178. John Dewey on the Tragic Potentials of Experience

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was often accused of being too optimistic about the potentials of science and democracy. Some claimed he lacked a tragic sense of life which is necessary to truly understand the world in which we live. However, what is often overlooked is that his own theory of experience contains the metaphysical foundations for the kind of inevitable blindness that leads to misjudgments and suffering. The inclusion of this blindness allows us to see both that Dewey’s view of experience has a tragic dimension and that he acknowledged this dimension as well.

In his essay “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” Dewey asserts that the orthodox theory of experience is primarily a knowledge affair.  What Dewey means is that philosophers—both empiricists and rationalists—have typically been concerned with experience only in relation to questions of knowledge. Does sense experience yield knowledge or not?  Is experience itself able to give us knowledge that is certain?  Do our thoughts about experience represent experience accurately?  And, if not, must we be skeptics? Such are some typical questions raised by those who approach experience through an knowledge-based lense. But Dewey’s radically empirical approach led him to define experience as an affair of the intercourse of a living being with its physical and social environment.  This intercourse has an active and a passive element: “On the active hand, experience is a trying—a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment.  On the passive, it is an undergoing” (see Middle Works, Vol. 9, p. 146).  The key here is that Dewey places the act of knowing within a larger experiential context.  This context is important for my purposes insofar as it leads to a tragic fact:  

“This means, of course, that things, the things that later come to be known, are primarily not objects of awareness, but causes of weal and woe, things to get and things to avoid, means and obstacles, tools and results…The self experiences whatever it undergoes, and there is no fact more assured or more tragic than that what we are aware of is determined by things that we are undergoing but of which we are not conscious and cannot be conscious of under the particular conditions.” (MW6:120, my italics)

Experience, because it is not primarily a knowledge affair, contains many things we must undergo without knowledge.  As a result, there is a disparity between what is experienced and what is known—a disparity directly connected to tragedy: “The difficulties and tragedies of life, the stimuli to acquiring knowledge, lie in the radical disparity of presence-in-experience and presence-in-knowledge” (MW10:34).

Dewey argues that the conditions for this radical disparity are to be found in the world which is a mixture of the stable and the perilous or the necessary and the contingent. On the one hand, there are known recurrences and sufficiencies that make possible prediction and control, i.e., stable or necessary elements. On the other hand, there are unknown singularities and indeterminate processes, i.e., perilous or contingent elements.  This mixture is an indestructible feature of any and every experience:

“The visible is set within the invisible; and in the end what is unseen decides what happens in the seen; the tangible rests precariously upon the untouched and grasped. The contrast and the potential maladjustment of the immediate, the conspicuous and focal phase of things, with those indirect and hidden factors that determine the origin and career of what is present, are indestructible features of any and every experience” (Late Works, Vol. 1, p. 44, my italics)

This mixture is also the condition for tragedy: “If existence were either completely necessary or completely contingent, there would be neither comedy nor tragedy in life” (LW4:194).  The radical disparity between presence-in-experience and presence-in-knowledge, something which plays a role in the blindness that gives rise to tragic actions, is therefore grounded in the very nature of experience itself. This account reveals that we are inexorably blind to aspects of our environment and may be ignorant of factors indispensable to our analyses.  It also means that the hidden aspects of experience will ensure there will be consequences which we can neither foresee nor control—consequences which, far from reducing the costs of tragedy, can increase them.

We can apply Dewey’s insights to some of his own judgments. The historian John Patrick Diggens, in his book The Promise of Pragmatism (Chicago, 1995), claimed that two times when knowledge was most valuable—WWI and WWII—were times that left Dewey’s scientific intelligence helpless.  Consider Diggens: 

“In 1917 he [Dewey] was certain that democracy could align itself with the forces of war; in 1939 he confessed in Common Sense, “I hesitate to predict anything whatsoever about the outcome of the present war.” World War I encouraged him to advise Americans to keep their focus straight ahead, “with the future, with what is coming next.” World War II compelled him to advise Americans to look backward and remember the “dire reaction” that occurred in America as the result of entering the war and the unexpected rise of fascist movements in Europe.” (274) 

Dewey’s response to WWI is a good example of the radical disparity between what someone thinks can be done in response to tragic conflict and what actually happens. Dewey, against the advice of many like Randolph Bourne, thought we could control the war for democratic ends.  Of course, history shows that the chasm between what he thought and the consequences of our actions in Europe was enormous indeed.  Dewey himself would later conclude his assessment was disastrous.  And when it came to WWII Dewey hesitated to predict anything about the outcome of the war—just the opposite of his response to WWI.  There was no confidence or clear course of action to be found.  Then, when he finally had something to say, he gave Americaa simple statement which appeared as the title to a short article in Common Sense: “No Matter What Happens—Stay Out.” But this uncharacteristically dogmatic advice failed to grasp the sheer inhumanity of fascism and the threat it would have on America if we didn’t enter the war. In the late 1930’s Lewis Mumford argued that the need to defeat fascism abroad far outweighed any damage to democratic values and civil liberties at home.  Dewey strongly disagreed with him.  As far as Dewey was concerned, the war “would be the greatest social catastrophe that could overtake us, the destruction of all the foundations upon which to erect a socialized democracy.  At the same time we shall destroy the means by which we can be of use to a stricken Europe after the end of its attempt at suicide” (LW14:364). Dewey’s intentions were good: he wanted to at all costs avoid a repetition of the cultural intolerance that came during the aftermath of WWI.  But in the end it seems that Mumford was the wiser one.  For American arms were indeed essential to the defeat of the Nazis—a defeat which, given the subsequent knowledge of the sheer inhumanity of the concentration camps, seems all the more necessary.  Of course, our involvement in the war did lead many Americans—110,000 Japanese Americans in particular—to experience significant undemocratic activity and injustice.  Moreover, there arose something about which Dewey was rightly concerned: a powerful consolidation and domination of corporations in the political economy. But it must be admitted that America didn’t experience Dewey’s apocalyptic vision with its “destruction of all the foundations” of socialized democracy. 

Dewey’s judgments about the world wars are not brought up to dwell on his failures. Rather, they are emphasized to show us that experience is full of hidden aspects and tendencies that delimit our knowledge and control.  Indeed, his judgments about both wars are evidence for his thesis that the hazardous nature of experience can give rise to forms of tragic blindness that may prevent even the most intelligent and sincere people from engaging in intelligent action. And his analysis shows that, contrary to many critics, Dewey had an acknowledged tragic sense and built it into the very metaphysical foundations of his philosophy.

For another pragmatist’s views on blindness, see my post on William James’ fallacy of blindness here.

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