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American Philosophy

Dewey's Criticisms of Traditional Philosophy:
Towards a Pragmatic Conception of Philosophy

Charles Lowney
Boston University

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I address some of John Dewey’s more generally applicable criticisms of the philosophic "tradition," and show how his criticisms stem from his naturalistic approach to philosophy. This topic is important because Dewey gives great insight into discussions that are relevant today regarding the role of philosophy. In 1935 he anticipated many of the criticisms of the "later" Wittgenstein regarding the establishment of post facto standards as a cause, the separation of language from behavior and the privatization of mind—yet Dewey still finds use for metaphysics or "thinking at large." I believe the essence of Dewey’s criticisms are found in a few key distinctions. Therefore, I cover the history of philosophy with blanket criticisms of the blanket categories of "classical" and of "modern" thought. For Dewey, the fundamental error characteristic of both Greek and Modern thinking is the artificial bifurcation of our thoughts, feelings and actions from the natural world. As I see it, the heart of this metaphysical mistake is captured by the distinctions he draws between the "instrumental" and "consummatory," and between the "precarious" and "stable."

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In Experience and Nature, John Dewey launches an attack against many forms of philosophic thought.(1) He recognizes that philosophy can lead into a dialectical maze of problems that have no answers and ways of thinking that alienate our values from the "objective" world. In many ways, his criticisms in 1925 anticipated the objections of Wittgenstein regarding the establishment of a post facto standard as a cause, the separation of language from behavior, and the privatization of mind.

Any general treatment will whitewash distinctions. Dewey is more detailed in addressing particular schools of thought and how they go astray, but, for the purposes of this paper, I will address some of his more generally applicable criticisms of the philosophic "tradition", and show how these criticisms stem from his pragmatic approach to philosophy.(2)

For Dewey, the fundamental error characteristic of both Greek and Modern thinking is the artificial bifurcation of our thoughts, feelings and actions from the natural world. As I see it, the heart of this metaphysical mistake is captured by the key distinctions he draws between the "instrumental" and "consummatory", and between the "precarious" and "stable". I will therefore cover the history of philosophy with blanket criticisms of the blanket categories of "classical" or Greek thought (from Plato who, according to Dewey, set the tone of the philosophical quest for both the ancients and the moderns) and of "modern" thought (which covers the subjective turn in philosophy and follows both the rationalist and empirical movement down to the "logical empiricists" such as Russell and the "early" Wittgenstein.)

Dewey's Criticism of Greek Philosophy

The two chief sources of Greek metaphysics lie in both the "eulogization" of the ends of productive series of events, and the bias given to the stable over the precarious. Both these strands come together to give us the immutable essences of traditional metaphysics, which are then thought to stand apart from the natural world of effort and change.

Dewey speculates, giving us a psychological/sociological/historical account, that the Greek infatuation with the "consummatory" was at least in part related to the Greek class system and aversion to labor. (18) The free citizens of Greece undervalued the connection between "instrumental" productive effort and its result. The practical aspect that generated something good was left in the shadows. The "good" itself was seen as cause. There is also much that is contingent in the production of something valued. This, however, makes the result far too "precarious" and fragile for the philosophical temperament. The end product was therefore made "stable" by being hypostatized into an antecedent reality.

The striving to make stability of meaning prevail over the instability of events is the main task of intelligent human effort. But when the function is dropped from the province of art and treated as a property of given things, whether cosmological or logical, effort is rendered useless. (45)

In the appreciation of art, the consummatory is enjoyed in its immediacy, but to idealize this experience is to turn that which is a possible outcome, an "eventuality", into a pre-existing reality. It turns an aesthetic ideal into a philosophical "essence", and attributes to it causal power separate from the productive effort that evokes it.

Dewey makes a strong case for the anthropological view that man seeks the stable in the constant battle against the precarious. He shows convincingly how the laurels of esteem were given to the stable, and the precarious aspects of life were undervalued. Shunning the precarious, unstable, and transitory, the Greeks searched for solid ground in the stable, the necessary and the absolute. Hence we arrive at the Platonic Ideas in their eternal majesty.

But Platonism is not alone in its fetishism of the consummatory and stable. Dewey shows that this disposition runs through all Greek thought. Even Aristotle, though he "acknowledges contingency"...

...never surrenders his bias in favor of the fixed, certain and finished. His whole theory of forms and ends is a theory of the superiority in Being of rounded-out fixities...necessity measures dignity and equals degree of reality, while contingency and change measure degrees of deficiency of Being. (3)

Not only the Parmenidean but also the Heraclitean branch of Greek philosophy falls to Dewey's criticisms. Even philosophers who emphasized the ever-changing condition of the world tended to "deify" change itself and turn it into an absolute category. (45)

The consummatory enjoyments of aesthetic experience were prized and the Greeks sought to stabilize these in the "ideal". This worked to create a fundamental rift in experience. Philosophers began to "transmute the imaginative perception of the stabily good object into a definition and description of true reality in contrast with lower and specious existence... 'reality' becomes what we wish existence to be." (48) The problem then becomes one of explaining the relation of the experienced world, "variously called appearance, illusion, mortal mind, or the merely empirical" with that which is considered truly "real".

This division is one that emanates in the classification of existence into "supernatural" and "natural" and has theological ramifications. (48,9) Plato is among the more "spiritual" of the classical philosophers, but Dewey shows how this division applies to other philosophers, such as Democritus, who had less spiritualistic tendencies. His "Idea", though rendered material, served the function of a stable, enduring point of reference. (50)

Dewey's Criticism of Modern Philosophy

Not only the Greeks and theologians, but many modern philosophers have fallen prey to the same sort of classificatory division (between the supernatural/stable/real and the natural/unstable/less-than-real) under different guises. We can see this in Descartes' distrust of his physical senses in favor of that which he could ground rationally with unchanging certainty, and, as Dewey points out, in "the noumenal things-in-themselves of Kant in contrast with natural objects as phenomenal." (50) Even philosophers as recent as Bertrand Russell are criticized by Dewey for harboring these same preferences as the Greeks.

Corresponding, again, to the Platonic theory of ideas is the modern theory of mathematical structures which alone are independently real....[This theory is a] re-iteration of the old tradition. (50,51)

The major difference between the Greek and the Modern philosophers is not so much an argument over whether the consummatory and the stable are hypostatized as more "real" and split apart from contingent experience, but where this ontologically "primitive" domain lies and what our connection with it is. This avenue of criticism becomes more accessible when we see how the distinction between the stable and the precarious, the instrumental and the consummatory are related to language and mind.

For Dewey an existence is an event, and events are eventualities, the outcome of instrumentalities. (61,62) Both the Greeks and the Moderns tend to hypostatize these events into static and self-sufficient "things"(3) and the result is theories about elemental substances that have essential properties. These "essences", in turn, are seen as that which we attempt to capture with the meaning of the words. Language is then understood as that which gives us immutable essences and logic or grammar is that which gives us necessary relations.

Dewey recognizes an upside to the mistakes of traditional metaphysics. For the Greeks it was the discovery of the power of discourse. For the Moderns it was the liberating discovery of individuality. But both have their downsides.

The Greeks' "insight that things, meanings and words correspond" was "perverted by the notion that the correspondence of things and meanings is prior to discourse and social intercourse...the consequence was a belief in ideal essences..." (143) "...The modern discovery of inner experience..." was "...a great and liberating discovery," but..."If the classical thinkers created a cosmos after the model of dialectic, giving rational distinctions power to constitute and regulate, modern thinkers composed nature after the model of personalized soliloquizing." (143,4)

The Greeks did not make the Modern mistake of separating out "external" from "inner experience" and giving a privileged place to the later. For the Greeks, mind was a public possession that emerged in discourse...

...The Moderns made of it a world separate from spatial and material existence, a separate and private world made of sensations, images, sentiments. The Greeks were more nearly aware that it was discourse they had discovered. But they took the structure of discourse for the structure of things, instead of for the forms which things assume under the pressure and opportunity of social cooperation and exchange. (142)

The Moderns turned discourse and hence "mind" into a private subjective realm. The modern rationalists and empiricists, though historically seen as opposing camps, both assume the spectator-like position of the subject with regard to his "ideas" and "states" of mind. The rationalists hold on to the dualistic split between the knowing subject and the object by giving the ego a distinct, self-sufficient essence that stands completely independent of its relation to other things. The empiricists do basically the same at another level. In their examination of experience, they reduce experience "to the mere process of experiencing, and experiencing is therefore treated as if it were also complete in itself. We get the absurdity of an experiencing which experiences only itself, states and processes of consciousness, instead of things and nature." (13)

This Modern turn retains the problems of the Greek metaphysics, which, as we saw, split from the natural a supernatural/metaphysical plane, and generates such quandaries as the mind/body problem and the problem of how our "ideas" or "impressions" are generated and can correspond with "things" as they really are.

Towards a Truly Empirical Conception of Philosophy

Dewey criticizes the philosophic tradition from the standpoint of his "empirical method" or "denotative" method. Dewey goes beyond a naive empiricism, with its subjectivist and anti-subjectivist tendencies, by endorsing and amplifying James’ notion of experience as "double barrelled".

It is ‘double-barrelled in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality. ‘Thing’ and ‘thought,’ as James says in the same connection, are single barrelled; they refer to products discriminated by reflection out of primary experience. (11)

For Dewey there is a continuity in experience which precedes any rational divisions. Dewey places both gross empirical experience ("primary experience") and reflection ("secondary experience") in the domain of experience. We start with gross experience, refine it with our reflections and then return to "primary" experience for the verification of our reflections. (7,8) This speaks of a strong allegiance to the scientific method, but if so, the domain of science is broadened to be amenable to the moral and aesthetic.

There is an "enrichment" of the objects that go through the process of "secondary" experience which "refines" them.

...What is experienced gains an enriched and expanded force because of the path or method by which it was reached... qualities cease to be isolated details; they get meaning contained in a whole system of related objects...(8)

Indeed, for Dewey, the world is not indifferent to our meanings and values. This is because they are contiguous with our experience and are only artificially partitioned off. (13)

For Dewey our thoughts and language emerge in continuity with nature. Mind is something public that we share in and contribute to, and language is our "tool of tools" that helps us shape the world that shapes us.

When communication occurs, all natural events are subject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking. Events turn into objects, things with a meaning. (139)

"Experience" captures not just what we sense, not just physical phenomena, but our thoughts and our words as well. "Essences" though they are constructed through "bias"—as they are held fixed under certain conditions for certain purposes (151)—can have a role for Dewey because language is an action. They can be employed to help stabilize outcomes. "They are means of regulating consequences, through establishing a present cross-reference to one another of the diverse acts of interacting agents."(165)

...the social participation affected by communication, through language and other tools, is the naturalistic link which does away with the often alleged necessity of dividing the objects of experience into two worlds, one physical one ideal. (xvii)

In a series of events that comes before our selective attention—geared to perceive changes, the precarious (254)—we consider the consummatory as an end and attend to the preceding events as instrumental to it. We attempt to regulate the series in order to stabilize the outcome. The outcome is an event that can be enjoyed or suffered as immediate, but it is continuous with the series and it itself may be a moment in a series that brings yet another consummatory experience.

For the Greeks the consummatory "essence" was projected beyond our experience as a cause. For the Moderns it was reflected inside as an "inner experience" that pointed to fixed epistemological structures and a "reality" beyond. That which was experienced as stable and consummatory could be produced by the synthetic ability of mental "faculties", as it was for Kant, and provide clues to the existence of a noumenal plane. Or, more recently, that which was experienced as stable and consummatory could be the logical/mathematical structure inferred to be common to the private mind and the external reality, as it was for logical empiricists. In both these examples we have phenomenal clues to a transcendent realm which is posited as necessarily existing beyond experience and is considered to be causally generative of experience.

Dewey's empirical or denotative method, in contrast, does not judge the "causes", but outlines descriptively the series. (222,3) It begins with gross experience and ends with gross experience. It thus puts you in "a position to see to what effect the distinction is made." Hypotheses may then be advanced. The "non-empirical method starts with a reflective product as if it were the originally ‘given’." (11) This for Dewey is illustrative of "the philosophic fallacy" that runs through the tradition, ancient and modern: The "conversion of eventual functions into an antecedent existence." (27)

There are many possible eventualities in a series. Philosophy's crime is taking an end or goal and making it something antecedently, ontologically real and then using it as an explanatory notion. In so doing, it does not take account of the historical contingency of the instrumental functions.

Both the "mechanical" theories, associated with the Moderns, and the "teleological" theories, associated with the Greeks, "purport to be explanatory in the old, non-historical sense of causality..."

One theory makes matter account for the existence of mind; the other regards happenings that precede the appearance of minds as preparations made for the sake of mind in a sense of preparations that is alleged to explain the occurrence of these antecedents...The notion of causal explanation involved in both conceptions implies a breach in the continuity of historic process; the gulf created has then to be bridged by an emission or transfer of force. If one starts with the assumption that mind and matter are two separate things...one selected is then "cause"; it accounts for the existence of the other. (223)

A dualism requires one side, efficient or final, to be "cause" and a "force" to bridge them. Dewey undercuts such dilemmas by focusing on the unity of experience. The need for a mysterious "force", or an invisible causal realm, drops out.

This unity of experience, for Dewey, also undercuts philosophical questions that are founded on the division of an "external world" independent from the so-called "inner life" of mental states and emotions...

...emotion in its ordinary sense is something called out by objects, physical and personal; it is response to an objective situation. It is not something existing somewhere by itself which then employs material through which to express itself. (316)

There is no "private" mental experience for Dewey generated by a psychological faculties. Mental events are inextricably woven in continuity with experience in general. For Dewey there is no gap to leave room for a faculty psychology: It is the division of experience that leads some to look for a causal "faculty" or some link between things that have only artificially been separated. Such avenues are as empty of explanatory value for Dewey as they were for the later Wittgenstein.

Philosophy's metaphysical task thus becomes neither introspection, nor speculation on ultimate causes, permanently fixed structures, essences or meanings. Rather it advances hypotheses that attempt to grasp and present "general traits of existence" (46). In short, it does what Dewey does. In the process of criticizing traditional philosophy, Dewey gives us a general philosophical hypothesis based on his categories for analysis: the "instrumental"/"consummatory" and the "precarious"/"stable", which are based in the broader notion of "experience". According to Dewey's perspective, however, we make do with these categories until an even richer hypothesis, perhaps taking its power from another set of categories, comes along.

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(1) All references will be to the 1929 edition of Experience and Nature, Chicago, Open Court.

(2) Though any general treatment will whitewash distinctions, hopefully the generality is still capable of conveying the cumulative sense of those distinctions. The question of how much and how well meanings can be condensed in general terms or expressions seems especially relevant to key differences between Wittgenstein and Dewey regarding the ability of a subject that deals in generalities, such as philosophy, to convey the sense of the particular experiences that comprise it. Determining when generalities break free of their legitimate sense puts one on a slippery slope that Wittgenstein feared to tread. He thus patently denied the philosophic enterprise. Dewey climbs that slope and attempts to stake out some boundaries that are at least conditionally relevant.

(3) In this respect a "thing" is much like an "essence" and in need of similar redefining. For more on the good and bad interpretations of "thing" see pp. 91-94.

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