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Eros and Spirit: Toward a Humanistic Philosophy of Culture

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 18-44 | 10.1353/plu.2010.0006

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Introduction

"Philosophy and Civilization" is one of Dewey's most important—and most neglected—essays. It is unsettling to anyone who wants to think of Dewey primarily as a "pragmatist." Dewey says the aim of philosophy should be to deal with the meaning of culture and not "inquiry" or "truth": "Meaning is wider in scope as well as more precious in value than is truth and philosophy is occupied with meaning rather than with truth" (LW 3:4). Truths are one kind of meaning, but they are only an "island" lying in "the ocean of meanings to which truth and falsity are irrelevant. We do not inquire whether Greek civilization was true or false, but we are immensely concerned to penetrate its meaning," he adds, and continues, "In philosophy we are dealing with something comparable to the meaning of Athenian civilization or of a drama or a lyric" (LW 3:5). He concludes by saying:

As long as we worship science and are afraid of philosophy we shall have no great science. As far as any plea is implicit in what has been said, it is, then, a plea for the casting off of that intellectual timidity which hampers the wings of imagination, a plea for speculative audacity, for more faith in ideas, sloughing off a cowardly reliance upon those partial ideas to which we are wont to give the name of facts.

(LW 3:10)

Many "Deweyans" given that quotation without its source would repudiate it. The dominance of scientism, the worship of science, is such a pervasive phenomenon in Anglophone philosophical culture that to question it seems almost to be an attack on philosophy itself. Nevertheless, my concern here will be to follow Dewey's advice and articulate elements of a philosophy of civilization. I speak more within the humanist than the pragmatist tradition. I think that to characterize American philosophy primarily as "pragmatism" is a disservice to its pluralism. Even to characterize James, Peirce, and Dewey essentially as "pragmatists" is narrowing. Aristotle was a logician, but we do not call his thought "logicism"; logic was only an organon for philosophy, not philosophy itself. So, too, should we regard the "pragmatism" of James, Peirce, or Dewey as an organon of their thought and try to describe their philosophical positions in a more holistic way. After all, Dewey called his own position "naturalistic humanism" or "cultural naturalism," not "instrumentalism." Thus my objective will be to expand the critical horizon beyond pragmatism to humanism, beyond science to culture.

I will sketch a philosophy of culture drawing on Royce, Peirce, Dewey, and Mead and locate the role of philosophy within it. I draw upon the American tradition, but I do not advocate "Americanism." I am mindful of a warning that Dewey delivers (also in "Philosophy and Civilization"): "A deliberate striving for an American Philosophy as such would be only another evidence for emptiness and impotency" (LW 3:9). I propose to understand cultures as "spiritual ecologies" that sustain that basic need for meaning that I have called "the Human Eros." A cultural or spiritual ecology is structured around key modes of forming the identity of self and world. The narrative mode I call "Mythos," while those core meanings and values that determine the dominant patterns of cultural self-understanding I call "Tropes," which are embodied in mythoi, symbols, and the spectrum of cultural practices. They function as dominant modes of cultural self-interpretation. I turn to Royce's profound theory of interpretation developed in the second part of The Problem of Christianity, which itself creatively appropriates aspects of Peirce's semiotic. His ideas of a "community of memory" and a "community of hope" are important. More attention, however, needs to be given to the problems of the "community of the present," especially in terms of what Royce called our "moral burden" of finitude. Of concern are ways in which cultures transmit patterns of suffering, prejudice, and hate as part of their self-identities. Here I think Dewey's and Mead's model of communication as "taking the role of the other" is significant, especially as it may help generate a "community of interpretation" through imagination. I suggest a way of broadening...



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