Undergoing, Mystery, and Half-Knowledge: John Dewey’s Disquieting Side

Abstract

In this article I argue that Dewey, throughout his work, conducted a systematic dismantling of the concept of rationality as mastery and control. Such a dismantling entails, at the same time, the dismantling of the auto-grounded subject, namely, the subject that grounds itself in the power to master experience. The Deweyan challenge to Western ontology goes straight to the core of the subject’s question. Dewey not only systematically challenged the understanding of thinking as a process consciously managed by the subject but also conceived of thinking as an event rather than a process—something that occurs in us rather than something intentionally staged by a reflective subject. Such a twofold dismantling of rationality and subject rather than a flow in a nihilistic/relativistic account of education results in a reinforcement of education that must be understood not so much as the attempt to understand and predict experience but as the means to create new, unpredictable experience. As a result, education, for Dewey, is grounded on, moved by, and directed at uncertainty. Education, in a sense, engenders uncertainty.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I am aware that a comparison with a philosopher such as Pascal, who is so greatly removed in time, aims and content, could be considered risky, if not wholly unfounded. However, in my opinion, the “existential emphasis”, in which Dewey speaks of life as a gamble, clearly resembles Pascal’s desperate argument of life as a wager. Of course, the responses to such awareness are very different according to these two philosophers: inquiry, reflective thought and faith in human possibility to achieve meaningful living are prominent in Dewey; religion and a lack of confidence in a human being’s possibility to achieve any sense by himself are prominent in Pascal. Regardless, the existential roots of the diverse responses are closely related.

  2. 2.

    See Troutner (1969, 1972), Rorty (1976), Toulmin (1984), Margolis (2010), and Rosenthal (2010) for comparisons between Dewey and Heidegger.

  3. 3.

    “The dualistic philosophy of consciousness” to which Biesta and Burbules refer presumably is the Cartesian one.

  4. 4.

    Such “being beyond” is clearly expressed in a passage on learning from The School and Society: “Learning ? certainly, but living primarily, and learning through and in relation to this living. When we take the life of the child centered and organized in this way, we do not find that he is first of all a listening being; quite the contrary. […] He is already running over, spilling over, with activities of all kinds” (Dewey 1900, p. 37, emphasis added).

  5. 5.

    Regarding this issue, see Jackson’s analysis of the “qualitative immediacy” of experience (1994/1995, pp. 194–195).

  6. 6.

    The challenge to the Cartesian subject is also accomplished by Dewey in another way, namely, by putting communication at the core of the constitution of subjectivity. As Biesta states, “Whereas modern philosophy saw human consciousness—the Cartesian ‘ego cogito’ or the Kantian ‘Ich denke’—as the alpha and omega of all philosophy, pragmatism put ‘the life of association’, and more specifically processes of participation, collective meaning making and communication, centre stage. This is why pragmatism might best be characterised as a philosophy of communication or, since it conceives of communication in thoroughly practical terms, as a philosophy of communicative action” (Biesta 2010, p. 711, emphasis in original). Because communication has conquered the central stage in philosophy, we can no longer speak of the subject as the basis of living and experience.

  7. 7.

    World and nature continue to underlie inquiry in that they precede and, in a sense, ground inquiry. In addition, they always underlie inquiry because inquiry, as Dewey frames that activity, intervenes on behalf of world and nature, but the whole always remains at a distance.

  8. 8.

    Whereas Garrison’s argument is developed in a strong—and perhaps exclusive—connection to Deweyan work, Biesta’s “pedagogy of interruption” is based on different sources (Levinas above all, but also Rancière and Arendt). What is shared by Garrison and Biesta is a concept of “immanent transcendence” that is essential to education. As Biesta argues, it is a concept “of a radical exteriority that comes to me [from teaching] rather than learning that is produced by me” (Biesta 2012a, p. 9). Such a concept is anything but extraneous to Dewey, whose philosophy (and philosophy of education) is simultaneously grounded in a firm and deep faith in the mystery of life and nature—and, thus, in the transcendence of life and nature—and in a similarly firm and deep faith in the human endeavor to make sense of that mystery.

  9. 9.

    Boisvert, analysing the Deweyan account of subject, openly speaks about its death: “Dewey, long before French philosophers made the death of the ‘subject’ popular, identified, not the cogitant self, but the affairs of the world as ‘subjects’” (1998, p. 35). Similarly, Garrison, on the issue of the emergence of the self in Dewey (1922, p. 125), shows how Dewey clearly anticipates Foucault’s work on subjectivity.

  10. 10.

    Dewey uses the same words when speaking about the operation of inference: “Since inference goes beyond what is actually present, it involves a leap, a jump, the propriety of which cannot be absolutely warranted in advance, no matter what precautions be taken. Its control is indirect, on the one hand, involving the formation of habits of mind which are at once enterprising and cautious; and on the other hand, involving the selection and arrangement of the particular facts upon perception of which suggestion issues” (Dewey 1910, p. 75, emphasis added).

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Correspondence to Vasco d’Agnese.

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d’Agnese, V. Undergoing, Mystery, and Half-Knowledge: John Dewey’s Disquieting Side. Stud Philos Educ 35, 195–214 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-015-9483-2

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Keywords

  • Dewey
  • Uncertainty
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Subject