Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Anyhow, I just came across the following passage while rereading the introduction to John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy:
As for philosophy, its profession of operating on the basis of the eternal and the immutable is what commits it to a function and a subjectmatter which, more than anything else, are the source of the growing popular disesteem and distrust of its pretensions; for it operates under cover of what is now repudiated in science, and with effective support only from old institutitions whose prestige, influence and emoluments of power depend upon the preservation of the old order; and thi at the very time when human conditions are so disturbed and unsettled as to call more urgently than at any previous time for the kinds of comprehensive and "objective" survey in which historic philosophies have engaged. To the vested interests, maintenance of belief in the transcendence of space and time, and hence the derogation of what is "merely" human, is an indispensible prerequisite of their retention of an authority which in practice is translated into power to regulate human affairs throughout—from top to bottom.It would take a lot of unpacking to make clear precisely what Dewey is saying here and why I think that he's basically right. But the general idea is that those in power typically oppose social change by alleging that certain facts are fixed.
So, for example, it has been claimed that the traditional nuclear family is, somehow, stamped by nature as the ideal building block of human society, and this contention has been used in the defense of all sorts of retrograde social policies. But whether or not the nuclear family is a good thing isn't a timeless natural fact. Rather, it has to do with whether the nuclear family serves the particular interests that we have right now.
Dewey's criticism of philosophy here is that its mistaken assertion that there is some set of timeless natural facts invariably gives ammunition to those whose entrenched power gives them an interest in saying that the status quo is justified in virtue of the commonsense view of what those natural facts are.
(Yes, yes, I know that social progressives often deploy arguments that substitute one set of natural facts for another. The point is that this yields an advantage to conservatives, since their preferred set of facts is the set that everybody grew up with)