13 SES 04 A, Hospitality, Method of Discussion, and Research Methodologies
Fake news and post-truth are burning issues in contemporary public debate, which also philosophers of education and educationalists have been addressing (Peters et al., 2017). In this paper, I will investigate the topic from the perspective of educational pragmatism. This choice could be slippery in some respects. Indeed, in November 2016, after interpreting the Trump phenomenon in terms of the dominance of post-truth, the philosopher Pascal Engel drew a remarkable conclusion: precisely due to his “bullshitting” (in the philosophical meaning that Frankfurt  has given to this phrase) Trump “is a pragmatist” (Engel, 2016). From his article it is clear that Engel means by pragmatism a conflation of the (possibly misunderstood) versions of James and Rorty and that his criticism was a continuation of his confrontation with Rorty (Engel & Rorty, 2005).
In the proposed paper, I would like to explore what a Deweyan engagement with this issue could look like. I will do so in three steps. First, since Frankfurt (2005) sees in the passage from inquiry to sincerity a factor in furthering a cultural climate hospitable to “bullshitting,” I will endeavour to recapture this idea within the conceptual device of Democracy and Education (Dewey, 1980).
Secondly, I will elaborate on a remarkable line of argument of Dewey in Liberalism and Social Action: “There was a time when discussion […] was thought to be sufficient in discovery of the structure and laws of physical nature. In the latter field, the method was displaced by that of experimental observation […] But we still depend upon the method of discussion, with only incidental scientific control, in politics […] Intelligence in politics when it is identified with discussion means reliance upon symbols. […] But symbols are significant only in connection with realities behind them. […] Popular literacy, in connection with the telegraph, cheap postage and the printing press, has enormously multiplied the number of those influenced. That which we term education has done a good deal to generate habits that put symbols in the place of realities” (Dewey, 1987, pp. 50-51). It is this that, in Dewey’s opinion, makes the citizenry particularly exposed to propaganda. By replacing “the telegraph” with “the internet” (Standage, 2014) and "propaganda” with “post-truth,” we could update Dewey’s argument as follows: as long as our education is predicated upon the method of discussion and ‘mere’ literacy, we will not be able to cultivate those experimental habits which can prevent us from lapsing into gullibility. Dewey is inviting us to see how education oriented to discussion is not only an inadequate bulwark against the raging of ‘bullshitting’ but can even contribute to it within contemporary socio-technological scenarios. I will show how this distinction between the methods of discussion and of inquiry parallels that between the third and fourth stage in the development of logical thought as it is presented by Dewey (1976) in his experimental logic and I will discuss this in terms of its educational implications.
Thirdly, I will explore the relationships between this stance of Dewey and that of Arendt: in opposition to Richard Bernstein (2006), I will follow Axel Honneth’s (1998) interpretation of Dewey, which contrasts Arendt and Dewey and concludes that, for the latter, “[t]he political sphere is not […] the place for communicative exercise of freedom but the cognitive medium with whose help society attempts, experimentally, to explore process, and solve its own problems with the coordination of social action” (p. 775). The question I want to explore, in conclusion, is whether Dewey’s theoretical device is adequate to counter educationally ‘Trumpian pragmatism’ or whether an Arendtian perspective is necessary to complement it (Biesta, 2006).
There is a sense in which this paper has Dewey at its center not only from the viewpoint of content but also at the methodological level, at least in two respects. First, the need not to disconnect philosophical thought from its rootedness in contextual constellations, as he argues at length in an essay, which he himself considered as a “contribution to the theme of philosophic method” (Dewey, [1985, p. 17). The contextualization of the reflection on the method of inquiry (as opposed to the method of discussion) within the contemporary debate on post-truth and fake news endeavors to be faithful to Dewey’s suggestion that “[p]hilosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men” (Dewey, 1980, p. 46). For this reason I am not so interested in discussing at a scholarly level the possible limitations of Engel’s interpretation of pragmatism as a fostering factor for Trumpian post-truth or, alternatively, in salvaging Dewey’s pragmatism by distinguishing it from its Rortyan version (thus absolving the former from Engel’s indictment). Rather, I intend to explore the conceptual tools, if any, that Deweyan pragmatism can provide in order to cope with the contemporary predicament. Secondly, these conceptual tools are considered in reference to the question of education according to Dewey’s idea that education is the privileged field in which to test philosophical ideas, if these are not to remain vapid and remote from human concerns. A constant risk lurks for a Deweyan, namely that of using her/his philosophical hero as a trump card (let the pun be allowed) in any philosophical-educational inquiry. In this sense, the final comparison with Arendt’s conceptuality is intended less as a contribution to scholarship than as a further test of Dewey’s ideas in reference to the problematic situation represented by the contemporary regime of post-truth in political and public debate.
The aim of this paper is that of exploring ways of engaging in a philosophically and educationally robust and fruitful manner with the question of post-truth and fake-news. In particular, without excluding some possible limitations, I will endeavor to show how the logical-educational device of Dewey can help us to orient ourselves, as educators, in contemporary scenarios and to elaborate and invent pedagogical strategies to cope with the phenomenon. According to the aforementioned logic of contextualization, I am ready to recognize that this aim may arise from the context in which I operate. In my country, the issue of “education in a post-truth world” has become a widely discussed topic and, indeed, has reached the institutional level. A few weeks ago the Ministry of Education itself, in cooperation with the President of one of the two chambers of the Parliament, released, addressed to students, a “Decalogue [their word] against fake news”. This is certainly a sign of how deeply felt the problem is starting to become but, all the same, the chosen form of the address is fairly striking (to say the least): a Decalogue, in which the tone oscillates between the patronizingly imperative and the hortatory. Instead of appealing to inquiring attitudes a set of rules are proposed. Against this backdrop, elaborating on and developing the conceptual tools provided by Dewey has seemed to me of some import. This may be a local situation but I tend to believe that it could have a broader significance and that a critical engagement with Dewey’s device could grant useful insights to the whole debate.
Bernstein, R. (2006). Creative Democracy—The Task Still Before Us. In S. Greeve Davaney & W.G. Frisina. The Pragmatic Century. Conversations with Richard J. Bernstein. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Kindle edition. Biesta, G.J.J. (2006). Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers. Dewey, J. (1976). Some Stages of Logical Thought. In The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 1 (pp. 151-174). Edited by J.A. Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Dewey, J. (1980). Democracy and Education. In The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 9. Edited by J.A. Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Dewey, J. (1980). The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy. In The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 10 (pp. 3-48). Edited by J.A. Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Dewey, J. (1985[1931). Context and Thought. In The Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 6 (pp. 3-21). Edited by J.A. Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Dewey, J. (1987). Liberalism and Social Action. In The Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 11 (pp. 1-65). Edited by J.A. Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Engel, P. (2016a). « Trump ne demande pas qu’on croie ce qu’il dit, mais qu’on croie en lui ». In Le Monde, November, 17 2016. Retrievable at http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2016/11/17/trump-ou-la-pathologie-du-pragmatisme_5032446_3232.html (Access November, 30 2016). Engel, P., & Rorty, R. (2005). À quoi bon la verité?. Paris: Grasset. Frankfurt, H.G. (2005), On Bullshit, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. Kindle edition. Honneth, A. (1998). Democracy as Reflexive Cooperation: John Dewey and the Theory of Democracy Today. Political Theory 26(6): 763-783. Peters, M. et al.. Education in a Post-Truth World. Education Philosophy and Theory 49(6): 563-587. Standage, T. (2014). The Victorian Internet. The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. New York and London: Bloomsbury.
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