restricted access On Prophecy and Critical Intelligence
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On Prophecy and Critical Intelligence


At the heart of John Dewey's philosophy lays a romantic impulse—a vision in which the moral imagination plays a crucial role in our efforts to become who we hope to be as we engage a perilous world. 1 My view of romanticism is much like that of Richard Rorty's: that romanticism itself is "the thesis of the priority of imagination over reason—the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has broken." 2 Of course, Dewey acknowledged the importance of the imagination. In Democracy and Education, for example, he wrote that "imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement." 3 We see its role in his 1932 Ethics as the inferential dimension of inquiry, where he holds off Kant's worry about the self-indulgent implications of the imagination run amuck. Dewey is no Rousseau. But, for the purposes of this essay, I want to think about Dewey's view of imagination a bit differently—not in its traditional setting, but as a locus for a certain view of "the prophetic": that is, as a dimension of critical intelligence that is not so much about the ancient debate between poets and philosophers or "a decree of fate" but as conduct directed toward an as-yet realized present. 4

What occasioned these reflections was an odd encounter in Dewey's corpus. I was rereading Individualism, Old and New, and was struck by the relevance [End Page 105] of Dewey's formulations to our moment. A trenchant critique of an inherited conception of individualism that denies the capacities of human beings to engage in intelligent action animates the book. This denial deepens individual conformity to unjust arrangements. As Dewey would later argue in "Authority and Social Change," this conception of individualism, "in the very act of asserting that it stood completely and loyally for the principle of individual freedom, was really engaged in justifying the activities of a new form of concentrated power—the economic, which new form, to state the matter moderately, has consistently and persistently denied effective freedom to the economic underpowered and underprivileged." 5 What was needed in response to these new conditions was a reconstructed notion of individuality consonant with the moment, where "ideas and ideals are brought into harmony with the realities of the age in which they act." 6

This new individualism would be decidedly social and seen as developing within and through interactions with our fellows and by means of enabling social structures. In the interim, however, forces would continue to unhinge the old individualism. As Dewey writes:

Instances of the flux in which individuals are loosed from the ties that once gave order and support to their lives are glaring. They are indeed so glaring that they blind our eyes to the causes which produce them. Individuals are groping their way through situations which they do not direct and which do not give them direction. The beliefs and ideals that are uppermost in their consciousness are not relevant to the society in which they outwardly act and which constantly reacts upon them. Their conscious ideas and standards are inherited from an age that has passed away; their minds, as far as consciously entertained principles and methods of interpretation are concerned, are at odds with actual conditions. This profound split is the cause of distraction and bewilderment. 7

Dewey does not specify definitively the nature of the emergent individuality; he does "not see how it can be described until more progress has been made in its production." Instead, he urges us—a hortatory mode Dewey readers should be familiar with—to redirect our energies and to redeploy our imaginations in the [End Page 106] service of creating a context in which such individuality could in fact flourish (much of which requires that we reject the use of science and technology solely for private pecuniary gain).

But what struck me most was his use of the word prophetic. Dewey writes near the end of chapter 4: "There is a prophetic aspect to all observation; we can perceive the meaning of what...