Skip to main content

The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal

John Dewey and the Transcendent

In this highly original book, Victor Kestenbaum calls into question the oft-repeated assumption that John Dewey’s pragmatism has no place for the transcendent. Kestenbaum demonstrates that, far from ignoring the transcendent ideal, Dewey’s works—on education, ethics, art, and religion—are in fact shaped by the tension between the natural and the transcendent.

Kestenbaum argues that to Dewey, the pragmatic struggle for ideal meaning occurs at the frontier of the visible and the invisible, the tangible and the intangible. Penetrating analyses of Dewey’s early and later writings, as well as comparisons with the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michael Oakeshott, and Wallace Stevens, shed new light on why Dewey regarded the human being’s relationship to the ideal as "the most far-reaching question" of philosophy. For Dewey, the pragmatic struggle for the good life required a willingness "to surrender the actual experienced good for a possible ideal good." Dewey’s pragmatism helps us to understand the place of the transcendent ideal in a world of action and practice.


“The author tells us to ‘be prepared to be surprised by Dewey’ and in his hands, Dewey amply fulfills the promise. The book is a series of interwoven but discrete studies designed to intimate and tease out persistent transcendent themes in Dewey’s work.”

Eldon Eisenach | History of Political Thought

"An elegantly and engagingly written work. . . . Any reading of Dewey that so forcefully reminds us that human experience is a dramatic encounter of unfathomable depth . . . is a reading worthy of careful, critical attention. This book is not cleverly provocative; it is rather truly surprising, in the very best sense. Its value resides not so much in the insights it offers for reading Dewey’s texts as in its impetus to confront . . . human experience in its potentially shattering force and irreducibly myriad forms."

Vincent Colapietro | American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

Table of Contents

1. Under Ideal Conditions
2. The Pragmatic Struggle for the Good
3. "In the Midst of Effort"
4. Humanism and Vigilance
5. The Rationality of Conduct: Dewey and Oakeshott
6. The Undeclared Self
7. "Meaning on the Model of Truth": Dewey and Gadamer on Habit and Vorurteil
8. Faith and the Unseen
9. Dewey, Wallace Stevens, and the "Difficult Inch"

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press