Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 29. Great Influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 29. Great Influence

Judged by the ever-increasing number and contagious zeal of his disciples, Dewey has proved to be the most influential philosopher that America has as yet produced. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that all his writings are fragmentary, highly technical, and without any extraneous graces of style to relieve the close-knitting of the arguments. Clearly this triumph is due not only to rare personal qualities as a teacher but also to the extent that his thought corresponds to the prevailing American temper of the time. Dewey appeals powerfully to the prevailing distrust of other-worldliness, a distrust which permeates even our theology with its emphasis on the social mission of the Church. The doctrine that all ideas are and ought to be instruments for reforming the world and making it a better place to live in, appeals at once to popular utilitarianism, to the worship of immediate practical results of which Theodore Roosevelt was such a conspicuous representative. In a country where so many great deeds in the conquest of nature are still to be performed, the practical man’s contempt for the contemplative and the visionary is re-enforced by the Puritanic horror of idle play and of things which are purely ornamental. A philosophy which views nature as material to be transformed by our intelligence appeals to the prevailing light-hearted optimism which sees success as the constant reward of intelligent effort and finds no inherent obstacles to the establishment of a heaven on earth. Certainly Dewey nowhere calls to our attention the existence of incurable evil—the evil against which our only remedy is some form of wisely cultivated resignation.

In his zeal for making philosophy useful and responsible, a good deal of the traditional glory of philosophy is ignored, if not denied. The intellectual activity which we call theoretic science is subordinated to its practical application. In eliminating the personal consolations of philosophy, he also eliminates the great saving experience which it affords us in making us spectators of a great cosmic drama in which solar systems are born and destroyed, a drama in which our part as actors is of infinitesimal significance. Yet historically the most significant feature of Dewey’s thought is undoubtedly the fact that in an age of waning faith in human reason—witness the rapid spread of the romantic mysticism of Bergson—he has rallied those who still believe in the cause of liberalism based on faith in the value of intellectual enlightenment.