John Dewey. The greatest asset to American pragmatism

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

John Dewey. The final philosopher, which is considered to be the greatest asset to pragmatism, has been described as the greatest  American philosopher. Dewey move from the idealist’s camp to the beginnings of a pragmatic philosophy which he was to characterize with the name of instrumentalism . John Dewey (born 1859) is no less radical than James in his opposition to the old philosophies. He does not tire of flouting the old methods, which he conceives as aiming at realities lying behind and beyond the process of nature and as carrying on the search for these realities by means of rational forms transcending ordinary modes of perception and inference. Such problems, he thinks, have no real meaning, and are solved very simply by evaporating.  In later years there were many “disciples” of John Dewey who in trying to elaborate some of his ideas went to extremes that appalled their mentor Dewey was a frequent critic of what came to be known in American educational circles as “progressivism” or the “progressive movement”.

Dewey begins with the observation that the world as we experience it both individually and collectively is an admixture of the precarious, the transitory and contingent aspect of things, and the stable, the patterned regularity of natural processes that allows for prediction and human intervention. Honest metaphysical description must take into account both of these elements of experience. Dewey endeavors to do this by an event ontology. The world, rather than being comprised of things or, in more traditional terms, substances, is comprised of happenings or occurrences that admit of both episodic uniqueness and general, structured order. Intrinsically events have an ineffable qualitative character by which they are immediately enjoyed or suffered, thus providing the basis for experienced value and aesthetic appreciation.

He protests against setting up a universe, in analogy with the cognitive side of human nature, as a system of fixed elements in fixed relations, be they mechanical, sensational, or conceptual, and making all the other phases of man’s nature beliefs, aversions, affections mere epiphenomena, appearances, subjective impressions or facts in consciousness; against relegating concrete selves, specific feeling and willing beings with the beliefs in which they declare themselves, to the phenomenal; and against a world   man’s strivings are already eternally fulfilled, his errors already eternally transcended, his partial beliefs already eternally comprehended, in which need, uncertainty, choice, novelty, s have no place.

The world is in the making and will always be in the making, we shape it to our ends; and in this process the thinking and belief of conscious personal beings play an active part. It is to be remembered that knowing is not the sole and genuine mode of experiencing for Dewey. Things, anything, everything, are what they are experienced as being, and every experience is some thing. Things are experienced as known, but they are also experienced aesthetically, morally, economically, and technologically; hence to give a just account of anything is to tell what that thing is experienced as. This is the fundamental postulate of immediate empiricism. If you want to find out what any philosophical term, subjective, objective, physical, mental, cosmic, cause, substance, purpose, activity, evil, being, quantity, means, go to experience and see what it is experienced as. The individual is not merely a knower, but an emotional, impulsive, willing being ; the reflective attitude is evoked by the will, the basal or primal side of self.

Man is not logical and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis.Dewey  state that truth can be known only through its practical consequences and is thus and individual or a social matter rather than an absolute..Knowledge is rooted in experience, but experience may be immediate or mediated. Immediate experience is simply “undergoing.” Mediated experience is the interaction of man and his mind with his environment. It requires the use of intelligence. It is intelligence which determines direction. As John Dewey pointed out:It seemed almost axiomatic that for true knowledge we must have recourse to concepts coming from a reason above experience. But the introduction of the experimental method signified precisely that such operations, carried on under conditions of control, are just the ways in which fruitful ideas about nature are obtained and tested.

Truth in the pragmatic epistemology can be viewed as the production of desired consequences through the five-step process described above. But this does not give truth any special existential status, it simply means that in a particular case something is true.Truth may, therefore, exist in varying degrees. Truth is contingent on, or relative to, set or circumstances. Knowing is an open-ended, on going, human activity. As such it is constantly subject to error.

There are three major points of significance. First, it is an open-ended, activity, open, to the public and in fact, dependent upon the public test rather than some private metaphysical test. Second, it is subject to error and is continuously being revised in terms of new conditions and new consequences. And, third, it places the ultimate responsibility for truth and knowledge directly upon the shoulders of man. This is a tremendous responsibility and there are many who would rather shirk this responsibility and retreat to the security of a more authoritarian system.

Reality is for him, is evolution based, not a completely given, ready-made, fixed system, not a system at all, b changing, growing, developing things. A real philosophy is abandon inquiry after absolute origins and absolute final order to explore specific values and specific conditions that create them. The sole verifiable and fruitful object of know edge is the particular set of changes that generate the object of study, together with the consequences that flow from them.Philosophy must become a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis; their world is in the making, and we must help to make it.

We only think when we are confronted with problems.Thinking serves human purposes, is useful, removes collision, satisfies desire; and its utility, its teleology, is its truth. The human will, in other words, instigates thinking, which is an instrument for realizing human aims. The fixities atoms, God have existence and import only in the problems, needs, struggles, and instrumentalities of conscious agents and patients. We have , universe in which uncertainty, doubtfulness, really in here, and in which personal attitudes are real.

Such a new philosophy calls for a revision of the theory of] thinking, for a new evolutionary logic which frankly starts out! from the fact of thinking as inquiring and purely external existences as terms in inquiries. The revised theory of thinking will construe validity, objectivity, truth, and the test and system of truth, on the basis of what they actually mean and do within the inquiry-activity. Dewey sees in thinking an instrument for the removal of collisions between what is given and what is wanted, a means of realizing human desire, of securing an arrangement of things which means satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness. Such a harmony is the end and test of thinking : success in this sense is the end and test.

When the ideas, views, conceptions, hypotheses, beliefs, which we frame succeed, secure harmony, adjustment, we call them true. Successful ideas are true. We keep on transforming, changing our ideas until they work, that is, we make them true, verify them. The effective working of an idea, its success, is its truth. When I say the idea works, it is the same as saying it is true. Successful working is the essential characteristic of a true idea. The success of the idea is not the cause nor the evidence of its truth, but is its truth : the successful idea is a true idea. The test or criterion of truth lies in the harmonized reality effected by the idea, Wherever there is an improved or tested idea, an idea which has made good, there is a concrete existence in the way of a completed or harmonized situation. Scientific ideas, however, like the law of gravitation, operate in many other inquiries no longer as mere ideas, but as proved ideas.

The revision of the theory of thinking also brings the principle of belief into its own. Belief, sheer direct unmitigated personal belief, reappears in science as working-hypothesis. Beliefs are the most natural and most metaphysical of all things ; knowledge is the human and practical outgrowth of belief; knowledge is an organized technique for working out the implications and interrelations of beliefs, and for directing their ‘formation and employment. Beliefs, therefore, modify and shape reality; and empirical conscious beings genuinely deter- nine existences. If this is so, there is no need of fear that natural sciences are going to encroach upon and destroy our spiritual values, because we can always translate our values (social and political) into existences (institutions). The world in which Dewey is interested is the practical social world of living, working individuals.

Finally, and most important, the pragmatist does not view reality as an abstract “thing”. Rather, it is a process of transaction which involves both doing and undergoing, the two characteristics of experience. For experience is a two way street: first is the doing and second is the process of deriving meaning from the act and its results. Experience demands both dimensions, for the second cannot exist without the first. And the first has no meaning without the second. Without exploration of the meaning and consequences of activity, man would indeed be on what the late radio comedian Fred Allen referred to as a “treadmill to oblivion.”

Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.The pragmatist’s standards of art and beauty do not exist in some separate realm. What is beautiful is simply what we find beautiful in our own experience, what has the power to move us and to make us feel deeply. Art is a form in which an artist describes his own personal experience to the viewer. But the description need not be detailed or an exact reproduction of what the artist has seen.

The roots of aesthetic experience lie, Dewey argues, in commonplace experience, in the consummation experiences that are ubiquitous in the course of human life. There is no legitimacy to the conceit cherished by some art enthusiasts that aesthetic enjoyment is the privileged endowment of the few. The process of intelligent use of materials and the imaginative development of possible solutions to problems issuing in a reconstruction of experience that affords immediate satisfaction, the process found in the creative work of artists, is also to be found in all intelligent and creative human activity.

The senses play a key role in artistic creation and aesthetic appreciationThe unifying element in this process is emotion–not the emotion of raw passion and outburst, but emotion that is reflected upon and used as a guide to the overall character of the artwork. Although Dewey insisted that emotion is not the significant content of the work of art, he clearly understands it to be the crucial tool of the artist’s creative activity.Form is better understood in a dynamic sense as the coordination and adjustment of the qualities and associated meanings that are integrated within the artwork.

Art is a product of culture, and it is through art that the people of a given culture express the significance of their lives, as well as their hopes and ideals. Because art has its roots in the consummation values experienced in the course of human life, its values have an affinity to commonplace values, an affinity that accords to art a critical office in relation to prevailing social conditions.

In every work of art, however, these meanings are actually embodied in a material which thereby becomes the medium for their expression. This fact constitutes the peculiarity of all experience that is definitely esthetic. Its imaginative quality dominates, because meanings and values that are wider and deeper than the particular here and now in which they are anchored are realized by way of an object that is physically efficacious in relation to other objects. A more current way of saying this would be, “the medium is the message.”

The test of a work of art is whether or not it can stir the viewer and communicate to him the experience with all (or at least many) of the complex feelings and ramifications the artist is attempting to convey. Thus, the public test of a work of art is whether or not the artist has communicated his experience to us and whether others share the sense of pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction we receive from a work of art.

Dewey believes that the good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better.Dewey finds growth the basis of all ethics. That which contributes to growth is good. That which would stunt, deflect, or retard it is bad. But, since man is not completely independent unto himself, what may appear good in the private sense must also be explored in the public sense. We must ask two questions then about an act or decision. First, what are the individual consequences? And second, what are the public consequences? We must also consider whether these consequences will contribute to or retard, growth.

The major concern, then, of pragmatic ethical theory is the public test, the test that is open to the public and which can be reiterated or verified by others. This is not to suggest that our morality need be determined by others, but as Dewey and Tufts pointed out, there is a distinct relationship .Dewey’s mature thought in ethics and social theory is not only intimately linked to the theory of knowledge in its founding conceptual framework and naturalistic standpoint, but also complementary to it in its emphasis on the social dimension of inquiry both in its processes and its consequences. In fact, it would be reasonable to claim that Dewey’s theory of inquiry cannot be fully understood either in the meaning of its central tenets or the significance of its originality without considering how it applies to social aims and values, the central concern of his ethical and social theory.

Dewey, throughout his ethical writings, stressed the need for an open-ended, flexible, and experimental approach to problems of practice aimed at the determination of the conditions for the attainment of human goods and a critical examination of the consequences of means adopted to promote them, an approach that he called the “method of intelligence.”

The central focus of Dewey’s criticism of the tradition of ethical thought is its tendency to seek solutions to moral and social problems in dogmatic principles and simplistic criteria which in his view were incapable of dealing effectively with the changing requirements of human events. Ideals and values must be evaluated with respect to their social consequences, either as inhibitors or as valuable instruments for social progress.

In large part, then, Dewey’s ideas in ethics were programmatic rather than substantive, defining the direction that he believed human thought and action must take in order to identify the conditions that promote the human good in its fullest sense, rather than specifying particular formulae or principles for individual and social action. He studiously avoided participating in what he regarded as the unfortunate practice of previous moral philosophers of offering general rules that legislate universal standards of conduct.

For the pragmatist, society is a process in which individuals participate. Society is the source from which people derive all that makes them individual while at the same time society is a product of the complex series of interactions among the individuals whose lives and activities impinge upon each other.

Man derives his values from the society and since these values help determine much of what his life will be, society and its relationship to the individual may be one of the most important concerns for contemporary pragmatists. Society is a basic concept in contemporary pragmatism since all actions must be considered in the light of their social designed to pass along the cultural heritage from one generation to the next, must be concerned with society and with its students as members of society.

Pragmatism sees the school as vitally concerned with and interested in social change since it needs to prepare the adults of the future to deal with the planning necessarily involved in the process called society.

With the move from the rural agrarian social structure which existed before the turn of the century, and with the increase in urbanization, transportation, communication and industrialization, over the last 50 years, the need for social planning has increased at an unbelievable rate. With the growth of new problems such the uses of atomic energy, pollution, conservation of natural resources, other space, drugs, increasing crime rates, education of disadvantaged children, others too numerous to list , the school has become the seed-bed for society. Never before argue the pragmatists, has there been such a need for social concern and social planning. Simply let society run rampant down an unplanned path. To do this is court destruction not just for society but for the world.

Since Dewey’s pragmatic position strongly advocates wholehearted involvement in society by all citizens, and because it views group decision in the light of consequence as important, and because it places responsibility on the individual as a member of society, it has been called the philosophy of Democracy.








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