PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday March 4, 2015



 [4.] John Dewey.


[4.1.] Dewey’s Life and Works.


·         Dewey was born in 1859, the year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published; he died 1952, at the age of 92.

·         Of all the classical pragmatists, Dewey has been the most influential both inside and outside philosophy.

·         Unlike Peirce and James, Dewey did not come from an academic family. His family were farmers in Vermont, and his father was a grocer.

·         He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1879 (the year after the first public appearance of Peirce’s pragmatism, in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”), then taught high school in Pennsylvania for two years. Shortly afterwards he began writing (and publishing) philosophy.

·         While pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, he studied logic under Peirce (Peirce taught there only for a very short time). At that time Dewey was not very interested in what Peirce was teaching, but that changed later in Dewey’s career.

·         He completed his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1884. He had a very long career as a professor, at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago and at Columbia University. During his career he published constantly in philosophy, psychology and education.

·         Dewey married Alice Chapman in 1886; together they had six children, two of whom died in childhood.  Alice died in 1927. Dewey remarried in 1946 (at the age of 87!), and he and his second wife adopted two children.

·         After his retirement from teaching in 1930, he continued to publish voluminously and maintained his reputation as a public intellectual until his death more than 20 years later.


We will be reading the following works by Dewey:


1.      “The Quest for Certainty”, an abridged version of the first chapter of his book The Quest for Certainty (1929).

·         Dewey sets forth his pragmatic theory of knowledge.


2.      “Truth and Consequences”, part of a three-part paper entitled “The Problem of Truth” (1911).

·         Dewey rejects “realist” (correspondence) and “idealist” (consistency, coherence) views of truth in favor of his pragmatic account of truth.



[4.2.] From Idealism to Naturalism.


As a young man, Dewey was deeply influenced by the absolute idealism of G. W. F. Hegel.


absolute idealism (df.): “absolute mind” is present everywhere and in all things; this is a sort of secular, philosophical concept of God that played a role in the philosophical systems of many philosophers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.(James wrote that absolute idealism is attractive to those of the rationalistic, tender-minded temperament.)[1]


But Dewey gradually shifted away from absolute idealism and came to be influenced by Darwin. He eventually embraced a form of philosophical naturalism:


naturalism (df.): “reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and … the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including [the lives and minds of human beings].”[2] Notice that this definition contains two claims:

·         a metaphysical claim: the only real things that there are, are natural things; there is no such thing as the supernatural.

·         an epistemological claim: the best way to arrive at knowledge of reality is through the scientific method.


Although Dewey did reject “the supernatural”, he did not reject “the religious” attitude toward the world. (See his book A Common Faith.)



[4.3.] Dewey’s Pragmatism.


For Charles Peirce, pragmatism was the pragmatic maxim, according to which we should make our ideas clearer by translating them in terms of the experiential consequences of interacting with objects to which those concepts apply.


For William James, pragmatism was (in part) the pragmatic method, a way of resolving metaphysical disputes by tracing the experiential consequences of beliefs.


Dewey’s pragmatism is a way of thinking about philosophy:


·         The aim of philosophy is not to attain (epistemically) certain beliefs about the eternal truths of the universe. Philosophical knowledge is not something that exists apart from mankind, up in the clouds or in Plato’s heaven and to which humanity aspires.

·         Philosophy is, first and foremost, a human activity, something that is done by living, breathing humans. Philosophy should not be divorced from ordinary human life and practices.

·         Philosophical activity is prompted by the concrete problems we actually find ourselves with. We are driven to philosophize by our real life experiences and the problems we encounter throughout those experiences.

·         This situation is not something to be overcome. We should not try to break free from these historical connections and aspire to a more eternal, less human philosophy.

·         Philosophy’s job should be, not to solve the problems of philosophers, but to solve the “problems of men[3]; and the criterion of success for a given philosophical claim is how well it helps us to solve concrete problems.


This view is illustrated by his work in the philosophy of education; Dewey was more influential in education than in any other area of study. [For an example, see selection 15 in your textbook: “School Conditions and the Training of Thought.”]


Dewey’s conception of philosophy reflects his rejection of the traditional distinction between theory (including philosophical theorizing) and action.



[4.4.] “The Quest for Certainty.”


The reading comes from Dewey’s 1929 book The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action.


In Quest for Certainty, as in most of his epistemological writings, Dewey is concerned with an epistemic process (something that one does) rather than with an epistemic end-result or product (“knowledge” in the sense of some mental state that one can attain).


So by “knowledge,” Dewey does not mean anything like the definition of “knowledge” that is part of “the Traditional View”:


JTB theory (df.): the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief: S knows that p if and only if it is true that p, S believes that p, and S is justified in believing that p (i.e., S has good evidence that p).[4]


The Quest for Certainty is Dewey’s sustained criticism of what he calls spectator theories of knowledge (393). Spectator theories assume the following:

·         Knowing is analogous to seeing; it is similar to passively viewing something, like a spectator at a sporting event, rather than actively doing something. The person who knows is like a spectator in the stands, passively watching what’s going one, but not herself becoming involved.

·         Inquiry (or the search for knowledge) is not constitutive of the object of knowledge, i.e., it does not help to constitute or to construct what is known. Rather, it discovers something that is there anyway, independent of the process of inquiry.


On Dewey’s approach, knowing is practice... it is something that you do, not a matter of the world being “seen” in one’s mind, as an image in a mirror.


So Dewey’s approach challenges two different aspects of “the Traditional View”:

·         the definition of knowledge as justified true belief [JTB Theory];

·         the view of belief (and therefore of knowledge) as being a representation in one’s mind [representationalism about belief].[5]


As we will see later in the semester, the contemporary neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty has claimed that we don’t really need a philosophical theory of knowledge at all, so we should just stop doing epistemology (and metaphysics, too!). Rorty has suggested that this claim has its roots in what Dewey says about the spectator theory.


However, an alternative reading of Dewey is that he wanted to reform epistemology, not abandon it altogether.




Stopping point for Wednesday March 4. For next time, begin reading “The Quest for Certainty” (pp.379-84).



[1] Timothy Sprigge (1932-2007) states the central thesis of absolute idealism this way: “there is one unitary world consciousness or experience which includes everything else which exists”. (“James, Empiricism, and Absolute Idealism,” in Shook and Margolis, eds., A Companion to Pragmatism, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2006, p.166; Ingram Library owns a copy of this reference book, and you can also access an electronic copy through GALILEO, but only if you are on campus). Sprigge reports that “absolute idealism was the dominant philosophy in the English-speaking world throughout the period in which James worked out his ideas” (op. cit.). Among the philosophers who defended various forms of absolute idealism were Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), Georg Hegel (1770–1831), and, in James’s lifetime, Josiah Royce (1855-1916), T. H. Green (1836-1882), F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923). Sprigge himself defended a version of absolute idealism in his books The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1984) and The God of Metaphysics (2006).


[2] David Papineau, “Naturalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>, accessed March 1, 2015.


[3] “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” (1917), reprinted in Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. John Stuhr, 445-55, p.454; not in your textbook.


[4] This is a definition of propositional knowledge (S knows that p, e.g., Bob knows that Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, Sam knows that Lady Gaga is touring right now), not object knowledge (S knows x, e.g., Bob knows Atlanta, Sam knows the lyrics to “Pokerface,” Barack knows Michelle) or know-how knowledge (S knows how to a, e.g., “Bob knows how to drive,” “Sam knows how to sing,” “Barack knows how to make Michelle angry.” JTB theory has its roots in Plato’s Theaetetus, in which he defined knowledge as “true judgment with an account.” [For more on Plato’s account of knowledge, see Timothy Chappell, “Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = < >.] Different versions of JTB theory have been defended by numerous contemporary analytic philosophers; but it has been criticized by many others.


[5] In a 1905 letter to Charles Augustus Strong, Dewey wrote that “[t]he chief service of pragmatism, as regards epistemology, will be … to give the coup de grace to representationalism.” (Quoted in Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 2001, p.361)


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