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John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope
By Stephen M. Fishman Lucille McCarthy
University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Constructing a Deweyan Theory of Hope
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[Human] birth is the eternal reminder of the possibility of a new and different world; and though as time goes by the hope is frustrated and the tragedy of dissipation ... recurs, yet the promise constantly returns. A new life, a life as yet one of potentiality, will signify to man the possibility of a different world until all hope dies from the human breast. -John Dewey, "A Key to the New World" (LW 2:227)
Before presenting the Deweyan theory of hope that I have constructed, I open this chapter with some comments about what stands out for me from this study. What strikes me most about the various hints and clues that Dewey offers about hope is that they reflect his sense of life as dogged by suffering and uncertainty. Not only is Dewey sensitive to life's suffering and uncertainty, he is also very much aware of life's brevity. As he puts it, "Time is the tooth that gnaws; it is the destroyer; we are born only to die and every day brings us one day nearer death" (LW 14:98). This stands out for me because I too have been gifted or cursed, I am not always sure which, with a strong sensitivity to the hardships and anxieties that all living creatures endure. Further, Dewey is unable to invoke divine intervention or an all-powerful, transcendent God to rekindle hope in the midst of our suffering. In this regard, I am also one with Dewey. However, in the face of "frustration" and "tragedy," Dewey, as evidenced by the quote I use as the epigraph for this chapter, does not cry Cassandra and dry wash his hands as I myself am often wont to do. Rather, he offers advice about how to resist the temptation to despair. He gives us reasons to continue to pursue our most important hopes even when these hopes seem dashed and beyond repair.
What also stands out for me is that, although Dewey talks about particular hopes, like hoping for a successful interview with a potential employer (LW 10:49-50), his overriding concern-a concern he shares with Gabriel Marcel and Paulo Freire, the philosophers with whom I compare him in Chapters 2 and 3-is with what I call "ultimate hope" and "living in hope." By living in hope, I mean having an ultimate hope or goal toward which one works that gives one's life significance in relation to nature and the human community. Living in hope means that one has a sense of belonging, purpose, faith in one's ideals, and unification. When I say that Dewey focuses more on helping us live in hope than on helping us achieve particular hopes, I do not mean that he denies the importance of realizing particular goals as we pursue our ultimate hope. Nor does he deny the energy generated by particular achievements. In fact, as students of Dewey's work know, he devotes considerable attention to systematizing the sort of effective problem solving that helps us achieve particular goals (LW 8:105-352). However, Dewey-unlike C. R. Snyder, the psychologist of hope with whom I compare him in Chapter 4-puts more emphasis on ultimate hope and living in hope than on particular goals because he understands that people can achieve many particular hopes and still feel that their lives do not add up to much. Conversely, people can fail at numerous specific goals and still live in hope if they are working toward their ultimate goals, engaging, that is, in activities that make them feel that life is significant and purposeful.
I use the phrase "living in hope" to describe Dewey's focus despite its religious overtones. Whereas "living in hope" usually suggests that one's life is undergirded by an expectation of eternal existence in an otherworldly heaven, Dewey's idea of living in hope is that one's life is undergirded by faith in an ultimate hope for this-worldly social reform. Devotion to an ultimate hope of this latter sort, according to Dewey, can give one the sense of belonging, purpose, and unification that belief in God provides for many others.
In what follows, as I construct a theory of hope for Dewey, I focus on the conditions that he believes promote living in hope. The three that stand out for me, ones I call Dewey's keys to living in hope, are gratitude, intelligent wholeheartedness, and enriched present experience. As the reader will note in my discussion of these keys, Dewey directs his comments to people who are tempted by despair. This is not surprising given that he is sensitive to the fact that life is dogged by failure and disappointment. It is also not surprising given his awareness that those who work toward achieving his sort of ultimate hope-earthly reform-find that their accomplishments are largely outside their control. In thus addressing people who have faced up to life's limitations, Dewey joins philosophers like Marcel and Freire who believe that to truly live in hope is to have experienced despair and found the wherewithal to overcome it.
Three Keys to Deweyan Hope: Gratitude, Intelligent Wholeheartedness, and Enriched Present Experience
KEY #1 TO LIVING IN HOPE: GRATITUDE AS A SOURCE OF BELONGING AND PURPOSE
Dewey's first key to living in hope is gratitude toward our ancestors and toward nature. This gratitude not only gives us a sense of belonging in the world; it also provides us with purpose: to preserve and enhance the goods we have inherited from our predecessors and nature. These feelings of belonging and purposefulness are important for everyone but especially for those who have social reform as their ultimate hope, people who, as I have said, may despair about their limited ability to make progress toward their ultimate goal. Dewey explains the importance of gratitude in the following quote:
There is sound sense in the old pagan notion that gratitude is the root of all virtue. Loyalty to whatever in the established environment makes a life of excellence possible is the beginning of all progress. The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live. (MW 14:19)
It is not for our existence that Dewey wants us to be grateful but, rather, for what is excellent in our existence. He wants us to recognize the sacrifices that our predecessors have made to bring about the goods that are available to us, and he wants us to honor an implicit contract with these predecessors to maintain and further these goods. In addition, Dewey believes that just as we are linked to a long chain of predecessors, so we are connected to a long line of successors. That is, the implicit contract to preserve and extend what is excellent is not only with those who preceded us but also with those who follow us. Thus, he wants us to recognize the infinite implications and, thereby, the gravity and importance of everything we do. Although our lives and actions are "flickering" (MW 14:227), they have consequences beyond anything we can fully imagine or know. He writes,
In a genuine sense every act is already possessed of infinite import. The little part of the scheme of affairs which is modifiable by our efforts is continuous with the rest of the world. The boundaries of our garden plot join it to the world of our neighbors and our neighbors' neighbors. That small effort which we can put forth is in turn connected with an infinity of events that sustain and support it.... When a sense of the infinite reach of an act physically occurring in a small point of space and occupying a petty instant of time comes home to us, the meaning of a present act is seen to be vast, immeasurable, unthinkable. (MW 14:180)
The gratitude that Dewey speaks of toward the past and the responsibility it implies to the future involve the acceptance of an obligation that no one demands of us but that he believes we should freely, and joyfully, accept. This focus on gratitude is one of Dewey's most powerful attempts to counteract the frequent sense that human life is absurd in a world that so often defeats us and in which our own death and the deaths of our loved ones are inevitable. Gratitude to our ancestors and responsibilities to our progeny, he believes, can provide the willpower to go on, the sense of belonging and purpose that often leave us in the presence of grinding poverty, injustice, and mortality.
Another way to understand Dewey's conception of gratitude is that it is a reflection of his deep piety toward nature, including our ancestors and progeny. In effect, Dewey's first key to living in hope urges revision of the worldview of those of us who might see our efforts to achieve our ultimate hope for earthly reform as futile. Instead of viewing ourselves as alone in an indifferent universe, he would ask us to see ourselves and our ultimate hope as part of nature. Dewey acknowledges that when our plans are foiled, we are tempted to feel alienated from nature and to "hug our ideals" to our bosom as if our ideals were strangers in the world (LW 1:313). However, Dewey reminds us that, no matter how frustrated we are, our ultimate hope is also part of the world. Both we and our aspirations are the result of an evolutionary chain that goes far back into nature. We are links, as he says, in a long human line, a line toward which we should feel reverence and piety. No matter how much our lives are uniquely our own, we remain fundamentally interconnected with others. Just as Buddhists see the sun and rain and earth in the oranges they peel, Dewey wants us to see the Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and immigrant grandmother in ourselves and others. When we succeed, we have taken the first step toward living in hope. We have taken the first step toward developing gratitude and the motivation to pass on to future generations in better and more accessible form what we find excellent in our culture.
I thus see gratitude as the social gospel side of the theory of hope that I construct for Dewey, and this social gospel side can be heard in several moving passages in his work. It is the refrain with which he ends both the first chapter of Human Nature and Conduct and the final chapter of A Common Faith (MW 14:20; LW 9:58). It can also be heard in the words that, fittingly, appear on the stone that marks Dewey's grave site at the University of Vermont. I quote from the ending paragraph of A Common Faith:
The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race. Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind. It remains to make it explicit and militant.
In sum, Dewey's feelings of deep connection and gratitude to nature and the human community-his natural and social piety-suggest that, as links in a long evolutionary chain, the decision we make about whether to abandon or maintain ultimate hope is not fully our own. It also belongs to a long line of human and animal life stretching into the infinite past and an indefinite future. To decide to cease our efforts to ameliorate our social problems is, then, to betray nature and those who have given us the luxury and responsibility of this decision.
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