When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism. But when we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism. In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost.
~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 73
Philosophy which surrenders its somewhat barren monopoly of dealings with Ultimate and Absolute Reality will find a compensation in enlightening the moral forces which move mankind and in contributing to the aspirations of men to attain to a more ordered and intelligent happiness.
~John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 26-27
Lately, I have been reading John Dewey’s Democracy and Education: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. It’s absolutely riveting considering it’s philosophy of education. You’d think something with that title would be dull and dry, abstracted from anything concrete or interesting. But it’s much better phenomenology than anything in the Heideggerian tradition, even more clear than Merleau-Ponty. And it’s actually psychologically astute, to a stunning degree. The more I read the American pragmatists, the more I think they are superior philosophers to the three H’s (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger). The intellectual weight of Peirce, James, and Dewey is mighty indeed. Dewey is so clear and precise. He uses simple language but talks about big, important and morally pressing ideas. He shows a deep understanding of the need for education, not just training. There is a difference, manifested in the social community and the propagation of socially important norms, ideas, beliefs, and habits of action/thought. Every philosopher should aim to emulate his succinctness and simultaneous depth of thought. And I think his psychological theories are spot on, considering their date. I cannot really fault him on anything other than not being neurologically specific, but since brain scanners weren’t available as a tool I really don’t blame him. But his philosophy of psychology is accurate, as far as I am concerned. While I might talk about things differently, I think the gist of his ideas is very close to the truth. He had such keen insights on the nature of experience, the role of consciousness and nonconsciousness in everyday life, and many other important phenomenological ideas, many of which are articulated more clearly than Heidegger was ever able to do. Dewey is particularly good in respect to the social nature of humanity and what it means to live in a community. Great stuff.
In my last post, I gave a brief summarization of John Dewey’s paper concerning the existential matrix of culture. In this post, I’d like to relate Dewey’s ideas to the imminent 20th century philosophers Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein famously analyzes language use in terms of different language games, a concept that “brings into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” Wittgenstein uses this term in order to emphasize that the meaning of words is dependent on how they are used in a particular cultural context, or game. The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his seminal world Being and Time, also helped the 20th century appreciate the importance of context. Heidegger, like Dewey, uses the example of equipment to illustrate the fact that the significance or meaning of the human world is not dependent on one-to-one correspondence, but instead depends on a “referential totality” that is “disclosed” upon the world by communal activity. For example, a hammer is not just the physical conglomeration of a wood-block with a metal-block, but rather, an object that has a particular mode of being, or significance, imbued upon it by the fact hammers are existentially related to an entire “matrix” of nails and other equipment. In other words, like Dewey, Heidegger thinks it is a drastic philosophical mistake to separate hammering, and almost every other human activity, from the totality of meaning given to it by the community of language-users.
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…[Dewey’s aim] is to edify – to help [his] readers, or society as whole, break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than provide “grounding” for the intuitions and customs of the present.( Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature)
In Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, John Dewey wrote an essay called The Existential Matrix of Inquiry: Cultural.
In this essay Dewey attempts to break free from a philosophic framework that has a long tradition of ignoring the cultural environment in which human beings are immersed. Since Descartes, this tradition tended to look at humans as complicated physical mechanisms with separate “minds” capable of mental representation. Dewey wants to instead look at humans from an existential perspective- a perspective of humans coping with the world. Dewey begins this existential analysis by discussing how human behavior is “saturated” by conditional factors that are cultural in origin, with language being an especially “significant function in the complex that forms the cultural environment.”
By abandoning this conception of language as “merely” representational, Dewey is able to give a full account to the phenomena at hand, namely that meanings are “liberated with respect to [their] representative function.” As the title implies, words are tied into an “existential matrix”, or in Heidegerrian terms, a referential totality. The totality is what gives significance to signs and meaning to symbols and gives humans a distinct mode of being. This picture of language is incompatible with the traditional philosophical attempt to establish a “direct one-to-one correspondence of names with existential objects.” Using this holistic framework, Dewey answers the question of whether relational meaning in everyday discourse stems from the “significance-connections in existence”. Dewey’s answer is that it is language, as a “medium of communication” between coping individuals immersed in conjoint activity, which confers upon the existential their significance.
In my next post I will discuss how Dewey’s paper on the existential matrix given by pragmatic language use is a common theme to Wittgenstein and Heidegger as well.
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