Dewey's pragmatism

The historical context of American pragmatism is a fascinating subject, involving, as examples, the influence of secularisation, the movement away from singular world-views, and (in theory) from a priori notions of belief and a search for national identity, all of which helped forge what William James called a change in the "temperament of philosophy" (Rosenthal, Husman & Anderson, 1999). John Dewey ran full force with the pragmatist baton that had been held aloft by his eminent predecessors, Charles Pierce and William James.

There is interesting, if largely unexplored, common ground between Nietzsche and Dewey. They write very differently; Dewey's prose is stolid, even turgid, and Nietzsche violates all norms of philosophical writing, with his poetic approach, aphorisms, and refusal to be bound by the conventions of orderly discourse. Dewey reads optimistically, to the point of innocence, while Nietzsche's dramatic style revels in the pessimistic and irrational. As for content, however, the "German pragmatism" of Nietzsche and the seemingly Nietzschean elements of the pragmatist tradition have been noted (Rorty, 1999).[1] To spell out some possible commonalities: similarities between Nietzsche's perspectivism and Dewey's instrumental notion of truth; Nietzsche's view of metaphor and Dewey's notion of language; the critique of classical philosophical dualisms; the rejection of the notion that humans share an ahistorical nature; and an insistence on the inescapably situated, "interested" nature of human inquiry. Rorty (2006) suggests that, "Dewey and Nietzsche wanted to see the quest for knowledge as an attempt to satisfy human needs, not to find the true nature of reality" (p. 93). Both narrowed the forced gap that philosophers had created between utility and truth.

Dewey was a prolific philosopher as well as a theorist of democracy and education (see Hilderbrand, 2008 for an introduction to his ideas). A great deal of his early and middle writing takes the form of a critique of classical philosophy, which he believed resembled repetitive and barren "family quarrels" (e.g., Dewey, 1958, p. 47). Dewey argued that the "general problems" posed by philosophers amounted to abstract, non-problems, confining the philosopher to contemplative isolation (he mocked what he called the "spectator theory of knowledge") (ibid.), and consigning thinking to a series of unhelpful polarities, such as: subject and object, thought and action, pure and applied, reason and experience, individual and society. Abstract philosophical approaches hurry away from that which is in effect irreducibly "tangled and complex" (Dewey, 1958, p. 26). In displacing such dualisms, Dewey fashioned a local, piecemeal approach to the tackling of problems and domains of inquiry, emphasising the thinker's continual involvement and connection with what they seek to understand. One of the names he gave to this version of philosophy was "empirical naturalism".

Experience and Nature (Dewey, 1958) aims to reinsert the ordinary and the contextual back into philosophy. True to pragmatist credentials, only a philosophy that asks useful questions is worthy of its name; ". a first rate test of the value of any philosophy which is offered: does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experience and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealing with them more fruitful?" (p. 7). The word "experience" is no simple passive imprint or a process hived off from "reason", but refers to man's being within the world, with what he strives for and suffers, his needs, loves, actions, and imaginings; it is a veritable "planted field". The language we use brings order, through categorisation, distinction-making, predicating, and so on. All this changes with time, with context, and so Dewey rejects the eternal or essentialist assumptions of other philosophers; not for him, the quest for certainty or any vision of a final resting place of knowledge. Impressed by the work of Darwin, Dewey came to see knowledge as an adaptive human response, linked to use or instrumentality. Inquirers define and explore particular subject areas and view these in the light of specific objectives, and man, as organism, is both changed by and changes his environment. "The influence of Darwinism on philosophy" (Dewey, 1977a) is a fine paper, deriding as it does the "sacred ark" of permanency, which in philosophy takes the form of privileging the fixed and the final, all species and categories in place and immune to change. Darwin's work not only scandalised theology, but had implications for how philosophers thought about the world; if there were no fixed species, eternally present or ordained, then our categories of thinking might also be subject to evolutionary change. Species adapt and adjust to their environments. Minds intervene in the world because they are part of the world and thinking is itself a procedure, an instrument, which works with material that is both relevant and at hand and local. Stressing this malleable, adaptive dimension, Rorty (2000) observes that, in the Deweyan scheme, "we should think of moral and intellectual progress not as getting closer to a pre-existent goal, but as a process of self-creation . dialectical synthesis, incorporating these into our self-images and thereby enlarging ourselves" (p. 280). In other words, man as animal creates, to some extent, new environments, rather than being merely subject to them.

  • [1] It is of interest to note that Nietzsche and Dewey were both influenced by the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), who developed an ethics of self-reliance and self-improvement (Rorty, 1989).
 
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