Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dewey, Whitman and Hegel by Richard Rorty

John Dewey read a lot of Hegel when he was young. He used Hegel to purge himself first of Kant, and later of orthodox Christianity. Walt Whitman seems to have read only as much of Hegel as was translated by Frederic Hedge in his 1847 book German Prose Writers – mainly the introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History - as well as an intelligent five-page summary of Hegel’s system by Joseph Gostick. But what he did read was enough to make him exclaim with delight: “ Only Hegel is fit for America – is large enough and free enough.” “I rate Hegel”, he goes on to say, “as Humanity’s chiefest teacher and the choicest loved physician of my mind and soul.”( Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Collected Writings, Volume 6, pages 2007-2012).

Hegel’s philosophy of history legitimized and underwrote Whitman’s hope to substitute his own nation-state for the Kingdom of God. For Hegel told a story about history as the growth of freedom, the gradual dawning of the idea that human beings are on their own, because there is nothing more to God than his march through the world- nothing more to the divine than the history of the human adventure. In a famous passage, Hegel pointed across the Atlantic to a place where as yet unimagined wonders might be worked: “America is the country of the future…the land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe.”

Whitman probably never encountered this passage, but he knew in his bones that Hegel should have written that sentence. It was obvious to him that Hegel had written a prelude to the American saga. Hegel’s works, Whitman said, might “not inappropriately be this day collected and bound up under the conspicuous title: Speculations for the use of North America, and Democracy there.” ( in “Carlyle from America points of View’). This is because Hegel thinks God remains incomplete until he enters time – until, in Christian terminology, he becomes incarnate and suffers on the Cross. Hegel uses the doctrine of Incarnation to turn Greek metaphysics on its head, and to argue that without God the Son, God the Father would retain a mere potentiality, a mere Idea. Without time and suffering, God is, in Hegel’s terms, a “mere abstraction.” Hegel verges on saying something Whitman did actually say: “The whole theory of the special and supernatural and all that was twined with it or educed out of it departs as a dream…It is not consistent with the reality of the soul to admit that there is anything in the universe more divine then men and women.” (Leaves of Grass, page 16)

Whitman, like most American thinkers in the 19th century, believed that the Golgotha of the Spirit was in the past, and that the American Declaration of Independence had been an Easter dawn. Because the United States is the first country founded in the hope of a new kind of human fraternity, it would be the place where the promise of the ages would first be realized. Americans would form the vanguard of human history, because, as Whitman says, “the Americans of all nations at any time on earth have probably the fullest poetic nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” (Ibid., page 5) They are also the fulfillment of the human past. “The blossoms we wear in our hats are the growth of two thousand years.” (Ibid.,page 71).

Neither Dewey nor Whitman, however, was committed to the view that things would inevitably go well for America, that the American experiment in self-creation would succeed. The price of temporalization is contingency. Because they rejected any idea of Divine Providence and any idea of immanent teleology, Dewey and Whitman had to grant that the vanguard of humanity may lose its way, and perhaps lead our species over a cliff. As Whitman put it, “The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.” (Democratic Vistas, page 930) Whereas Marx and Spencer claimed to know what was bound to happen, Whitman and Dewey denied such knowledge in order to make room for pure, joyous hope.

The trouble with Europe, Whitman and Dewey thought, was that it tried too hard for knowledge: it tried to find an answer to the question of what human beings should be like. It hoped to get authoritative guidance for human conduct. One of the first Europeans to suggest abandoning that hope was Wilhelm von Humboldt, a founder of ethnography and a philosopher who greatly influenced Hegel. In a passage which Mill used as the epigraph for his On Liberty, von Humboldt wrote that the point of social organization is to make evident “the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” Whitman picked up this particular ball from Mill and cited On Liberty in the first paragraph of his Democratic Vistas. There Whitman says that Mill demands “two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality – 1st, a large variety of character – and 2nd, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” (Ibid. p. 929)

Mill and Humboldt’s ‘Richest diversity” and Whitman’s full play are ways of saying that no past human achievement, not Plato’s or even Christ’s, can tell us about the ultimate significance of human life. No such achievement can give us a template on which to model our future. The future will widen endlessly. Experiments with new forms of individual and social life will interact and reinforce one another. Individual life will become unthinkably diverse and social life unthinkably free. The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instructions about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to maker ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.

This romance of endless diversity should not, however, be confused with what nowadays is called “multiculturalism”. The latter term suggests a morality of live-and-let-live, a politics of side-by-side development in which members of distinct cultures preserve and protect their own culture against the incursions of other cultures. Whitman, like Hegel, had no interest in preservation and protection. He wanted competition and argument between alternative forms of human life – a poetic argon, in which jarring dialectical discords would be resolved into previously unheard harmonies. The Hegelian idea of “progressive evolution” which was the 19th century’s greatest contribution to political and social thought, is that everybody gets played off against everybody else. This should occur nonviolently if possible, but violently if necessary, as was in fact necessary in America in 1861. The Hegelian hope is that the result of such struggles will be a new culture, better than any of those of which it is the synthesis. This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity – it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.

There is, I think, little difference in doctrine between Dewey and Whitman. But there is an obvious difference in emphasis: the difference between talking about love and talking mostly about citizenship. Whitman’s image of democracy was of lovers embracing. Dewey’s was of a town meeting. Dewey dwelt on the need to create what the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has called decent society, defined as one in which institutions do not humiliate. Whitman’s hopes were centered on the creation of what Margalit calls, by way of contrast, a civilized society, defined as one in which individuals do not humiliate each other – in which tolerance for other people’s fantasies and choices is instinctive and habitual. Dewey’s principle target was institutionalized selfishness whereas Whitman’s was the socially acceptable sadism which is a consequence of sexual repression, and of the inability to love…

American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey; Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America; Harvard University Press, 1998 .


  1. [The dialectic of decent/civilized society is apparent in the general acceptance or at least de-criminalization of same-sex love in America, whereas its institutionalization in marriage is a matter of intense political division. By the same token, the rock-and-roll , drugs culture which emerged in the 1960s, which Dewey might have approved only in a guarded and deliberate way but into which Whitman would have thrown himself whole-heartedly, though subject to the most intense sorts of commercial activity, co-exists, none-the-less, with a forty-year, largely futile, institutionalized “War on Drugs”. Surprisingly, Rorty notes, Dewey disliked and distrusted Franklin D. Roosevelt, but many of the philosopher’s came into their own in the New Deal. Never-the-less, nowadays those ideas are being severely challenged, especially by the believers in “American teleology” and “Divine Favor”, those who want to preserve and protect rather than weave ‘a new tapestry’’ without obstructions from the past.

  2. For Rorty’s thoughts on just how things might go try “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096” e.g. “Our Nations leaders, in the last decade of the old century and the first of the new, seemed never to have thought that it might be dangerous to make automatic weapons freely and cheaply available to desperate men and women- people without hope- living next to the centers of transportation and communication..”

    “ Perhaps no American writer will ever again begin a book by saying “The faith of Americans in their own country is religious, if not in its intensity, at any rate in its almost absolute and universal authority.” But our chastened mood, our lately learned humility, may have made us better able to realize that everything depends on keeping our fragile (utopian) sense of American fraternity intact.”