Joshua Forstenzer’s book is a timely and well-researched contribution to the ongoing development of pragmatist political philosophy. Forstenzer’s core thesis is that Dewey’s experimentalism is a useful resource and model for, on the one hand, criticizing the failure of ideal theory to address standing problems in politics, and on the other hand, resisting the moral quietism that too often plagues realist outlooks. As Forstenzer puts it, “we need a methodological approach which charts a via media between ideal theory and realism.”
Forstenzer’s book is insightful and useful on two fronts: first, along the lines of updating and putting a fine point on the case against ideal theory, and second, in making the case for the relevance of Dewey’s experimental method as a set of tools for articulating what active citizenship should be. I am pleased to host this symposium on Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy.
The Role of the Political Philosopher and the State of Political Discourse
In his commendable study, Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy, Joshua Forstenzer delivers an unsettling assessment of the many urgent social and environmental threats which confront contemporary humanity, and of the failures of recent political philosophy to contribute very much of practical value in addressing such monumental issues. According to Forstenzer, the agenda-setting Rawlsian paradigm by which Anglophone political philosophy has been broadly defined in recent decades perpetuates a damaging conception of the political philosopher’s tasks as being fulfillable outside of vigorous engagement with political actors of various kinds. The issue of making political philosophy relevant to socially-situated problem-solving is, for Forstenzer, closely connected to broader methodological and meta-philosophical questions surrounding philosophy’s proper relation to other disciplines and to culture more generally. If it is to contribute effectively to addressing the problems which confront us as a species, Forstenzer maintains, dialogue with other social sciences and forms of political activity must be seen as constitutive of the very practice of political philosophy, which must also renounce any claim to insight into a special fund of truths not otherwise accessible than by means of a specifically philosophical method. All the same, Forstenzer does not deny to political philosophy a unique and valuable function in coordinating and mediating between the various sources of insight available within a community for addressing the problems which it faces. The political philosopher should experiment, Forstenzer claims, with a conception of herself as something like an informed and even-handed chairperson at an assembly of community members. Such an example is provided, according to Forstenzer, in the life and works of John Dewey, whose pragmatist account of inquiry and theory of democratic problem-solving he proceeds to elaborate with admirable scholarship and clarity.
Forstenzer’s account of the political philosopher’s role in public discussion is motivated by a commitment to democratic problem-solving. For the political philosopher to credit herself with a didactic role in public discussion is, Forstenzer maintains, incompatible with a vigorous commitment to democratic politics, insofar as it is to advocate programs developed in advance of discussion amongst community members, thereby narrowing the opportunities for popular participation in the development of political solutions. Rather than assuming to impart wisdom to the public, Forstenzer maintains, the political philosopher should empower democratic citizens by facilitating discussion amongst community members, thereby ensuring that the imaginative resources of the entire citizenry are maximally utilised in addressing the problems which confront them.
As Forstenzer expertly shows, “democracy” is for Dewey, in the more pregnant sense of the term, a way of life, and not merely a set of legal and institutional arrangements. For democratic ideals to flourish, “democracy” cannot be complacently treated as something already achieved in a state’s history and preserved in its institutions, but must instead be reflected in the daily practices of a citizenry actively concerned with the well-being of its community and committed to participating in the process of popular decision-making. To live in a democracy is not, for Dewey, simply a privilege which certain fortunate communities happen to inherit from their predecessors, but a form of interactive intelligent agency which makes notable demands upon a citizenry. A democratic people should be informed, respectful of one another, and committed to resolving whatever problems may confront them in an intelligent, honest and non-threatening manner. Hence Dewey maintains that democracy involves a kind of faith, which he characterises as a generous trust in the ability of citizens to exercise the judgement and responsibility which democratic culture requires.
Implicit in this very admission, however, there is an acknowledgement that it is far from certain that a citizenry shall live up to the demands which Dewey’s democratic ideal makes of it. A commitment to democracy does indeed involve an element of risk as far as Dewey is concerned, and the recent growth of reactionary populist movements across the globe well-illustrates the dangers which attend the erosion of popular confidence in the normal functioning of democratic regimes. In the face of an aggressive campaign of misinformation conducted by governing parties and their supporters, which threatens the very civic virtues upon the basis of which Dewey hopes for democracy to thrive, it is unclear that philosophers shall best serve the promotion of democratic culture by exercising the kind of discussion-chairing function which Forstenzer outlines.
The philosopher might act as a responsible chairperson by intervening in ongoing debates to highlight a proliferation of accusatory and discriminatory rhetoric, ill will, and disregard for standards of responsible procedure amongst discussion partners. Appeals to civic ideals and reminders of standard political procedure are unlikely to have the hoped-for outcomes, however, under such conditions as must already have become prevalent for reactionary populism to have become a successful electoral force. A significant part of the electorate must think little of manifest dishonesty, casual expressions of prejudice against traditionally marginalised groups, extravagantly unsubstantiated claims, and hostility to constitutional limits on the exercise of political power, or else they must be prepared to maintain that such practices—which might fairly be criticised in ordinary times—are precisely what current circumstances demand from political leaders. By the time reactionary populists have achieved electoral success, a large part of the citizenry must already deem the political situation to demand a decisiveness which has little patience for what have come to be seen as the pedantic niceties of constitutional limits and the quibbling complaints of those who are anxious about the consequences of nativist rhetoric. Hence, the remedy which Forstenzer’s Dewey would prescribe to our current situation can only arrive too late. Having reached such an advanced stage, the normalisation of a combative political culture marked by manifest displays of intolerance and illegality has resulted in an environment of hostility and suspicion unconducive to public-spirited responsible decision-making. Far from facilitating intelligent collective reasoning, the space of public discussion is at risk of becoming little more than an arena for the dissemination of misinformation and the aggressive display of hostile attitudes.
To address the toxic state of contemporary political discourse requires the philosopher to act as something other than a chair to a discussion which has become radically compromised by the normalisation of practices hostile to the health of a democracy. It requires the defence and indeed the propagation of values and practices with which philosophers are peculiarly familiar and unusually qualified to advocate. The nature of their discipline means that philosophers are particularly conversant with the tools of critical reasoning, and are able to contribute something important for democratic culture by presuming to educate a citizenry in recognising fallacious arguments and unfounded assertion. Not only respect for the standards of critical reasoning, but certain civic virtues—including tolerance and concern for public well-being—might also number amongst those qualities in a democratic education which philosophers are especially well-suited to cultivate amongst the citizenry. Nor is it at all clear that by seeking to educate a community in such rational standards and civic virtues the philosopher is any more guilty of anti-democratic attitudes than is the economist or the sociologist who intends to advise and inform her community in those matters about which she is peculiarly well-informed. Indeed, the health of a democracy depends upon the citizenry’s regard for honest reasoning and such social attitudes and forms of conduct as are implicit in the respectful exchange of views and the commitment to inclusive and responsible decision-making. To afford philosophers a certain didactic role in training the intellectual habits of the citizenry need not, therefore, imply complicity in any authoritarian Platonist elitism, but might benefit a democratic culture by better equipping citizens with the resources by means of which to identify and resist cynical attempts at political manipulation by powerful interests. Such a didactic function is, moreover, especially called for under circumstances in which democratic values are under threat and, without adequate intervention, public discussion is at risk of reinforcing hostile oppositions within a community, rather than affording a means of reconciliation by way of collaborative agency.
It is possible that none of this is inconsistent with Forstenzer’s Dewey-inspired, community-minded vision of democratic self-rule and of the philosopher’s particular role in such an ideal. As Forstenzer makes clear, Dewey’s liberalism is not of a classical laissez-faire variety but readily acknowledges the importance of the state in facilitating access to such resources as are necessary for one to live with dignity and autonomy. Insofar, however, as philosophy may be esteemed a valuable part of a civic education, philosophers must therefore merit a role in educating the citizenry which is not, presumably, that of a discussion chair. With that in mind, the present remarks may be seen less as a criticism of Forstenzer’s Deweyan account of the philosopher’s role in democratic culture and more as a request for clarification as to what is therefore required of the philosopher under such presently obtaining conditions as have been congenial to the rise of reactionary populist movements.
Justifying Belief in Legitimate Political Ideals
My comments focus on the dialectic of Forstenzer’s exchange with Robert Talisse in chapter 8, which concerns the democratic legitimacy of Deweyan “growth.” Forstenzer defines growth as the “ongoing social cultivation of habits that enable effective problem solving” (581). He provides a number of interesting replies to Talisse’s argument that growth is reasonably rejectable and therefore democratically illegitimate (e.g., Talisse 2011). I will focus on one in particular, because I want to raise some questions about the exact nature of the dialectic between Forstenzer and Talisse (and thus between Dewey and his critics). Specifically, I wonder whether the burden of proof doesn’t remain with Forstenzer and his Deweyan allies, despite his best efforts to shift it back to Dewey’s critics. This may raise some interesting epistemological issues central to the pragmatist tradition.
Forstenzer argues that growth is only a thin conception of the good, not a comprehensive moral doctrine.1 From this he infers that it is not reasonably rejectable, in fact, its commitment to intelligent problem-solving is necessary for the very idea of reasonableness. Talisse has responded thus:
Among Deweyans, “intelligent problem solving” invokes an elaborate theory of inquiry contained within a conception of experience that is a constituent element of an even broader constellation of claims regarding nature, mind, language, reality, and value. The holism of these commitments is frequently identified as a cardinal virtue of Dewey’s philosophy. . . . The problem is [that] just beneath the surface of his depiction of growth as “merely” (573) the injunction to solve problems intelligently there is inexorable reference to a range of reasonably rejectable commitments. (Talisse 2017, p. 581–82)
In his book, Forstenzer provides the following two-part response to Talisse’s critique:
(i) My chief contention is that Deweyan growth, at its core, merely requires that we be committed to solving problems intelligently and that we be committed to doing so while ensuring that our present efforts preserve or expand our abilities to solve problems intelligently in the future. Talisse is yet to have shown that either of these specific commitments are reasonably rejectable. (ii) Even if one were to root one’s public justification for Deweyan democracy in Dewey’s more controversial philosophical views (such as, for example, his metaphysical accounts of the self/community and ends/means), this may not be as problematic as Talisse thinks it to be . . . on the Rawlsian view, even Dewey’s more controversial philosophical views would be permissible in public debate so long as they can be translated into the language of public reason. . . . Rawls’ standard of public reason is simply more permissive than Talisse makes it out to be. (Forstenzer 2019, p. 207)
I want to explore the worry that these two considerations fail to shift the burden of proof back to Talisse. First, Forstenzer’s (i) seems to me to misconstrue the dialectic. Talisse has argued that the only way we currently have of developing growth into a workable ideal, one with significant practical consequences (and thus pragmatic meaning, as a Peircean might say), is via a whole host of substantive, controversial claims which render it reasonably rejectable. This seems to place the burden of proof on Forstenzer or the Deweyan to provide us with a different way to develop growth into a workable ideal, one that does not bring with it any reasonably rejectable claims. Until we have this, it looks to me as if Talisse’s objection remains unanswered. Now I take it that Forstenzer has, in effect, anticipated this worry with (ii). He argues that Dewey’s controversial views “merely need to be translatable—not actually translated—into the more general language of public reason to be receivable in public discourse,” to meet the Rawlsian standard. How, though, are we to determine whether something is in this special sense translatable without actually translating it?
If you present me with a passage of text that appears to be in French and ask me to translate it, I will, admittedly, very likely assume that it can be translated and then (if I have the appropriate language skills) make the effort to do so. But in such a scenario, there are lots of good prima facie reasons to assume the passage is translatable—its initial or superficial appearance, that I trust you not to present me with an impossible task, that I would find it hard to make sense of your request without attributing to you a reasonable belief that the passage was genuinely in French, etc. Even then, my assumption remains defeasible. I can readily imagine that you’ve been tricked into thinking the passage is in French when it is actually in some other language, or indeed is merely nonsense vaguely reminiscent of French. Hence, at best, Forstenzer’s (ii) establishes that it is reasonable to assume, defeasibly, that growth can meet the Rawlsian standard.
I am not convinced that Forstenzer has established even this weak claim. First, it is not clear that we have any independent reason to think that growth is a workable political ideal that meets the Rawlsian standard—none independent of Dewey’s (or his advocates’) arguments to that effect. Second, this appears to entail that we lack grounds to assume either that it can or that it cannot be appropriately translated—the appropriate attitude therefore appears to be one of agnosticism.
Perhaps Forstenzer hopes to appeal for these grounds either to common sense or to pragmatic considerations. That is, perhaps he thinks that common sense tells us that one of the most basic things we want from a successful and legitimate state is that it be capable of and committed to intelligent problem-solving. But if this is his thought, then I doubt that growth, so described, amounts to a political ideal. On this understanding, growth begins to look more like what philosophers like to call a truism or a platitude—something it would be a mistake to consider an example of substantive philosophical theorizing. Chris Hookway draws this distinction in talking, for example, about pragmatists’ numerous apparent endorsements of the correspondence theory of truth:
It is common in philosophy to find phrases and formulations used in two very different ways, as plain, even common sense claims, and as claims which are to be understood in the context of systematic philosophical theorizing. For example we might take it that a phrase such as “True propositions correspond to the facts” both as an unproblematic truism that carries little philosophical weight, and as the expression of a controversial philosophical theory of truth, which employs an ontology of facts and a relation of copying. (cf. William James’s endorsement of the claim that true propositions agree with reality). (Hookway 2007, p. 623)
Note that in the case of truth, Peirce too argues in favor of a certain regulative ideal—the notion that inquirers ought to pursue beliefs that are indefeasible in a special sense (see, e.g., Misak 2004, 2013, etc.). However, he does so by supplying us with substantive claims about the concept, claims that go beyond platitudes such as the correspondence definition of truth and thereby achieve what he calls the “third grade of clarity” (aka pragmatic meaning). It is not clear to me that Forstenzer has done this in the case of growth. In fact, on the contrary, it looks like Forstenzer is precisely trying to avoid doing this, in the interest of preserving its “thin” status. It is not obvious how this is consistent with the view that we have some good reason to think growth is a regulative ideal of democratically legitimate government, in the same way that seeking indefeasible belief is a regulative ideal of every legitimate inquiry.
If Forstenzer’s thought is, instead, that assuming growth to be a legitimate ideal is practically advantageous, and thus (on those grounds alone) reasonable to assume, then he may be siding with James on an issue that has historically divided pragmatists—that of whether non-epistemic, pragmatic, and/or passional considerations can supply us with adequate grounds to treat some proposition as true.
My question for Forstenzer is thus as follows: What is the epistemic status of the claim that growth is a democratically legitimate ideal? The right way of framing the dialectic between him and Talisse, and thus between Dewey and his critics, seems to me to depend on the answer to this question, in the following sense. Forstenzer seems to maintain that there is a kind of default assumption in favor of the claim, so that the burden of proof lies with Talisse to demonstrate its reasonable rejectability. I have considered the possibility, on Talisse’s behalf, that the burden of proof lies instead with Forstenzer/Dewey, to demonstrate that growth is a substantive, theoretical claim about a democratically legitimate ideal, one with the sorts of practical consequences or pragmatic meaning necessary in the eyes of a philosophical pragmatist.
Forstenzer, J. 2017. “Deweyan Democracy, Robert Talisse, and the Fact of Reasonable Pluralism: A Rawlsian Response.” Transaction of the Charles S. Peirce Society 53: 553–78.
Hookway, C. 2007. “Short on Peirce’s Early Theory of Signs.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 43: 619–25.
Misak, C. 2013. The American Pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2004. Truth and the End of Inquiry: A Peircean Account of Truth. Expanded paperback ed. Oxford Philosophical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press / Clarendon.
Talisse, R. B. 2017. “Deweyan Democracy and the Rawlsian Problematic: A Reply to Joshua Forstenzer.” Transaction of the Charles S. Peirce Society 53: 579–83.
———. 2011. “A Farewell to Deweyan Democracy.” Political Studies 59: 509–26.
Forstenzer 2017, e.g., p. 554. Talisse rightly notes that to rely on a Rawlsian interpretation of “thin” here would be misplaced, so I avoid mentioning it here. See Talisse 2017, p. 580.↩
Philosopher-Chairpersons & Rortyan Deposits
In Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy, Joshua Forstenzer offers up John Dewey’s experimentalism as a method for political philosophers, one that will get them back in the game of “offering practical recommendations,” a role from which Forstenzer thinks they’ve recused themselves over the last decades in favor of “the justification of rather abstract conclusions based on uncontroversial intuitions” (11).1 I will explore two issues in my comments: (1) the idea that Forstenzer has replaced the Platonic philosopher-king with a Deweyan philosopher-chairperson, and (2) the Rortyan deposit in Forstenzer’s interpretation of Dewey’s thought.
Forstenzer sees Dewey as offering a description of philosophy as cultural criticism (71–75). According to Dewey, he claims, philosophy acts as “a mediating agent between conflicting ways of envisioning and conducting human life” (72); its task is to ascertain “how to adjudicate between competing world views” (69). On this reading, philosophy works at a fairly high level of abstraction. It comes into play when there is conflict among “cultural practices and beliefs” to identify the problem, generate hypotheses in response to the problem, and offer “considerations as to how we might adjudicate between such hypotheses” (72). The example Forstenzer offers in passing is of a conflict between emerging environmental concerns and existing patterns of electricity use (72). Yet this example, with which Forstenzer opens the book, is not carried through the text; I will try to use it to make sense of Forstenzer’s claim that Dewey’s conception of philosophy is as cultural criticism.
The method of philosophy as cultural criticism will involve the three tasks noted above: (1) identifying serious cultural problems, (2) generating new hypotheses in response to these problems, and (3) offering ideas for adjudicating between these hypotheses. If we follow through with Forstenzer’s example, the task of identifying serious cultural problems is the task of noting the conflict between the value we place on the environment and the value that inheres in existing patterns of electricity use. The task of generating new hypotheses—a task that the philosopher may participate in but is not solely responsible for—is the task of generating possible solutions to the problem raised by this conflict, say, recommending the introduction of economic incentives to move toward renewable sources of energy. The task of offering ideas for how to adjudicate between generated hypotheses is less clear; my best guess is that it refers to the task of offering criteria to evaluate the (likely) success of hypotheses in solving the problem to which they are addressed.
Forstenzer claims that philosophy as cultural criticism is key to understanding Dewey. We should, following Dewey, think of philosophy as a chairperson who is excellent at chairing (a rather unglamorous self-image for philosophy, to be sure). This chairperson is someone who strikes “a good balance between enabling all participants to meaningfully weigh in on the matters at hand, fruitfully participating in discussions herself, and ensuring that decisions were made in a timely fashion” (73). Forstenzer thus seems to have a procedural account of the role of philosophy. Though Deweyan philosophy is not in the business of supplying answers, it is in the business of supplying procedures. Indeed, Forstenzer remarks, “The authority of philosophy is analogous to that of the chairperson: its responsibility resides in enabling a discussion, not ensuring that the conclusions that follow are the right ones” (73).
Thus, on Forstenzer’s reading of Dewey, philosophy orchestrates “good, intelligent, and effective deliberations” (73); it acts as a “catalyst for open, intelligent, and responsible deliberations in general matters of human culture” (73). Political philosophers, in particular, perform their role best “when they see themselves as chairpersons enabling and participating in practical deliberations with experts and the rest of their community, aiming to communally solve problems experienced in common” (215). Without philosophy, “open, intelligent, and responsible discussions about our collective future seem unlikely to spontaneously arise” (73). If Forstenzer’s reading is correct, then (political) philosophers have an important role to play in a time when the quality of deliberations and the ability to solve problems seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I wonder, though, whether this account—either Dewey’s own, or Forstenzer’s reading of it—ultimately places philosophy on a pedestal, where the philosopher-chairperson is simply a procedural incarnation of Plato’s philosopher-king.2 According philosophy such a vaunted role certainly seems to grate against the notion that (political) philosophers “ought to experiment with the idea that they are first and foremost democratic citizens” (233).
So much for the first issue. In the space that remains, I will turn to the second: the Rortyan deposit in Forstenzer’s interpretation of Dewey’s project. If my reading of Forstenzer is correct, then there are (at least) three levels in Dewey’s (political) work: (1) a metaphilosophical level, where Dewey is concerned to provide an account of philosophical method, (2) a “theoretical”—for lack of a better term—level, where Dewey is concerned to articulate new meanings of political concepts-as-tools, and (3) a practical or applied level, where Dewey addresses himself to the conflicts that characterize his time. The metaphilosophical level (1) is outlined above; philosophy as cultural criticism comprises Dewey’s metaphilosophy. The applied level (3) refers to Dewey’s involvement with, for example, “teachers’ unions, the NAACP, the People’s Lobby, and the League for Industrial Democracy” (Caspary in Forstenzer, 230). His involvement with these organizations and movements, Forstenzer argues, show that Dewey found “ways to translate his ideals into practical action” (231).
The theoretical level (2) mediates the two other levels. It exemplifies Dewey’s metaphilosophy, insofar as it involves forwarding hypotheses in response to conflicts and intended to be tested out in deliberation and in practice, and it exemplifies his applied work, insofar as the hypotheses generated are meant to “come to bear upon human culture, as it is actually experienced” (70). In chapter 6, “Dewey’s Democratic Ideal: Democracy as a Way of Life,” Forstenzer looks at Dewey’s hypotheses about individualism, freedom, and democracy specifically. Each concept was generated at a particular time and in response to a particular set of problems. The issue is that those concepts have remained static even though times have changed, and thus no longer speak to the problems of our day. The concepts are therefore in need of updating; the meanings of these concepts “must be allowed to change in order to make [themselves] relevant to the new and manifold problems of ordinary people” (118); “we must begin by overcoming the old conceptions of individualism, freedom, and democracy we have inherited from classical liberalism, for they have outlived their usefulness” (120).
Forstenzer shows how Dewey has offered updates to these three concepts. He redescribes individuality as “a task to be achieved through a complex and dynamic social process of development” rather than the classic liberal’s understanding of individuality as “a static, pregiven fact of human life” (128). He redescribes freedom as growth to take the place of the classic liberal’s understanding of freedom as negative freedom (142). He redescribes democracy as “a method for harmonising relations between diverse people and communities by transforming the self-conceptions, values, and interests of citizens” (161) as an improvement upon the classic liberal’s understanding of democracy as “majority rule and limited government” (146).
For scholars of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, such as I am, my choice to use the term “redescribes” in the paragraph above is likely noteworthy. It is not Forstenzer’s term; he uses phrases like “adapting the meanings of words” (118) and “devising a new meaning for an old symbol” (119). But Forstenzer’s reconstruction of Dewey’s thought suggests that he reads Dewey through a Rortyan lens such that Dewey sounds much more Rortyan than critics of the latter might care to admit. Dewey’s project, at the theoretical level outlined above at the very least, seems to be a project of redescribing outdated concepts so that they can do the sort of work we need them to do, a very Rortyan idea indeed.3 And understanding philosophy as cultural criticism bears a striking resemblance to Rorty’s suggestion that philosophy be cultural politics.4 To claim that there is a Rortyan deposit in Forstenzer’s treatment of Dewey is hardly out of the blue given that he has elsewhere claimed Rorty as a one of his “former intellectual heroes.”5 Given the similarities between Rorty’s work and Forstenzer’s interpretation of Dewey’s work—where both agree that political philosophers “ought to experiment with a new self-conception” (233)—I am eager to learn more about the reasons for Forstenzer’s shift in allegiance.
I want to note, even if only in passing, that this account of political philosophy reduces the richness and complexity of contemporary political philosophy to Anglo-American, analytic political philosophy. Such an account only makes sense if we think of feminist philosophy, trans philosophy, philosophy of disability, critical race theory, and so on, as something other than political philosophy.↩
With thanks to conversations with Jason Breen, who pointed out this similarity.↩
Think of Rorty’s arguments in “Feminism and Pragmatism,” where he argues that change occurs when culture adopts new “linguistic and other practices” from “imaginative and courageous outcasts” who develop a new language for themselves. See Rorty’s “Feminism and Pragmatism” (1990), available at https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/r/rorty92.pdf.↩
Think of vol. 4 of Rorty’s collected philosophical papers, “Philosophy as Cultural Politics.”↩
See Forstenzer’s “Something Has Cracked: Post-Truth Politics and Richard Rorty’s Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism” (2018), available at https://ash.harvard.edu/files/ash/files/post-truth-politics-rorty.pdf.↩
7.26.21 | Joshua Forstenzer
Response to Susan Dieleman
Susan Dieleman’s clear, sharp, and rich commentary on my book identifies three important lines of inquiry that I will seek to address here in turn.
The first is Dieleman’s impressive effort to offer a succinct presentation of my conception of “philosophy as cultural criticism” (that is, the role I ascribe to philosophy in public discussions). She explains that it involves three tasks: “(1) identifying serious cultural problems, (2) generating new hypotheses in response to these problems, and (3) offering ideas for adjudicating between these hypotheses.”1 She explains (1) and (2) relatively straightforwardly but says that (3) “is less clear,” adding that her “best guess is that it refers to the task of offering criteria to evaluate the (likely) success of hypotheses in solving the problem to which they are addressed.” Here I just want to note that yes, offering criteria to “evaluate the (likely) success of hypotheses in solving” problems is indeed part of what I mean by (3). I would however add that (3) also involves evaluating those criteria. For example, when thinking of potential policies regarding electricity use, we might consider whether we should evaluate policies by whether they (a) respect the rights of citizens or (b) maximise human pleasure over time, but we might also end up considering whether our concerns should be limited to humans or expanded to all affected sentient beings, or whether remedying past injustices (for example, with regards to previous GHG emissions) might be of significance in establishing whether (a), (b), or another criterion altogether is likely to be the best for evaluating electricity use policies.
The second line of inquiry is Dieleman’s pointed concern that my version of Deweyan experimentalism reintroduces undue authority for philosophers in public discussion by the back door. Indeed, she wonders whether my account “ultimately places philosophy on a pedestal, where the philosopher-chairperson is simply a procedural incarnation of Plato’s philosopher-king,” adding that this would “grate against the notion that (political) philosophers” should try to conceive of themselves as democratic citizens first and philosophers second. In response, my thoughts are as follows: The prospective deliberations over which my account grants the procedural authority analogous to a chairperson in a meeting to political philosophers are discussions aiming at intelligent problem-solving which draw on the experiences of democratic citizens, knowledge from relevant experts, and the relevant values worthy of consideration. The aim of this type of deliberation is all at once epistemic, moral, and political. The authority this picture grants to political philosophers is not insubstantial: it is the authority of holistic intelligence—or, as the ancients called it, of wisdom. I thus agree with Plato that wisdom is the proper object of inquiry in philosophy, but unlike Plato, I (along with Dewey) do not think that wisdom offers us final answers to eternal questions. Rather, on my Deweyan account, wisdom provides a higher standard of deliberation—certainly higher than that demanded by the current political and media culture—it therefore serves to criticize dissatisfactory deliberative processes and remind us of the potential for ever more intelligent deliberations and thus ever wiser decisions. This may well be an intellectual pedestal—but it is one I think we, philosophers, have little choice but to attempt to live up to. As I write in the book, “I interpret Dewey as teaching us that the self-awareness and openness of philosophy are what, under the right circumstances, might enable us to make more intelligent, more conscious and more responsible decisions about our futures” (84).
But does this grate against my call for political philosophers to think of themselves as democratic citizens first and philosophers second? There are two points I would make here. The first is rather straightforward: thankfully, on my account, philosophers are not to be granted political authority in virtue of their commitment to wisdom in actual civic discussions—which is a crucial difference with the Platonic ideal of rulership. The second point is more ambitious: to ask of political philosophers to think of themselves as democratic citizens first and philosophers second is an invitation to attend to the problems of democracy and of our fellow citizens first and of the problems of philosophers second, yet it is by no means a call to embrace the notion that political philosophers should abandon all forms of epistemic, moral, or—indeed—political (whatever we have of it) authority in public discussions or elsewhere. Wisdom should have greater authority than foolishness. Attentiveness should have greater authority than distraction. Intelligence should have greater authority than ignorance. My call is merely meant to point to the fact that it is our responsibility as political philosophers to seek to further wisdom, attentiveness, and intelligence in and for the sake of democratic discussions—many, in fact, do so admirably. But academic philosophers are by no means the only ones capable of doing this. So the Deweyan view may be said to involve a podium, but one where common sense, science, and philosophy sit atop the very same step.
Dieleman’s third line of inquiry has to do with the potential Rortyan deposit in my interpretation of Dewey, as well my more biographical intellectual shift in allegiance from Rorty to Dewey. If, as Dewey claims, “acquaintance with Hegel left a permanent deposit in [his] thinking,”2 then it is fair to say a Rortyan deposit resides in mine. To be clear, however, I think close readings support the notion that “redescription” of the kind Dieleman discusses is an authentically Deweyan project rather than a mere Rortyan projection onto Dewey. Moreover, my wider interpretive landscape for the book was informed by – beyond Dewey’s own words – the works of James Campbell, Richard Bernstein, Philip Kitcher, Hilary Putnam, Jennifer Welchman, Elizabeth Anderson, Cornel West, and Axel Honneth.
On a more biographical note, Rorty was the first pragmatist whose thought I came across and, at the time, I found reading his words exciting, inspiring, and comforting. However, I came to experience frustration when reading him. In particular, when interpreting Dewey, I have found Rorty’s commentary rather unhelpful, if not to say sometimes wrongheaded. My sense is that Rorty regularly makes Dewey out to be more of a relativist (as opposed to a contextualist) than I think he really was and Rorty often presents the task of “redescription” as purely creative, playful and, typically, personal in nature rather than the work of the full intellect (involving both linguistic creation and argumentation/justification) embedded in communal activities, as it is for Dewey.3 This, for Rorty, is as it should be: his goal was not to get Dewey “right,” so much as to reconstruct Dewey’s thoughts for his own purposes.4 This led me to pay little attention to him as an interpreter of Dewey in this project.
Yet, perhaps the most fundamental point of contention I realised that I had with Rorty was his appeal to a neat dichotomy between “private” and “public” concerns.5 This put him on the other side of a line of demarcation from me. It is, no doubt, my romantic yearning for a non-dichotomous moral world which drew and continues to draw me away from Rorty, towards Dewey and, more recently still, towards Jane Addams, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Cornel West as sources of intellectual inspiration.
Perhaps even more impressively, to my mind, Dieleman tracks the different levels I identify in Dewey’s political work more deftly and elegantly than I do in the book.↩
John Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Later Works, vol. 5, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 154.↩
I note with keen interest Dieleman’s previous argument to the effect that Rorty’s position has to be that “both redescription and argument can lead to social progress” (“Revisiting Rorty: Contributions to a Pragmatist Feminism,” Hypatia 25.4, 904), since she shows that Rorty practically endorses this notion when selecting examples of social progress even though he may not explicitly endorse it. I find her argument rather convincing. However, my view is that, in the long run, achieving social progress really does require (though it is not guaranteed by) both redescription and argumentation. Indeed, I’d be curious to know if on Dieleman’s reading this is a bridge too far for Rorty?↩
Richard Rorty, “Dewey between Hegel and Darwin,” Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 292–93n9.↩
Though in “Revisiting Rorty,” Dieleman effectively shows that Rorty sidesteps associating the public domain with an oppressive notion of “rationality” and her reconstruction of Rorty’s work along Kuhnian lines makes reconciliation with my view possible, I still do not think it entirely plausible. Even on this revised account, the Rortyan story gives too little importance, I think, to the cumulative efforts of activists, intellectuals, and leaders in creating the very conditions for new vocabularies to flourish. These efforts, I believe, do not fall neatly within “private” or “public” experiences, but are usually the product of interpersonal relationships which straddle any useful distinction one might draw between “private” and “public” experiences.↩