Code: TP-25

Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense

Deweyan Growth in an Age of Nihilism

Democracy and the double sense of the tragic

In Individualism Old and New, John Dewey discusses the "tragedy of the ‘lost individual.’" [1] Confronting an crisis of the American society afflicted with the rugged individualism of capitalism and the mass culture of standardization, he laments the tragic condition of human being -- the state of drifting "without sure anchorage" (ION, p. 67) and the loss of the "sense of wholeness" (ION, p. 62). Conformity is a debased condition of democracy, a condition that robs human beings of their capacity to be "captains of their own souls" (ION, p. 67). In a subsequent essay, "Construction and Criticism," his concern is with the state of "moral subjection" in which a human being, in chains, loses the "mental freedom which is a condition of creation." [2] Compared to his earlier educational writings, the sense of crisis is sharper now: the precious novelty of the child’s education is now choked and stifled as the child becomes part of the "chain-belt system of mass manufacture" (CC, p. 132). In a sense Dewey is prophetic about the fate of democracy in late modernity, where material affluence and political freedom do not assuage a burgeoning spiritual degeneration. In contemporary democratic societies east and west, the education scene testifies to this tragic condition. Education in many democratic societies – in the U. S., in the U. K, in Japan – has become dominated by procedures of standardization and quantification, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. Facile notions of the ethical emerge in what is heralded as "values education" or in a new moralistic commitment to moral education, with a concomitant suppression of the possibility of any real engagement with the complexity of the ethical demands that runs throughout education and life. And these rearguard actions are scarcely convincing in the light of the real problems that the young undoubtedly experience and present. Those who protest in this way are in many respects the inheritors of Dewey’s concerns.

But there is a sense in which this kind of complaint can come to seem something like a rant, even a nostalgic one. Such a rant does justice neither to the urgency of these problems nor to Dewey himself. In order to show why this is so, and the better to address this malaise in contemporary practice, I want to identify a different and more specific sense of the tragic, one that emerges as an increasingly important thread of thought in Dewey’s work. In order to gain some preliminary insight into this it is necessary to recognize a kind of double or paradoxical nature in Dewey’s conception of democracy: his sense of democracy as both attained and unattained; his sense of democracy not as some fixed telos, but rather as something forever to be worked towards, never finally to be achieved. It is in his emphasis on this that something of the connection can be seen between his thought and that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The unattainability that is essential to Dewey’s democracy, suggests the tragic condition inherent in Emerson’s perfectionism. To adopt Stanley Cavell’s take on this, it is to be understood in terms of the proximity of the handsome and unhandsome conditions of human being. [3] Rather than something to be lamented, this sense of the tragic is internal to the perfectionism that Emerson celebrates and that, so I shall argue, Dewey inherits.

On this view then, in the light of this second, perfectionist conception of the tragic, the malaise of education is not to be understood in tragic terms. For contemporary policy and practice has generally been based on the assumption that appropriate planning means the clear identification of ends and the systematic creation of means to their realization. Such policy is troubled neither by the aching sense of unattainability nor by the recognition of the ultimate incommensurability of values. In other words the sense of the tragic disappears from the picture. In its attempt to make all aspects of practice transparent and subject to systematic accounting there may be some dissipation of the power to criticize and reconstruct our existing condition; there may be, to borrow William James’s word, blindness, lack of imaginative sensitivity to what cannot be readily expressed or presented. [4] Such limitations are symptoms of nihilism and cynicism, of the flattening and thinning effect upon our ethical life. The lack of a sense of the tragic may be seen then to be pivotal for the reconsideration of democracy and education today. It is necessary to address a question that might be regarded as latent in Dewey’s work: What would it be like to live in a world without the dimension of tragedy? Is not such a lack symptomatic not of a progressively harmonious democratic state but rather of a nihilism sufficient to undo democracy? These are the central questions that I shall try to address in this essay. I shall seek responses to this condition in a reconstructive dialogue with Dewey.

In a stereotypical interpretation, Dewey and his pragmatism are notorious for lacking the tragic sense. A sense of anxiety and doubt over the optimism inherent in pragmatism has been expressed ever since Dewey’s times till today. The loss of the tragic in the second sense in contemporary democratic life, however, demands our reconsideration of the potential of Dewey’s pragmatism. 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. To accomplish this task, I will first reexamine his idea of habit reconstruction as a pivotal concept to reconsider Deweyan growth. Then I will highlight the Emersonian recessive horizon of Deweyan growth that helps us re-see the crisis of our times, the lack of the tragic. In conclusion, I will claim that Dewey’s Emersonian view of continuous growing is an invitation to the never-ending path of perfecting democracy. Dewey points us to a way towards rekindling the sense of the tragic as much as hope in our democratic way of life.

Growth as habit reconstruction: Reconsidering the concept of progress

"Education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself" [5] -- so does Dewey pronounce. Unlike his old Hegelian concept of self-realization directed towards a final, absolute end-point, growth came to be seen as the contingent and endlessly evolving natural processes; it takes place in the interaction of an organism and its environment without relying on the eternal resting point outside that process. Progressive growth is an essential condition for the healthy, flexible reconstruction of a democratic society.

Dewey’s idea of growth has been controversial from his time up to ours. It raises the perennial question, "Growth towards what?" It is this idea of growth that attaches a stigma of optimism to his pragmatism. Even among sympathetic Deweyan scholars, there is a shared concern over Dewey’s lack of the tragic sense. Steven Rockefeller, though a staunch defender of Dewey’s spiritual vision of democracy, thinks that Dewey failed to develop a convincing explanation of human evil. [6] Cornel West asserts that Dewey did not fully escape his "Emersonian theodicy" -- "the clutches of optimism and enshrinement of power." [7] Raymond Boisvert points out that Dewey’s pragmatism equates scientific advancement with moral progress, which is typical of 19th century modernity. As a result, his empiricism lacks a tragic sensibility, a sensitivity to a limitation inherent in the nature of things -- what Boisvert calls "the Nemesis of Necessity." [8] Such criticism poses a challenge to Dewey’s progressive view of growth, especially in this age of cynicism when the metaphors of hope and progress are considered illusionary.

              To show that we still can earn something valuable from Dewey, his pragmatism needs to be reconsidered in response to the question of the tragic. His idea of habit reconstruction offers an initial clue. [9] The concept embraces his Darwinian, functional theory of interaction between an organism and its environment. Dewey calls habits "expressions of growth" (DE, p. 51). Changes in habits are not a revolution or a deconstruction, but rather a gradual reconstruction from within culture and social customs. There are two more key concepts in habit reconstruction: impulse and intelligence. Impulses are biologically innate tendencies that serve as the beginning of individuality. They are the pivots upon which we reorganize activities and agencies for deviation, for redirecting old habits (HNC, p. 67). Impulses are redirected by intelligence, which functions to observe, to recall, and to forecast (HNC, p. 118). Habit reconstruction is the essence of "reconstructive growth" (HNC, p. 68).

Reconstructive growth cannot be contained by fixed ends. Dewey reconstructs the concept of end in opposition to the classical Greek teleology with its love of perfection. [10] He presents an alternative concept of ends-means relationship. Ends are being reconstructed at each moment of action. An end is not a de facto boundary (EN, p. 86), but an "end-in-view" that embodies a whole series of acts (HNC, p. 155; EN, p. 88). Ends grow. [11] (RP, p. 162, 174), and are literally endless (HNC, p. 159). Dewey’s concept of habit reconstruction reconstructs the traditional notion of metaphysics. He presents us with the alternative worldview of what might be called transactional holism:

It is this transactional holism that underlies Dewey’s progressive concept of growth without fixed ends, the ongoing process of transaction to be best captured in its present, participial form, growing. The continuum of the ends-means relationship represents a "better approximation to what is unique and unrepeatable" (EN, p. 97). In the progressive formation of an ideal vision, impulse plays a significant role as impetus given to a passionate hope for something different (HNC, p. 161). Impulses drive humans to a "prophetic vision." [12] Dewey’s idea of habit reconstruction represents his ameliorative spirit.

Reconstructive growth as human perfection: Emersonian recessive dimension in Deweyan growth

Still can we hear the voice of skepticism. West criticizes Dewey as never defining the relation between his democratic ideas and a profound sense of evil. Preferring Josiah Royce’s pragmatism to Dewey’s, West claims that without a deeper struggle with the sense of the tragic, there is no progress, especially in contemporary democracies where the sense of defeat and disillusionment is more real than that of possibility. [13] Today when we cannot place simple trust in the unlimited potential of growth, West’s concern needs to be taken seriously. Is there any way, however, for a reconstruction from within Dewey’s pragmatism and naturalism without destroying its fundamental basis of habit reconstruction, and without resorting to Roycean absolutism?

A clue to reconstruction can be found in Dewey’s own writing, especially those from the late 1920’s onward in his aesthetic and religious writings. There his earlier idea of progressive growth came to be underwritten by a keen sense of resistance to the "tragedy of the ‘lost individual.’" In "I Believe," Dewey renews his wish to emphasize more than he formerly did that "individuals are the finally decisive factors of the nature and movements of associated life" [14] . In Art as Experience, as John J. McDermott underscores, Dewey finds a "heightening of aesthetic experience" essential to political liberation. [15]

              From this standpoint, new focus can be found in Deweyan growth that reminds us of a foe that we must keep fighting against in this age of nihilism: the crisis of the extinguishing of the gleam of light. It is an aesthetic and spiritual metaphor that supports Emerson’s idea of self-reliance and that Dewey appropriates in his essay, "Construction and Criticism."

As Emerson says in his essay on "Self-Reliance": "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within". . . . But it is not easy to detect and watch the gleams of light that flash from within. Education and social surroundings are in a conspiracy to dim these flashes and to attract our watching to other things. (CC, p. 139)

This is a facet of the "tragedy of the lost individual," the disappearance of the gleam of light. Dewey calls it "one’s own spontaneous, unforced reactions," the precious source of what makes us human "from within." The loss of one’s own voice, the courage to think out loud (CC, p. 136) is the moral and spiritual crisis of democracy.

What is implied here, however, is more than the nostalgic mourning over the loss. The essay is permeated by an Emersonian spirit in which Dewey suggests most clearly the second sense of the tragic: in our obliviousness to the gleam of light, we cannot even remember its loss, its unattainability; we subside in apathy and indifference. As Dewey says: "We do not know what we really want and we make no great effort to find out" (CC, p. 133). He implicitly criticizes such conditions of oblivion in which human beings still manage to live, without the aching sense of unattainability, in the illusion that democracy has attained its perfection. This is the state of nihilism, the numbness of our humble sense of human condition in the loss of our sense of center and location, which is so much the part of contemporary lives. It is a state in which our tranquilised nature covers is desensitized to its most insidious effects.

              Extinguishing of the gleam of light, with the second sense of the tragic, is a hidden theme in Deweyan growth, what might be called a recessive, Emersonian perfectionist element of his pragmatism. [16] In Dewey’s scheme of habit reconstruction, the gleam of light suggests a spiritual dimension of impulse.. To commit oneself to the life of continuous growing implies our acknowledgment of the double sense of the tragic inherent in human condition, and an endless tension between attainment and unattainment of democracy. In this sense, as Dewey says, democracy never will be fully perfected. [17] To sustain the gleam of light in the path of growth, progressive growth needs to be reconsidered as a journey that accommodates the sense of resistance and self-overcoming, which Cavell characterizes as "Perfectionisms’s moral urgency." [18] One promising way to enhance this recessive Emersonian dimension in Deweyan growth is to reconfigure it as trajectories of expanding circles. This is the image of growth that Emerson presents in his view of the universe -- a view that our life is "an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning." [19] Cavell highlights this concept as "ever-widening circles" and "endless, discontinuous encirclings," the process of self-overcoming of the unattained and unattainable self in Emersonian perfectionism. [20] Paul Standish features it as a constant process of destabilizing the existing condition of self. [21]

The metaphor of growth in expanding circles helps us tap the full potential of Dewey’s transactional holism -- circles that combine the notion of unity with the idea that unity is not complete, the idea of recurrence with that of difference (AE, p. 173). The later Dewey suggests the image in such expressions as the "enlarging [of] the horizons" (EN, p. 274), "an expanded whole" (AE, p. 171), and "the ever-recurring cycles of growth" (AE, p. 152). Rather than erasing the trajectories of growth in the past as something to be nostalgically mourned over, the idea of expanding circles underscores the idea of transcending the unattained and the imperfect for further attaining and perfecting. Progressive growth, now with the second sense of the tragic, is an ever-continuing struggle to expand and transcend the borders of an existing circle.

Progressive education’s characteristic interpretation and appropriation of Dewey has missed the aspect of Dewey that is at issue here. And proper recognition of this aspect casts light, indeed recasts, the work as a whole. This reconfigured view of growth opens the possibility of a reading of Dewey for education, one especially significant in an age of nihilism: to moderate the existing state of cynicism and awaken the capacity to experience prophecy -- to inspire the young to expand their circles of growth, to let them, as McDermott says with Dewey, "experience the world in all of its potential intensity." [22] This is not a Rousseauean romantic trust in the inborn goodness of the child. Rather, it requires a courageous and patient trust in impulse, the gleam of light, as "the living source of a new and better future" (TI, p. 113). That is why in Art as Experience, Dewey proposes a "reeducation" of aesthetic perception that is essential to critical judgment (AE, p. 328). Deweyan growth, whose limitation is asserted on the basis of a narrow concept of intelligence associated with the scientific method of problem-solving, can be redeemed if we open our eyes to his broader concept of "creative intelligence" (AE, p. 351) -- intelligence for us to live in affirmative energy despite the tragic human condition. Dewey says that peace and courage are obtained only "in the midst of effort," only "in action not after" (HNC, p. 181). This reminds us what Cavell says of Emersonian ever-widening circles: the power of "crossing, or rather leaping," is the result of rising, not the cause. [23] In a similar spirit, Dewey declares: "Perfection means perfecting, fulfilment, fulfilling, and the good is now or never" (HNC, p. 200).

There is no doubt that there are aspects of Dewey’s work that leave him vulnerable to the kind of misinterpretation that progressive educators have commonly made. Equally it needs to be acknowledged that the interpretation that has been advanced here rests on elements that are not always plainly explicit in his work. In the light of many of Dewey’s texts it may seem that such a reading is at most recessive in his work. I have tried to show, however, that a careful reading of some of his later writings especially reveals the proximity of his thought to Emersonian perfectionism, and that the threads of this can be found running through his work as a whole. It is such a reading of Dewey that, I believe, can contribute best to the reconstruction of educational practice today. Education for democracy requires no less.

[1] John Dewey, Individualism Old and New, in The Later Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1985), 5, 81 (hereafter The Later Works is abbreviated as "LW," The Middle Works, "MW"; Individualism Old and New is cited as "ION").

[2] John Dewey, "Construction and Criticism," in LW5, 133, 136 (hereafter cited as "CC").

[3] Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism [La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1990].

[4] William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology; and to Students on some Life’s Ideals (New York: W. W. Norton & Company).

[5] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, in MW 9, 54 (hereafter cited as "DE").

[6] Steven C. Rockefeller, John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 486-487.

[7] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 101.

[8] Raymond D. Boisvert, "The Nemesis of Necessity," in Dewey Reconfigured: Essays on Deweyan Pragmatism, ed. Casey Haskins and David I. Seiple (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 157-163.

[9] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, in MW14 (hereafter cited as "HNC").

[10] John Dewey, Experience and Nature, in LW1, 162 (hereafter cited as "EN").

[11] John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1920), 162, 174.

[12] John Dewey, "Time and Individuality," in LW14, 113 (hereafter cited as "TI").

[13] Cornel West, "Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic," in The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civirtas Books, 1999).

[14] John Dewey, "I Believe," in LW14, 91.

[15] John McDermott, "From Cynicism to Amelioration," in Pragmatism: Its Sources and Prospects, ed. Robert J. Mulvaney and Philip M. Zeltner (University of South Carolina Press, 1981), 86; John Dewey, Art as Experience, in LW10 (hereafter cited as "AE").

[16] Concerning the issue of whether Dewey can be called Emersonian moral perfectionist or not, see: Naoko Saito, "Reconstructing Deweyan Pragmatism in Dialogue with Emerson and Cavell," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3 (Summer 2001): 387-404.

[17] John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, in LW2, 328.

[18] Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 14, 55.

[19] Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Circles," in Ralph Waldo Emerson, 166.

[20] Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 128; Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, xxxiv.

[21] Paul Standish, "Postmodernism and the Education of the Whole Person," Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1995), 128-129.

[22] McDermott, "From Cynicism to Amelioration," 91.

[23] Cavell, The Senses of Walden 136.