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  • Dewey and the Tragedy of the Human Condition
  • Yarran Hominh


Critics have charged Dewey with a failure to recognize the tragic dimension of human existence. Randolph Bourne argued that Dewey's pragmatism "has never been confronted with the pathless and the inexorable" (117). For Bourne, Dewey's support of America's entry into World War I "subordinates idea to technique" in service of undemocratic ends (130). Raymond Boisvert ("Nemesis of Necessity") accuses Dewey of a hubristic Baconian scientism in thinking that technical intelligence could solve all social problems. Cornel West claims that Dewey "has not come to terms with the sense of the tragic" in failing to "confront candidly individual and collective experiences of evil" (228). As we can see from this selection of criticisms, the charge, and the conception of tragedy that underpins it, take many forms.1

In this paper, I take steps to clarify this debate. I argue that Dewey develops a sense of the tragic, beginning from the middle 1920s, consisting in a recognition of what I will call the tragedy of the human condition. This is a property of the relation between human agents and the world that acts as a condition on human agency, in three senses: it (1) necessitates action; (2) acts as a general constraint on action; and (3) defines and enables the kind of agency we have. This primary sense of tragedy also gives rise to a secondary sense consisting in hubris: (4) we desire to transcend the conditions of our agency and gain a kind of certainty in action that is impossible for us.

I begin first with some words of historical and chronological contextualization for this view that I attribute to Dewey, before moving onto the substance of Dewey's view. I will close by responding briefly to two of Dewey's critics whom I quoted at the start of this paper: Raymond Boisvert and Randolph Bourne. I leave for another time and place the question of how [End Page 26] Dewey's views on tragedy are to be situated with respect to the broader tragic tradition, and to the related and important issues that Cornel West raises of the relation between Dewey's metaphysics and the political possibilities of his pragmatism.

Periodizing Dewey's Sense of the Tragic

My explication will largely focus on two small parts of Dewey's corpus in his late works: the opening chapter of The Quest for Certainty and Chapter 2 of Experience and Nature.2 In limiting my analysis to these later works, I do not mean to deny that some aspects of the conception of tragedy that I attribute to the later Dewey can be found in his earlier works.3 Against some critics who have argued that (at least) the early Dewey is an unrepentant Whig, I think it is relatively clear that he—at least after his shift away from his explicit St. Louis neo-Hegelianism in the early 1890s—was not such a character.4 In an 1894 review of Lester F. Ward's The Psychic Factors of Civilization, for example, Dewey criticizes Ward for having "fallen into the old pit of a continual progress towards something" (EW 4:212). And, in the middle of World War I, Dewey begins an article entitled "Progress" with a criticism of the "fools' paradise … a dream of automatic uninterrupted progress" (MW 10:234).

I do think, however, that there was an important shift in what is known as Dewey's "late period" thought toward a recognition of something deeper about the human condition that might be called tragedy.5 Many intellectual historians have argued—in my view persuasively—that Dewey's thought underwent a significant shift after the horrors of World War I, Dewey's time in China and Japan, and the concurrent events on the home front, including the Supreme Court's Lochner era substantive due process decisions and, at least to some minimal degree, American imperialism in the Pacific.6 As it did for a number of important thinkers, the war initiated a shift in Dewey's thought. In Dewey's case, I will argue that this took the form of an increased appreciation for the tragic dimension...


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