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 have acquired their own distinctive technical features. For all his tendency to blur distinctions and to concatenate problems and methods, Dewey, I think, never meant to deny to the sciences their own integral aims as sciences. Nor did he mean to deny that the sciences, as refinements of organized common sense, may acquire in the process of realizing their aims a relative autonomy in establishing their own appropriate standards of competence and validity. He meant only to insist that such standards are norms, like any others, and that the obligation to respect and to adhere to them is an obligation which, as such, derives its characteristic moving appeal from the human situations in which it is asserted.
On the other side, for all his ingrained rationalism, Dewey never meant to affirm that man can live by intelligence alone. Elsewhere he insisted that human life is not purely a “knowledge-affair,” and here, also, his humanism involves a conception of the good life which regards intelligence or method mainly as an indispensable tool. More properly, knowledge, as he came presently to say, is an aspect or part of “the means-end continuum,” at once an end-in-view for the would-be knower and a means-in-view for the would-be user, a source of genuine satisfaction, and so far desirable in its own right, to him who truly knows. But at the same time it is a condition of other satisfactions, and so far desirable as an instrumentality to him who is aware of and cares for its ulterior uses, including those to be found in technology, industry, and business. Dewey refuses to disallow the values of knowledge as power, and in particular as socially organized and socially regulated power, just as he refuses, as a moralist and philosopher, to ignore the fact that ideas, having consequences, must also be appraised in the light of their consequences. In this book, as elsewhere, he opposes both spectatorial approaches to knowledge and purist attitudes to the values which knowledge affords. From his point of view, the sheer possession of knowledge can be as vain a thing as the possession of anything else, whether it be power or wealth or property. Only a leisure-class philosophy, which he tended (a bit too perfunctorily) to identify with classical Platonism and Aristotelianism, equates knowing with the solitary individual’s idle contemplation of essences—systematically discounting the common practices upon which the actual knowing process depends as well as the wider system of impersonal social practices of which it is a characteristic part. And only a leisure-class mentality, indifferent to the common good and the need to turn knowledge, like other artifacts, to a serious public use, could represent its pursuit as something to be kept free of contamination by other ordinary vital concerns. For his own part, Dewey had no wish to convert theoretical science into a mere technology. What he did want acknowledged is that scientific technology, itself a power for good as well as for evil, is an inescapable modern fruit of the conduct of technical scientific operations. And, more generally, he was opposed to all of the forms of systematic concealment inherent in earlier rationalistic, intellectualistic, and idealistic philosophical traditions. He was, in the best and truest sense, a realist for whom facing reality is the only form of human liberation. For him, philosophy is itself simply the most determined, most self-conscious, of human efforts to face and to deal with man’s total environment.
Such an environment, for a neo-Darwinian like Dewey, could never be understood in static terms. Bertrand Russell, himself in some ways the least modern as well as the most determined anti-pragmatist among our great twentieth-century philosophers, once said that man does not attain either to truth or to wisdom so long as he takes time seriously. In part Russell was merely reacting against tendencies toward historical relativism and know-nothing, particularistic empiricism in the preceding era. But in part he was also exhibiting a classical aristocratic prejudice against the timely, the contemporary, and the constitutional anxiety of men who are obliged constantly to live under the pressure and hence under the form of time. Accordingly, Russell has regarded John Dewey as a horrible example of the modern time-bound, time-besotted, Darwinian philosopher. But Dewey may at least claim the qualities of his limitations. On occasion, moreover, he can rise above them. He too inveighs against the tendency in modern life to deify
“the here and the now;…the specific, the particular, the unique, that which happens once and has no measure of value save such as it brings with itself. Such deification is monstrous fetishism, unless the deity be there; unless the universal lives, moves, and has its being in experience as individualized.
Nevertheless the attainment of knowledge is for him always a matter of particular, historical experience. This being so, he refuses to ignore the possibility, or likelihood that a great deal of that experience simply dies with its experience; nor is he willing to deny that there may be truths, living and vital to ourselves, which, along with their confirming evidences, will simply disappear in the great eddy of temporal existence. As for the ancient Sophist, so for Dewey, all things human—hence knowledge and truth—are fragile, passing achievements. In his view, therefore, it is misleading to harp upon the “timelessness” of truth, as if that “fact” somehow removed our awareness of it from the historical situations in which alone it is ever manifest.
The deep Darwinian vein in Dewey’s thought is on display throughout these essays. For him all science and not merely evolutionary biology involves a tracing of natural processes from points of “origin” through processes of natural growth and transformation. From this point of view, history is inherent in all science. The great virtue of the experimental method of inquiry, as he understood it, lies in the power it gives us to examine the origins of things at first hand and to study their modes of development as they are happening: in a word, to make history present to ourselves. No one has ever harped more continuously on the theme that nature, as an object of inquiry, is as it is “experienced as,” although, of course, it is not limited to human experience—that indeed is the besetting sin of subjective idealism and empiricism. This in fact is why for Dewey history is so essential to science. But (and this is a second main theme) nature as experienced is precisely not something which comes neatly sorted, as he puts it, into unalterable kinds which the mind needs merely to “tuck away” in the pigeon holes of a scientific filing cabinet. At this stage, however, the primary “lesson” Dewey seeks to draw is a moral one: human affairs—societies, institutions, practices, disciplines, individual lives—are far more malleable than our forebears could have dreamed. Intellectual, moral, and hence philosophical “reconstruction” (already a favorite word of Dewey’s) is, or can be, at once continuous and indefinitely extensive. The moral life—and Dewey, here as elsewhere, is nothing if not in the best and widest sense a moral philosopher—is not a matter of following fixed principles, but of applying the whole range of existing knowledge in the service of a “common good.” From the new pragmatic, experimental, and evolutionary point of view,
there is no separate body of moral rules; no separate system of motive powers; no separate subject-matter of moral knowledge and hence no such thing as an isolated ethical science…If we still wish to make our peace with the past, and to sum up the plural and changing goods of life in a single word, doubtless the term happiness is the one most apt. But we should again exchange free morals for sterile metaphysics, if we imagine that “happiness” is any less unique than the individuals who experience it; any less complex than the constitution of their capacities, or any less variable than the objects upon which their capacities are directed.
Thus we can see how, in Dewey’s view, “morals, philosophy, returns to its first love: love of the wisdom that is nurse, as nature is mother of good.” But this return to the Socratic point of view is now “equipped with a multitude of special methods of inquiry and testing; with an organized mass of knowledge, and with control of the arrangements by which industry, law, and education may concentrate upon the problem of the participation by all men and women, up to their capacity of absorption, in all attained values.” The volume closes with quotations of two sayings of Socrates, “an unexamined life is not one fit to be led by man.” and “Know thyself.” But for Dewey, unlike his great predecessor, a life is still unexamined so long as its natural environment remains unnoticed and unexplored; and knowledge of the self is formal, thin, and useless unless enriched by all the human arts and all the sciences of man and nature. For Dewey, as for Santayana, every ideal good must have a material origin, and every end natural conditions of realization, the understanding of which affects both our conception of it as an end and its desirability to us as a good.
In most of these essays, Dewey has not yet thickened the texture of his style, as well as his thought, with the incessant, abstract references to “problematic situation,” “contexts,” and “inter-actions” that make some of his later prose so gluey. Here, oddly, the writing often seems too fluent and the thought too easy and assured. At times it is as though an open-ended Darwinian universe, free of fixed final causes and fatal necessities, indifferent to man’s concerns yet fully open to human inspection and fully responsive to the cooperative creative intelligences of men, were actually more amiable and more comfortable, at least in possibility, than the old anthropocentric, but stern and recalcitrant world of the Hellenic-Hebraic tradition. In this respect, at least, these essays sometimes seem rather more remote from the cold realities with which we ourselves are forced to live. Only a little more than half a century has elapsed since Dewey composed “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” yet how profoundly altered is our own prospect, how much more confused, for us, the portents of things to come, how much more ambiguous the blessings that scientific technology has bestowed. Of course we, like Dewey, must go on, hoping against hope that we may have time and strength to learn how to control all the creatures of Prometheus. But we no longer have the fine old confidence of Dewey’s middle period that if we simply stick to the method of science, or intelligence, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. I at least am just a little envious of Dewey in this regard. But my envy also marks the limits of his use to me.
April 22, 1965