Sunday Pragmatism: Dewey on Philosophy

We are here concerned with the fact that it is the intricate mixture of the stable and the precarious, the fixed and the unpredictably novel, the assured and the uncertain, in existence which sets mankind upon that love of wisdom which forms philosophy. Yet too commonly, although in a great variety of technical modes, the result of the search is converted into a metaphysics which denies or conceals from acknowledgement the very characters of existence which initiated it, and which give significance to its conclusions. The form assumed by the denial is, most frequently, that striking division into a superior true realm of being and lower illusory, insignificant or phenomenal realm which characterizes metaphysical systems as unlike as those of Plato and Democritus, St. Thomas and Spinoza, Aristotle and Kant, Descartes and Comte, Haeckel and Mrs. Eddy.

-Dewey, Experience and Nature, p. 59

If only I could write like that! Having only recently rediscovered American pragmatism, I am now stunned by its power and scope in dealing with the big questions of philosophy. I now see that the Husserl-Heidegger line of intellectual growth was in many ways indebted to the James-Dewey one, implicitly if not explicitly. We see in the passage above a key Heideggerian principle. For Dewey, as for Heidegger, it makes no sense to produce a universal metaphysics that scorns the everyday experience of humanity by turning embodied meaning into something derivative, “secondary”, “mere”, or inferior. Doing so is paradoxical precisely because as Dewey and Heidegger are apt to emphasize, metaphysical questioning is itself dependent on the “inferior” lifeworld given that the very cognitive mechanisms which enable it are finite through and through (one cannot think without your brain). The futility  of claiming the physical as inferior to or derivative of the ideal is apparent when we consider that the significance of such speculations is relevant only insofar as we are embodied creatures capable of physically reacting to the awe and magnitude of metaphysical thought. The mind thinks and the body shudders. Without this emotional valence, reflective thought would never get off the ground for it could not affect our embodiment. So while reflective thought is apt to deny the primacy of facticity, the phenomenologist understands how the results of thought matter only through their affective significance. One cannot philosophize in a vacuum. There must be a medium through which the results of thinking are made significant. This medium is the lived body. Without it, philosophical conclusions would be meaningless. Hence, any philosophical system which inverts the primacy of lived experience is left dangling in the air.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sunday Pragmatism: Dewey on Philosophy

  1. Victor Panzica

    19th century and early 20th century philosophy reflects the Darwinian turn in thinking. Brains did not evolve by themselves but evolved up from the “simpler” structure of our bodies (autonomic function). One can see the attempt to break Locke’s “veil of ideas” or social evolutionary rules which pervaded philosophy (and the rest of the civilized world).

  2. Pingback: Sunday Pragmatism, part III: James on Habits and Will; a Mental Taxonomy | Minds and Brains

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