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  • The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson
  • Steve Odin
The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson. By Naoko Saito. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Pp. 210. Hardcover. Paper.

The Gleam of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson, by Naoko Saito of Kyoto University, is a splendid work that develops an innovative "Emersonian-Deweyan vision" of education, growth, and democracy, itself rooted in Stanley Cavell's "Emersonian moral perfectionist" view of philosophy as "education for grown-ups." From a distinctively Japanese perspective, Professor Saito endeavors to show how the ateleological notion of education as growth without fixed ends in Dewey's naturalistic pragmatism is best conceived neither by Richard Rorty's neopragmatism, which is directed toward nonfoundationalism, antirealism, and relativism, nor by Hilary Putnam's neopragmatism, which is based on objective realism, but rather in terms of Cavell's "Emersonian moral perfectionism" (EMP): comprehended as a dynamic process of self-realization, forever aiming to attain an unattainable perfection without final perfectibility, visualized by Emerson's poetic image of ever-expanding circles. Saito thus asserts, "this book tries to revive and critically to reconstruct the contemporary significance of the Deweyan task of democracy and education, in dialogue with Emersonian moral perfectionism—a perfectionism without final perfectibility" (p. 3). Yet the key guiding metaphor for Saito's own Emersonian-Deweyan moral perfectionist view of democracy, education, and growth through ever-expanding circles is what Emerson calls the "gleam of light."

A Japanese Perspective on American Philosophy of Education

As I have mentioned elsewhere (Odin 2005), Saito has introduced the American philosophical idea of EMP to contemporary Japanese scholars by publishing the first Japanese translation (Saito 2005) of Stanley Cavell's The Senses of Walden (Cavell 1992). Her translation includes an introductory essay for the Japanese reader ("Stanley Cavell to Woruden no sekai: Nihon no dokusha heno Izanai" [pp. 213– 214]), co-authored by Saito and Paul Standish. The following is the opening passage of this introductory essay, translated here from Japanese into English:

The purpose of this introductory essay is not to explain what Cavell has to say. He will do that for himself. Its aim is to recognize that in The Senses of Walden the reader is confronted by a difficult and demanding text, perhaps all the more so for the Japanese reader in view of the richness and particularity of the range of cultural references upon which Cavell shows Thoreau to draw. [End Page 596]

Insofar as Saito's Japanese translation of the 1992 expanded and revised edition of The Senses of Walden includes not only Cavell's interpretation of Walden by Henry David Thoreau but also additional essays on the American transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is a key source text for Cavell's EMP.

In The Gleam of Light, Saito has also become the first Japanese scholar to publish an original English-language work interpreting Cavell's Emersonian moral perfectionist view of philosophy as "education for grown-ups," in relation to Dewey's pragmatic theories of progressive education, evolutionary growth, and social democracy. At the very outset of her Acknowledgments to this book, Saito confesses that "As a Japanese person drawn to American philosophy, I am accustomed to being positioned as 'a foreigner'—hence, to maintaining a distance from the familiar, to being a stranger" (p. ix). Moreover, in his Foreword to The Gleam of Light, Cavell himself asserts, "the knowledge Naoko Saito deploys of the educational environments, intellectual and institutional, of both Japan and the United States, gives her that double perspective which must enter into the philosophical assessment I find called for" (xiv).

This East-West double perspective is seen at various points throughout Saito's work, such as her discussion of reforms in the Japanese educational system viewed from the standpoint of American and British educational reform movements:

Similarly in Japan a series of educational reforms has been conducted. On the one hand, there are policies of decentralization and privatization. The direction of education here demonstrates that Japanese society, as a critical case of postindustrial democratic societies, is now in search of the education of a new type of...