John Dewey (1859-1952)

John Dewey John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, educator, political activist and educational reformer.

Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, Dewey is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism.

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on October 20th, 1859 to Archibald Dewey and Lucinda Rich in a humble environment.

His father was a grocer and his mother, at 20 years younger than her husband, was an intense and ambitious woman. She urged her three sons to aspire to loftier goals and pursue college educations at the University of Vermont.

It was during his time as an undergraduate at the university that Dewey acquired his intellectual curiosity and commitment. When he was introduced to Darwin's evolutionary ideas, it changed his thinking and profoundly influenced his viewpoint.

Darwin's theory, which demonstrated that the natural world is dynamic and fluid, and that organisms and species were ever changing as they interact with their environment, blew him away.

This concept of ongoing change became central to Dewey's views of human nature. He rejected the idea that human beings have a fundamental or fixed nature.

He argued instead, that the human organism is comprised of the interaction with the various aspects of environment, and a product of a lived and experienced practice.

In his 'theory of inquiry, or 'experimental logic' (he rejected the terms epistemology and theory of knowledge), he aimed to show that thought emerges as humans interact with their environments.

Along with Peirce, Dewey maintained the idea that knowledge is the state in a human which consists of the settling of beliefs, or successful habits of behavior. His pragmatism consisted of replacing the notion of truth as 'correspondence to reality' with truth as successful rules for action.

For Dewey: "The truth is that which works." However, when these habits of behavior are disrupted by unexpected turns of events, one must engage in reasoning or 'intellection'.

In his work How We Think, he proceeded to characterize five different states of the reasoning process. 

First when a human being's habitual patterns of action are disturbed, he/she will continue to act in order to resolve the situation. When the principle of action (belief) is unsuccessful, the process of 'intellection' must be employed.

The second stage involves extracting the important elements of the situation and formulate it as a problem-solving exercise.

The third step is to brain storm, or hypothesize, in order to come up with a variety of possible solutions.

The fourth stage is to weigh the different possibilities, or hypotheses. Finally 'testing,' or experimentation, in the fifth stage eliminates the solutions or hypotheses that are tried and don't work.

The result of this intellection process is a successful resolution of the problem with a hypothesis that works. Any claim that it 'corresponds to reality' is, in Dewey's view, a metaphysical one that adds nothing to what we already know or can do with the hypothesis.

"Reasoning shows that if the idea be adopted, certain consequences follow. So far the conclusion is hypothetical or conditional. If we look and find present all the conditions demanded by the theory, and if we find the characteristic traits called for by rival alternatives to be lacking, the tendency to believe, to accept, is almost irresistible."

For Dewey, societies, like individuals, are characterized by habitual patterns of action. When the patterns are broken, they too must be repaired by the five stages of the reasoning process.

What is ethically good is a 'unified orderly release in action'. The good, like the true, is ultimately what works.

Dewey's pragmatism was a view that rejected the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of modern philosophy.

He favored a naturalistic approach, one in which knowledge arises from man's active (rather than merely observed, or passive) adaptation to his environment.

John Dewey is highly regarded as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.

His criticisms of the classical tradition in Western philosophy and his influence in liberal progressive thought remain relevant today.

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