PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday March 12, 2013



[4.2.1.] The Elevation of Theory Over Practice.


Dewey begins The Quest for Certainty by stating that traditionally, humans have sought “security” in two ways (380):


religion: man “all[ies] himself with” destiny, “putting his will, even in sore affliction, on the side of the powers which dispense fortune” in order to “escape defeat and ... triumph in the midst of destruction.”

·         This involves changing the self in emotion and idea.”


“arts,” i.e., science and technology: people “invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account.”

·         This involves, not changing the self, but changing the world through action.”

·         Many of us still think that this approach “manifest[s] dangerous pride, even defiance of the powers which be.”

·         People are happy to enjoy the benefits of science and technology, and there has been much effort put into increasing the number of such benefits. But that effort has been accompanied by the view that science and technology are insufficient for “dealing with serious perils of life.”


The proof of that last point is that philosophers and “religious teachers” have traditionally held action in disesteem and have taken thought and sentiment to be more valuable than action.

·         Changes in action (in how one behaves) have been valued only to the extent that they are evidence of changes in one’s mind and in one’s heart; those latter sorts of change have been taken to be much more important.

·         The “actual objective transformation” of the world through “the arts” has occurred in realms that thinkers have traditionally taken to be inferior, even “base.”


Philosophers have contributed to this elevation of theory over practice, but other factors have contributed as well:


Work has been onerous, toilsome, associated with a primeval curse. It has been done under compulsion and the pressure of necessity, while intellectual activity is associated with leisure. On account of the unpleasantness of practical activity, as much of it as possible has been put upon slaves and serfs. Thus the social dishonor in which this class was held was extended to the work they do. There is also the age-long association of knowing and thinking with immaterial and spiritual principles, and of the arts, of all practical activity in doing and making, with matter. For work is done with the body, by means of mechanical appliances and is directed upon material things. The disrepute which has attended the thought of material things in comparison with immaterial thought has been transferred to everything associated with practice. (381, emphases added)[1]


The result of all this is the following dichotomy:







the upper-class


assoc. with the spiritual & the divine






serfs and slaves

constantly changing

assoc. with the physical




[This classification of concepts has an obvious affinity with James’s distinction between the tough-minded temperament and the tender-minded temperament.]


Dewey thinks the distinction is “invidious” (unpleasant or objectionable in a way that tends to cause harm, resentment or discontent) and needs to be broken down. And he thinks doing so will have important consequences for philosophy, and in particular for epistemology:


How has the separation of intellect from action affected the theory of knowledge? What has been in particular the effect upon the conception and course of philosophy? What forces are at work to break down the division? What would the effect be if the divorce were annulled, and knowing and doing were brought into intrinsic connection with one another? What revisions of the traditional theory of mind, thought and knowing would be required, and what change in the idea of the office of philosophy would be demanded? (382)[2]



[4.2.2.] The Quest for Certainty is Misguided.


Dewey believes that the denigration of practice and the elevation of theory is connected with what he calls the quest for certainty, the search for a kind of knowledge that cannot possibly fail us: “exaltation of pure intellect and its activity above practical affairs is fundamentally connected with the quest for a certainty which shall be absolute and unshakeable.” (382)


Once the invidious distinction between knowing and doing, between theory and practice, is broken down, we will see that the traditional quest for certainty has been deeply misguided.


The idea is this:

·         traditional philosophers, from Plato to Descartes and beyond, have taken it to be the goal of philosophical inquiry to attain epistemic certainty.

·         To put this in anachronistic language, these philosophers have sought for knowledge (justified true belief) that was perfectly justified: true beliefs with such strong evidential support that they cannot possibly be wrong.

·         These philosophers recognized this goal as being something only the intellect, the rational mind, could achieve.

·         Plato took it to be knowledge of the Forms (the Form of Goodness, the Form of Triangle, etc.), which had nothing to do with the physical body and everything to do with the rational aspect of the soul.

·         Descartes took certainty, in the form of clear and distinct beliefs, to be attainable through reason alone (something Peirce would later characterize as the a priori method of inquiry).

·         On this way of thinking, certainty has nothing to do with practical activity. In fact, there is a sense in which practical activity is always uncertain. “Judgment and belief regarding actions to be performed can never attain more than a precarious probability. Through thought, however, it has seemed that men might escape from the perils of uncertainty.” (382-83)[3]


The traditional quest for certainty has been motivated by the desire to avoid risk and danger:


The quest for certainty is a quest for a peace which is assured, an object which is unqualified by risk and the shadow of fear which action casts. For it is not uncertainty per se which men dislike, but the fact that uncertainty involves us in peril of evils. Uncertainty that affected only the detail of consequences to be experienced provided they had a warrant of being enjoyable would have no sting. It would bring the zest of adventure and the spice of variety. (384)[4]


Like Peirce, Dewey thinks that the traditional philosophical quest for certainty, as exemplified in Descartes’ philosophy, is pointless, because the object of that quest (namely, certainty) cannot ever be attained. Both Peirce and Dewey are fallibilists.


But Dewey’s reasons for saying this are very different than Peirce’s…

·         Peirce is aware that human beings are prone to error and that further evidence might always show that a given belief is inaccurate, no matter how firmly established it currently is. This approach does not deny that beliefs (and therefore knowledge) involve having representations in the mind; Peirce accepts representationalism (although he does augment it with the view that genuine belief is always accompanied by a habit of action). What Peirce denies is that we can ever know for sure that we have a representation that is perfectly accurate.[5]

·         Dewey, on the other hand, rejects the traditional conception of knowledge as something that requires that the knower have representations of the world in her mind, i.e., Dewey rejects representationalism about belief. Instead, he maintains that knowing is a matter of problem-solving (NOT a matter of having accurate representations in one’s mind).

·         On this way of thinking about knowledge, certainty (absolutely perfect knowledge) would amount to a solution to a problem that is guaranteed to work forever.

·         But a solution that works at one time is never guaranteed to work forever… so certainty never happens.


Ultimately, Dewey wants to replace the traditional philosophical quest for epistemic certainty with “a search for security by practical means.”[6]




Stopping point for Tuesday March 12. We have fallen a day behind on the syllabus (I will update the online reading schedule soon). So for next time, make sure you have read what was originally assigned for today: pp.341-352 (“Truth and Consequences”).



[1] LW 4:4. [This notation refers to Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953. Volume 4: 1929: The Quest for Certainty, ed. Jo Ann Boydston.]


[2] LW 4:5.

[3] LW 4:6.


[4] LW 4:7.


[5] Peirce uses the expression “sure knowledge” to refer to what we have been calling epistemic certainty. His view is summarized in the following passage:


Suppose our opinion with reference to a given question to be quite settled, so that inquiry, no matter how far pushed, has no surprises for us on this point. Then we may be said to have attained perfect knowledge about that question. True, it is conceivable that somebody else should attain to a like "perfect knowledge," which should conflict with ours. He might know something to be white, which we should know was black. This is conceivable; but it is not possible, considering the social nature of man, if we two are ever to compare notes; and if we never do compare notes, and no third party talks with both and makes the comparison, it is difficult to see what meaning there is in saying we disagree. When we come to study the principle of continuity we shall gain a more ontological conception of knowledge and of reality; but even that will not shake the definition we now give.

                Perhaps we may already have attained to perfect knowledge about a number of questions; but we cannot have an unshakable opinion that we have attained such perfect knowledge about any given question. That would be not only perfectly to know, but perfectly to know that we do perfectly know, which is what is called sure knowledge. No doubt, many people opine that they surely know certain things; but after they have read this book, I hope many of them will be led to see that that opinion is not unshakable. At any rate, as they are, after all, in some measure reasonable beings, no matter how pig-headed they might be (I am only saying that pigheaded people exist, not that they are very frequently met with among my opponents), after a time, if they live long enough, reason must get the better of obstinate adherence to their opinion, and they must come to see that sure knowledge is impossible. (CP 4.62-63, 1893; not in your textbook)



[6] LW 4:20; not in your textbook.


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