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John Dewey Born: A.D. 1859, Burlington, Vermont, Died: A.D. 1952, New York, New York Major Works:

John Dewey

Born: A.D. 1859, Burlington, Vermont, Died: A.D. 1952, New York, New York

Major Works: Ethic (1908, revised 1932), Democracy and Education (1916), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Experience and Nature (1929), Art as Experience (1934), Logic: The Theory of inquiry (1938)

Major Ideas:

Pragmatism emphasizes the pervasive but often-overlooked role of practical

activity in inquiry and experience. The history of philosophy is a misguided quest for certain knowledge of an

unchanging reality. Scientific method, as a method linking the acquisition of knowledge to practical

activity, is to be generalized and adopted as the method of all inquiry, including all aspects of philosophical inquiry. Knowledge is properly understood as warrantedly assertible belief.

Art is experience aiming at the production of objects that, as experienced, yield

continuously renewed delights. Ethics involves relating the desirable to the desired.

Education is best practiced as the art of inquiry rather than as the mere transference of factual knowledge.

John Dewey is the most systematic exponent of the distinctively American school of philosophical thought known as pragmatism. Though Dewey is perhaps better known as an educator, social reformer, and political theorist, his writings in these areas are best understood as specific implementations of his own articulation (some would say transformation) of the pragmatic tradition he inherited from William James and Charles Sanders Peirce.


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Much like James, Dewey takes as the primary challenge to philosophy the task of reconciling the intransigent conflict between science and values, broadly construing the latter to include aesthetics, politics, and ethics. The pragmatists argued that this conflict, which had dominated philosophy since the seventeenth century, was the inevitable result of a radical and unwarranted disconnection of philosophical inquiry from practical activity. This unwarranted separation, Dewey argues, has characterized Western philosophy since the pre-Socratics: The history of philosophy is the history of the progressive reification of this artificial separation. To remedy this separation Dewey presents a theory of inquiry and a corresponding epistemology and metaphysics that are essentially grounded in practical activity. According to Dewey, it is the disconnection of philosophical inquiry from practical activity that has systematically warped our theories of education and politics and impeded our understanding of aesthetic and ethical values.

It is curiously fitting that the author of this revisionary architectonic was born and raised in the heart of rural New England, in the town of Burlington, Vermont. Dewey attended the University of Vermont, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1879. It was only in his last year at the university that he developed an interest in philosophy. Over the next several years, Dewey continued his studies in philosophy privately while earning a living as a high school teacher. In 1882, Dewey enrolled in the recently formed graduate philosophy program at Johns Hopkins University. There Dewey was taught by the founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, and he was introduced to the writings of the other great pragmatist, William James. It was at Hopkins as well that Dewey came under the sway of the writings of Hegel, the philosopher who, along with Peirce and James, had the most profound effect upon Dewey's own philosophical development.

Upon completion of his graduate studies in 1884, Dewey accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Already he had begun to produce in earnest a body of published work that would span six decades and be rivaled in quantity only by that of his arch philosophical rival, Bertrand Russell. Dewey moved on to become chair of the department of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Chicago in 1894. During the Chicago years he founded what came to be known as the Dewey School, a laboratory school in which his educational theories could be implemented and tested. He became an outspoken advocate for social reform and for his liberal political agenda. Friction over the Dewey School led to Dewey's move from Chicago in 1904 to Columbia University, where he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1930. In 1937, Dewey chaired the famous commission that vindicated Leon Trotsky of the charges made against him at the Moscow trials: In 1941, he led the highly publicized fight for academic freedom against the decision by the City College of New York to refuse Bertrand Russell permission to teach there. He continued to work actively in philosophy until shortly before his death in 1952.

The Quest for Certainty

The target of much of Dewey's philosophical writing is traditional philosophy itself. Dewey argues that the philosophical quest throughout history, in all of its various guises, has been characterized by an interrelated set of epistemological, metaphysical, and

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methodological commitments, commitments that are systematically misguided. The epistemological commitment has been to the quest for and attainment of certain knowledge; the metaphysical commitment has been to the location of the appropriate object[s] of this knowledge in a higher reality, an unchanging realm of "pure being"; the methodological commitment has been to a method of inquiry that completely rejects any role for practical activity.

The interconnection of these three traditional philosophical commitments can be made readily apparent. Practical activity is by its nature uncertain; it deals with individualized situations that are never exactly duplicable. All such activity, moreover, essentially involves change. Practical activity involves change and uncertainty; the quest of traditional philosophy has been for certain knowledge of an unchanging reality. The method of philosophical inquiry appropriate to this quest thus has not concerned itself with the inherently uncertain realm of practical action but has focused instead on the certain knowledge of an unchanging realm presumed to be accessible only through reason and pure intellection.

Dewey argues that it is precisely the radical uncertainty surrounding action, the constant peril of acting in an almost completely uncontrolled and unpredictable environment, that first led primitive men to the postulation of a supernatural realm, the secrets of which were accessible only through oracle and omen. It was only later, with the Greek philosophers, that this supernatural realm began a process of transformation to a realm of pure, unchanging being, a realm of which certain knowledge was attainable through the exercise of pure intellection and reason. Metaphysically, the realm of action was demoted to a realm of mere "appearance" and "becoming," as opposed to the realm of reality and being. Epistemologically, this realm of action was demoted to a realm of which only belief or opinion, as opposed to knowledge, was possible. Methodologically, the method of inquiry appropriate to the formation of mere opinions governing actions in the realm of appearance was ignored in favor of the method of inquiry appropriate to the rational attainment of knowledge of reality.

Dewey argues that despite the wholesale rejection of Greek philosophy by the seventeenth-century modern philosophers, the fundamental metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological commitments of the Greeks and medievals were actually reified by the moderns into unquestioned assumptions, assumptions that systematically excluded a role for practical activity in philosophical inquiry. The significant change ushered in by the seventeenth-century thinkers was thus certainly not the abandonment of the fundamentally skewed commitments of Greek philosophy. Dewey saw the significant change to be the abandonment of the teleological science of the Greeks--a science governed by a method of inquiry divorced from practical activity-- in favor of modern science governed by a practical method the experimental method.

It is the scientific method, Dewey argues, that holds the key to unlocking the systematic errors of traditional philosophy and to banishing the intractable conflicts between science and values that have characterized philosophy since the seventeenth century. It is method that provides the key, because although the scientific method is one that essentially

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connects the quest for scientific knowledge to experimental activity, the knowledge obtained through use of this method is nonetheless taken to be certain knowledge of an antecedently existing scientific reality'. The method used links knowing to practical activity but the account of knowledge and reality continues to be one built upon a denial of any such linkage

It is this fundamental inconsistency, in Dewey's view that leads to the intractable conflicts between science and values. Philosophers insist that there are values of which we can have certain knowledge and contend that scientific inquiry reveals ultimate reality But scientific reality, the deterministic reality of matter in motion. allows no place for values. The commitment to science thus leads philosophers to a denial of values, while the commitment to values leads philosophers to a reality fundamentally incompatible with that dictated by science.

It is through articulating the problem of philosophy through its history that Dewey motivates his positive resolution of this problem. Clearly, Dewey maintains, it is the quest for certain knowledge of ultimate reality and the radical separation between knowledge and practical activity that this quest involves, that has led philosophy into its current morass. Just as clearly it is the abandonment of this quest. that will lead philosophy out of the morass. Science points the way for Dewey, not because it discloses certain knowledge of a true reality, but because it employs a method of inquiry that intrinsically links knowledge and practical activity and hence implicitly rejects the quest for certainty attainable only through a methodological rejection of a role for practical activity. Dewey's championing of the scientific method is the championing of the adoption in a particular area of inquiry of a method that in Dewey's view, ought properly to be extended to all areas of inquiry--a method of inquiry that fo rges an intrinsic connection between knowledge and practical activity.

The Pragmatic Theory of Inquiry

The key concept in Dewey's general theory of inquiry is that of a situation. Situations are transactions between an organism and its environment, where this environment is understood as that part of the world with which the organism interacts. Such situations are contextual wholes, and immediate experience is always of such contextual wholes. Inquiry is "the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one

that is

determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations


Sentient organisms

... have the ability to respond dispositionally so as to resolve problematic (indeterminate) situations through such activities as foraging for food and taking flight. Human beings are distinguished from other such organisms through being sophisticated linguistic beings, trained by their communities into very complex sets of language-infused habits, including habits of inference. These habits are governed by norms of reasonableness, or appropriateness. These sophisticated, norm-governed habits of inference constitute a powerful set of tools through which human beings are able to render progressively more determinate the indeterminate situations they experience. Lower animals are comparatively hard-wired; they either have a disposition to respond to a potentially hostile situation or they do not. Human beings, on the other hand, have internalized


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through training certain linguistic habits that allow them to distinguish, for instance, safe situations from dangerous ones. To recognize a situation as dangerous is to have internalized the habit of inferring that one ought to flee, or at least to proceed cautiously, and to be so disposed as to act accordingly Moreover, further experience will refine the agent's ability to discriminate safe from dangerous situations and the responses appropriate in each. It is in this way that particular areas of inquiry advance, and it is such advances that bring about general advances in the method of inquiry itself. Far from shunning practical activity, inquiry, including philosophical inquiry, is a socially inculcated activity. The mastery of this activity allows humans to act intelligently so as to transform indeterminate, uncertain, perilous situations into determinate, satisfying ones.

Knowledge as Warranted Assertibility

Knowledge, for Dewey, is the outcome of successful inquiry. The outcome of successful inquiry is the determination of an indeterminate situation. Such determination is accomplished through application of the culture's internalized habits of inference in appropriate ways. A belief that results from such successful inquiry is knowledge in virtue of being warranted by such culturally internalized, experientially vindicated norms of inference. The mistake of traditional philosophy was to demand of knowledge that it be certain, where this is taken to require that it be placed upon a more solid ground than the method of inquiry sketched above is able to supply. But Dewey argues that successful inquiry provides all the evidence there can be for knowledge; moreover, the outcome of successful inquiry is all that knowledge has to be. Dewey's theory of knowledge is thus not just another account of what we know for certain; it constitutes the abandonment of the claim that the task of epistemology is to determine what we know for certain. Of course, the result disturbing to traditional philosophy is that what is successfully settled through inquiry stimulated by one indeterminate situation may become unsettled in the face of new situations, or in the face of new and superior methods of inquiry. No knowledge is certain, hence no knowledge is immune in principle from revision on Dewey's account. Far from viewing this in-principle revisability as a shortcoming of his theory of knowledge, however, Dewey sees this as a necessary feature of any account of knowledge that pretends to include the continually evolving outcomes of scientific inquiry among the things that human beings "know."

Education as Training

Dewey's influential writings on education are straightforward proposals for the practical application in the classroom of his revolutionary theory of inquiry. Traditional educational approaches were based upon the mistaken traditional views of knowledge and the proper method for its acquisition. The child was thought of as a passive, empty mind, the classroom, as the venue in which knowledge was to be poured into this mind. The educator's task was to fill the mind in the most efficient fashion. For Dewey, the child is an interactive creature. Inquiry is the art of problem solving and knowledge acquisition, an art the child must master in order to flourish as an independent individual capable of successfully undertaking its own inquiries and successfully carrying out its own projects. The difference is subtle but profound: For traditional education, the child is

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a mental receptacle in need of filling; for Dewey, the child is a primitive interactor in need of developing the sophisticated skills of interaction, the art of inquiry, necessary to lead an independent and satisfying life.

Inquiry is a skill, Dewey maintains, a skill in which the child must be trained through practice--thus the motto, "Learn by doing." The educator's task is to inculcate the child with norm-governed habits of inference that allow the child not only to understand the products of past inquiry but, equally importantly, to be able to carry on the self-corrective enterprise of inquiry on its own. Only such a properly trained mind is an independent mind, and a democracy can function effectively only if it is comprised of such independent minds.

Science and the Metaphysics of Experience

Just as Dewey's theory of knowledge is a pragmatic attack upon the quest for certain knowledge, and his theory of inquiry is a pragmatic attack upon the traditional method of inquiry employed in the pursuit of that knowledge, so too his metaphysics is a pragmatic attack upon the traditional philosophical quest to discern the true, unchanging reality that is held to be the proper object of certain knowledge.

There is no unchanging realm of being, no antecedent reality that it is the unique office of philosophy to uncover, Dewey claims. It is this commitment to a reality transcending the realm of practical activity that has systematically skewed most, if not all, of the defining dualisms of traditional metaphysics, including those between subject and object, mind and body, form and matter, and appearance and reality. Dewey's metaphysical writings are thus largely taken up by efforts to demonstrate that these dualisms, properly understood, are dualisms both components of which are comprehended within the natural realm of practical activity, not dualisms between one component within the natural realm (for example, body) and another existing in some higher realm (mind).

Dewey's account of experience plays a crucial role in his efforts to carry out this metaphysical agenda. Experiences of situations are emergent in nature as the product of complex interactions of organisms and their environments. Mental awareness of such experiences is emergent in nature as the product of the even more complex norm- governed interactions constituted by language and communication Experiences are the psychophysical events that result when merely physical events attain the level of organization and complexity of interaction we term "living." The experiences of complex organisms are suffused by immediate felt qualities such as pleasure and pain, red and green, and fear and anger These qualities of feeling are real yet they are not physical properties either of the organism or its environment. Rather, they are psychophysical properties that are the result of the interaction of the organism with its environment.

Such psychophysical experiences suffused with qualities of feeling manifest a level of complexity of interaction of natural events that transcends the merely physical Yet this level of complexity falls far short of that necessary to constitute mental activity. Animals with minds not only have experiences suffused with qualities, they know that they have

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them. To have such knowledge is to be aware of meanings, and to be aware of meanings is to have achieved the higher level of norm-governed interaction marked off by language and communication--a level achieved through the internalization of habits of inference governed by norms of appropriateness. Thus, for Dewey, thought is essentially linguistic, for only through language can an organism develop to the level of complex norm- governed interaction at which distinctively mental properties manifest themselves. The level of the mental is the level at which organisms develop the linguistic capacity to discriminate particular qualities and objects of experience such that these qualities take on significance. This third level of complexity of interaction among natural events is not distinguished from the levels of the physical or the psychophysical in virtue of somehow transcending nature. Rather, it is distinguished as a higher level of complexity of interaction among natural events.

With the development of mental abilities, qualities of experience come to signify qualitative differences in objects and events, differences that have import for yet other objects and events that have occurred or have yet to occur. In short, qualities come to mean something for humans: A red traffic light means stop or suffer the consequences. As qualitative experience becomes more meaningful, more funded with significance, it becomes, as a result, subject to a greater degree of control by the individual whose experience it is. Knowing whether an experienced situation is dangerous rather than joyful, whether it is populated with objects that are explosive rather than edible, is what allows us to render indeterminate situations determinate through inquiry and intelligent action.

Situations as immediately experienced are qualitatively unique and incapable of duplication; more-over, these immediate qualities undoubtably exist. Yet the effective control of such qualitatively rich experienced situations depends precisely upon the determination of those qualities of experienced situations that are duplicable and repeatable. It is the identification of these features that facilitates comparison, the discovery of hidden relationships, and the identification of regularities: features that allow for greater predictive control of situations. The systematic search for such hidden relationships and regularities is the office of scientific inquiry.

Science, Dewey argues, systematically ignores much of the immediate qualitative nature of experience to allow for the discovery of patterns and relationships among objects that are more susceptible to quantitative relation and comparison. Science, in short, looks for general quantitative interrelationships where immediate experience emphasizes specific qualitative difference. Thus, to the physicist, two radically different qualitative experiences of the colors red and green are merely quantitatively comparable frequencies of light waves.

Science abstracts away from the qualitative fullness of immediate experience so as to disclose hidden quantitative relationships, relationships that in turn allow for the more effective control of immediately experienced situations in the pursuit of value. For Dewey, the qualities of immediate experience that are appropriately ignored by science are nonetheless undeniably real. Thus, science, far from disclosing a reality to which the

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world of immediate experience stands as mere appearance, shows itself in fact to be an instrument allowing individuals vastly greater control over the qualitatively rich situations confronted in immediate experience.

Art as Experience

If science, properly understood, pares away from the richly qualitative nature of immediate experience, then art, Dewey argues, performs virtually the opposite function. The artist is possessed of the greatest sensitivity to the qualitative richness of immediate experience. The process of artistic creation is an experience through which the artist adds to his materials properties and efficacies that they did not possess in their earlier state. Art, for Dewey, is a mode of practice (both a "doing" and an "undergoing"). More specifically, art is the term for modes of practice that are productive of objects and ends affording continuously renewed delights. The object or goal of artistic activity, whether it be a painting, a musical score, a house, or even a scientific discovery, is an end-in-view, the aesthetic perception of which provides a plan to be undertaken by the artist in action. The end-in-view is present at each stage of the process as the meaning of the process. Only with such an end-in-view, however obscure, informing the creative activity does the realized object (except through sheer coincidence) constitute an object of aesthetic value, a source of heretofore undisclosed meanings and possibilities.

Ethics: The Desired and the Desirable

Traditional philosophy provides a particularly unsatisfactory account of ethical value. The fundamental question of ethics is "How can I decide what I should do?" On traditional accounts, the task of answering this question, of determining what it is desirable to do, is relegated to the realm of certain knowledge accessible only through reason. Determinations of desirability are thereby disconnected, perversely, from the desires that lead to practical action. This disconnection renders such accounts incapable either of providing a satisfactory account of the metaphysical status of values, or of responding to the question "Why should I be moral?" Dewey's theory of inquiry, through connecting knowledge to practical action, simultaneously reconnects desire to determinations of desirability. For Dewey, to have a desire is both to experience, through application of the appropriate inferential norms, a situation as lacking in some determinate respect, and to tentatively project and endorse as warranted by such norm s an end-in-view of which the enacting will redress the lack. Clearly, one's desires are for what is desirable only if one is warranted in claiming that there is a lack in the particular situation and if the projected end-in-view is the best way, all other things considered, to redress that lack. Such a determination clearly involves a determination of whether the particular end-in-view conflicts with the agent's other warranted ends-in-view. A person can desire what is not desirable if his projected end-in-view is not appropriate for redressing what is lacking in his situation, just as a person can believe what is not believable if his belief is not in fact warranted in the given situation. Just as the believable, what it is warranted to believe, is the outcome of successful inquiry into what to believe, so too the desirable is the result of successful inquiry into what to do In place of the radical disconnection between the desired and the desirable, Dewey: offers an

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intrinsic connection, a connection he be lieves simply explains away many of the intransigent problems that have plagued ethical theory. Moreover the fundamental conflict between science and values the conflict that Dewey believes has dominated philosophy since the seventeenth century, is largely resolved. The conflict arose because science was thought to mandate one account of ultimate reality while values were thought to mandate an incompatible account of ultimate reality accessible only through a different method of inquiry Dewey has demonstrated, however, that the method of inquiry appropriate for ethical values is simply an extension of that appropriate for science. Moreover, since neither science nor values, properly understood, involves any claim concerning a transcendent reality, the question of incompatible realities simply does not arise.

Philosophy, Dewey argues, is less than has been thought: It is not, properly understood, a quest for certain knowledge of an ultimate reality. But because philosophy is less, it is more--more relevant to understanding both the world in which humans live, and how to make that world better. Dewey demonstrates this relevance in his writings through tracing the impact of this philosophical reorientation on education, ethics, and politics. But Dewey does something much more. Perhaps not since Socrates himself has a philosopher demonstrated the relevance of his philosophy through his actions. Dewey's was a life not of mere reflection but of intelligent, reflective action in the pursuit of value. As such, it stands as a paradigm not only for what a philosopher's life should be but for what a human life should be.

Further Reading

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1951. An engaging portrait (originally published in 1939) of both the man and his thought by one of his most distinguished students, himself an eminent philosopher.

John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom. New York: Dial Press, 1950.

____. An anthology of essays presented at a symposium in honor of Dewey's ninetieth birthday. These essays cover the entire range of Dewey's writings, and many of them, in particular,

essays by Ernest Nagel, Wilfrid Sellars, and Hook himself, merit particular attention.

Schlipp, Paul Arthur. The Philosophy of John Dewey. New York: Tudor, 1951. A volume in the Library of Living Philosophers series, containing insightful criticism of all phases of Dewey's thought by many different scholars, as well as an extensive reply by Dewey to each of the criticisms. Contains an extensive bibliography of Dewey's writings.

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Sleeper, R. W. The Necessity of Pragmatism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. A highly engaging attempt to come to grips with the central tenets of Dewey's pragmatism.

Thayer, H. S. The Logic of Pragmatism: An Examination of John Dewey's Logic. New York: Humanities Press, 1952. A detailed and critical analysis of Dewey's theory of inquiry.


This article is by Paul E. Hurley and is taken from Great Thinkers of the Western World, Edition 1999 p434. COPYRIGHT HarperCollins Publishers 1999.

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