Grammar, Rhetoric, and Mr. Dewey*

Robert Maynard Hutchins

Published in The Social Frontier, Feb., 1937, Vol. III, No. 23, pp. 137-139.

Mr. John Dewey has devoted much of two recent articles in The Social Frontier to my book, The Higher Learning in America. The editors of The Social Frontier have asked me to reply to Mr. Dewey. This I am unable to do, in any real sense, for Mr. Dewey has stated my position in such a way as to lead me to think that I cannot write, and has stated his own in such a way as to make me suspect that I cannot read.

Mr. Dewey says

  1. that I look to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas;
  2. that I am anti-scientific;
  3. that I am for withdrawing from the world; and
  4. that I am authoritarian.

(1) "Mr. Hutchins looks to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. . . ."

(a) Mr. Hutchins also looks to Sir R. W. Livigstone, p. 25; Dean C. H. Wilkinson, p. 54; Newman, p. 63; Shorey, p. 64; Whewell, p. 73; Locke, 76; Nicholas Murray Butler, p. 80; De Tocqueville, p. 90; Judge Learned Hand, p. 92; Kant, p. 9; and Lenin, p. 105.

(b) If I had not already done so in an earlier book, I should have looked to Mr. Dewey. In No Friendly Voice, p. 39, I said, "Mr. C. I. Lewis had written that 'Professor Dewey seems to view such abstractionism in science as a defect -- something uncessary -- but always regrettable.' Mr. Dewey replied: 'I fear that on occasion I may so have written as to give this impression. I am glad therefore to have the opportunity of saying that this is not my actual position. Abstraction is the heart of thought; there is no other way . . . to control and enrich concrete experience except through an intermediate flight of thought with conceptions, relata, abstractions . . . I wish to agree also with Mr. Lewis that the need of the social sciences at present is precisely such abstractions as will get their unwieldy elephants into box-cars that will move on rails arrived at by other abstractions. What is to be regretted is, to my mind, the tendency of many inquirers in the field of human affairs to be over-awed by the abstractions of the physical sciences and hence to fail to develop the conceptions or abstractions appropriate to their own subject-matter.' "

(c) If he had made it earlier I should also have looked to Mr. Dewey's address before the Progressive Education Association, November 13, 1936, in which he said, according to the New York Herald--Tribune, "Even social studies suffer greatly from that dead hand of worship of information that still grips the schools."

(d) In the second of his articles in The Social Frontier Mr. Dewey refers to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and their work as significant, genuine, profound, etc. He says: "Higher learning can become intellectually vital only by coming to that close grip with our contemporary science and contemporary social affairs which Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas exemplify in their respective ways."

If we are to perform in our own day the work that Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas performed in theirs, should we not know what they did and how they did it? My position as to the significance of these writers is precisely that (if I understand it) of Mr. Dewey. What they did was to restudy, rework, and revitalize the intellectual tradition they inherited for the purpose of understanding the contemporary world. We must do the same.

(2) "President Hutchins' contempt for science as merely empirical . . . complete neglect of the place of the natural sciences in his educational scheme. . . ."

(a) The faculty of natural science is one-third of the university I propose in The Higher Learning in America, Chapter IV.

(b) At least one-third of the great books of the western world proposed as the basis of general education in Chapter III are in the natural sciences. Mathematics and logic, two disciplines put forth as central in general education in Chapter III, are important to the understanding of natural science and intimately related to it.

(c) Chapter II criticizes engineering schools for their remoteness from departments of natural science and congratulates the newer medical schools on their close association with them.

(d) "I yield to no one in my admiration for and belief in the accumulation of data, the collection of facts, and the advance of the empirical sciences," p. 89.

(e) Pp. 89-94 seem to me to make clear that I am arguing against a misconception of natural science, namely that it is merely collections of data, not against natural science as it actually is.

(3) "The remedy [proposed by Mr. Hutchins] is to be found in the greatest possible aloofness of higher learning from contemporary social life. This conception is explicitly seen in the constant divorce set up between intellect and 'experience.' . . . It is conceivable that educational reconstruction cannot be accomplished without a social reconstruction in which higher education has a part to play."

(a) "I agree, of course, that any plan of general education must be such as to educate the student for intelligent action." The Higher Learning in America, p. 67.

(b) "I know, of course, that thinking cannot proceed divorced from the facts and from experience." Ibid, p. 90.

(c) "We may say in behalf of the Marxists that they at least realize that there is no advance in the speculative realm which does not have practical consequences, and no change in the practical realm which need not be speculatively analyzed." Ibid, p. 91.

(d) "If we can secure a real university in this country and a real program of general education upon which its work can rest, it may be that the character of our civilization may slowly change. It may be that we can outgrow the love of money, that we can get a saner conception of democracy, and that we can even understand the purposes of education. It may be that we can abandon our false notions of progress and utility and that we can come to prefer intelligible organization to the chaos that we mistake for liberty. It is because these things may be that education is important. Upon education our country must pin its hopes of true progress, which involves scientific and technological advance, but under the direction of reason; of true prosperity, which includes external goods but does not overlook those of the soul; and of true liberty, which can exist only in society, and in a society rationally ordered." Ibid, pp. 118-119.

(e) One-third of the university I propose (Ibid, Chapter IV) is the faculty of social science. What does Mr. Dewey think that faculty will study?

(f) At least one-third of the books proposed for study in general education (Ibid, Chapter III) are in the social sciences and history. The discussion of contemporary problems would of course be an integral part of the discussion of these books.

(g) If I am a follower of Aristotle and Aquinas, I must be in Mr. Dewey's view a very poor one: "Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundation of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations." Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione, I, 2, 316a 5-12.

"The truth in practical matters is discerned from the facts of life." Aristotle, Ethics, 1179a.

"Knowledge in natural science must be terminated at sense in order that we may judge concerning natural things in the manner according to which sense demonstrates them . . . and he who neglects sense in natural questions falls into error." Aquinas, De Trinitate Boetii, Q. 6, Ant. 2.

"For the human intellect is measured by things, so that a human concept is not true by reason of itself, but by reason of its being consonant with things, since an opinion is true or false according as it answers to the reality." Aquinas, Summa Theologice. Part I of Part II, Q. 93, Art. 1, Reply Obj. 3.

(4) "Fixed and eternal authoritative principles [are regarded by Mr. Hutchins] as truths that are not to be questioned. . . . But any scheme based on the existence of ultimate first principles, with their dependent hierarchy of subsidiary principles, does not escape authoritarianism by calling the principles 'truths.' I would not intimate that the author has any sympathy with fascism. But basically his idea . . . is akin to the distrust of freedom and the consequent appeal to some fixed authority that is now overrunning the world. There is implicit in every assertion of fixed and eternal first truths the necessity for some human authority to decide . . . just what these truths are and how they shall be taught. This problem is conveniently ignored. . . ."

(a) The words "fixed" and "eternal" are Mr. Dewey's; I do not apply them to principles or truths in my book.

(b) There is no suggestion anywhere in the book that principles are not to be questioned. On the contrary, "Research in the sense of the development, elaboration, and refinement of principles together with the collection and use of empirical materials to aid in these processes is one of the highest activities of a university and one in which all its professors should be engaged." The Higher Learning in America, p. 90.

(c) "I am not here arguing for any specific theological or metaphysical system. I am insisting that consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to get one. I suggest that we shall get a better one if we recognize explicitly the need for one and try to get the most rational one we can. We are, as a matter of fact, living today by the haphazard, accidental, shifting shreds of a theology and metaphysics to which we cling because we must cling to something." Ibid, p. 105.

(d) Today the faculties decide what the curriculum shall be. These human authorities would continue to do so.

(e) Is Mr. Dewey saying that there should not be a faculty of metaphysics? If so, is it because there is no such thing as metaphysics or because there are no metaphysicians? Would a university which had a faculty of philosophy be more or less authoritarian than one which had not and in which only the natural and social sciences were studied and taught?

(f) Mr. Dewey's dexterous intimation that I am a fascist in result if not in intention (made more dexterous by his remark that he is making no such intimation) suggests the desirability of the educational reforms I have proposed. A graduate of my hypothetical university writing for his fellow-alumni would know that such observations were rhetoric and that they would be received as such. As a matter of fact, fascism is a consequence of the absence of philosophy. It is possible only in the context of the disorganization of analysis and the disruption of the intellectual tradition and intellectual discipline through the pressure of immediate practical concerns.

In Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 24, Mr. Dewey says, "Common frankness requires that it be stated that this account of the origin of philosophies claiming to deal with absolute Being in a systematic way has been given with malice prepense. It seems to me that this genetic method of approach is a more effective way of undermining this type of philosophic theorizing than any attempt at logical refutation could be."

One effect of the education I propose might be that a philosopher who had received it would be willing to consider arguments. He would not assume that his appeal must be to the prejudices of his audience.

Mr. Dewey has suggested that only a defective education can account for some of my views. I am moved to inquire whether the explanation of some of his may not be that he thinks he is still fighting nineteenth-century German philosophy.


* The two articles by Professor Dewey to which President Hutchins is here replying appeared in the December and January issues of The Social Frontier. President Hutchins article, including the title, is printed as he submitted it. [Back]