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Reinhold Niebuhr and John Dewey: An American Odyssey.

This is a historical account of Niebuhr's and Dewey's relationship which spans the thirties, forties, and early fifties, when Dewey was philosophy professor emeritus at Columbia and Niebuhr was professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. The author advances two claims of interest to the general philosophical reader: first, that the two thinkers' ethical and political visions were much closer in substance and method than either they or their followers tended to acknowledge; and second, that Niebuhr was in his practice, if not in his self-understanding, a kind of theological pragmatist.

These suggestions may come as a surprise to those who remember the charismatic, sometimes brash, and younger Niebuhr and the low-key, ever-polite Dewey as very different personalities whose intellectual clashes formed one of the livelier chapters in the history of American public intellectual life. The author plausibly argues that although Niebuhr never relinquished his view of Dewey as a naively scientistic thinker who gave "shallow answers to ultimate questions" resulting from a naive faith in the malleability of human nature, and although many of Niebuhr's criticisms were based on a shallow and uncharitable reading of Dewey, the two thinkers shared much common ground. Besides moving in virtually the same intellectual circles, both were critical of the Cartesian dualistic legacy in Western philosophy; both tended to see the importance of religion in social terms; and both were staunch critics of laissez-faire liberalism as a basis for democratic politics. These points of difference and convergence are brought out chronologically in Part 1, which covers such events as Niebuhr's initial broadside against Dewey in Moral Man and Immoral Society in 1932, Dewey's naturalizing reconstructions of traditional religious notions in A Common Faith two years later, and both men's shaping influence on the polemically charged Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, held in 1940. Part 2 discusses in more detail the array of issues over which Niebuhr and Dewey differed and occasionally converged.

What is missing in this otherwise informative account is a stronger sense of the author's own critical perspective. This may be due to his wish to be even-handed in his treatment of two figures who were not always kindly disposed to one another; but the result in the text is too many sentences like "Niebuhr, who in the area of politics, J. David Hoveler, Jr., saw as 'probably the most important twentieth-century critic of Dewey,' found in Dewey far too many signature elements of the liberal creed." The exposition of Dewey is on the whole accurate and sympathetic. (The chapter on A Common Faith is particularly good in this regard.) But the author, himself a professor of religious studies and a one-time student of Niebuhr, seems nonetheless overly wedded to the familiar caricature of Dewey, shared by Niebuhr and others, as a naively romantic optimist about human nature and social change. If Dewey's lack of tragic nuance in some writings admittedly did not help dispel this image of his work, it is belied by his articulation elsewhere - for example, in the 1908 Ethics - of a "meliorist" stance combining an optimism of will with a pessimism of the intellect, a stance which in spirit was not all that far from Niebuhr's own. The book also seems, at two hundred sixty-five pages plus eighty pages of notes, excessively long, given the relatively modest personal contact between its two principal subjects, together with the author's declaration that a critical defense of his claim that Niebuhr was a theological pragmatist - which one would have thought the book's central substantive thesis about Niebuhr - "goes far beyond the boundaries of this work." Philosophical readers may wish that some of the many pages given over to anecdotes about what Dewey, Niebuhr, and their colleagues thought of one another had been spent on such a defense.

Despite these weaknesses, the book will be of interest to readers pursuing connections between pragmatism and twentieth-century religious thought, as well as to those seeking information on Dewey and Niebuhr not to be found in current intellectual biographies such as Richard Fox's Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), Robert B. Westbrook's John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), or Stephen C. Rockefeller's John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (New York; Columbia University Press, 1991). The recollections and correspondence the author assembles here from Dewey, Niebuhr, and others provide a good portrait of one facet of American public intellectual life at mid-century, and a poignant reminder of how precarious, if also pragmatically guided, has been the road to public dialogue between religious apologists and secular humanists since that time. - Casey Haskins, State University of New York at Purchase.
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Author:Haskins, Casey
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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