- Democracy and Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming by Nathan Crick
This is a book about what John Dewey meant when he said in The Public and Its Problems that democracy “will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” The first chapter is about democracy, the second chapter is about free social inquiry, and the final chapter is about full and moving communication. Along the way, what Nathan Crick does is transform what is usually little more than an authority-seeking, throw-away line (in just about every book on the subject of public deliberation in democracy) into a rich and compelling account of what that line most likely meant to Dewey. The fact that he does this following a careful analysis of Dewey’s massive oeuvre makes this book required reading for anyone who may want to use that line in the future.
The first chapter explores what Dewey meant by democracy as a “way of life” and what such an expansive way of thinking about democracy should mean for how we talk to each other in democracy. The way of life that democracy signals, in Crick’s account of Dewey, is a mode of existence (or being) characterized by communal adaptation and change (becoming). The need for constant adaptation and change, what Crick calls collective transformation, is a response to the constantly evolving consequences of human activity as well as to improvements in our understanding of them. Hence, democracy, understood as a way of living together as a people, must take up the fundamental challenge of collectively responding to undesirable consequences and promoting desirable ones. A commitment to pursuing collaborative, [End Page 361] communal transformation through communication captures, Crick argues, democracy’s guiding ethical principle.
As suggested by the book’s title, Crick’s primary aim is to show that Dewey’s understanding of transformational communication is thoroughly rhetorical. One would be wrong to surmise, however, that Crick is simply one more rhetoric scholar trying to claim Dewey for the rhetorical tradition by matching-up statements made by Dewey with similar ones made by key figures in the history of rhetoric. Rather, as Crick promises—and delivers—he shows how Dewey’s discussion of communication should cause rhetoric scholars to revise how they think about rhetoric, even though Dewey had little use for the term.
In the second chapter, Crick does this through showing how Dewey’s understanding of social inquiry does not reduce science to just another kind of rhetoric (as rhetoric of science scholars are sometimes tempted to do). At the same time, Crick also shows how Dewey resisted drawing a bright line between rhetoric and science. Rather, Crick guides the reader through Dewey’s account of the relationship between rhetoric and science that assigns rhetoric and science complementary, even integrated, roles in the collective identification of and response to community problems. Although science involves the systematic investigation of problems, rhetoric is what determines which problems will be regarded as community problems, applies pressure that compels scientific paradigm shifts, and supplies the route through which the conclusions of scientific inquiry can improve life in society. In the language of democratic theory, one might say that Crick shows how rhetoric and science work together to promote the epistemic dimension of democratic legitimacy by making it more likely that the consent of the governed will be rooted in warranted conclusions rather than in ignorance and lies. Similarly, the integration of rhetoric and science helps to limit the extent to which the results of scientific study are merely applied to a people rather than deliberately applied by the people.
The third chapter, dealing with full and moving communication, can be read as tracking down the role that art, particularly artistic communication, plays in Dewey’s account of democratic legitimacy. More specifically, Crick shows how Dewey advances a theory of the relationship between aesthetic form and intellectual substance that conjures democratic eloquence. In the presence of democratic...