Experiencing John Dewey

I have not read much John Dewey.  Over the years, I have run into quotes, references, and the occasional summary of some idea of his by another writer.  But in my academic and personal reading, I have never dove in.  So a while back I was at a used book store and found an old clothbound copy of a collection of his work, edited by Joseph Ratner.  And while I bought it some time ago, it has since sat on my shelf unmolested, until today.

Over the last few days, after finishing one of my books about the Revolutionary War (I have been reading about that time period a lot in the last year or so), I looked through my library for a new book to read.  I started on another history book about the Revolutionary war, but within a few pages I knew something was not right.  I just was not in the mood for history.  I wanted some philosophy!  So after a short hiatus on philosophy-reading, I scanned my philosophy section and the John Dewey tome stuck out to me, so I reached for it and thumbed my way past the prologue and right to the meat.

It is an odd thing, trying to familiarize yourself with a thinker who is relatively unknown, both to me and society at large.  I remember how I felt first reading Nietzsche; it felt like walking into a room full of people I don’t know, speaking in an accent that I sometimes could not make out.  But the more I read, Nietzsche started to feel sort of like a nice summer home, not quite home but it became mine.  Now that I’m getting acquainted with John Dewey, I wonder if I will experience the same thing or if I might feel like I did upon becoming acquainted with Kant.  Kant, for me, feels like being in the home of someone who has plastic on their furniture.  Everything is in the right place, they are being good hosts, offering me a drink, but I just can’t relax.  The furniture is not comfortable (it might be, if it were not covered so), and so you can’t just let go and enjoy the time there.  It’s an effort to enjoy, not because the company does not have anything of value to offer, but just because they are trying so hard. It’s a little like that bit from Mr. Bean (it’s the one where he has a couple of guys over for New Year’s eve, if you are familiar with the show).

So far, Dewey not like Nietzsche or Kant.  It’s more like reading Spinoza, if I had to compare it to anyone, thus far.  The language is a little dated, the terms sometimes out of context, but you sort of get what he’s trying to say.  Also, like Spinoza, you can see that he’s trying to get you out of your head.  He’s trying to use the words we see every day to express an idea that is not thought every day (at least by people who are not John Dewey).  It’s like walking into a room full of people who speak your language, and well, but who have all lived in another part of the world for some time and are talking of things that you have to experience the context of over time in order to get the full picture.  I think, in fact, Dewey might have liked that analogy.

I don’t want to say much more myself.  I want to leave you with a “summary” of the introductory chapter, because it says some things that are pertinent to some of the issues I discuss on this blog, if only tangentially.  In any case, I’ll shut up and quote:

All philosophies employ empirical subject-matter, even the most transcendental; there is nothing else for them to go by.  But in ignoring the kind of empirical situation to which their themes pertain and in failing to supply directions for experimental pointing and searching they become non-empirical.  Hence it may be asserted that the final issue of empirical method is whether the guide and standard of beliefs and conduct lies within or without the shareable situations of life.  The ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria.  Thus in effect they claim a private access to truth and deprive the things of common experience of the enlightenment and guidance that philosophy might otherwise derive from them.  The transcendentalist has conspired with his arch-enemy, the sensualist, to narrow the acknowledged subject-matter of experience and to lessen its potencies for a wider and directed reflective choice.  Respect for experience is respect for its possibilities in thought and knowledge as well as an enforced attention to its joys and sorrows.  Intellectual piety toward experience is a precondition of the direction of life and the tolerant and generous cooperation among men.  Respect for the things of experience alone brings with it such a respect for others, the centres of experience, as is free from patronage, domination and the will to impose.


I feel like he’s saying something here that is relevant to the recent discussions in the atheist community.  He is, of course, not necessarily talking about atheism at all, but about the relationship of empiricism, rationalism, and our ideas about the world.  I feel like I want to read more of his views to say much more more, however. I will point out that his comment that the “ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria” is reminiscent of the issue about “sophisticated theology.”  It is a world that does indeed furnish itself with goals, ideals, and criteria, but I am not sure about the adjective “adequate” in that case.  Perhaps there are things to be learned within such realms, for such heathens as I.  Perhaps Dewey will give me reason to consider that more deeply.

What I can say now is that I find a mind, in Dewey, that has an insight that is interesting, borne of a curiosity and apparent honesty.  From what I have read, including the above, I cannot say if I agree with him more often than not, only that I want to read more.  To me, that is the higher criteria; do I want to hear more of what a person says, not whether I necessarily agree with it.  The sad truth is that I don’t, more often than not, want to read more.  “Sophisticated theology” comes to mind again.


2 thoughts on “Experiencing John Dewey

  1. The first telltale sign that a person is becoming spiritually mature is that longing that cannot be satisfied by anything mundane. It is a longing that takes us away from religion and seeks to unfetter itself from family traditions and socially acceptable paradigms. There is nothing in the world of senses or in human intellectual ping-pong that will pacify it. These people feed off of the words of wise men who have also found that path and have left some guideposts along the way. I suspect many atheists, having found the courage to trash religion, find themselves burdened with that longing, but as yet unable to justify the next step because they have decided to cling to science and reason, mistaking these for the “right way”. The spiritually mature person has realized that the ultimate truth, while it can be experienced and known, cannot be communicated to anyone who has not also experienced that awesome, unbounded field of pure consciousness. This is why so many seekers move towards meditation as the next step along the way.

  2. Susan,

    “There is nothing in the world of senses or in human intellectual ping-pong that will pacify it. ”

    What else is there?

    Part of the problen here is that while that longing might exist, that does not logically implicate or nessecitate a target for that longing. It’s not that we cannot take a next step because we are clinging to science and reason, it is that we don’t think there is always a next step to take. Realizing that and becoming comfortable with it is part of becoming mature intellectually.

    And yes, there are things we learn in becoming more wise that are hard to communicate to less wise people (who are usually younger), but these things are part of our sensual world, just unseen in the complex morass by people less adept at that kind of pattern-recognition.

Comments are closed.