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Dewey and Post-Modernism

Dewey says that things do not exist independently of our consciousness of them.  He is not consistent, but he repeats this often.  From Experience and Nature (1929 edition), the end of chapter 2:

“A true wisdom, devoted to the latter task [“opening and enlarging of the ways of nature in man”], discovers in thoughtful observation and experiment the method of administering the unfinished processes of existence so that frail goods shall be substantiated, secure goods be extended, and the precarious promises of good that haunt experienced things be more liberally fulfilled.”

Shades of Hegel and Kant here.  Dewey is not making the banal observation that things change according to natural laws in the course of time.  He is saying that man creates reality, that reality is subjective.  Earlier in the same chapter:

“[Other philosophies] may be looked on as different ways of supplying recipes for denying to the universe the character of contingency which it possesses so integrally that its denial leaves the reflecting mind without a clue ...” (Page 46.)

“Concerned with imputing complete, finished, and sure character to the world of real existence, even if things have to be broke into two disconnected pieces in order to accomplish the result ...” (Page 47.)

In other words, existence independent of man does not exist, there is no objective reality.  Reading the entire chapter 2, entitled “Existence as Precarious and Stable,” from which the above is taken, it sounds like the theory of Heraclitus:  reality is a wild “unfinished” river of change without entities, reality is chaos, a flux.  Which fact those who seek order cannot grasp, according to Dewey.

Dewey denies objective reality, reality existing apart from man.  Again and again in his books Dewey disparages “pre-existing nature” or “antecedent” or “ready-made” reality, saying reality is “contingent,” “malleable,” “unfinished.”  And he is not talking about prejudice or about existing things which change in the course of time.

From The Quest for Certainty:

Knowledge is not “a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing ... .” (Page 44.)

“Only the peculiar hypnotic effect exercised by exclusive preoccupation with knowledge could have led thinkers to identify experience with reception of sensations, when five minutes’ observation of a child would have disclosed that sensations count only as stimuli and registers of motor activity expended in doing things.” (Page 156.)

As one having rather more than five minutes experience with children, I can say such observation does no such thing.

“The notion that the findings of science are a disclosure of the inherent properties of the ultimate real, of existence at large, is a survival of the older metaphysics.” (Page 83.)

A respondent points out that in Dewey’s full discussion he rejects Aristotle’s theory of final causes in physics.  I agree with Dewey that Aristotle’s theory is mistaken.  But Dewey’s way of fixing Aristotle’s flawed theory of knowledge is to reject all knowledge.  Dewey uses a “bait and switch” tactic.  He goes from rejecting final causes to rejecting reality.

“Mind is no longer a spectator beholding the world from without and finding its highest satisfaction in the joy of self-sufficing contemplation.” (Page 291.)

What the scientist finds, then, is himself irrevocably mixed up with the unfinished flux which is existence.  Since he can never abstract away himself, he can never know anything;  he will always wonder if what he finds is due to some unknowable quirk of his constitution, or that the flux changed since last he looked, or someone else finished it differently.

Dewey says that honesty is relative, logic is a cultural convention, principles a perversion, etc.  If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, etc. it’s a duck.  Dewey is a Skeptic:  we can’t really know anything. *

Dewey’s idea of the senses:

“The senses lose their place as gateways of knowing to take their rightful place as stimuli to action.” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, page 83.)

“The appropriate subject matter of awareness is not reality at large, [now for some sarcasm] a metaphysical heaven to be mimeographed at many removes upon a badly constructed mental carbon paper [talk about a mixed metaphor] which yields at best only fragmentary, blurred, and erroneous copies.  It’s proper and legitimate object is that relationship of organism and environment [in other words, you are not to abstract out the form of your senses to arrive at reality] in which functioning is most amply and effectively attained.” (Philosophy and Civilization (1931), page 48.)

Contrary to Dewey, there is no contradiction between perceiving reality and your senses being part of nature.  Dewey seems to be saying that perceiving reality would be mysticism, therefore you cannot perceive reality.  On the contrary, sensory data is the ultimate foundation of all your knowledge.  Deny the senses and all you could hope for is mystic insight

I’ve quoted enough in this and the other articles to show that what Dewey means by “experience” is not the usual everyday meaning.  He does not mean looking outward.  Rather he means looking within, either at a “reality” you created yourself (what works is what’s true  now, for you), or at a reality created by “society” through great social experiments.


Even logic is relative to the times and culture:

“The very fitness of the Aristotelian logical organon in respect to the culture and common sense of a certain group in the period in which it was formulated unfits it to be a logical formulation of not only the science but even of the common sense of the present cultural epoch.” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, 1938, page 65.)

Aristotle’s most famous and enduring achievement was the identification of the laws of logic, the most important being “the law of the excluded middle” or simply “non-contradiction.”  This principle states that the same proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same sense.

According to Dewey, quoted above, Aristotle’s logic worked so well in times past that it’s now due for replacement!  Almost every politician in my experience has done an outstanding job of replacement.


Pragmatism is insane.  Its very insanity helps protect it from criticism.  If you describe in plain language what pragmatism means, what it can only mean, Dewey’s defenders reply:  You don’t understand the subtlety, etc.

If we are disconnected from reality in the manner Dewey says, Dewey’s claim that the horrors of the revolution to abolish private property were just “a pile of isolated facts,” “dead, empty, evacuated of vital significance,” and “marked by a certain vacuity” — makes perfect sense.

The Soviet business is further evidence for Dewey’s philosophy being anti-mind and anti-life.

Dewey is inconsistent and vague, a large source of misunderstanding him.  As has been observed by Dewey’s admiring critic, Richard Rorty, Dewey tried, especially in Experience and Nature, to combine Aristotle’s and Bacon’s Naturalism with Pragmatism, and it doesn’t work.

Rorty is more consistent than Dewey.  Rorty’s own philosophy rejects even Dewey’s fig leaf of naturalism, and we have full-fledged Post-Modernism, bewailing the end of civilization.  Post-Modernism is philosophy in self-destruct.

* Skepticism in philosophy differs from skepticism colloquially speaking. In the everyday sense “skepticism” can be used to mean simply reason or rationality.