The metaphysics ofjohn dewey

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Richard M. Gale

II. The Real Metaphysics of John Dewey

It was seen in part I that the purpose, and thereby ultimate test, of Dewey’s professed metaphysics based on the generic-traits-of-existence was to make us into better inquirers. It accomplished this by a disguised transcendental deduction argument which demonstrated that these traits are just what is needed for inquiry to be possible. This results in a metaphysics that depicts the world as made to order for inquiry and thus a fit habitat for a Deweyan Promethean agent. Acceptance of this metaphysics of inquiry is supposed to have the beneficial consequence of making us more effective Promethean inquirers, since it enables us to avoid getting caught in the coils of traditional pseudo-problems concerning how a conscious subject can have any cognitive relation with an extramental reality and having our moral initiative sapped by a bifurcation between man and nature. In contrast, the purpose of Dewey’s real but unannounced metaphysics was to enable us to achieve unity, both within ourselves, as well as with our fellow persons and nature. This requires that we overcome every “dualism,” by which Dewey meant any case in which numerically distinct entities – entities that exist separately and independently of each other -- stand in a nonmediated relation to each other.

That this was more than just an intellectual exercise is amply attested to by Dewey’s rare autobiographical remark that “the sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression – or rather, they were an inward laceration” (LW5, 153).1 He was especially tormented by these dualisms as a youth, but the poetry he wrote between 1911 and 1918 gives ample evidence that his craving to overcome them persisted well into his maturity.

His feelings of isolation and division went along with heightened mystical sensitivity, which again is revealed in his poetry, as well as in the underlying tenets that drove his entire philosophical enterprise. Dewey resonated to the nature mysticism of Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Emerson and even had a full-fledged monistic mystical experience in his early twenties, in Oil City of all places, that gave him a deep sense of safety and peace. But experiential mysticism was not enough to assuage Dewey’s feelings of isolation and estrangement, since he was, above all, an inveterate intellectual. What he craved was a philosophy that intellectually would bear out what he deeply felt on experiential grounds.2 Hegel’s thought initially satisfied this need because it “supplied a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy” (LW5, 153). Dewey claimed that the Hegelianism of his youth “left a permanent deposit in my thinking,” but the question is just how big it was (LW5, 154). It will be argued that it was far greater than any of the interpreters realized, with the exception of Steven Rockefeller, that most profound of all interpreters. This will be brought out by showing how the central ideas in the young Dewey’s Hegelianism found their way into his later philosophy.

The key to understanding the secret mystical philosophy of John Dewey is to take to heart the plight of poor Humpty Dumpty, who, it will be recalled, couldn’t be reassembled by all the king’s horses and all of the king’s men after he fell off the wall and was shattered into many separate, distinct pieces. Reality, for Dewey, is Humpty Dumpty writ large; for if we ever permit it to fall apart into numerically distinct individuals, not all the king’s philosophers can put it back together again into relational complexes, be they causal, spatio-temporal, or of any other kind. An explicit formulation of the Humpty Dumpty Intuition, even containing an allusion to the poor chap, is given in the 1929, second edition version, of Experience and Nature.

[Non-empirical] methods begin with results of a reflection that has already torn in two the subject-matter [organism and environment] experienced and the operations and states of experiencing. The problem is then to get together again what has been sundered – which is as if the king’s men started with the fragments of the egg and tried to construct that whole egg out of them. (LW, 19)

Dewey’s Humpty Dumpty Intuition was shared by his fellow pragmatists, Peirce and James, as well as by their Absolute Idealist opponents, making one suspect that there was something in the air or drinking water of the second half of the 19th century that led them to have this intuition. I suspect that they were scared by the dehumanizing bifurcationist upshot of the atomistic science of that period, which reduced reality to a mere aggregate of externally related particles, thereby precluding the sort of intimacy that they wanted to have with nature, as well as their fellow persons. William James is a very good case in point. He wrote that “immediate feeling possesses a native wholeness which conceptual treatment analyzes into a many, but can’t unite.”3 Paradoxes of the Zenoian and Bradleyan type, James argued, arise because our conceptualizing intellect commits us to “No discrimination without separation; no separation without absolute ‘independence’ and thereupon the impossibility of union.”4 But things which are “logically distinct nevertheless [do] diffuse…you can’t pen reality in…its nature is to spread, and affect, and…this applies to relations as well as terms, so that it is impossible to call them absolutely external to each other.”5

John Dewey shared this Humpty Dumpty Intuition and developed a philosophy that would assure that Humpty Dumpty would not fall off the wall. This was accomplished by the use of an innocent looking methodological postulate for which he never gave any argument. It requires that for any apparent dualism in his sense, it be shown how it arises from functional differentiations that emanate out of some background unity. Of all the commentators, James E. Tiles has come closest to articulating this guiding methodological postulate of Dewey’s philosophy when he wrote that “The principle features of Dewey’s outlook arise from a method of proceeding, a habit of thought, which Dewey both recommended and practiced, that of looking at a unified phenomenon, as the product of internal differentiation over time in some simpler unity.”6 What follows will trace the crucial role that the Humpty Dumpty-based methodological postulate played throughout all his writings. It will be seen that when Dewey made the transition from Absolute Idealism to what he called alternatively pragmatism, instrumentalism, or experimentalism he merely poured old wine into new bottles: The terminology changed but not the underlying Humpty Dumpty Intuition that drove his whole philosophical enterprise.

In his 1882 “The Pantheism of Spinoza,” which was Dewey’s second published article, he asks rhetorically, “If they [God, self and the world] are independent realities, how can they relate to each other?” (EW1, 9) In order to avoid the fate of Humpty Dumpty, “God becomes the Absolute, and Nature and Self are but his manifestations” (EW1, 9). Dewey’s 1884 “Kant and Philosophic Method,” which gives the gist of his lost doctoral dissertation, claims that Kant, in virtue of making a numerical distinction between the subject and object of experience, cannot show how it is possible for them to stand in epistemic relations to each other, such as the subject perceiving and knowing the object. The same point is made by James: “Knowledge is impossible; for knower is one concept and known is another. Discrete, separated by a chasm, they are mutually ‘transcendent’ things, so that how an object can ever get into a subject, or a subject ever get at an object, has become the most unanswerable of philosophic riddles.”7 Dewey adds that “the relation of subject and object is not a ‘transcendent’ one, but an ‘immanent,’ and is but the first form which Reason manifests that it is both synthetic and analytic; that it separates itself from itself, that it may thereby reach higher unity with itself” (EW1, 41). Two years later, in “The Psychological Standpoint,” Dewey holds that there is an all-enveloping background Consciousness or Reason, which is Hegel’s Absolute Idea, that “differentiates itself so as to give rise to the existence within, that is for, itself of subject and object…[Thus] the relation of subject and object is one which exists within consciousness” (EW1, 131).8 The Humpty Dumpty Intuition runs throughout the 1888 book on Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding.9 Dewey challenges the Cartesian dualism between mind and matter: Since “the conceptions are disparate and opposed…no interaction is possible” (EW1, 286) This is followed by Dewey’s variation on Bradley’s vicious infinite regress argument against relations. Introducing God as a Deus ex machina who connects mind and matter, “introduced a third factor where two were already too many. What is the relation of God to Mind and to Matter? Is it simply a third somewhat, equally distinct from both, or does it contain both within itself?” (EW1, 287). Dewey raises the same objection against Locke’s separation of the subject and object of experience that he leveled against Kant. Because “it is tied to the view that reality is distinct from intelligence, it is obliged to draw the conclusion that these relations are not to be found in actual existence, and hence that all knowledge…is unreal” (EW1, 395).

This Plotinian-Hegelian idea of the many “emanating” out of the One was retained long after he gave up Absolute Idealism. In a 1915 letter to Scudder Klyce he writes that “the ‘one’ is always pluralizing and recovering its diversities before they escape (or become plural) and thereby keeping itself going.”10 In 1929 Dewey wrote that “To non-empirical method …object and subject, mind and matter…are separate and independent. Therefore it has upon its hands the problem of how it is possible to know at all; how an outer world can affect an inner mind; how the acts of mind can reach out and lay hold of objects defined in antithesis to them. Naturally it is at a loss for an answer” (LW1, 20). “We have no ready-made distinction between the individual agent and the world of experience over against him…each is built up out of a common material by contemporaneous processes” (LW1, 21). One can recognize in these later, mature comments of Dewey the same Humpty Dumpty Intuition that informs his very early views.11

There is, however, at least one important apparent difference between the pre- and post-instrumentalist account of the background unity out of which apparent dualisms emanate. Whereas for the former it is Hegel’s Absolute Mind or Consciousness, for the latter it is Experience.12 Some will see this as a desirable demystifying development, a movement away from an obscure mystical notion of an Absolute mind to something that satisfies Dewey’s denotative method or postulate of immediate empiricism, for certainly experience is something that we are experientially aware of. But appearances deceive, for it will turn out that Dewey’s concept of experience is of a piece with that of his apparently abandoned concept of a Hegelian Absolute. The reason why no one ever understood what Dewey meant by “experience” is not because he was a poor writer, as is commonly claimed, but rather because he was formulating a mystical doctrine. My motto, to paraphrase Clinton’s campaign slogan, is “It is the philosophy, stupid!” Actually, he was a very good writer, his prose style being perfectly suited for the mystical doctrine he was formulating, but his commentators, along with John Dewey himself, were unable to believe that he meant what he actually wrote. (The most difficult thing when doing the history of philosophy is to read just what the author actually wrote.) Dewey must share the blame for his failure to communicate, because he did not realize until too late that his account of experience was highly revisionary, hardly the descriptive analysis of our common sense concept that he advertised it as being. Dewey’s attempt to placate common sense resulted in his using “experience” inconsistently, which is a further source of obfuscation.

Any exposition of Dewey’s analysis of experience must begin with the fact that it contains apparent inconsistencies, the chief one of which is between an account of experience as limited in scope and one which takes it to be all-inclusive. According to the limited account, “No one with an honest respect for scientific conclusions can deny that experience as an existence is something that occurs only under highly specialized conditions, such as are found in a highly organized creature which in turn requires a specialized environment” (LW1, 11-2). In his 1949 Re-Introduction to a planned new edition of Experience and Nature, Dewey wrote that in this book he used “experience” “to stand for every actual and every possible way in which man…has dealings with all other aspects and phases of nature…’Experience’ is a word used to designate…the complex of all which is distinctively human” (LW1, 331). Plainly, in these two quotations Dewey is using “experience” in a non-inclusive way.

Dewey endorses James’s claim that experience is “double-barreled,” including both the how and what of experience. The what is the intentional accusative and the how the experiencing or undergoing. This how is not something mentalistic or subjective, since it is amenable to a functionalistic analysis based on an organism’s behavioral dispositions within a natural and social environment. But in the 1916 Introduction to Essays in Experimental Logic Dewey asserts that “When the word ‘experience’ is employed in the text it means just such an immense and operative world of diverse and interacting elements,” which seems to make experience ubiquitous (MW10, 323. See also 339). For any case of an interaction constitutes an experience, not just the special case of an organism interacting with its environment. There are passages in Experience and Nature that clearly make experience all-inclusive, such as

“Experience” denotes the planted field, the sowed seeds, the reaped harvests, the changes of night and day, spring and autumn, wet and dry, heat and cold, that are observed, feared, longed for; it also denotes the one who plants and reaps...It is "double-barreled in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzable totality. "Thing" and "thought”…are single-barreled; they refer to products discriminated by reflection out of primary experience (LW1, 18-9).

Dewey must be overstating the case when he says that experience is an “unanalyzable totality”; for, if it were, it would not be possible for subsequent reflection to discriminate within it between thing and thought.

In the first but not second edition of Experience and Nature, Dewey raises what could be called the “significant contrast” objection to his all-inclusive sense of experience.

The objection is that experience is…made so inclusive and varied as to be useless for philosophic purposes. Experience, as we are here told to conceive it, includes everything and anything, actual or potential, that we think of and talk about…But the whole wide universe of fact and dream, of event, act, desire, fancy and meanings, valid or invalid can be set in contrast to nothing…so that experience ceases to have a meaning (LW1, 371).13

Dewey’s response to this objection does not challenge the principle of significant contrast – that for every meaningful term there must be a meaningful contrastive term that applies to that which the former does not apply to. Rather, it holds that “experience for philosophy is method, not distinctive subject-matter” (LW1, 371). Herein Dewey is repeating the claim in his 1907 “Pure Experience and Reality: a Disclaimer” that “the concept of experience…[is] purely empty excepting as indicating a method of procedure and recourse” (MW4, 120. See also MW3, 165.). This response won’t do, since it involves a category mistake: experience, whatever else it might be, certainly is not itself a method, anymore than a method of gardening is itself a case of gardening. A better way of meeting the objection is to challenge the principle of significant contrast. The principle seems to be based on a hasty generalization from what holds for the contrastive terms that are used for constructing hierarchical genus-species and determinable-determinate classificatory systems. But why must all meaningful terms be contrastive? Might not some terms of necessity apply to whatever there is and thus not have a meaningful contrastive term, an example of which might be the property of being self-identical.14

Dewey’s all-inclusive use of “experience” is supported by two different considerations, each of which rests on a confusion. First, there is his appeal in his 1906 “Experience and Objective Idealism” to the dictionary definition of “experience”: “A casual study of the dictionary will reveal that experience has always mean ‘what is experienced’” (MW3, 132). To be sure, one of the entries in the dictionary under “experience” is “anything observed or lived through; as, our trip was a pleasant experience.” But when it is said, for example, that Niagara Falls was some experience, it is elliptical for our experiencing of it being specially memorable. This misguided appeal to the dictionary does not occur in any of Dewey’s post-1906 writings.

Dewey’s other ground for making experience ubiquitous is based on its intentionality, that it contains a what, an object of experience, as well as a how, a way of experiencing. Since we experience stars and chairs, and they are parts of experiences, it follows that they qualify as experience. This is how Dewey infers that “Experience denotes whatever is experienced” (LW1, 370). There is a serious category mistake in this argument that is due to its confounding being an object of an experience with being an experience. Dewey illicitly is making the intentional accusative of an experience itself an experience, which is like making the accusative of an act of shooting, a target say, itself an act of shooting. A similar confusion infects Dewey’s claim in the 1886 “The Psychological Standpoint” that since psychology studies the process through which we know what we know, it also studies the content or object known, which is the intentional accusative of these processes, and thus is able “to determine the nature of everything, subject and object, individual and universal, as it is found within conscious experience” (EW1, 142).

Late in his career Dewey came to realize that his all-inclusive concept of experience was not the ordinary one, which is preempted for the how – the process of experiencing.

Were I to write (or rewrite) Experience and Nature today I would entitle the book Culture and Nature and the treatment of specific subject-matters would be correspondingly modified. I would abandon the term “experience” because of my growing realization that the historical obstacles which prevented understanding of my use of “experience” are, for all practical purposes, insurmountable…I still believe that on theoretical, as distinct from historical, grounds there is much to be said in favor of using “experience” to designate the inclusive subject-matter which characteristically “modern” (post-medieval) philosophy breaks up into the dualism of subject and object (LW1, 361-2).

Is there any way in which Dewey’s limited and inclusivist accounts of experience can be reconciled? One way, and probably the best way, is to take them as analyzing different concepts. The limited account is concerned with the ordinary concept of experience, in which there already is a distinction between organism and environment and thus between a how and a what of experience, the inclusivist with a metaphysical all-pervasive background unity, called “immediate” or “primary experience” by Dewey, out of which emanates in some mysterious manner the hows and whats of ordinary experience. The former is “experience” with a lower case “e” and the latter “Experience” with an upper case “E.” This is similar to Thales’ two types of water – ordinary water, the stuff that is pumped from wells and drunk, and metaphysical water, the underlying phusis of all changes.

There is a problem with this Milesian way of construing Dewey’s concept of primary or immediate Experience. It has already been seen that Dewey attempted to escape a “subject-matter” or entitative interpretation of it by committing the category mistake of making it into a method of experience, a method of determining the nature of things in terms of what they are experienced as. Further evidence of Dewey’s rejection of an entitative interpretation is seen in his objection to William James’s concept of Pure Experience, which is a close cousin of Dewey’s Immediate Experience, which is not surprising since Dewey developed his doctrine of Immediate Experience upon the heels of James’s 1904-5 essays on radical empiricism. Whereas James’s text suggests an entitative reading of Pure Experience as being something like the Milesian underlying stuff of reality,15 Dewey stresses that he does “not mean by ‘immediate experience’ any aboriginal stuff out of which things evolved, but I use the term to indicate the necessity of employing in philosophy the direct descriptive method” (MW3, 166). This anti-Milesian remark is repeated in his 1940 “The Vanishing Subject in the Psychology of William James.” James’s notion of Pure or Neutral Experience means “indifference to the distinction between subjective and objective…Unfortunately his [James’s] later writings seem at times to give the impression that these entities are a kind of stuff out of which both the subjective and objective are made” (LW14, 163). And in a 1942 letter to Bentley Dewey makes the same criticism: “James himself wasn’t wholly clear – at times he seems to mix his neutrals with a kind of jelly-like cosmic world-stuff of pure experience.”16

That Dewey explicitly rejected an entitative interpretation of Immediate Experience is not decisive, for, in general, an author does not have a privileged authority with regard to the proper interpretation of her text. And Dewey, in particular, is a very unreliable guide to understanding what he writes. Throughout his career Dewey was deeply and passionately committed to empiricism; and, as seen in Part I, his scientistic deconstruction of traditional philosophy was based on it. But throughout his career he was a secret arch a priorist in his actual practice as a philosopher. Neil Coughlan correctly claimed that “the really striking thing about Dewey’s early empiricism is that there was so little of it.”17 A good case in point is Dewey’s postulation of a universal consciousness, to which Shadworth Hodgson objected in 1886 that “it is inconsistent with the claim of standing on experience alone to speak of ‘the postulate of a universal consciousness” (EW1, xxvi), to which Dewey gave the lame debater response that it was not his intention to explore the nature of this universal consciousness (EW1, 168). The response is lame, because it is obvious that an empirical account cannot be given of the nature of universal consciousness and its relation to finite consciousness. The post-Hegelian writings of Dewey, as was seen in Part I, are rife with nonempirical claims, such as that all existents are processual and involve a mixture of the stable and the precarious, and that the organism and environment are not numerically separate individuals. His claim that every meaningful sentence must be empirically testable is another case in point. Given his track record, Dewey’s account of what he is doing should not be a conversation ender.

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