Lecture Supplement on Chapters 9, 4 and 10 of John Dewey’s


The Quest for Certainty[1] [1929]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli




The work sets out Dewey’s view of the traditional distinction between theoria and praxis.  It also sets out Dewey’s critique of traditional epistemology (epistemology as it has been carried out since Descartes and Locke.) 


            Dewey rejects the “spectator” view of knowledge—instead of seeing the knower as a spectator, he maintains that the knower makes judgments, discovers facts, and acts in the world.  The spectator view had its origins in Greece and Plato, and Laplace formulated it well when he maintained that a Calculator of unlimited capacity who was given the laws and the initial positions of all the particles, could predict the course of all history.  Dewey believes that the “naturalization of intelligence” (and the principle of indeterminacy) require that we give up on the ideal specified in the spectator view.  Observing a natural system always involves acting upon it (and changing it). 


            Rather than focusing on episteme, Dewey maintains that we should examine opinions (doxa) and concentrate upon the distinction between well-founded and baseless opinions. 


Chapter 9. The Supremacy of Method:


345 “When action lacks means for control of external conditions, it takes the form of acts which are the prototypes of rite and cult.  Intelligence signifies that direct action has become indirect.  It continues to be overt, but it is directed into channels of examination of conditions, and doings that are tentative and preparatory.” 


-The first step in inquiry: “...the dubious or problematic situation becomes a problem.  The risky character that pervades a situation as a whole is translated into an object of inquiry that locates what the trouble is, and hence facilitates projection of methods and means of dealing with it.” 


-Mind/thinking =df= response to the doubtful as such. 


346 The emotional aspect of responsive behavior is centered around the immediate quality of the experience (as it is issued and experienced). 


346-347 The volitional aspect of responsive behavior is connected to the emotional, is immediate, but is concerned with the modification of the ambiguities in the direction of a resolution. 


347 The intellectual aspect of responsive behavior is an indirect response.  “The commonest fallacy is to suppose that since the state of doubt is accompanied by a feeling of uncertainty, knowledge arises when this feeling gives way to one of assurance.  Thinking then ceases to be an effort to effect change in the objective situation and is replaced by various devices which generate a change in feeling or “consciousness.”” 


-The Pathologies of Belief:” “…spring from failure to observe and adhere to the principle that knowledge is the completed resolution of the inherently indeterminate or doubtful.  The commonest fallacy is to suppose that since the state of doubt is accompanied by a feeling of uncertainty, knowledge arises when this feeling gives way to one of assurance.  Thinking then ceases to be an effort to inject change in the objective situation and is replaced by various devices which generate a change in feeling or “consciousness.”


-348 “Love for security, translated into a desire not to be disturbed and unsettled, leads to dogmatism, to acceptance of beliefs upon authority, to intolerance and fanaticism on one side and to irresponsible dependence and sloth on the other. 

  Here is where ordinary thinking and thinking that is scrupulous diverge from each other.  The natural man is impatient with doubt and suspense….A disciplined mind takes delight in the problematic, and cherished it until a way out is found that approves itself upon examination....” 


The scientific attitude “enjoys the doubtful”—this curiosity helps protect us.  Moreover, “attainment of the relatively secure and settled takes place...only with respect to specified problematic situations; quest for certainty that is universal, applying to everything, is a compensatory perversion.” 


Here our editor inserts a section from Chapter 4. The Art of Acceptance and the Art of Control:


348 Modern science substitutes data for objects. 


349 “Greek and medieval science formed an art of accepting things as they are enjoyed and suffered.  Modern experimental science is an art of control.” 


-“...a change from knowing as an esthetic enjoyment of the properties of nature regarded as a work of divine art, to knowing as a means of secular control—that is, a method of purposefully introducing changes which will alter the direction of the course of events.” 


350 “Before the rise of experimental method, change was simply an inevitable evil; the world of phenomenal existence, that is of change, while an inferior realm compared with the changeless, was nevertheless there and had to be accepted practically as it happened to occur.  The wise man if he were sufficiently endowed by fortune would have as little to do with such things as possible, turning away from them to the rational realm.” 


-351 “...scientific inquiry always starts from things of the environment experienced in our everyday life, with things we see, handle, use, enjoy and suffer from.  This is the ordinary qualitative world.  But instead of accepting the qualities and values--the ends and forms--of this world as providing the objects of knowledge, subject to their being given a certain logical arrangement, experimental inquiry treats them as offering a challenge to thought.  They are the materials of problems not of solutions....” 


Our editor then returns to Chapter 9 [“The Supremacy of Method”]:


352 “The occurrence of problematic and unsettled situations is due to the characteristic union of the discrete or individual and the continuous or relational.  All perceived objects are individualized.  They are, as such, wholes complete in themselves.  Everything directly experienced is qualitatively unique; it has its own focus about which subject-matter is arranged, and this focus never exactly recurs.  While every such situation shades off indefinitely, or is not sharply marked off from others, yet the pattern or arrangement of content is never exactly twice alike. 

  If the interactions involved in having such an individualized situation in experience were wholly final or consummatory, there would be no such thing as a situation which is problematic.  In being individual and complete in itself, just what it is and nothing else, it would be discrete in the sense in which discreteness signifies complete isolation.” 


-“There are situations in which self-enclosed, discrete, individualized characters dominate.  They constitute the subject-matter of esthetic experience; and every experience is esthetic in as far as it is final or arouses no search for some other experience.” 


-353 “In other words, all experienced objects have a double status.  They are individualized, consummatory, whether in the way of enjoyment or of suffering.  They are also involved in a continuity of interactions and changes, and hence are causes and potential means of later experiences.  Because of this dual capacity, they become problematic.  Immediately and directly they are just what they are; but as transitions to and possibilities of later experiences they are uncertain.  There is a divided response; part of the organic activity is directed to them for what they immediately are, and part to them as transitive means of other experienced objects.  We react to them both as finalities and in preparatory ways, and the two reactions do not harmonize. 

  This two-fold character of experienced objects is the source of their problematic character.  Each of us can recall many occasions when he has been perplexed by disagreement between things directly present and their potential value as signs and means....there is an incompatibility between the traits of an object in its direct individual and unique nature and those traits that belong to it in its relations or continuities.  This incompatibility can be removed only by actions which temporally reconstruct what is given and constitute a new object having both individuality and the internal coherence of continuity in a series.” 


--354-358 Ordinary objects and scientific objects are “abstractions.”  The “perceived and used table is, really, the only one [355] but the abstractions [conceptions] are central to our intellectual task of resolving our problems. 


--358 “Nature is characterized by a constant mixture of the precarious and the stable.  This mixture gives poignancy to existence.  If existence were either completely necessary or completely contingent, there would be neither comedy nor tragedy in life, nor need of the will to live.  The significance of morals and politics, of the arts both technical and fine, or religion and of science itself as inquiry and discovery, all have their source and meaning in the union in Nature of the settled and unsettled, the stable and the hazardous.  Apart from this union, there are no such things as “ends,” either as consummations or as those ends-in-view we call purposes.  There is only a block universe, either something ended and admitting of no change, or else a predestined march of events.  There is no such thing as fulfillment where there is no risk of failure, and no defeat where there is no promise of possible achievement.” 


359 Our best knowledge comes from “directed practice”—from inquiry rightly pursued.  “The rest of our practice in matters that come home to us most closely and deeply is regulated notably intelligent operations, but by tradition, self-interest and accidental circumstance.”


-Instead of having the traditional problem between fact and value, then, we confront the following: “what revisions and surrenders of current beliefs about authoritative ends and values are demanded by the method and conclusions of natural science?  What possibilities of controlled transformation of the content of present belief and practice in human institutions and associations are indicated by the control of natural energies which natural science has effected?” 


While this chapter has been about our inquiry processes, and abut us and the world, it raises questions about “values,” and the next chapter takes up Dewey’s view of what values are. 


Chapter 10. The Construction of Good:


361 “The problem of restoring integration and cooperation between man’s beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of modern life.  It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.” 


361-362 “Just as rational conceptions were once superimposed upon observed and temporal phenomena, so eternal values are superimposed upon experienced goods.  In one case as in the other, the alternative is supposed to be confusion and lawlessness.  Philosophers suppose these eternal values are known by reason; the mass of persons that they are directly revealed.” 


-362-363 Empirical theories of value (like the utilitarian one) hold “...down value to objects antecedently enjoyed, apart from reference to the method by which they come into existence; it takes enjoyments which are casual because unregulated by intelligent operations to be values in and of themselves.  Operational thinking needs to be applied to the judgment of values just as it has now finally been applied in conceptions of physical objects.  Experimental empiricism in the field of ideas of good and bad is demanded to meet the conditions of the present situation.” 


363 “...escape from the defects of transcendental absolutism is not to be had by setting up as values enjoyments that happen anyhow, but in defining value by enjoyments which are the consequences of intelligent action.  Without the intervention of thought, enjoyments are not values but problematic goods, becoming values when they re-issue in a changed form from intelligent behavior.  The fundamental trouble with the current empirical theory of values is that it merely formulates and justifies the socially prevailing habit of regarding enjoyments as they are actually experienced as values in and of themselves.” 


364 “...the difference between the enjoyed and the enjoyable, the desired and the desirable, the satisfying and the satisfactory.  To say that something is enjoyed is to make a statement about a fact, something already in existence; it is not to judge the value of that fact....But to call an object a value is to assert that it satisfies or fulfills certain conditions.  Function and status in meeting conditions is a different matter from bare existence.  The fact that something is desired only raises the question of its desirability; it does not settle it.” 


-Consider how this differs from James’ view! 


-“To say that something satisfies is to report something as an isolated finality....To declare something satisfactory is to assert that it meets specifiable conditions.  It is, in effect, a judgment that the thing “will do.”  It involves a prediction; it contemplates a future in which the thing will continue to serve; it will do.  That it is satisfying is the content of a proposition of fact; that it is satisfactory is a judgment, an estimate, an appraisal.  It denotes an attitude to be taken, that of striving to perpetuate and to make secure.” 


-365 “There is nothing in which a person so completely reveals himself as in the things which he judges enjoyable and desirable.  Such judgments are the sole alternative to the dominion of belief by impulse, chance, blind habit and self- interest.” 


-366 “Without the introduction of operational thinking, we oscillate between a theory that, in order to save the objectivity of judgments of values, isolates them from experience and nature, and a theory that in order to save their concrete and human significance, reduces them to mere statements about our own feelings.” 


-“A causal liking is one that happens without knowledge of how it occurs nor to what effect.  The difference between it and one which is sought because of a judgment that it is worth having and is to be striven for, makes just the difference between enjoyments which are accidental and enjoyments that have value and hence a claim upon our attitude and conduct.” 


367 “If intelligent method is lacking, prejudice, the pressure of immediate circumstance, self-interest and class-interest, traditional customs, institutions of accidental historic origin, are not lacking, and they tend to take the place of intelligence....Judgments about values are judgments about the conditions and the results of experienced objects; judgments about that which should regulate the formation of our desires and affections and enjoyments.” 


368 “The more connections and interactions we ascertain, the more we know the object in question.  Thinking is search for these connections.  Heat experienced as a consequence of directed operations has a meaning quite different from the heat that is casually experienced without knowledge of how it came about.  The same is true of enjoyments.  Enjoyments that issue from conduct directed by insight into relations have a meaning and a validity due to the way in which they are experienced.  Such enjoyments are not repented of; they generate no after-taste of bitterness.  Even in the midst of direct enjoyment, there is a sense of validity, of authorization, which intensifies the enjoyment.  There is solicitude for perpetuation of the object having value which is radically different from mere anxiety to perpetuate the feeling of enjoyment.” 


-369 “There is no knowledge without perception; but objects perceived are known only when they are determined as consequences of connective operations.  There is no value except where there is satisfaction, but there have to be certain conditions fulfilled to transform a satisfaction into a value.” 


-371-372 “...past experiences are significant in giving us intellectual instrumentalities of judging just these points.  They are tools, not finalities.  Reflection upon what we have liked and have enjoyed is a necessity.  But it tells us nothing about the value of these things until enjoyments are themselves reflectively controlled, or, until, as they are recalled, we form the best judgment possible about what led us to like this sort of thing and what has issued from the fact that we liked it.” 


-373 “...one of the effects of the separation drawn between knowledge and action is to deprive scientific knowledge of its proper service as a guide of conduct....” 


-“This constant throwing of emphasis back upon a change made in ourselves instead of one made in the world in which we live seems to me the essence of what is objectionable in “subjectivism.”” 


-375 “It is both astonishing and depressing that so much of the energy of mankind has gone into fight for (with weapons of the flesh as well as of the spirit) the truth of creeds, religious, moral and political, as distinct from what has gone into effort to try creeds by putting them to the test of action upon them.” 


376 “The various modifications that would result from adoption in social and humane subjects of the experimental way of thinking are perhaps summed up in saying that it would place method and means upon the level of importance that has, in the past, been imputed exclusively to ends.” 



Note: [click on note number to return to text for the note]

[1] John Dewey, The Quest For Certainty [1929].  This supplement is to a selection in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch [1951] (N.Y.: Fordham U.P., 1995), pp. 344-381.  Emphasis has been added to several passages.  The full work is available as volume 4 of John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1988).  Originally it was given as set of lectures (the Gifford Lectures) at the University of Edinburgh in 1929. 

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