Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dewey in Context

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.


unpretentious_diva said...

Do you think that Montessori system will help a student to reach up to the levels of learning via Socratic Method?
I think so. I feel Montessori system alone can make a person able to learn how to inquire and know reason via Socratic Method. I feel Socratic Method can be or should be applied in almost all streams.
I wrote something regarding it here, Socratic Method, Montessori Schooling, Individual Independence
It may sound vague as I am no expert, and I am not a product of Montessori system or Socratic Method of learning, yet, I would like if you have a look at it and appraise it.

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

I've never understood what Socratic method is supposed to be. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates questioned his antagonists in order to draw out of them the knowledge they had acquired before they were born! Or to entrap them in fallacies. That is the literal meaning of the method that Socrates used.

If you mean the modern form of a discussion class, I find such classes intolerably boring. Stimulating discussion only works when the participants have approximately the same knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, motivation. That rarely occurs in a typical classroom setting. I'll take a well-organized lecturer any day; the lecturer just has to have something to say. He or she does not have to be dynamic or entertaining. I've learned a lot from well-organized boring lecturers.

As for Montessori, her method cannot in any way be described as Socratic. The learning comes from her ingeniously designed "didactic materials," which in later years are books. The teacher instructs the child on how to use the materials and observes when each child is ready for which particular material. The thrust of Montessori Method is adapting the learning process to the needs and pace of learning of each individual child. Discussion or questioning is a side issue. In fact, repeated questioning can be experienced by the child as threatening, but that is a topic for another day.

David said...

I invite you to take a look at this school:

Individuality and Democracy: A Way of Life

At Sudbury Valley School ( ), students from preschool through high school age explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways. They learn to think for themselves, and learn to use Information Age tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical issues. Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.

Trust and respect are the keys to the school’s success. Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.

Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968. Located in an old stone mansion and a converted barn on the mid-nineteenth century Bowditch estate, the ten acre campus adjoins extensive conservation lands.

Jerry Kirkpatrick's Blog said...

I have been aware of Sudbury Valley School for some time. See

David said...

Being aware is not enough. We must support them.

David said...

"OK, So You're Sort of Like..."
By Romey Pitman
Fairhaven School


...A MONTESSORI SCHOOL? There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don't need to be forced to learn. But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom activities on the model's assumptions about what is "developmentally appropriate" for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.


David said...

"OK, So You're Sort of Like..."
By Romey Pitman
Fairhaven School


. . . A PROGRESSIVE SCHOOL? Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by "objective" testing. But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to authoritarianism is permissiveness -- kind teachers giving kids second and third chances to shape up, trying to prevent any unhappiness, and bending over backwards to "make learning fun," getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they do not learn personal responsibility for their actions. Adults in progressive schools are still retaining the authority to grant or deny that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or democratic decision-making in progressive school, but if kids make poor decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem for them. In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the curriculum follow students' interests. But the effect of teaching to a child's interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks worth of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their interest is sustained or not. The child administered medicine in such a manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon; the student administered education in such a manner may learn not to show interest, at least in school. Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work -- when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her, and "making it fun" is often an intolerable distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and sense of self-determination. Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one's own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one's self. It is often easier to sit in classes, be entertained (maybe not as well as TV entertains, but still better than nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one's own life, wrestle with one's own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and master one's own destiny.