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Pragmatism or Principle

A respondent writes:

« My list of Dewey-haters:  Nazis, Stalinists, ... »

Actually, one would be hard pressed to find a Nazi or Marxist criticizing John Dewey’s essential philosophy, especially as his philosophy had its roots in Hegel.

« ... the root cause of their hatred is essentially the same. ...  Each group is devoted to the achievement of a predetermined state of ‘rightness’ and incapable of adjusting their attitudes in the light of experience. »

Let us suppose Hitler was capable of adjusting his attitude in light of his experience.  During his adjustment would he be right?  If not, if he would be right only at a certain advanced stage of adjustment, why would that stage be right?

As these questions suggest, rejecting principles, truth, putting “rightness” in quotes, does not lead to the Bill of Rights.

My respondent’s reason for criticizing the people of his list is straight out of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy.  He seems to believe you can’t know right from wrong before acting, that you shouldn’t generalize from experience in order to understand the unknown or predict the future  you should just wing it as you go.

My respondent goes on to say that socialism and naziism would be all right if and when reached without barbed wire and machine guns, but because they entailed barbed wire and machine guns they were bad.

I disagree. Socialism and Nazism are bad because they necessarily and in essence violate human rights  whether you use barbed wire or electrified wire, machine guns or stun guns. And this use of force could have been foreseen.  You don’t need to try socialism or nazism and see if they are desirable or not.  The ideas behind them are evil, and the practice will be evil in any age and any country.

Dewey, in contrast, belittles the motives of those who think in principles:

“Where there is no activity having a growing significance [?], appeal to principle is either purely verbal [i.e. meaningless], or a form of obstinate pride or an appeal to extraneous considerations clothed with a dignified title [i.e. hypocritical].” (Democracy and Education, page 410.)

Intellectuals can’t go around saying the group is all, the individual nothing  or its mealy-mouthed dilutions and variants  before someone takes it seriously.

Intellectuals can’t go around saying act now, that’s what thinking is, before ... here is Benito Mussolini, London Sunday Times interview April 11, 1926:

“The Pragmatism of William James ... was of great use to me in my political career.  James taught me that an action should be judged rather by its results than by its doctrinary basis.  I learnt of James that faith in action, that ardent will to live and fight, to which Fascism owes a great part of its success. ...  For me the essential was to act.”  (Quoted in The Thought and Character of William James, by Ralph B. Perry, volume 2, page 575.)

The ineffable subtlety of pragmatic thought may have been lost on Mussolini, but he got the gist of it.