“The underlying pervasive quality in the last instance, when it is put into words, involves care or concern for human destiny.”
(Dewey, “Qualitative Thought”)
“. . . in the strictest sense, philosophy cannot solve important problems but only those that so arise from different linguistic habits that they can be straightened out by analysis. If basic problems can be settled only where they arise, namely, in the cultural conditions of our associated life; if philosophy is fundamentally a criticism which brings to light these problems and gives them the clarity that springs from definite formulation; and if after formulation philosophy can do no more than point the road INTELLIGENT ACTION must take, then the greatest service any particular philosophical theory can render is to sharpen and deepen the sense of these problems.”
(Dewey, “Experience, Nature and Value”)
The essentials of the philosophical enterprise have been sketched. It only remains for us to make somewhat more explicit its bearings upon the concrete doings of humans. If philosophy is not to be a culturally irrelevant leisure class activity, it must concern itself with the projects and ongoing conflicts of daily living. It must, and should, be able to offer guidance that may clarify those conflicts, thus giving them greater reflective significance, and concrete direction. We have already noted that wisdom is its central concern, and the future as it bears on the conflicts and possibilities of the present, its basic element. It is for us now to draw out a few final programmatic implications of these claims.
The element of philosophy is the doings and undergoings which are the dynamic content of the human drama. Human beings dreaming of impossible satisfactions and aspiring after them are the standard‑bearers in the struggle for enriched meanings. THERE is to be found the source of noble ideals, if we would only let ourselves dream them. But such ideals will remain dreams unless they can be brought into practical relations with the materials and conditions at hand, with the means available. It is the latter alone which bring the measure of hard truth to bear upon our deepest desires. The cutting edge of hard reality has dashed to pieces more dreams than we can often bear to speak of. It is this reality that brings home the true dreaminess of our most cherished ideals — forcing us to undergo a suffering often so painful that many of us have given up dreaming — or at least greatly restricted our “indulgence” in it. To forego dreaming, however, is really to rob oneself of the source of inspiring hope that can give one’s daily living that dimension of meaning that makes it worth living. It would be a self‑destructive partialization of experience. How many have condemned themselves to insipid triviality and routine because they are afraid to let themselves dream their dreams? For how many has imagination withered because the concrete possibilities for any liberating movement toward their ideals is practically impossible? The latter question points to the consequences of an oppressive social context, the former of an impoverished human spirit. The relationship between the two is often quite close. The experiential location of philosophy is precisely in the dialogue between dreams and perceptions, between ideal and real, as this dialogue contours the doings and undergoings that is the drama of our lives. We cannot abandon dreaming without robbing our life of its enriching and ennobling vitality; and we cannot make those dreams a liberating force in a progressing experience unless they can be concretely related to our practical doings and undergoings.
As our doings respond to the call of our ideals, they require continual clarification in the light of the realities that they must confront. The intellectual mapping of that reality locates resistance points as well as available means or instrumentalities. The clarification lays out the channels of potentially successful action. It thus forces us to give concrete content to our ideal aspirations. By being subject to such practical demands, our ideals become more than simply dreams responding to our impulsive urges. They become ends‑in‑view, goals, that may serve as illuminating guides to present action. The ideals obtain concrete substance and begin to inform our practical doings. Transformed from simple impulsive outpourings or routine performances, these doings become dramatically infused with enriching purpose and significance, The experiences undergone in the process of these reconstructed doings tend to force reality to respond to our desires. At the same time, the resistances encountered compel re‑examination of our conceptual mappings. This obviously will require the reconstruction of our ideal aspirations in the light of the newly emerging perceptions of reality. Practical programs, no matter, how trivial, must be empirically grounded and reflectively located within the arena of these dramatic encounters. They must find their place within the dialogic continuum established by the Ideal and the Real, as we must realize that both Ideal and Real only find their adequate meaning by being essentially bound to one another.
Thus, our practical programs must be seen in terms of their contributions to our ideal fulfillments, if their import is to be appreciated and their leadings are to prove fruitful. For a purposeful practical program may be worse than useless if it is not reflectively located with respect to its bearings upon our ideal aspirations. Conversely, such purposes and programs are likely to be fruitless if not actually self‑defeating if they fail to take into full consideration the empirical location of action. An intimate link is called for between purposeful ideals and the perceptual mapping of the real that clarifies resistances, reveals potential channels of operations, and details the practical costs of action. It is important to realize that all action has its costs — from the simple and pervasive metaphysical truth that any action always excludes other actions, to the practical consideration that action expends unrecoverable energy, transforms self and world, somewhat irremediably, and often makes alternative courses once possible no longer so.
For actions are projections into a transcendent future. They drive us forward into the unknown. They spur our encounter with the novel and unexpected. Kierkegaard once said that we think backwards, but we live forward. What is required is a thinking that will be more than an appreciative retrospection, more than a summing up of where we are. We need a projective thinking and an intelligently self‑transcending practice that can move us forward into the unknown with some degree of reliability. Only a sensitive and sophisticated evaluation of present actualities as our past doings have revealed their inner tendencies, resistances, and potentialities, can hope to offer such assistance. We can build up mappings of the real that may serve as creative constraints upon our ideal aspirations, forcing the continual reconstruction of the latter into concretely realizable ideals and practical programs. It is in this crucible of intelligent action that our aspirations may be concretely tested, and our impulsive energies reformulated and given ideal direction.
As reflection reorganizes and redirects our practical doings, it infuses that practice with increasing significance. This deepens the felt significance of our undergoings, What we “suffer” takes on increasing meaning in the light of the aspirations that have been thus concretized; but the practico-instrumental dynamic must not be over stressed at the expense of affective tonalities. A rich experience is not identical with a practically successful or efficient one. Programs of action which ride roughshod over the lived qualities of psycho‑cultural tonalities are worse than useless; they are dehumanizing. If reflection is to be a constituent of practical wisdom, an aid to the “liberation and expansion of the meanings of which experience is capable,” that alone seems to be the path of the “good life, such reflection, in grounding the ethical in the metaphysical, must unify the political and programmatic with the qualitative and phenomenological. Our transcending doings, moving us as they do into ever new worlds of experience, must enrich those fringed qualities of that emerging world in its “aesthetic” tonalities. In our practical struggle to realize our ideals we surely must, in the words of William James, return the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life. Such is the dual task of any philosophy that aspires to serve as a guide to wisdom in human affairs.
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