Bourdieu and Dewey seem to share much in common and are often discussed together as incisive critics of disembodied reasoning. Yet their pragmatisms could not be more different, most obviously in their intellectual style and affect but also in their substance. If Bourdieu’s pragmatism leads to a hard-edged cynicism, Dewey’s resulted in a more open-ended faith in the potential of democratic progress.
When Bourdieu proposed his own version of democratizing culture, he meant making the cultural styles of elites available to the masses through reforming their habits and, for example, providing more interpretative support for their encounters with high culture (placards in art museums and the like). In effect, democratization for Bourdieu meant expanding the number of players in the status games of the privileged. For Dewey, on the other hand, democratizing the arts was important because it would enrich the lives of numerous people and build our capacity to communicate across social divisions. This experiential focus was crucial for his vision of a pluralistic democracy—one where all those affected by a problem have some say in how to respond appropriately.
Dewey acknowledged that we begin from categories, classifications and positions, but his entire philosophy was set against the notion that those classifications could be the end of social and political life. In his view, rather, there was no end, only temporary “ends-in-view,” and life—real practical life—was an endless process of testing them. Art, in his view, is “more moral than moralities” because it not only aims to enforce conventional goods and ideals but discovers and realizes new ones.
Because he saw individuals’ fulfillment as being intimately tied to their social environment, Dewey’s pragmatism was geared toward creating practical conditions for realizing the proposition that “the powers of a man are not fixed, but capable of modification and redirection.” Accordingly, he was a deep critic of any structure of thought or interaction that pushed us in the opposite direction—toward ways of interacting that make it more difficult to undergo “the growth of character and conduct” that comes from opening oneself up to new possibilities that arise in the course of one’s activities. The competing visions of life represented by Dewey and Bourdieu could be described as the growth and enrichment of experience versus the logic of interested practice. How do we evaluate them? The pragmatist answer is that we put them to the practical test: try them, entertain their implications and see what happens. We have seen the practical maxims of the Logic of the Like and where they lead: to Spinoza’s “they provoke mutual dislike.” Rather than sketch out a Deweyan alternative in the abstract, therefore, I would like to suggest that a bit of pragmatist practical wisdom may be found in a homely maxim of everyday life: don’t judge a book by its cover.
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