Revaluations: John Dewey’s Darwinism

The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought

by John Dewey
Indiana, 304 pp., $2.45 (paper)

A large part of the enormous corpus of John Dewey’s writings is now to be found only in our great research libraries. We must therefore be grateful to the Indiana University Press for making available again these still attractive essays, first gathered and published in 1910; they provide an excellent sampling of the work of Dewey’s middle period, after he had broken with the transcendentalism and Hegelianism of his early years and had joined forces with the pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Some, like the title essay, are better written, in a rather old-fashioned way, than readers of Dewey’s later works have come to expect; others afford early examples of that curious opaqueness which afflicts so much of Dewey’s later technical writing on questions of logic and epistemology. Two of the pieces, surprisingly, are philosophical dialogues. Dewey, it must be confessed, is no Hume or Berkeley, still less a Plato, and the second of the dialogues, “A Short Catechism Concerning Truth,” employs its form in a wholly external and perfunctory way in order to answer various standard “objections” to the pragmatic theory of truth. The other dialogue, entitled “Nature’s Good: A Conversation” is better, and I found in it an excellent, almost Santayanean statement of the philosophical naturalist’s effort to distinguish nature as a source and context of values from nature conceived as a purpose, as an end, or as a good. It also contains a characteristically pragmatic insistence upon the practical role of philosophical inquiry and upon the centrality of method, which for Dewey is the same thing as intelligence, to the solution of all problems of practice. In fact the following concluding statement in “Nature’s Good” could hardly be improved upon as a general formulation of the point of view of classical pragmatism:

…it is indeed true that problems are solved only where they arise—namely, in action, in the adjustment of behavior. But, for good or for evil, they can be solved there only with method; and ultimately method is intelligence, and intelligence is method. The larger, the more human, the less technical the problem of practice, the more open-eyed and wide-viewing must be the corresponding method. I do not say that all things that have been called philosophy participate in this method; I do say, however, that a catholic and farsighted theory of the adjustment of the conflicting factors of life is—whatever it be called—philosophy. And unless technical philosophy is to go the way of dogmatic theology, it must loyally identify itself with such a view of its own aim and destiny.

As this passage suggests, the pragmatist has always insisted both that knowledge is an achievement, not a moment of insight or truth, and that all problems of knowledge are ipso facto problems of conduct: there can be, in the end, no absolute separation of truth from goodness or of science from ethics. The theoretical problems of exact physical science, to be sure, have their own characteristic contexts, and their methods accordingly…

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