Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CPA Report 3: Throw 'em to the Lions

(Part I, Part II)

What is it with Christian philosophers? I don't mean philosophers who happen to be Christians. Some of the best philosophers I know are Christians. Who I mean is, those who present at, attend, etc. meetings like the (Canadian) Society for Christian Philosophers. My first talk of the day was a CSCP talk, and I've attended the occasional bits of such conferences held in San Diego, and the quality is overall pretty low. Maybe this is just bias, or an othering. Maybe the quality of philosophy is generally low, and I'm just picking on the poor Christians out of some unconscious childhood resentment. Anyhow.

The talk was, "On John Dewey's and Karl Marx's Subtraction Theories of Modernity" by Michael Da Silva, who is a very polite and engaged person, who was, however, deeply wrong about the content of Dewey's philosophy. (I can't speak to Marx. Perhaps he got Marx right.) Da Silva was applying Charles Taylor's worries about subtraction theories of modernity and disenchantment to these two characters, to make them look bad compared to Hegel. For reasons I wasn't able to follow, Dewey and Marx were supposed to be unable to explain the modern condition, or ground projects of human solidarity, social harmony, and other stuff. Basically, the death of belief in God leaves a whole which complete secularism is unable to fill.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not unsympathetic (potentially) to this criticism. I just don't think it fits with Dewey. A short summary of how I think Da Silva got Dewey wrong:
  • Dewey is not a materialist.  Dewey is a naturalist, and there is an important difference, as Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and Sidney Hook point out in a classic paper, "Are Naturalists Materialists?"  Perhaps Da Silva only meant the very broad sense "materialism" which is just any sort of naturalism.  But such a view is not prima facie as problematic for a Taylor-type guy.
  • Dewey is not a narrow pragmatist who only cares about practical utility or who only believes that our technoscientific encounters with the world exist.  On the former, just check out the relevant sections of Experience and Nature or Art as Experience.  Dewey certainly thinks that a focus on practice is more important than philosophers have thought, but so does Hegel.  Dewey also believes that events happened in the distant past, or that distant parts of space currently unexperienced exist.  Responses to these kinds of worries are well-discussed in David Hildebrand's "Progress in History: Dewey on Knowledge of the Past"
  • Dewey does not believe that we've outgrown religion.  For the importance of religiousness and the divine in a general sense, and a celebration of religious experience, see A Common Faith.  
Okay, rant over.  Let's go see some talks on science and values, yeah?

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