Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Remarks on Dewey

A few days ago I finished reading John Dewey's Experience and Nature (1st ed. 1925; 2nd ed. 1929). I started reading it in a reading group last year, but upheavals and dislocations intervened.

Richard J. Bernstein (New School) remarked that Dewey is very good at showing us how to prevent a useful distinction from becoming a useless dichotomy. (Within a pragmatist orientation, the criteria for "useful" and "useless" are made with reference to what enables one to make more connections between concepts and to enrich and enlarge the application of intelligence to situations.)

Bernstein's remark holds true of Dewey's magnum opus, and it's helpful to bear this in mind while working through this lovely and demanding text. E&N confronts the reader with two difficulties. The first is stylistic: although Dewey is not so turgid a stylist as the Teutonic Titans (Kant et al.), neither does his argumentation have (or aspire to) the clarity and rigor prized by "analytic" philosophers. The second is an over-abundance of interesting things to talk about, and one may well wonder if Dewey's discussions ever get beyond the superficial. In the course of E&N, Dewey canvasses the following dichotomies: metaphysics vs. science, science vs. art, art vs. metaphysics, nature vs. mind, nature vs. experience. Throughout, Dewey tries to show that all dichotomies are illusory; continuity is everywhere.

Central to this project are two distinctions: event and object, and mediate and immediate. The former distinction is metaphysical. "Events" are what's going on whether one knows it or not. This is a process ontology; on this point Dewey invites comparison not only with William James but also with Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze. By contrast, "objects" are "events with meaning": a set of events that are associated together as a unity because they matter to some agent (not necessarily a human mind). The event/object distinction allows Dewey to accomodate the broadly Kantian insight into how the cognitive apparatus actively enters into the construction of experience, but without signing off on transcendental idealism (the ideality of space and time).

The distinction between mediation and immediacy, taken from Hegel, is used phenomenologically; it allows Dewey to describe the rhythms of lived experience. (Granted, this is perhaps also how Hegel used it, but Dewey's phenomenology is less intellectualist and disembodied than Hegel's.) This distinction allows Dewey to distinguish between one's immediate enjoyment or use of an object and the reflection on how that object might be improved in order to further human ends and interests. (It also allows Dewey to distinguish between immediately having ends and interests, to be satisfied or frustrated, and reflecting on what ends and interests one should or might have.)

I should note, parenthetically, that Experience and Nature might be read as a naturalistic and somatically aware re-writing of Phenomenology of Spirit. But I don't want to go much further with that thought until I've played with it some more. I'm almost tempted to call it a "phenomenology of anti-spirit," except that Adorno used that phrase to describe Capital, and Adorno's use of the phrase is more apt.

The distinction between mediation and immediacy gives Dewey the tools to move in an un-Kantian (and very Hegelian) direction. Kant insists on establishing the borders of possible experience. That is, Kant attempts to show us that there are definite limits to any possible experience, and that these borders can be determined precisely. In doing so, Kant will also have shown us that there are certain concepts which cannot be satisfied by any object of possible experience: the transcendental ideas (God, free will, immortality).

Where Dewey parts company from Kant (and from the entire neo-Kantian tradition, including logical empiricism and phenomenology) is in his insistence that both experience and nature are "open." There are no boundaries to either the real or the experiencable. Dewey's concept of nature is not the closed and mechanistic universe of Newton and Laplace, but the open and creative universe of Emerson and Bergson. (Darwin, however, is also a strong influence.) The rhythm of mediation and immediacy is one in which some attained enjoyment is the springboard for further reflection, which in turn culminates in some new enjoyment . . . ad infinitum. No boundaries, no limits. (And how very American!)

(It is also worth noting that, because Dewey's nature is the nature of Emerson, James, and Bergson, and not the nature of Newton and Laplace, he does not need to establish a place for human freedom and agency outside of nature as whole, as Kant does.)

The rejection of fixed boundaries to experience or to nature brings Dewey into conversation both other process ontologists (as noted above) and with philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Adorno, who denied the possibility of standing outside our social practices in order to locate the determinate boundaries between sense and nonsense -- or even between catastrophe and redemption. Such distinctions can only be made from within our practices -- from within our lives.


Anonymous john c. halasz said...

I supposed I'd want to pipe up a bit on behalf of Kant and the notion of critical delimitation, which I see carried over and transformed by Wittgenstein. In the first place, isn't one of the basic thrust that delimitation yields validity, that it's only when one understands the limits of a claim and its applications that one can understand the basis of its validity. Hence factual claims about metaphysical entities are ruled out precisely because they are undelimited, incapable of being understood on an applicable basis. This is not a matter of a claim or demand for a complete determinacy of knowledge, but rather a matter of how cognitive claims can be applied and extended in further understanding, precisely without any arrival of complete determinacy. Secondly, delimitation yields differentiation between kinds of validity claims and corresponding objects or domains of application and their levels, such that a factual or theoretical cognitive claim is not the same as an ethical claim, is not the same as a "transcendental" claim, is not the same as an aesthetic claim, etc. There is an attentiveness to the reifying effects of category mistakes and the stultifying effects of stuffing more into a claim than it can yield or sustain. Thirdly, though there is much confusion involved in conflating "necessity", itself a multiply conflated term, with the bindingness of norms, the "pure rational will" already subtended the account of cognition, to be carried over in the second "Critique", as the "pure fact of practical reason", into the moral goodwill as the only thing that's good in itself. The point here is that only a being that is in some sense "free" can be capable of being bound by norms, and, already in the cognitive domain, such normative binding and hence "freedom" is operative. "Reason" is less a "fact" about the world than a structure of norms and that implicates (an argument for) "freedom". Finally, I think the recourse to "judgment" as application and as yielding fruitful implication over against the logical deduction of "propositions" in dogmatic metaphysics is at the core of Kant's thought, and that is what yields the somewhat contradictory obsession with "spontaneity" as the "freedom" of the "mind".

Admittedly, I'm stretching Kant in a quasi-pragmatic direction, which is where I see Wittgenstein taking up his place with and against Kant. And I would stand with Wittgenstein and Levinas on the critical dissolution of epistemology, separating out the ethical from the cognitive in their Kantian identification/conflation. But the recognition of the always provisional nature of delimitations over against their reification as timeless "eternal" necessity itself owes something to the critical "spirit".

On a different note, that the universe must be conceived as "essentially" open was one of the main burdens of Whitehead's "Process and Reality". But that was not derived from a consideration of the conditions or requirements of action or practices, but from an analysis of how causal relations, "prehensions", could result within the world in perspectival concretions of experiences.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Matt Brown said...

I very much like your comments on Dewey. Particularly helpful to me are the comparisons to Kant. Also, I think that you pick up on a crucial element of E&N that I hadn't grasped until sometime after reading Art as Experience: the the importance of the concept of RHYTHM. Furthermore, you've given me further evidence that I need to read Bergson and Whitehead.

One thing I'm worried about: you call the event/object distinction metaphysical, while mediate/immediate is phenomenological. For one, Dewey often applies "mediate" and "immediate" to existence, e.g., "Immediacy of existence is ineffable"(LW 1:74). Also, I'm worried about talking about metaphysical v. phenomenological, not only because the evidence for metaphysical claims is empirical (the empirical-denotative method), but also because of Dewey's attempt to closely identify the phenomenological with the existential, beginning as early as "The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism," where he explicitly says that things ARE as they are EXPERIENCED to be (!).

4:45 PM  
Blogger Matt Brown said...

John, I think we could replace your call for delimitation with a more Deweyan ideal: Do not confuse one (kind of) inquiry for another! Do not think that the rules or forms valid in one inquiry will be valid for another! (Nor should you assume that the "facts" of one inquiry are just as settled in another.)

But Dewey would also say: Don't erect absolute borders between inquiries! That just blocks the road toward progress.

4:51 PM  

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