Useful for What? Dewey's Call to Humanize Techno-Industrial Civilization

Pragmatism Today 7 (1):11-19 (2016)
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The heart of Dewey’s call to humanize techno-industrial civilization was to conceive science and technology in the service of aesthetic consummations. Hence his philosophy suggests a way to reclaim and affirm technology on behalf of living more fulfilling lives. He remains a powerful ally today in the fight against deadening efficiency, narrow means-end calculation, “frantic exploitation,” and the industrialization of everything. Nonetheless, it is common to depict him as a philosopher we should think around rather than with. The first section of this essay explores his philosophy of technology and environment in light of Bacon, Heidegger, and Borgmann. Most of the techno-industrial and vocational activities which we pretend are “instrumental,” Dewey argued, actually reduce “to a very minimum the esthetic aspect of experiences had in the course of the daily occupation.” It is argued that, insofar as cooperative intelligence can guide the direction of technological development, it does not honor contemplative life if we abdicate or downgrade that responsibility. The second section of this essay explores Dewey’s instrumentalism as a critique of vicious intellectualism. It is argued that, for Dewey, genuine progress serves the aesthetic dimension of experience. This assertion contrasts with the most common interpretive error among both critics and admirers of Dewey, namely that he is mostly a champion of science. Moreover, critics of Dewey’s instrumentalist theory of inquiry often mistake it as (a) an attack on any conception of intrinsic value, or (b) an attempt to collapse the value of means into the value of ends. In Dewey’s view, we habitually look for progress in the wrong place because we carry around with us some big idea of a final and ultimate good for measuring it. In his view, the ameliorative expansion of significance that emerges from our dealings with perplexing situations is the only place progress can really be found.

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Steven Fesmire
Radford University


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