Monday Muse v.1 n.9
December 7, 1999

My Dearest Gentlefolk,

This week's Monday Muse goes out on a Tuesday evening, obeying the inexorable ebb and flow of my weekly workload. This week we turn to some thoughts on the intersection of value (or morality) and lived experience. I shall not disclose the name of the author until the end, in order to allow each of you to absorb these words without the gloss of time or place. While reading, keep in mind that terms such as "good" and "evil" are used in a technical sense, not unrelated to their ordinary meaning, but denoting specific attributes of the moral landscape (i.e., things or states of affairs to be sought or avoided).

A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation -- that is to say the action needed to satisfy it -- is not self evident. It has to be searched for. There are conflicting desires and alternative apparent goods. What is needed is to find the right course of action, the right good. Hence inquiry is exacted. ... This inquiry is intelligence. ...

Moral goods and ends exist only when something has to be done. The fact that something has to be done proves that there are deficiencies, evils in the existing situation. ... Consequently the good of the situation has to be discovered, projected and attained on the basis of the exact defect and trouble to be rectified. ...

The process of growth, of improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and result, becomes the significant thing. Not health as an end fixed once and for all, but the needed improvement in health -- a continual process -- is the end and good. The end is no longer a terminus or limit to be reached. It is the active process of transforming the existent situation. Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining is the aim of living. Honesty, industry, temperance, justice, like health, wealth, and learning, are not goods to be possessed as they would be if they expressed fixed ends to be attained. They are directions of change in the quality of experience. Growth itself is the only moral "end."

John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy 163-164, 169, 177 (1920).

I am immediately struck by the ever-present voice of Aristotle. Is Plato so far from the surface as well? The very idea that lived experience has a value by virtue of its dynamicism (and a particular value according to the direction of its movement), is essential to much of Greek philosophy. The idea that objective moral value -- asserted on the basis of facts or beliefs affirmed uniformly across the moral community -- is something that we can properly ascribe only to action of a certain sort, and never to a status or condition, has likewise carried an enduring currency across the recorded legacy of Western Philosophy. Still, it may seem surprising to find it uttered so convincingly by one of this century's great pragmatists.

We forget Dewey at our peril. And yet, in schools across the United States, I fear that his name has fallen by the way. Pragmatism assigned itself the task of making philosophical inquiry relevant. Philosophy was, under the guidance of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, given the auspicious task of making sense of the life worth living. But much has transpired in the interim, particularly in this century, to force philosophy to the periphery: rendering a philosophy of science, a philosophy of art, a philosophy of meaning, and those trite paper-back exercises in a "philosophy of living," each confined to their quarters, as it were, and none venturing far afield. As we draw near the end of the Millennium -- a Millennium that has brought us Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Mill, and countless others, all of whom emphatically believed that philosophical inquiry was essential to the integration of belief and action -- it may be worth asking if the project has taught us anything.

Is philosophy of this sort worth preserving? In an age as materialistic as our own, where the possession of money, property, and power seem to matter more than the sensible disposition of any, is Dewey's pragmatism still able to speak to us? Are we, as a culture, willing to listen? Are we willing to be transformed by our lives, or live the transformation experience demands? Or does Dewey's pragmatism look quaint, even wistful, to our jaded Third Millennium eyes?

I am sure you know my answer, but do you think that I am right?

David Robert Foss

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© 2000 David Robert Foss

Message Author Date
Muse v.1 n.9 David Robert Foss 12/07/1999
Response 1 Steve R. 12/09/1999
Response 2 David Robert Foss 12/09/1999
Response 3 Steve R. 12/09/1999

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