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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DEWEY

(1859 — 1952)

 

PRAGMATISM

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, where his father was in the grocery business. He was at school there before entering the University of Vermont. After three years teaching in high school he became a graduate student of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, gaining his doctorate in 1884. He subsequently taught at the University of Michigan, and in 1894 was appointed professor of philosophy and chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at Chicago. In 1904 he moved to Columbia University. He was the author of a large number of books and articles on a wide range of subjects which gained him an international reputation.

 

METHODOLOGY/ LOGIC AND KNOWLEDGE

[1] In his earliest period Dewey was strongly attracted to Hegel's thought, with its commitment to the idea of the unity and interconnectedness of all things as manifestations of the Absolute. However, he soon moved away from idealism, appealing instead to biology and the human sciences, placing more emphasis on man's emotional life instead of its cognitive and reflective aspects, and developing a pluralist approach in place of monism. Nevertheless, a residual influence of Hegelianism is evident in the 'organicist' and dynamic aspects [a] of his mature philosophy. Central to this [see especially Experience and Nature and Logic: The Theory of Enquiry] is his 'instrumentalist' view of thought. This refers to the way that man, faced by problems — hazardous situations arising from his confrontation with the environment, is able to work out a suitable project of enquiry as a plan for action to enable him to deal with them and attain security. Dewey's account of thought is thus both naturalistic and empirical. It is the former in the sense that it is to be understood as an activity originating from the relationship of an organism to the environment. It is empirical in that thinking both starts from experience and terminates in it — when it takes control of or alters the environment. Thought and practice are thus closely interconnected [b]. Now thinking involves concepts, propositions, and arguments, for which logic supplies the symbolization. Logic too must therefore be understood in instrumentalist terms. So, while acknowledging the greatness of Aristotelian logic as a formal system, Dewey says a new "logic of enquiry" is needed which can be applied to science and other fields. He defines this enquiry as the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.

Three stages are identified:

(1) The individual experiences a "felt difficulty". Dewey calls this "the antecedent condition of enquiry".

(2) The individual needs to deal with the problem and considers possible responses. He formulates in imagination appropriate hypotheses, which in complicated situations may have to be refined and combined with deductive reasoning.

(3) The proposed hypotheses are then tested out to see if they solve the problem. Dewey says that thought thereby produces "concrete reconstruction of antecedent conditions of existence". It is thus predictive — open to verification in its consequences [c].

[2] This approach provides Dewey with the basis for his radical view of knowledge and truth [see Logic]. Traditionally it had been supposed (by both realists and empiricists) that there are certain or indubitable truths which constitute a foundation for all of our knowledge. Dewey criticizes this. Bare immediate experience is only the starting-point and is non-cognitve and an "unanalysed totality", devoid of all distinctions, such as, for example, that of subject-object. It is only when we start to reflect that division is introduced and an experience comes to be given significance in relation to its functions. In this respect it can then become an object of knowledge. To know is to bestow significance in the light of the enquiry directed towards the experience. Dewey thus rejects theories of knowledge which treat the knower as a 'spectator' of objects and which disregard the effects on them of the very process of knowing. According to him, knowledge as practical 'intelligence' makes its objects, "interrogates nature", and thereby brings about changes in the environment — "successful practice" being judged in terms of the outcome. He sees the acquisition of knowledge as requiring practical and social 'skill' but he has regard also for the contribution that must be sought from the experimental sciences [a]. Truth is likewise to be defined as 'absolute fixity of belief' with reference to consequences, that is, the end which a proposition or hypothesis leads to. A hypothesis is considered to 'work' to the extent that it overcomes the relevant 'problem'. However, Dewey thinks of true statements as intrinsically fallible and that 'truth' should be understood not so much in terms of 'satisfaction' but as the "warranted assertibility" of a belief — 'warranted' in so far as it is in accordance with the ideal limit towards which scientific investigation is carrying us [b]. Dewey thereby preserves a view of truth as 'objective', in that it relates to problems in the actual world. But he rejects the notion of an absolute or eternal 'metaphysical' truths [c] except to the extent that they may be regarded as having an invariant functional rather than any ontological value, in so far as they help us to know the one changing world.

Dewey's method is to be applied not just in the physical sciences. Human experience includes feelings, desires, as well as thoughts; and the environment in which man operates is cultural as well as physical. The general method of enquiry should thus find specific application to all modes of human experience — intellectual, aesthetic, religious, moral, social, and their interrelationships. At the same time Dewey recognises that the general method has to be modified to the extent that different areas of human life have to be dealt with in different and appropriate ways if the desired consequences are to be satisfactorily achieved [d].

In general philosophy for Dewey has both 'visionary' and a clarificatory functions. It is visionary in the sense that he seeks to reconstruct an overall view of man in the context of nature and civilization — taking account of all aspects of experience. But to achieve this requires a critical examination of the sciences and technology, the humanities, ethics, and man's religious dimension. Thus far we might describe philosophy, as understood by Dewey, as a 'second-order' discipline in that it can both clarify and mediate between different areas of man's cultural life [e]. He considers philosophy to be capable of these roles because it is uniquely aware of the nature, scope, and methods of intelligence in general.

 

ETHICS AND AESTHETICS

[3] [See Human Nature and Conduct and Philosophy and Civilization.] The awareness of uncertainty as to what responses might be required to meet a specific problem encountered in one's relationship to the environment is a mental quality. But as directed towards a resolution of the problem the responses become in addition intellectual, according to Dewey. Intelligent conduct is the basis of his ethics. A moral agent, he says, proposes an end to be achieved through action; and indeed this end gives significance to the activity and determines its direction. Dewey distinguishes two factors which are involved: impulses and habits. Impulses are spontaneous and, unlike animal instincts, are non-organized drives. They are channelled into habits, which Dewey says are acquired dispositions to act in particular ways. In the course of time sets of habits come to constitute customs and thus the morality of a society. But, guided by intelligence, impulses can also modify customs to produce new structures [a]. Is there then an ideal, an absolute standard at which social customs should aim? Dewey rejects any suggestion of a realm of metaphysical values independent of man and the environment [b]. Values are made in and by acts of evaluation in the context of society — as when we decide that an end is 'satisfactory', that it meets particular conditions. Good is then defined in terms of the significance we feel to belong to any activity which gives rise to "a unified orderly release in action" from a complex of conflicting impulses and habits. The only moral end, Dewey says, is growth, that is, the "continuous reconstruction of experience". There is no final perfect telos [c]. Intrinsic good is thus inseparable from instrumental good, as is the world of values from the world of facts; and judgements of value, like judgements of the sciences, are predictive and thus empirically verifiable [d].

[4] [Art and Experience.] Dewey's ethics and social philosophy are closely connected with his views on aesthetics. He saw all kinds of human experience as possessing an 'immediacy' which integrates their constituent elements, thereby bringing about a unity of the experience. These pervasive 'tertiary qualities', as he called them, are essentially 'aesthetic'. They may possess both conceptual and emotional components. They are neither objectively in things themselves independently of experiences nor are they entirely 'subjective' — in the experiencer's mind. Rather they belong to the complex of the total experience itself. Moreover, they are in a state of change and development in the context of ongoing resolution of intellectual and practical problems by individuals' intelligence. Dewey talks of experience as thereby being 'reconstructed' and as attaining a condition of 'consummation'. There is, he says, a continuum of tertiary qualities throughout our experience, from everyday perception through knowledge to the sciences, the fine arts, and religion. Our experience of life itself is thus aesthetic. The so-called aesthetic feature we associate with our appreciation of art is just this all-embracing aesthetic quality experienced at a greater intensity [a].

 

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[5] [Human Nature and Conduct.] In Dewey's ethics the primary concern is the all-round growth of the human person [a]. This can be achieved only in a social environment — which can provide opportunities and means for individuals to make use of them [a]. Politics must therefore be directed to monitor and if needs be criticize institutions to enable them to be reconstructed and thereby maximize the opportunities they provide. As in his theory of knowledge, Dewey rejects abstractions, for example, the State as an ideal eternal model. The only test of a particular state's efficacy lies in the success it has in facilitating the growth of all its members. But he does regard democracy as preferable, in so far as it is founded on faith in human intelligence and capacities and on the power of cooperation and collective experience [b]. Democracy is a framework for free enquiry and experimental methods rather than a set of precepts or rules. Such views strongly informed Dewey's influential views on education.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[6] [See especially A Common Faith.] Dewey did not subscribe to any belief in a supernatural God. But while rejecting religion — as a set of creeds, institutions, and practices — he talks of an attitude towards certain kinds of experience as 'religious' [a]. By this he does not mean anything like a feeling of love or union with a transcendent being. Rather it is a description of attitudes we may have to any kind of experience (be it aesthetic, moral, or scientific, or feelings for other people), which can give individuals faith, and can direct them towards something 'beyond' with a view to their achieving harmony with the totality of Nature or the Universe. We can call this God if we wish: but for Dewey the term can mean no more than "the active relation between ideal and actual".

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Dewey was a major thinker whose influence has been felt far beyond the confines of America and especially in the field of education, his philosophy being particularly relevant to everyday issues. His pragmatism is notable not only for its combination of the coherence and correspondence features (stressed by James) but also for his inclusion of the concept of warranted assertability in his theory of knowledge and truth. It has been argued that with regard to the latter Dewey's account is unsatisfactory, because the notion of a 'warrant' depends on that of verification or confirmation (associated with the coherence criterion); and that this is a quite different concept from truth. Other difficulties concern what have been perceived as tensions in his system. For example, while his philosophy is generally empiricist, there is an implicit metaphysical world-view (holism or organicism — formed in his early 'Hegelian' period). 'Constructionist' tendencies have also been identified which, it is said, are inconsistent with his commitment to realism. Likewise, Dewey affirms the need for basic logical principles yet at the same time stresses the need to overcome all contradictions and allows for the revisability of everything. In his ethics the (objective) normative aspect does not sit too well with his subjectivism — implicit in his choice of such vague and ambiguous notions as growth and satisfaction as the empirical criteria of moral judgement.

 

READING

Dewey: [of many works] Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (1922); Experience and Nature (1925; 2nd edn 1929); Philosophy and Civilization (1931); Art and Experience (1934); A Common Faith (1934); Logic: The Theory of Enquiry (1938); Freedom and Culture (1939). A useful selection is Dewey: the Essential Writings, ed. D. Sidorsky.

Studies

T. M. Alexander, The Horizons of Feeling: John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature.

R. D. Boisvert, Dewey's Metaphysics.

G. Bullert, The Politics of John Dewey.

G. Dykhuizen, The Life and Mind of John Dewey.

J. E. Tiles, Dewey.

J. Welchman, Dewey's Ethical Thought.

Collection of essays

P. A. Schilpp and L. A. Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of John Dewey.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Dewey

 

[1a] Move away from idealism; emphasis on pluralism, the emotional, influence of human sciences; but residual organicism and 'dynamism'

   Hegel

   James

[1c]

[1b e f]

 

[1b] Instrumentalism — to work out project of enquiry for dealing with environmental situations; interdependence of thought and action; a naturalistic and empirical account; 'control' over nature

   Aristotle

   Bacon (Francis)

   Peirce

   James

   Scheler

[18d]

[1e]

[4b]

[1b]

[1d]

 

[1c; cf. 3d] Logic instrumentalist; 'logic of enquiry applied to science, etc.; thought predictive and verifiable

   Peirce

   Russell

[1f 2c]

[1f]

 

[2a] Knowledge: rejection of claims to indubitable foundations and substances, and of 'spectator' theories; knowledge makes its objects, interrogates nature, changes environment; requires practical/ social skill and experimental science

   Aristotle

   Bacon (Francis)

   Descartes

   Hume

   Peirce

   James

   Scheler

   Heidegger

[20a-f]

[2e]

[2a]

[1c]

[1b 2c]

[1e]

[1c 2c]

[1b 6c]

 

[2b] Truth as warranted assertibility (not just 'satisfaction'); fallibililty of truth and ideal limit of scientific investigation

   Peirce

   James

Russell

   Dummett

   Putnam

[2c]

[1f]

[1j]

[1f]

[1h]

 

[2c] Truth objective but rejection of absolute metaphysical truth

   Hegel

   James

[2c 3d]

[2a]

 

[2d] General method of enquiry, but modified in different areas because of consequences to be achieved    Mill [1k]

 

[2e] Philosophy's visionary and clarificatory roles in relation to view of man and cultural activities

   Wittgenstein

   Habermas

[3a]

[1a]

 

[3a; cf. 3c] Intelligent conduct the basis of ethics; habits, impulses and modification of customs and morality    Aristotle [21a]

 

[3b; cf. 3d] No realm of metaphysical values independent of environment/ society

   Aristotle

   Kant

   Hegel

   Peirce

[18c d]

[6a]

[6f 7a]

[4a b]

 

[3c 5a; cf. 3a] Good defined in terms of significance of 'release in action' from habit/ impulse. Growth as only moral 'end' (process/ activity); no final telos

   Aristotle

   Hume

   Hegel

   Moore

[18c 18d]

[3e]

[6c f]

[3a]

 

[3d; cf. 1c 3b] Inseparability of intrinsic and instrumental good, fact and value; value judgements predictable and verifiable

   Aristotle

   Hume

   Mill

[18c d]

[3j]

[3c]

 

[4a; cf. 2a] 'Tertiary qualities' in unity of experience are aesthetic (life as aesthetic); greater intensity in 'proper' art    Santayana [1a b]

 

[5a] Ethical process (growth) achievable only in social environment

   Aristotle

   Hegel

[22a b]

[7c]

 

[5b] Rejection of 'abstract' state as eternal model; democracy preferable ("community of enquirers")

   Hegel

   Peirce

[7d]

[4b]

 

[6a] No supernatural being; rejection of creeds, etc.; some attitudes 'religious' — direct us to the 'beyond' and harmony in universe, etc.

   James

   Santayana

[3a]

[2a]