Introduction to Dewey’s Philosophy Continued


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     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

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.  


Thought and Action:


Like the other pragmatists, Dewey emphasizes the relationship between thought and action.  He preferred to term his pragmatism an “instrumentalism” (or “experimentalism”) however.  In his “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” The Quest for Certainty, and Experience and Nature, Dewey emphasizes how the pragmatic philosophy differs from the classical philosophical orientations.  In the former article he argues that we can seek knowledge either in something transcendent or in the mutual interaction of things.  The change from the traditional orientation (which sought knowledge in the transcendent) to the orientation which Dewey recommends (which seeks knowledge in the mutual interaction of things) is a change which moves from “purpose” to “significance” (signs) and it is exemplified by the change in the science of biology from the teleological orientation of Aristotle to Darwinistic significance considerations.  Dewey believed that the new (practical or instrumental) procedures of thought should not be merely confined to our scientific or epistemological thinking.  He maintained that they should characterize our moral, political, and educational thinking also. 


In his “The Development of American Pragmatism,” Dewey maintains that a central differentiation between instrumentalism or pragmatism, on the one hand, and traditional empiricism, on the other, is that the former is forward-looking (looking at “consequent” phenomena) rather than backward-looking (looking at “antecedent” phenomena).[1]  He goes on to maintain that this shows that pragmatism or instrumentalism has metaphysical implications:


the doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term, “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic.[2] 


Given that he believes that the traditional philosophical orientations asked bad questions, Dewey holds that the “reconstruction of philosophy” which he recommends leads to the disappearance” or “evaporation” of the old questions.[3] 


Dewey and Realism:


Dewey’s instrumentalism and his conception of reality as plastic diverges significantly from the sort of German Idealism which he adhered to early in his philosophical career (as he, of course, makes quite clear in his “From Absolutism to Experimentalism”).  In his “The Realism of Pragmatism” Dewey claims that:


instrumentalism is thus thoroughly realistic as to the objective of fulfilling conditions of knowledge.  States of consciousness, sensations and ideas as cognitive, exist as tools, bridges, cues, affect a realistic presentation of things in which there are no intervening states of consciousness as veils or representatives.  Known things, as known, are direct presentations in the most diaphanous medium conceivable.  And if getting knowledge, as distinct from having it, involves representatives, pragmatism carries with it a reinterpretation, and a realistic interpretation, of ‘states of consciousness’ as representations.  They are practically or effectively, not transcendentally representative.  They represent in the sense in which a signature, for legal purposes, represents a real person....They are symbols, in short, and are known and used as such.[4] 


According to Ernest Nagel, “naive realism” (the view that the world is made up of sheep, clouds, rainbows, and trees), is undercut by “scientific realism” (the view that reality is made up of atoms, fields, and forces), but this appears to create a “paradox”:


...naive realism leads to physics, but if physics is true then naive realism is false.  On this analysis, therefore, one is left with the choice of either accepting natural science but rejecting as basically illusory the things that constitute men’s most familiar and valued experience, or accepting the objective character of common-sense views of things but denying the validity and relevance of modern science for matters of prime human concern.”[5] 


According to Nagel, Dewey resolves this “paradox:”


...the adequacy or validity of ideas is not warranted by their supposed derivation from materials of sense, but rather by the consequences of their use….The central thesis of Dewey’s theory of science is that it does not disclose realms of being antithetical to the familiar things of life, simply because scientific objects are formulations of complex relations of dependence between things in sense experience...the constructions of theoretical physics are viewed  as intellectual means of organizing the discontinuous occurrences of directly experienced qualities, as ways of thinking about matters in gross experience in order to obtain some measure of control....[6] 


Of course, if Dewey’s experimentalism is committed to realism, it is not anti-metaphysical.  As we look at his views in greater depth, we will have to look to see whether his experimentalism (or naturalism, or pragmatism) can consistently offer the sort of metaphysical theory which he advances.[7] 


Dewey’s Theory of Value:


To bring this overly long introduction to an end, I must briefly expand upon some earlier remarks about Dewey’s theory of value.  As I noted above, Dewey believes that some of our experiences have a “consummatory” (or aesthetic) character.  Gail Kennedy maintains that after reading James, Dewey developed a pragmatic (or naturalistic) theory which argued that:


...values and purposes are created by man in his efforts to “adapt” himself to the world of nature and of society within which he lives and moves and has his being.  What these values shall be is not predetermined by the appeal to some antecedent reality or cosmic purpose.  They occur as effects or products of the conflicts that arise and the choices which are made in the particular situations of daily life....With man intelligence has reached a level where he may, within the limits of the forces at his disposal, control the future.  But this is always a piecemeal control and the ends-in-view of limited human beings must always vary with the changing situation.  Values are altered as knowledge develops. 

  A philosophy which accepts this evolutionary definition of intelligence thus “forswears enquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them.”  If this is the role of philosophy, then method, the method of intelligence is supreme.  Philosophy must “become a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis.[8] 


In short, for Dewey, values are to be subjected to the same sort of experimental and instrumentalistic analysis as are facts.  Of course, given his view of inquiry, and his “plastic” conception of reality, he is also committed to the existence of meaningful freedom.  To come to understand Dewey’s theory of value and ethics, however, we must turn to our readings. 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] John Dewey, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” op. cit., pp. 32-33. 

[2] Ibid., p. 33. 

[3] Cf., John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch, op. cit., pp. 336-344, p. 344.  Cf., also, John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon, 1957 [originally published in 1920]). 

[4] John Dewey, “The Realism of Pragmatism,” The Journal of Philosophy (1905), pp. 324-327, p. 325. 

[5] Ernest Nagel, “Dewey’s Theory of Natural Science,” in John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom, ed. Sidney Hook (York: Dial, 1950), pp. 233-234. 

[6] Ibid., p. 236. 

[7] In his “Dewey’s Naturalistic Metaphysics” (The Journal of Philosophy v. 22 (1905), pp. 673-688), George Santayana maintains that Dewey’s “metaphysics” is inconsistent with his “naturalism.”  Richard Rorty offers a similar argument in his “Dewey’s Metaphysics” (in New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. Steven M. Cahn (Hanover: University of Vermont, 1977), pp. 45-69). 

[8] Gail Kennedy, “Introduction” to the Dewey chapter, in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch, op. cit., p. 333.  Kennedy cites Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwin On Philosophy,” op. cit., p. 341. 

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