Dewey…the most important philosopher of the twentieth century

At the Leiter blog there was an interesting thread (here) concerning Philip Kitcher’s recent essay, “Philosophy Inside Out” (here). Given the current state of support for philosophy (or lack thereof) within the academy, it was not surprising that many of the comments were in support of Kitcher’s basic claim that philosophy ought to reconsider or reflect upon its core mission, although not everyone agreed with how such a reconsideration would look in practice, or what has put philosophy into the state it is in.

Kitcher’s basic argument stems from his reading of Dewey, who he ‘take[s] to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century.’ In particular, Kitcher analogizes much of the “core” work that is most highly valued in philosophy today, by which Kitcher means epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind, with placing the highest musical value upon those who can perform an ‘ornamented Quadruple Temolo 41 with an extra trill.’ In short, much of the core work in philosophy Kitcher claims is increasingly devoted to making finer and finer distinctions, the relevance of which is apparent to an ever-dwindling number of fellow neo-scholastics (referring here to Ladyman and Ross’s critique of contemporary analytic metaphysics, as discussed here). The overall message: it’s no wonder philosophy programs are at risk. It’s time to take stock of what we philosophers are doing and whether it is worth doing.

The necessary corrective, as Kitcher sees it, is to follow Dewey and to address issues and problems that have a ‘far broader, and more readily comprehensible, significance.’ Even mathematics and the natural sciences, despite delving into technical knowledge and minutiae that may seem far removed from issues of broader significance is able, nonetheless, to realize this broader significance, Kitcher claims, ‘at least in outline, [in] a sequence of steps.’ Where my interest in this debate was piqued was with Kitcher’s Deweyan understanding of philosophical problems. Kitcher cites the following relevant passage from Dewey:

The fact that philosophical problems arise because of widespread and widely felt difficulties in social practice is disguised because philosophers become a specialized class which uses a technical language, unlike the vocabulary in which the direct difficulties are stated (from Democracy and Education, p. 328).

Philosophical problems thus arise from what is common and hence ought, in the end, to be discussed and addressed in a manner that can effectively resolve these ‘widely felt difficulties in social practice.’ Natural science, for example, presumably addresses the widely felt need for understanding one’s world, and thus even the most technical and arcane of scientific practices are simply steps away from being seen as addressing these widely felt concerns, and hence science is able to be vindicated as relevant. The same is not the case for philosophy today, Kitcher claims (echoing Dewey).

Despite my admiration for Dewey – I would agree Dewey is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century – I disagree with the Deweyan understanding of philosophical problems, though not for the same reasons that were most frequently expressed in the comments to Leiter’s post. Ted Sider, for instance, states his difficulties with Kitcher’s understanding of philosophy as follows: “Going deeply into details, working vertically rather than horizontally, isn’t as glamorous as making sweeping connections. But what a superficial field philosophy would be, if we were all synoptic seers of broad visions! The great figures in the history of philosophy were certainly no strangers to the trenches.” The synoptic seers with broad visions are important, but so too are the philosophers who work in the trenches, working vertically, delving into the details and establishing connections and weeding out false paths and connections. Sider’s concern is that if we follow the Deweyan approach we may lack the patience necessary to sort through the necessary details and connections in a way that may keep us from making hasty, ‘sweeping connections’. The implication for Sider appears to be that the vertical, in the trench philosophizing, is complementary to and perhaps a prerequesite to the best horizontal philosophizing. Vertical philosophizing is thus not at odds with Dewey’s concerns for addressing ‘widely felt difficulties in social practice,’ but merely highlights the need for patience and recommends we be cautious against a rush to relevance, or a rush to MATTER as Sider puts it.

A Deleuzian understanding of philosophical problems, by contrast, is in many ways completely opposed to Dewey’s (which may justify for many the sense that Deleuze’s thought is irrelevant). When Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy?, argue that opinions are ‘the object of a struggle or an exchange’ and that this ‘is the Western democratic, popular conception of philosophy as providing pleasant or aggressive dinner conversations at Mr. Rorty’s,’ it becomes quite clear that the task of philosophy is not, primarily, one of addressing problems in a way that can be seen as responding to ‘widely felt difficulties.’ Far from it, once philosophers actually sit down to discuss their work, or argue about what one or the other is doing, they have ceased to be addressing philosophical problems and are instead focusing on that which is by its nature common since it is that which can be exchanged in a give and take of discussion. Deleuze was no doubt aware that he was echoing Nietzsche’s sentiments as expressed here in Beyond Good and Evil:

In all souls a like number of frequently recurring experiences have gained the upper hand over those occurring more rarely: about these matters people understand one another rapidly and always more rapidly—the history of language is the history of a process of abbreviation; on the basis of this quick comprehension people always unite closer and closer. The greater the danger, the greater is the need of agreeing quickly and readily about what is necessary; not to misunderstand one another in danger—that is what cannot at all be dispensed with in intercourse. Beyond Good and Evil §268

Moving from what we agree to be our widely shared difficulties and then back to what can be widely comprehended, as is Dewey’s model, thus bypasses the importance and significance of what happens in between (au mileu), and it is here where Deleuze believes philosophical problems lie and where their problematizing effects emerge. It is here as well where the significance of Dewey’s experimental pragmatism emerges, and thus where we see both that the quick lumping of Dewey with pragmatism (and his thereby being promptly dismissed) misses the point and that Dewey is indeed one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. For Deleuze what happens between the common understanding of a pressing problem and the common recognition of its solution is the philosophical concept. With this in mind, it is worth quoting Deleuze and Guattari at length:

Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, “Let’s discuss this.” Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about [philosophical] discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous. WP 28

We can now better situate the Deleuzian approach relative to Kitcher and Sider (although I could equally well use Timothy Williamson, among others). Put simply, Deleuze is addressing different problems and creating different concepts. Unlike Kitcher, the Deleuzian problematic is not a matter of engaging in a free, open discourse regarding widely shared problems in order to attain widely perceived, and relevant, solutions. Nor, and unlike Sider and Williamson (et. al.), is the problem one of creating a more finely tuned and accurate (i.e., true) logical representation of the processes associated with epistemology, mind, and language. Deleuze might not go so far as to compare this effort to adding a trill to the Quadruple Tremolo 41, but he may very well see logic as Spinoza did – that is, as useful for mental hygiene and fitness. At the same time, the problem for Deleuze is not one of establishing communicative rationality or consensus. The Deleuzian problematic is to create concepts, full stop. In doing this, or at least in doing this well, philosophy problematizes both the common and the representable – this is the sense in which concepts are related to an ‘undiscussible problem’. The creation of concepts also problematizes accepted methodologies, or the presumed means whereby one sets about addressing and resolving problems. In fact, in creating concepts one creates the means of resolving them, but in a way often at odds with, or problematic in relation to, already established methodologies. This is where the philosophical effort to create concepts is of a piece with historical ontology (as I discuss here and here). This effort is the key to philosophy’s relevance for it is only in problematizing established orthodoxies whereby the tools to address problems in the manner that was Dewey’s concern become available; and yet, echoing Ted Sider’s concerns, philosophy cannot set out to create the tools that MATTER, tools that satisfactorily address a set of established and predetermining needs and concerns. Philosophy ‘throws its numbered dice on another table,’ and for this reason, among others, a central and enduring problem of philosophy will be its relevance.


3 responses to “Dewey…the most important philosopher of the twentieth century

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