Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

John Dewey and perfectionism: Difficulties interpreting the experimental life
by Katz, Rebecca M., Ph.D., Stanford University, 2010, 167; 3395870
Abstract (Summary)

A reawakening is simultaneously occurring in two traditionally opposing camps of moral and ethical theory: moral perfectionism and the pragmatic ethical theory of John Dewey. Moral perfectionism puts forth an objective theory of the good human life and subsequently bases moral claims upon this account Perfectionist theories posit a fixed end or ideal (or, if a series of them, usually in some kind of teleological order) whose attainment always ought to be sought. These ideal ends or objective goods exist outside of the immediate and specific moral problem at hand and guide ethical action by providing rules of conduct. Dewey's theory rejects the existence of any such objective and inherently valuable ends to ethical action, instead putting forth a normative theory centered on his novel conception of growth. Deweyan goals or ends constantly evolve in light of new discoveries and experiences and are subjected to collective experiential verification within specific social settings. Instead of steadfast rules, there are principles that are rooted in experience and which evolve in light of new evidence; instead of ideal universal ends and objective goods, there are ends-in-view that serve as tools in the resolution of moral problems.

Both perfectionism and Deweyan ethics, having previously fallen out of favor for being associated with questionable or deficient interpretations and doctrines, are being reconsidered with growing interest. Additionally, attempts to bridge the two camps are emerging, and these usually claim that Dewey's ethics espouse perfectionist tenets. This dissertation stands at the intersection of these emerging camps: my goal is to offer a contribution that clears the ground by clarifying what, first, Dewey has to say about perfectionism and, second, how this relates to the cogency of his ethical theory as well as the validity of contemporary attempts to cast Dewey as a perfectionist. In the course of pursuing this program, I demonstrate how Dewey thoroughly rejects traditional "thick" versions of perfectionism that prescribe relatively restrictive criteria of human good. Upon scrutinizing Dewey's theory from within the correct framework—his own reconstructed one—I reveal how it is, indeed, coherent although it may not be sufficiently adequate. Additionally, in light of the exegesis clarifying his ethical theory, I show the recent reinterpretations of Dewey as a perfectionist are flawed and inadequate. However, new perfectionist theories currently being developed stipulate more flexible (or "thin") criteria, taking into account situational variation and recognize the importance of contingent experiences. It is possible this "thin" species of perfectionism does not succumb to Dewey's critique of perfectionism and that Dewey's own ethical theory and his notion of education as growth can be reinterpreted as incorporating thin perfectionist premises. The groundwork provided by this dissertation allows for further exploration of this open question.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Phillips, Denis C.
Commitee:
School: Stanford University
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 71/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Ethics, Philosophy, Education philosophy
Keywords: Dewey, John, Ethical theory, Experimental life, Moral education, Perfectionism, Philosophy of education
Publication Number: 3395870
ISBN: 9781109583601
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