(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 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...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Experimental Empiricism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

The Role of Philosophy

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

(The entire section is 655 words.)