Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

What John Dewey Learned

A Contemporary Reflection on Intellectual Responsibility

Jeffrey C. Isaac

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I (1917). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Education is not a part of life. Education is life itself.—John Dewey

The “responsibility of intellectuals” is a well-worn topic. While this particular locution is typically traced back to Julien Benda’s Trahison des Clercs, and to the debates surrounding the Dreyfus Affair in France, the problem itself is at least as old as the origins of Western philosophy. Since Plato’s Republic, philosophers, writers, social critics—intellectuals before the invention of the term “intellectual”—have commented on the role of reason in human affairs and on the role of intellectuals—of themselves—as the avowed bearers of such reason. These inquiries have always had a strong epistemological dimension, considering not simply what we know but how we know what we claim to know (and what we claim others do not yet know because we have not yet spoken).

They have also contained a strong moral dimension. How should the intellectual address his audience? What is the right way to articulate one’s “truths”? How can we avoid “sophistry,” the vice—or Nietzschean virtu—of manipulating, abusing, and otherwise using one’s plebian audience? There have been “conservative” and “radical” variations on this theme, and variations not well captured by such labels, but the theme itself has been ever-present, even among those self-styled populists for whom “intellectual” is a term of abuse, and “intellectuals” a source of disruptive scheming (think Aristophanes’s classic The Clouds, or Bill Bennett’s The Death of Outrage). The topic thus seems unavoidable. Indeed, as people of “the word” and bearers of “critical reason,” intellectuals are not simply a talkative bunch but a distinctly reflexive and self-reflexive one. This reflexivity has always been the hallmark of the intellectual, a source of liberatory possibility and of danger. The trick is to think these two sides of the coin together. And this has proven difficult, especially among intellectuals. For there is a strong tendency among those committed to speaking the truth, or at least upending the false, to think in binary terms. Indeed, even the most subtle and nuanced recent discussions of “intellectual responsibility” and “intellectual engagement,” put forward by commentators sensitive to the hubris of modern intellectuals and to the dangers of Manichean thinking, have tended to cast the problem thus: how does one distinguish the “responsible intellectual” from the “irresponsible intellectual,” and how does one distinguish responsibility from irresponsibility? In thinking thus, commentators have tended to associate “intellectual responsibility” with thinking, judging, and speaking properly as opposed to improperly. The “responsible intellectual” is one who has somehow assumed a standpoint from which to reflect and comment upon the world in “the right way.” The responsible intellectual is exemplary precisely by virtue of the way he or she is able to avoid mistakes, to be properly critical (or not), to stand in the proper relationship to power, to enhance public understanding.

Thinking in this way, we all have our heroes. For some Jean-Paul Sartre is exemplary for being the “hated conscience” of his century, and for some Albert Camus is exemplary for being a more moderate and “connected” critic. For some Edward Said is exemplary for the courage of his “post-colonial” convictions and his willingness to “speak truth to power,” and for some Kenan Makiya is exemplary for his liberal refusal of Said’s binaries and his disparagement of “post-colonial” shibboleths. We may have different exemplars of intellectual responsibility, but we tend to share the notion that responsibility and irresponsibility are dichotomous and that intellectuals fall on one side or the other of this binary.

There is something strange about this, for if intellectuals are distinguished by anything, it is presumably their disposition to think and to communicate. And it would not seem unreasonable to imagine that all of those inclined to think and to communicate publicly their thoughtfulness would have two characteristics that would sit uneasily with the dichotomy noted above. The first characteristic is the disposition to make mistakes. In trying to understand the world, as in all things, the only surefire way to avoid mistakes is to abstain from trying. Since intellectuals are human beings distinguished by their effort to understand and to communicate their understandings, and since to be human is to err, it would thus be quite strange if any intellectuals could be neatly and simply classified on either side of the responsibility/irresponsibility divide.

The second characteristic is the disposition to engage in vigorous debate, in ways that are likely to expose the vulnerabilities in the positions of one’s opponents, but also the frailties of one’s own positions. Here, too, it would seem that to be an intellectual is to enter some pretty risky terrain, on which it would seem well nigh impossible to avoid tripping and being tripped up in turn. At the risk of slightly mixing metaphors, perhaps this is what Albert Camus meant when he declared that all of his heroes had feet of clay—that no one is so surefooted that they can avoid failure at least some of the time.

An old sports adage shared with me by my father avers that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Perhaps this bit of practical wisdom is relevant to the topic at hand. In what follows, I will suggest that more interesting than the question of whether or not intellectuals “get it right,” find the “right way” or responsible way, or enact the role of bearer of reason, is the question of how intellectuals play a game in which mistakes are inevitable. The game is public discourse itself. It is a risky game, and a consequential one. I want to suggest that there is no single way to be “responsible,” and that the aspiration to “do the right thing” often produces unintended consequences. What is most interesting, and exemplary, under such circumstances, is how one deals with these unexpected results, which are often mistakes. Instead of a “profile in intellectual courage,” then, I am interested in profiling error. More precisely, I am interested in those intellectuals who can be viewed as exemplary by virtue of the way they acknowledged, and took responsibility for, their errors.

John Dewey is by no means the only exemplar of this. Nor is he a “perfect” exemplar of it (indeed, “perfection” is not possible in this domain). But he is a particularly interesting example. In part, this is because he was a philosopher of pragmatism, an intellectual deeply interested in questions of epistemology and in public engagement, one who defended an “instrumentalist” account of all ideas and believed that all understandings are hypothetical and revisable in the light of experience. He believed, in short, that life is educative—as the epigraph that begins this essay suggests. But he is also interesting because of how he himself enacted this understanding, in processing an experience that was a learning one for him and for his generation—the experience of the First World War.

What John Dewey learned from his experience of the war was that it eluded his original understandings and intentions, and that he had been mistaken about it. The way that he discovered, and articulated, this learning process is of enduring value, especially in our own time, a time of a “war on terror” that has gotten wildly out of hand, in ways that call for a similar kind of searching self-critique on the part of many liberal intellectuals. In what follows, I will explain what John Dewey learned and then comment on what I think we can learn from what he learned. In short, I will argue that contemporary liberals can take a lesson from the way Dewey commented publicly on the war, and especially from the way he publicly articulated his own earlier failures of judgment. Having developed this point, I will go on to suggest that to the extent that “liberal hawks” have done similarly regarding their own early support for the Iraq invasion, this is a good thing, in spite of the resentful way that many have condemned them for their volte face. More generally, what is most needed now is a willingness to “face facts” and recognize mistakes, to own these mistakes and to set about remedying them.

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