Front Page Titles (by Subject) Dewey, Pragmatism, and War - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2
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Dewey, Pragmatism, and War - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Dewey, Pragmatism, and War
“John Dewey in Peace and War.” The American Scholar 50 (Spring 1981): 217–236.
Does Pragmatism work? Many scholars remained convinced that the rise of pragmatism not only liberated progressive thought from the deductive chains of nineteenth-century conservative ideology, but even resolved the crisis of authority that confronted an American mind coming to terms with twentieth-century modernity. Man thinking became man doing, and the challenge was not so much to contemplate life as to “experience” it. But, can pragmatism help resolve the crisis of authority in history by providing authoritative knowledge about history? In this connection how did John Dewey, the leading exponent of pragmatism in the twentieth century, respond to historical events and interpret the meaning and direction of history itself.
The outbreak of World War I confronted Dewey's pragmatism with one of its greatest challenges, as he always held up rational intelligence as the tool for settling disputes. However, Dewey came out in support of America's entry into the war and justified his new position with a well-developed rationale. He was convinced that America's entry into the war could not be resisted, thus Dewey argues that the war would compell the intellectual to reconsider the “intelligent use of force” in international affairs. Dewey justified America's entry by trying to show the compatibility of pragmatism and war, an effort that led him to distinguish force from violence, contending that force need not always be evil but sometimes has attributes of energy and power which lead to positive results.
The dilemma that Dewey courageously faced actually confronted the most sensitive minds of the entire World War I generation, in Europe as well as America: the “horror” of unexplained events. To overcome this sense of intellectual helplessness, Dewey advised the troubled liberal to “connect conscience” with the “forces” that were violating it. If the purpose of authority is to get itself obeyed, Dewey wanted to get intellectuals to obey the processes of history, “the moving forces of events.” In doing so, Dewey was assuming that one can control history by becoming its agent. This assumption would render individual judgment indistinguishable from the forces that are shaping it by counseling subjective obedience to objective events. Legitimate authority would thus become external to its subjects, while political consciousness, the ability to reflect on power, would be lost to the forces of history.
Here is where the fundamental paradox lies in the basis of Dewey's attitude toward history. Although he looked to human experience as the test of truth, historical experience could never be the source of history. The purpose of history is considered to be the discovery of the great moral lessons of the past that we should know in order to obey, yet this could hardly be endorsed by Dewey who saw historical reality as an indeterminate series of unique events from which no clear lessons could be drawn. Dewey was deeply convinced that the past, simply as past, is wholly unknowable and devoid of any antecedent reality; thus, if the past cannot authorize the present, why are we obligated to return to it? Only the future can verify our ideas about the past. Dewey always believed that the democratic spirit animating empirical method would provide a new basis for authority, a systematic means by which disputes could be settled without resorting to arbitrary, dogmatic authority, on the one hand, or force and violence on the other. In 1917, Dewey believed that democracy would be expanded by aligning itself with the forces of history.
However, the outbreak of World War II brought a theoretical impasse in the philosophical position of Dewey regarding politics and world affairs. By 1939, he argued that to resist force with force was to become the captive of the very thing America was fighting—the ideologies of a corrupt and corrupting continent. The lessons of World War I, the Versailles settlement and demands for its revision, and the “Red Scare” of 1919 taught Dewey that American democracy would collapse under the strain of another international war. This conviction reoriented Dewey's entire perspective on events and rendered pragmatism an unworkable tool of historical analysis. For history now emerged in Dewey's mind as something to be feared rather than mastered, a specter from the past endowed with a curious repetitive power that seemingly could be grasped by reason rather than by experiment. Dewey had spent almost his entire intellectual career advising Americans on how to use history to solve problems, insisting that we study the past in light of the present. Now he was approaching the present in light of the past, allowing the experience of World War I to shape his outlook toward World War II. Dewey symbolizes a mind divided against itself, the existential man who, as Kierkegaard might put it, desires to live forward and is condemned to think backward. Dewey ended his career a prisoner of the past, haunted by a memory that now came close to constituting the very seat of authority. The irony of pragmatism, Diggins concludes, is that because it is unable to certify as truthful that which we need to know before we act, the philosophy cannot provide knowledge precisely when it is most valuable. As Hobbes's observation wryly states “truth is hell seen too late.”