Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Johns

When I began my graduate studies back in the mid 1990's I decided early on that I would write my dissertation on John Rawls. I was moved by the elegance, sophistication and persuasion of Rawls's theory of justice. And in my dissertation, and then early publications, I attempted to defend Rawls's theory against various critics- communitarian, egalitarian, left-libertarian, etc.

But over time I became less committed, then somewhat critical, and then very critical, of the Rawlsian project (by which I mean the industry of Rawlsian scholarship rather than Rawls's own specific contribution). This culminated in this book which is a critique of the principled paradigm and ideal theory more generally.

What lead me to change my views? There were many things, and I have expanded on them before (see here, here, here, here, here and here). I won't repeat these various points again here, but those interested in my concerns can check out some of my earlier posts.

What I do want to consider here is this question: if I had to do it all again, would I still chose to do a dissertation on Rawls? Despite the vast amount of respect I have for Rawls as a political philosopher, my answer now would be "No". Instead, I would have liked the opportunity to write a dissertation on the American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952).

Unlike Rawls, whose theory has dominated the field of political philosophy for well over 30 years now, Dewey has remained a relatively marginalized figure in the field. But the neglect of Dewey is not a reflection on the quality of his work, rather it is a reflection on how impoverished and insular the field of political philosophy has become.

If I were a betting man I would wager a few dollars that, a 100 years from now, Dewey's influence on the field will actually surpass Rawls's. I admit that few of my colleagues would agree with me about this. And I say this not to belittle Rawls's work (which I greatly admire), but rather to praise Dewey's contribution.

Dewey was a brilliant philosopher who wrote a voluminous amount of work. I am by no means an expert on Dewey's work, but recently I have made an effort to read more of his work and have been struck by the range of his interests and intellect, and have found his work to be some of the most rewarding to read.

OK, since I am talking Dewey up so much I better provide a few details as to why I find him so interesting to read. Dewey's work, like my admiration for Greats in philosophy (like Plato, Aristotle or Mill) resonates with me on many different levels. Dewey resonates with me:

(1) as an educator
(2) as a democratic
(3) as a pragmatist
(4) as a perfectionist
(5) as someone who has a deep respect and appreciation of the importance of science.

While I also appreciate analytic rigour, it is not among the "top 5" things I look for in an inspirational and interesting philosopher. If it was, the list of great political philosophers would be very short indeed, and include no one before Rawls!

So here is an interesting counterfactual worth pondering:

Where would the field of political philosophy be today if the field had spent as much time and energy examining and debating Dewey's work as we have Rawls's?
[Perhaps we should revise that to read "if the field had spent just 25% of the time and energy examining and debating Dewey's work as we have Rawls's" since no one philosopher ought to dominant debates as much as Rawls has!]

My short, speculative answer to this hypothetical question is: The discipline would be more interesting, truly interdisciplinary, more expansive in terms of the issues it tackles, and yield more practical wisdom than it currently does.

Of course this is just my personal speculation so take it for what it is worth. But rather than have decades of debates on the speculative nature of the self, or extending the difference principle globally, or refining luck egalitarianism, a sustained engagement with Dewey would have brought psychology, democracy, education, and pragmatism to the fore of the discipline. And that would, in my opinion, have been a very positive development indeed.