Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Mill, Dewey & Me

In a year when the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species has been rightly celebrated, we should remember that 1859 was also the year John Stuart Mill’s seminal On Liberty was published and the great progressive philosopher, John Dewey, was born.

Mill’s ideas on expanding human understanding through experimental science and the freedom to explore knowledge claims without being constrained by prejudices or arbitrary authority paved the way for contested theories like Darwin’s to get a fair and rational hearing. Consequently, societies more prepared to consider new thinking with a genuinely open mind are the ones more likely to advance their abilities to solve the problems which would otherwise hold people back from having a happy and fulfilled life.

As for the accusation that experimental knowledge could only deliver technical tools without enriching our moral understanding, Dewey made the case that ethical dilemmas arose from having to choose between options, where the appropriateness of one’s choices could only be judged with the help of experimental knowledge. What should one teach the next generation? In what practices and institutions should we invest our resources? How to balance the needs of one group against the claims of another? For Dewey, the answers to these questions were not to be found in some transcendental realm beyond human experiences, but have to be worked out like any other challenges in life through systematic and responsible experimentation.

Unless we are prepared to review diverse options, take into account the actual experiences of the people who were involved, and adapt to changing circumstances, we would not learn how to make life better. For Mill and Dewey, human beings share the goal of overcoming suffering, frustration and missed opportunities, and they stand the best chance of attaining that goal if they cooperate in developing arrangements which enable everyone to explore and reflect critically on what practices would bring improved results. Dogmas, superstitions, the whims of the rich and powerful, must all be held in check so unhindered enquiries can continuously deepen our understanding as to the ends and means for how we should live.

In recent decades, as the progressive cause has so often been at risk of splintering through the contrasting political emphasis put forward by liberals, communitarians, civic republicans, deliberative democrats, mass action activists, feminists, trade unionists, localists, and global federalists, Mill and Dewey have provided the one consistent basis for a unifying approach. Thinkers and advocates who draw on their writings, whatever other differences they may have, tend to have important outlooks in common, making it possible to connect what they advocate into a coherent whole. In short, leaving aside divisive labels, intellectual empathy with Mill and Dewey is the surest pointer to a shared agenda for building more inclusive communities.

These two philosophers have been a constant source of inspiration to me. By a fitting coincidence, it was in 1959 – the centenary of Mill’s On Liberty and Dewey’s birth – that my own sojourn in life began.

No comments: