Forget Emerson, Forget Growth, Embrace Anaximander:

Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense


Raymond D. Boisvert

A Response to Naoko Saito's

"Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense: Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism"

Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy

March 8, 2002

Portland, Maine

Nietzsche, in his puzzling inscrutable way, once asked "Can an ass be tragic?"  Presumably, the answer is "no, but the philosopher can."  Such an interpretation derives from reading  the two sentences that follow his question: "To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off?  The case of the philosopher." [1]   Perishing under a burden we can neither bear nor throw off identifies a formula for pessimism, not tragedy.  Struggling, standing fast, working toward the good within the context of a burden we cannot avoid and which might crush us, these are traits associated with the tragic.  Tragedy's protagonists often perish, but the perishing itself is not central.  What remains central are the protagonist's determination and the actions which follow. 

I mention this because Saito's paper opens with an important distinction.  There is an understanding of "tragic" that derives from ordinary usage of the term, signifying something like "sad" and "pitiful."  As Saito points out, her main concern lies elsewhere, with a "different and more specific sense of the tragic" (p. 1).  This different sense of the tragic, best situated in a context identified as "transactional holism" (p. 4), is admittedly "recessive" (pp. 2, 5) rather than dominant in Deweyen thought.  It can best be understood within the light shed by "Emersonian perfectionism" (p. 2), and, importantly, must be embraced if we are to reconstruct properly democracy and education today (p. 2).

Saito goes so far as to identify the "lack of the tragic" as the "crisis of our times" (p. 3).   Regaining the sense of the tragic identifies a prerequisite for overcoming the nihilism and  cynicism (p. 2) that dominate our age.    "By reconstructing the recessive dimension, what I am going to highlight as the Emersonian perfectionist horizon in Dewey's pragmatism, I would like to show that his apparently optimistic worldview, in fact, can help us re-see and re-gain what we have lost sight of in an age of nihilism" (p. 2).  The precondition for understanding the tragic in this sense is an awareness of ambiguity that is present in Dewey, one that is typified by his recognition that democracy is something both "attained and unattained" (p. 2).  The key tension here is that between "something forever to be worked towards," on the one hand, while  "never finally to be achieved" ( p. 2) on the other. 

Here is where Saito finds a link to Emersonian perfectionism.  "Perfectionism" in this context does not mean that a perfect state has been or even can be achieved.  Quite the opposite is the case.  Citing Cavell, Saito indicates how perfectionism brings with it a "moral urgency" (p. 6) occasioned by the "endless tension between attainment and unattainment of democracy" (p. 5).  The foil to be avoided is a naive optimism or an un-tragic perfectionism that is "troubled neither by the aching sense of unattainability nor by the recognition of the ultimate incommensurability of values" (p. 2). 

Here, it seems to me, are the two keys to understanding the "tragic" in the second sense highlighted by Saito: (a) effort, "moral urgency" drives individuals forward in spite of the recognition that perfect resolutions are not possible; and (b) individuals champion plural values even while recognizing their ultimate incommensurability.  We seek improvements, all the while acknowledging that these will bring new problems and challenges with them.  We embrace particular virtues while knowing that others, by that act, are sacrificed.  This, as I read Saito at least, is what results when we reconsider the "potential of Dewey's pragmatism" in light of accepting the tragic.

  All of this is quite good   Where then, should we turn for discussion?  There are several areas I would like to suggest.  The first is the Dewey/Emerson connection.  Linking Dewey with Emerson moves in a direction unfriendly to an embrace of the tragic dimension.  Emerson, his genius and felicity of expression notwithstanding, urges us toward a view of things which is un-Deweyan in several ways: (1)  the individual is privileged as source of insight, not the community of inquiry  moving toward warranted assertions; [2] (2) pluralism is marginalized since, ultimately, everthing can be resolved into a wonderfully embracing Unity; [3] and (3) there is in Emerson a strong suggestion that situational obstacles are temporary and can bend to human will. [4]

If we wish to  complement Dewey by pairing him with a figure from the American Renaissance, then Hawthorne would be a much better choice.  For it is Hawthorne who has a deep sense of the tragic rooted down to the marrow of his bones.  When it comes to the ineluctability of impossible situations,  to burdens we can "neither bear nor throw off,"  to the flaws in our condition and limitations in the nature of things which make our improvements temporary and fragmented, there is no greater teacher than Hawthorne.  Emerson might seem the more natural pairing, since he too was a philosopher, but Hawthorne is the more important complement in bringing out the recessive tragic sensibility in Dewey's thought.

Another topic we might want to discuss involves Saito's mode of dealing with habits.  Emphasizing "habit reconstruction" (p. 4), as Saito does, is crucial to a proper grasp of Deweyan thought.  However, Saito's brief exploration of this topic strikes me as overly intellectualistic.  The whole point of discussing habits lies in the importance of character development inculcated by practice and cultivation.  The community and the body are crucial here.   "Every  meal is a lesson learned" went a Victorian proverb.  Meals, as times when certain behaviors become inculcated, repeated, and reinforced, are central to the cultivation of habituated actions as second nature.  It is not enough, as Saito does, to speak of impulses "redirected by intelligence" (p. 4).  Habits can be separated neither from one's immediate surroundings, nor from the wider social context, both of which encourage certain habits, regardless of efforts at redirecting them by intelligence.

Here again is a point of difference with Emerson. "Conformity" is not a one-dimensional pejorative term.  Habit and self-reliance must be recognized as antagonistic.  Indeed, in an important, but often overlooked essay "Character Training for Youth" Dewey points out how much moral education depends on social context.  "Every influence that modifies the disposition and habits, the desires and thoughts of a child is a part of the development of his character." (LW 9:187). There would be no pressing need to engage in social reform if habit formation were a matter of intellect and will, if wider forces were not shaping our desires and habits.

A more concrete emphasis on habits also leads us to question one prominent position held by Dewey.  Saito identifies it by quoting Dewey himself: "Education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself" (p. 3). Every one in this room can defend and justify Dewey's position on this matter.  He is reacting, properly, to identifying a narrow and often external aim as the single goal of education specifically and, more generally,  of moral development.    But when we pay close attention to character training, to habit reconstruction, one important limitation immediately surfaces.  Habits in the concrete rather than in the abstract are inextricably allied to certain substantive understandings of the human good.  Dewey admits as much in Moral Principles in Education when he begins by reminding his audience that "the society of which the child is to be a member is, in the United States, a democratic and progressive society" (MW 4:270).  With this as a yardstick, Dewey can determine that certain teaching methods cultivate inappropriate habits.  "We fail to recognize how essentially individualistic the latter methods are, and how unconsciously, yet certainly and effectively, they react into the child's ways of judging and acting" (MW 4:275). [5]

Dewey's claims about "growth" as the only end of moral development must, therefore,  be understood carefully, if not jettisoned outright.  An emphasis on growth must be complemented by the articulation of aims more consistent with a particular view of human flourishing.  Simply repeating the master's mantra about "growth" is unsatisfactory for 21st century Deweyans.  It was a wonderful chainsaw for clearing the forest of antiquated trees.  But, like most chainsaws, it's not very helpful for planting and cultivating.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the second part of Saito's characterization of the tragic: "recognition of the ultimate incommensurability of values" (p. 2).  In a brief presentation, to be sure, topics cannot be developed fully.  Here is an area, though, which I would like to see pursued in the discussion.  Several sub-topics come to mind. (A) What exactly is meant by the "incommensurability" of values? I would be tempted instead to speak of the "relative incompatibility" of values.  For example,  if freedom is maximized, then equality is sacrificed.  Is anything more than this meant? Incommensurability it seems, does not identify the real issue which is not that there are no independent measures by which to adjudicate between different perspectives, but that embracing one value or ideal necessarily brings with it the marginalizing of another.

(B) An important ontological issue must be addressed here, one which is inherently intertwined with the topics of incommensurability (or relative incompatibility) and the tragic.  Overcoming contemporary nihilism requires a concerted philosophical effort, one so comprehensive as to include a rethinking of fundamental ontology.  Any ontology that is consistent with a tragic sensibility has to be in crucial ways (as I have been preaching for some time) Anaximanderean, indebted to Anaximander.  If tragedy really goes all the way down, then the widest context consistent with such an understanding can best be captured by the term apeiron, the "all-mixed-together."  Out of an originary "all-mixed-together" come the specific entities, events, institutions we find surrounding us.  Each of them is a concatenation from the "all-mixed-together" arranged and blended in specific ways to provide that which is valuable, i.e. a selection from the initial chaotic jumble.

One important consequence of thinking about or background horizon in this way is that the instantiated values emerging from it are, by necessity, limited.  They cannot repeat or include equally whatever was in the initial "all-mixed-together."   Doing so would simply recreate the jumble, not realize a particular value.  Pascal's reed and oak tree, for example, manifest different combinations from the "all-mixed-together."  Each  embodies a particular combination of strengths and weaknesses.  What remains impossible is combining the resiliency of the reed with the strength of the oak. 

Another example will take us back to the topic of democracy.  In Liberalism and Social Action Dewey points out how the liberalism of Locke while resoundingly successful in freeing people like Locke from the restrictions of aristocratic society, at the same time, provided the building blocks for the factory and land-owning classes of the early twentieth-century to dominate and keep the laboring classes in states of near servitude.  Any value crafted from the "all-mixed-together" will carry this double heritage, a positive good together with an inescapable limitation.  Because an ontology of the "all-mixed-together" does not give rise to optimistic pronouncements about any final, fixed, perfect synthesis, and because it admits the incompatibility of sought-after co-possibilities, it can be called by its appropriate name, a "tragic metaphysics."   Relative incompatibilities, so crucial to a tragic sensibility can thus be accepted as part and parcel of the way things are in the most fundamental sense.  Mapping Saito's claims about the tragic to such an ontology seems to me to be one way for philosophers to move beyond the "lack of the tragic" that Saito identifies as the "crisis of our times."

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche ([1888] 1954). "Twilight of the Idols," in Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. The Portable Nietzsche.  New York: Viking, p. 168.

[2] "The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.  We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.... When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.  If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault.  Its presence or absence is all we can affirm."  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance," in Selected Essays,  ed. Larzer Ziff, (New York: Penguin, 1982), p. 390. 

[2] "Nature is not fixed but fluid.  Spirit alters, moulds, makes it.  The immobility or bruteness of nature is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient." Ibid., "Nature," p.  80.

[3] "Let us build altars to the Blessed Unity which holds nature and souls in perfect solution, and compels every atom to serve an universal end." Ibid., "Fate,"  p. 390. 

[4] "Nature is not fixed but fluid.  Spirit alters, moulds, makes it.  The immobility or bruteness of nature is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient." Ibid., "Nature," p.  80.

[5] Cp. "But lack of cultivation of the social spirit is not all.  Positively individualistic motives and standards are inculcated" (MW 4:276).