Notes on Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Fesmire reads Dewey together with Martha Nussbaum on Aristotelian practical wisdom and emotion in ethics, and Lakoff on Johnson on embodied metaphor in cognitive semantics, to set forward an account of moral deliberation in which moral imagination plays a central role. (Havelock Ellis, Alisdair MacIntyre, and James T. Farrell all play supporting roles as well.) Typical of much Dewey scholarship, Fesmire’s approach is to think-with Dewey about the topic of moral imagination, rather than to simply provide an interpretation of Dewey’s work. The approach has costs and benefits, but for my purposes, it was a useful one.

The brief introduction starts with a silly quote from Havelock Ellis about “The academic philosophers of ethics” and their “slavery to rigid formulas” being “the death of all high moral responsibility.” It proceeds to identify a shift in the center of gravity of ethics, exemplified by the work of Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Nel Noddings, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Owen Flanagan, and Mark Johnson. The shift is away from ultimate moral criteria towards practical wisdom, character, narrative, caring, moral luck, pluralism, and psychological realism. Rules and principles have a role to play in ethics, but not as ultimate criteria or as decision-procedures.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of three chapters and reviews pragmatist philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and epistemology. The focus is on character, habit, belief, reason, and intelligence. A nice summary from Chapter 2:

Classical pragmatism situates reason within the broad context of the whole person in action. It replaces beliefs-as-intellectual-abstractions with beliefs-as-tendencies-to-act, pure reason with practical inquiry, and objectivist rationality with imaginative situational intelligence. (p. 28)

Bain, Peirce, and James play a big role in this first part along with Dewey. Given her focus on ethics and social issues, I wish that Jane Addams had played an equally central role, but she’s rarely given adequate treatment. Nothing in this section will surprise those familiar with classical pragmatism and the way this diverse cast of characters are usually put together into a unified (Dewey-centric) narrative, though Fesmire’s presentation is helpfully clear and concise.

Part II is the account of moral imagination in the context of pragmatist ethics. The first chapter provides the context for pragmatist (Deweyan) ethics more broadly. Some of the key features are: pluralism of ethical principles, factors, or values / value-types; moral deliberation as reconciliation or integration of these often-conflicting factors through inquiry; the value of moral ethical rules or principles is in making salient these independent factors or values. This chapter also introduces the two key ways that imagination plays a role in moral deliberation: empathetic projection as the imaginative adoption of values, perspectives, and attitudes of others, and creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities by imaginatively exploring different aspects of the situation and the dramatically rehearsing the possible courses of action they afford. (The latter, Fesmire holds, is Dewey’s main focus.) This kind of imagination is the ability “to see the actual in the light of the possible” (p. 67, quoting Alexander).

Chapter 5 discusses the role of imagination conceived as dramatic rehearsal in moral deliberation. (For Dewey, it is so central that sometimes he just refers to moral deliberation as “dramatic rehearsal.”) Dewey thinks of moral deliberation as a kind of problem-solving inquiry, where the conflict arises from the conflicts between currently held values in particular situations. For Dewey, deliberation or inquiry requires that rather than just acting in the face of a problem, we step back and withhold immediate action, channeling our conflicting impulses into dramatic rehearsal of possible courses of action. Exploring these possibilities through careful examination of the facts of the situation, bringing prior knowledge to bear, along with dramatic rehearsal is what intelligent moral deliberation requires; and finally, action is treated as an experimental test of the chosen hypothesis, whose success or failure will modify future conduct. Finally, Fesmire incorporates George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s work in cognitive semantics to argue that the imaginative process depends heavily on metaphor, and these metaphors are in fact central to our cognitive and linguistic machinery. These metaphors are, of course, embodied, in a way that fits well with Dewey’s emphasis as organism-environment-culture interaction as the scene of human mind.

The last two chapters constitute an extended exploration of the metaphor of “moral deliberation as art.” I was pretty skeptical of the value of this analogy at first, but I was convinced of its utility. One value of the metaphor is that it can help overcome the more dominant metaphor of morality as accounting, according to which well-being is wealth, duty is debt, and moral deeds are transactions. Another valuable feature of the metaphor is that it centers the importance of perceptiveness, creativity, skill, and the response of the Other (the audience) in moral deliberation.

I found myself disappointed in only a few ways. First, there was not enough attention to Dewey’s central distinction between what he calls valuing/evaluation, prizing/appraisal, satisfying/satisfactory, or desires/value judgments. It is there (notably on pp. 96-7), but it doesn’t play a huge role. Second, there was very little discussion of the relationship between science and ethics. Third, there wasn’t much engagement with other contemporary theorists of moral deliberation or practical ethics, besides those (like Nussbaum) who are clearly working a similar vein of thought as Dewey.

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