The history and critique of modernity: Dewey with Foucault against Weber


In bringing the philosophical traditions of pragmatism and genealogy to bear upon contemporary debates regarding modernity, the work of both John Dewey and Michel Foucault has been subjected to misinterpretations that portray both traditions in a way that depletes them of the full force of their critical insight. The source of these misinterpretations is in many cases an attempt to squeeze the philosophical projects of pragmatism and genealogy into the mold that shapes the thought of most participants on both sides of the modernity debates. This mold can usually be traced back to the work of the influential sociologist, political economist, and philosopher Max Weber. One unfortunate residue of the subtle dominance of Weberian concepts in contemporary debates over modernity is that many thinkers who operated largely outside of these concepts cannot be brought into these debates without filtering their thought through this conceptual prism. In the case of Dewey and Foucault, their contributions to our understanding of the basic problems of modernity are widely misunderstood due to being filtered through Weberian concepts that simply were not central in Dewey's or Foucault's thinking. By distancing Dewey and Foucault from Weber as concerns their interpretations of modernity a significant point begins to emerge: a hitherto unnoticed convergence between pragmatism and genealogy. This convergence is significant because comparative analyses of pragmatism and genealogy, like those of these two traditions and Weber described above, generally tend to miss the important points of resonance which prove these traditions much closer than is commonly thought. After explicating Weber, Dewey, and Foucault I will conclude my discussion by considering briefly the attractive philosophical possibilities of combing Dewey's work on inquiry as reconstructive problem-solving with Foucault's work on critique as genealogical problematization.

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Colin Koopman
University of Oregon

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