- A Search for Unity in Diversity: The "Permanent Hegelian Deposit" in the Philosophy of John Dewey
Among the revelations of Dewey's rare moments of autobiographical reflection, none has generated more curiosity and investigative zeal than his 1930 claim to have "drifted" from Hegel in the decade following his move from Michigan to Chicago in 1894. Beginning with Morton White's Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism (1943), biographers have divided on the question of whether Dewey's later philosophy was more strongly influenced by William James's experimental psychology or F. J. E. Woodbridge's Aristotelian naturalism. Despite their differences, both approaches are essentially empirical and realistic, and thus the majority of sympathetic commentators have agreed that Dewey was a realist, albeit of a decidedly unorthodox stripe. For them the notion that Dewey retained any significant commitment to idealism, given its virtual eradication at the beginning of the twentieth century, would damage his influence and legacy.
It has been something of a puzzle, accordingly, that in the same autobiographical essay Dewey alludes to a "permanent Hegelian deposit." For years Richard Rorty has claimed this differentiates a "good" Dewey committed to "social flourishing" from a "bad" Dewey prone to metaphysical dalliance. But the first systematic inquiry into Dewey's enduring Hegelianism is John R. Shook's Dewey's Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality (2000). Shook argues convincingly that Dewey never abandoned idealism, but rather transformed it into an experimental naturalism by doing away with both "mind-stuff" and equally noxious "things-in-themselves." In many ways James Good's A Search for Unity in Diversity is a bookend to Shook's project, though Good further differentiates Anglo-American Neo-Hegelianism from Hegel himself. According to Good, Dewey endorsed a Humanistic/Historicist interpretation of Hegel rooted in the reciprocal engagement of individuals and societies, rather than the supernatural and architectonic absolute championed by Neo-Hegelians such as T. H. Green, and F. H. Bradley. With [End Page 216] top-notch scholarship and scrupulous attention to detail, A Search for Unity in Diversity is both an excellent intellectual biography and a penetrating plea for a radical reinterpretation of Dewey's contribution to philosophy. I'll briefly sketch the historical account before addressing the more controversial claims about the "permanent Hegelian deposit."
Even readers familiar with the half-dozen book-length treatments of Dewey's development will find this account refreshing and informative. Good's professional credentials as a historian shine as he recreates the rough and bustling Burlington of Dewey's youth. In the 1870s, German idealism was considered the epitome of political liberalism and progressive education, and Dewey's journey toward the "inclusive philosophical idea" of the social began in an environment swirling with the crosscurrents of Kant, Hegel, and Schelling. At the White Street Congregational Church, Lewis Barstow preached a liberal orthodoxy that was essentially "man-building" (102), and Good presents a convincing case for the likelihood that even in boyhood Dewey never viewed God as an aloof law-giver or cosmic architect, but as a process unifying the individual and the social within a natural world of unlimited potential. At the University of Vermont Dewey encountered a struggling rural college transformed into the first bastion of American transcendentalism by James Marsh, who inspired a "Burlington philosophy" that rejected atomistic empiricism for a holistic integrity of knowing and doing, facts and values, and pure and practical reasons (57–59).
In noting the influence of the "St. Louis Hegelians" upon Dewey, most biographers have focused on W. T. Harris, the prominent founder of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy who published Dewey's earliest submissions and offered encouragement that led to his pursuit of graduate work at Johns Hopkins. Good augments this familiar tale with fascinating depictions of equally influential yet lesser-known Hegelians such as H. C. Brokmeyer, Denton Snider, and Thomas Davidson. At a time when European Hegelianism was polarized between, on the one hand, reactionary apologists for traditional Christianity and Prussian militarism and, on the other, radical...