Dewey and the Existential Matrix, pt 2

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.

Dewey’s pragmatic approach to philosophy is closely related to the philosophical enterprise of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, in which Wittgenstein analyzes language in terms of use. Dewey and Wittgenstein both see language as stemming from cultural activity. Both philosophers attempt to step aside from the traditional picture of language as a correspondence of words with objects. Instead of directly arguing against such a conception, they instead take the time to actually look at how language is used in order to give an existential analysis of the phenomena. Some might say this is merely a crude form of sociology or anthropology, but both Dewey and Wittgenstein see their work as therapeutic for philosophers who are caught in conceptual muddles.

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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