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John Dewey's Quest for Unity: The Journey of a Promethean Mystic

From: Education and Culture
Volume 29, Number 1, 2013
pp. 135-139 | 10.1353/eac.2013.0005

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Richard Gale's slender monograph is a sometimes insightful, sometimes enervating and always personal reckoning with John Dewey's philosophy. Gale's basic thesis is that Dewey is a unificationist malgré lui, that despite being committed to empiricism and pluralism his pragmatism remains profoundly metaphysical in a non-naturalistic sense. This claim is hardly new or surprising. Thinkers as diverse as George Santayana, Richard Rorty and John Patrick Diggins, to name but a few, have also noted traces of supernaturalism and monism throughout Dewey's corpus. Moreover, recent works including Victor Kestenbaum's The Grace and Severity of the Ideal (Chicago 2002), James Good's A Search for Unity and Diversity (Lexington 2005) and Melvin Rogers' The Undiscovered Dewey (Columbia 2008) have addressed the intersection of Dewey's writings with spiritual and religious themes. Gale describes his own contribution as "a mere footnote" (26n9) to Steven Rockefeller's John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (Columbia 1992), an intellectual biography narrated in the long shadows of Dewey's evangelical upbringing. Where Gale's work stands out, however, is in its claim that Dewey's corpus is incoherent unless significantly modified. As Gale sees it, Dewey's work is shot through with a tension between his scientistic metaphilosophy and the "metaphysical" bases and aspirations for his theory of experience. On the one hand, Gale argues that Dewey denies qualitative experiences any cognitive value; on the other, he offers that Dewey's privileged process of inquiry rests on intersubjective communication about qualitatively "felt" and ultimately ineffable problematic situations in experience. As such, Dewey's endorsement of scientific method is incompatible with his aesthetic conception of inquiry. Therefore, either his methodology or his metaphysics has to go. Gale recommends that Dewey drop his infatuation with science and own up to his identity as a traditional metaphysician.

The work's introduction explains Gale's systematic approach to Dewey's philosophy and briefly lays out the general argument. Gale reads Dewey's key concepts of inquiry, moral democracy, communication and education as forming a pyramid "with growth as the summum bonum at its apex" (11). In Gale's words, growth "involves the realization by an individual of ever richer and more extensive unifications, both within herself and with other persons, as well as with her natural environment" (11). Below this apex comes inquiry, the controlled and directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into a unified, meaningful whole (12). Inquiries are successful if they lead to greater harmony within concrete experience. Gale writes that inquiry "involves the realization of greater esthetic unification" (12). Moral democracy comes next, for it "will empower citizens to freely bring about their own growth, and to do so it must create the circumstances in which they will become effective inquirers" (13). Communication undergirds moral democracy, for "[c]ollective inquiry requires a community of shared interests and purposes" which can only be gleaned through "widespread communication" (14). Finally, education sits at the pyramid's base, teaching citizens "how to engage in collective inquiry" (15). While perhaps somewhat forced (an image of a cone or cylinder rather than a pyramid seems more apt), Gale's pyramidal schematization, whether one accepts it or not, reveals that the systematic aspects of Dewey's work can be easily overlooked if one does not make a conscious effort to illuminate them. This image, moreover, allows Gale to make his dramatic claim that "Dewey's grand pyramid is a glorification of humanity as a Promethean creator of meaning and value through the active control of nature by inquiry. . . . This one-idea fanaticism is both the glory and the misery of Dewey's philosophy" (18). Cataloguing the errors of Deweyan inquiry is the task to which Gale applies himself in subsequent chapters. The rest of the book is structured in two parts composed of four chapters each. The first section, "Growth, Inquiry, and Unity," develops the argument that Dewey is obsessed with unity. Gale scrutinizes his method of inquiry and tries to show how Dewey inappropriately applies it in all domains. The second section, "The Metaphysics of Unity," concerns Dewey's implicit worldview. Gale seeks to demonstrate that Dewey's basic mysticism is a shaky foundation for the ostensibly...

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