John Dewey, Flourishing, and Buddhism


I’ve experienced a gradual set of shifts in the way I understand Buddhist practice over the years. There was a time when the Buddhist teachings on non-self, interdependence, awareness, impermanence, and dukkha provided the totality of the frame within which I understood the aims of Buddhist practice. These teachings remain important to me, but I now understand them within a larger non-Buddhist framework.

At first that larger frame was primarily neo-Aristotelian: Buddhist practice is a means for promoting virtue, wisdom, and flourishing. By flourishing, I mean a life that is happy, psychologically rich, and praiseworthy, takes the well-being of others seriously, and is manifested in the multiple domains of relationships, accomplishments, aesthetics, mindful presence, meaning, wholeness, integrity, and resilience. Virtues are the intra- and inter-personal skills that make flourishing possible, and wisdom the faculty that allows us to balance conflicting moral and non-moral considerations.  I’ve subsequently come to understand Buddhist and Aristotelean flourishing, wisdom, and virtue from within the even larger frame of Deweyan pragmatism. I want to briefly describe this larger frame and what it implies for Buddhist practice.

Aristotle and Dewey were both naturalists. Their view of human values and purposes did not rely on beliefs concerning the existence (or nonexistence) of a God or gods, an afterlife, rebirth, and anything supernatural. They were also realistic about the upper limits of human improvement. Aristotle and Dewey did not believe in the possibility of some magical apotheosis that could turn us into transcendent (and trans-human) perfect beings. We may be able to flourish better than we currently do, and we may be able to become wiser and more virtuous than we currently are, but we cannot become perfectly wise or perfectly virtuous. Their frameworks rule out the possibilities of the traditional Buddhist goals of perfect enlightenment or rebirth in some better afterlife. What they do not rule out is the possibility of increased compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, generosity, non-harming, and mindfulness.

Dewey and Aristotle part company over Aristotle’s essentialist views on truth, human nature, and ethics. Unlike Aristotle, Dewey thinks beliefs are neither “true” nor “untrue” but only more or less adequate for given purposes. We work to justify our beliefs with evidence, but can never collect all the evidence we and posterity might possibly uncover over many lifetimes, and so our beliefs can only be provisional at best—good enough for present purposes and more useful than competing hypotheses for those purposes—but open to revision as we encounter more evidence. For Deweyans, the search for better beliefs is always an open-ended process of continued inquiry.

Dewey believed that there is no such thing as an essential human nature but only the way we happen to have turned out given a particular train of genetic and social evolution and personal experience. Human nature may change over time given further genetic and/or social change. All we can say is what humans are like now and what the historical record says we were like in the past. Can we humans overcome our selfishness, competitiveness, tribalism, and aggressiveness in some ideal future? We can’t appeal to some essential human nature to answer that question. The answer can only be “who knows?” and maybe, “we shall see.” In this way, Deweyans share the Zen attitude of “not knowing.”

Morality is also contingent on social evolution. What was moral for honor, warrior, or frontier cultures is not what is moral for industrialized Western democratic cultures today. Aristotle, in his day, did not extend his esteem for the Athenian male aristocracy to women, slaves, or barbarians. As pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, moral growth occurs through acts of imagination that allow us to understand the perspectives of people we once thought of as “not like us.” As we consider their perspectives and take them into account, we often enrich our own.

We are currently in the midst of a set of transitions in moral values as we, as a society, rethink older values regarding premarital sex, sexual consent, marijuana use, gender roles, and the status of “outsider” racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and differently-abled groups. A good deal of today’s political turmoil is due to the conflict between those who have re-thought these older social values and those who wish to retain them as-is. Fundamentalists believe there is only one way to be moral and it never changes. Deweyans inquire into existing social values to discover whether they still do (or ever did) enhance human flourishing or whether they stand in need of revision given present social circumstances.

This is the larger context within which I now view the aims of Buddhist practice. Deweyan Buddhists are not Buddhist fundamentalists—things are never true just because the Buddha said them. Every Buddhist tenet is open to inquiry, and if our investigations lead us to different conclusions, so be it. Deweyans adopt Buddhist ideas when they enhance flourishing and modify them when they no longer do (if they ever did) given the evidence.

From this frame of reference, certain aspects of Buddhist dogma no longer make sense to me. For example, I don’t believe we ought to give up desire, full stop. Instead, we ought to aspire to right desire—wanting the things that genuinely enhance flourishing and wanting them in the right sort of way—not rigidly, compulsively, or obsessively. Similarly, I don’t believe we ought to eschew sensual pleasure. Sensual pleasures ought to be pursued ethically and shouldn’t crowd out or undermine our other goals and aspirations—but they do have an important role to play in our well-being. We also don’t have to dwell eternally in the present moment. While we are better off when we find a larger space in our lives for being present, and while we benefit from growth in our ability to be mindful and discerning regarding our thoughts, emotions, and desires, this still leaves plenty of room in our lives for planning for the future and learning from the past.

Finally, I don’t believe we ought let go of our attachments to loved ones or treat everyone with the same degree of love and compassion. It seems natural for us—and good for our flourishing—when we are partial to loved ones, are emotionally attached to our family and friends, and care more about them than we do distant neighbors, grocery clerks, insurance salespersons, or people we’ve never actually met. We can acknowledge all relationships are impermanent—that people eventually change, leave, or grow old and die—and still value how these relationships contribute to our flourishing. Buddhism is right in suggesting we can grow our good will, care, and concern for everyone, and that it’s possible to make a general level of good will our default attitude much of the time. Buddhism seems mistaken, however, in suggesting we ought to (and can) feel the exact same degree of emotional connection to (or disconnection from) everyone.

One thing we Deweyans think Buddhism does get right is its redefinition of human being as “interbeing.” We are deeply social animals who care about the well-being of our families and communities. Their well-being is an essential part of our own well-being. Post-Renaissance Western cultures have tended towards an excessive individualism at the expense of an appreciation of our deep embedding within families, societies, cultures, and ecosystems. We humans are also beings who are oriented toward the future in that we care about the future well-being of our family, society, culture, and planet. Dewey stressed that organisms couldn’t be understood in isolation, but only in the context of their relations and transactions with their natural and cultural environments as they creatively pursued solutions to problems in those relations and transactions as they arose.

It’s inevitable that as we experience more, read more, and learn more, we eventually come to see our older ideas in a newer light. This newer light isn’t something we deliberately seek out—it just “happens” along the way. Is it ever otherwise? It seems consistent, howewer, with the Buddhist teachings on non-self and impermanence—there’s no unchanging you or me, and no unchanging understanding of Buddhism.

Given this new “Deweyan” frame, I thought about changing the title of this blog from The Existential Buddhist to The Pragmatic Buddhist. When I started this blog I was more interested in existentialism—especially existential approaches to psychotherapy and phenomenology. Alas, there is already an existing approach to Buddhism called “Pragmatic Dharma”—one that has little or nothing to do (as far as I can tell) with the American pragmatist tradition of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Rorty. That makes calling myself a “pragmatic Buddhist” problematic—I would always need to qualify it by explaining “I’m not that kind of pragmatic Buddhist.” Changing domain names and redirecting older readers to it also seems more trouble than it’s worth. So, the name Existential Buddhist stays—new wine in an old bottle—and I will just put up with needing to explain “I’m not that kind of existential Buddhist.”