Reconstructing the Republic: Dewey's back to Plato movement.
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Spencer, Albert R.
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In his brief intellectual autobiography “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” John Dewey makes a perplexing statement. After an extended discussion of the teachers that directly shaped his view of philosophy, Dewey cites his two philosophical heroes. First, he mentions Hegel and comments on how his “astute critics” have noticed the “permanent deposit” of the German philosopher in Dewey’s own philosophy (LW.5.154). Second, he states that only Plato surpasses the “richness” and “variety of insight” found in Hegel. He continues, saying “Nothing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a “Back to Plato” movement” (LW.5.154). This proclamation is troublesome because of the factors that place Dewey and Plato in philosophical opposition. Metaphysically, Dewey investigates the live creature’s transaction with its organic environment, whereas Plato searches for forms that lie beyond perception and opinion. Epistemologically, Dewey defines truth as “what works,” whereas Plato sees truth as the forms that allow humans to distinguish knowledge from opinion. Finally and perhaps most significantly, the two appear to be politically opposed given Dewey’s unconditional commitment to Democracy, whereas Plato defines Democracy as a form of government “in need of a dictatorship” (Republic VIII 562c). Yet, despite these differences, Dewey sees Plato as having something valuable, perhaps crucial, to offer the pragmatist tradition. This dissertation investigates Dewey’s reading of Plato for the purpose of establishing a more pragmatist-friendly interpretation of the dialogues. My hypothesis is that when we attend “to the dramatic, restless, cooperatively inquiring Plato of the Dialogues, trying one mode of attack after another to see what it might yield; back to the Plato whose highest flight of metaphysics always terminated with a social and practical turn” as advocated by Dewey, we see the character of Socrates and by extension Plato engaged in a pedagogical process with his interlocutors similar to the project of social reconstruction outlined by Dewey. This process of reconstruction is most evident in the Republic, where Plato dramatizes Socrates’ attempt to turn his young and aristocratic Athenian interlocutors’ world view away from the martial values of Homer and toward the reflective values of philosophy.