Marcel and Dewey on Hope: Radical Differences, Noteworthy Similarities

By Fishman, Stephen M.; McCarthy, Lucille | Philosophy Today, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Marcel and Dewey on Hope: Radical Differences, Noteworthy Similarities


Fishman, Stephen M., McCarthy, Lucille, Philosophy Today


We live in times when hope is in short supply. Continuing ecological destruction, expanding ethnic and political conflicts, and widening gaps between wealthy and poor make it difficult to be hopeful about humanity's future. Living in such times, it is natural to turn to philosophers for insight about how to maintain hope despite the escalation of national and international crises. Unfortunately, however, not many contemporary philosophers systematically discuss hope, and, with few exceptions, ' those who do discuss it take a theistic or supernaturalistic approach.2 Further, on the rare occasions when those outside the theistic tradition explore the topic of hope, they do not make their main focus bringing theistic and nontheistic approaches into dialogue.3 Our intention in this essay is to begin such a dialogue by comparing the work of two men whom we see as representative of these opposing traditions: Gabriel Marcel, a theist, and John Dewey, a nontheist.

Our decision to focus on Marcel should not be surprising since his philosophy has hope at its center. However, our choice of Dewey as the nontheist with whom we will contrast Marcel, is less obvious since nowhere in Dewey's voluminous work does he explicitly discuss hope. Nevertheless, Dewey seems a good choice to us because he maintained a positive outlook across his long career despite the many personal and public crises he endured and witnessed: the death of two young sons, significant U.S. labor violence, a global economic depression, and two world wars. In addition, by drawing upon several of Dewey's major works, including Democracy and Education, Human Nature and Conduct, Experience and Nature, Art as Experience, and A Common Faith, we believe we can construct a theory of hope for him. In doing so, we emphasize aspects of Dewey's thought, including his deep piety toward nature and his sensitivity to the mystical dimensions of experience, that are sometimes underappreciated in Dewey scholarship. Thus, our more specific intention in this essay is to compare Marcel and Dewey on hope in light of the theory of hope we construct for Dewey.

Given the fact that Dewey is a naturalist who sees all human experience as having a natural origin and a natural end, and, by contrast, Marcel is a theist who views the mysterious dimension of human experience as an intimation of a transcendent realm, it is not unexpected that we find strong differences in their views of hope. For example, the object of Dewey's ultimate hope is full engrossment in present experience leading to individual and social growth, whereas the object of Marcel's ultimate hope is salvation as eternal communion with God. Sharp differences also distinguish their views of how to overcome hopelessness. For Dewey, this requires a gradual rather than a radical change. It requires moving our emphasis from extending the harmonies we achieve via successful adjustment with our environment to focusing on the process of adjustment itself. By contrast, for Marcel, overcoming hopelessness requires a transformation of the self: a letting go of one's desiring, acquisitive ego while birthing a selfless, spiritual being.

Whereas these radical differences between Dewey and Marcel are predictable, the noteworthy similarities we find, places where these theorists' footsteps on the terrain of hope overlap, are unexpected. For example, we find that Dewey and Marcel both believe that faith in oneself and in the sources of one's being is important for maintaining hope. In addition, they both believe that communion-feeling part of a larger whole-is an important condition for maintaining hope. Finally, the overlap we find most interesting is that, for both Marcel and Dewey, this need for communion is satisfied by experiences that are mysterious, experiences that are ineffable and indescribable.

We begin our essay by explicating Marcel's theory of hope. Given, as we say, that we live in times when it is easy to become hopeless, and given that we turn to philosophers for ways to overcome these feelings, we explicate Marcel's theory by exploring his responses to two questions:

(1) What causes people to become hopeless? …

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