| John Dewey was a leading proponent of the
American school of thought known as "pragmatism," a view that rejected
the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of modern philosophy in favor
of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as arising from an active
adaptation of the human organism to its environment. On this view,
inquiry should not be understood as consisting of a mind passively observing
the world and drawing from this ideas that if true correspond to reality,
but rather as a process which initiates with a check or obstacle to successful
human action, proceeds to active manipulation of the environment to test
hypotheses, and issues in a re-adaptation of organism to environment that
allows once again for human action to proceed. With this view as his
starting point, Dewey developed a broad body of work encompassing virtually
all of the main areas of philosophical concern in his day. He also
wrote extensively on social issues in such popular publications as the New
Republic, thereby gaining a reputation as a leading social commentator
of his time.
Table of Contents
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1. Life and Works
John Dewey was born on October 20, 1859, the third of
four sons born to Archibald Sprague Dewey and Lucina Artemesia Rich of
Burlington, Vermont. The eldest sibling died in infancy, but the three
surviving brothers attended the public school and the University of Vermont
in Burlington with John. While at the University of Vermont, Dewey was exposed
to evolutionary theory through the teaching of G.H. Perkins and
Lessons in Elementary Physiology, a text by T.H. Huxley,
the famous English evolutionist. The theory of natural selection continued
to have a life-long impact upon Dewey's thought, suggesting the barrenness
of static models of nature, and the importance of focusing on the interaction
between the human organism and its environment when considering questions
of psychology and the theory of knowledge. The formal teaching in philosophy
at the University of Vermont was confined for the most part to the school
of Scottish realism, a school of thought that Dewey soon rejected, but his
close contact both before and after graduation with his teacher of philosophy,
H.A.P. Torrey, a learned scholar with broader philosophical interests and
sympathies, was later accounted by Dewey himself as "decisive" to his philosophical
After graduation in 1879, Dewey taught high school for
two years, during which the idea of pursuing a career in philosophy took hold.
With this nascent ambition in mind, he sent a philosophical essay to W.T.
Harris, then editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and
the most prominent of the St. Louis Hegelians. Harris's acceptance of the
essay gave Dewey the confirmation he needed of his promise as a philosopher.
With this encouragement he traveled to Baltimore to enroll as a graduate
student at Johns Hopkins University.
At Johns Hopkins Dewey came under the tutelage of two
powerful and engaging intellects who were to have a lasting influence
on him. George Sylvester Morris, a German-trained Hegelian philosopher,
exposed Dewey to the organic model of nature characteristic of German
idealism. G. Stanley Hall, one of the most prominent American experimental
psychologists at the time, provided Dewey with an appreciation of the
power of scientific methodology as applied to the human sciences. The
confluence of these viewpoints propelled Dewey's early thought, and established
the general tenor of his ideas throughout his philosophical career.
Upon obtaining his doctorate in 1884, Dewey accepted
a teaching post at the University of Michigan, a post he was to hold for
ten years, with the exception of a year at the University of Minnesota
in 1888. While at Michigan Dewey wrote his first two books: Psychology
(1887), and Leibniz's New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding
(1888). Both works expressed Dewey's early commitment to Hegelian idealism,
while the Psychology explored the synthesis between this idealism
and experimental science that Dewey was then attempting to effect. At
Michigan Dewey also met one of his important philosophical collaborators,
James Hayden Tufts, with whom he would later author Ethics (1908;
revised ed. 1932).
In 1894, Dewey followed Tufts to the recently founded
University of Chicago. It was during his years at Chicago that Dewey's
early idealism gave way to an empirically based theory of knowledge that
was in concert with the then developing American school of thought known
as pragmatism. This change in view finally coalesced into a series of four
essays entitled collectively "Thought and its Subject-Matter," which was
published along with a number of other essays by Dewey's colleagues and
students at Chicago under the title Studies in Logical Theory (1903).
Dewey also founded and directed a laboratory school at Chicago, where he
was afforded an opportunity to apply directly his developing ideas on pedagogical
method. This experience provided the material for his first major work
on education, The School and Society (1899).
Disagreements with the administration over the status
of the Laboratory School led to Dewey's resignation from his post at Chicago
in 1904. His philosophical reputation now secured, he was quickly invited
to join the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. Dewey spent
the rest of his professional life at Columbia. Now in New York, located
in the midst of the Northeastern universities that housed many of the
brightest minds of American philosophy, Dewey developed close contacts
with many philosophers working from divergent points of view, an intellectually
stimulating atmosphere which served to nurture and enrich his thought.
During his first decade at Columbia Dewey wrote a great
number of articles in the theory of knowledge and metaphysics, many
of which were published in two important books: The Influence of Darwin
on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (1910) and Essays
in Experimental Logic (1916). His interest in educational theory
also continued during these years, fostered by his work at Teachers College
at Columbia. This led to the publication of How We Think (1910;
revised ed. 1933), an application of his theory of knowledge to education,
and Democracy and Education (1916), perhaps his most important work
in the field.
During his years at Columbia Dewey's reputation grew
not only as a leading philosopher and educational theorist, but also in
the public mind as an important commentator on contemporary issues, the
latter due to his frequent contributions to popular magazines such as The
New Republic and Nation, as well as his ongoing political involvement
in a variety of causes, such as women's suffrage and the unionization
of teachers. One outcome of this fame was numerous invitations to lecture
in both academic and popular venues. Many of his most significant writings
during these years were the result of such lectures, including
Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature
and Conduct (1922), Experience and Nature (1925), The Public
and its Problems (1927), and The Quest for Certainty (1929).
Dewey's retirement from active teaching in 1930 did
not curtail his activity either as a public figure or productive philosopher.
Of special note in his public life was his participation in the Commission
of Inquiry into the Charges Against Leon Trotsky at the Moscow Trial,
which exposed Stalin's political machinations behind the Moscow trials
of the mid-1930s, and his defense of fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell
against an attempt by conservatives to remove him from his chair at the
College of the City of New York in 1940. A primary focus of Dewey's philosophical
pursuits during the 1930s was the preparation of a final formulation of
his logical theory, published as Logic: The Theory of Inquiry in 1938.
Dewey's other significant works during his retirement years include
Art as Experience (1934), A Common
Faith (1934), Freedom and Culture (1939),
Theory of Valuation (1939), and Knowing and the
Known (1949), the last coauthored with Arthur F. Bentley. Dewey continued
to work vigorously throughout his retirement until his death on June 2,
1952, at the age of ninety-two.
2. Theory of Knowledge
The central focus of Dewey's philosophical interests
throughout his career was what has been traditionally called "epistemology,"
or the "theory of knowledge." It is indicative, however, of Dewey's critical
stance toward past efforts in this area that he expressly rejected the
term "epistemology," preferring the "theory of inquiry" or "experimental
logic" as more representative of his own approach.
In Dewey's view, traditional epistemologies, whether
rationalist or empiricist, had drawn too stark a distinction between
thought, the domain of knowledge, and the world of fact to which thought
purportedly referred: thought was believed to exist apart from the world,
epistemically as the object of immediate awareness, ontologically as the
unique aspect of the self. The commitment of modern rationalism, stemming
from Descartes, to a doctrine of innate ideas, ideas constituted from
birth in the very nature of the mind itself, had effected this dichotomy;
but the modern empiricists, beginning with Locke, had done the same just
as markedly by their commitment to an introspective methodology and a
representational theory of ideas. The resulting view makes a mystery of
the relevance of thought to the world: if thought constitutes a domain
that stands apart from the world, how can its accuracy as an account of
the world ever be established? For Dewey a new model, rejecting traditional
presumptions, was wanting, a model that Dewey endeavored to develop and
refine throughout his years of writing and reflection.
In his early writings on these issues, such as "Is Logic
a Dualistic Science?" (1890) and "The Present Position of Logical Theory"
(1891), Dewey offered a solution to epistemological issues mainly along
the lines of his early acceptance of Hegelian idealism: the world of fact
does not stand apart from thought, but is itself defined within thought
as its objective manifestation. But during the succeeding decade Dewey
gradually came to reject this solution as confused and inadequate.
A number of influences have bearing on Dewey's change
of view. For one, Hegelian idealism was not conducive to accommodating
the methodologies and results of experimental science which he accepted
and admired. Dewey himself had attempted to effect such an accommodation
between experimental psychology and idealism in his early Psychology
(1887), but the publication of William James' Principles of Psychology
(1891), written from a more thoroughgoing naturalistic stance, suggested
the superfluity of idealist principles in the treatment of the subject.
Second, Darwin's theory of natural selection suggested
in a more particular way the form which a naturalistic approach to the
theory of knowledge should take. Darwin's theory had renounced supernatural
explanations of the origins of species by accounting for the morphology
of living organisms as a product of a natural, temporal process of the
adaptation of lineages of organisms to their environments, environments
which, Darwin understood, were significantly determined by the organisms
that occupied them. The key to the naturalistic account of species was a
consideration of the complex interrelationships between organisms and environments.
In a similar way, Dewey came to believe that a productive, naturalistic
approach to the theory of knowledge must begin with a consideration of
the development of knowledge as an adaptive human response to environing
conditions aimed at an active restructuring of these conditions. Unlike
traditional approaches in the theory of knowledge, which saw thought as
a subjective primitive out of which knowledge was composed, Dewey's approach
understood thought genetically, as the product of the interaction between
organism and environment, and knowledge as having practical instrumentality
in the guidance and control of that interaction. Thus Dewey adopted the
term "instrumentalism" as a descriptive appellation for his new approach.
Dewey's first significant application of this new naturalistic
understanding was offered in his seminal article "The Reflex Arc Concept
in Psychology" (1896). In this article, Dewey argued that the dominant
conception of the reflex arc in the psychology of his day, which was thought
to begin with the passive stimulation of the organism, causing a conscious
act of awareness eventuating in a response, was a carry-over of the old,
and errant, mind-body dualism. Dewey argued for an alternative view: the
organism interacts with the world through self-guided activity that coordinates
and integrates sensory and motor responses. The implication for the theory
of knowledge was clear: the world is not passively perceived and thereby
known; active manipulation of the environment is involved integrally in
the process of learning from the start.
Dewey first applied this interactive naturalism in an
explicit manner to the theory of knowledge in his four introductory essays
in Studies in Logical Theory. Dewey identified the view expressed
in Studies with the school of pragmatism, crediting William James
as its progenitor. James, for his part, in an article appearing in the
Psychological Bulletin, proclaimed the work as
the expression of a new school of thought, acknowledging its originality.
A detailed genetic analysis of the process of inquiry
was Dewey's signal contribution to Studies. Dewey distinguished
three phases of the process. It begins with the problematic situation,
a situation where instinctive or habitual responses of the human organism
to the environment are inadequate for the continuation of ongoing activity
in pursuit of the fulfillment of needs and desires. Dewey stressed in
Studies and subsequent writings that the uncertainty
of the problematic situation is not inherently cognitive, but practical
and existential. Cognitive elements enter into the process as a response
to precognitive maladjustment.
The second phase of the process involves the isolation
of the data or subject matter which defines the parameters within which
the reconstruction of the initiating situation must be addressed. In the
third, reflective phase of the process, the cognitive elements of inquiry
(ideas, suppositions, theories, etc.) are entertained as hypothetical solutions
to the originating impediment of the problematic situation, the implications
of which are pursued in the abstract. The final test of the adequacy
of these solutions comes with their employment in action. If a reconstruction
of the antecedent situation conducive to fluid activity is achieved, then
the solution no longer retains the character of the hypothetical that
marks cognitive thought; rather, it becomes a part of the existential
circumstances of human life.
The error of modern epistemologists, as Dewey saw it,
was that they isolated the reflective stages of this process, and hypostatized
the elements of those stages (sensations, ideas, etc.) into pre-existing
constituents of a subjective mind in their search for an incorrigible foundation
of knowledge. For Dewey, the hypostatization was as groundless as the
search for incorrigibility was barren. Rejecting foundationalism, Dewey
accepted the fallibilism that was characteristic of the school of pragmatism:
the view that any proposition accepted as an item of knowledge has this
status only provisionally, contingent upon its adequacy in providing a coherent
understanding of the world as the basis for human action.
Dewey defended this general outline of the process of
inquiry throughout his long career, insisting that it was the only proper
way to understand the means by which we attain knowledge, whether it
be the commonsense knowledge that guides the ordinary affairs of our lives,
or the sophisticated knowledge arising from scientific inquiry. The latter
is only distinguished from the former by the precision of its methods for
controlling data, and the refinement of its hypotheses. In his writings
in the theory of inquiry subsequent to Studies, Dewey endeavored
to develop and deepen instrumentalism by considering a number of central
issues of traditional epistemology from its perspective, and responding to
some of the more trenchant criticisms of the view.
One traditional question that Dewey addressed in a
series of essays between 1906 and 1909 was that of the meaning of truth.
Dewey at that time considered the pragmatic theory of truth as central
to the pragmatic school of thought, and vigorously defended its viability.
Both Dewey and William James, in his book Pragmatism (1907), argued
that the traditional correspondence theory of truth, according to which
the true idea is one that agrees or corresponds to reality, only begs the
question of what the "agreement" or "correspondence" of idea with reality
is. Dewey and James maintained that an idea agrees with reality, and is
therefore true, if and only if it is successfully employed in human action
in pursuit of human goals and interests, that is, if it leads to the resolution
of a problematic situation in Dewey's terms. The pragmatic theory of truth
met with strong opposition among its critics, perhaps most notably from
the British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Dewey later began
to suspect that the issues surrounding the conditions of truth, as well as
knowledge, were hopelessly obscured by the accretion of traditional, and
in his view misguided, meanings to the terms, resulting in confusing ambiguity.
He later abandoned these terms in favor of "warranted assertiblity" to
describe the distinctive property of ideas that results from successful
One of the most important developments of his later
writings in the theory of knowledge was the application of the principles
of instrumentalism to the traditional conceptions and formal apparatus
of logical theory. Dewey made significant headway in this endeavor in
his lengthy introduction to Essays in Experimental Logic, but the
project reached full fruition in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.
The basis of Dewey's discussion in the Logic
is the continuity of intelligent inquiry with the adaptive responses of
pre-human organisms to their environments in circumstances that check efficient
activity in the fulfillment of organic needs. What is distinctive about
intelligent inquiry is that it is facilitated by the use of language, which
allows, by its symbolic meanings and implication relationships, the hypothetical
rehearsal of adaptive behaviors before their employment under actual,
prevailing conditions for the purpose of resolving problematic situations.
Logical form, the specialized subject matter of traditional logic, owes
its genesis not to rational intuition, as had often been assumed by logicians,
but due to its functional value in (1) managing factual evidence pertaining
to the problematic situation that elicits inquiry, and (2) controlling
the procedures involved in the conceptualized entertainment of hypothetical
solutions. As Dewey puts it, "logical forms accrue to subject-matter
when the latter is subjected to controlled inquiry."
From this new perspective, Dewey reconsiders many of
the topics of traditional logic, such as the distinction between deductive
and inductive inference, propositional form, and the nature of logical
necessity. One important outcome of this work was a new theory of propositions.
Traditional views in logic had held that the logical import of propositions
is defined wholly by their syntactical form (e.g., "All As are Bs," "Some
Bs are Cs"). In contrast, Dewey maintained that statements of identical
propositional form can play significantly different functional roles in
the process of inquiry. Thus in keeping with his distinction between the
factual and conceptual elements of inquiry, he replaced the accepted distinctions
between universal, particular, and singular propositions based on syntactical
meaning with a distinction between existential and ideational propositions,
a distinction that largely cuts across traditional classifications. The
same general approach is taken throughout the work: the aim is to offer
functional analyses of logical principles and techniques that exhibit their
operative utility in the process of inquiry as Dewey understood it.
The breadth of topics treated and the depth and continuity
of the discussion of these topics mark the Logic as Dewey's decisive
statement in logical theory. The recognition of the work's importance
within the philosophical community of the time can be gauged by the fact
that the Journal of Philosophy, the most prominent
American journal in the field, dedicated an entire issue to a discussion
of the work, including contributions by such philosophical luminaries as
C. I. Lewis of Harvard University, and Ernest Nagel, Dewey's colleague at
Columbia University. Although many of his critics did question, and continue
to question, the assumptions of his approach, one that is certainly unique
in the development of twentieth century logical theory, there is no doubt
that the work was and continues to be an important contribution to the
Dewey's naturalistic metaphysics first took shape in
articles that he wrote during the decade after the publication of Studies
in Logical Theory, a period when he was attempting to elucidate the
implications of instrumentalism. Dewey disagreed with William James's
assessment that pragmatic principles were metaphysically neutral. (He discusses
this disagreement in "What Does Pragmatism Mean by Practical," published
in 1908.) Dewey's view was based in part on an assessment of the motivations
behind traditional metaphysics: a central aim of the metaphysical tradition
had been the discovery of an immutable cognitive object that could serve
as a foundation for knowledge. The pragmatic theory, by showing that knowledge
is a product of an activity directed to the fulfillment of human purposes,
and that a true (or warranted) belief is known to be such by the consequences
of its employment rather than by any psychological or ontological foundations,
rendered this longstanding aim of metaphysics, in Dewey's view, moot, and
opened the door to renewed metaphysical discussion grounded firmly on an
Dewey begins to define the general form that an empirical
metaphysics should take in a number of articles, including "The Postulate
of Immediate Empiricism" (1905) and "Does Reality Possess Practical Character?"
(1908). In the former article, Dewey asserts that things experienced
empirically "are what they are experienced as." Dewey uses as an example
a noise heard in a darkened room that is initially experienced as fearsome.
Subsequent inquiry (e.g., turning on the lights and looking about) reveals
that the noise was caused by a shade tapping against a window, and thus innocuous.
But the subsequent inquiry, Dewey argues, does not change the initial status
of the noise: it was experienced as fearsome, and in fact
was fearsome. The point stems from the naturalistic roots of
Dewey's logic. Our experience of the world is constituted by our interrelationship
with it, a relationship that is imbued with practical import. The initial
fearsomeness of the noise is the experiential correlate of the uncertain,
problematic character of the situation, an uncertainty that is not merely
subjective or mental, but a product of the potential inadequacy of previously
established modes of behavior to deal effectively with the pragmatic demands
of present circumstances. The subsequent inquiry does not, therefore,
uncover a reality (the innocuousness of the noise) underlying a mere appearance
(its fearsomeness), but by settling the demands of the situation, it effects
a change in the inter-dynamics of the organism-environment relationship
of the initial situation--a change in reality.
There are two important implications of this line of
thought that distinguish it from the metaphysical tradition. First, although
inquiry is aimed at resolving the precarious and confusing aspects of
experience to provide a stable basis for action, this does not imply the
unreality of the unstable and contingent, nor justify its relegation to
the status of mere appearance. Thus, for example, the usefulness and reliability
of utilizing certain stable features of things encountered in our experience
as a basis for classification does not justify according ultimate reality
to essences or Platonic forms any more than, as rationalist metaphysicians
in the modern era have thought, the similar usefulness of mathematical
reasoning in understanding natural processes justifies the conclusion that
the world can be exhaustively defined mathematically.
Second, the fact that the meanings we attribute to natural
events might change in any particular in the future as renewed inquiries lead
to more adequate understandings of natural events (as was implied by Dewey's
fallibilism) does not entail that our experience of the world at any given
time may as a whole be errant. Thus the implicit skepticism that underlies
the representational theory of ideas and raises questions concerning the
veracity of perceptual experience as such is unwarranted. Dewey stresses the
point that sensations, hypotheses, ideas, etc., come into play to mediate
our encounter with the world only in the context of active inquiry. Once
inquiry is successful in resolving a problematic situation, mediatory
sensations and ideas, as Dewey says, "drop out; and things are present
to the agent in the most naively realistic fashion."
These contentions positioned Dewey's metaphysics within
the territory of a naive realism, and in a number of his articles, such
as "The Realism of Pragmatism" (1905), "Brief Studies in Realism" (1911),
and "The Existence of the World as a Logical Problem" (1915), it is this
view that Dewey expressly avows (a view that he carefully distinguishes
from what he calls "presentational realism," which he attributes to a number
of the other realists of his day). Opposing narrow-minded positions that
would accord full ontological status only to certain, typically the most
stable or reliable, aspects of experience, Dewey argues for a position that
recognizes the real significance of the multifarious richness of human experience.
Dewey offered a fuller statement of his metaphysics
in 1925, with the publication of one of his most significant philosophical
works, Experience and Nature. In the introductory chapter, Dewey
stresses a familiar theme from his earlier writings: that previous metaphysicians,
guided by unavowed biases for those aspects of experience that are relatively
stable and secure, have illicitly reified these biases into narrow ontological
presumptions, such as the temporal identity of substance, or the ultimate
reality of forms or essences. Dewey finds this procedure so pervasive
in the history of thought that he calls it simply the philosophic
fallacy, and signals his intention to eschew the disastrous consequences
of this approach by offering a descriptive account of all of the various
generic features of human experience, whatever their character.
Dewey begins with the observation that the world as
we experience it both individually and collectively is an admixture of
the precarious, the transitory and contingent aspect of things, and the
stable, the patterned regularity of natural processes that allows for prediction
and human intervention. Honest metaphysical description must take into
account both of these elements of experience. Dewey endeavors to do this
by an event ontology. The world, rather than being comprised of things
or, in more traditional terms, substances, is comprised of happenings or
occurrences that admit of both episodic uniqueness and general, structured
order. Intrinsically events have an ineffable qualitative character by
which they are immediately enjoyed or suffered, thus providing the basis
for experienced value and aesthetic appreciation. Extrinsically events are
connected to one another by patterns of change and development; any given
event arises out of determinant prior conditions and leads to probable consequences.
The patterns of these temporal processes is the proper subject matter of
human knowledge--we know the world in terms of causal laws and mathematical
relationships--but the instrumental value of understanding and controlling
them should not blind us to the immediate, qualitative aspect of events;
indeed, the value of scientific understanding is most significantly realized
in the facility it affords for controlling the circumstances under which
immediate enjoyments may be realized.
It is in terms of the distinction between qualitative
immediacy and the structured order of events that Dewey understands
the general pattern of human life and action. This understanding is captured
by James' suggestive metaphor that human experience consists of an alternation
of flights and perchings, an alternation of concentrated effort directed
toward the achievement of foreseen aims, what Dewey calls "ends-in-view,"
with the fruition of effort in the immediate satisfaction of "consummatory
experience." Dewey's insistence that human life follows the patterns of
nature, as a part of nature, is the core tenet of his naturalistic outlook.
Dewey also addresses the social aspect of human experience
facilitated by symbolic activity, particularly that of language. For
Dewey the question of the nature of social relationships is a significant
matter not only for social theory, but metaphysics as well, for it is
from collective human activity, and specifically the development of shared
meanings that govern this activity, that the mind arises. Thus rather
than understanding the mind as a primitive and individual human endowment,
and a precondition of conscious and intentional action, as was typical
in the philosophical tradition since Descartes, Dewey offers a genetic analysis
of mind as an emerging aspect of cooperative activity mediated by linguistic
communication. Consciousness, in turn, is not to be understood as a domain
of private awareness, but rather as the fulcrum point of the organism's readjustment
to the challenge of novel conditions where the meanings and attitudes that
formulate habitual behavioral responses to the environment fail to be adequate.
Thus Dewey offers in the better part of a number of chapters of Experience
and Nature a response to the traditional mind-body problem of the metaphysical
tradition, a response that understands the mind as an emergent issue of
natural processes, more particularly the web of interactive relationships
between human beings and the world in which they live.
4. Ethical and Social
Dewey's mature thought in ethics and social theory is
not only intimately linked to the theory of knowledge in its founding
conceptual framework and naturalistic standpoint, but also complementary
to it in its emphasis on the social dimension of inquiry both in its processes
and its consequences. In fact, it would be reasonable to claim that Dewey's
theory of inquiry cannot be fully understood either in the meaning of its
central tenets or the significance of its originality without considering
how it applies to social aims and values, the central concern of his ethical
and social theory.
Dewey rejected the atomistic understanding of society
of the Hobbesian social contract theory, according to which the social,
cooperative aspect of human life was grounded in the logically prior and
fully articulated rational interests of individuals. Dewey's claim in
Experience and Nature that the collection of meanings
that constitute the mind have a social origin expresses the basic contention,
one that he maintained throughout his career, that the human individual
is a social being from the start, and that individual satisfaction and achievement
can be realized only within the context of social habits and institutions
that promote it.
Moral and social problems, for Dewey, are concerned
with the guidance of human action to the achievement of socially defined
ends that are productive of a satisfying life for individuals within
the social context. Regarding the nature of what constitutes a satisfying
life, Dewey was intentionally vague, out of his conviction that specific
ends or goods can be defined only in particular socio-historical contexts.
In the Ethics (1932) he speaks of the ends simply
as the cultivation of interests in goods that recommend themselves in the
light of calm reflection. In other works, such as Human Nature and Conduct
and Art as Experience, he speaks of (1) the harmonizing of experience
(the resolution of conflicts of habit and interest both within the individual
and within society), (2) the release from tedium in favor of the enjoyment
of variety and creative action, and (3) the expansion of meaning (the
enrichment of the individual's appreciation of his or her circumstances
within human culture and the world at large). The attunement of individual
efforts to the promotion of these social ends constitutes, for Dewey, the
central issue of ethical concern of the individual; the collective means
for their realization is the paramount question of political policy.
Conceived in this manner, the appropriate method for
solving moral and social questions is the same as that required for solving
questions concerning matters of fact: an empirical method that is tied
to an examination of problematic situations, the gathering of relevant
facts, and the imaginative consideration of possible solutions that, when
utilized, bring about a reconstruction and resolution of the original situations.
Dewey, throughout his ethical and social writings, stressed the need for
an open-ended, flexible, and experimental approach to problems of practice
aimed at the determination of the conditions for the attainment of human
goods and a critical examination of the consequences of means adopted to
promote them, an approach that he called the "method of intelligence."
The central focus of Dewey's criticism of the tradition
of ethical thought is its tendency to seek solutions to moral and social
problems in dogmatic principles and simplistic criteria which in his view
were incapable of dealing effectively with the changing requirements of
human events. In Reconstruction of Philosophy
and The Quest for Certainty, Dewey located the motivation
of traditional dogmatic approaches in philosophy in the forlorn hope for
security in an uncertain world, forlorn because the conservatism of these
approaches has the effect of inhibiting the intelligent adaptation of human
practice to the ineluctable changes in the physical and social environment.
Ideals and values must be evaluated with respect to their social consequences,
either as inhibitors or as valuable instruments for social progress, and
Dewey argues that philosophy, because of the breadth of its concern and
its critical approach, can play a crucial role in this evaluation.
In large part, then, Dewey's ideas in ethics and social
theory were programmatic rather than substantive, defining the direction
that he believed human thought and action must take in order to identify
the conditions that promote the human good in its fullest sense, rather
than specifying particular formulae or principles for individual and social
action. He studiously avoided participating in what he regarded as the
unfortunate practice of previous moral philosophers of offering general
rules that legislate universal standards of conduct. But there are strong
suggestions in a number of his works of basic ethical and social positions.
In Human Nature and Conduct Dewey approaches ethical inquiry through
an analysis of human character informed by the principles of scientific psychology.
The analysis is reminiscent of Aristotelian ethics, concentrating on the
central role of habit in formulating the dispositions of action that comprise
character, and the importance of reflective intelligence as a means of modifying
habits and controlling disruptive desires and impulses in the pursuit of
The social condition for the flexible adaptation that
Dewey believed was crucial for human advancement is a democratic form
of life, not instituted merely by democratic forms of governance, but by
the inculcation of democratic habits of cooperation and public spiritedness,
productive of an organized, self-conscious community of individuals responding
to society's needs by experimental and inventive, rather than dogmatic,
means. The development of these democratic habits, Dewey argues in School
and Society and Democracy and Education, must
begin in the earliest years of a child's educational experience. Dewey
rejected the notion that a child's education should be viewed as merely
a preparation for civil life, during which disjoint facts and ideas are
conveyed by the teacher and memorized by the student only to be utilized
later on. The school should rather be viewed as an extension of civil society
and continuous with it, and the student encouraged to operate as a member
of a community, actively pursuing interests in cooperation with others.
It is by a process of self-directed learning, guided by the cultural resources
provided by teachers, that Dewey believed a child is best prepared for the
demands of responsible membership within the democratic community.
Dewey's one significant treatment of aesthetic theory
is offered in Art as Experience, a book that was based on the William
James Lectures that he delivered at Harvard University in 1931. The
book stands out as a diversion into uncommon philosophical territory for
Dewey, adumbrated only by a somewhat sketchy and tangential treatment
of art in one chapter of Experience and Nature. The unique status
of the work in Dewey's corpus evoked some criticism from Dewey's followers,
most notably Stephen Pepper, who believed that it marked an unfortunate
departure from the naturalistic standpoint of his instrumentalism, and
a return to the idealistic viewpoints of his youth. On close reading, however,
Art as Experience reveals a considerable continuity
of Dewey's views on art with the main themes of his previous philosophical
work, while offering an important and useful extension of those themes.
Dewey had always stressed the importance of recognizing the significance
and integrity of all aspects of human experience. His repeated complaint
against the partiality and bias of the philosophical tradition expresses
this theme. Consistent with this theme, Dewey took account of qualitative
immediacy in Experience and Nature, and incorporated it into his
view of the developmental nature of experience, for it is in the enjoyment
of the immediacy of an integration and harmonization of meanings, in the
"consummatory phase" of experience that, in Dewey's view, the fruition of
the re-adaptation of the individual with environment is realized. These
central themes are enriched and deepened in Art as Experience, making
it one of Dewey's most significant works.
The roots of aesthetic experience lie, Dewey argues,
in commonplace experience, in the consummatory experiences that are ubiquitous
in the course of human life. There is no legitimacy to the conceit cherished
by some art enthusiasts that aesthetic enjoyment is the privileged endowment
of the few. Whenever there is a coalesence into an immediately enjoyed
qualitative unity of meanings and values drawn from previous experience
and present circumstances, life then takes on an aesthetic quality--what
Dewey called having "an experience." Nor is the creative work of
the artist, in its broad parameters, unique. The process of intelligent
use of materials and the imaginative development of possible solutions to
problems issuing in a reconstruction of experience that affords immediate
satisfaction, the process found in the creative work of artists, is also
to be found in all intelligent and creative human activity. What distinguishes
artistic creation is the relative stress laid upon the immediate enjoyment
of unified qualitative complexity as the rationalizing aim of the activity
itself, and the ability of the artist to achieve this aim by marshalling
and refining the massive resources of human life, meanings, and values.
The senses play a key role in artistic creation and
aesthetic appreciation. Dewey, however, argues against the view, stemming
historically from the sensationalistic empiricism of David Hume, that
interprets the content of sense experience simply in terms of the traditionally
codified list of sense qualities, such as color, odor, texture, etc.,
divorced from the funded meanings of past experience. It is not only
the sensible qualities present in the physical media the artist uses,
but the wealth of meaning that attaches to these qualities, that constitute
the material that is refined and unified in the process of artistic expression.
The artist concentrates, clarifies, and vivifies these meanings in the
artwork. The unifying element in this process is emotion--not the emotion
of raw passion and outburst, but emotion that is reflected upon and used
as a guide to the overall character of the artwork. Although Dewey insisted
that emotion is not the significant content of the work of art, he clearly
understands it to be the crucial tool of the artist's creative activity.
Dewey repeatedly returns in Art as Experience
to a familiar theme of his critical reflections upon the history of ideas,
namely that a distinction too strongly drawn too often sacrifices accuracy
of account for a misguided simplicity. Two applications of this theme
are worth mentioning here. Dewey rejects the sharp distinction often made
in aesthetics between the matter and the form of an artwork. What Dewey
objected to was the implicit suggestion that matter and form stand side
by side, as it were, in the artwork as distinct and precisely distinguishable
elements. For Dewey, form is better understood in a dynamic sense as the
coordination and adjustment of the qualities and associated meanings that
are integrated within the artwork.
A second misguided distinction that Dewey rejects is
that between the artist as the active creator and the audience as the
passive recipient of art. This distinction artificially truncates the
artistic process by in effect suggesting that the process ends with the
final artifact of the artist's creativity. Dewey argues that, to the contrary,
the process is barren without the agency of the appreciator, whose active
assimilation of the artist's work requires a recapitulation of many of the
same processes of discrimination, comparison, and integration that are present
in the artist's initial work, but now guided by the artist's perception
and skill. Dewey underscores the point by distinguishing between the "art
product," the painting, sculpture, etc., created by the artist, and the
"work of art" proper, which is only realized through the active engagement
of an astute audience.
Ever concerned with the interrelationships between the
various domains of human activity and concern, Dewey ends Art as Experience
with a chapter devoted to the social implications of the arts. Art is
a product of culture, and it is through art that the people of a given culture
express the significance of their lives, as well as their hopes and ideals.
Because art has its roots in the consummatory values experienced in the
course of human life, its values have an affinity to commonplace values,
an affinity that accords to art a critical office in relation to prevailing
social conditions. Insofar as the possibility for a meaningful and satisfying
life disclosed in the values embodied in art is not realized in the lives
of the members of a society, the social relationships that preclude this
realization are condemned. Dewey's specific target in this chapter was
the conditions of workers in industrialized society, conditions which force
upon the worker the performance of repetitive tasks that are devoid of personal
interest and afford no satisfaction in personal accomplishment. The degree
to which this critical function of art is ignored is a further indication
of what Dewey regarded as the unfortunate distancing of the arts from the
common pursuits and interests of ordinary life. The realization of art's
social function requires the closure of this bifurcation.
6. Critical Reception
Dewey's philosophical work received varied responses
from his philosophical colleagues during his lifetime. There were many
philosophers who saw his work, as Dewey himself understood it, as a genuine
attempt to apply the principles of an empirical naturalism to the perennial
questions of philosophy, providing a beneficial clarification of issues
and the concepts used to address them. Dewey's critics, however, often
expressed the opinion that his views were more confusing than clarifying,
and that they appeared to be more akin to idealism than the scientifically
based naturalism Dewey expressly avowed. Notable in this connection are
Dewey's disputes concerning the relation of the knowing subject to known
objects with the realists Bertrand Russell, A. O. Lovejoy, and Evander Bradley
McGilvery. Whereas these philosophers argued that the object of knowledge
must be understood as existing apart from the knowing subject, setting the
truth conditions for propositions, Dewey defended the view that things understood
as isolated from any relationship with the human organism could not be objects
of knowledge at all.
Dewey was sensitive and responsive to the criticisms
brought against his views. He often attributed them to misinterpretations
based on the traditional, philosophical connotations that some of his
readers would attach to his terminology. This was clearly a fair assessment
with respect to some of his critics. To take one example, Dewey used the
term "experience," found throughout his philosophical writings, to denote
the broad context of the human organism's interrelationship with its environment,
not the domain of human thought alone, as some of his critics read him
to mean. Dewey's concern for clarity of expression motivated efforts in
his later writings to revise his terminology. Thus, for example, he later
substituted "transaction" for his earlier "interaction" to denote the relationship
between organism and environment, since the former better suggested a dynamic
interdependence between the two, and in a new introduction to Experience
and Nature, never published during his lifetime, he offered the term
"culture" as an alternative to "experience." Late in his career he attempted
a more sweeping revision of philosophical terminology in Knowing and
the Known, written in collaboration with Arthur F. Bentley.
The influence of Dewey's work, along with that of the
pragmatic school of thought itself, although considerable in the first
few decades of the twentieth century, was gradually eclipsed during the
middle part of the century as other philosophical methods, such as those
of the analytic school in England and America and phenomenology in continental
Europe, grew to ascendency. Recent trends in philosophy, however, leading
to the dissolution of these rigid paradigms, have led to approaches that
continue and expand on the themes of Dewey's work. W. V. O. Quine's project
of naturalizing epistemology works upon naturalistic presumptions anticipated
in Dewey's own naturalistic theory of inquiry. The social dimension and
function of belief systems, explored by Dewey and other pragmatists, has
received renewed attention by such writers as Richard Rorty and Jürgen
Habermas. American phenomenologists such as Sandra Rosenthal and James Edie
have considered the affinities of phenomenology and pragmatism, and Hilary
Putnam, an analytically trained philosophy, has recently acknowledged the
affinity of his own approach to ethics to that of Dewey's. The renewed
openness and pluralism of recent philosophical discussion has meant a renewed
interest in Dewey's philosophy, an interest that promises to continue for
some time to come.
All of the published writings of John Dewey
have been newly edited and published in The Collected Works of John
Dewey, Jo Ann Boydston, ed., 37 volumes (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1967-1991).
Dewey's complete correspondence has know been published in electronic
form in The Correspondence of John Dewey, 3 vols., Larry Hickman,
ed. (Charlottesville, Va: Intelex Corporation).
An authoritative collection of Dewey's writings is The Essential
Dewey, 2 vols., Larry Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, eds. (Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).
Selected Secondary Sources
Alexander, Thomas M. The Horizons of Feeling: John Dewey's Theory
of Art, Experience, and Nature. Albany: State University of New York
Boisvert, Raymond D. Dewey's Metaphysics. New York:
Fordham University Press, 1988.
Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1998.
Bullert, Gary. The Politics of John Dewey. Buffalo,
NY: Prometheus Books, 1983.
Campbell, James. Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative
Intelligence. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1995.
Damico, Alfonso J. Individuality and Community: The Social and
Political Thought of John Dewey. Gainesville, FL: University
Presses of Florida, 1978.
Dykhuizen, George. The Life and Mind of John Dewey. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
Eames, S. Morris. Experience and Value: Essays on John Dewey and
Pragmatic Naturalism. Elizabeth R. Eames and Richard W. Field, eds. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.
Eldridge, Michael. Transforming Experience: John Dewey's Cultural
Instrumentalism. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.
Gouinlock, James. John Dewey's Philosophy of Value. New
York: Humanities Press, 1972.
Hickman, Larry. John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1990.
Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern
Generation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,
Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. New
York: John Day Co., 1939; New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.
Jackson, Philip W. John Dewey and the Lessons of Art. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Haskins, Casey and David I. Seiple, eds. Dewey Reconfigured: Essays
on Deweyan Pragmatism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Levine, Barbara. Works about John Dewey: 1886-1995. Carbondale
and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic
Humanism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Schilpp, Paul Arthur and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. The
Philosophy of John Dewey, The Library of Living Philosophers,
vol. 1. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.
Sleeper, Ralph. The Necessity of Pragmatism: John Dewey's Conception
of Philosophy. New York: Yale University Press, 1987.
Thayer, H. S. The Logic of Pragmatism: An Examination of John
Dewey's Logic. New York: Humanities Press, 1952.
Tiles, J. E. Dewey. London: Routledge, 1988.
Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey's Ethical Thought. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1995.