Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.35

Christopher C. Kirby (ed.), Dewey and the Ancients: Essays on Hellenic and Hellenistic Themes in the Philosophy of John Dewey. Bloomsbury studies in American philosophy.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.  Pp. xxiv, 208.  ISBN 9781472510556.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Andree Hahmann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (


John Dewey was hailed as the last of the Greek philosophers by some of his contemporaries because he was thought to philosophize in the ancient Greek manner. It is therefore remarkable that Dewey’s relationship to ancient philosophy has received so little attention until now. The present volume is intended to fill this gap. Dewey’s overall pragmatist project exhibits striking similarities with ancient philosophy in epistemology, ethics, ontology, politics and pedagogy. Most of these topics are addressed in the contributions to the present volume, which is organized by the different ancient philosophers Dewey addresses.

The first section provides a general assessment of Dewey’s relationship to ancient philosophy. Anton points to Dewey’s educational interests and shows how these are related to his understanding of ancient philosophy. Alexander then introduces two further key subjects of Dewey’s thought, potentiality and naturalism, and he relates both of them to Dewey’s critical discussion of Aristotelian philosophy. Kirby concludes this section by focussing on Dewey’s conception of inquiry and highlights its relationship to ancient organicist ideas. Taken together, these three papers set the stage for most of the following contributions. The succeeding sections explore these subjects with respect to particular ancient philosophers, most importantly, Plato and Aristotle.

The second section attempts to outline the motives and attitudes which Dewey shared with Plato, and to make them comprehensible in light of key concerns of Dewey’s thought. In this vein, Karavakou concentrates on educational goals common to Plato and Dewey. Besides some significant similarities, there are, however, crucial differences that Karavakou partly derives from a modern conception of subjectivity on which Dewey fundamentally relies, and which he further advances in a pragmatist vein. Spencer than turns to Plato. He argues that Plato should be taken as a moral artist and that Plato meets the criteria of Dewey’s four modes of dramatic rehearsal. Bishop, who furnishes us with the last paper of this section, concentrates on a specific Platonic image, the city of pigs that is to be found in the Republic, and compares it with Dewey’s idea of the great community.

The third section is devoted to Dewey and Aristotle ⎯ a fairly problematic relationship. For Dewey argues against Aristotle in several of his writings. Particularly important is his charge of what he calls the ‘spectator view of knowledge’. Decker focuses on this accusation, and he argues that Dewey in fact misinterprets Aristotle. According to Decker, the misinterpretation is mainly grounded in Dewey’s Hegelian heritage. Keith, in the next contribution, focuses on contemporary ethics and highlights the on-going relevance of Dewey’s and Aristotle’s conceptions of habit by outlining the effects of habit on moral behaviour. Lamons concludes the section by arguing that Aristotle’s account of passion allows for a deeper understanding of human nature and could thus enrich Dewey’s conception of the human self- correction, which is essential for Dewey’s overall educational project.

The fourth and final section examines Dewey’s relationship to Hellenistic philosophy. Hobbs deals with Epicurean elements in Dewey’s ethics, while Amnott considers the alleged similarities between Dewey and Pyrrhonian skepticism. Amnott argues that these similarities are only superficial and that there are actually substantial differences, since for Dewey philosophic inquiry is not meant to end in a suspension of judgement. In this last section, which is surprisingly brief, unfortunately nothing is said about Dewey’s relationship to Stoic philosophy.1 I have already pointed to the importance of ancient philosophy for some of Dewey’s key conceptions and ends, such as his educational project, the pragmatic reading of potentiality and actuality, and ancient organicism and its relation to Dewey’s naturalism. In fact these issues surface in most of the papers presented here, and they have also been addressed by Anton’s ground-breaking essay, which is concerned with what he calls “Dewey’s unfinished cultural project”. Philosophy plays a crucial role in this project, since it is philosophy’s task to diagnose problems and discrepancies in the prevailing cultural ethos. In this on-going process, the philosopher, as the bearer of this reflection, takes on a leading role. Dewey, however, opposes the alleged Aristotelian idea of static final ends so that, at least at first sight, Aristotle is the chief opponent of Dewey’s pragmatist project of the formation of cultural habits (10). However, as Anton argues, Dewey actually merely extends Aristotle’s position by shifting emphasis onto the activity of the philosopher, who is taken to be a skilful articulator of theoretical outlooks. Accordingly, philosophy becomes a criticism of criticism and thus plays an integrating role in human society. It is in this light that one must appreciate the similarities Dewey’s approach shares with his ancient predecessors, and this is what he himself sees in ancient philosophy. This is why Dewey took Platonism to be a method and not a specific and finished outcome. But even though he adopted or better rearranged some of Plato’s ideas, such as his organicist understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state, Dewey did not ignore modern insights, most importantly Hegel’s conception of subjectivity, which forms for Dewey one of the pillars of democratic society.

As Alexander argues, it was Aristotle’s conception of potentiality “that opened for Dewey the possibility of a non-reductive naturalism and set him on the way to developing his own ‘cultural naturalism’” (19). For Aristotelian potentiality initiates the transition of Dewey’s thought from Hegelian idealism to new Metaphysics. Despite Dewey’s sharp critique of what he conceived of as Aristotelianism, notably a system of hierarchical causes and fixed ends, he nevertheless stresses that modern philosophy was wrong in rejecting Aristotle’s thought altogether. From this insight then emerges a general criticism of western philosophy. For Dewey, the worst of Plato and Aristotle was kept, while the best was lost. The crucial flaw in the history of philosophy was to identify reality with the object of knowledge. Dewey instead opened up a way of understanding modes of experience other than as providing a way into reality, for experience means interaction with the world. Embarking on the path revealed by this understanding, Dewey advanced a conception of reality based upon human praxis and deliberative and constructive action. This conception opposes the traditional theory of knowledge that presupposes a static universe that could account for a perfect object of theoria. For Dewey, the best that philosophy can, therefore, provide is an on-going process of reflecting, revising and criticizing, i.e. the pragmatist conception of knowledge as inquiry. Kirby then shows in his essay how this conception of inquiry relates to the organic spirit Dewey derived from ancient philosophy. Accordingly, nature is not taken to be something separated from the human sphere. Human understanding is always part of a greater whole. This, however, is common ground in ancient philosophy, and from this, Kirby contends, Dewey could advance his own influential conception of naturalism (54).

The supposition that the ancients subscribed to a static world-view in contrast to Dewey’s faith in change and process could require revision if one takes Decker’s criticism into account. He points out that Dewey’s interpretation of Aristotle is flawed by some serious misunderstandings of Aristotelian philosophy. For a number of things connected with the spectator view of knowledge, most importantly the understanding of the mind as passive in perception, cannot be found in Aristotle. Decker rightly points out that later theories of knowledge, but in particular post-Cartesian theories, endorse the spectator view, whereas this cannot be reconciled with Aristotelian philosophy. He then suggests that Dewey is eventually closer to Aristotle on this point than he himself admitted. Interestingly enough, Decker supposes that here again Hegel’s influence on Dewey’s understanding of ancient philosophy comes to the fore. Unfortunately, Decker does not explore this point further. It would be a promising subject of further investigation to see how much Dewey’s view on ancient philosophy owes to his earlier engagement with Hegel.

Interesting too, and not exploited, is the relationship between Dewey’s thought and Hellenistic philosophy. A very stimulating example of how to conceive this relationship is provided by Hobbs, who in his contribution focuses on Epicurean ethics and in particular the well-known Epicurean argument that death is nothing to us. He considers this argument in light of Dewey’s criticism and rejection of Utilitarianism which, in Dewey’s view, trades future well-being for that in the present, which actually contradicts the Epicurean idea that only the present is available to us. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Utilitarian thinkers claim that Epicurus must be taken as a proto-Utilitarian.2 This also shows how versatile Epicurean thought is and in how many different guises it can come. The exploration of Epicurean pragmatism is well worth further consideration.

All in all, this volume constitutes a valuable tool for the study of one aspect of Dewey’s thought that has long been neglected, and it surely contributes to a better understanding of the overall project of pragmatism by placing it in continuity with ancient lines of thought.


1.   Cf. J. Lachs, “Stoic Pragmatism”, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19 (2005), 95-106.
2.   Cf. J. Mill and G. Sher, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis 1979), p. 6.

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