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John Dewey

Birthdate:
Birthplace: Burlington, Chittenden Co., VT
Death: June 01, 1952 (92)
New York, NY
Place of Burial: Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Capt. Archibald Sprague Dewey and Lucina Artemisia Rich
Husband of Alice Dewey (Chipman) and Roberta Dewey
Father of Frederick Archibald Dewey; Evelyn Smith and Gordon Dewey
Brother of Davis Rich Dewey

Occupation: pragmatist philosopher, psychologist, educational reformer (progressivism), philosopher
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About John Dewey

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey is one of the primary figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Dewey as the 93rd most cited psychologist of the 20th century. A well-known public intellectual, he was also a major voice of progressive education and liberalism. Although Dewey is known best for his publications about education, he also wrote about many other topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics. He was a major educational reformer for the 20th century.

The overriding theme of Dewey's works was his profound belief in democracy, be it in politics, education, or communication and journalism. As Dewey himself stated in 1888, while still at the University of Michigan, "Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous."

Known for his advocacy of democracy, Dewey considered two fundamental elements—schools and civil society—to be major topics needing attention and reconstruction to encourage experimental intelligence and plurality. Dewey asserted that complete democracy was to be obtained not just by extending voting rights but also by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion, accomplished by communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt.

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, whose thoughts and ideas have been greatly influential in the United States and around the world. He, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism. He is also known as the father of functional psychology; he was a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. schooling during the first half of the 20th century.[1]

Life and Works

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins [2]. Like his older brother, Davis Rich Dewey, he attended the University of Vermont, from which he graduated (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1879. After three years as a high school teacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, Dewey decided that he was unsuited for employment in primary or secondary education. Borrowing two thousand dollars from his aunt[citation needed], he was able to enter graduate school in philosophy. His unpublished dissertation was titled "The Psychology of Kant" and he made a special study of Hegel's Absolute idealism. After receiving his Ph.D. from the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1884, he took a faculty position at the University of Michigan with the help of George Sylvester Morris. In 1894 Dewey joined the newly founded University of Chicago where he shaped his belief in an empirically based theory of knowledge aligning his ideals with the newly emerging Pragmatic school of thought. His time at the University of Chicago resulted in four essays collectively entitled Thought and its Subject-Matter which was published with collected works from his colleagues at Chicago under the collective title Studies in Logical Theory (1903). During this time Dewey also founded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where he was able to actualize his pedagogical beliefs which provided material for his first major work on education, The School and Society (1899). Disagreements with the administration ultimately led to his resignation from the University at which point he left for the East Coast. From 1904 until his death he was professor of philosophy at both Columbia University and Teachers College, Columbia University. [3] He was a long-time member of the American Federation of Teachers.

Along with the historian Charles Beard, economists Thorstein Veblen and James Harvey Robinson, Dewey is one of the founders of The New School for Social Research. Dewey's most significant writings were "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896), a critique of a standard psychological concept and the basis of all his further work; Human Nature and Conduct (1922), a study of the role of habit in human behavior; The Public and its Problems (1927), a defense of democracy written in response to Walter Lippmann's The Phantom Public (1925); Experience and Nature (1925), Dewey's most "metaphysical" statement; Art as Experience (1934), Dewey's major work on aesthetics; A Common Faith (1934), a humanistic study of religion, which was originally delivered as the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship at Yale; Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), an examination of Dewey's unusual conception of logic; and Freedom and Culture (1939), a political work examining the roots of fascism. While each of these works focuses on one particular philosophical theme, Dewey wove all of his major themes into everything he wrote.

[edit] Overview: Pragmatism and Instrumentalism

Dewey is one of the three central figures in American pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term, and William James, who popularized it—though Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist, per se, but instead referred to his philosophy as "instrumentalism." Dewey worked from strongly Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian influences, unlike James, whose lineage was primarily British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian thought. Dewey was also not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality situated in events ("nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience and Nature)).

He also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, etc. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. Dewey felt that only science could reliably further human good, specifically denying that religion or metaphysics could form a valid foundation for morality and social values [4].

Of the idea of God, Dewey said, "it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions."[5]

As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also reemerged with the reassessment of pragmatism, beginning in the late 1970s, by thinkers like Richard Rorty, Richard J. Bernstein and Hans Jonas.

Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Dewey's non-foundational approach pre-dates postmodernism by more than half a century. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, though this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy— for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism". He has been called an instrumentalist, an experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term "transactional" may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.

[edit] Epistemology

The terminology problem in the fields of epistemology and logic is partially due, according to Dewey and Bentley,[6] to inefficient and imprecise use of words and concepts that reflect three historic levels of organization and presentation.[7] In the order of chronological appearance, these are :

   * Self-Action: Prescientific concepts regarded humans, animals, and things as possessing powers of their own which initiated or caused their actions.

* Interaction: as described by Newton, where things, living and inorganic, are balanced against thing in a system of interaction, for example, the third law of motion that action and reaction are equal and opposite.
* Transaction: where modern systems of descriptions and naming are employed to deal with multiple aspects and phases of action without any attribution to ultimate, final, or independent entities, essences, or realities.
A series of characterizations of Transactions indicate the wide range of considerations involved.[8]

   * Transaction is inquiry in which existing descriptions of events are accepted only as tentative and preliminary. New descriptions of the aspects and phases of events based on inquiry may be made at any time.

* Transaction is inquiry characterized by primary observation that may range across all subject matters that present themselves, and may proceed with freedom to re-determine and re-name the objects comprised in the system.
* Transaction is Fact such that no one of the constituents can be adequately specified as apart from the specification of all the other constituents of the full subject matter.
* Transaction develops and widens the phases of knowledge, and broadens the system within the limits of observation and report.
* Transaction regards the extension in time to be comparable to the extension in space, so that “thing” is in action, and “action” is observable in things.
* Transaction assumes no pre-knowledge of either organism or environment alone as adequate, but requires their primary acceptance in a common system.
* Transaction is the procedure which observes men talking and writing, using language and other representational activities to present their perceptions and manipulations. This permits a full treatment, descriptive and functional, of the whole process inclusive of all its contents, and with the newer techniques of inquiry required.
* Transactional Observation insists on the right to freely proceed to investigate any subject matter in whatever way seems appropriate, under reasonable hypothesis.
Illustration of differences between self-action, interaction, and transaction, as well as the different facets of transactional inquiry are provided by statements of positions that Dewey and Bentley definitely did not hold and which never should be read into their work.[9]

  1. They do not use any basic differentiation of subject vs. object; of soul vs. body; of mind vs. matter; or self vs. nonself.

2. They do not support the introduction of any ultimate knower from a different or superior realm to account for what is known.
3. Similarly, they do not tolerate "entities" or "realities" of any kind intruding as if from behind or beyond the knowing-known events, with power to interfere.
4. They exclude the introduction of "faculties" or other "operators" of an organism’s behaviors, and require for all investigations the direct observation and contemporaneous report of findings and results.
5. Especially, they recognize no names that are offered as expressions of “inner” thoughts, nor of names that reflect compulsions by outer objects.
6. They reject imaginary words and terms said to lie between the organism and its environmental objects, and require the direct location and source for all observations relevant to the investigation.
7. They tolerate no meanings offered as "ultimate" truth or "absolute" knowledge.
8. Since they are concerned with what is inquired into, and the process of knowings, they have no interest in any underpinning. Any statement that is or can be made about a knower, self, mind, or subject, or about a known thing, an object, or a cosmos must be made on the basis of, and in the language applicable to the specific investigation.
In summary, all of human knowledge consists of actions and products of acts in which men and women participate with other human beings, with animals and plants, as well as objects of all types, in any environment. Men and women have, are, and will present their acts of knowing and known in language. Generic man, and specific men and women are known to be vulnerable to error. Consequently, all knowledge (knowing and known) whether commonsensical or scientific; past, present, or future; is subject to further inquiry, examination, review, and revision.

[edit] Logic and Method

Dewey sees paradox in contemporary logical theory. Proximate subject matter garners general agreement and advance, while the ultimate subject matter of logic generates unremitting controversy. In other words, he challenges confident logicians to answer the question of the truth of logical operators. Do they function merely as abstractions (e.g., pure mathematics) or do they connect in some essential way with their objects, and therefore alter or bring them to light? (The Problem of Logical Subject Matter, in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry {1938}.)

Logical positivism also figured in Dewey's thought. About the movement he wrote that it "eschews the use of 'propositions' and 'terms', substituting 'sentences' and 'words'." (General Theory of Propositions, in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.) He welcomes this changing of referents “in as far as it fixes attention upon the symbolic structure and content of propositions.” However, he registers a small complaint against the use of “sentences” and “words” in that without careful interpretation the act or process of transposition “narrows unduly the scope of symbols and language, since it is not customary to treat gestures and diagrams (maps, blueprints, etc.) as words or sentences.” In other words, sentences and words, considered in isolation, do not disclose intent, which may be inferred or “adjudged only by means of context.” (Ibid.)

Yet Dewey was not entirely opposed to modern logical trends. Concerning traditional logic, he states: “Aristotelian logic, which still passes current nominally, is a logic based upon the idea that qualitative objects are existential in the fullest sense. To retain logical principles based on this conception along with the acceptance of theories of existence and knowledge based on an opposite conception is not, to say the least, conductive to clearness – a consideration that has a good deal to do with existing dualism between traditional and the newer relational logics.” (Qualitative Thought {1930}.)

Louis Menand argues somewhat convincingly in The Metaphysical Club that Jane Addams was critical to Dewey's emphasis on commensurability and reconciliation, as opposed to the traditional thesis/anti-thesis component of the dialectic. Considering how otherwise uneventful Dewey's life was, it is worth quoting the passage in full. (The context is a discussion of the Pullman strike of 1894.):

   ...Dewey was baffled. He asked Addams whether there weren't antagonisms between certain institutions--for example, capital and labor, or the church and democracy--which it made sense to take seriously. She said there never were: "The antagonism of institutions was always unreal; it was simply due to the injection of the personal attitude & reaction; & then instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed & distorted it." It was, Dewey confessed to Alice, "the most magnificent exhibition of intellectual & moral faith I ever saw. She converted me internally, but not really, I fear.... [W]hen you think that Miss Addams does not think this as a philosophy, but believes it in all her senses & muscles--Great God."

By morning he had changed his mind. Addams, he decided, was right. "I can see that I have always been interpreting [he wrote "Hegelian," but crossed it out] dialectic wrong end up," he wrote to Alice, "--the unity as the reconciliation of opposites, instead of the opposites as the unity in its growth, and thus translated the physical tension into a moral thing." He saw, in other words, that the resistance the world puts up to our actions and desires is not the same as a genuine opposition of interests. "I don't know as I give the reality of this at all," he concluded, "--it seems so natural & commonplace now, but I never had anything take hold of me so." [10]
[edit] Aesthetics

   Main article: Art as Experience

Art as Experience (1934) is Dewey's major writing on aesthetics. It is, according to his place in the Pragmatist tradition that emphasizes community, a study of the individual art object as embedded in (and inextricable from) the experiences of a local culture. Such an approach is, of course, open to postcolonial critique, but has been found useful in a number of disciplines, including the new media. See his Experience and Nature for an extended discussion of 'Experience' in Dewey's philosophy.

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John Dewey's Timeline

1859
October 20, 1859
Burlington, Chittenden Co., VT
1887
July 1887
1889
1889
1896
1896
1952
June 1, 1952
Age 92
New York, NY
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Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont, United States