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The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent (review)
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.3 (2005) 280-283

The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent. Victor Kestenbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 261 pp. $45.00 h.c., 0-226-43215-7; $20.00 pbk., 0-226-43216-5.

In The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal, Victor Kestenbaum swims against the current of Dewey scholarship. He declares for and gives close articulation to the importance of transcendence in the philosophy of John Dewey. The guiding thread of the book is "the proposal that Dewey never outgrew his idealistic period. His philosophical achievement is not to be located in his naturalism but in the frontiers along which the natural and the transcendental touch" (137). Kestenbaum does not argue that Dewey defends a supernatural sense of transcendence; instead, he documents the modes of transcendence that, for Dewey, reveal themselves within the flow of experience. This is a learned and carefully developed book, one that will provoke pragmatists to think carefully about how growth, self-revision, and amelioration actually occur in experience and history.

Kestenbaum tracks transcendence in Dewey's work by tracing the work that the ideal performs in Dewey's texts. The ideal appears in a variety of guises: the invisible, the intangible, the absent, the creatively imagined, the end-in-view, and the universal. To bring these modes of the ideal into relief, Kestenbaum places Dewey's thought in conversation with a variety of thinkers including Hannah Arendt, Hans-Georg Gadamer, John N. Findlay, Michael Oakeshott, and Wallace Stevens, among others. I will not here document all of these conversations; rather, I want to focus on a few key and provocative features of Kestenbaum's argument to give the reader a taste of what this book has to offer.

Kestenbaum points out that, like Findlay, Dewey treats ideals as intentional objects—they are projected. As such, they assert the reality of possibility. This possibility is both general and vague; it is open to a variety of instantiations and is itself open to modification and revision. In Dewey's thought, ideals are not yet existent and therefore not yet concrete; they are at once in the present and looking forward to future possibilities. Even when they present themselves as ends-in-view, they are more than recipes to be filled—they are invisible, intangible meanings leading outward to the future. Thus, as Kestenbaum sees it, they create a border or frontier for human experience: a frontier between actuality and possibility. It is precisely in this capacity that ideals are transcendent. They are our means of self-overcoming both individually and culturally.

Though Kestenbaum alerts us to a variety of ways, in both early and late Dewey, by which we encounter and experience the ideal as transcendent, I want to focus here on three human practices that, for Kestenbaum, reveal the frontier life of the ideal: vigilance, faith, and imagination. Interestingly, Kestenbaum spends little time on Dewey's notion of "qualitative immediacy," to which most thinkers who seek transcendence in Dewey turn. This is not an oversight, but a strategic emphasis to try to show us just how pervasive, not idiosyncratic, is Dewey's concern with the transcendent. To pursue this pervasiveness, he reminds us that ideals are meanings.

As Kestenbaum sees it, for Dewey, meaning subordinates both truth and existence. "Truth" may indeed be in a Peircean way an ultimate ideal, but local "truths" as they are presently pursued bear more fruit for us. Their meanings lead us forward and get cashed out in experiential experiment. On the other side, existence is subordinated precisely because it is already actualized and concretized. Existence conditions possibility and reveals present "goods," but there always remains an ideal good, not yet existent, toward which the presently existent may or may not move. This is the "futurism" of the pragmatic outlook—the existent has its importance in large part only as the condition of a not-yet-existent ideal whose meaning leads us forward. This opens the way for the various roles of the ideal.

In discussing the moral dimensions of experience, Kestenbaum focuses on the importance for Dewey of our attentiveness to the world...

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