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Fr. 771

March 2, 2017


In Weber’s mind, Dewey’s chief achievement in education was to cast the notion as itself democratic. In contrast with Rawls’ top-down approach and instrumentalization of education for the end of a just society, Dewey envisaged individuals participating in an open, public process of social construction of societal ends. The process is necessarily an organic one in that “knowledge is formed in community, and inquiry is not simplistic, singular, and only needing of basic fundamental educational requirements” (p. 134). Rather, what is needed is an ongoing, open-ended inquiry open to contributions from all parts.

To this, one might oppose the “Guardianship argument”, its origins in Plato, as Robert Talisse sketches the argument out in an essay on Dewey. In a word, the argument maintains that political ability is not distributed equally amongst a population, so it is necessary to foresee an unequal distribution of power and contributions. Thereto, Talisse responds that, whereas Plato saw knowledge as a possession, Dewey saw it rather as a form of activity. Such that political participation is performative or constitutive, not possessive (of principles). This process, i.e. inquiry, does not aim as a final end-state but stands instead as an open-ended process of growth. Such a process is open to all in principle even if all do not contribute equally. Rather than aim at each’s governance of herself, this process aims at a collective “governance of all” (p. 135). Contributions from all parts are necessary in order for the democratic organism to thrive.

Weber closes the chapter and the book by contrasting Rawls’ and Dewey’s educational approaches one last time. Rawls begins top-down and with hypothetical tools otherwise unavailable to democratic participants; Dewey bottom-up and with the tools at hand. Dewey’s firm belief in intelligence as a corrective social process to habit and inclination stands as odds with Rawls’ need for an independent framework outside of the social. Indeed, the author underscores this last point in remarking that democratic socialization, in Dewey’s work, does not come to the same thing as indoctrination. Insofar as socialization is inevitable and natural, it must be reckoned with and preferably in productive fashion.

To Dewey’s credit are three further points drawn from a Larry Hickman essay: the construction of selves through socialization and their subsequent self-reconstruction, as well as the fact that persons can only be recognized as persons in the thick of their social interactions and relations. This comes out most clearly in Weber’s closing query: “How can we attend to conceptions of justice without a sense of what it means to have a conception, and to be an individual in the first place about whom I can have a conception of justice or of personhood?” (p. 137). Dewey’s attention thereto makes him stand out from Rawls’ variation on social contract theory. From there, it remains only to be remarked that:

“Pragmatists believe that meaning and merit of a conception or understanding can only be determined in terms of the conceivable practical implications that it bears for real life. In this final chapter we see most clearly, I believe, the troubling consequences of Rawls’s underdeveloped constructivism. The tension we see in Rawls’s work between representationalism and constructivism leads to a political theory that abandons the project of preparing citizens in a robust way for the various challenges that can only be overcome through intelligent, cooperative, social action. For this reason, it is best to follow Dewey in adopting a more thorough-going constructivism and the consequent democratic educational theory that he pioneered” (p. 138).

With such a remark does Weber’s book reach its end. Certainly, his work deserves credit for showing, through the lens of education, one way in which Rawls’ theoretical achievements may yield perplexing practical consequences. Yet several open questions remain, several of which surpass the scope of Weber’s work. In no particular order:

  1. Do Rawls’ epistemological implicits undermine his theory at the practical level? That is, if the measure of a theory’s adequacy is its practical effects at the time of application, does Rawls’ incomplete constructivism compromise the results which he seeks? At the level of education, Weber thinks so. That said, can this same conclusion be found in other areas and in applying Rawls’ concepts in the way in which he intended?
  2. Can one construct a robustly constructivist Rawls? With regards to our own work, is the solution to posit, both with and against Weber, such a Rawls? Does this run with or counter to Stout?
  3. Do decisions on the basis of identity amount to decisions on the basis of prejudgment?
  4. Is rhetoric uninterested in the kinds of reasons which appeal to people not as subjects but as individuals?







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