- John Dewey’s Quest for Unity: The Journey of a Promethean Mystic
This insightful and provocative discussion of John Dewey’s philosophy appears a decade after Richard Gale’s publication of his important book The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge University Press, 1999). In that earlier work, Gale exposed and explored the tension in James’s thought between the robust Promethean tendency to pursue a “morally strenuous life” and a passive mystical tendency toward unity with that which is greater than oneself. The present study is a kind of sequel to that work, as Gale shows the same tendencies to be operative in Dewey’s philosophy, however, not remaining [End Page 275] in tension (as with James) but finally integrated or synthesized, so that he can be accurately portrayed as a “Promethean mystic.” On Gale’s account, this is precisely what makes Dewey’s philosophy so “exciting,” at the same time that his journey toward this integrated perspective leads him to embrace certain conclusions that Gale rejects as problematic. The result of these deliberations is a book that is as thoughtful and vigorously argued as it is in some respects “quirky” (this is at least occasionally true both of the prose style and of some of the book’s arguments).
The book consists of eight chapters, equally divided into two parts. The first part focuses on Dewey’s theory of inquiry and the second on his more properly metaphysical writings. In Gale’s opinion, Dewey’s numerous assertions about inquiry, while both historically influential and philosophically significant, are nevertheless flawed. Their importance might be preserved in a way that is not problematic if one can resist Dewey’s own tendency (frequently noted in Gale’s analysis) to exaggeration. For instance, Dewey’s insistence on the uniqueness and ineffability of any situation as experienced by some individual (whether it be of the indeterminate sort that stimulates inquiry or the determinate kind that represents its culmination) is at odds with his claim that inquiry is a process that must always be public and shared, thus requiring communication among individuals about just such experiences. It is an exaggeration, Gale contends, to conclude that “uniqueness entails ineffability.” He will later go on to observe that there are also limits (that Dewey himself was less than blithe to admit) to the desirability of sharing certain kinds of experiences and inquiries.
In a similar fashion, Dewey’s assertions that (1) inquiry is, in fact, ubiquitous in human experience (a descriptive claim) and that (2) inquiry is the most desirable way for human beings to resolve any kind of problematic situation (a prescriptive one) are both judged to be hyperbolic on Gale’s account. There are modes of thought and activity in which persons engage—for example, when they are “just chilling”—that cannot be accurately portrayed as forms of inquiry. Moreover, there are certain types of tensions or problems, in our romantic or sexual relationships for example, for which it might be more appropriate to rely on “gut feelings” or basic instincts than to address them as objects of inquiry. Sometimes the best way to deal with a specific problem is not to solve it but to endure it, to just “hang in,” a strategy that Gale readily admits Dewey would have regarded as anathema. Gale himself regards Dewey’s predisposition to exaggerate the scope and significance of human inquiry as a vestige of his early absolute idealism, evidence for Gale of the enduring influence of Hegel on even the later Dewey’s thinking. It is also evidence for him of a certain “fanaticism” that Dewey displayed toward his own best ideas, as the latter’s appreciation of the social and political fruits of inquiry in developing a [End Page 276] true democracy led him to play a “prophetic” role in advocating it as the only true path to human flourishing.
If inquiry became a kind of strategic absolute for Dewey, the idea of “growth” (in the form of...