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  • John Dewey's Quest for Unity: The Journey of a Promethean Mystic
  • Scott F. Aikin
Richard Gale. John Dewey's Quest for Unity: The Journey of a Promethean Mystic. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010, 215 pp.

There is what should be called the Curious George Model of Analysis, wherein the internal conflicts of some protagonist or program are the most revealing and significant features of the story. Take George. He is a good little monkey, but he's curious. These are virtues of sorts, but George's curiosity drives him first to investigate a yellow hat, then to try to fly like the seagulls, to investigate the telephone, and finally to try holding a large bunch of balloons. In each case, these actions driven by curiosity make trouble for George and others as he, successively, is captured, falls into the ocean, calls the fire department and is then incarcerated, and is ultimately sent high above the city to the confusion and consternation of many. In the end, George's curiosity will always win out over his self-conception of being a good little monkey. That's why he's curious George, not good George.

Richard Gale's work on John Dewey, in his most recent book, John Dewey's Quest for Unity, in addition to his earlier work on William James, is squarely in the Curious George model. Gale's landmark The Divided Self of William James pits James's promethean-humanistic aspirations against his mystical-religious inclinations. One optimistic version of this tension is that pragmatism is a synthesis of scientific and religious visions. But Gale's account shows that some syntheses are more like shotgun weddings than tidy resolutions—the man's still a drunk and the woman's still an avaricious cretin, but they're now husband and wife, soon to be daddy and mommy. And so Jamesian pragmatists duly "sing the blues," with the hope that they can improve things tomorrow, but with the correlate knowledge that meliorism is likely insufficient.

Gale's Dewey, too, suffers from a similarly divided self, but Dewey thinks that the synthesis is successful. Gale dubs the emergent vision "Promethean Mysticism" (19). Dewey's commitment to inquiry's value and effectiveness and his correlate commitment to the ubiquity of experience are the ground floor for a theory wherein a monistic metaphysics of experience supports an architecture of ascending goals from education and communication, to democracy, and ultimately to growth. Gale, however, has found a problem for the Deweyan synthesis of the scientific humanistic outlook with the Hegelian (in the early Dewey) and crypto-Hegelian (in the later Dewey) commitment to unity. On Gale's reading, Dewey's methodological commitments are inconsistent with his substantive philosophical commitments. Dewey has the self-conception of being a hard-headed scientific philosopher, but he ever so regularly is overcome by his mystical visions. There is, as for George the monkey, a tension of the heart. George thinks of [End Page 656] himself as a good little monkey, but his curiosity always gets the best of him.

Gale's story of the tension between method and vision is told in a variety of areas (aesthetics, ontology, the procedure of inquiry, and politics), and all share the same basic tension between methodological requirements of testability and communicability on the one hand and the commitments that explain the sense of testing and communication on the other hand. For Gale, these are in starkest contrast when we view Dewey's program from the perspective of what he calls Dewey's Humpty Dumpty Intuition (HDI). The force of this intuition is that "if we ever allow nature to fall apart into numerically distinct individuals, there is no way in which these atomic pieces can be reassembled into relational complexes" (23). Remember Humpty Dumpty? He fell off the wall, and neither the king's horses nor his men could piece him back together (why the fact that horses couldn't reassemble him seems irrelevant to me, it is like saying chimps can't do algebra, so it's not possible to do algebra, but it is a children's story). Gale holds that "Reality, for Dewey, is Humpty-Dumpty...