American Philosophy – Dewey

john dewey

John Dewey (1859 – 1952 CE) was a Pragmatist philosopher, functionalist psychologist like James, and major influence on American education.  He is also well known for his aesthetic philosophy, his philosophy of art and beauty, from his popular book Art as Experience (1934).  He taught both elementary and high school before deciding he was better suited for teaching at the college level.  Dewey attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins where he studied the novel philosophy of Pragmatism under Peirce and obtained his doctorate, his thesis titled The Psychology of Kant.  He then taught at the University of Chicago, where he focused on Pragmatism and the development of education.  He later left to teach at Columbia, a university known for its progressivism, and he was at one time the president of both the American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological Association.

Democracy and education john dewey

In his book Democracy and Education, Dewey argues that an intelligent and good society provides education and supports a diversity and plurality of ideas and opinions.  A prosperous democracy requires that public opinion be informed and authorities held accountable.  Dewey practically (and pragmatically) invented everything that progressive educators obsess about.  Dewey was a democratic socialist, angering some of his Marxist colleagues in his disagreements with the philosophy of Marx and the practices of Stalin.  He even formed the Dewey Commission and went to Mexico in 1937 to clear Trotsky of Stalin’s charges of treason, finding Trotsky innocent.  Dewey lectured and traveled in China, excited about the changes taking place in the country, though he argued that the change should come through gradual reform driven by progressive education, not violent revolution.


Dewey in his early years was committed to the philosophy of Hegel, particularly British Neo-Hegelianism, the Hegelians who angered and confused Bertrand Russell.  Dewey called his particular form of Pragmatism Instrumentalism, the term which Russell uses to refer to attack Pragmatism and Utilitarianism under the same banner.  I gave you Russell’s piece on Dewey next to Dewey’s own The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy as it best frames the difference between Positivism and Pragmatism.  Russell was, like Dewey, a socialist who tried to reform and liberalize education such that humanity would evolve towards prosperity and peace.  Russell writes that he and Dewey agree on much, but he cannot agree with Dewey that the goal of education and philosophy is not ‘truth’ but continuous inquiry, just as like Sextus Empiricus said is the cornerstone of skepticism, the fruitfulness of the search rather than the permanency of the results.  Russell rightly says that Dewey, though influenced by Hegel, did not believe that truth results in a final Absolute, though it does grow and progress.

columbus lands in america

Russell argues that sentences can be true given a culture that supports particular language use.  He uses the example, “Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492”, which is true in English.  If one translated it into Arabic, Russell notes that the sentence would be false unless you changed 1492 in accord with the Islamic calendar.  Russell, the great mathematician, fails to do the arithmetic here and tell us that 1492 is, for Muslims, 897.  According to the Islamic system, it is currently the year 1434, and 1492 has not yet happened.  Thus, for a Muslim, “Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492” would be false.

cup of coffee

Russell says that Dewey’s idea of continuous inquiry is itself impractical, a good charge to level against a pragmatist if it is true.  Russell considers the case of being asked whether he had coffee with breakfast.  Should we experiment, and try believing and saying we had coffee and then try believing and saying that we did not, and see what the results are?  The experimentation would not end there, because we would then have to see if believing that the results of this are the results or not leads to good or bad results, resulting in an infinite regress.  Just as Mill responded to the paradox of the bad as good example, Dewey would likely respond, similar to Heidegger, that we are thrown into a world in which lying about having coffee would be assumed, from the flow of our social practice, to be a fruitless place to search for good results.

textile factory

Interestingly, Russell connects Dewey’s Pragmatism to industrialization in America, and then is surprised when Dewey, upset by Russell making this connection, responds that Pragmatism should no more be connected so simply with the obnoxious aspects of American industrialization than Positivism should be connected with the interests of the British aristocracy.  Notice that Positivism is quite dogmatic, like the persistence of the British aristocracy, and Pragmatism is quite progressive, like the pace of American industry and commercialism.  Russell, an atheist, is afraid that Nietzsche’s individualism and Dewey’s pragmatism leads to the “danger of cosmic impiety”, that humanity believes itself to be God, capable of creating truth however it wishes.

WWI hand dropped bomb

In Dewey’s piece I gave you, written as World War I was happening, he argues against both realism and idealism.  Sometimes, truth must be radically changed, so it should not be considered objectively real nor metaphysically ideal.  Dewey argues, as the bombs fall in Europe, that it is time for a radical change for philosophy and its fundamental idea of objective, complete and ideal truth.  Unless it does this, it will continue to be further alienated from modern times and the general public.  We should learn from the great philosophers, and then move beyond them.

Butter clam

We are shaped by our environment, but we can shape our environment, which we do even if we try to close ourselves off from the world in a “clam-like fashion”.  This too affects truth and meaning.  Much as the Buddha, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche taught, existence is suffering, desiring things in the world and suffering as a result, affecting the world and being affected, and this is the price we pay for development and progress.  We should dwell in the openness of the future rather than in the closure of the past, using hope to counter anxiety.  In the past, people held faith in the truth of religion, and in the present, people hold faith in the truth of science, but the simple and independent truths, the “given and finished facts” in which we had and have faith are not found in our experience.

lock boxes

Dewey argued elsewhere that many fall for what he called the Philosopher’s Fallacy, thinking that the labels we apply to things are exclusive categories.  He used the example of body and mind, which Descartes exclusively separated with his dualism at the very beginning of modern European philosophy.  ‘Body’ and ‘mind’ are not exclusively different things, but labels used to solve particular problems.  Wittgenstein argues very similarly in his Philosophical Investigations, writing that names are like physical labels and that many confuse this for metaphysical categories.  Dewey argued that in particular situations our beliefs are unsettled, and then we attempt to reconcile our beliefs with what contradicts them to resolve our beliefs and return to a settled state.  This is very similar to Hegel’s conception of dialectic and the history of thought.


Also like Hegel, as well as Comte, Dewey saw history unfolding in three stages, and that he was lucky enough to be in the third and final stage.  The first stage is “self action”, in which things are thought to posses their own powers in themselves, independent of other things, the prescientific period.  The second stage is “interaction”, in which things are thought to posses their powers in terms of a complete and closed system, the period of the European Enlightenment and the work of Newton.  The third stage is “transaction”, in which things are rightly understood to possess their powers in their relationship to other things, but without any complete system, stable essences, or objective reality.  Unfortunately, as for Hegel and Comte, all development beyond the first stage are European developments, if we say that American Pragmatists are largely European.

John Dewey stamp

Like Comte, Dewey saw the European Enlightenment as a period still bogged down in faith in metaphysics, but unlike Comte he saw this progressing not to a unified system of the sciences but to an abandonment of any belief in a unified objective system, progressing not to Positivism but to Pragmatism.  Dewey criticized Logical Positivism for dealing in abstractions that are outside of the real world, incapable of reaching the reality in which we live.  For Dewey, Positivism merely believed itself to have discarded metaphysics, but its faith in objective truth and the complete unification of science is merely the substitution of a new metaphysics for that of Newton, Kant, Hegel and the Enlightenment.  While Comte sees Positivism as advancing beyond the second stage, Dewey saw Positivism as the final expression of the second stage, similar in ways to Marx’s view of Hegel.  Like Hegel, Dewey sees a unification of objective and subjective truth as the final third stage.

As mentioned last time, there was a surge of criticism that rose against Positivism in the 1960s, which corresponded with a surge of new interest in Pragmatism, sometimes called Neo-Pragmatism, departing somewhat from the work of Peirce, James and Dewey just as Post-Positivism departed somewhat from the work of Russell and the Vienna Circle.  Two of the most famous American Pragmatists are Richard Rorty and Cornel West.

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