The Quest for Certainty Summary
by John Dewey

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The Quest for Certainty Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Dewey remains one of America’s most influential philosophers, social reformers, and educators. His system of thought is part of an American school of pragmatism that began with Charles Sanders Peirce, grew with William James, and blossomed with Dewey. Pragmatism continues to influence American educators, philosophers, and social scientists.

Dewey’s A Quest for Certainty is a collection of lectures, the Gifford Lectures, that Dewey delivered in 1929 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. James was one of the first Americans invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures, and he noted that American writers and philosophers had long listened to European scholars, but that this monologue became a dialogue when American pragmatists, such as James and Dewey, were invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures. Having just retired from full-time teaching at Columbia University, Dewey was seventy years old when he presented these eleven lectures. They represent Dewey’s mature philosophy, his theory of knowledge.

Devoting the first three lectures to the failure of modern philosophy, Dewey demonstrates a need for pragmatism, a philosophy that can heal the schism created by modern thinkers between practice and theory. Dewey associates practice with experience, and experience is the realm of science, of the senses, and of common sense. Theory he associates with religion and philosophy, disciplines that dismiss experience and embrace abstraction. The separation of these two realms in modern times causes people to give prestige to the rational, religious, and philosophical as permanent, unsoiled, and absolute and to denigrate the practical as unreliable, physical, manual, and changing.

In his first lecture, “Escape from Peril,” Dewey blames the present philosophical crisis on a long tradition of Western thinking going back to the Greeks. The Greeks began the quest for certainty, for permanent absolute answers to the ultimate questions in life. At first these answers were provided by religions, by references to gods as the ultimate cause and meaning of earthly experiences. Greek philosophers shifted this search for certainty from a religious quest to a rational quest, attempting to use reason to reach answers to questions such as What is truth? What exists? and What is justice? Dewey argues that so long as philosophers and theologians remain in the realm of pure, abstract thought, in a realm where they hope to find absolute, unchanging answers, they will fail to connect their theories to practical experience.

Dewey attacks this separation of theory and practice, arguing that philosophers were looking for absolutes that do not exist. Dewey develops a method of inquiry that replaces the “quest of absolute certainty by cognitive means” with the “search for security by practical means.” He notes that the denigration of the practical realm, of sense experience, was easy in a society or culture in which religious beliefs were preeminent, but in modern societies the rise of science has challenged religion and philosophy, a challenge that philosophers have attempted to reconcile in numerous, flawed ways. When philosophers could no longer dismiss the findings of science, their preoccupation was the reconciliation of theory and practice, of religion and science, of essence and experience. To this end modern philosophers struggled to unify a world divided into the realm of the body and the realm of the spirit.

In his third lecture, “Conflict of Authorities,” Dewey analyzes several modern attempts to reconcile these differences, arguing that each attempt ultimately privileges the abstract realm at the expense of human experience. Taking the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza as exemplifying idealism, Dewey explores how Spinoza’s monism posits the physical realm as a means to the spiritual or ideal. Dewey then examines Immanuel Kant’s influential solution of a division of pure reason and practical reason into two separate spheres, the one a realm of...

(The entire section is 1,610 words.)