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  • The Dialogues as Dramatic Rehearsal:Plato's Republic and the Moral Accounting Metaphor
  • Albert R. Spencer

In John Dewey & Moral Imagination, Steven Fesmire blames "Plato's low estimation of imagination in the Republic and Ion" for the denigration of imagination's role in moral deliberation (61). He argues that John Dewey's dramatic rehearsal better integrates imagination into the process of moral deliberation. His treatment of Plato represents a habit among pragmatists to reduce Dewey's reading of Plato to the polemics present in major works, such as The Quest for Certainty. In fact, Plato was Dewey's favorite philosopher, and he claimed that "[n]othing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a 'Back to Plato' movement" (LW 5:154).1 Following the scholarship of John Herman Randall and Henry Wolz reveals Plato as a moral artist engaged in a project of social reconstruction who wrote the dialogues as dramatic rehearsals of particular historical and cultural problems, specifically Athenian hegemony and Sophistic education. From this perspective, Republic Book I dramatizes the inadequacy of the moral accounting metaphor critiqued by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and experiments with metaphors sympathetic to Fesmire's construal of moral imagination.

According to Fesmire, Dewey contends all inquiry requires imagination and that moral deliberation demands attention to the aesthetic dimension of imagination because of the affective nature of moral value. This places Dewey in company with Adam Smith and David Hume who accepted the role of imagination and sentiment, and at odds with Immanuel Kant and Plato who suspected emotions and imagination as barriers to rational inquiry:

Imagination, on this view, is usually a trusty crafter of images but is given to mischief. Thus Kant's suspicion. Imagination as reflective free play is essential to aesthetic judgment, for Kant, but in morals it is too self-indulgent. It may sap moral strength, usurping Reason and yielding [End Page 26] victory to Feeling. If a person "surrenders authority over himself, his imagination has free play," Kant claims. "He cannot discipline himself, but his imagination carries him away by the laws of association; he yields willingly to his senses, and, unable to curb them, he becomes their toy." Doing one's duty, on Kant's view, requires little imagination; therefore "its cultivation is at best a luxury, at worst a danger."

Despite eulogizing of imagination by Adam Smith and David Hume, Enlightenment faculty psychology, following the lead of Plato's low estimation of imagination in the Republic and Ion, is responsible for imagination's being ignored even by those who urge that moral theories must be psychologically plausible. As a limited capacity prone to frivolous fancy and opposed to reason, imagination has little relevance to practical issues. So it can be dismissed altogether as a prescientific relic or, transfigured by Romanticism, admired on a pedestal as a "godlike power that enters into the world on the wings of intuition, free of the taint of contingency and history."

(Fesmire 61-62)

Instead, Fesmire prefers Dewey's concept of dramatic rehearsal because it properly values imagination and better coheres with our experience of moral deliberation. Rather than committing to a specific normative theory and always acting in accordance with it, Dewey argues that deliberation works best when we actively use our imagination to rehearse and evaluate a variety of responses and possible outcomes (70). Fesmire also references the four most common modes of dramatic rehearsal that Dewey mentions in his 1900-1901 lectures on ethics, specifically dialogue, visualization of results, visualization of their performance, and imagination of possible criticism (74). By consciously recognizing the role of imagination in the process of deliberation and flexing among the various phases and modes of rehearsal, Fesmire and Dewey believe that we can reconstruct "frustrated habits" that perpetuate moral problems and scenarios that seem intractable (78).

Fesmire suggests that the moral artist provides opportunities to practice dramatic rehearsal through the creation of works of art that engage our imagination. He lists the characteristics of the successful moral artist as follows. First, she must perceive "relations that otherwise go unnoticed." Second, she must create works that "transform cultural perceptions" through "an ongoing experiment with novel possibilities." Third, she must coherently express moral...


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pp. 26-35
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