DEMOCRACY AND IMAGINATION: THE PRACTICAL IDEALISM OF JOHN DEWEY

CONCLUSION: DEMOCRACY AND PHILOSOPHY

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Without communication, there is no community and no meaning-horizon. And, since the existence of a meaning-horizon is essential for reflection and the projection of ends and ideals, free and open communication is a necessary condition for thinking for oneself and framing one's own purposes and ideals. Outward or public deliberation enriches the meaning context that individuals bring to bear in their "inner" or personal deliberations and choices. Thus, the end of this account returns to its beginning. Working together in speech and deed (fraternity) is essential for the development of individual imagination. But it "cuts" both ways. The development of individual imagination and reflection is essential for the "give and take" of communication to be mutually beneficial and not one-sided. In general, democracy in fact(1) (which includes development of distinctive individuality and a spirit of social cooperation) is the precondition for the projection of democracy or any other ideal. Thus, the presence of social and psychological conditions which are at least partially democratic is crucial for intelligence, practical imagination, and purposeful action to flourish.

2. The democratic ideal gives continuity and direction to individual acts and ends. Acts carried out in the light of the democratic ideal suggest a possible whole (ideal) or community, wherein human beings think for themselves and work together, and develop their distinctive centers by reaching out in unifying speech and deeds. The imaginative vision of democracy is a vision of individuals addressing one another as equals and growing from the give and take of diverse views and experiences. This vision is the extended meaning of every deed and dialogue which is intentionally democratic. Individuals who think and act democratically (who espouse a democratic way of life) sense they are on the right track, that democratic methods release opportunities and make room for imagination to operate and for individuals to grow. In sum, each movement in the direction of more democracy expands and extends and lights up the horizon of possibilities which give meaning and consolation to everyday activities and which constitute the breathing-room of sustained hope and intelligent planning. The development of imaginative vision goes hand-in-hand with the development of democratic conditions of free inquiry (freedom of thought) and free speech (communication).

3. Imaginative vision of new possibilities (practical idealism) is essential for life (growth). This does not mean that possibilities are "higher" than actualities or that thinking is "more important" than knowledge. For practical idealism, thinking (which looks forward to possible experience) and knowledge (which looks backward to past experience) are interdependent phases of intelligence.(2) Nevertheless, practical idealism, which prefers to cast its lot with the future rather than the past, with the untried rather than the established, with the adventurous rather than the "conservative," assigns special value to possibility. The basic questions are: What may we hope, and what can we do to realize this hope? These questions establish intelligence and philosophy on a new footing, that of "a practical idealism." Not contemplation of the past nor contemplation of a future as if it were only a new version of the past, but reading a variety of alternative possibilities out of a living and moving present, is the issue. For philosophy, meaning is more important than truth. The province of philosophy is that of criticism and reconstruction of beliefs in possibilities. Where do these beliefs come from (conditions) and what do they lead to (consequences)? Philosophy does not create beliefs; people do. According to Dewey, to believe is to hold dear. But the beliefs created or adopted by people and held dear need to be evaluated on the basis of their whence and their whither. This examination leads to a reconstruction of beliefs.

4. Philosophy, then, means continual revision of imaginative vision.(3) This re-creative evaluation can be illuminated by the democratic ideal (itself subject to reconstruction and reevaluation). In the light of this ideal, one may ask of each belief: Is it consistent or inconsistent with the democratic ideal? Does this belief open things up or close them down? Does it multiply possibilities or narrow them? Does it divide individuals into inferior or superior (hierarchical view), or does it take all individuals equally seriously? Does it rely upon and promote individual freedom of thought and action, or does it resort to reliance upon authority(4) and use of force? Does it encourage free play of ideas, or does it call for obedience to a fixed set of principles? Finally, one may ask: Is it a closed and exclusive system, or is it an open and inclusive method? In the light of a constantly evolving democratic ideal, many more questions may be asked; but the overall line of questioning will be guided by an experimental spirit which inclines toward expansion rather than contraction, inclusion rather than exclusion, openness to possibility rather than reliance upon fixed actuality. In sum, what Dewey calls for is a truly democratic philosophy, imbued with the democratic spirit and guided by democratic ideals.

5. According to Dewey, on the negative side, philosophy will have to refrain from system-building and turn from preoccupation with "ultimate reality." Furthermore, philosophy must turn from hierarchical and dogmatic approaches. It must be less concerned with the "gradation" of beings and ends and more inclined to appreciate and understand things for what they are and for what they can be.

6. The liberation of philosophy from such traditional concerns -- the democratization of philosophy -- makes room for positive freedom of thought, the emancipation of philosophical imagination. Philosophy means, above all else, freedom of thought and free play of ideas. This free play, this thinking for the sake of thinking, is necessary for life. Thinking for the sake of thinking is "practical." It opens the mind, stretches the horizon of possibilities, and creates new meanings. It makes possible the projection of new ends and ideals. Dewey criticizes a preoccupation with facts, divorced from ideas. What is needed in philosophy, as well as in American culture, is imagination (of ideas as possibilities) which enhances and enriches experience.(5)

7. It is the interaction of imaginative thought and honest handling of facts which counts. As ideas and ideals must interact with realities and not merely coexist with them, so philosophy must grow out of and return to its local environment, its culture. This means that philosophy in America ought to engage in lively reflection and discussion which focuses upon America as it is and as it might be, as well as the means of embodying that dream. Genuinely American philosophy would articulate the aims and methods of the democratic ideal, as projected on the basis of actual psychological, economic, and social conditions. Once again, this would mean the criticism and revision of existing beliefs (moral and social ideals), in the context of imaginative vision, as well as facts. As activity needs imaginative vision or a sense of a possible whole, so culture needs philosophy. The cooperation and cross-fertilization of facts and ideals, the wedding of imaginative vision and everyday action, is the essence of practical idealism. It is "practical" only insofar as it is "realistic." What is needed is to make sure that enthusiastic faith in experience and its possibilities arises from and returns to the infinitely significant and suggestive facts of everyday existence.

Notes:

1. Democracy in fact or actual democracy is always partial and incomplete. Partial democracy points to or suggests the ideal of complete or full democracy.

2. For Dewey, the relative stability afforded by long-standing and well-established (tested) principles is a condition for the projection of new hypotheses and beliefs. At the same time, the reconstruction of present experience requires thinking alternatives. For Dewey, the relatively stable provides a ground for imaginative thought, at the same time as imaginative thought ensures that the relatively stable does not become fixed and rigid.

3. "Let me repeat once more that a man's vision is the great fact about him." William James, Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), p. 20.

4. For Dewey, only experience is authoritative.

5. As opposed to imagination divorced from experience and perhaps coexisting with preoccupation with facts.


Direct inquiries and comments to:

Copyright © 1992 -1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.