PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday March 5, 2013



[4.1.4.] Works.


We will be reading the following works by Dewey:


1.      “The Quest for Certainty” is 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” is 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 theory.



[4.2.] “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).[1]


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 best understood as being similar to looking at something rather than doing something.

·         Inquiry (which can result in knowledge) is passive, in that it involves no practical activity; the person who knows is like a spectator in the stands at a sporting event, passively watching what’s going one, but not herself becoming involved.

·         Inquiry is not constitutive of the object of knowledge, i.e., it does not help to constitute or to construct what is known.


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 Tuesday March 5. This class will not meet on Thursday March 7 (I will be attending a conference). For Tuesday March 12, begin reading Dewey, “Truth and Consequences,” pp.341-52.




[1] 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.


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