In my book Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism I treat favorably a number of ideas from philosopher John Dewey, which may come as a surprise to admirers of Ayn Rand. The key to understanding why I do so is to see Dewey as an Aristotelian who rejects intrinsicism without resorting to skepticism or subjectivism.
During his years at Columbia University, Dewey came under the influence of Aristotelian scholar F. J. E. Woodbridge, major figure in the early twentieth century school of realism and naturalism. When Dewey was asked by students how he should be classified, he replied, “That is easy. With the revival of Greek Philosophy.”*
Intrinsicism is Ayn Rand’s term for the doctrine that essences and values inhere intrinsically—eternally and immutably—in concretes, and that the mind is a passive mirror or spectator of these essences and values. The doctrine originated in Greek thought and has plagued philosophy ever since. Both Dewey and Rand reject it. Reality, for Dewey, is the Darwinian world of evolutionary change, not the Greek or medieval world of immutable, eternal forms or essences (or biological species) that exist intrinsically in reality. Knowledge—forms, essences, concepts—are constructions of the mind based on the human animal’s participations in, or interactions or transactions with, the world in which he or she lives. When Dewey speaks of the “spectator theory,” he means the doctrine of intrinsicism.
With this background in mind, I would like to demonstrate in this post how two quotations of Dewey in The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff take on a different meaning when put into full context. On page 124 of the paperback edition, Peikoff states that, according to Dewey, we cannot know facts “antecedent” to the mind, that it is not a function of the mind to know facts, and that the mind is not a “spectator.” Knowledge in particular, quoting Dewey, is not “a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing. . . .” (from The Quest for Certainty, p. 35).
These statements and quotation sound quite subjectivist, but the full context is the so-called problem of value created by physical science’s failure to find anything resembling value-in-itself or intrinsic value. Here is the context; the original quotation is italicized:
. . . There are two rival systems that must have their respective claims adjusted. The crisis in contemporary culture, the confusions and conflicts in it, arise from a division of authority. Scientific inquiry seems to tell one thing, and traditional beliefs about ends and ideals that have authority over conduct tell something quite different. The problem of reconciliation arises and persists for one reason only. As long as the notions persist that knowledge is a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing, and that knowing is independent of a purpose to control the quality of experienced objects, the failure of natural science to disclose significant values in its objects will come as a shock. Those seriously concerned with the validity and authority of value will have a problem on their hands. As long as the notion persists that values are authentic and valid only on condition that they are properties of Being independent of human action, as long as it is supposed that their right to regulate action is dependent upon their being independent of action, so long there will be needed schemes to prove that values are, in spite of the findings of science, genuine and known qualifications of reality in itself. For men will not easily surrender all regulative guidance in action. If they are forbidden to find standards in the course of experience they will seek them somewhere else, if not in revelation, then in the deliverance of a reason that is above experience.
Rephrasing Dewey in terms of the doctrine of intrinsicism: “As long as the notions persist that knowledge is a disclosure of [intrinsic essences], of [intrinsic essences] prior to and independent of knowing, . . . the failure of natural science to disclose significant [intrinsic] values in its objects will come as a shock.” It should be noted here also that Dewey uses the term “value” as presupposing a “to whom and for what purpose,” as does Ayn Rand.
The next quotation in The Ominous Parallels immediately follows the previous one: “The business of thought is not to conform to or reproduce the characters already possessed by objects” (from The Quest for Certainty, p. 110).
This quotation arises in the context of the premise that all knowledge is experimental or operational in origin. “The test of ideas, of thinking generally, is found in the consequences of the acts to which the ideas lead, that is in the new arrangements of things which are brought into existence. Such is the unequivocal evidence as to the worth of ideas which is derived from observing their position and role in experimental knowing” (pp. 109-10). In other words, all knowledge and thought is for the sake of action. Photographs of intrinsic essences, however, since intrinsic essences do not exist, provide no guidance for action. The full context reads, with the original quotation again italicized (pp. 110-11):
In the previous chapter, we saw that experimental method, in reducing objects to data, divests experienced things of their qualities, but that this removal, judged from the standpoint of the whole operation of which it is one part, is a condition of the control which enables us to endow the objects of experience with other qualities which we want them to have. In like fashion, thought, our conceptions and ideas, are designations of operations to be performed or already performed. Consequently their value is determined by the outcome of these operations. They are sound if the operations they direct give us the results which are required. The authority of thought depends upon what it leads us to through directing the performance of operations. The business of thought is not to conform to or reproduce the characters already possessed by objects but to judge them as potentialities of what they become through an indicated operation. This principle holds from the simplest case to the most elaborate. To judge that this object is sweet, that is, to refer the idea or meaning ‘sweet’ to it without actually experiencing sweetness, is to predict that when it is tasted—that is, subjected to a specified operation—a certain consequence will ensue. Similarly, to think of the world in terms of mathematical formulae of space, time and motion is not to have a picture of the independent and fixed essence of the universe. It is to describe experienceable objects as material upon which certain operations are performed.
The bearing of this conclusion upon the relation of knowledge and action speaks for itself. Knowledge which is merely a reduplication in ideas of what exists already in the world may afford us the satisfaction of a photograph, but that is all. To form ideas whose worth is to be judged by what exists independently of them is not a function that (even if the test could be applied, which seems impossible) goes on within nature or makes any difference there. Ideas that are plans of operations to be performed are integral factors in actions which change the face of the world. . . .
Rephrasing: “The business of thought is not to conform to or reproduce the [intrinsic essences or properties] already possessed by objects but to judge [the objects] as potentialities [to serve the purposes of my professional or personal life] through an indicated operation.”
Dewey did not like the term “pragmatism” and did not use it to refer to his philosophy. He preferred “instrumentalism,” in the sense that thought is an instrument of action. Dewey, indeed, was no Objectivist, nor was he a capitalist, but he does have interesting ideas. Admirers of Ayn Rand who carefully read Dewey as an Aristotelian should be repaid for the effort.
* Walter B. Veazie, “John Dewey and the Revival of Greek Philosophy,” University of Colorado Studies, Series in Philosophy, no. 2, 1961, p. 3. Raymond Boisvert has analyzed Dewey’s metaphysics and concluded that it is Aristotelian.