Introductory Lecture on John Dewey


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

Click here for a newer version of this file; click here to go to a course which addresses Dewey's defense of democracy and critique of Plato's aristocratic ideas


Dewey lived in the period between the Civil War and the Korean War (1859-1952).  During this time period the United States moved from being a largely agricultural and rural country to a largely industrial and urban country.  The Burlington Vermont of Dewey’s youth was an industrialized and urbanized town, but there were immense social changes in the country during Dewey’s life.  In his John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, Alan Ryan notes that there are marked similarities between Dewey’s America and our own:


...Dewey was moved to write about individual unease and social and political failures in a context that resembles our own in crucial ways.  Dewey’s America was one in which the problems of the inner city were appalling.  In the early 1890s homelessness in Chicago sometimes reached 20 percent; unemployment frequently hit one in four of the working population.  Disease was rife, and medical services were out of the reach of the poor....The upper classes were apparently indifferent to the fate of the poor and even to the fate of the working near poor.  In the cities the response of the better-off was to remove themselves to the suburbs....[1] 


Dewey was a social activist (though some would have him be more active to qualify for the term) as well as a theoretical philosopher.  As Cornell West notes, for Dewey


...philosophy is neither a form of knowledge nor a means to acquire knowledge.  Rather philosophy is a mode of cultural critical action that focuses on the ways and means by which human beings have, do, and can overcome obstacles, dispose of predicaments, and settle problematic situations.[2] 


Dewey’s “social activism” can be measured by the organizations he helped found among which are: The American Civil Liberties Union, The American Association of University Professors, and the New York City Teachers Union.  Another (although much disputed) measure of his activism is his influence on the American educational system.  The “Lab School” at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) was Dewey’s creation.  As West notes,


the aim of the school was not only to serve as a model of how meaningful and enriching education could take place, but also to make a practical intervention into the national debate on education.  This practical intervention was, for Dewey, a form of political activism in that the struggle over knowledge and over the means of its disposal was a struggle about power, about the conditions under which cultural capital (skills, knowledge, and values) was produced, distributed, and consumed.  In sharp contrast to curriculum-centered conservatives and child-centered romantics, Dewey advocated an interactive model of functionalistic education that combined autonomy with intelligent and flexible guidance, relevance with rigor and wonder.  Of course, Dewey’s functionalistic education, a critical education for democratizing society, could easily be mistaken for a functional education, a fitting education that simply adjusts one to the labor market possibilities.[3] 


In his The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand maintains that:


Dewey’s pragmatism was a consequence of the success of the Laboratory School.  The school established for him the validity of his hypothesis that thinking and acting are just two names for a single process—the process of making our way as best we can in a universe shot through with contingency.  It also showed him what was wrong with philosophy, and Dewey’s career after Chicago can be divided into two parts: from his arrival at Columbia until the United States entered the war in 1917, he defended pragmatism against the arguments of other philosophers....From the war until the end of his life, he addressed the issues of his time in a pragmatist spirit. 

  Philosophers, Dewey argued, had mistakenly insisted on making a problem of the relation between the mind and the world, an obsession that had given rise to what he called “the alleged discipline of epistemology”—the attempt to answer the question, How do we know?  The pragmatist response to this question is to point out that nobody has ever made a problem about the relation between, for example, the hand and the world.  The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, or a fishhook, or an editorial.  Nobody worries in these situations about a lack of some preordained “fit”—about whether the physical world was or was not made to be manipulated by hands.  They just use a hand where a hand will do. 

  Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping.  An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork.  When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure.  You just reach for a spoon.  But philosophers have worried about whether the mind is such that the world can be known by it, and they have produced all sorts of accounts of how the “fit” is supposed to work—how the mental represents the real.  Dewey’s point was that “mind” and “reality,” are like “stimulus” and “response,” names for nonexistent entities: they are abstractions from a single, indivisible process.[4] 


Dewey’s activism was a consistent part of his life, and it is consistent with his “theoretical philosophy.”  He maintained that philosophy is the intellectual expression of conflicts in culture, and he maintained that the main task for philosophy in his day was to find a solution to the divisive and destructive cleavage between science (or “facts”) and values:


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.[5] 


Philosophy is called upon to be the theory of the practice, through ideas sufficiently definite to be operative in experimental endeavor, by which the integration may be made secure in actual experience.  Its central problem is the relation that exists between the beliefs about the nature of things due to natural science and beliefs about values—using that word to designate whatever is taken to have rightful authority in the direction of conduct.[6] 


Dewey’s Early Philosophical Orientation:


In his [early] intellectual autobiography (“From Absolutism to Experimentalism”), Dewey says that “social interests and problems from an early period had to me the intellectual appeal and provided the intellectual sustenance that many seem to have found primarily in religious questions.”[7]  He identifies four main aspects of his intellectual development: (a) the importance of the practice and theory of education; (b) the scandal involved in the dualism (of both the logic and method) of science and morals;[8] (c) the importance of William James’ Psychology;[9] and (d) a recognition of the importance of social categories. 


     As Gail Kennedy notes:


when Dewey was an undergraduate, during the late seventies, at the University of Vermont, philosophy was still in what Professor Morris Cohen has called its “glacial age.”  The Scottish “common-sense realism” introduced into this country before the Revolution by President Witherspoon of Princeton was designed primarily as a defense of Christian faith against the deism, materialism, and scepticism of the eighteenth century.  Favored by the peculiar American combination of church and college, it became here the orthodox academic philosophy grafted on to Protestantism.  For a hundred years it was taught in virtually all the New England colleges as an arid and abstract rationalization of theological doctrines.[10] 


It was in this tradition that Dewey began his philosophical studies.  After graduation, he taught high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania and Charlotte, Vermont.  He read German and German philosophers (especially Kant and Hegel) with one of his Vermont professors and submitted essays to The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (“The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism,” and “The Pantheism of Spinoza”).  He then went to Johns Hopkins for two years where he studied German Idealism (with George Morris) and developed a life-long interest in psychology (through his studies with G. Stanley Hall).  As Kennedy notes, the “German Idealism” which attracted Dewey:


...was a better means of defending religious traditions and of putting science in its proper subordinate place that German idealism came so rapidly to supplant the moribund Scotch [sic] realism within academic halls.  Here was a way, it seemed, by which one could keep the faith and believe in “evolution” too....What interested him was Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts.  In Hegelian idealism, and particularly in Thomas Hill Green’s version of it, Dewey found...a basis for his social idealism....Dewey, then, at this stage was, like Marx, a “left-wing Hegelian” (though they developed very differently).  Each of them thought he had found in Hegel the clue to the means of utilizing the results of science in the interests of social progress.[11] 


In 1884 Dewey began teaching at the University of Michigan.  He moved from Michigan to the University of Minnesota and then back to Michigan.  Throughout this period Dewey worked on Kant, Hegel, and T.H. Green, and on psychological issues.  As Kennedy notes:


...Dewey was attempting what he later realized to be impossible, a consistent synthesis of his Hegelian idealism with the results of science.  He was trying to bring the experimentalism of Hall within the framework of his own metaphysics.[12] 


In 1890 William James’s Principles of Psychology appeared and had a profound influence upon Dewey.  In his “The Development of American Pragmatism,” Dewey maintains that two fundamental theses of James’ were highly influential upon the development of his instrumentalism:


the one is a reinterpretation of introspective psychology, in which James denies that sensations, images, and ideas are discrete and in which he replaces them by a continuous stream which he calls “the stream of consciousness.”  This conception necessitates a consideration of relations as an immediate part of the field of consciousness, having the same status as qualities....[and this leads to James’ criticism]...of the atomism of Locke and Hume as well as the a priorism of the synthesis of rational principles by Kant and his successors.... 

  The other of a biological nature.  It shows itself in its full force in the criterion which James established for discovering the essence of mind.  “The pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon.”[13] 


Dewey found in James the basis for his instrumentalism in a manner which allowed him to fuse his Hegelian view that the workings of mind are objectively expressed in social traditions and institutions with his evolutionary views.[14]  While it took Dewey a while to free himself from his Hegelian idealism, he replaced it with a naturalistic orientation to which we now turn. 


Dewey’s Theory of Inquiry:


Dewey’s view of inquiry was heavily influenced by Darwinian biology.  The theory of inquiry offers an “organic” conception of thought and action—it takes organic interaction as its basic notion.  That is, it emphasizes the organism, the environment, and the interaction between them.  According to this theory, this interaction often yields a tension (either discrete or continuous) which, in turn, leads to efforts to resolve the tension so as to “return to” an equilibrium state.  The first step in a thoughtful inquiry process is the specification of the initial problem.  This is important since the problematic situation is, initially, indeterminate.  This may be done either by habit or by thought.  In thoughtful inquiry the problem is specified, the conditions in the environment are examined in light of the specified problem, a hypothesis is formed, its consequences are examined, and, then, the hypothetical action is either undertaken or the process begins anew. 


Human beings, for Dewey, are neither primarily souls nor are they primarily matter.  Instead, they are creatures of habit and instinct inhabiting a world which is neither malevolent nor benevolent.  At times, human habitual ways of functioning are insufficient (they reach impasses where their habits break down).  At these times human beings pause to consider which way to turn.  Dewey’s instrumentalism holds that mind or intelligence develops from and is an instrument for problem-solving.  Dewey rejects the “spectator” view of knowledge (which holds that our knowledge or beliefs are to “mirror” the essential, and unchanging, character of the world) and believes that our experimental processes are piecemeal processes—they proceed gradually, and their results are temporary. 


Dewey did not offer an exclusive emphasis upon the “practical” side of our lives however.  He also emphasized the importance of the aesthetic experiences of human beings.  He characterized aesthetic experience as immediate, individualized, and consummatory or final.  Religious experience for him is an especially intense aesthetic one.  As we shall see his discussion of consummatory experience is crucial to his project of integrating facts and values. 


Click here to continue with the Introduction to Dewey's Philosophy  (this will be relevant when we turn to his thought later in the course, but is not necessary at this introductory stage. 


Click here to proceed to lecture supplement on Dewey's "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy


 Notes: (click on the note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York: Norton, 1995), p. 24. 

[2] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989), p. 86.  West is among those who would have liked to see a more socially activist Dewey. 

[3] Ibid., p. 84. 

[4] Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), pp. 360-361. 

[5] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty [1929], reprinted as v. 4 of John Dewey: The Later Works, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 204. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] John Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism” in Contemporary American Philosophy v. 2, Adams and Montague (eds.) (London: Unwin, 1903), pp. 13-27, p. 20. 

[8] Dewey says that it was this which led him to his instrumentalism. 

[9] Dewey maintains that there is an underlying conflict between James’ critique of earlier psychologies, his retention of a subjectivism, and an “objective” strain in James’ thought: “I may cite as an illustration the substitution of the “stream of consciousness” for discrete elementary states: the advance made was enormous.  Nevertheless the point of view remained that of a realm of consciousness set off by itself.  The other strain is objective, having its roots in the return to the earlier biological conception of the psyche, but a return possessed of a new force and value due to the immense progress made by biology since the time of Aristotle” (John Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” op. cit., p. 24). 

[10] Gail Kennedy, “Introduction” to the Dewey chapter, in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch (New York: Appleton, 1951), pp. 327-335, pp. 329-330. 

[11] Ibid., p. 331. 

[12] Ibid. 

[13] John Dewey, from Philosophy and Civilization (1931).  The passage is in a reprint entitled: “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, ed. H.S. Thayer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982), pp. 35-36. 

[14] Ryan maintains that a decisive step in Dewey’s philosophical development from absolutistic German idealism to instrumentalistic experimentalism was his publication in 1896 of “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” (cf., Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, op. cit., pp. 124-127. 

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