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Dewey: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год

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      Dewey: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Dewey in just one hour.In early twentieth-century America John Dewey was regarded as the foremost philosopher of his age – no mean feat when his colleagues included the likes of Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Dewey produced a distinctly American philosophy, essentially different from that of his European contemporaries – his pragmatic theory of ‘instrumentalism’ or ‘experimentalism’, relying on modern experimental methods to prove truth and reality. Dewey saw the ultimate reality as being nothing more or less than that which we encounter in everyday life – there is no mystery hidden within.Here is a concise, expert account of Dewey’s life and philosophical ideas, entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Dewey’s work, suggested further reading and chronologies that place Dewey in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


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Dewey’s Life and Works (#u77df408c-7796-5d57-a03e-6f3a89de6f25)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Dewey’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Dewey’s Life and Times (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

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Dewey’s Life and Works (#ulink_0a9f1e21-c649-54e5-affa-ad3ea654faff)

During the first half of the twentieth century, John Dewey was regarded in America as the foremost philosopher of his age. This was no mean feat at a time when Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger were all alive and producing some of their finest work. Russell himself called Dewey ‘the leading living philosopher of America’. The fact that Dewey had once saved Russell’s life should not be seen as influencing this view. Both men took philosophy far too seriously to let any such indebtedness influence their opinions. Russell also described Dewey as ‘a man of the highest character, liberal in outlook, generous and kind in personal relations, indefatigable in work’. But this did not stop him from regarding Dewey’s pragmatic view of truth as nothing less than a philosophic catastrophe, liable to lead to lunacy. In Russell’s view: ‘The concept of “truth” as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness.’

John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, close to the Canadian border in Vermont. The states of Texas, California, and Florida had only recently been admitted to the Union; the internal combustion engine would not be invented until the following year; and there were the first rumblings of a civil war between the Northern and Southern states. The Dewey family had been Vermont farmers for three generations, and Dewey’s father, Archibald, ran a local grocery business in Burlington, which was then a small but thriving lumber city on the banks of Lake Champlain. His mother, Lucinda, came from a well-known local political family – John’s great-grandfather had been a Washington congressman for ten years.

John Dewey’s early childhood was disturbed by the Civil War, which broke out when he was just a year old. Although Archibald Dewey was already forty, he immediately responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers and enlisted as a quartermaster in the 1st Vermont Cavalry. When he was sent south, Lucinda took the family to Virginia so that they could remain together, and they did not return to Burlington until the Civil War ended. By now Burlington was in the process of becoming the second largest lumber depot in the country. Amidst the atmosphere of booming business, the middle classes (which included the Deweys) lived in conditions of some prosperity. Meanwhile, down by the lakeside, squalid tenements housed the poor immigrant workers, who were mainly Irish and French Canadian. These slums were described in a contemporary local report as ‘abodes of wretchedness and filth’ which had become ‘haunts of dissipation’. Unlike many of the well-to-do families, the Deweys did not remain indifferent to such social injustice, and Lucinda Dewey undertook philanthropic work. As a result, though her son John was brought up and educated amidst ‘old American’ culture, he was constantly aware of what life was like on the other side of the tracks.

Young John had an evangelical Christian schooling, which left a marked influence on his character and outlook. For years to come he would believe that redemption meant ‘to be delivered from the dominating lower life of the flesh, to be rescued to the higher life of the spirit, and to be shaped into a spiritual manhood’. He would remain a practising Christian throughout his long life. The moral and compassionate outlook he received from his faith would colour not only his philosophical but also his social views.

After showing academic promise in high school, Dewey went on to study at the University of Vermont, where students who frequented the local billiard parlours and other ‘objectionable places of resort’ were open to expulsion. But as is often the case with university authorities, such public strictures were little more than a vain attempt to curb the usual student behaviour. The University of Vermont was no more or less rowdy than similar institutions at the time, and John Dewey is listed as having taken part in his fair share of student misdemeanors (helping imprison a hapless instructor in his classroom, repeatedly failing to turn up for military drill, and so on).

Dewey graduated in 1879 and took up a teaching post at a high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania. By now the Pennsylvania oil boom was at its height. In Oil City and the surrounding countryside, ‘derricks peered up behind the houses, thronged the marshy flats, congregated on the slopes, climbed the precipitous bluffs and clung to the rocky ledges’. Dewey remained a schoolteacher for three years. His inexperience and ‘old American’ manners prevented him from being a successful teacher. One of his pupils later recalled ‘how terribly the boys behaved, and how long and fervent was the prayer with which he opened each school day’. But it was during this time that Dewey’s interest in philosophy began to deepen. 1877 had seen the bicentenary of Spinoza’s death, and the result had been a revival of interest in his philosophy, with a succession of articles discussing his ideas appearing in magazines over the next few years. Dewey began reading Spinoza, finding solace in the spirituality and geometrical abstraction of his philosophical method. On the other hand, he was unable to accept Spinoza’s pantheism, which saw the world as God, and God as the world. In Dewey’s view, this simply did not take account of the world as we lived in it. Experience in general, and doubtless classroom experience in particular, had taught Dewey that the world around us is not entirely divine. He wrote an article setting out his criticism and sent it to the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, where it was eventually published.

Encouraged by this turn of events, Dewey borrowed $500 from an aunt and registered for advanced study in philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At the time, the research and graduate program there was considered the finest in the land, the only one in America to match those at the leading European universities such as Cambridge, the Sorbonne, and Heidelberg. While studying at Hopkins, Dewey fell under the influence of Sylvester Morris, a professor of philosophy who was a leading neo-Hegelian. In later life Dewey still remembered Morris being possessed of ‘an ardour for ideas which amounted to spiritual fervour’. Dewey quickly became converted to Morris’s neo-Hegelian ideas. To this point he had found himself troubled by the many dualities he had encountered in life: the contrast between his comfortable upbringing and the shanty slums of Burlington, the spirituality he professed in church and the natural exhuberances of young manhood, his own well-intentioned kindliness and the indiscipline of his pupils. Neo-Hegelianism showed him a way to overcome these difficulties.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel died in 1831, but the influence of his systematic idealistic philosophy had continued to be all-pervasive. His thought had been advanced and developed by thinkers across the entire spectrum, from Karl Marx to right-wing Prussian bureaucrats. Basically Hegel had taught that the world operated according to a dialectical dynamic, which linked the minutest particulars to the loftiest and most abstract ideas in a vast, all-embracing system. Within this dialectic each thesis generated its own antithesis, a conflict that then became resolved in a synthesis of the two – which in turn became another thesis, and so on. For instance, the concept ‘being’ generated its opposite ‘nonbeing’, and these two conflicting notions then became synthesised into ‘becoming’. This dynamic operated throughout all things, all ideas – the entire universe. Hegel’s emphasis on the organic wholeness of the world enabled Dewey to reconcile the conflicts he had encountered, and he embraced neo-Hegelianism with all the fervour of his mentor Morris.

The other leading philosopher whose ideas touched Dewey during these years was Charles S. Peirce, who was also teaching at Johns Hopkins. Peirce’s theory of scientific logic laid the foundations for pragmatism, the philosophy that Dewey would later develop, bringing him worldwide renown. Curiously, Dewey found Peirce’s lectures a deep disappointment. As he wrote informally to a friend: ‘I think Mr. Peirce don’t think [sic] there is any Phil. outside the generalisations of physical science.’ This surmise was correct, but the twenty-two-year-old Dewey was not ready for such modern ideas. He thought Peirce’s lectures ‘appeal more strongly to the mathematical students than to the philosophical’. Astonishingly, it would take Dewey almost twenty years to accept what Peirce had taught him. The memory of Peirce’s ideas was to remain with him, for the most part unconsciously. When finally understood and accepted, they would prove seminal.

Charles S. Peirce was in many ways a remarkable man, though Dewey was far from being alone in not immediately recognising this. No less an authority than the Encyclopedia Britannica now describes Peirce as the ‘most original and versatile intellect the Americas have so far produced’. Some claim. And it has some justification. Peirce’s role in establishing the philosophy of pragmatism would have been enough to make him a major figure. His influence on Dewey – and the definition of terms he bequeathed to Dewey – would likewise have secured him a leading place in American intellectual history. But this is only half the story. Peirce refused to be limited; his influence extended far beyond philosophy. Psychology, engineering, chemistry, astronomy, surveying, physics, mathematics, the ‘evolving theory of reality’, and logic – especially logic – were all fields where Peirce made original, often highly significant contributions.

Needless to say, no university in such a conservative era was willing to accept such a free-ranging intellectual on a permanent basis. Peirce did at one stage entertain hopes of being appointed to a chair of logic research, but no such post yet existed, and no enterprising seat of learning was willing to risk establishing one for him. His four years as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins would prove his longest appointment. Among his students, Dewey’s attitude would prove typical: the philosophers thought him best suited to mathematics and science studies; the scientists simply weren’t interested in philosophy.

Meanwhile in Europe, where great scientific advances were being made, the scientists were heatedly debating the philosophical implications of the latest scientific discoveries; and the philosophers were becoming increasingly involved in scientific debate for the same reasons. Just a few examples will suffice to show the importance of this development. During the next decades Einstein would study Spinoza and Hume, whose ideas would greatly assist him in the concept of relativity. The philosophers Russell and Whitehead would attempt to establish the logical foundations of mathematics. Meanwhile the Austrian scientist-philosopher Ernst Mach (after whom the speed of sound is named) would argue strongly against the existence of the atom on empirical grounds: ‘No experiment has ever produced evidence of an atom.’ Such philosophical-scientific cross-fertilisation would play a leading role in the major discoveries of the next half-century. As a direct result of such interests, evidence for the existence of atoms would be produced, relativity would be discovered, and the incompleteness of mathematics would be proved. The importance of the overlap between science and philosophy during this period is almost impossible to exaggerate. Peirce and his friend the psychologist and philosopher William James were among the first in America to understand the implications of this development.

At the age of fifty-two, Peirce retired to a remote farm on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, where he lived in near destitution for the remaining twenty-three years of his life. He referred to himself as a ‘bucolic logician’ and would not have survived but for the generosity of William James, who recognised Peirce for the universal genius he was. (Among Peirce’s lesser achievements during this period was a pioneer design for an electric circuit-switching prototype computer, which can be found sketched out in one of his letters.) Two centuries earlier, when Newton had been asked how he had managed to make such great mathematical and scientific discoveries, he had modestly replied: ‘by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Peirce was the philosophical giant on whose shoulders Dewey would one day stand.

But all this lay far in the future. Dewey proved to be a slow developer: his originality only gradually emerged in all its multifaceted intellectual form. In 1894 Dewey left Johns Hopkins with his Ph.D. and became an instructor in philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. There he further developed his neo-Hegelian ideas while at the same time pursuing his own research in the very latest experimental psychology. (This subject had been founded as a separate field of study only a decade or so earlier in Leipzig by the German ‘father of experimental psychology’, Wilhelm Wundt.)

It was around this time that Dewey met Alice Chipman, who had been a village schoolteacher before coming to study at the University of Michigan. They both shared a passionate interest in philosophy, and Alice’s outlook on the subject soon began to influence Dewey. Her belief that philosophy should apply itself to the real problems that beset real people in the everyday world shook Dewey out of his more academic approach to the classic problems studied throughout the long history of philosophy. But it proved to be only the beginning of a long process for Dewey, who still clung to his belief in neo-Hegelianism. John Dewey and Alice Chipman were married as soon as she graduated in 1886, and a year later they had a son.

In the same year Dewey published his first book, Psychology, which amazingly sought to reconcile the laboratory work of his experimental psychology with the out-and-out metaphysical philosophy of his neo-Hegelianism. His former professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins marveled at this ambitious intellectual endeavour: ‘That the absolute idealism of Hegel could be so cleverly adapted to be “read into” such a range of facts, new and old, is indeed a surprise as great as when geology and zoology are ingeniously subjected to the rubrics of the six days of creation.’ The book soon became a centre of academic controversy, with even Dewey’s students taking sides in the argument. The student magazine at Michigan was somewhat more robust than Dewey’s former psychology professor:

Having one foot in heaven, the other on earth

And in lieu of real seeing, his fancy gives birth

To wild speculations, as solid and fair

As water on quicksand, or smoke in the air.

Partly as a result of his wife’s influence, Dewey now began to develop an interest in educational theory. His own bitter experiences in the blackboard jungle had convinced him that all was not right with education in America. As ever, when failed teachers write on this subject it is never the teachers who are to blame. The entire system was wrong. Yet Dewey’s burgeoning originality was soon beginning to show here too. He saw that in sticking to traditional methods, schools were ignoring the experimental discoveries that were now being made in the new field of child psychology. Also, schools were simply not attuned to the social changes taking place in the emergent democracy of postbellum America. He saw a need for an entirely new philosophy of education.

In 1894, after ten years at Michigan, Dewey was appointed to a professorship at the University of Chicago. This university had been founded just three years earlier with lavish funds provided by John D. Rockefeller. Its president, William Rainey Harper, was already establishing Chicago as one of the leading centres for research and advanced study in the country, and Dewey was appointed to head the newly created department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy – an assignment that could not have suited his skills better. (Ironically, Peirce had earlier been considered for the post, but his pragmatic ideas had been regarded as too unorthodox.) It was here that Dewey would thrive and make his name as an original pragmatic philosopher, psychologist, and educator.

Dewey’s experimental work now led him to a growing understanding of the all-pervasive effect of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The implications of Darwinism in psychology, philosophy, and even education became clear. Life appeared to evolve by means of a struggle in which the fittest survived, rather than by a process of dialectical unfolding. Yet for his first few years at Chicago Dewey still retained his belief in ‘experimental idealism’ – the intellectual balancing act that managed to reconcile his neo-Hegelian metaphysics with the material of his experimental work. But it was becoming clear to him that this increasingly schizophrenic position was untenable. The dualisms that Dewey had so longed to resolve were once again catching up with him.

Did Hegel’s dialectical process in fact mirror the rational workings of the real world? It all came down to logic. Hegel had believed that ‘our logical processes are simply the reading off or coming to consciousness of the inherrently rational structure already possessed by the universe in virtue of the presence within it of this pervasive and constitutive action of thought’. But this view of logic made no allowance for genuine scientific activity as pursued by scientists. There was no room for scepticism and questioning – doubt and experimental inquiry had no place in such an all-inclusive metaphysical scheme of things. Dewey came to realise that what was required was a logic where ‘all the distinctions and terms of thought – judgment, concept, inference, subject, predicate … etc. … shall be interpreted simply and entirely as distinctive functions or divisions of labour within the doubt-inquiry process’. The main object of logic should be to explain ‘the eternal nature of thought and its eternal validity in relation to an eternal reality’.

It was time to abandon the old unanswerable conundrums of classical philosophy. Is the world logical, or is this just our way of looking at the world? What is truth? Does our thought match reality? Such questions should simply be dismissed. We must forget the idea that there is such a thing as ‘thought in general’, which attempts to find the true picture of ‘reality in general’. Instead we should concentrate on the particular problem at hand. Thought is not general, it is specific. It deals with real problems which arise in our particular personal experience.
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