John Dewey is primarily known for two things: being one of the big names in pragmatism, and for his highly influential claims about education, specifically pointing out the active nature of learning such that simply sitting students down and telling them things is not very effective.
Mark, Wes, and Dylan met on 10/25/15 to discuss the first four chapters of his 1925 book, Experience and Nature. Now, Dewey was born in 1859, and wrote about pragmatism and truth near the turn of the century, about the same time as William James, and wrote his important book about education in 1916 (you might want to listen to some of the Librivox version of that). By 1925, we’re dealing with mature Dewey trying to get out his overall worldview, his take on the enterprise of philosophy.
His basic critique is the same as what we’ve seen in Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty, i.e., that philosophy tends to illicitly separate experience from nature, mind from the world, claiming that the world of appearance is somehow divorced from underlying reality. No, Dewey counters: what we start with is concrete, gross experience, which is not experience of “sense data” or any other theoretical entity, but which is experience of tables, people, feelings, values, etc. It’s an abstraction to say, for instance, that we only perceive colors and then combine them to form objects. That’s a fine start at a theory of perhaps how we physiologically put together perceptions, but an abstraction like a physiological theory can’t replace the given of gross perception. Our experience involves both this primary perception and secondary objects of reflection like theories. There’s no warrant for saying that these secondary objects capture “reality” in a way that primary perception doesn’t.
What these secondary objects do is enable us to interact with the world more effectively, e.g., to do science, which is all about prediction and control. We need to keep in mind the values that drive us to choose one abstraction over another, values that are themselves part of experience (i.e., another reflective object discoverable within it). Like Nietzsche, Dewey sees intellectual products (which are secondary objects, carefully refined) as revealing aspects of our personality, our needs and proclivities, and sees his task in part to be telling stories about human nature that make sense of the current state of philosophy. So, in chapter two, “Existence as Precarious,” he describes how the basic, physical peril of worldly existence has driven philosophers to create a metaphysics that denies change (see Augustine for a particularly blatant example of this, but it’s of course right there in Plato’s world of Forms).
In chapters three and four, “Nature, Ends, and Histories” and “Nature, Means, and Knowledge,” he talks about on the one hand the aesthetic pleasure that human nature makes us take in immediate sensation, and on the other how we take the objects of immediate sensation and turn them into means by looking at them not as direct sources of pleasure but as indicators of things behind the scenes, as levers for moving other things, as tools for getting things done. One of the trickiest parts of the book is his use of the term “ends,” because he willfully conflates distinct meanings that the term usually has. First, an end is opposed to a beginning, as in the end of a process, the final step. Second, an end can be a goal, whether explicit (he calls goals we intentionally take up “ends-in-view”) or something that a teleologically-oriented thinker identifies as the apparent goal of a natural process, like a state of equilibrium a system seems to be aiming at.
Dewey refers to the objects of immediate experience as “terminal qualities,” in that they present themselves as the result of historical events culminating in what lies before us, but also because we can take anything as an aesthetic object, as an end toward which our desire for pleasure is attracted. (This raises a lot of interesting questions in the philosophy of art that we’ll have to postpone for some later time when we cover his later book, Art as Experience.) Dewey objects to teleological thinking as leaving too much room for thinkers to smuggle in wish fulfillment, where nature is seen as aiming at order (Aristotle’s version of Plato’s comforting mistake referred to above). When bad outcomes occur, we demand an explanation to address the philosophical “problem of evil,” and Dewey wonders why there’s no corresponding “problem of good” when one outcome is really just as surprising as another. So, our choice is between either giving up all talk of ends except consciously held ends-in-view (in which case, for instance, “health” wouldn’t be seen as an end of nature itself anymore; this would put a serious cramp on virtue ethics!), or we can admit (as Dewey prefers) that nature is saturated with ends, that everything can be (more or less helpfully) interpreted as the outcome and final step of some process, and also of course as the beginning of some other process. These processes are indifferent to our concepts of good and evil; they contain their own logic that science can delve into, and we shouldn’t somehow impose our expectations or wishes on them.
Finally, much like Arendt in our recent discussion, Dewey points out how the philosophical goal of the contemplative life, which is of course very much related to the prejudice toward wholeness and rest that our fragile, danger-denying natures make us prone to, relies on aristocracy. Philosophers deny the interconnectedness of this contemplation of terminal qualities on the one hand and turning these “ends” into “means” through labor on the other hand, and this legitimizes the status quo where only a select few were raised above the immediacy of labor to pursue philosophical lives. But objects of contemplation, which for the philosopher are primarily not ordinary physical objects aesthetically contemplated but highfalutin abstractions, need to be understood as these secondary objects that we only obtain through purpose-driven (work-driven, desire-driven) abstraction. They are all and only ultimately in service of practical effects, which of course don’t just include material gain, but the “liberation and enrichment of human experience” (p. 165), which Dewey thinks should be spread out among the populace as widely as possible.