An English In Kentucky


















Monday April 15th 2019Tim Candler9


    John Dewey died the year I was born. On a personal note, I came to him late in my own life, he was always far too sensible for the feral cat that occupied my being too many years for me to have ever done anything much useful. In one of his books, Reconstruction in Philosophy, published after he died, he addressed the issue of whether the great ideas inform and influence the direction of society or whether it was the other way round, society just shrugs, carries on, minds its own business, basically takes no notice and the wiser ideas are more about how to understand society rather than actually get all bossy about it and start telling it what to do. Dewey offered the idea of looking at the issue in a more organic way, arguing that great ideas with grand convincing theories do little more than put an end to anything like useful and constructive discussion. Here he contrasts Hegel and Proudhon's masterpieces of erudition and learning, both brilliant, well argued, the one suggests Property is Theft, the other suggests pretty much the opposite that Nirvana here on earth is all about mastery of the will over the material world, the dialectic of spirit would proceed to end the corrupting influence of institutions by replacing them all with a freedom and equality in something like private property. Proudhon's magnificent ideas ended on the barricades in the Great City of Paris, Hegel's brilliance ended with the Prussian State and we all know how well that turned out. Invariably there are arguments on all sides of this, but Dewey's point was you can't just give up, you have to look at society as something that never actually stops and that we individuals in the course of our lives visit society as it is, we do our bit and then move on.  Dewey's bit as I understand it was to contribute to an idea of individuals as emerging not so much from eggs at birth, rather emerging from within the influences of a social group, and I think he preferred to think of social groups as associations, a sort of like mindedness around shared interests, shared hopes, dreams, stamp collecting and so on. Dewey had the sort of ideas that piss off the fascists on all sides of the aisle for whom the complexities of the world are such it would be much simpler if everyone was the same and those who are not best to push them off the cliff edge.



      Dewey suggested that a Free Society wasn't so much about Individuals being allowed to do exactly what they wanted to do, rather the individual was better explained by his or her membership of a social group. It was after all from within this association that an individual became cohesive, functioning and not just a bunch of nursery rhymes and whimsy, not that there was anything wrong with an association devoted to nursery rhymes and whimsy. Dewey also suggested that throughout human history there was never a lasting society that hadn't arranged itself around the idea of individuals as members of groups. Go back to Plato and Aristotle, they understood well enough the inconsistency between the idea of freedom and slavery, but they argued that slaves even though they had no liberty to pursue individual callings they were nonetheless better off as a group, an association of interests, a familiar song still sung in the shadows of the confederate flag, and how it does get on one's nerves, but the fact that it does get on some nerves means something changed. What changed, Dewey argued, was a realization that a plurality of associations if allowed to flourish within a society led to a form of stability that was productive not only in the material sense but in all ways that fulfill an idea of a peaceful, harmonious, a happy and useful progress for the majority.  His point was that when you're looking for a pragmatic way to explore how society moves around the relationship between the institutions established by society and the associations of individuals within a society best to remember that you can't really separate the two and say one's more important than the other, they are both either side of the same coin, each a saint and sinner. The successful state as it moved through time, he argued was more like the conductor of an orchestra, and sometimes when a drummer or tambourine player gets totally out of control the conductor has to step up and if he doesn't it's not music it's cacophony. Which is not to say that cacophony doesn't have its association of blind faith, blinkered fans. Dewey devoted much of his life to the more liberal idea of education as a realization of an individual's full potential to think independently, and in that capacity for mass independence of thinking he saw the opportunity for fewer out of control trombonists or violinists or you name it.


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