The Quest for Certainty

by John Dewey

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The Quest for Certainty, considered against the background of traditional philosophies, is a revolutionary work. John Dewey does not claim that all the ideas in his book are original, but he justifiably asserts that if the ideas outlined in his book were implemented, a revolution comparable to the Copernican would be effected not only in philosophy but also in the moral, social, and economic dimensions of daily life. That this claim is a valid one is partially verified by the pervasive influence of Dewey’s teachings on many phases of American culture, especially on education. That Dewey’s works should have such an influence is especially appropriate in view of his constantly recurring emphasis on the importance of an intimate, reciprocal relationship between theory and practice. Regardless of whether one finds all of Dewey’s methods and conclusions acceptable, it is undeniable that the author’s searching criticism of older theories combined with constructive suggestions of remedial and progressive measures have profound practical import.

The Separation of Theory and Practice

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The quest about which Dewey writes is an ancient one, originating as a need for security from the perils of primitive life. This security was sought first, perhaps, by prayers and rites performed in an attitude proper to the holy or by magical manipulations of fortunate or lucky tangible objects. Mystery and glamour attended the former, while the latter were regarded as more amenable to practical control. Gradually this distinction was generalized and abstracted into that between the spiritual and intellectual and the material and practical; the distinction was also between superior and inferior respectively and resulted in an isolation of theory and knowledge from practice that has hampered human progress ever since.

Action is notoriously subject to failure or at least unforeseen results; material objects are only partially amenable to human control. Consequently, people were led to seek certainty in an eternal, immaterial realm of thought not subject to the risks of action. This was conceived as the realm of true Being or ultimate reality, unchanging, thoroughly rational, and governed by the laws of logic, and hence the only object of genuine science. The mundane world, on the contrary, was regarded as infected with nonbeing, unreality, and change; it was irrational and the object only of belief or opinion, not genuine knowledge. Moreover, the good was identified with the real so that value was attainable only by knowledge, and both were dissociated from action.

The developments of these distinctions have had ramifications in almost every traditional philosophical theory, Dewey argues. The ideals of certainty in knowledge, various metaphysical views, theories about mind and how it knows—even when formulated by strongly opposing schools—have stemmed from the jealously guarded barrier between theory and practice erected in the quest for certainty. Because modern philosophy has accepted the conclusions of natural science while retaining doctrines about mind, knowledge, and values formulated in prescientific ages, it has found itself increasingly isolated from the actual problems and values of contemporary life. Consequently, the basic problem for philosophy is the integration of beliefs about existence and those about values, especially since this gap has been widened by misinterpretations of certain developments of modern science.

Science and Philosophy

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Greek science, says Dewey, was basically aesthetic in character; its explanatory and descriptive categories, such as harmony, symmetry, and proportion, were used to organize logically the qualitative characteristics of experienced objects into kinds of species. Thus nature, considered only an inferior kind of reality patterned after the eternal forms, was known—insofar as it was an object of knowledge at all rather than of opinion or belief—by reason rather than by experience. Greek natural philosophy was also...

(This entire section contains 552 words.)

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teleological, holding that things and events tended toward their own proper ends or goods and thus toward the highest and best. This outlook, lasting through the Middle Ages, fostered an attitude of acceptance rather than an art of control such as that made possible by modern science.

Galileo and other founders of the new science effected a revolution by eliminating the qualitative and purposive and substituting the quantitative interpretation of scientific objects. Rather than classifying things into species defined by and tending toward eternal forms, the new science saw them as reducible to a few basic categories of space, time, mass, and motion. Phenomena such as heat, light, mechanical motion, and electricity could be converted or translated into one another; homogeneity replaced the heterogeneity basic to the Greek view, and “All that counted for science became mechanical properties formulated in mathematical terms.” The revolution was not completed at once, however. Though Sir Isaac Newton ostensibly subscribed to the empirical approach, remnants of the old metaphysics were obvious in the scientist’s belief that change occurred only in the external relations between particles of permanently fixed natures. This postulate of permanence was really evidence of the long-standing quest for certainty rather than a hypothesis experimentally verified. Even the most avowedly empiricist school showed this same bias; for them, knowledge was founded on sensory impressions given by an antecedent reality unaffected by knowing. Later, objective idealists held that reflective thought merely reproduces the rational structure of a universe constituted by an absolute reason. Realism continues to hold that valid inquiry apprehends prior existence—it does not modify it. All these views presuppose that inference and judgment are not originative.

As the new science became truly experimental, however, this premise was abandoned; science began to “substitute data for objects.” This meant that science, instead of taking qualitative objects such as stars and trees as finalities waiting only for logical classification, takes them as problematic, inviting further interpretation and investigation. This investigation is undertaken in response to problems and unresolved difficulties that are never wholly theoretical but are always ultimately rooted in the need for practical security; these problematic situations determine the lines of inquiry and the criteria of successful solution. Experimental knowledge, inference, or judgment then becomes originative in a very real sense; its “procedure is one that installs doing as the heart of knowing.” Change, once regarded as evidence of the inferiority of the experienced world to the ideal and eternal, now becomes useful: “The method of physical inquiry is to introduce some change in order to see what other change ensues; the correlation between these changes, when measured by a series of operations, constitutes the definite and desired object of knowledge.” The objects of scientific knowledge are not qualitative entities, but events, mathematically formulated relations between changes undergone by experienced objects, and most important, consequences.

Experimental Empiricism

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Dewey takes physical science as a model for experimental philosophy because, on the whole, the former yields the best authenticated and reliable knowledge, while at the same time, its conclusions are corrigible and its hypotheses subject to revision in the light of future evidence and problems. Besides, in its technological applications, physical science is the dominant feature of modern life. Philosophy can learn from it, Dewey believes, how to approach the basic modern problem of reintegrating beliefs about existence with those about values as well as how to avoid some of the more technical philosophical problems to which traditional theories inevitably led.

Dewey cites with approval American physicist Percy Williams Bridgman’s statement in The Logic of Modern Physics (1927): “We mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations.” The philosophical implications of such an experimental empiricism (as distinguished from traditional sensational empiricism), understood at the time by only a few thinkers such as William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, are very far reaching. The statement shows that neither sensational empiricism nor a priori rationalism was wholly right or wholly wrong: Ideas are empirical in origin, but sensory qualities, to be significant, must be related by ideas; the new method’s concepts of scientific objects are neither a priori nor reducible to sensation. The object of knowledge is “eventual; that is, it is an outcome of directed experimental operations, instead of something in sufficient existence before the act of knowing.” Thus the sensory and rational elements of knowledge do not compete but cooperate; the latter are used to organize and direct, the former to test and verify or correct. Conclusions, not the previously given, are truly known; but conclusions of former investigations become in turn instrumental to the achievement of new solutions.

Operational Method

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The operational method makes mind a participant rather than a mere spectator in the knowing situation. As is illustrated by the Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy, the act of observation is itself an essential ingredient in what is known. From this point of view, then, nature is neither rational nor irrational as it has been described traditionally, but is, rather, intelligible; it is to be known through intelligence. This approach also yields new definitions of intelligence, thought, and mind. Merely mechanical and animal responses to uncertain and perilous situations are reactions or direct actions, but “response to the doubtful as such” is definitive of mind and thinking, and when responses “have a directed tendency to change the precarious and problematic into the secure and resolved, they are intellectual as well as mental.” Misinterpretations of Newtonian science, by emphasizing the difference between ordinary perceptual experience and the scientific formulation of nature, had reinforced the metaphysical distinction between mind and body, but in Dewey’s view, “There is no separate mind’ gifted in and of itself with a faculty of thought; such a conception of thought ends in postulating the mystery of a power outside nature and yet able to intervene within it.” As defined above, thinking is observable behavior, whereas traditional theories on the contrary tried to explain the more by the less obvious. Now with greater understanding of the relation between sensory organs and perception, it is possible to conceive of the same relation as holding between the brain and thought.

One stronghold of the rationalistic and mentalistic schools, however, and one not adequately accounted for by traditional empiricism, was the structure of mathematics. Because mathematics seemed to rest on self-evident axioms known intuitively and appeared to have universality, immutability, ideality, and logical necessity, mathematics was thought to demonstrate the subsistence of a realm of eternal essences and a nonphysical reality. The applicability of mathematics to the physical world, moreover, seemed to show a rational element. Does the operational theory of ideas, together with its implications concerning the nature of mind and thought, break down here? Dewey thinks not. One must distinguish between overt and symbolical operations, operations to be enacted and those merely possible but without actual consequences. Just as the concepts of space, time, and motion were finally seen to be ways of correlating observations rather than as reflecting properties of Being, and their worth was found in the former function, so logical and mathematical principles and relationships may be interpreted. They may have arisen from practical needs for manipulation and organization of physical things and later been developed more fully and independently of immediately instrumental purposes. People then become interested in such operations as operations which, when symbolized, can be performed without any direct reference to existence. That this is the case seems most clearly illustrated by the history of geometry, which originated in the need for measurement of utilitarian objects. The formal order and internal relations such systems show are analogous to the self-consistent structure of a machine designed for a certain purpose. The means-consequence relation as exemplified in the operation of a machine may be thought abstractly as an operation to which the imperfections of actual machines are irrelevant; so conceived, the function has the ideality, immutability, internal necessity, and universality that characterizes the realm of essence supposedly encountered in logic and mathematics.


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The worth of a machine is judged by the efficacy with which it performs the function for which it was designed, and the more abstractly this function is conceived—the more it is idealized—the more clearly it can be understood. However, in the conception of function, ideas for improvement are germinated. Thus, the operational or experimental method is capable of projecting new goals and values and of instituting its own standards. It is imperative that this lesson learned from science be applied in the moral, social, and political life, where it is not yet fully operative. The apparent value-sterility of quantitative and operational science can now be regarded as illusory, the illusion being rooted in the notion that science discloses reality. The experimental method is an effective way of thinking of things, but because it is not the only way to think of them, it is not actually inimical to qualitative experience, and it can make positive contributions to the qualitative aspects of human life by affording means of making values more available and secure. According to Dewey, the main problem for modern philosophy is to reintegrate beliefs about existence and values. It is obvious that his purpose in tracing the development of operationalism and instrumentalism is to show their significance for what he calls, typically, the “construction” of good, suggesting thereby that values, like objects of knowledge, are not so much given as achieved.

By “value” Dewey means “whatever is taken to have rightful authority in the direction of conduct.” However, there are still rival theories about the status of values comparable to the traditional epistemological opposites, empiricism and rationalism. Some writers would equate goods with actual enjoyments, while others see them as eternal, universal, absolute. Dewey favors the empirical and subjective theories to the extent that they relate “the theory of values with concrete experiences of desire and satisfaction,” but the operational approach again makes a significant emendation: Values are not antecedently given but are enjoyments attained as consequences. Previous goods and present enjoyments are problematic, as are immediately experienced qualitative objects in relation to knowledge. The crucial differences here are indicated in the very suffixes of terms such as “the enjoyed and the enjoyable, the desired and the desirable, the satisfying and the satisfactory.” This is in no sense to derogate immediate enjoyments and likings, but mere feelings have no claim over people as ideals and future goods, any more than objects as immediately experienced are adequate as scientific objects. Whereas propositions about present enjoyments are factual and may be of instrumental worth, value judgments and appraisals indicate attitudes to be assumed and hence do make claims on people. Dewey summarizes this view in what he describes as his main proposition: “Judgments about values are judgments about the conditions and the results of experienced objects; judgments about that which should regulate the formation of our desires, affections and enjoyments.”

Value judgments, then, like their counterparts in science, are relational in nature. They, too, are instrumental and never final, and are thus corrigible. There are criteria of goods—for example, genuine goods are not later regretted; in achieving goods, concern is centered on the valuable object rather than on the mere feeling of satisfaction—but such criteria are never absolute and fixed. It is thus impossible to set up a detailed catalog of values in hierarchical order. Dewey’s approach “would place method and means upon the level of importance that has, in the past, been imputed exclusively to ends,” for as long as ends alone are considered ideal and of true worth, while means are scorned as merely practical, ends fail to be realized. Although failure to achieve the good has been attributed to perversity of will, the real obstacle has been lack of adequate knowledge of means. Hence, the traditional elevation of spirit over matter is similarly mistaken, for the material serves as means.

The Role of Philosophy

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The traditional separation of ends and means, another reflection of that of theory and practice, has left action without the guidance afforded only by knowledge. Consequently, some means, such as material wealth, have been overvalued as ends in the absence of any adequate philosophy of values appropriate to contemporary problems. The technological applications of science have been used selfishly and irresponsibly. Nowhere is the failure properly to relate ends and means more evident than in industrial life, and the resulting tragedy is that enjoyment of the highest social and cultural values, the truly human goods, is dependent on economic conditions ignored by many ethical philosophers. The economy tends, therefore, to evade moral guidance as irrelevant and to be frankly materialistic, but the remedy is not to treat economics as beneath the notice of ethics; it is rather to apply here the instrumentalist approach.

Whereas mechanistic philosophy rejected the concept of purpose as explanatory of natural events, the developments of modern science have made clear the role of the observer in knowledge, and Dewey holds that in a significant sense purpose has been restored to nature, since “distinctively human conduct can be interpreted and understood only in terms of purpose.” By removing the artificial barriers between knowledge and practice, science and values, and the consequent false problems such as those of the relationships between mind and body, spirit and matter, nature can be regarded as the ultimate source of all ideals and goods. To remove such obstacles, to free people’s minds and hearts from slavery to the past, to turn them from the quest for an illusory certainty to discoverable paths to enjoyable goods, is the task of contemporary philosophy. No longer in competition with science through claims to sole superior knowledge of reality, philosophy takes up the task of exploring the richly various ways of putting science to truly human use.


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Additional Reading

Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. A thoughtful consideration of John Dewey’s understanding of experience and the role of aesthetics and the arts within it.

Bernstein, Richard J. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966. A brief, clear, and reliable overview of Dewey’s philosophy.

Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Tracking the implications of Dewey’s thought, this study shows Dewey’s significance for contemporary social and philosophical issues.

Burke, Tom. Dewey’s New Logic: A Reply to Russell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Contrasts Dewey’s instrumental logic with Bertrand Russell’s more abstract theory of symbolic logic. In so doing, Burke elaborates on ideas raised in The Quest for Certainty.

Conkin, Paul K. Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. In discussing several eminent American thinkers, this book provides a solid, although technical, account of Dewey’s place in American thought.

Dewey, John. The Middle Works, 1899-1924. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976. This collection of John Dewey’s works includes a bibliography and an index.

Festenstein, Matthew. Pragmatism and Political Theory: From Dewey to Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. A careful and critical analysis that shows how pragmatism, Dewey’s included, has affected political theory and practice.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Important interpreters of Dewey’s thought explore his continuing significance for inquiry concerning knowledge and ethics.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. New York: John Day, 1939. Still valuable. Offers a sympathetic and thoughtful analysis of John Dewey as a person and philosopher.

Kuklick, Bruce. Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An important study that deals with Dewey’s thought in the context of the interconnections between religion and American philosophical thought.

Kulp, Christopher B. The End of Epistemology: Dewey and His Current Allies on the Spectator Theory of Knowledge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Explores Dewey’s theory of knowledge, the same theory that is developed in The Quest for Certainty. Analyzes the relationship of Dewey’s theory to that of more recent philosophers.

Moore, Edward Carter. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. An older but still reliable comparative study of the three classical figures in American pragmatism.

Popp, Jerome A. Naturalizing Philosophy of Education: John Dewey in the Postanalytic Period. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998. A worthwhile appraisal of Dewey’s philosophy of education and its significance in ongoing debates within educational theory.

Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. A detailed and important study of Dewey’s life and thought, focusing on his views about religion and democracy.

Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. Rev. ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Attempting to locate a common American spirit among five varied thinkers, this classic study interprets the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead as well as the thought of John Dewey.

Stroh, Guy W. American Philosophy from Edwards to Dewey: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An introductory account that places Dewey in relation to his most important predecessors in American philosophy.

Thomas, M. Halsey. John Dewey: A Centennial Bibliography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. An extensive bibliography of John Dewey’s writing and of secondary sources on Dewey.

Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey’s Ethical Thought. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. A sympathetic but critical analysis of Dewey’s moral philosophy and its implications.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. A readable and carefully done study of Dewey’s influence on American culture and politics.