Monday, September 22, 2008


The high priest of American progressivism was John Dewey. Dewey remains revered in education theory, as well as (increasingly) in Departments of Philosophy, Religion, and Political Science. He is admired for his rejection of doctrines or belief in unchanging Truths, of arguments based upon objective and unchangeable criteria. Rather, as a proponent of "pragmatism," Dewey sought to show that human interaction with the world and one another constantly altered each, leaving us constantly in the position of having to adjust our own approach to circumstances with the willingness of scientific experimentation.

Deep in the backdrop of his progressivism - necessarily - is a theory of progress. A theory of progress posits that some vanguard of civilization is necessarily more advanced than others - normally those who are open to the pragmatic approach and have overcome their antiquated adherence to a belief in unchanging truths. In this regard, Dewey shares fundamental progressive commitments and beliefs with the likes of Marx, Mill, and many contemporary liberal thinkers (e.g., Rawls). In its baldest moments, the basic presuppositions of this progressivism are revealed in all their boldness, and no amount of hedging and excuse-giving can circumvent this fact. In particular, such progressivism is based on two basic and abhorrent presuppositions: 1. the backwardness of "savages" (or, if you like, substitute "savage" with the term "people from small towns" or even "Wasilla" for a contemporary shorthand); and 2. a belief in the malleability (or, one of Dewey's favorite words, "plasticity") of the world, and hence justification of human mastery of nature and circumstance. To wit:

"Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization...? In a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends....

"A savage tribe manages to live on a desert plain. It adapts itself. But its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are [e.g., babies conceived with Down's syndrome?], a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use. A civilized people enters upon the scene. It adapts itself. It introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, those which are growing there. As a consequence, th wilderness blossoms as a rose. The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man has habits which transform the environment."

These passages are drawn from Dewey's book Democracy and Education. They form, at heart, the basic presuppositions of much of modern education, especially modern higher education. For all the claims to embrace "environmentalism" that one hears today on college campuses, the basic presupposition is that we can exercise our technology to be green - that we can invent devices and methods that will allow us to be "green" on autopilot. Behind these fantasies is still the dream of control and mastery - the very opposite of an attitude of "accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are ... and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use."

And, one sees a continuity between Dewey's time and our own of the view of a world divided between the "civilized" and the "savage." Belief in this division underlies the visceral dismissiveness and condescension exhibited towards the likes of Sarah Palin. Nothing is more horrifying than the prospect of the backward and uneducated - the "savage" - disrupting the dreams of progress. If McCain is disliked, Palin is abhorred, for precisely this reason. We should see this hatred for what it is - not simply the prospects of electoral defeat, but a clash of worldviews that pits the self-styled agents of civilization against the recidivism of the savage.


Peter Y. Paik said...

I did not catch all the patronizing scorn heaped on Sarah Palin in the media, so perhaps my indignation settings are off on this question, but she struck a wrong chord with me from the beginning. Not because she is from a small town in Alaska while I'm an Ivy-miseducated urbanite, but rather because there was something bullying and petty about her character, as born out in the personal vendettas she pursued once she acquired higher office.

Now I have nothing against people from small towns and rural America running for office, in fact, I am ready to concede that they might often be more prepared than fellow members of my particular demographic to run the country. Sam Rayburn's words of caution to LBJ remain quite apt when the latter raved about the scintillating intellects of Mac Bundy, Rostow, McNamara, and the other "best and the brightest" who made up his cabinet. Rayburn apparently said that these people might be bright, but he wished one of them had the experience of running for town sheriff.

But in your critique of progressivism, and tacit defense of Palin, you could go further to the roots of modern progressivism, to the optimistic Pelagianism of which Palin, like too many of her party, is surely guilty. "Drill baby drill" is not the motto of someone who recognizes the tragic character of life or accepts that eternal truths poses some harsh limitations on our present behavior, on our own "progressive" concepts of economic liberty. Progressivism goes much deeper as a problem - and in the US our politics is dominated by two Pelagian parties that believe in human perfectibility, whether through the removal of moral or economic restraints. How different is Palin's politics from those of the progressivists? Don't we find a sense of sinlessness in both?

Patrick Deneen said...

P.A. -
I adamantly agree with you that the Republican party, and what I know of Palin's actual policy positions, do not offer any real alternative to a fundamental progressivism that underlies both main parties in our political system. My intention was to point out the source of the hostility toward Palin's more personal non-progressive stances. What's striking is that she is widely criticized by the Left for these aspects, rather than "drill, baby, drill" and a willingness to see the world as "resource." But, it's the very progressivist assumptions that the political Left shares with the political Right that makes them unable to conceive of such a critique.

Peter Y. Paik said...

Too true. The Left is generally blind to the fact that practically every society has been ruled by an elite, and that rule by an elite is generally secured by the paying of symbolic debts, i.e. the aristocracy is committed to risking their lives to defend the land, while in more recent years the wealthy have at least paid lip service to Christian morality as tribute to justify their position of authority. But the Left confuses the very people they propose to help by, if not ridiculing morality and virtue, then pronouncing them as superfluous for society. But they thereby hollow out the authority they need to exert to address the pressing economic and environmental problems of our society. In a sense, the great mass of people are correct in their perception that authority without morality is essentially unconstrained power. But this insight does not seem to extend as yet to a rejection of unconstrained power on principle, just so long as it can be deployed to sustain an unsustainable situation.

Black Sea said...

I've said this before here, but Palin, and the reaction to Palin, interests me primarily as a cultural phenomenon. In purely political terms, I see no particular reason to feel confident of Palin's ability to lead the Executive branch. Nor, for that matter, do I see any reason to feel confident about the abilities of Obama, or McCain, or Biden.

I very much agree with political atheist that both of our political parties are permeated with progressivism of varying kinds, and often of the same kind. No Child Left Behind, for example, could just as easily have been the "brainchild" of either party. We will keep marching boldly into a future of limitless possiblity, until our debts come due and our finances collapse. That should make for some interesting debates.

Anyway, to get back to Palin, the public reaction, or more particularly, the elite reaction, to Palin does shed some light on assumptions and presumptions in contemporary America. For example, try this little experiment:

Go to The New York Times Search feature, type in "Michael Richards racist" and see how many hits you get. Then type in "Mel Gibson anti-semitism" and see what you get. Then try "racist and Duane Chpaman" - Dog, the Bounty Hunter, in case you didn't know - and see how many hits you get. If you really want to hit the jackpot, try "Don Imus racist" and see how many hits you get (hint, it's in the four figures).

Now, type in Sandra Bernhardt plus any keyword or combination of keywords that might lead you to an article referencing her recent performance in DC, in which she disapraged Palin and her religous beliefs in consistently profane terms, and suggested that, were Palin to viit Manhattan, she would be gang raped by blacks. Surely, a racially provocative claim.

See how many hits you get.

Anonymous said...

H.L. Mencken on John Dewey:
"I myself greatly enjoyed and profited by the discourses of this Prof. Dewey and was in hopes that he would last. Born of indestructible Vermont stock and a man of the highest bearable sobriety, he seemed likely to peg along almost ad infinitum, a gentle and charming volcano of correct thought..."
Mr. Deneen, I enjoyed your post on Dewey, but dragging Sarah Palin into this toxic mix is a strain. SP is not qualified or competent for high office. It has nothing to do with "ruralism." Secondly, I think you are a bit patronizing about the sustainability movement. As far as I can tell, this movement is the only grass-roots movement in the USA that actually bears some hopefulness - regrowing a real economy in the toxic over-fertilized pesticide-laden financialization of unreality that we have come to call an "economy."

Conor said...

Professor Deneen,

I started to write a response to your post several days ago only to for my internet connection to collapse.

As I think you already know, I agree with much of your post. To the degree that Dewey's thought pursues a sort of perfectionism, we have good reason to be troubled. This indicates a tension, of course, with Dewey's (at times) intransigent localism. Melvin Rogers of UVA is well on his way to addressing, if not resolving, this dichotomy in Deweys thought. See here:

There is another issue beyond perfectionism, of course. The question remains whether or not the world is available to be addressed as a fount of resources, or "controlled," as you put it. While again, I agree that Deweyan political thought assumes a sort of inevitability of the moral goodness of progress, denying our place in the world as agents who effect changes is difficult. Indeed, humans act and discover the consequences of their actions. They can act in more or less effective ways, and they can accumulate knowledge in so doing. We are not, after all, discussing progressivism by means of grunts or papyrus passed back and forth. Human knowledge is cumulative. You are right, of course, to challenge our hubris insofar as we consider human accumulation of knowledge to be good. Whether or not Dewey would be willing to balk at opening certain doors (abortive euthanasia, etc) is a somewhat open question, but we have reason to doubt that he has the machinery to do so within his project. I think that his best defense would be by means of the mechanism of democracy-that is, that local communities are those who ought to set the norms by which we determine what counts as worthwhile change and what might be technological abomination.

For what it's worth, here are the first three quotes that I found regarding Dewey's localism (the last is the most apropos to my point here):

“De Tocqueville wrote it down almost a century ago in
 his survey of the prospects of democracy in the United States.
 Accusing a democracy of a tendency to prefer mediocrity in its 
elected rulers, and admitting its exposure to gusts of passion and 
its openness to folly, he pointed out in effect that popular government is educative as other modes of political regulation are not.
 It forces a recognition that there are common interests, even
 though the recognition of what they are is confused; and the 
need it enforces of discussion and publicity brings about some
 clarification of what they are. The man who wears the shoe
 knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the
 expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied Popular government has at least created public spirit even if 
its success in informing that spirit has not been great. A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common 
interests as to become a class with private interests and private 
knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all.”-Public and its Problems

“Commercial changes have brought about an intense 
concentration of population in cities; have promoted migratory travel and intercourse, with destruction of local ties; 
have developed world markets and collective but impersonal
 (corporate) production and distribution. Many new problems have been created, while at the same time many of the 
old agencies for maintaining order have been weakened or
 destroyed, especially such as were adapted to small groups 
with fixed habits. A great strain has thus been put upon the
 instrumentalities of justice.” -Ethics (emphasis added)

“In the future, as in the 
past, progress will depend upon local efforts in response to 
local needs and resources.”-Introductory Address to the American Association of University Professors, 1915 (Dewey does go on, however, to imply that teachers should make their commonly-held expertise a force for change, etc, etc. A tension indeed.)

Anonymous said...

Other than his soporific style, I've always thought of Dewey as combining the worst of Bacon's productivism with a shallow and facile reading of Hegel's notion of philosophical progress. Dewey's work reminds me of Namier's line that America is like a refrigerator of stale old ideas which make less sense the farther away they get from their provenance.

By the way, I hope to see you up here sometime soon.