, and so he openly if futilely hopes to talk death to death. And his transfer of the pragmatic faith from the scientific method to linguistic therapy merely radicalizes the core of Dewey's effort. If science means knowledge of the way things really are, then Dewey was no more scientific than Rorty. Fott is right to say that pragmatism is not and cannot become realism. It is, finally, ineffectual dogmatism. This book's able defense of the truth deserves a wide and a ttentive audience.
PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER is Professor of Government in Berry College, Georgia.