Durant 1926: Science and Politics (John Dewey)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 3.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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III. JOHN DEWEY

3. Science and Politics

What Dewey sees and reverences as the finest of all things, is growth; so much so, that he makes this relative but specific notion, and no absolute “good,” his ethical criterion.

Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining, is the aim in living … The bad man is the man who, no matter how good he has been, is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others.

For Dewey, the ethical criterion is growth. The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better.

And to be good does not merely mean to be obedient and harmless; goodness without ability is lame; and all the virtue in the world will not save us if we lack intelligence. Ignorance is not bliss, it is unconsciousness and slavery; only intelligence can make us sharers in the shaping of our fates. Freedom of the will is no violation of causal sequences, it is the illumination of conduct by knowledge. “A physician or engineer is free in his thoughts or his actions in the degree in which he knows what he deals with. Perhaps we find here the key to any freedom.” Our trust must after all be in thought, and not in instinct;—how could instinct adjust us to the increasingly artificial environment which industry has built around us, and the maze of intricate problems in which we are enmeshed?

And to be good does not merely mean to be obedient and harmless; goodness without ability is lame; and all the virtue in the world will not save us if we lack intelligence.

Physical science has for the time being far outrun psychical. We have mastered the physical mechanism sufficiently to turn out possible goods; we have not gained a knowledge of the conditions through which possible values become actual in life, and so are still at the mercy of habit, of haphazard, and hence of force. … With tremendous increase in our control of nature, in our ability to utilize nature for human use and satisfaction, we find the actual realization of ends, the enjoyment of values, growing unassured and precarious. At times it seems as though we were caught in a contradiction; the more we multiply means the less certain and general is the use we are able to make of them. No wonder a Carlyle or a Ruskin puts our whole industrial civilization under a ban, while a Tolstoi proclaims a return to the desert. But the only way to see the situation steadily and see it whole is to keep in mind that the entire problem is one of the development of science and its application to life. … Morals, philosophy, returns to its first love; love of the wisdom that is nurse of good. But it returns to the Socratic principle equipped with a multitude of special methods of inquiry and tests; with an organized mass of knowledge, and with control of the arrangements by which industry, law and education may concentrate upon the problem of the participation by all men and women, up to the capacity of absorption, in all attained values.

We have mastered the physical mechanism sufficiently to turn out possible goods; we have not gained a knowledge of the conditions through which possible values become actual in life, and so are still at the mercy of habit, of haphazard, and hence of force. The entire problem is one of the development of science and its application to life.

Unlike most philosophers, Dewey accepts democracy, though he knows its faults. The aim of political order is to help the individual to develop himself completely; and this can come only when each shares, up to his capacity, in determining the policy and destiny of his group. Fixed classes belong with fixed species; the fluidity of classes came at the same time as the theory of the transformation of species. Aristocracy and monarchy are more efficient than democracy, but they are also more dangerous. Dewey distrusts the state, and wishes a pluralistic order, in which as much as possible of the work of society would be done by voluntary associations. He sees in the multiplicity of organizations, parties, corporations, trade unions, etc., a reconciliation of individualism with common action. As these

develop in importance, the state tends to become more and more a regulator and adjustor among them; defining the limits of their actions, preventing and settling conflicts. … Moreover, the voluntary associations … do not coincide with political boundaries. Associations of mathematicians, chemists, astronomers, business corporations, labor organizations, churches, are trans-national because the interests they represent are world-wide. In such ways as these, internationalism is not an aspiration but a fact, not a sentimental ideal but a force. Yet these interests are cut across and thrown out of gear by the traditional doctrine of exclusive national sovereignty. It is the vogue of this doctrine or dogma that presents the strongest barrier to the effective formation of an international mind which alone agrees with the moving forces of present-day labor, commerce, science, art, and religion.

The aim of political order is to help the individual to develop himself completely; and this can come only when each shares, up to his capacity, in determining the policy and destiny of his group. Aristocracy and monarchy are more efficient than democracy, but they are also more dangerous.

But political reconstruction will come only when we apply to our social problems the experimental methods and attitudes which have succeeded so well in the natural sciences. We are still in the metaphysical stage of political philosophy; we fling abstractions at one another’s heads, and when the battle is over nothing is won. We cannot cure our social ills with wholesale ideas, magnificent generalizations like individualism or order, democracy or monarchy or aristocracy, or what not. We must meet each problem with a specific hypothesis, and no universal theory; theories are tentacles, and fruitful progressive living must rely on trial and error.

The experimental attitude … substitutes detailed analysis for wholesale assertions, specific inquiries for temperamental convictions, small facts for opinions whose size is in precise ratio to their vagueness. It is within the social sciences, in morals, politics and education, that thinking still goes on by large antitheses, by theoretical oppositions of order and freedom, individualism and socialism, culture and utility, spontaneity and discipline, actuality and tradition. The field of the physical sciences was once occupied by similar “total” views, whose emotional appeal was inversely as their intellectual clarity. But with the advance of the experimental method, the question has ceased to be which one of two rival claimants has a right to the field. It has become a question of clearing up a confused subject matter by attacking it bit by bit. I do not know a case where the final result was anything like victory for one or another among the pre-experimental notions. All of them disappeared because they became increasingly irrelevant to the situation discovered, and with their detected irrelevance they became unmeaning and uninteresting.

We cannot cure our social ills with wholesale ideas, magnificent generalizations like individualism or order, democracy or monarchy or aristocracy, or what not. Political reconstruction will come only when we apply to our social problems the experimental methods and attitudes which have succeeded so well in the natural sciences. 

It is in this field, in this application of human knowledge to our social antagonisms, that the work of philosophy should lie. Philosophy clings like a timid spinster to the old-fashioned problems and ideas; “direct pre-occupation with contemporary difficulties is left to literature and politics.” Philosophy is in flight today before the sciences, one after another of which have run away from her into the productive world, until she is left chill and alone, like a forsaken mother with the vitals gone from her and almost all her cupboards empty. Philosophy has withdrawn herself timidly from her real concerns—men and their life in the world—into a crumbling corner called epistemology, and is in danger every moment of being ousted by the laws that prohibit habitation in flimsy and rickety structures. But these old problems have lost their meaning for us: “we do not solve them we get over them”; they evaporate in the heat of social friction and living change. Philosophy, like everything else, must secularize itself; it must stay on the earth and earn its keep by illuminating life.

Philosophy has withdrawn herself timidly from her real concerns—men and their life in the world—into a crumbling corner called epistemology. Philosophy, like everything else, must secularize itself; it must stay on the earth and earn its keep by illuminating life.

What serious-minded men not engaged in the professional business of philosophy most want to know is what modifications and abandonments of intellectual inheritance are required by the newer industrial, political, and scientific movements. … The task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day. Its aim is to become, so far as is humanly possible, an organ for dealing with these conflicts. … A catholic and far-sighted theory of the adjustment of the conflicting factors of life is philosophy.

The task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day. Its aim is to become, so far as is humanly possible, an organ for dealing with these conflicts.

A philosophy so understood might at last produce philosophers worthy to be kings.

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