Contrasting with hope in a fixed or eternal order, pragmatists John Dewey and Richard Rorty connect hope to continual growth and conversation.

Dewey and Rorty: Sending Pragmatist Hopes in New Directions

In this two-part essay series, Nick Gall outlines the developmental arc of a philosophy of hope spanning the pragmatists Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James in part one; and John Dewey and Richard Rorty in part two.

John Dewey and Richard Rorty take up Immanuel Kant’s original question, “For what may [we] hope?”, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and send it in a new direction—one that fully embraces perpetually tragic pluralism while nonetheless inspiring a deep sense of joyful hope in the opening up of ever new directions in the world’s eternal journey.

Read “The Dude Abides: Pragmatism as an Alternative to Deontology and Nihilism

Hope for Eventual Perfection Is ‘the Philosophical Fallacy’

Dewey is the first pragmatist to attempt the “letting loose of hope” William James suggests in Pragmatism (1907), while fully embracing the perpetual tragedy of pluralism.

To do this, in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) Dewey replaces the hope of progress toward perfection with the hope of perpetual growth. In other words, Dewey is the first of the pragmatists to highlight that the “ethical import of the doctrine of evolution is enormous.” But he believes such import “has been misconstrued because the doctrine has been appropriated by the very traditional notions which in truth it subverts.”

He denounces asymptotic ethical theories as “a futile dogma of approximation.”

Dewey describes “the typical nineteenth-century, mid-Victorian conception of evolution,” which hopes the world is heading in the direction of perfection as “pitfully juvenile” and “precisely a formulation of such a consummate juvenilism.” Dewey believes the kind of naive hope in eventual perfection, offered by philosophers stretching from Kant to James, is so prevalent that it deserves to be called “the philosophical fallacy.”

Read “What Is the Sublime? (According to Kant and Schopenhauer)

Arriving at Perfection Is A Wish for the Tranquility of Death

Contrary to James’ and others’ views of meliorism as an asymptotic approach towards eternal perfection, Dewey emphasizes that an evolutionary meliorism simply deals with current problems and is always heading in different directions. Dewey rejects the idea that the letting loose of hope requires a belief in “a fixed ideal of remote good.”

In place of such juvenile (or as James would call it, “tender-minded”) hope, Dewey offers the more tough-minded hope of solving only each generation’s present-day problems, quoting the bible for inspiration: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Our efforts should focus on “remedial action,” which converts “strife into harmony, monotony into a variegated scene, and limitation into expansion.” Such conversion of present-day problems is “the only progress conceivable or attainable by man.”

Such remedial action is perpetual. Dewey invokes the adage that meaning is in the journey, not the destination: “If it is better to travel than to arrive, it is because traveling is a constant arriving, while arrival that precludes further traveling is most easily attained by going to sleep or dying.”

For Dewey, the juvenile desire to finally arrive at perfection is effectively a wish for the tranquility of death.

Listen to “Toward a Politics of Uncertainty

Dewey’s Vision of Progress as Perpetual Remediation

It is quite clear Dewey’s vision of progress as perpetual remediation brings no “surcease, no immunity from perplexity and trouble.” He generalizes this view into his own version of a categorical imperative: “So act as to increase the meaning of present experience.”

Each generation endeavors to reduce the meaningless aspects of its age (especially pointless suffering) and increase its meaningful features. But such an imperative is of little use because it is too general and too vague. Dewey warns us that such abstract principles are a distraction from the concrete challenges each generation immediately faces: “Till men give up the search for a general formula of progress they will not know where to look to find it.”

Dewey also emphasizes another tough-minded rejoinder: “No matter what the present success in straightening out difficulties and harmonizing conflicts, it is certain that problems will recur in the future in a new form or on a different plane.” In fact, whatever problems we ameliorate will cause new problems to arise: “From the side of what has gone before achievement settles something. From the side of what comes after, it complicates, introducing new problems, unsettling factors.”

One might think such an almost Sisyphean form of meliorism would lead to hopelessness, as James argues. But Dewey claims humanity is much tougher-minded than someone like James might believe.

Surprisingly for a philosopher, Dewey denigrates the power of rational arguments to generate hope, and elevates our instinctive “dumb pluck of the animal.” Dewey describes “arguments about pessimism and optimism based upon considerations regarding fixed attainment of good and evil,” i.e., those such as James’, as “mainly literary in quality.”

We hope for the future “not because reason convinces [us] of the certainty or probability of future satisfactions and achievements,” but because we are “living creature[s]” with innate “endurance, hope, curiosity, eagerness, love of action”: “These traits belong to [humanity] by structure, not by taking thought.”

Such innate hope enables us to cope with an endless future filled with “inevitable disappointments as well as fulfillments.”

Read “Should We Take Comfort in the Knowledge Others Have It Worse?

Progress Means New Purposes, New Goals, New Hopes

Dewey also emphasizes the importance of a sense of humility, which “is the sense of our slight inability even with our best intelligence and effort to command events; a sense of our dependence upon forces that go their way without our wish and plan.” This description of humility harks back to the discussion of “cosmical weather” in Chauncey Wright’s Philosophical Discussions (1878): “our dependence upon forces that go their way without our wish or plan.”

The knowledge that the days of good weather are perpetual sparks the letting loose of hope despite our knowledge that the days of bad weather are also perpetual. We should do all we can to ameliorate the ill effects of bad weather. That is progress. But we shouldn’t fall prey to the juvenile hope the weather will become progressively better until one day there will be nothing but beautiful weather.

But what kind of progress can we hope for in the perpetual flow of days of good and bad weather, be it cosmical or meteorological?

In Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), Dewey is quite clear that ultimate progress, like weather, is not heading in a particular direction: “Progress is sometimes thought of as consisting in getting nearer to ends already sought. But this is a minor form of progress.” But unlike hope regarding cosmical weather, we can hold the hope that humanity will create new purposes, new goals, new hopes: “More important modes of progress consist in enriching prior purposes and in forming new ones.”

Listen to “Can Pragmatism Help Us Live Well?

Must New Hopes Have a Certain Direction?

Some might feel the mere hope of new hopes is not enough, that such hopes must have a certain direction.

In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey indirectly addresses this issue of the boundlessness of new hopes in the context of his related concept of boundless growth through education: “Hence it is argued that ‘growth’ is not enough; we must also specify the direction in which growth takes place, the end towards which it tends.”

Dewey admits some forms of growth may seem questionable: “That a man may grow in efficiency as a burglar, as a gangster, or as a corrupt politician, cannot be doubted.” Nonetheless, he maintains that growth, even in these apparently undesirable directions, can only be judged by whether they lead to more growth: “Does this form of growth create conditions for further growth, or does it set up conditions that shut off the person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions, stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?”

What is remarkable about Dewey’s philosophy of boundless growth is that it acknowledges becoming a better burglar is a kind of growth. Dewey explicitly rejects any requirement that growth be in a specific direction. Growth need only be in a general direction—that of more growth in the future.

Presumably, growing to be a better burglar, while growth in the short run, would likely lead to arrest and imprisonment, and the shutting off of growth in the long run. But such a philosophy of growth is necessarily retrospective. We can’t predict in advance whether or not short-term growth in some direction will lead to further growth in new directions in the long run. Perhaps the successful burglar uses their ill-gotten gains (stolen only from corrupt organizations) to fund legitimate investments that lead to a fortune entirely donated to charitable causes that generate other forms of growth.

Translated from the language of growth to the language of hope, the key question is: Does a particular form of hope create conditions for the growth of new and different hopes? Does a current hope enable the letting loose of new hopes in the future?

Although Dewey begins pragmatism’s shift in emphasis away from James’ theistic hope of coming ever closer to eternal perfection, the full articulation of the boundlessness of pragmatic hope is only undertaken by the neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty.

Read “Rortian Liberalism and the Problem of Evil

We Ought to View Ourselves as ‘Hopeful Man’

Other than James, no pragmatist frames pragmatism as a philosophy of hope more than Richard Rorty. In fact, he calls his version of pragmatism “hope in place of knowledge” (which serves as the title of his three 2004 Page-Barbour Lectures on pragmatism).

Our ability to amass knowledge is not what most distinguishes humanity. Instead, in the preface to Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) Rorty proposes: “My candidate for the most distinctive and praiseworthy human capacity is our ability to trust and to cooperate with other people, and in particular to work together so as to improve the future.”

In other words, our capacity for the letting loose of hope to inspire social change is humanity’s most distinctive and praiseworthy one. We should view ourselves as homo spes (“hopeful man”) instead of homo sapiens (“wise man”)*. 

Listen to “Richard Rorty and Achieving Our Country

Solving Old Problems Creates New Problems

Although Rorty’s views on hope, meliorism, and progress are all squarely in line with Dewey’s, Rorty clarifies and amplifies two aspects of Dewey’s views.

First, Rorty highlights in various ways Dewey’s claim that problems will always be with us. For instance, in his essay “Rationality and Cultural Differences in Truth and Progress” (1998), he points out, “we typically solve old problems at the cost of creating new problems for ourselves. (For example, we eliminate old forms of cruelty and intolerance only to find that we have invented new, more insidious forms thereof.)”

As Rorty emphasizes in his essay “Romantics, Sophists, and Systematic Philosophers in Metaphilosophy and Chinese Thought: Interpreting David Hall” (2005), the self-perpetuating tragedy of pluralism is, contrary to James’ hopes, perpetual: “No matter what socio-political setup we agree on, something will be lost. Somebody will get hurt. Some people will suffer. This is a view with which Dewey would have entirely agreed.”

Even within philosophy, there is no progress in the sense of asymptotically approaching complete wisdom, there is only the exchange of one set of interesting philosophical problems for another. As Rorty puts it in his response to James Conant in Rorty and His Critics (2000): “Leaping from frying pan to fire, from fire to a different frying pan, from different frying pan to a different fire, and so on apparently without end.”

Listen to “Literature Must Be an Unsettling Force for Democracy

Wholesale Hope vs. Retail Hope

Second, Rorty drives home the point that after Darwin we should no longer hope nature or humanity is heading in any particular direction: “After Darwin, however, it became possible to believe that nature is not leading up to anything.”

To better explain the boundlessness of hope in pragmatism, in his essay “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism” in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), Rorty applies his often used framework of wholesale versus retail:

Let me sum up by offering a third and final characterization of pragmatism: it is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones—no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow inquirers.

Wholesale constraints aren’t the only wholesale things that pragmatism rejects, so are wholesale ideals such as James’ hope for humanity’s possible salvation. For Rorty, pragmatism is a “philosophy of finitude,” as he puts it in his essay “Romanticism, Narrative Philosophy, and Human Finitude in Philosophy as Poetry” (2016), which means “there is no way of knowing, at any given moment in history, whether humanity is heading in the right direction.”

In other words, there is no way of knowing whether humanity is inspired by the right hopes. Any attempt to transcend our finite current hopes regarding right and wrong directions and to establish an absolute, universal, and eternal hope for humanity is an “attempt to philosophize at a wholesale level,” which means “an attempt to evade [our] finitude.”

Rorty likes to emphasize the wholesale/retail distinction using capitalization. So Rorty is endorsing retail “hopes” (lowercase)—our finite, near-term hopes at this moment in history—and dismissing wholesale “Hope” (capitalized)—a transcendental Hope that is absolute, universal, and eternal. He breaks with those who say, “if we give up the attempt to think in a wholesale way, we are betraying something essential to our humanity.”

This is in direct contrast to James in Pragmatism (1907), who claims “this need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast.” Eternal Moral Order is a paradigm of a wholesale Hope. This is somewhat akin to holding that without a belief in a wholesale Morality established by God, people would not behave morally in everyday situations (i.e., follow retail moral codes). What Rorty makes clear with his metaphor of wholesale and retail is that pragmatism is synonymous with giving up wholesale Constraints and Ideals, including any form of wholesale Hope aiming in some eternal direction.

Listen to “A Tool for a Pluralistic World

Rorty Finds Hope in Boundless Conversation

Rorty’s preferred metaphor for discussing the boundlessness of hope is not Dewey’s organic metaphor of growth, but the metaphor of human conversation.

In his first book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty introduces one of his favorite metaphors, “the conversation of mankind” (which he borrows from Michael Oakenshott). Or, “the conversation of humanity,” to update the phrase. This is Rorty’s metaphor for cultural change across generations. Rorty closes his book by claiming the sole point of “edifying” philosophy (the kind he endorses) is to “send the conversation off in new directions.”

Later, Rorty returns to the metaphor of the conversation of humanity, and claims in his essay response to Robert Brandom in Rorty and His Critics (2000), that sending the conversation off in new directions is not only the point of philosophy, but the point of human life itself:

“[T]he point of human life is ‘to make and understand an indefinite number of novel claims, frame an indefinite number of novel purposes, and so on, subjecting oneself to constraint by the norms implicit in a vocabulary [which] at the same time confers unparalleled positive freedom—that is, freedom to do things one could not only not do before, but could not even want to do’ (Rorty quoting Robert Brandom).”

Framed in terms of Rorty’s view of pragmatism as a philosophy of hope, one may more fruitfully say the point of humanity is to send hope in new directions: everchanging hope springs eternal in the human breast, if you will.

New paradigms, new cultural norms, new political structures, etc., ramify hopes in new directions. The goal is not merely to imagine things we’ve never imagined before, or know things we’ve never known before, but to hope for things we’ve never hoped for before.

Read “It’s All a Bit Absurd

Redefining the Letting Loose of Hope

Rorty’s vision redefines the meaning of the letting loose of hope. For James’ vision of meliorism, it means filling our hearts over time with an almost boundless degree of inspiration sparked by a single, unified Hope, aimed in a single direction over the eons: eternal salvation. For Rorty, it means a boundless number of novel hopes sent off in a boundless number of directions over the eons.

To perpetually sustain hope, we must free it to be sent in ever new directions. The conversation of humanity then follows where such novel hopes lead. Such a conversation is like Wright’s cosmical weather—there are good stretches and bad stretches, but the point is not to arrive at any final end, but merely to keep things going.

It is important to keep in mind that the pragmatic vision of perpetually sending hope in new directions is a melancholic meliorism, or perhaps a mono no aware meliorism.

Every birth is the birth of a hope. Every death is the death of a hope.

The myriad retail hopes are born to die, so that new hopes may be born. One of Rorty’s other favorite metaphors, which he first used in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), is one he borrowed from Dewey: “breaking the crust of convention.” What both Dewey and Rorty realize is that to free hope to head in new directions, some of the most tethering conventions that need to be broken are the conventional hopes of the day.

Though variations on the metaphor of “the arc of the universe bends towards” are deeply stirring, we should leave them behind. The universe has no such wholesale Arc, and is bending in no wholesale Direction. There are only finite (human) projects (with their retail hopes and retail arcs) whose collective long-term direction is a boundless journey.

The only pragmatic wholesale Hope is that the births and deaths, the formings and breakings of myriad retail hopes, should continue boundlessly forever.

And this wholesale Hope takes us all the way back to Wright’s cosmical weather. Wright’s Hope is that cosmical weather would perpetually bring both good weather and bad. But there is also a freedom in the Hope of perpetually sending hopes in boundless new directions. It means that no hope to which humanity aspires ever becomes a suffocating anchor tethering us to a fixed direction; no hope becomes an incarcerating fence, circumscribing our ability to create hopes we can’t even imagine today.

*For further insight into Rorty’s meliorism and its place in pragmatic meliorism, see Colin Koopman’s paper Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope: Emerson, James, Dewey, Rorty (2006).

Nick Gall

Nick received his BA in Philosophy at Yale University in the heyday of deconstruction and his MS in Computer Science at WPI in the heyday of AI expert systems. He didn't recover until encountering the work of Richard Rorty at NYU Law School, where he received his JD. His careers have spanned software engineering, intellectual property litigation, IT research and analysis, and design thinking. Nick is currently developing a post-pragmatist philosophy he calls Fruitionism. You can find him on Twitter and read more of his writing on Medium.

8 thoughts on “Dewey and Rorty: Sending Pragmatist Hopes in New Directions

  • I enjoyed this segment very much too. (It may be that my reaction is unsurprising, since I wrote a book–The Perennial Solution Center–covering a lot of this same ground about 20 years ago!) Good to see it’s a subject that’s still of interest. Thanks!

  • Thanks again! Your book “The Perennial Solution Center” sounds fascinating: “The Perennial Solution Center uses a different method to illuminate a – perhaps *the* – way to a particular kind of solace.” I think hope, grief, and solace are intertwingled. I’d love to get your book from my library, but I couldn’t find it in WorldCat.

    I’m sure the subject will be of perennial interest. 😉

  • We’ll, Amazon and eBay have some used ones they’re practically giving away!

  • Awesome! I see we’re neighbors (I’m in Arlington). Let’s get together for coffee and a chat sometime after you’ve read it. (Sorry about all the typos!)

  • I’d love that! Should I just comment here to let you know when it’s been sometime after I’ve read it? If you’d like to contact me directly my contact information, including my email is here: .


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