“Caught in Its Movement”: Liberalism, Critique, and Dewey’s Implicit Philosophy of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Elizabeth Portella University of Oregon

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“Philosophers,” Dewey writes, “are parts of history, caught in its movement; creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past” (Dewey 1927, 2). The question of the philosopher’s embeddedness in either her own or some earlier historical moment constitutes an important theme in Dewey’s account of pragmatism, in particular his account of politics. In lieu of a formal treatise on history, this paper focuses on Dewey’s claims about history as they are enacted in his political analyses. Drawing on texts such as Liberalism and Social Action (1935) and Freedom and Culture (1939) as well “The Role of Philosophy in the History of Civilization” (1927), I hope to elucidate in greater depth the function and meaning of the term “historic relativity” as a central concept in Dewey’s philosophy of history (Dewey 1935, 42). Further, I evaluate Dewey’s criticisms of both classical liberalism and Marxism on historical grounds, where he employs what I call political obsolescence claims. From these texts I reconstruct and critically assess what I refer to as Dewey’s implicit philosophy of history. I conclude that the presuppositions of Dewey’s political reconstruction represent the very mode of uncritical historical reproduction which his philosophy ostensibly cautions against. To suggest one possibility for addressing these tensions, I gesture toward non-coincidence as a critical historical category through which we might articulate the historic present with the hope of transforming it.

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