PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday March 14, 2013



[4.2.3.] “The Function of Philosophy.”


At this point, Dewey describes what he takes to be “the most urgent of all practical problems” that human beings face, and he uses this to form a new conception about philosophy itself.


There are two types of belief that human beings have:


That man has two modes, two dimensions, of belief, cannot be doubted. He has beliefs about actual existences and the course of events, and he has beliefs about ends to be striven for, policies to be adopted, goods to be attained and evils to be averted. The most urgent of all practical problems concerns the connection the subject-matter of these two kinds of beliefs sustain to each other. How shall our most authentic and dependable cognitive beliefs be used to regulate our practical beliefs? How shall the latter serve to organize and integrate our intellectual beliefs?[1]

There is a genuine possibility that the true problem of philosophy is connected with precisely this type of question. Man has beliefs which scientific inquiry vouchsafes [grants or furnishes], beliefs about the actual structure and processes of things; and he also has beliefs about the values which should regulate his conduct. The question of how these two ways of believing may most effectively and fruitfully interact with one another is the most general and significant of all the problems which life presents to us. Some reasoned discipline, one obviously other than any science, should deal with this issue. Thus there is supplied one way of conceiving of the function of philosophy. (389, emphasis added)


An example of the sort of problem that Dewey has in mind is that of reconciling scientific theories, like Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, with our spiritual and ethical beliefs.


But according to the traditional way of doing philosophy, these two realms—the realm of knowledge and the realm of practical action (doing)—have nothing to do with each other.[2]


Dewey’s approach is to deny that there really is a deep divide between these two realms. This is another example of his propensity for rejecting traditional philosophical dualisms.



[4.2.4.] Against Spectator Theories of Knowledge.


Dewey expands on his description of the traditional distinction between theory and practice by making explicit the metaphysical and epistemological ideas associated with each side of the divide:




concerned with true Being, Reality (eternal, unchanging)

concerned with the realm of change, generation and degeneration

its goal is CERTAINTY: knowledge, “science” in the Aristotelian sense, in which it means demonstrable, necessary truths.

it is capable only of mere belief, opinion.

pure activity (rational, theoretical)

action, doing and making; concerned with the needs and defects of the lower realm


Perfect certainty is what man wants. It cannot be found by practical doing or making; these take effect in an uncertain future, and involve peril, the risk of misadventure, frustration and failure. Knowledge, on the other hand, is thought to be concerned with a region of being which is fixed in itself. (391) [3]


On the traditional way of thinking about knowledge, knowing does not change the object of knowledge, which is eternal and not susceptible to any sort of change.


Knowledge ... is thought to be concerned with a region of being which is fixed in itself. Being eternal and unalterable, human knowing is not to make any difference in it. It can be approached through the medium of the apprehensions and demonstrations of thought, or by some other organ of mind, which does nothing to the real, except just to know it. (391)[4]


There is “a whole system of philosophical conclusions” embedded in this way of thinking:


1.      A metaphysical claim: [T]here is complete correspondence between knowledge in its true meaning  and what is real” (391); i.e., the only things that are real are the things that are objects of our knowledge. And since the only things we can know are things that are unchanging, only those things that are unchanging are real.


2.      An epistemological claim: “[W]hat is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry, and is totally unaffected by these acts; otherwise it would not be fixed and unchangeable.” (393) Knowledge is always of that which has “antecedent existence or essential being” (392). If something is genuinely an object of knowledge, then it is the way it is prior to our knowing it, and our knowing it has no effect upon it.


There are many different theories of knowledge (“Their quarrels with one another fill the air,” 392), but they all assume that “the operation of inquiry excludes any element of practical activity that enters into the construction of the object known.” (393)


It is this epistemological assumption that Dewey describes as a spectator theory of knowledge:


The theory of knowing is modeled after what was supposed to take place in the act of vision. The object refracts light to the eye and is seen; it makes a difference to the eye and to the person having an optical apparatus, but none to the thing seen. The real object is the object so fixed in its regal aloofness that it is a king to any beholding mind that may gaze upon it. A spectator theory of

knowledge is the inevitable outcome. (393)[5]



[4.2.5.] A Summary of Dewey’s Epistemology.[6]


Dewey wants us to move beyond the spectator theory by reformulating epistemology as follows:


(a)   Knowing is the activity that occurs in the context of solving a problem; it is not a product that you arrive at, but a process that happens, something that the knower does.


(b)   Knowing changes what is known.

·         This is in harmony with the conception of knowing as something that happens in the process of problem-solving. In solving problems and thus coming to know, humans change their environment in various ways

·         Dewey is not necessarily embracing the sort of relativism according to which the knower creates the world just by thinking about it. It might sound as if this is what he is doing if we forget that he is rejecting spectator theories, according to which knowing consists in passively representing the world. If one combines that idea with the notion that knowing changes what is known, the result does seem like relativism: the world does not exist apart from our passive representations of it, and we bring it into existence in coming to know it.

·         But once we jettison the assumption that knowledge is a matter of passive representation and adopt Dewey’s view that knowing is a matter of actively engaging with the environment, it stands to reason that aspects of that environment—the objects of knowledge—will be changed by our knowing them, i.e., by our interacting with them. On this view, we are no longer spectators but active participants; we have left the stands (so to speak) and walked onto the field, and our epistemic activity is bound to have some effect on what is happening on that field.


(c)    The standard of value of knowing is whether your knowing is successful. Does it solve the problem? Does it change an unsatisfactory situation into a satisfactory one? If so, then it is to be valued.


(d)   The value of an instance of knowing can change over time; what works as a solution to a problem at one time may not work at a later time.

·         This is part of the point of Dewey’s characterization of experience as perpetually risky, hazardous, never settled:


Nothing can eliminate all risk, all adventure; the one thing doomed to failure is to try to keep even with the whole environment at once—that is to say, to maintain the happy moment when all things go our way.[7]


(e)    This implies that certainty (knowledge that is permanently fixed and can never be wrong) is impossible. “Knowings” that work at one time are never guaranteed to work forever.


Dewey thinks that by avoiding the traditional (spectator) way of thinking about knowledge and adopting this new view of knowing as problem-solving, we can avoid traditional epistemological problems, like skepticism (the view that knowledge itself is impossible).



Stopping point for Thursday March 14. We’ve fallen yet another day behind! For next time, begin reading (if you haven’t already done so) Dewey, “Truth and Consequences,” pp.341-52.



[1] The distinction that Dewey is describing here sounds almost, but not exactly, like that between normative beliefs, on the one hand, and descriptive beliefs, on the other:


descriptive (df.): a descriptive belief, statement, question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be.


normative (a.k.a. prescriptive) (df): a normative belief, statement, question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are; this includes any sort of value-judgment, including judgments about whether things are bad or are good.


The divide between the descriptive and the normative is sometimes referred to as the is-ought gap. Some philosophers discuss the so-called is-ought problem, namely, the apparent fact that no set of “is” statements, no matter how big and no matter their subject matter, can ever, by itself, imply an “ought” statement.


[2] This traditional view is echoed in American scientist Stephen Jay Gould’s (1941-2002) contention that science and religion are not in conflict with each other because they are nonoverlapping magisteria, i.e., completely separate and independent “domains of teaching authority.” “Nonoverlapping Magesteria,” Natural History, 1997, URL = < >, accessed October 13, 2011.


[3] Dewey sketches a history of philosophy according to which ancient Greek philosophy, as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, grew from Greek religion. On Dewey’s view, this fact helps explain why philosophy has been associated with the theory side of the theory/practice distinction. We should be grateful to the Greeks for “the elimination of myths and grosser superstitions” and for “the ideals of science and of a life of reason.” (387, LW 4:13-14.) But along with these contributions to Western civilization, Greek philosophy brought the distinction between


a higher realm of fixed reality of which alone true science is possible and of an inferior world of changing things with which experience and practical matters are concerned. They glorified the invariant at the expense of change, it being evident that all practical activity falls within the realm of change. It bequeathed the notion, which has ruled philosophy ever since the time of the Greeks, that the office of knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgments, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise. (387, LW 4:14, emphases added)


[4] LW 4:17.


[5] LW 4:19.


[6] This section integrates ideas not explicitly stated by Dewey in Quest for Certainty ch.1.


[7] Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” (1917), in The Essential Dewey 1:49.

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