PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday February 28, 2013


 [4.] John Dewey.


[4.1.] Dewey’s Background.


·         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.

·         He did not come from an academic family, as had Peirce and James. Dewey’s family were farmers in Vermont, and his father was a grocer.

·         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 much interested in what Peirce was teaching, but that changed later in Dewey’s career.

·         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.

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


idealism (df.): the metaphysical view according to which everything that there is, is (in some sense or other) mind, or mental. [This is the original meaning of the term, not Peirce’s broader meaning.]


But Dewey gradually shifted away from idealism and became a pragmatist.


·         Dewey was also influenced by Darwin, and 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].”[1] 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.


·         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.



[4.1.1.] Dewey’s Pragmatism.


For Charles Peirce, pragmatism was the pragmatic maxim, according to which we should clarify our concepts 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 much broader than that of Peirce or James. It is not a maxim for clarifying concepts or a method of resolving metaphysical disputes. Rather, 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 with which those experiences present us.

·         This is not something to be overcome. Dewey does not want us to 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[2]; and the criterion of success for a given philosophical claim or theory 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….



[4.1.2.] Against Traditional Dualisms.


Dewey’s rejection of the distinction between theory and action is just one instance of his rejection of all traditional philosophical dichotomies or “dualisms.”


In this sense, a dualism is simply a dichotomy between one thing and another. [The word “dualism” is more frequently used to refer to a doctrine about the nature of mind, viz. that the mind is a non-physical substance which is different than the physical body; this view is most famously associated with Descartes.]


The sorts of dualisms Dewey has in mind are:

·         theory vs. action/practice

·         mind vs. body [so he also rejects Cartesian dualism]

·         knowledge vs. opinion

·         ethics/religion/divine vs. science/nature

·         subject vs. object


The following passage is representative of this attitude:


What has been completely divided in philosophical discourse into man and world, inner and outer, self and not-self, subject and object, individual and social, private and public, etc., are in actuality parties in life-transactions. The philosophical ‘problem’ of trying to get them together is artificial. On the basis of fact, it needs to be replaced by consideration of the conditions under which they occur as distinctions, and of the special uses served by the distinctions.[3]


In other words, rather than accepting these philosophical dualisms as if they accurately mirror some reality that is independent of human activity, we should reflect on the purposes served by each of these distinctions and on the specific circumstances in which we need those distinctions.



[4.1.3.] Dewey’s Epistemology.


Like both Peirce and James, Dewey was a fallibilist:


fallibilism (df.): the view that any belief, no matter how fundamental or seemingly secure, might turn out to be false.[4]


Dewey rejects what he calls the quest for certainty. He is also critical of Descartes, but he is just as critical of all epistemology from Plato on.


This traditional epistemology has been based on a bad analogy: an analogy between knowing and seeing. Dewey calls this the spectator theory of knowledge. (393)


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]



Stopping point for Thursday February 28. For next time, finish reading “The Quest for Certainty” (pp.384-94).


At the beginning of the next class, we will discuss your term paper assignment. PLEASE DO NOT MISS THIS CLASS! It would be a good idea to bring with you copies of both of the instruction documents you’ll need for this assignment:



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


[2] “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.

[3] Dewey, Knowing and the Known, in Later Works 16:248; quoted at Stuhr p. 437; bold added.


[4] Recall that in setting forth his version of fallibilism, Peirce was very critical of Descartes, who employed a method of “universal doubt” in an attempt to identify absolutely certain foundations on which all other justified beliefs could be based.


[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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