publisher colophon
  • In Praise of Pagan Virtues:Toward a Renewed Philosophical Pedagogy

In this article, I argue that an essential part of our obligation as teachers and scholars of philosophy is to insist that the ultimate point of criticism is to foster the development of increasingly better explanations of natural and social phenomena. Doing so, moreover, requires that we cultivate in ourselves and our students a sense of gratitude for the very possibility of human flourishing and scientific advance. I illustrate these claims by showing how Dewey's analysis in Human Nature and Conduct is the sine qua non of a good explanation.


gratitude, explanation, John Dewey, David Deutsch, Jenny Diski

It is my claim that an essential part of our obligation as teachers and scholars of philosophy is to cultivate in ourselves and our students a sense of wonder—or what Dewey calls "the old pagan virtue" of gratitude (2002, 21)—in the very possibility of human flourishing and scientific discovery.1 In advancing this claim, I am not asking philosophers to abdicate our traditional, and always necessary, critical role.2 Instead, I am urging us to remember that the ultimate point of criticism is to foster the development of increasingly better explanations, a pursuit that, following the lead of the physicist David Deutsch, I will define as the sustained endeavor to describe "the reality that [End Page 200] accounts for the appearance" (2011, 15).3 In short, I am calling upon us to marvel at the fact that, however piecemeal and haltingly, we have been able to address some of the perplexities that confront us through the development of ever better explanations. Indeed, I will further follow Deutsch's lead and insist that any and all progress, whether epistemological or ethical, is derived from this search for successful explanations, and I will argue that this is particularly well exemplified in Dewey's understanding of moral principles as "hypotheses with which to experiment" (239).

I also want to emphasize at the outset that the wonder and gratitude whose cultivation I am encouraging are attitudes informed by a pragmatist and, thus, fallibilist sensibility. I am not, in other words, advocating a blind optimism or indulging in the fantasy of a problem-free future. As Dewey reminds us, our lives are necessarily ones defined by the need for "continuous, vital readaptation" (240). This is also why Peirce, despite his celebration of our ability to "conform more and more" to the Reasonableness operative in experience, nonetheless describes the process of learning from experience as consisting in "a system of teaching by practical jokes, mostly cruel" (EP2, 154; see also Magada-Ward 2005). Nor am I unaware that gratitude is often entangled with resentment toward those to whom we owe it, and I regard making this entanglement palpable to be the achievement of Jenny Diski's memoir, In Gratitude. Given the very halting and piecemeal nature of the progress we have made in understanding and ameliorating problems in the natural and social worlds, frustration in the pace and difficulty of this endeavor seems as warranted as does any pleasure in our occasional successes.

By appealing to these insights of Deutsch, Diski, and Dewey, my aim, therefore, is to illustrate that a renewed philosophical pedagogy, which means, moreover, any pedagogy deserving of the name, must be one that celebrates what the latter calls "the adventure of experiment" (237). It is only in this way, I believe, that the dangers of dogmatism and ignorance can be mitigated. Especially today, this is not only a task worthy of philosophy but also an immense challenge to teachers and scholars of it. Generating criticism in and of itself is easy.4 Sustaining our appreciation and gratitude for our ability to use such criticism in the pursuit of ever better explanations is daunting, particularly in light of our all-too-often justified dismay in the state of current knowledge and human interaction.

I will begin by setting forth Deutsch's account of explanations. As attempts to set forth the reality that engenders the appearances, [End Page 201] explanations originate as conjectures or, in Peirce's terminology, abductions.5 Furthermore, this means that formulating an explanation is both essentially creative and uniquely human. As Deutsch insists, "The creativity that humans use to improve ideas is what pre-eminently sets us apart from other species" (2011, 399). To anticipate, this means that explanations must differ in an important way from rules of thumb, which are employed by every organism.

Second, and echoing Peirce's description of the reasoning cycle as the movement from abduction through deduction to induction, Deutsch will claim that the search for ever better explanations takes the form of conjecture, criticism of that conjecture, and testing of that criticism. (Indeed, he is adamant that "there is only one way of making progress: conjecture and criticism" [2011, 203].) In so doing, he is also able to draw parallels, and ultimately make an equivalence, between biological evolution and human progress: "[Creativity] is itself an evolutionary process within individual brains. For it depends upon conjecture (which is variation) and criticism (for the purpose of selecting ideas)" (2011, 373).

Such creativity and the successful explanations it sometimes results in are only made possible, moreover, by our commitment to fallibilism; our allegiance toward, and maintenance of, a tradition of criticism with its hallmark insistence that a theory "must be testable" (Deutsch 2011, 13); and our conviction in the reality of abstractions. And by defining the former as the obligation "to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic" (2011, 9), Deutsch makes clear why he lists a tradition of criticism—as opposed to the (often nihilistic) rejection of authority tout court—as necessary for progress because it is only through empirical testing that any particular criticism can be evaluated as fruitful or misguided. Furthermore, because a successful explanation sets forth "the reality that accounts for the appearance," any essential part of that explanation—including abstractions—must be granted ontological (in contrast to merely instrumental) status: "An explanatory theory … embodies the same mathematical and causal structures [as that part of reality it explains]" (Deutsch 2011, 72). That is, and in keeping with Peirce's insight that "if I truly know anything, that which I know must be real" (EP2, 181), Deutsch is adamant that "causation and the laws of physics … are abstractions, and our knowledge of them comes—just as for all other abstractions—from the fact that our best explanations invoke them" (2011, 123). (Put more precisely, our knowledge of these abstractions—or instances of Thirdness in [End Page 202] Peirce's terms—increases as our explanations improve: "The faithfulness with which the one structure resembles the other is steadily increasing" [Deutsch 2011, 72].) This fact also, of course, belies the cliché that ignorance is bliss because, as Deutsch stresses, "the rule [throughout the universe] is person-friendliness to people who have the relevant knowledge. Death is the rule to those who do not" (2011, 69). Recall, too, Peirce's witty repudiation of realism's alternative, nominalism, as but "a stupid way of spelling Shipwreck" (EP2, 156).

Most importantly, it is only because of these three commitments to fallibilism, criticism, and realism that we possess criteria for evaluating purported explanations. These criteria include being hard to vary, having reach, and exemplifying what Deutsch calls a "jump to universality" (2011, 56). The former means that each element of an adequate explanation must play an indispensable causal role and thus cannot be easily replaced. (The contrast class can be found in many mythological accounts in which, for example, the motives behind the gods' behavior can be varied almost at will. Deutsch [see 2011, 23–25] illustrates this distinction in his discussion of how the axis tilt theory differs from the story of Persephone as an explanation of seasonal change.) The notion of "reach" refers to the fact that a good explanation should be able to solve problems that would have been unimaginable to its originator at the time of its creation. A good explanation's reach, moreover, enables what Deutsch christens the "jump to universality," which he defines as "a small change in a system to meet a parochial purpose [that] just happened to make the system universal as well" (2011, 134). (Such a change is perhaps most easily illustrated by the invention of the printing press with its movable type, which, in contrast to the engraving it rendered obsolete, enabled publication to be [in principle] limitless.) This is also why the uniquely human ability to form explanations differs from the use of "rules of thumb" because only explanations can be improved upon. That is, it is the fact that a good explanation must be hard to vary, have reach, and possess potential universality that enables the empirical testing through which improvement can be made and errors can be corrected.

It is my claim that the fallibilist, critical, and realist analysis that Dewey presents us with in Human Nature and Conduct is the sine qua non of a good explanation in Deutsch's terms. It is to showing this that I will now turn, emphasizing Dewey's account of habit, his distrust of appeal to instinct (or "an old unchangeable Adam" [113]), and his attack on our desire [End Page 203] for certainty. I do so animated by the pragmatist conviction that advancing explanatory knowledge is not only indispensable for preserving human flourishing but also, and most importantly, the only route to expanding it. As Donna J. Haraway reminds us, "[We need] a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of [our] world, one that can be … friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness" (1990, 187).

Dewey famously begins Human Nature and Conduct by asserting that "rules can be obeyed and ideals realized only as they appeal to something in human nature and awaken in it an active response" (2), thus setting himself the task of explaining both what constitutes human nature and what enables its transformation and improvement. This is habit, which he defines as "an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response" (42). In setting forth what Dewey means by this, I will emphasize his account of how habit constitutes the self and his description of the role of the environment in its creation and maintenance. I will also argue that, because his conception of habit is an example of what Deutsch calls an abstraction (or what Peirce calls a general), Dewey's analysis of our human condition in Human Nature and Conduct manifests a commitment to realism.

For Dewey, the self is not a Cartesian thinking thing: "There is no ready-made self behind activities. [Instead] there are complex, unstable, opposing … habits … which gradually come to terms with one another, and assume a certain consistency of configuration" (138). In so defining the self, he can explain both why self-transformation is possible and why the knowledge of another person consists in knowing his or her habits. For example, if I am correct in lauding someone for her courage, this means that I know not only how she has responded to past threats but how she will respond to future ones. I know, in other words, her character. This is also why Dewey will insist that "all virtues [such as courage] and vices [such as cowardice] are habits" (16).

Dewey's anti-Cartesianism also enables him to take into account the role of the environment in the creation and maintenance of habit. That is, a habit in his terms is not usefully conceived as being "in" us. Instead, "habits are ways of using and incorporating the environment in which the latter has its say as surely as the former" (15), a claim perhaps most easily illustrated by the habit of walking, which is "an interaction of legs with a physical environment" (318; my emphasis). As Bonnie Mann elaborates, "One finds oneself to be a body with particular physical attributes and limits. [End Page 204] One finds oneself inhabiting a particular social world with its values and punishments. My [self] emerges as my lived relation to … my total concrete situation, [which] means the entire physiological, psychological, social, economic, political and historical scene in and through which my world is constituted" (2014, 81). Most significantly, this means that, for Dewey, moral improvement cannot simply be a matter of decision making alone: "To change the working character or will of another [or ourselves] we have to alter objective conditions which enter into his [or our] habits" (19). To see this, consider, for example, how membership in Alcoholics Anonymous attempts to replace the habit of drinking with the habit of going to a meeting, a change of habit and thus a transformation of the self that requires a deliberate change in one's environment.

For these reasons, Dewey's conception of habit is an abstraction in Deutsch's terms, and so Dewey's explanation of human nature and conduct must be regarded as realist rather than nominalist. That is, on my reading, Dewey's project requires a rejection of the defining nominalistic claim that only particulars (or actualities) are real because a habit in his sense is not exhausted by its instantiations. If it were, knowing someone's habits would have no predictive value, and intelligence, which Dewey defines as "observing [and imagining] consequences [and] revising and readjusting habits" (51), would be of no help in improving conduct. This is also why, and in anticipation of Deutsch's (see 2011, 64) claim that problems will always confront us, Dewey will urge that the work of intelligence "can never be foregone" (51) and will define deliberation as "dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action" (190; my emphasis; see also Fesmire 2003, 69–91). Doing so thus delimits the scope of morality to be "all activity into which alternative possibilities enter" (278) and underscores that the aim of deliberation is, in Vincent Colapietro's words, "to go over whatever is there for the sake of ascertaining the bearing of the situation at hand" (this issue). Dewey's realism likewise applies to the realization of ideals, which are, as Jessica Wahman reminds us, "human creations by means of which we envision some kind of better future, one imagined out of existing conditions of dissatisfaction" (2017, 20), because "every ideal is preceded by an actuality; but the ideal is more than a repetition in inner image of the actual" (23; my emphasis).

To my mind, Dewey's best defense of this central claim that "man is a creature of habit" (125) is to be found in his scathing criticism of attempts to explain conduct by appealing to instincts such as self-love or greed. [End Page 205] For him, such attempts are ultimately vacuous because they fail to take into account the complexity and always changing nature of environing conditions. (This failure is especially glaring in regard to economic matters: "It requires an arrogant ignorance to take the existing complex system of stocks and bonds, of wills and inheritance, a system supported at every point by manifold legal and political arrangements, and treat it as the sole legitimate and baptized child of an instinct of appropriation" [117].) Indeed, he will dismiss any and all easy invocations of instinct in explanations of behavior as "mythological" (145) and will further reinforce the aptness of this characterization by emphasizing how advocates of "the self-love school" (135) hypostatize the self: "[Their] fallacy consists in transforming the (truistic) fact of acting as a self into the fiction of acting always for self" (138). Recall that, for Dewey, there is no "ready-made" self; recall, too, that in the habits that constitute the self, the ever-changing environment "has its say." In short, he is adamant that "social customs are not direct and necessary consequences of specific [instincts], [instead] social institutions shape and crystalize impulses into dominant habits" (122).

Taking my clue from his biting characterization of appeals to instinct as "mythological," I regard the gist of Dewey's criticism to be that all such appeals are bad explanations because they violate Deutsch's criterion of being hard to vary. This is made evident in the fact that the purportedly ubiquitous acquisitive instinct and the equally purportedly ubiquitous instinct for self-love—which are, after all, different phenomena—have been used by their respective defenders to account for any and all human behavior. In contrast, Dewey will insist that "there is no one [instinct] having diverse manifestations; [instead] there are as many qualitatively different [responses] as there are objects responded to and different consequences sensed and observed" (154). And while space limitations preclude adequate elaboration of this issue, it should also be pointed out that what is perhaps most immediately troubling about all facile invocations of any kind of deterministic and universal force (such as instinct) is that they render any notion of personal responsibility moot. I take this insight to be most profoundly illustrated in Hannah Arendt's concluding remarks in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. For Arendt, since "the focus of every trial is upon the person of the defendant, a man of flesh and blood with an individual history, with an always unique set of qualities, peculiarities, behavior patterns, and circumstances," all appeals to something like instinct "make judgment superfluous" (2006, 285, 297; my emphasis). [End Page 206] Indeed, such appeals entail that "no one person could ever be guilty or innocent," thus making "the act of meting out justice to both the defendant and the victim" impossible (Arendt 2006, 298).

For these reasons, there is thus no possibility of relinquishing what Dewey calls "the burden of examination, observation and continuing generalization and test" (242) if we are ever to develop habits that are "more flexibly responsive than those now current" (128). That is, because "habits have a certain causal tendency" (49), the creation and expansion of human flourishing can only be sustained if we accept that intelligence—meaning the practice of observing and imagining the consequences of particular habits—is utterly indispensable for human progress. Unlike appeals to instinct, which, because they try to explain everything, end up thus explaining nothing, Dewey's analysis of human conduct in terms of habit requires a tradition of criticism and testing. Indeed, and anticipating Deutsch's assertion that our allegiance to and maintenance of a tradition of criticism is necessary for the formulation of good explanations, Dewey reminds us that "loyalty to whatever in the established environment makes a life of excellence possible is the beginning of progress" (21).

Furthermore, the testability of Dewey's explanation also shows its reach (and thus potential universality). This can be seen in current feminist uses of Dewey's conception of habit to overcome what has been called (to my mind, unhappily) "the problem of essentialism." Put very generally, "the problem of essentialism" results from recognizing that gender is not the only marker of difference operative in human existence. (Perhaps the best-known attempt to use Dewey's conception of habit to address this issue is Sullivan 2001; see also Gregoratto 2017.) That is, while Dewey's dismissive characterization of most philosophical treatments of women in Human Nature and Conduct—"as if [philosophers] were dealing with a Platonic universal entity [rather than women as individuals]" (153)—does broadly harmonize with the general thrust of contemporary feminist concerns, he could never have anticipated the particular intersectional turn that critical discussion of this issue has now taken.

By virtue of its testability and reach, Dewey's account thereby also manifests a commitment to fallibilism, an allegiance that is made perhaps most evident in his discussion of the baleful effects of our search for certainty and guarantee in matters of human conduct. As I hope has been made clear in preceding paragraphs, Dewey is adamant that the only way to counteract these effects is through criticism and testing or "observation and [End Page 207] invention" (173). As he emphasizes, "Without habit there is only irritation and confused hesitation. With habit alone there is a machine-like repetition, a duplicating recurrence of old acts. With conflict of habits and release of impulse there is conscious search [for "more flexibly responsive" habits]" (80; my emphasis).

For my purposes, the search for certainty in matters of conduct impedes the possibility of human progress and transformation in three main ways. First, because the environment is ever changing, confrontation with novelty is inescapable. (Consider, for example, the pressing problem of middle school cyber bullying, a phenomenon that was unimaginable even a decade ago.) And so, given the fact that the unexpected is inevitable in human affairs, any "ruthless and dull efficiency of action" (173) will eventually be rendered obsolete. Second, our "love of certainty" more often than not culminates in a rigid adherence to "authoritative rules," which, as Dewey so astutely points out, "are [but] props for a feeling of safety, the refuge of the timid and the means by which the bold prey upon the timid" (237). Third, the desire for certainty and the rigidity of habit that it engenders typically usher in self-deception or what he identifies as "looking at an outcome in one direction only—as a satisfaction of what has gone before" (252). To fully glean this last point, consider how incisively this insight of Dewey's is illustrated in Duane Michaels's astonishing 1967 work This Photograph Is My Proof. This piece consists of a snapshot of a couple—perhaps on their honeymoon?—sitting on a bed in an ordinary hotel room with the woman's arms around the smiling man. What undercuts not only the banality of the image but our confidence in how to read it is the handwritten message that Michaels has placed underneath it: "This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us, and we embraced and were so happy. She had loved me. Look, see for yourself" (reproduced in Sayre 1989, 60). Michaels's words thus force us to rethink our conventional interpretation of the image, revealing it instead to be, in Henry Sayre's description, "an agent of dissimulation, an accomplice in [the man's] apparent self-deception [regarding the constancy and sincerity of the woman's love]" (1989, 60).

As with Michaels's work but more expansively, I take as a major achievement of Jenny Diski's memoir, In Gratitude, to be how powerfully this work illustrates Dewey's analysis of human nature and conduct. It is to showing this that I now turn. In so doing, I also hope to lend credence to my earlier claims that, because gratitude is often accompanied by resentment to [End Page 208] those whom we owe it, sustaining our appreciation for the very possibility of creating explanatory knowledge can be daunting.

Although written as she was dying of cancer, Diski's book is primarily an extended examination of her ambivalent relationship with the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Doris Lessing, who, at the behest of her youngest son, took Diski in to live with her in 1963 when Diski was fifteen. Diski, who had never met Lessing personally until she accepted her invitation, had been expelled from the school that Lessing's son attended. Diski lived with Lessing until she was eighteen, when Lessing asked her to leave (ostensibly for reasons of sexual promiscuity and drug use), but she remained bound to Lessing until Lessing's death in 2013. Diski's memoir, then, is largely an attempt to explain the nature of this bond and to disentangle the threads of gratitude and anger that constitute it. In her words, "Gratitude was half of what I felt. The other half was fury and resentment … a substantial amount of anger at having to be grateful, the gratitude ever increasing, the bill never settled, and made more enraging by Doris's insistence that I wasn't to feel it" (2016, 53).

On my view, what is most striking in Diski's examination is how her identification of Lessing's smug confidence in "her command of human psychology" (2016, 224) explains Diski's anger: "Doris wanted a young person she could deal with and make better with bowls of soup, and for it to be understood that I'd been taken under the wing of an incredibly insightful woman" (2016, 228). Indeed, in the course of her recollections, Diski comes to understand that her anger toward Lessing remained unabated during the decades of their relationship, a realization made possible when Diski tries to figure out why she continued to walk with such violence whenever she visited Lessing's home. As she reports, "The answer was clear: there was no hope of ever being right as Doris was right. Those furious footsteps as I walked from the bus to Kingscroft Road snapped to the rhythm of Doris's certainty" (2016, 194).

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Lessing was woefully ill-equipped to nurture Diski, who by virtue of her horrendous early upbringing had, already at age fifteen, spent time under psychiatric care. Diski did, however, eventually manage to make a life for herself and become a successful writer. This was not the case for Lessing's son, for whom Lessing's decision to bring Diski into their home, despite its originally being his suggestion, had disastrous consequences. (In part, this was because it was Diski who became the writer, an occupation he had assumed was his by birthright.) [End Page 209] Indeed, by his forties, Lessing's youngest son had regressed to being what Diski describes as "the monstrous baby that someone (he or Doris) wanted him to be" (2016, 236), an outcome made almost inevitable because, as Diski explains, "Peter had no life of his own, ever. … He had the self-important but kindly thought of helping me out when he heard about my troubles. He was sixteen. There wasn't much chance of his understanding how dangerous and painful this was for him to do" (2016, 200). But Lessing herself should have: "As the beneficiary of all this kindness, and as a person now in my late sixties, I believe Doris took a grave risk with three people's lives" (Diski 2016, 204).

Given the portrait drawn by Diski, I take it as readily apparent that Lessing's behavior, however well intentioned, epitomizes Dewey's account of the harmful effects of presumed certainty. As Dewey warns us, "To rationalize sympathy there are needed emotions of curiosity, caution, respect for the freedom of others—dispositions which evoke objects which balance those called up by sympathy, and prevent its degeneration into maudlin sentiment and meddling interference" (196). This can be seen not only in the fact that "there was no hope of ever being right as Doris was right" but in how this certainty had the effect, in Dewey's words, of "prey[ing] upon the timid." This is made evident in Diski's description of her unease at first moving into Lessing's home: "The idea I had was not to be a felt presence, to be a ghost, not to exist except for myself, until some signal said that Doris was ready to acknowledge me, and then I had to act my presence, shape up and be a good guest, however that was. But what signal? I'd have been grateful for a bell or a written timetable. I couldn't just ease my way into living there, or consider myself to be one of the party of two who would learn how to 'get used to each other'" (2016, 52).

What may not be so obvious from my brief description, however, is how strikingly Diski's depiction also illustrates what Dewey has to say about self-deception. This is because, according to Diski, the source of Lessing's confidence in "her command of human psychology" was her own novels: "I think that she really felt that she could cope with anything, anyone difficult, because she wrote about such people every day" (2016, 224). The irony, of course, is that Lessing's novels are autobiographical because the "difficult" people she wrote about "were her." And so, as Diski surmises, "she would know how to manage [our living together], and had already worked out how the relationship with me would be controlled and contained" (2016, 224). In this way, Lessing's conviction that she could "control and contain" the [End Page 210] behavior of a timid and sulky adolescent because she could control and contain the characters she created is self-deception or "looking at an outcome in one direction only—as a satisfaction of what has gone before."

In terms of philosophical import, I regard the immediately preceding discussion as giving yet another example of the reach of Dewey's project. That is, this provides yet further evidence, I believe, for my assertion that Dewey's analysis in Human Nature and Conduct is the sine qua non of a good explanation in Deutsch's terms. To reiterate, by virtue of its critical, realist, and fallibilist character, Dewey's account of human nature and conduct in terms of acquired habits rather than universal instinct meets those criteria of being hard to vary, having reach, and possessing potential universality. In so doing, his analysis not only shows how "a good explanation … makes it harder for you to fool yourself" (Deutsch 2011, 27) but underscores how human progress and transformation require what John J. Stuhr characterizes as "tough meliorism, hope but always … with butchery" (this issue). Stuhr does so because he recognizes that all attempts at self-understanding undertaken in isolation from dialogue with others inevitably result in self-deception, and so we must, he insists, "be wary of ourselves and our own stories" (this issue). This means, in other words, that we must sustain our allegiance toward, and maintenance of, a shared tradition of criticism and testing.

Of widest import, however, my aim in using Dewey's work to exemplify the power of explanatory knowledge is to reinforce our wonder at, and gratitude in, our very ability to create such knowledge. As Dewey insists, "The thing actually at stake in any serious deliberation is … what kind of person one is to become, what sort of self is in the making, what kind of a world is in the making" (216–17). The fact that transformation and progress, in however halting and piecemeal a manner, is possible at all for human beings is a phenomenon for which to be thankful. It is thus, in Oliver Sacks's words, "an enormous privilege" (2015, 20) to try to understand our world, one to which we must draw our students' attention if we are to pursue to the fullest our obligations as teachers and scholars of philosophy. Specifically, this means that we must always take explicit care to hone our students' critical skills only in the service of epistemological and ethical progress. That is, we must continually emphasize to our students and each other that there is a point to criticism—criticism in and of itself, after all, is not self-justifying—and this is to enable the creation of increasingly better explanations of natural and social phenomena. In this way, we can bring "the adventure of [End Page 211] experiment" to fruition in our teaching and scholarship because, as both Deutsch and Dewey emphasize, progress demands more than what the latter calls "the dumb pluck of the animal" (289). It requires "conjecture and criticism" or "observation and invention"—in a word, intelligence—so that "when the future arrives with its inevitable disappointments as well as fulfillments, and with new sources of trouble, failure loses something of its fatality, and suffering yields fruit of instruction not of bitterness" (289).

Mary Magada-Ward
Middle Tennessee State University


I am indebted to the mathematician Andrew Ogg for introducing me to Deutsch's work (even though he worried that I might find it "outrageous"), to the policy consultant Dia Cirillo for long walks discussing Dewey's philosophy, to my colleague Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand and the anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy for helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this article, and to the participants of the American Philosophies Forum "Tasks of Philosophy: Looking Ahead" for their stimulating contributions.

1. As Charles S. Peirce reminds us, "The saving truth is that there is … an element of Reasonableness [in experience] to which we can train our own reason to conform more and more" (EP2, 212; see also Magada-Ward 1999). Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct (2002) is hereafter cited parenthetically in the text only by page number.

2. To see this need, consider John J. Stuhr's report of a student who, betraying utter obliviousness regarding his own privilege, complained that "I'm sick to death of all this criticism in philosophy. Life is good … I have almost everything I want" (1998, 255), remarks that made my class of largely nontraditional, first-generation college-attending, and financially struggling students burst into laughter.

3. This is illustrated in, for example, Helen Longino's discovery that the conviction in a fundamental sexual essentialism—"the idea that 'they' are made for and hence complementary to 'us'" (1990, 129)—undergirds much of the research that mistakenly attempts to find a biological basis for so-called gender role behavior and by the way in which Lisa Heldke's (see 2006, 153–55) identification of "metrocentrism," that is, the assumption that only knowledge emerging out of urban contexts is valuable, explains why the degradation of rural ways of life is both so widespread and so little noticed.

4. Recall Plato's insight that "when young people get their first taste of arguments, they misuse it by treating it as a kind of game of contradiction. They imitate those who've refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, they enjoy dragging and tearing those around them with their arguments" (Republic 539b). More pointedly, consider Longino's recognition [End Page 212] that "when critical discussion becomes repetitive and fixed at a metalevel, or when criticism of one set of assumptions ceases to have or does not eventually develop a connection to an empirical research program, it loses its relevance to the construction of empirical knowledge. It is the intrinsic incapacity of so-called 'creation science' to develop a fruitful research program based on its alleged alternative to evolutionary theory that is responsible for the lack of attention given to it by the contemporary United States scientific community" (1990, 79).

5. Even though I will continue to emphasize the commonalities between Deutsch's and Peirce's positions for ease of explication, it should be mentioned that Deutsch himself identifies as a Popperian. And even though Karl Popper was known to be an admirer of Peirce, there are some significant differences between Peircean pragmaticism and Popperian falsificationism, and these do inform Deutsch's analysis. For one thing, Deutsch, like Popper before him, does not regard conjecture as a logical process. ("[Conjecture] is unpredictable creation ex nihilo" [Deutsch 2011, 104].) Second, at least on my reading, Deutsch would reject Peirce's conception of the final opinion because, on his view, we will always be at "the beginning of infinity." That is, "neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect" (Deutsch 2011, 65). This means, moreover, that problems will forever be "inevitable" (Deutsch 2011, 64).

Nonetheless, despite these differences and despite the fact that, as Ivo Ibri has cautioned me (pers. comm., April 2017), Popper and Peirce approach their projects from very different starting points, I feel justified in pairing Deutsch and Peirce because both are ultimately concerned with how to reconcile necessity and possibility, the former by promoting the multiverse interpretation of quantum phenomena and the latter in his insistence that the actual does not exhaust the real. (For example, consider Peirce's claim that "the idea of a general involves the idea of possible variations which no multitude of existent things could exhaust but would leave between any two not merely many possibilities, but possibilities absolutely beyond all multitude" [EP2, 183].)

works cited

Arendt, Hannah. [1963] 2006. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.
Deutsch, David. 2011. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. New York: Viking.
Dewey, John. [1922] 2002. Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Prometheus Books.
Diski, Jenny. 2016. In Gratitude. New York: Bloomsbury USA.
Fesmire, Steven. 2003. John Dewey and Moral Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [End Page 213]
Gregoratto, Federica. 2017. "The Critical Nature of Gender: A Deweyan Approach to the Sex/Gender Distinction." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 31 (2): 273–85.
Haraway, Donna J. [1988] 1990. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective." Rpt. in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 183–201. New York: Routledge.
Heldke, Lisa. 2006. "Farming Made Her Stupid." Hypatia 21 (3): 151–65.
Longino, Helen. 1990. Science as Social Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Magada-Ward, Mary. 1999. "Rescuing Keller by Abducting Her: Toward a Pragmaticist Feminist Philosophy of Science." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 13 (1): 19–38.
Magada-Ward, Mary. 2005. "Helping Thought and Keeping It Pragmatical, or, Why Experience Plays Practical Jokes." Contemporary Pragmatism 2 (2): 63–71.
Mann, Bonnie. 2014. Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror. New York: Oxford University Press.
Peirce, Charles S. 1998. The Essential Peirce, vol. 2. Edited by Peirce Edition Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Cited as EP2.
Plato. 1992. The Republic. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Revised by C. D. C. Reeves. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Sacks, Oliver. 2015. Gratitude. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sayre, Henry M. 1989. The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde Since 1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stuhr, John J. 1998. "Consciousness of Doom: Criticism, Art, and Pragmatic Transcendence." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 12 (4): 255–62.
Sullivan, Shannon. 2001. Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wahman, Jessica. 2017. "The Idea(s) of America." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 31 (1): 16–39. [End Page 214]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.