…[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.