Donald Morse

"Pragmatism and Tragedy: A Second Look"

A Dewey criticism is always more significant when it comes from someone who actually knows Dewey well. For this reason, Raymond Boisvert’s recent critique of Dewey comes as a challenge well worth paying attention to. Boisvert is widely know among Dewey scholars for his careful scholarship, and close, sympathetic readings in Dewey’s Metaphyics and, more recently, John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. All ears must perk up, therefore, when someone like Boisvert lobs slings and arrows at his man. It is not as if we have the same tired charge of mercantile Americanism leveled here, as it was by Russell (who was much too eager to misunderstand Dewey) and later by Adorno and Horkheimer (who were too angry to understand). No, we have here a criticism from the inside, from someone who knows, which means that we Deweyans must take real notice of this new charge and respond to it as best we can.

            Just what is Boisvert’s criticism then? And does it hold? I’ll answer this last question first and say right from the start that I have become convinced that Boisvert’s criticism, though intriguing, ultimately misfires. To see how, I believe we can employ Michael Eldridge’s new book, Transforming Experience. Eldridge, I would like to argue, gives us a vital new Dewey, one that, with great prescience, emerges just in time to combat some of Dewey’s best critics. As I hope to establish in what follows, Eldridge shows that Dewey can evade Boisvert’s charge—the charge, let me announce at once, of failing to account for the tragic element in human life.

            But to say all this, to specify my task and to name my thesis, is the easy part of my paper. For we have yet to see just what Boisvert’s criticism is and how its various parts hang together. Allow me first to recount Boisvert’s criticism for you, then, so that later we may be in an adequate position to assess it with the help of Eldridge and to find, in the end, that Deweyan pragmatism and a tragic sensibility are indeed compatible.

  1. The Charge

            Boisvert begins his essay "The Nemesis of Necessity: Tragedy’s Challenge to Dewyean Pragmatism" by distinguishing "the tragic" from what he calls "axiological absolutism." "Tragedy," according to Boisvert, is "the intractability of a situation involving competing claims," while axiological absolutism is the view that in every case of competing claims there is one single correct answer.[1] The tragic sensibility feels that, for some situations, nothing can be done. The absolutist, by contrast, asserts that we can always determine the single correct proper response to a troubled situation if we try hard enough.

This is how Boisvert defines his terms in the essay, and after defining them thus, he then asks whether whether or not John Dewey embraces the tragic. He should have, Boisvert asserts.

He lived long enough to it is the First World War, the depression, Hooverville shanties, the squalor of immigrant neighborhoods, the Second World War, and the cruelty of Stalinist Russia. His childhood memories include images from the Civil War. Dewey’s personal life, too, had been touched by the harsh hand of necessity. Within one decade, two of his son died of diseases while visiting Europe.[2]

Dewey saw so much horror, you would expect him to appreciate, and appreciate deeply, the tragic element in human life, the harshness of events beyond our control.

            And yet, according to Boisvert, Dewey was utterly lacking in this sensibility. He never did manage, as Bourne put it, "to accept the inexorable." He remained, like Emerson, a deluded man. He was someone who just could not see that certain aspects of nature can never be conquered or controlled and that it is sheer hubris even to try to control them. In short, Dewey was a modern thinker after all. "Dewey has situated himself in that especially modern stream which dismisses ingredients that are central to tragedy."[3] Believing one can conquer nature, and that one ought to, Dewey embraced—and always did embrace—a Baconian faith in progress.

But what evidence does Boisvert give for this strong thesis? How does he establish that the horrors of the world "did not lead to any serious absorption of the tragic view into Dewey’s thought" or even that they should have in the way Boisvert suggests?[4] First, Boisvert begins by pointing out "Dewey’s fulsome praise for Bacon" in Reconstruction in Philosophy. I will examine Dewey’s use of Bacon in a minute, but for now suffice it to say that Boisvert relies on this reference to Bacon to establish a first, preliminary connection between Dewey and the modern sensibility that ignores the tragic.

The second bit of evidence Boisvert advances is the way in which Dewey talks about progress. Boisvert quotes Dewey’s recounting of Enlightenment thought, in which Dewey says about the time-period that in it "great store is set upon the idea of progress," and from this Boisvert concludes that one cannot but help and get the sense that Dewey favors this ideal of the Enlightenment, that he thinks it is a positive achievement.[5]

Third, from Dewey’s many statements to the effect that we should try to use an empirical method in the moral realm Boisvert concludes that Dewey believes such an extension will necessarily result in progress (hence blinding him to that which cannot be controlled or the tragic). "In one of his two articles entitled ‘Progress,’" says Boisvert, "Dewey states…the belief that scientific advances applied to social issues will usher in an epoch of improvement."[6]

The fourth bit of evidence Boisvert offers for his criticism of Dewey as a blind believer in progress is that Dewey failed to learn from the First World War. Such a devastating event should have shown Dewey straight off that matching scientific advance with moral advance might not be possible. But instead the war did not deter Dewey from his belief in social progress in any significant sense. True, Boisvert admits, Dewey says things that make it seem like he has learned from the war. Boisvert quotes Dewey as saying that the war showed us that the dream of "uninterrupted progress" had been "a fool’s paradise." He even quotes Dewey saying this after the war: "We do not of course wholly control the energies of nature; we shall never wholly do so." Dewey even insists that any belief in "the automatic certainty of progress" is a grave mistake. Boisvert admits this, and quotes Dewey as saying this. He even cites other articles in which Dewey explicitly expresses, and even stresses, something like a "tragic sensibility."[7] But then Boisvert insists that despite these references to the tragic Dewey’s "tone" betrays a continued commitment to his "Baconian bias."[8] Dewey was only hand waving at the tragic; his sincerity is questionable. If one only reads Dewey carefully enough, Boisvert claims, they will see clearly that Dewey still embraced a blind faith in social progress.  Dewey may have qualified his statements about progress as he aged, but these qualifications never did "occasion a paradigm shift away from his Baconian faith."[9]

  1. Assessing The Charge

This, then, is the evidence that Boisvert marshals to make his claim that Dewey dismisses tragedy. Let us now assess this evidence to see how well it supports the claim.

  First, consider the Bacon reference that Boisvert cites early on in his essay to establish a first, preliminary connection between Dewey and the modernist tradition. Dewey does praise Bacon in Reconstruction for some things, it is true, but simply to praise a figure who himself failed to acknowledge tragedy (if this is even true of Bacon) is not therefore yourself to refuse to acknowledge tragedy. To think that this is so is to commit the fallacy of guilt by association. Dewey praises Bacon, yes, but not for his refusal to acknowledge tragedy. What he praises him for is, quite simply, the call for a competent method of social inquiry, and only for that.

Second, as concerns the claim that Dewey thought the Enlightenment legacy was overall a positive heritage, this point is controversial at best.  Boisvert quotes Dewey as saying that in this time-period "great store is set upon the idea of progress," but of course it does not follow from this that Dewey likewise puts great store in progress. Still, Boisvert insists, even though Dewey is only here reporting what others thought, "the reader nonetheless gets the sense" that Dewey believed it, too.[10] I do not, however, get that sense; and sense for sense, if we are to use sense as evidence, I do not see why Boisvert’s should be more correct than mine, or indeed the larger consensus among Dewey interpreters to the effect that Dewey was in fact a challenger of much of the Enlightenment mentality.

Third, Boisvert asserts that Dewey believed in the inevitability of progress. However, he asserts this without giving any reference whatsoever to Dewey’s own words. No citation whatsoever is offered for Boisvert’s claim that "in one of his two articles entitled ‘Progress,’" Dewey says a new epoch of improvement will definitely come.[11] Boisvert simply asserts this, for indeed one would be hard put to find such prophesies about what the future must bring coming out of Dewey’s mouth in any context. Dewey was an experimentalist, after all, so that this sense of prophecy that Boisvert attributes to him, this sense of a priori utopian necessity, runs counter to the thrust and spirit of nearly everything that he has actually written. Moreover, it does not exist within either of the articles entitled "Progress."

Lastly, Boisvert says that Dewey was not really changed by the horrors of World War I, so blinded was he by his modernist faith. Though he cites several passages where Dewey does indeed seem changed, still Boisvert again "gets the sense" that Dewey is not being sincere. The truth, however, is that Dewey was changed; that he grew very depressed by the war; and that he even modified his stance toward war after the event, opting for a more democratic and humble approach to conflict in the future.

3. The Larger Issue

      Each of Boisvert's premises, then, can be challenged. And the general reason for this is the fact that Dewey simply does not fit the picture that Boisvert paints of him. Dewey is neither an absolutist nor one who embraces the tragic sensibility wholesale (though, as we will see, he does embrace it to a degree). Dewey certainly does not believe, with the absolutist, that there is only one single correct response to a conflicting situation. Nor does he believe that in some situations we can know for certain that there is never any good response whatsoever. Dewey is somewhere in between these two extremes that Boisvert identifies. What he believes is that the horrible and excruciatingly difficult situations that confront us are truly horrible and excruciatingly difficult but that we cannot say in advance whether or not they are intractably so. They may be, but then again they may not be. Dewey is an experimentalist. He believes only actual trial or experimentation in individual circumstances can provide the evidence. This is, precisely, to steer a middle course between absolutism and tragedy—it is to admit the pain and agony and failure in life while also admitting (what I think experience confirms) that this pain and agony and failure can sometimes be made a little less painful, agonizing and prone to failure. Whether or not some situations are intractable depends on the situation—that is Dewey’s position.

Dewey calls his position "meliorism"—a term Boisvert curiously never mentions even though this is the way Dewey explicitly chose to characterize his position. According to Dewey, if optimism and pessimism are the views, respectively, that the good or the bad outcome is inevitable, then meliorism is the more sober and realistic view that either outcome is possible. Meliorism holds that we must acknowledge evil as real and inevitable, and yet that we can respond to it sometimes, even if only to make a humble response. A Melioristic philosophy, says Dewey, "is no longer under obligation to find ingenious methods for proving that evils are only apparent, not real, or to elaborate schemes for explaining them away or, worse yet, for justifying them."[12] It confronts the evils head-on and "contributes in however humble a way to methods that will assist us in discovering the causes of humanity’s ills."[13] Meliorism is the belief that under specific conditions there may be at least a humble difference we could make in the situation if we looked hard enough, although we will not know for sure until we try. This sober and "humble" approach, an approach that tries to make some difference for the better no matter how little, is anything but brazen Baconianism—it is simply the realistic claim that you never know if you’re stuck until you’re stuck, and that oftentimes you may not be as stuck as you think, so that any seemingly intractable situation that you’re in is worth a second look. This view does not deny tragedy; on the contrary, it admits the full force of evil and horror and simply asks us to respond to its actual conditions as best we can so that maybe we can make a difference somehow.

The fundamental idea here can best be grasped by invoking James’ conception of truth. James, who was no relativist, made truth so fully embedded in situations as to have to respond to them and the inexorable realities they presented. "Pent in," says James, "as the pragmatist more than anyone else sees himself to be, between the whole body of funded truths squeezed from the past and the coercions of the world of sense about him, who so well as he feels the immense pressure of objective control under which their minds perform their operations?"[14] The tight constraint of actual conditions gives objectivity to our various responses to it.

      The same point is true for, and helps legitimate, Dewey’s meliorism. In a horrible and tragic situation in which all the options are bad in their own way and yet we must choose between them, we are "pent in" by the choices we have in such a way, Dewey would say, that, given real if slight differences between the choices and their consequences, certain acts may move us through to the other side of the tragic situation for the better even if they are not considered " desirable" or "happy" solutions in the end. A certain amount of damage may well always remain. The good, as Dewey never tires of telling us, is the better. It’s not "the best." The good action is simply the intelligent action in the midst of thorny circumstances, so as, in the intractably bad situation especially, to minimize the damage, as opposed to either the discovery of one single correct answer which will somehow overcome the damage or the acquiescence in inevitable failure.

Now, among contemporary Dewey interpreters, I believe that Michael Eldridge captures this sense of meliorism best, so that if we went with Eldridge and accepted his interpretation we could finally avoid these Bourne-Niebuhr style critiques that keep recurring every so often as if they themselves were inevitable. What Eldridge does is to begin with a definition of Dewey’s "Core Project" that undercuts from the start any such Bourne-Niebuhr style criticism. Eldridge’s main idea is that helping others to "become more intelligent in how they lived so that they could live better" was what Dewey was about. "His philosophizing was subordinated to this purpose."[15] Dewey was fundamentally trying to get us to use our experience to transform our experience—"to transform our experience form within experience," as Eldridge puts it.[16] He wanted to get us to see that experience very often has hidden or unlooked for possibilities for enrichment, and that we may be able to learn from past experiences how to look for and perhaps find those hidden possibilities in our future circumstances if we try. This, as against the Baconian certainty of progress, is Dewey’s modest attempt to learn from the past in however a humble way we can, or what we have identified as "meliorism."

Eldridge, of course, does not merely assert that this meliorism is Dewey’s central project; he argues for it. He does so, in particular, by looking at actual circumstances of Dewey’s real life practice—the same circumstances, incidentally, that Boisvert identifies and says Dewey should have learned from: World War I, World War II, the cruelty of Stalinist Russia, and so on. This is a novel approach. Instead of clinging to Dewey’s own words—which themselves say to consider actual practice first and foremost—Eldridge has actually gone and looked at what Dewey did and used this as a basis for interpreting his theory.[17]

What Eldridge finds is that the Deweyan critic is someone who appreciates and learns from the conditions of the world, including its horrors and its sometimes intractable circumstances. He is not someone who stands outside the processes of the world and insists on its progress no matter what. He is someone who is acutely sensitive to individual circumstances and how and when to respond to them. While I cannot, of course, within the confines of this paper, show you exactly how Eldridge achieves this interpretation of Dewey, I can refer you to his book, and in particular to a single telling example within it. Eldridge shows that in 1941 "Dewey was…dismayed that the world had not learned from its experience in World War I. He was having difficulty ‘comprehend[ing] that it was happening all over again.’"[18] Here we find Dewey feeling something akin to despair at the horror and stupidity of events; we find, too, that he himself had learned from his own experience in World War I and overhauled his own view completely to meet the reality of the circumstances of war. And it is precisely this two-fold response to a situation that characterizes Dewey’s meliorism: he feels deeply the pain and horror and damage of it all, almost to the point of giving up, and yet at the same time he is still willing, somehow, to respond to circumstances as they need responding to in order, not to master nature and neutralize all tragedy, but rather simply to get by a little better than we had before, step by step.

Only this Dewey, Eldridge’s semi-despairing Dewey, can account for all those many tragic passages in Dewey that Boisvert has ignored. "Intelligence will [n]ever dominate the course of events," Dewey says at the close of Experience and Nature, nor will it "save from ruin and destruction"—which is as much as to admit that a certain amount of ruin and destruction are inevitable.[19] Yet "some procedure has to be tried."[20] And so Dewey advocates trying intelligence, the method of thoughtful responsiveness to actual conditions. He advocates it, that is to say, not out of blind optimism or a lingering modernist hubris but precisely because ruin and destruction are always so close to us, and our options are so few. "We are…all in the same boat traversing the same turbulent sea," Dewey says in a much-neglected passage in A Common Faith.[21] Mirroring Boisvert’s own claim, ironically, that "Humans are like ship captains" and that in tragedy the mind continuously struggles with the inevitable prospect of going forever down into the deep, Dewey too invokes a ship metaphor.[22] He, too, sees that the sea is turbulent, and that the ship is always very close to sinking. Indeed, in Human Nature and Conduct, he acknowledges quite frankly that life is very hard. Because life is the way it is, Dewey says, "Individuals here and there cave in, and most individuals sag, withdraw, and seek refuge at this and that point."[23] For Dewey, life is a continual struggle with forces larger than us. And so what is needed is precisely—"humility." "We are not the creators of heaven and earth," Dewey says.[24] "Man is within nature, not a little god outside"[25] Hence, in addition to striving to make things better where we can, we also need to acknowledge "the sense of our slight ability even with our best intelligence and effort to command events; a sense of our dependence upon forces that go their way without our wish and plan."[26]

The best laid plans of men as well as mice gang aglee; and for the same reason: inability to dominate the future. The power of man and mouse [Dewey says] is infinitely constricted in comparison with the power of events. Men always build better or worse than they know, for their acts are taken up into the broad sweep of events.[27]

Clearly, we are not dealing here with someone who "has situated himself in that especially modern stream which dismisses ingredients that are central to tragedy."[28] The Dewey presented here, Eldridge’s Dewey, the real Dewey, is a far cry from the Baconian that Boisvert identifies. He is a pragmatic meliorist, one who stresses the vast power and uncertainty of events and our pressing need for care and concern in response to events. Dewey, in a word, is not the person Raymond Boisvert makes him out to be. He is not someone who utterly dismisses tragedy, or the sense that events are larger and more powerful than us. He is someone who feels this tragic sense acutely and for this reason asks us to respond to events with a humble, melioristic intelligence instead of either brazen arrogance or total despair, so that we might make some positive difference to a situation’s outcome, however slight.  We do what we can, when we can. This is Dewey’s message.  "Our concern is with that slight fraction of total activity which starts from ourselves."[29]


[1] Raymond Boisvert, "The Nemesis of Necessity: Tragedy’s Challenge to Deweyan Pragmatism" in Dewey Reconfigured: Essays on Deweyan Pragmatism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 151.

[2] Ibid., 153.

[3] Ibid., 155.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] Ibid., 158. Emphasis added.

[7] Ibid., 160-161.

[8] Ibid., 159.

[9] Ibid., 160.

[10] Ibid., 158.

[11] Ibid., 158. Emphasis added.

[12] John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 177-178.

[13] Ibid., 178. Emphasis added.

[14] William James. Pragmatism: A New Nam for an Old Way of Thinking (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995), 90.

[15] Michael Eldridge, Transforming Experience: John Dewey’s Cultural Instrumentalism (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998), 6-7.

[16] Ibid., 31.

[17] This procedure has the advantage, among other things, of preventing a pre-given, prejudiced interpretation of Dewey’s words as Baconian. Dewey’s actions, as it were, speak louder than his words, and Eldridge has sought to learn from them what Dewey’s words must have meant, rather than the other way around.

[18] Ibid., 196.

[19] John Dewey, Experience and Nature. Volume One of The Collected Works of John Dewey. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 325-326.

[20] Ibid., 326.

[21] John Dewey,  A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 84.

[22] Raymond Boisvert, "The Nemesis of Necessity," 156-157.

[23] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: The Modern Library, 1930), 289.

[24] Ibid., 206.

[25] John Dewey, Experience and Nature, 324.

[26] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 289.

[27] Ibid., 206.

[28] Raymond Boisvet, "The Nemesis of Necessity," 155.

[29] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 206.