Deistpedia: The Deist EnCyclopedia

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I   J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 0-9

John Dewey

John Dewey
Born October 20, 1859
Died June 1, 1952

John Dewey  (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, whose thought has been greatly influential in the United States and around the world. He is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism (along with Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James), a pioneer in functional psychology, and a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. education during the first half of the 20th century.

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins. He received his PhD from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1884. From 1904, he was professor of philosophy at Columbia University.


Educational philosophy

Portal Philosophy Portal

As can be seen in his Democracy and Education Dewey attempts to at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic or proto-democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. He saw Rousseau's as overemphasizing the individual and Plato's as overemphasizing the society in which the individual lived. For Dewey, this distinction was by and large a false one; like Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process. Thus the individual is only a meaningful concept when regarded as an inextricable part of his society, and the society has no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.

For Dewey, it was vitally important that education not be the teaching of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learned be integrated fully into their lives as persons, citizens and human beings. At the Laboratory School which Dewey and his wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast—an activity they did in their classes. This practical element—learning by doing—sprang from his subscription to the philosophical school of Pragmatism.

His ideas, while quite popular, were never broadly and deeply integrated into the practices of American public schools, though some of his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military purposes. In the post-Cold War period, however, progressive education has reemerged in many school reform and education theory circles as a thriving field of inquiry.

Dewey and historical progressive education

The most basic idea of John Dewey's with regard to education was that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, rather than simply on the memorization of lessons. While Dewey's educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity during his lifetime and after, they have a troubled history of implementation. Dewey's writings can be difficult to read, and his tendency to reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding. So while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals, his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried, on occasion, to correct such misguided enthusiasm, but with little success. Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend many, many contradictory theories and practices, as documented by historians like Herbert Kliebard.

It is often thought that progressive education "failed", though whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions of "progressive" and "failure". Several versions of progressive education succeeded in transforming the educational landscape: the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name but one example, springs from the progressive period. However, radical variations of educational progressivism were hardly ever tried, and often were troubled and short-lived.

Deweyan pragmatism

Dewey is one of the three central figures in American pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term, and William James, who popularized it—though Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist per se, and instead referred to his philosophy as "instrumentalism". Dewey worked from strongly Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian influences, unlike James, whose lineage was primarily British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian thought. Dewey was also not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality situated in events ("nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience and Nature)).

He also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, or whatever. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. For Dewey, God was the method of intelligence in human life: that is to say, rigorous inquiry, or, very broadly conceived, science.

As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also reemerged with the post-Cold War reassessment of pragmatism by thinkers like W.V. Quine, Richard Bernstein, Hans Joas and Richard Rorty.

Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, though this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy—for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism". He has been called an instrumentalist, and experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term "transactional" may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.


In the first sentence of the introduction to KNOWING AND THE KNOWN1, Dewey announces the task at hand : "the attempt to fix a set of leading words capable of firm use in the discussion of "knowings" and "existings" in that specialist region of research called the theory of knowledge"2. Much of the book is spent in dense philosophical analyses of the words, terms, concepts,etc of the then current authoritative books, making the book difficult to paraphrase, summarize , or to interpret. Transaction is but one of the words selected, though a central one. Others are: behavior, characterization, event, fact, observation, naming, specification, etc.

The terminology problem in the fields of epistomology and logic is partially due, according to Dewey and Bentley, to unobserved, unexamined, undifferentiated, inefficient, and imprecise use of words, terms, concepts that reflect three historic levels of organization and presentation.In the order of chronological appearance, these are :

"*Self-Action: where things are viewed as acting under their own powers,dating from the time of Aristotle.

Interaction: where thing is balanced against thing in causal interconnection as described by Newton.

Transaction: where modern systems of descriptions and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action without final attribution to "elements" or other presumptively detachable or independent "entities,","essences," or "realities," and without isolation of presumptively detachable "relations" from such detachable "elements"3"

The principle used in all analyses is that : All knowledge (known) and all efforts to acquire, to maintain, store, recall, and express knowledge(knowings) are acts of man. Language is the means man has to communicate knowledge or to participate in the use or acquisition of knowledge. As such any given word, sentence, postulation or proposition is always open to critical analysis, review, and revision by the inquiring behavior of men.

The best explication of the differences in these three levels of inquiry is Dewey's and Bentley's presentation, in unusually clear language, eight positions that they do not hold and which in no case should be read into their work. To quote directly at length:

"1.We employ no basic differentiation of subject vs object, any more than of soul vs body, of mind vs matter,or self vs nonself.

2.We introduce no knower to confront what is known as if in a different, or superior, realm of being or action; nor any known or knowable as of a different realm to stand over against the knower.

3.We tolerate no "entities" or "realities" of any kind intruding as if from behind or beyond the knowing-known events, with power to interfere, whether to distort or to correct.

4.We introduce no "faculties" or other operators (however disguised) of an orgnism's behaviors, but require for all investigation direct observation and usable reports of events without which, or without the effort to obtain which, all proposed procedure is to be rejected as profitless for the type of enterprise we here undertake.

5.In especial we recognize no names that pretend to be expressions of "inner" thoughts, any more than we recognize names that pretend to be compulsions exercised upon us by "outer" objects.

6.We reject the "no man's land" of words inmagined to lie between the organism and its environmental objects in the fashion of most current logics, and require, instead definite locations for all naming behaviors as organic-environmental transactions under observation.

7.We tolerate no finalities of meaning parading as "ultimate" truth or "absolute" knowledge, and give such purported finalities no recognition whatever under our postulation of natural system for man in the world.

8.To sum up: Since we are concerned with what is inquired into and is in process of knowing as cosmic event, we have no interest in any form of hypostatized underpinning. Any statement that is or can be made about a knower, self, mind, or subject--or about a known thing, an object,or a cosmos--must, so far as we are concerned, be made on the basis, and in terms, of aspects of event which inquiry, as itself a cosmic event, finds taking place."4

The authors then present a series of characterizations of Transaction indicating the wide range of considerations involved:

"Transaction is inquiry of a type in which existing descriptions of events are accepted only as tentative and preliminary, so that new descriptions of the aspects and phases of events,.......may freely be made at any and all stages of inquiry."5

"Transaction is inquiry which ranges under primary observation across all subjectmatters that present themselves, and proceeds with freedom toward the re-determination and re-naming of the objects comprised in the system."6

"Transaction is Fact such that no one of its constituents can be adequately specified as fact apart from the specification of other constituents of the full subject matter."7

"Transaction develops the widening phases of knowledge, the broadening of system within the limits of observation and report."8

"Transaction regards extension in time to be as indespensable as is extension in space...., so that "thing" is in action, and "action" is observable in things and actions are taken as marking provisional stages of subject matter to be established through further inquiry,"9

"Transaction assumes no pre-knowledge of either organism or environment alone as adequate,....., but requires their primary acceptance in common system, with full freedom reserved for their developing examination."10

"Transaction is the procedure which observes men talking and writing, with their word-behaviors and other representational activities connected with their thing-perceivings and manipulations, and which permits a full treatment, descriptive and functional, of the whole process inclusive of all its "contents", whether called "inners" or "outers" , in whatever way the advancing techiques of inquiry require."11

"Transactional Observation is the fruit of an insistence upon the right to proceed in freedom to select and view all subjectmatters in whatever way seems desirable under reasonable hypothesis, and regardless of ancient claims on behalf of either minds or material mechanisms, or any of the surrogates of either."12

In summary, all of human knowledge consists of actions and products of acts in which men and women participate with other human beings,other animal and plant life forms, organic and inorganic objects, in random,selected, and total environments. And men and women have, are, and will present these acts and products of action in language. Generic man, and specific men and women are well known to be vulnerable to error. Consequently, all knowledge (knowing and known ) whether commonsensical or scientific; past, present, or future; is subject to further inquiry, examination, review, and revision

NOTES: 1.Dewey,John,and Bentley,Arthur:KNOWING AND THE KNOWN, Beacon Press, Boston,1949, 334pp 2.ibid,pxi 3.ibid,p107 4.ibid,p120,121 5.ibid,p122 6.ibid,p122 7.ibid,p122 8.ibid,p122 9.ibid,p123 10.ibid,p123 11.ibid,p123 12.ibid,p124