Quote for the Day: Hilary Putnam, John Dewey, Real Optimism edition

One of the great good fortunes I count in my life over the last decade or so is the friendship of  Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam.  The Putnams in their public personae are well known philosophers.  Ruth Anna is best known for her work on the American pragmatist movement, and Hilary is seen as having been one of the dominant figures in American philosophy since the 1960s.  (Check out the link above if you want to feel like maybe you ought to get something done before dinner — and note that among his many, many accomplishments, he has received credit (blame?) as one of the sources of inspiration for, inter alia, the Matrix trilogy through his brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.)

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I was reading one of Hilary’s works this week — Ethics Without Ontology — and in its introduction I came upon a quote from a philosopher that Hilary thanked Ruth Anna for compelling him to engage.  That quote, as Hilary deployed it captures for me the essentially optimistic — and brutally realistic — essence of the progressive world view.

So, as we wait for a third Presidential debate between a pragmatic progressive and a failed ends-trump-means conservative, and over the slightly longer haul, for the next twenty days or so of what is likely to be an increasingly desperate and demonizing appeal to our worst instincts on the part of that failed candidacy, I thought I’d share what that great American John Dewey had to say as Hilary Putnam deployed it.  Its mapping onto our current predicament is extraordinary:

The good can never be demonstrated to the senses, nor be proved by calculations of personal profit.  It involves a radical venture of the will in the interest of what is unseen and prudentially incalculable. But such optimism of will, such determination of the man that, so far as his choice is concerned, only the good shall be recognized as real, is very different from a sentimental refusal to look at the realities of the situation just as they are.  In fact a certain intellectual pessimism, in the sense of a steadfast willingness to uncover sore points, to acknowledge and search for abuses, to note how presumed good often serves as a cloak for actual bad, is a necessary part of the moral optimism which actively devotes itself to making the right prevail.  Any other view reduces the aspiration and hope, which are the essence of moral courage, to a cheerful animal buoyancy; and in its failure to see the evil done to others in its thoughtless pursuit of what it calls good, is next door to brutality, to a brutality bathed in the atmosphere of sentimentality and flourishing the catchwords of idealism. (Ethics, 1908 edition, p. 351.)

As Putnam then glosses this quote:  “Dewey was not someone with a blind faith in progress; he was, rather, a strategic optimist; and strategic optimism is something we badly need at the present time.  (Italics in the original).

To which I say:  Amen and amen.

Image:  US Postage Stamp, issued 21 October 1968.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

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One Comment on “Quote for the Day: Hilary Putnam, John Dewey, Real Optimism edition”


  1. […] of others to one’s own desires — for now, let me just refer you to the John Dewey quote I posted here, in anticipation of just this kind of moment last […]


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