The Philosophical Thought of John Dewey
Sidney J. Abelson
[Reprinted from The Freeman, August, 1939]
Before the Classic Age of Pericles immortalized the Glories That Were
Greece; before Herodotus, the Father of History sired his high art,
there flourished beyond the site of the Great Wall a "civilized,
mild, just and frugal" people who already counted their history
in long slow centuries.
The Chinese are today, as they were in the sixth century before
Christ, a "civilized, mild, just and frugal" people. In
numbers they outdistance all the other nationalities of mankind, but
in industrial achievement their record is notoriously poor; they are
out of tune with the times, and, ironically enough, their present
sufferings can be traced largely to those very virtues which
distinguish their national character.
The Greeks today play a minor role in world affairs, but their
ancient forbears bequeathed the beginnings and much of the foundation
of what is called Western Civilization. In a sense, we are all Greeks,
for if derivation of .cultural traditions is the criterion of
nationhood, every being alive today, except possibly some still savage
tribesmen, is subject to Hellenic influences and guided in many
respects by Hellenic standards.
It is a curious fact to me that Confucius who rejected concern with
supernatural problems and propounded a philosophy for practical use in
life on earth, contributed to the establishment of national traditions
which are, as things go now, eminently impractical; while the Greeks
who labored so assiduously with metaphysical questions, provided the
bases for practical progress in many departments of endeavor. It seems
that nature demands more than a modicum of wastefulness in our
efforts; the fruitless attempts to discover Ultimate Reality or the
nature of Being qua Being are primed by a curiosity that knows no
confinement, but relentlessly pursues knowledge in all fields.
Some day I hope to go into this subject more thoroughly; meanwhile,
space limitations being what they are, I must take leave of it
abruptly and come to the point: Philosophers for thousands of years
have asked themselves "What is True Knowledge?" "How
much can we Know?" "How do we know that we know what we
know?" And ultimately, of course, "What is Is?"
Confucius had a simple formula. To one like myself who found
practical inspiration in William James' forthright approach to
philosophical problems there is something nostalgic about this
simplicity. "The way to do a thing," said James, "is to
do it"; and thereby promulgated the basic theme of pragmatism.
Confucius answered the question as to true knowledge in this manner: "To
know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not
know, that is true knowledge."
Philosophers of the Western world have not accepted this formula. A
long time of Epistemologists and Ontologists have followed in the
footsteps of the Greeks, speculating interminably on the nature of
Reality and the validity of Knowledge. Even today, in an age
supposedly devoted to the test tube and the measuring rod, philosophy
concerns itself largely with the intellectually archaeological remains
of thousands of years. In practical science disproved assumptions, by
and large, sink into desuetude, and thenceforth become almost
forgotten history. In philosophy, however, history is the very
substance, so that right or wrong, proved or disproved, the great
names and systems of the past lag on to bedevil thought and hinder a
practical application of philosophic reasoning to the social problems
of society now made soluble by the advances of science. If a disproved
chemical theory can be excluded from text books as so much useless
burden, why cannot disproved philosophical ideas be eliminated as
The answer to this question is not so simple as it may sound, for in
chemistry proof or disproof is not usually a matter of opinion, while
in philosophy opinion keeps alive many ideas which deserve a coup de
grace. Philosophy is not a compendium of useful knowledge -- though
some philosophers have attempted to make it such -- it is largely a
history of opinion.
Among those who in recent years have sought to establish philosophy
as a living guide to social action here and now no name surpasses in
importance that of John Dewey, the "Teacher of Teachers." "The
burden of one of Dewey's arguments," writes Joseph Rattner in his
Introduction to "The Philosophy of John Dewey" (Random
House, $1.25) is that "philosophy rather carries Its own past
along with it too often' -and too much as a dead and deadening weight."
Dewey disengaged himself from the restricting influences of
traditional philosophy and struck out boldly to discover the
functional uses of thoughts. He formulated the idea of "Instrumentalism,"
a practical development of James' pragmatism and the earlier doctrines
of Peirce. He pleaded with the eloquence of logic for the coalescence
of thought with experience and the utilization' of knowledge thus
gained as an instrument for the betterment of society. He rejected the
supernatural and condemned philosophy's enslavement to the
epistemological German schools.
It would be easy enough to disregard the metaphysicians were the
effects of their lucubrations unfelt by the practical world. The
mischievous possibilities of attempts to solve the seemingly
inscrutable facts of the origins of life and the nature of being
merely through taking thought is illustrated effectively in Marxism --
an alleged system of economics derived from: a metaphysical analysis
of the social structure. Marx turned the dialectics of Hegel "right
side up" and at the same time nearly turned the world up side
Dewey extended the formula of Confucius in the sense that he demanded
knowledge be demonstrable in a functional manner. His efforts were
directed toward furthering man's realization of his desires.
Selected passages from Dewey's works are now available in this volume
of nearly 1100 pages which is aptly subtitled "Intelligence in
the Modern World." Here the reader finds truly illuminating
guidance in every important sphere in which philosophical thought can
ease man's way and enrich his ultimate reward. The long introduction
by Joseph Rattner summarizes Dewey's contribution to philosophy and
education and ties together in a logical whole -- though not in a
rigid system -- the wide variety of subjects in the scope of his
I must take exception to some of Dewey's passages on the nature of
social cooperation. It seems to me that in this particular subject he
has allowed himself to be influenced by those pretty pictures which
Utopians paint, to such an extent that ends and means have become
confused. The natural social state is one of cooperation, of course,
but this means cooperation through competition, not through "socialization"
of resources, mental or material. To add the qualification "voluntary"
to cooperation, as he does, is not enough, for doing so but gives the
false implication of universal altruism; and altruism is not a social
or an economic quality but a personal and moral attribute. In the
economic sphere there can be cooperation only on a basis of struggle
for finding the easiest means of satisfying desires, and only
competition provides the opportunity to seek such a means.