Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dewey Birthday Conference, Day I

Today was the first day of the Dewey Sesquicentennial Conference. You can see my play-by-play thoughts on my Twitter account, but I thought I'd do a quick wrap-up of my thoughts before hitting the bed. Of course, I'm paraphrasing what I took them to be saying, and I may have gotten it quite wrong. This is how it sounded to me and what I thought.

Paul Kurtz gave the first lecture, "Looking Ahead: What are the Prospects for Dewey’s Philosophy in the Future?" This was full of personal anecdotes about Dewey (Kurtz met Dewey when Kurtz was a grad student at Columbia), some quite general comments about Dewey's philosophy, and some reflections on how our current situation, especially the difference in our scientific knowledge after the last 50 years or so, changes the way that we think about Dewey's philosophy.

What Kurtz said was that we know much more about just how contingent the evolution of the human species has been, and now that we have a less romantic account of it than even the early Darwinians, we can see just how uncertain human prospects are. What will come hinges on unpredictable contingencies. Dewey's philosophy gives us a way of understanding ourselves and the world that gives full credence to this, while nevertheless providing some sense of hope.

I would add that most philosophers, who fail to recognize the degree of precariousness and uncertainty in nature, and who give a relatively rosy picture of the likelihood of the growth of knowledge and justice, are deluding themselves.

What Kurtz thinks we need to add to Dewey is a kind of "planetary ethos," which seems like it combines universal empathy for all human beings, and something like a Leopoldian "land ethic," a sense of our responsibility to the natural world.

Larry Hickman then gave a talk on "John Dewey's Spiritual Values." I've heard Hickman speak before and I always consider it a pleasure. At the beginning, he mentioned several projects ongoing at the Center for Dewey Studies. Most exciting, from my perspective, is that they're going to be publishing a bunch of Dewey's lecture notes. Apparently, Dewey's students hired professional stenographers, and the Center has that stuff.

According to Hickman, Dewey was opposed militant atheism and militant supernaturalism. If we understand "atheism" to mean simply, not a theist, then Dewey admits that he is an atheist. But, Dewey said, the popular meaning of atheism is denial of all ideal values, and I'm not an atheist in that sense. Dewey's "spirituality" is thus a kind of "moral idealism," an insistence on the reality of moral ideals.

Now, Dewey was aware that "spiritual" is a problematic term, with a long history of abuse. The problem is that there has been an unwarranted separation of spiritual from material. So spiritual/ideal values are seen as separate from material world. Dewey thinks there is something to our use of "spirituality" that is important, that militant atheism doesn't capture.

According to Hickman, Dewey's conception of spiritual values are just as relevant today, situated as we are in the cultural battleground between religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists.

There was some really interesting discussion after this, though I must admit it was getting a bit late in the day for me to process it very well. I'll just reproduce the notes I have on three key points, paraphrasing what I took them to be saying:

Paul Kurtz: There's a crisis in secular humanism. We need a "natural reverence" that the New Atheists cannot capture.

Larry Hickman: There's "spirituality" in the sense of moral ideals, and in the sense of wonder. Dewey wanted to capture both. And "spiritual" can act as an important talisman for coalition building with religious humanists.

Philip Kitcher: Values aren't beliefs; commitments, promises, hopes, emotions are the right cognitive attitudes. The problem with the New Atheism is they identify religion w/ a set of beliefs. But it's also community structure, values, hopes, etc. James and Dewey saw this clearly. This is one reason that A Common Faith is so valuable.

Looking forward to a full day tomorrow!

1 comment:

diomedea exulans said...

FYI - This "values as beliefs" idea is a major line between Catholicism/Lutheranism/Anglicanism and churches of the "reform" tradition (Baptists, Calvinists, Presbyterians to some degree, pretty much all religious fundamentalists, etc.). So, I would wager that the New Atheists, defining their position primarily negatively, have a tendency to simply negate the view they encounter most frequently.