- Beyond Realism & Anti-Realism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists
In this book David Hildebrand provides a spirited defence of the philosophy of John Dewey, a defence he claims is faithful to his actual views and contrary to those of the "neopragmatists," specifically Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty. Hildebrand rejects the neopragmatist assumption that Dewey's oeuvre can support one or other side of the realism/anti-realism debate, at least without obscuring some of Dewey's vital insights. In particular, he thinks Rorty and Putnam miss the centrality and significance of Dewey's "Practical Starting Point" for philosophy and his understanding of key concepts such as "knowledge," "experience" and "inquiry." He argues that when taken together these insights show that Dewey transcends traditional debates about realism, and that this was the essence of his pragmatism.
The first two chapters set out Dewey's views in the context of his contemporaries (especially the New and Critical Realists). They emphasise the radical nature of Dewey's position; that it aimed to supplant the well-established philosophical dualisms and debates of the day. Chapters Three and Four recount and criticise how Rorty and Putnam employ Dewey's insights to support near-opposite ends of the realism/anti-realism debate. The final chapter summarises and recapitulates the central themes and arguments of the book.
Hildebrand describes his motivating worries as "pedagogical" and "political." If contemporary pragmatists serve as authorities on the subject, [End Page 296] this threatens to occlude the significance of classical texts for new students. This would be unfortunate, as those original texts are beautiful pieces of philosophy. Moreover, there is the danger that contemporary 'authorities' on pragmatism are mistaken, or have their own distorting agenda. It is thus vital that students and professionals continue to study original texts, gaining a grasp on this subtle and rewarding era of philosophy first-hand.
Hildebrand's argument is immediately plausible, given that misinterpretations and caricatures of classical pragmatism are sadly common and familiar. It is also novel however, as it asserts pragmatism's foremost contemporary representatives are also guilty of misinterpretation. Hildebrand courts controversy, concluding his introduction by saying the neopragmatists "misuse central epistemological and metaphysical views of classical pragmatism for their own ends, all the while sustaining dualisms that the classical pragmatists fought to dissolve." This book may polarise opinion about Hildebrand's success, if so contemporary debate about pragmatism should be enriched.
Readers may enjoy the novel account of New and Critical Realism in Chapter One, movements of which I knew nothing before reading the book. Hildebrand uses these movements to locate Dewey historically and dialectically amid the popular realism & idealism of his time. He demonstrates Dewey's views clearly diverged from those of his contemporaries, despite some of their best efforts to assimilate them for their realist or idealist cause. His main argument concerns Dewey's view that New Realists were responsible for hypostatising the faculties of knowledge and perception and conflating their products, resulting in paradoxical psychophysical dualism. They claimed that knowledge "can be simply had, in an instant," while Dewey insisted that "knowledge is an achievement, the eventual, alembicated product of inquiry," and that contrary to the way New Realists made it sound "Knowledge is never received like manna from heaven." Dewey's work on the reflex arc illustrated that perception is similarly an active or participatory process, though its products are distinct from those of knowledge. Hildebrand argues Dewey was trying to show how such mistakes created two crippling problems for New Realism: the problem of illusion and relapse into the very idealism the movement was designed to refute.
Chapter Two concerns aspects of Dewey's views which realists (New and Critical) considered at odds with their own, implying too close an affinity with idealism. Like its predecessor this chapter would benefit from more (or better) examples to help elucidate Dewey's sometimes oblique prose. The dialectic is often highly abstract, focusing on such notions as the given (versus Dewey's preferred "taken"), Dewey's unusual understanding of temporal epistemology (knowledge of past...