Theory Talk #-100: John Dewey

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

John Dewey on the Horror of Making his Poetry Public

This April's Fools interview is a preview for 'The Return of the Theorists: Dialogues with Great Thinkers in International Relations' (ed. Ned Lebow, Peer Schouten & Hidemi Suganami), to appear later this year.


After various rounds of experimentation, two youthful IR scholars (the editor-in chief of this venture and Christian Bueger) bend space-time and access an alternate reality with the ambition to conduct an interview for Theory Talks with John Dewey. Dewey (1859-1952) was an American thinker often associated with a school of thought that has become known as American pragmatism. He is today largely known for his contributions to education studies, philosophy of science, and the theory of democracy. In this Talk, the young scholars sound out Dewey on what thinking tools his original worldview would provide for IR—after resolving a small embarrassment.



TT Dear Mr. Dewey. Thank you so much for your willingness to participate in this Talk. Theory Talks is an open-access journal that contributes to International Relations debates by publishing interviews with cutting-edge theorists. It is not often that Theory Talks is able to overcome space-time limitations and conduct a Talk with a departed theorist.

I am sorry—I think I have to interrupt you there…

TT Well, all right?

Yes, yes, the fact of the matter is that I am not a theorist and refuse to be associated with that label! To purify theory out of experience as some distinct realm, sirs, is to contribute to a fallacy that I have dedicated my life to combat! I am afraid that this venture of yours, of involving me in this Theory Talks, is stillborn.

TT Dear Professor Dewey—with all due respect, we are running ahead of matters here a little. The reason why we invited you is exactly for you to expound your ideas—and reservations—regarding theory, practice, and international relations. Would you be willing to bracket your concern for a minute? We promise to get back to it.

Well my dear sirs—it is that you insist on a dialogue—that restless, participative and dramatic form of inquiry that leads to so much more insight than books—and that you have travelled from far by means that utterly fascinate me, so I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

TT Thank you. And let us from the outset emphasize that by interviewing you for Theory Talks, we don’t necessarily want to reduce your contribution to thought to the practice of theorizing. Isn’t it also correct you have written poetry?

Now I am baffled a second time! I have never publicly attempted my hand at the noble art of the poetic!

TT It has to be said, Mr. Dewey, that the problem of what is and isn’t public has perhaps shifted a bit since your passing away. That’s something we’d like to discuss, too, but the fact of the matter is that what you have consistently consigned to the trashcan of your office at Columbia University has been just as meticulously recovered by ‘a janitor with a long view’.

Oh heavens! You tell me I have been uncovered as a versifier? What of my terrible scribbling has been uncovered you say?

TT Well, perhaps you recognize the one that starts like:

I hardly think I heard you call
Since betwixt us was the wall
Of sounds within, buzzings i' the ear
Roarings i' the vein so closely near…

… ‘That I was captured in illusion/Of outward things said clear…’ I well remember—a piece particularly deserving of oblivion. I wrote that in the privacy of lonely office hours, thinking the world would have the mercy not to allow a soul to lay its eyes on it!

TT We are sorry to say that besides this one, a total of 101 poems has been recovered, and published in print—and you know, given some advances in technology, circulation of text is highly accelerated, meaning that one could very well say your poetry is part of the public domain.

So there I am, well half a decade after my death, subject to the indirect effects of advances in technology interacting with the associations I myself carelessly established between roses, summer days, and all too promiscuous waste bins! Sirs, in the little time we have conversed, I see the afterlife hasn’t brought me any good. Hades takes on a bleaker shade…

TT Well, in reality, the future has been good to you: you are firmly canonised as one an authentic American intellectual, and stand firmly on a pedestal in the galleries occupied by the notables of modern international social thought. So why don’t we explore a little bit why that is, within the specific domain of political theory? Theory Talks actually poses the same first three questions to every interviewee, followed by a number of questions specific to your thought. The first question we always pose is: What, according to you, is the biggest challenge or central debate in International Relations and what is your position vis-à-vis that challenge/debate?

I think that while it must have been noted by other interviewees that in fact this question is two separate questions—one about real-world challenges and another about theoretical debates—I would be the last to do so, and I am happy you mix concerns of theory and practice. I have always fought against establishing such a fictional separation between seemingly distinct domains of thought and practice. It is a dangerous fiction on top of it. The same goes for International Relations—while I have not dedicated myself to the study of the international as a discrete field of action, I do think that this domain does not escape some of the general observations I have made regarding society and its politics.

I hold that “modern society is many societies more or less loosely connected” by all kinds of associations. As I explain in The Public and its Problems, a fundamental challenge of modern times is that the largely technically mediated associations that constitute societies have outstretched the social mechanisms that we had historically developed on the human scale of the village to mitigate their indirect effects on others. During my life, I witnessed the proliferation of railway, telegraph, radio, steam-driven shipping, and car and weapon industries—thoroughly extending the web of association and affectedness within and across borders. This means action constantly reaches further. People close by and in far-off places are suddenly confronted with situations that they have to relate to but which are out of their control. This automatically makes them part of interested publics, with a stake in the way these mechanisations work. Now this perhaps seems abstract but consider: the spread of a new technology—I see you both looking on some small device with a black mirrored screen nervously every 5 minutes—automatically involves users as a ‘stakeholder’. Your actions are mediated by them. You become affected by their design and configuration—over which you have little control. In that regard, you are part of a concerned public, but you have no way to influence the politics constitutive of these technologies.

I would say the largest challenge is to amplify participation and to institutionalize these fleeting publics. The proliferation of technologies and institutions as conduits for international associations has rendered publics around the globe more inchoate, while seemingly making it easier than ever before to influence—for good or ill—large groups through the manipulation of these global infrastructures of the public. We sowed infrastructures, we reap fragilities and more diffusely affected publics: each new technological expansion of the possibility to form associations leads to concomitant insecurities.

TT How did you arrive where you currently are in your thinking?

I have had the sheer luck or fortune to be engaged in the occupation of thinking; and while I am quite regular at my meals, I think that I may say that I would rather work, and perhaps even more, play, with ideas and with thinking than eat. I was born in the wake of the Civil War, and in times of a profound acceleration of technology as a vehicle of social, economic, and political development. Perhaps, as in your own times, upheaval and change was the status quo, stability a rare exception. My studies at Johns Hopkins with people such as Peirce had tickled an intellectual curiosity as of yet unsatisfied. I subsequently went to the University of Chicago for a decade in which my commitment to pragmatist philosophy consolidated. Afterwards at Columbia, and at the New School which I founded with people such as Charles A. Beard and Thorsten Veblen, this approach translated into a number of books. In these I applied my pragmatist convictions to such disparate issues as education, art, faith, logic and indeed politics, the topic of your question. For me, these are all interdependent aspects of society. This interdependence and inseparability of the social fabric means that skewed economic or political interests will reverberate throughout. But I am an optimist in that I also believe in the fundamental possibility and promise of science and democracy to curb radical change and reroute it into desirable directions for those affected. Good things are also woven through the social and we should amplify those to lessen the effects of negative associations.

TT What would a student require to become a specialist in International Relations or to see the world in a global way?

A question dear to my heart. You might know that throughout my entire life I have striven for transforming our understanding and practice of education. Human progress is dependent on education, and as I have learned during my travels to Russia, reform is not to be had by revolution but by gradual education. Education is training in reflective thinking. The quality of democracy depends on education.

Towards the end of my life I witnessed the creation of the United Nations. This was a clear signal to me that “the relations between nations are taking on the properties that constitute a public, and hence call for some measure of political organization”. Having this forum implied that we saw the end of the complete denial of political responsibility of how the policies in one national unit affect another as we find in the doctrine of sovereignty. That the end of this doctrine is within reach means that we require global education which will ensure the rise of informed global publics which can develop the tools required to respond to global challenges.

In a more substantive fashion, I would insist that students hold on to the essential impossibility to separate out experience as it unfolds over time. The divisions and preferences that have come to dominate academic knowledge in its 20th century ‘maturing’ are for me a loss of rooting of knowledge in experience.

TT We’re sorry, but isn’t the task of social sciences to offer universal or at least objective analytical categories to make sense of the muddle of real-world experience? What you seem to be proposing is the opposite!

I align with Weber in lamenting the acceleration of the differentiation of understanding in society. This has made it difficult for your generations to address social, political and economic challenges head on while avoiding getting lost in one of its details or facets. Isn’t the economic and the political, constantly encroaching on everyday life? In the end, this perhaps explains my insistence on democracy and schooling as the pivots of good society: democracy to reconstruct and defend publics, and schooling to defend individuals against (mis)understanding the world in ways that cannot be reduced to their own lived experience. If students could only hold on to this holistic perspective and eschew isolating subject matters from their social contexts.

TT Throughout your 70 years of active scholarship you have written over a thousand articles and books. One commentator of your work suggested that your body of writing is an “elaborate spider’s web, the junctions and lineaments of which its engineer knows well and in and on which he is able to move about with great facility. But for the outsider who seeks to traverse or map that territory there is the constant danger of getting stuck.” Many find your work difficult to navigate—what advice would you give the reader?

Sirs why would anyone want to engage in a quest of mapping all of my writings? You have to understand that thought always proceeds in relations. A web, perhaps, yes. A spider’s web certainly not. A spider that spins a web out of himself, produces a web that is orderly and elaborate, but it is only a trap. That is the goal of pure reasoning, not mine. The scientific method of inquiry is rather comparable to the operations of the bee who collects material within and from the world, but attacks and modifies the collected stuff in order to make it yield its hidden treasure. “Drop the conception that knowledge is knowledge only when it is a disclosure and definition of the properties of fixed and antecedent reality; interpret the aim and test of knowing by what happens in the actual procedures of scientific inquiry”. The occasion of thinking and writing is the experience of problems and the need to clarify and resolve them. Everything depends on the problem, the situations and the tools available. Inquiry does not rely on a priori elements or fixed rules. I always attempted to start my work by understanding in which problematic situations I aimed at intervening. Philosophy and academic, but also public life, in my time was heading in wrong directions that called upon me to initiate inquiry to resolve issues—in media res, as it were. When I wrote Logic, I tried to rebut dogmatic understandings. Now it appears that I am on the verge of becoming a dogma myself. In a sense, the most tragic scenario would be if people develop a “Deweyan” perspective or theory. Now I am curious, what problem brought you actually to converse with me? 

TT Well, we are here today because we have been asked to contribute to an effort to collect the views of a number of different theorists, who, like you, live in different space-time. Now that we are here, could we ask you to tell us how you use the term ‘inquiry’? It is one of your core concepts and in our conversation you already frequently referred to it. It is often difficult to understand what you mean by this term and how it provides direction and purpose for science…

It’s a simple one, provided you have not been indoctrinated by logical positivists. You, me, all of us, frequently engage in inquiry. There is little distinction between solving problems of everyday life and the reasoning of the scientist or philosopher. Most often habit and routine will give you satisfaction. Yet when these fail or give you unpleasant experience, then reasoning begins. Without inquiry, sirs, most likely you wouldn’t have been able to speak to me today! You will have to explain later how you bended time and space and which technology allowed you to travel through a black hole. But Albert was right, time travel is possible! Could we converse today without Einstein’s fabulous inquiry that led him to the realization of space-time? Until the promulgation of Einstein's restricted theory of relativity, mass, time and motion were regarded as intrinsic properties of ultimate fixed and independent substances. Einstein questioned this on the basis of experimentation and an investigation of the problem of simultaneity, that is, that from different reference frames there can never be agreement on the simultaneity of events.

Reflection implies that something is believed in (or disbelieved in), not on its own direct account, but through something else which stands as witness, evidence, proof, voucher, warrant; that is, as ground of belief. At one time, rain is actually felt or directly experienced without any intermediary fact; at another time, we infer that it has rained from the looks of the grass and trees, or that it is going to rain because of the condition of the air or the state of the barometer. The fact that inquiry intervenes in ever-shifting contexts demands us to restrain from eternal truths or absolutistic logic. Someone believing in a truth such as “individualism”, has his program determined for him in advance. It is then not a matter of finding out the particular thing which needs to be done and the best way, and the circumstances, of doing it. He knows in advance the sort of thing which must be done, just as in ancient physical philosophy the thinker knew in advance what must happen, so that all he had to do was to supply a logical framework of definitions and classifications.

When I say that thinking and beliefs should be experimental, not absolutistic, I have in mind a certain logic of method. Such a logic firstly implies that the concepts, general principles, theories and dialectical developments which are indispensable to any systematic knowledge are shaped and tested as tools of inquiry. Secondly, policies and proposals for social action have to be treated as working hypotheses. They have to be subject to constant and well-equipped observations of the consequences they entail when acted upon and subject to flexible revision. The social sciences are primarily an apparatus for conducting such investigations.

TT Doesn’t such a form of reasoning mean we’ll just muddle through without ever reaching certainty?

Absolutely correct! Arriving at one point is the starting point of another. Life flowers and should be understood as such; experimental reasoning is never complete. I can imagine the surprise you must feel at sudden unforeseen events in international political relationships when you hold on to fixed frames of how these relationships do and ought to look. That we will never reach certainty does not imply to give up the quest of certainty, however. We have to continuously improve on our tools of scientific inquiry…

TT Sorry to interrupt you here. Now it sounds as if you have a sort of methods fetish. Do you imply that everything can be solved by the right method and all that we have to do is to refine our methods? That’s something that our colleagues running statistics and thinking that the problems of international can be solved by algorithms argue as well.

It might be that mathematical reasoning has well advanced since my departure, and that the importance granted to the economy and economic thinking as the sole conditioning factor of political organisation has only increased, but you haven’t fully grasped what I mean by ‘tools’. Tell your stubbornly calculating colleagues that inquiry is embedded in a situation, hence there cannot be a single method which would fix all kinds of problems. Second, while I admire the skill of mathematicians, what I mean by tools goes well beyond that. A tool can be a concept, a term, a theory, a proposal, a course of action, anything that might matter to settle a particular situation. A tool is however not a solution per se. It is a proposal. It must be tested against the problematic material. It matters only in so far as it is part of a practical activity aimed at resolving a problematic situation.  

TT You emphasize that language is instrumental and reject the idea of a private language. You also spent quite some energy to demolish the "picture theory" of language. These arguments form the basis of what we call today “constructivism”, yet they are mainly subscribed to the Philosophical Investigations of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Earhh, I am aware of this fellow. He is an analytical philosopher, so develops his argument from a different background. I started to work on the social and cultural aspects of language use from around 1916. I don’t know whether Wittgenstein actually read my work when he set out to write Philosophical Investigations, but you are quite right, there are obvious parallels. I think my own term of “conjoint activity” expresses pretty much the same, perhaps less eloquently, what Wittgenstein termed language games. I am pleased to hear, however, that the instrumental view on language, that objects get their meanings within a language in and by conjoint community of functional use, has become firmly established in academia. I’d have reservations about the term, ‘constructivism’. It might be useful since it reminds us of all the construction work that the organization of politics and society entails. Indeed I have frequently stressed that instrumentalist theory implies construction. If constructivism doesn’t mean post-mortem studies of how something has been constructed, but is directed towards production of better futures, I might be fine with the term. But perhaps I would prefer ‘productivism’.

TT That is a plausible term, but we are afraid, the history of science has settled on constructivism. And you are right, the tendencies you warn us of are significantly present in our discipline.

Sirs, if you permit. I have to attend to other obligations. I wish you safe travels back. Make sure you pick up something from the gift shop before you leave.