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Context and Consistency

A respondent writes:

« ... you can’t really conduct a discussion of the ideas of any thinker ... on the basis of isolated quotes gleaned from a wide variety of books written at very different stages of his development »

I have read the entire essays or chapters (and in most cases books) from which I quote.  I disagree that we cannot discuss single sentences. A sentence does make a statement.  Take the sentence: “Private property should be abolished.”  The only context I can conceive of that would show the author saying something other than what the sentence says clearly enough, is if he were quoting someone else in order to disagree.  Or counting the words for a typing test, or something equally outside the meaning of the sentence.

We must take care to select quotes that by themselves do not misrepresent the author’s meaning.  We can make anyone say anything by quoting him out of context, even if his over-all work is consistent.  If he is inconsistent, as Dewey is, even further care is required.

For example, I do not quote Dewey praising the U.S. Bill of Rights, which he does do, yet I did quote him from the same book praising the ideas of Karl Marx;  I do not quote Dewey “questioning” the use of violence in destroying capitalism, yet I did quote him unequivocally advocating the use of violence in destroying capitalism in the very same book.

I don’t need to quote both. Ideas are not weights to be balanced one against another.  They are like things you eat, and some are poisonous.  If you see someone about to eat French bread dipped in arsenic, you point out the arsenic, and to hell with the bread.

The political examples I outlined above are pretty obvious.  More subtle is the inconsistency of Dewey’s metaphysics and epistemology.  His frequently vague, opaque writing, the clumsy syntax of his sentences, together with the inherent difficulty of the subjects, act as a smokescreen hiding what he is about, if he knows what he is about.  He is a trial to read.

I have considered the context of what I quote.  If your interest has been aroused, read Dewey in the original and judge for yourself.

Reading a random paragraph or sentence here and there is not enough.  A snippet may be representative or not, and it may be the poisonous or the misleading part of a contradiction.

Besides reading Dewey you may wish to look at secondary sources, the critical literature on Dewey.  One author, favorable to Dewey, who understands that Dewey rejects objective reality, and agrees with that rejection, is Prof. Richard Rorty.  See his book The Consequences of Pragmatism (1982).