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The Vain Quest for Certainty

From Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty (1929), Later Works, vol. 4.

Chapter 1
Page 17
Referring to “the main tradition of western culture”:

“Knowledge ... is thought to be concerned with a region of being which is fixed in itself. Being eternal and unalterable, human knowing is not to make any difference in it.  It can be approached through the medium of the apprehensions and demonstrations of thought, or by some other organ of mind, which does nothing to the real [the operative word here is “to”], except just to know it.”

Dewey presents a false alternative:  existence malleable by human thought versus existence known only by mystic insight.  The next paragraph continues:

“There is involved in these doctrines a whole system of philosophical conclusions.  The first and foremost is that there is complete correspondence between knowledge in its true meaning and what is real.  What is known, what is true for cognition, is what is real in being.”

Page 19

“The common essence of all these theories, in short, is that what is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry, and is totally unaffected by those acts;  otherwise it would not be fixed and unchangeable.”

This is a bait and switch.  First he was talking about truth corresponding with reality which is “antecedent”  i.e. already existing, objective — to it (the only place in the entire book he does so).  Then he replaces this with reality corresponding with antecedent truths.

“The theory of knowing is modeled after what was supposed to take place in the act of vision.  The object refracts light to the eye and is seen;  it makes a difference to the eye and to the person having an optical apparatus, but none to the thing seen.  The real object is the object so fixed in its regal aloofness that it is a king to any beholding mind that may gaze upon it.  A spectator theory of knowledge is the inevitable outcome.  There have been theories which hold that mental activity intervenes, but they have retained the old premise.  They have therefore concluded that it is impossible to know reality.  Since mind intervenes, we know, according to them, only some modified semblance of the real object, some “appearance.”  [This is a very brief account of Kant’s theory.]  It would be hard to find a more thoroughgoing confirmation than this conclusion provides of the complete hold possessed by the belief that the object of knowledge is a reality fixed and complete in itself, in isolation from an act of inquiry which has in it any element of production of change.”

It’s true that Kant’s theory is mistaken, but Dewey’s alternative of rejecting objective or “antecedent” reality is just as mistaken.

Chapter 2
Page 22

“The whole classic tradition down to our day has continued to hold a slighting view of experience as such, and to hold up as the proper goal and ideal of true knowledge realities which even if they are located in empirical things cannot be known by experimental methods.”

This isn’t true about the classic tradition.  And Dewey substitutes for his straw man another denial of reality, while using the word “experience” to describe it.

Chapter 4
Page 83

“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.” ...
“Drop the conception that knowledge is knowledge only when it is a disclosure and definition of the properties of fixed and antecedent reality;  interpret the aim and test of knowing by what happens in the actual procedures of scientific inquiry ...”

Chapter 5
Page 109

“The test of ideas, of thinking generally, is found in the consequences of the acts to which the ideas lead, that is in the new arrangements of things which are brought into existence.  Such is the unequivocal evidence as to the worth of ideas which is derived from observing their position and rule in experimental knowing. But tradition makes the tests of ideas to be their agreement with some antecedent [i.e. already existing] state of things.  This change of outlook and standard from what precedes to what comes after, from the retrospective to the prospective, from antecedents to consequences, is extremely hard to accomplish.  Hence when the physical sciences describe objects and the world as being such and such, it is thought that the description is of reality as it exists in itself.”

Page 111

We should accept “the teaching of science that ideas are statements not of what is or has been but of acts to be performed.”

Chapter 6
Page 134

“... action is at the heart of ideas.  The experimental practice of knowing, when taken to supply the pattern of philosophic doctrine of mind and its organs, eliminates the age-old separation of theory and practice.  It discloses that knowing is itself a kind of action, the only one which progressively and securely clothes natural existence with realized meanings.  For the outcome of experienced objects which are begot by operations which define thinking, take into themselves, as part of their own funded and incorporated meaning, the relation to other things disclosed by thinking.  There are no sensory or perceived objects fixed in themselves.  In the course of experience, as far as that is an outcome influenced by thinking, objects perceived, used and enjoyed take up into their own meaning the results of thought;  they become ever richer and fuller of meanings.”

Chapter 7
Page 155

“... ‘mental’ states and acts are organs of knowing things not directly but through the overt actions which they evoke and direct.  For the consequences of these acts constitute the object said to be known;  and the consequences are public and open.”

Chapter 8
Page 160

“... known objects exist as the consequences of directed operations, not because of conformity of thought or observation with something antecedent [i.e. already existing].”

In a long discussion (pages 160 to 163) of Heisenberg’s “principle of indeterminacy” Dewey confuses a limitation on prediction with lack of identity.  Dewey concludes:

Page 163

“The principle of indeterminacy thus presents itself as the final step in the dislodgement of the old spectator theory of knowledge.  It marks the acknowledgment, within scientific procedure itself, of the fact that knowing is one kind of interaction which goes on within the world.  Knowing marks the conversion of undirected changes [i.e. I guess, of the world apart from observing man] into changes directed [by man?] toward an intended conclusion.  There are left for philosophy but two alternatives.  Either knowledge defeats its own purpose;  or the objective of knowing is the consequences of operations purposely undertaken, provided they fulfill the conditions for the sake of which they are carried on.  If we persist in the traditional conception, according to which the thing to be known is something which exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing, then discovery of the fact that the act of observation, necessary in existential knowing, modifies the preexistent something, is proof that the act of knowing gets in its own way, frustrating its own intent.”

Page 164

“... the Newtonian philosophy allowed itself to become entangled in the Greek metaphysics according to which the immutable is the truly real and our thought is adequate in the degree in which it approximates a grasp of what is antecedently fixed in existence.”

Then Dewey brings in Einstein.

“The discovery that mass varies with velocity was the beginning of the end.  It deprived physical knowledge of its supposedly ultimate permanent coefficient ... .”

This is not true. Rest mass remains an attribute of particles in Einstein’s theory, and it is inertia which varies, not rest mass.

Page 167

Dewey disparages “... a theory of knowledge which held that rational conceptions rather than observations [of what, since reality is not antecedent?] are the vehicle of knowledge.  Newton foisted [!] a fundamental ‘rationalism’ upon the scientific world all the more effectually because he did it in the name of empirical observation.”

Page 168

“Abandon completely the notion that nature ought to conform to a certain definition, and nature intrinsically is neither rational nor irrational.  Apart from the use made of it in knowing, it exists in a dimension irrelevant to either attribution, just as rivers inherently are neither located near cities nor are opposed to such location.”

Page 169

“The doctrine that nature is inherently rational was a costly one. It entailed the idea that reason in man is an outside spectator of a rationality already complete in itself.  It deprived reason in man of an active and creative office;  its business was simply to copy, to re-present symbolically, to view a given rational structure. Ability to make a transcript of this structure in mathematical formulae gives great delight to those who have the required ability.  But it does nothing [like hell it doesn’t];  it makes no difference in nature. In effect, it limits thought in man to retraversing in cognition a pattern fixed and complete in itself.  [Equivocation.]   The doctrine was both an effect of the traditional separation between knowledge and action and a factor in perpetuating it.  It relegated practical making and doing to a secondary and relatively irrational realm.”

Equivocation between reality as unformed, and accomplishing something in reality.

Later he uses adjectives like “rich,” “fuller,” “richer,” “liberation,” “expansion” for his view, whereas what he opposes means “fixation and restriction.”

Page 172
Nature’s reality is not actual, only potential:

“[The term intelligible] expresses a potentiality rather than an actuality.  Nature is capable of being understood. But the possibility is realized [i.e. made real] not by a mind thinking about it from without but by operations conducted from within, operations which give it new relations summed up in production of a new individual object.  Nature has intelligible order as its possession in the degree in which we by our own overt operations realize potentialities contained in it.”

The payoff is on page 169, right after the paragraph ending “... irrational realm.”

“Its paralyzing effect on human action is seen in the part it played in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the theory of ‘natural laws’ in human affairs, in social matters [i.e. what came to be known as economics].”

He goes on to say:

Laissez-faire was the logical conclusion.”  [Dewey’s philosophy on the other hand:]  “But if man in knowing is a participator in the natural scene, a factor in generating things known, the fact that man participates as a factor in social affairs is no barrier to knowledge of them.  On the contrary, a certain method of directed participation is a precondition of his having any genuine understanding.  Human intervention for the sake of effecting ends is no interference, and it is a means of knowledge.”

Thus is justified state control of your life.