Escape From and Contempt for Action

The following article is one of many published  in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

By Lucy Johnson

John Dewey, writing in 1929 in The Quest For Certainty, accuses a broad swath of philosophical inquiry of being product of a sort of pathologically misdirected energy. “Man who lives in a world of hazards,” he argues, “is compelled to seek for security.” One sort of security is physical and shared, and created by consistent and cooperative political and social effort. Another sort, the sort apparently sought after by the ancient philosophical tradition, is self-sufficient and otherworldly, achievable by the independent inquirer, a sort of truth or knowledge of the permanence of goodness.

The classical tradition is, in Dewey’s perhaps slightly tendentious retelling, concerned to show that what is most desirable cannot be harmed and can be achieved self-sufficiently. Knowing that the risk of all empirical or active pursuits is that they have the potential to turn out badly despite the actor’s best efforts, they retreat to the pursuit of “a peace which is assured, an object which is unqualified by risk and the shadow of fear which action casts.” Purely theoretical inquiry is cast, in Dewey’s account, as an escape from the fear of the potentially unavoidable bad outcomes which threaten a life of worldly goals and attachments, or even the possibility of getting things wrong which attends empirical hypothesis and experimentation. One of his polemical aims is to draw attention to the mistaken view underlying this activity: that there is a hierarchical separation between knowing and doing.

Dewey has a great many interesting things to say about what philosophers ought to do if he is right, what kind of role they ought to play in a world in which action is elevated to its proper status, but for now I would like to think about this sort of criticism of philosophy as Dewey understands it and whether or not it is possible to really take it on board (in full awareness that what I mean by philosophy is not precisely what either Plato or Dewey’s contemporaries meant, and that for this reason, some parts of his criticism may be more or less relevant than they were at the time of his writing).

Dewey’s first problem, a familiar one, is that in his criticism of the classical tradition’s ambitions for transcendence he himself ends up himself articulating an account of what the good is, and taking it for granted that his view of “all the values of life” is shared by his readers. Any attempt to escape the inquiry into truth which Dewey would like to decry ends up appealing to some set of philosophical intuitions, and in doing so perhaps taking them as non-philosophical or in some way obvious (though this accusation is a bit unfair to Dewey, who has complicated and sophisticated ideas about beauty, knowledge, and truth, along with practical prescriptions). It is a truism that criticisms of one sort of philosophy almost always end up engaging in another sort of philosophy.

Another response to his accusation is to question why the sort of philosophy which Dewey would like to criticize, a philosophy which takes as its starting point the intention to discover the conditions of true knowledge, rather than the reasonable belief held by participants in a life of activity and endeavor, does not itself disappear quickly. If philosophy, regarded as the activity of asking what sort of things can be certainly known, how many things there are, and what is to be desired, does not perform its originally intended role of protecting us from the dangers of the world, then why does the philosophically inclined person continue to do it? Of course, Dewey might respond, people do not always stop engaging in activities when they prove ineffective in accomplishing the things for the sake of which they were begun. One might argue that certain sorts of addiction operate in precisely this way, and analogize the person ruminating on the possibility of brains in vats to the victim of a sort of maladaptive coping mechanism.

This thought, however, that there is something non-optional or compulsory about certain questions, leads us to the oddest thing about Dewey’s sort of criticism, which is that, at least on one view, we can no more decide what questions perplex us than we can decide not to be in danger or to be afraid. If being engaged by “philosophical” questions is a bad thing, isn’t being in such a state more a product of bad luck than bad judgment? Is an inclination towards skepticism really something that a person can be argued out of by pointing out that they might more productively spend their time planting a garden or designing a school curriculum?

If Dewey’s criticism is not entirely convincing, however, or if it is ineffective in relieving us of the burdens of particularly abstract questions, he may still be right to point out a tension and risk in engaging in systematic abstract inquiry: that it might place value on the wrong sorts of goods, or, more importantly, direct us away from the good and correct by directing us away from experience, which is the only venue in which the goodness and correctness, according to Dewey, end up having any meaning or intelligibility.

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