Guest Speaker Steven Levine (University of Massachussetts, Boston) Dewey and the Ground of Social Critique
By Department of Philosophy
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Talk title: “Dewey and the Ground of Social Critique”
Abstract: In recent years many philosophers in the tradition of critical theory have become interested in John Dewey. In this paper I try to vindicate this interest by examining Dewey’s relevance for what is perhaps the central question of the tradition, i.e., the question of how to ground norms and standards of social critique. In contrast to Horkheimer and Marcuse—who famously argued that Dewey has no relevance for answering this question—I argue that Dewey has two strategies for deriving norms and standards of critique: a procedural-theoretic strategy and an experiential-theoretic one. The first strategy claims that the norms and standards that inform our judgments of the worth of social phenomena are products of historical and experimental learning processes, and they are justified if the social practices they recommend sustain and deepen the conditions for those very processes to be reproduced. This proceduralist strategy is attractive for contemporary critical theorists because it slips between the Scylla of foundationalism about norms and the Charybdis of conventionalism. The second strategy, which has not been well understood, is based in Dewey’s perfectionism. Dewey is a kind of perfectionist not because he gives an account of what the best human life looks like or the single end appropriate for that life, but because he holds that experience can, in certain circumstances, instantiate a form in which its enrichment or growth is found to be intrinsically worthwhile. This form is the basis for Dewey’s concept of ‘an experience’—an experience at its best. This concept provides social critique with its fundamental norm or standard: those social practices that tend to bring about the possibility for subjects to have ‘an experience’ are to be fostered, while social practices that prevent subjects from having such an experience are pathological and are therefore to be rejected.