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  • The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson
  • Michael J. McGandy
Naoko Saito The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson American Philosophy Series. Foreword by Stanley CavellNew York: Fordham University Press, 2005. xvi + 210 pp.

This book presents the reader with a tantalizing and sometimes frustrating mixture of philosophical enterprises. Saito examines the role of imagination in personal growth and education as presented in the philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who coined the expression "gleam of light" in "Self-Reliance") and John Dewey. She also joins in conversation the 19th century Emerson, the early 20th century Dewey, and the contemporary Stanley Cavell. Finally, Saito offers insights that will aid educators as they balance the sometime contrary aims of achieving educational standards and inspiring personal development.

These are all worthy projects. There is no doubt that each project has relations to the other two and that each gains force and clarification from those relations. Yet it is evident that, within the compass of 160 pages, it is not easy to do all three things and do them well. It is then principally as a standard academic monograph addressing education and imagination in the works of Emerson, Dewey, and Cavell that The Gleam of Light should be considered. Libraries and scholars of American philosophy will want this book on their shelves as a resource on these crucial topics and as a new reading of these important figures in philosophy.

Saito is at her best when she engages in textual analysis and comparison in order to bridge the gulf that Cavell claims (see Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome) exists between Dewey and Emerson. Scholars of Emerson and Dewey (and perhaps of Cavell) will find The Gleam of Light an interesting study that highlights important connections among Emerson's concept of imagination, Dewey's idea of impulse, and Cavell's theme of Emersonian moral perfectionism. The book is rich in presentations of texts well-known as well as obscure. The upshot of Saito's reading is that the Emersonian concern for the project of moral perfection is found to be quite alive in Dewey's pedagogical outlook and that questions regarding the goals of Deweyan education can be addressed from the standpoint of the cultivation of the native imaginative capacities of individuals. In sum: Education is a matter of identifing, cultivating, and, when necessary, retrieving the gleam of light intrinsic to each person.

Readers interested in Saito's creative and fine reading of these three philosophers will have to be wary, however. In the course of drawing their works into relationship she cannot resist the anachronistic impulse to bring all three into conversation as if they were contemporaries fully aware of each one's respective body of writing. This is interesting rhetorically, but questionable in a work that is firmly grounded in the history of philosophy. Moreover, as it is only Saito who is in the position to create this three-way [End Page 303] conversation, her anachronistic gestures occur at times when she should forthrightly join that conversation and make her own claims.

Taking a step back from Saito's close reading of the major texts of these three philosophers, readers will also find a larger argument for ameliorating differences between pragmatism and idealism via an aesthetic analysis of human experience and action. This might be Saito's principal contribution. Looking to Dewey's Experience and Nature and Art as Experience, Saito finds that these works lay more emphasis on individual experience and imagination. It is when one considers experience from the first-person standpoint (appropriately infused with aesthetic categories) that the apparent scientistic quality of Dewey's philosophy is constrained and the Emersonian theme of personhood is highlighted. The claim undergirding this approach is that while idealism and pragmatism differ widely when considered from the standpoints of epistemology and metaphysics, it is in aesthetics that there are grounds for conceptual reconciliation. This is a provocative thesis that bears further consideration by Saito and others.

The Gleam of Light is less satisfying when one considers the book from the standpoint of pedagogical theory. Saito aims to contribute to the discussion regarding goal-oriented...


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