John Dewey on Education: Impact & Theory

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Key Takeaways

  • John Dewey (1859—1952) was a psychologist, philosopher, and educator who made contributions to numerous topics in philosophy and psychology. His work continues to inform modern philosophy and educational practice today.
  • Dewey was an influential pragmatist, a movement that rejected most philosophy at the time in favor of the belief that things that work in a practical situation are true, while those that do not are false. This view would go on to influence his educational philosophy.
  • Dewey was also a functionalist. Inspired by the ideas of Charles Darwin, he believed that humans develop behaviors as an adaptation to their environment.
  • Dewey’s influential education is marked by an emphasis on the belief that people learn and grow as a result of their experiences and interactions with the world. He aimed to shape educational environments so that they would promote active inquiry but did not do away with traditional instruction altogether.
  • Outside of education and philosophy, Dewey also devised a theory of emotions in response to Darwin’s ideas. In this theory, he argued that the behaviors that arise from emotions were, at some point, beneficial to the survival of organisms.

John Dewey was an American psychologist, philosopher, educator, social critic, and political activist. He made contributions to numerous fields and topics in philosophy and psychology.

Besides being a primary originator of both functionalism and behaviorism psychology , Dewey was a major inspiration for several movements that shaped 20th-century thought, including empiricism, humanism, naturalism, contextualism, and process philosophy (Simpson, 2006).

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859 and began his career at the University of Michigan before becoming the chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the University of Chicago.

In 1899, Dewey was elected president of the American Psychological Association and became president of the American Philosophical Association five years later.

Dewey traveled as a philosopher, social and political theorist, and educational consultant and remained outspoken on education, domestic and international politics, and numerous social movements.

Dewey’s views and writings on educational theory and practice were widely read and accepted. He held that philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology were closely interrelated.

Dewey also believed in an “instrumentalist” theory of knowledge, in which ideas are seen to exist mainly as instruments for creating solutions to problems encountered in the environment (Simpson, 2006).

Contributions to Philosophy and Psychology

Dewey is one of the central figures and founders of pragmatism in America despite not identifying himself as a pragmatist.

Pragmatism teaches that things that are useful — meaning that they work in a practical situation — are true, and what does not work is false (Hildebrand, 2018).

This rejected the threads of epistemology and metaphysics that ran through modern philosophy in favor of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as an active adaptation of humans to their environment (Hildebrand, 2018).

Dewey held that value was not a function of purely social construction but a quality inherent to events. Dewey also believed that experimentation was a reliable enough way to determine the truth of a concept.


Dewey is considered a founder of the Chicago School of Functional Psychology, inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as the ideas of William James and Dewey’s own instrumental philosophy.

As chair of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Chicago from 1894-1904, Dewey was highly influential in establishing the functional orientation amongst psychology faculty like Angell and Addison Moore.

Scholars widely consider Dewey’s 1896 paper, The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology , to be the first major work in the functionalist school.

In this work, Dewey attacked the methods of psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, who used stimulus-response analysis as the basis of psychological theories.

Psychologists such as Wund and Titchener believed that all human behaviors could be broken down into a series of fundamental laws and that all human behavior originates as a learned adaptation to the presence of certain stimuli in one’s environment (Backe, 2001).

Dewey considered Wundt and Titchener’s approach to be flawed because it ignored both the continuity of human behavior and the role that adaptation plays in creating it.

In contrast, Dewey’s functionalism sought to consider organisms in total as they functioned in their environment. Rather than being passive receivers of stimuli, Dewey perceived organisms as active perceivers (Backe, 2001).

Chicago School

The Chicago school refers to the functionalist approach to psychology that emerged at the University of Chicago in the late 19th century. Key tenets of functional psychology included:

  • Studying the adaptive functions of consciousness and how mental processes help organisms adjust to their environment
  • Explaining psychological phenomena in terms of their biological utility
  • Focusing on the practical operations of the mind rather than contents of consciousness

Educational Philosophy

John Dewey was a notable educational reformer and established the path for decades of subsequent research in the field of educational psychology.

Influenced by his philosophical and psychological theories, Dewey’s concept of instrumentalism in education stressed learning by doing, which was opposed to authoritarian teaching methods and rote learning.

These ideas have remained central to educational philosophy in the United States. At the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental school to develop and study new educational methods.

He experimented with educational curricula and methods and advocated for parental participation in the educational process (Dewey, 1974).

Dewey’s educational philosophy highlights “pragmatism,” and he saw the purpose of education as the cultivation of thoughtful, critically reflective, and socially engaged individuals rather than passive recipients of established knowledge.

Dewey rejected the rote-learning approach driven by a predetermined curriculum, the standard teaching method at the time (Dewey, 1974).

Dewey also rejected so-called child-centered approaches to education that followed children’s interests and impulses uncritically. Dewey did not propose an entirely hands-off approach to learning.

Dewey believed that traditional subjects were important but should be integrated with the strengths and interests of the learner.

In response, Dewey developed a concept of inquiry, which was prompted by a sense of need and was followed by intellectual work such as defining problems, testing hypotheses, and finding satisfactory solutions.

Dewey believed that learning was an organic cycle of doubt, inquiry, reflection, and the reestablishment of one’s sense of understanding.

In contrast, the reflexive arc model of learning popular in his time thought of learning as a mechanical process that could be measured by standardized tests without reference to the role of emotion or experience in learning.

Rejecting the assumption that all of the big questions and ideas in education are already answered, Dewey believed that all concepts and meanings could be open to reinvention and improvement and that all disciplines could be expanded with new knowledge, concepts, and understandings (Dewey, 1974).

Philosophy of Education

Dewey believed that people learn and grow as a result of their experiences and interactions with the world. These compel people to continually develop new concepts, ideas, practices, and understandings.

These, in turn, are refined through and continue to mediate the learner’s life experiences and social interactions. Dewey believed that (Hargraves, 2021):

Empirical Validity and Criticism

Despite its wide application in modern theories of education, many scholars have noted the lack of empirical evidence in favor of Dewey’s theories of education directly.

Nonetheless, Dewey’s theory of how students learn aligns with empirical studies that examine the positive impact of interactions with peers and adults on learning (Göncü & Rogoff, 1998).

Researchers have also found a link between heightened engagement and learning outcomes.

This has resulted in the development of educational strategies such as making meaningful connections to students” home lives and encouraging student ownership of their learning (Turner, 2014).

Theory of Emotions

Dewey vs. darwin.

Another influential piece of philosophy that Dewey created was his theory of emotion (Cunningham, 1995).

Dewey reconstructed Darwin’s theory of emotions, which he believed was flawed for assuming that the expression of emotion is separate from and subsequent to the emotion itself.

Darwin also argued that behavior that expresses emotion serves the individual in some way when the individual is in a particular state of mind. These can also cause behaviors that are not useful.

Dewey, however, claimed that the function of emotional behaviors is not to express emotion but to be acts that value someone’s survival. Dewey believed that emotion is separate from other behaviors because it involves an attitude toward an object. The intention of the emotion informs the behaviors that result (Cunningham, 1995).

Dewey also rejected Darwin’s principle that some expressions of emotions can be explained as cases where one emotion can be expressed by actions that are the exact opposite of another.

Dewey again believed that even these opposite behaviors have purposes in themselves (Cunningham, 1995).

Dewey vs. James

Dewey argued against James’s serial theory of emotions, seeing emotion and stimuli as one simultaneous coordinated act.

William James proposed a serial theory of emotion , in which an emotional experience progresses through several sequential stages:
  • An object or idea functions as a stimulus
  • This stimulus leads to a behavioral response
  • The response is then followed by an emotional excitation or affect

An example would be seeing a bear (stimulus), running away (response), and then feeling afraid (emotion).

Dewey, however, argued that emotion and stimulus form a unified, simultaneous act that cannot be separated in this way.

He uses the example of a frightened reaction to a bear to illustrate his point:
  • The “bear” itself is constituted by the coordinated sensory excitations of the eyes, touch, etc.
  • The feeling of “terror” is constituted by disturbances across glandular, muscular systems.
  • Rather than stimulus → response → emotion, these are partial activities within the one act of perceiving the frightening bear and running away in fear.
  • The bear object and the fear emotion are two aspects of the total coordinated activity, happening at once.

So, where James treated stimulus, response, and emotion as sequential stages in an emotional episode, Dewey saw them as “minor acts” coming together in a unified conscious experience.

He maintained James was artificially separating elements that occur as part of one ongoing activity of coordination.

The key difference is that Dewey did not believe it was possible to isolate stimulus, response, and affect as self-sufficient events. They exist meaningfully only within the total act – hence why he emphasizes their simultaneity.

Backe, A. (2001). John Dewey and early Chicago functionalism. History of Psychology, 4 (4), 323.

Cunningham, S. (1995). Dewey on emotions: recent experimental evidence. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 31(4), 865-874.

Dewey, J. (1974). John Dewey on education: Selected writings .

Göncü, A., & Rogoff, B. (1998). Children’s categorization with varying adult support. American Educational Research Journal, 35 (2), 333-349.

Hargraves, V. (2021). Dewey’s educational philosophy .

Hildebrand, D. (2018). John Dewey.

Simpson, D. J. (2006). John Dewey (Vol. 10). Peter Lang.

Turner, J. C. (2014). Theory-based interventions with middle-school teachers to support student motivation and engagement. In Motivational interventions . Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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19.3 Group Problem Solving

Learning objective.

  • Identify and describe how to implement seven steps for group problem solving.

No matter who you are or where you live, problems are an inevitable part of life. This is true for groups as well as for individuals. Some groups—especially work teams—are formed specifically to solve problems. Other groups encounter problems for a wide variety of reasons. Within a family group, a problem might be that a daughter or son wants to get married and the parents do not approve of the marriage partner. In a work group, a problem might be that some workers are putting in more effort than others, yet achieving poorer results. Regardless of the problem, having the resources of a group can be an advantage, as different people can contribute different ideas for how to reach a satisfactory solution.

Once a group encounters a problem, the questions that come up range from “Where do we start?” to “How do we solve it?” While there are many ways to approach a problem, the American educational philosopher John Dewey’s reflective thinking sequence has stood the test of time. This seven-step process (Adler, R., 1996) has produced positive results and serves as a handy organizational structure. If you are member of a group that needs to solve a problem and don’t know where to start, consider these seven simple steps:

  • Define the problem
  • Analyze the problem
  • Establish criteria
  • Consider possible solutions
  • Decide on a solution
  • Implement the solution
  • Follow up on the solution

Let’s discuss each step in detail.

Define the Problem

If you don’t know what the problem is, how do you know you can solve it? Defining the problem allows the group to set boundaries of what the problem is and what it is not and to begin to formalize a description or definition of the scope, size, or extent of the challenge the group will address. A problem that is too broadly defined can overwhelm the group. If the problem is too narrowly defined, important information will be missed or ignored.

In the following example, we have a Web-based company called Favorites that needs to increase its customer base and ultimately sales. A problem-solving group has been formed, and they start by formulating a working definition of the problem.

Too broad: “Sales are off, our numbers are down, and we need more customers.”

More precise: “Sales have been slipping incrementally for six of the past nine months and are significantly lower than a seasonally adjusted comparison to last year. Overall, this loss represents a 4.5 percent reduction in sales from the same time last year. However, when we break it down by product category, sales of our nonedible products have seen a modest but steady increase, while sales of edibles account for the drop off and we need to halt the decline.”

Analyze the Problem

Now the group analyzes the problem, trying to gather information and learn more. The problem is complex and requires more than one area of expertise. Why do nonedible products continue selling well? What is it about the edibles that is turning customers off? Let’s meet our problem solvers at Favorites.

Kevin is responsible for customer resource management. He is involved with the customer from the point of initial contact through purchase and delivery. Most of the interface is automated in the form of an online “basket model,” where photographs and product descriptions are accompanied by “buy it” buttons. He is available during normal working business hours for live chat and voice chat if needed, and customers are invited to request additional information. Most Favorites customers do not access this service, but Kevin is kept quite busy, as he also handles returns and complaints. Because Kevin believes that superior service retains customers while attracting new ones, he is always interested in better ways to serve the customer. Looking at edibles and nonedibles, he will study the cycle of customer service and see if there are any common points—from the main Web page, through the catalog, to the purchase process, and to returns—at which customers abandon the sale. He has existing customer feedback loops with end-of-sale surveys, but most customers decline to take the survey and there is currently no incentive to participate.

Mariah is responsible for products and purchasing. She wants to offer the best products at the lowest price, and to offer new products that are unusual, rare, or exotic. She regularly adds new products to the Favorites catalog and culls underperformers. Right now she has the data on every product and its sales history, but it is a challenge to represent it. She will analyze current sales data and produce a report that specifically identifies how each product—edible and nonedible—is performing. She wants to highlight “winners” and “losers” but also recognizes that today’s “losers” may be the hit of tomorrow. It is hard to predict constantly changing tastes and preferences, but that is part of her job. It’s not all science, and it’s not all art. She has to have an eye for what will catch on tomorrow while continuing to provide what is hot today.

Suri is responsible for data management at Favorites. She gathers, analyzes, and presents information gathered from the supply chain, sales, and marketing. She works with vendors to make sure products are available when needed, makes sales predictions based on past sales history, and assesses the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

The problem-solving group members already have certain information on hand. They know that customer retention is one contributing factor. Attracting new customers is a constant goal, but they are aware of the well-known principle that it takes more effort to attract new customers than to keep existing ones. Thus, it is important to insure a quality customer service experience for existing customers and encourage them to refer friends. The group needs to determine how to promote this favorable customer behavior.

Another contributing factor seems to be that customers often abandon the shopping cart before completing a purchase, especially when purchasing edibles. The group members need to learn more about why this is happening.

Establish Criteria

Establishing the criteria for a solution is the next step. At this point, information is coming in from diverse perspectives, and each group member has contributed information from their perspective, even though there may be several points of overlap.

Kevin: Customers who complete the postsale survey indicate that they want to know (1) what is the estimated time of delivery, (2) why a specific item was not in stock and when it will be available, and (3) why their order sometimes arrives with less than a complete order, with some items back-ordered, without prior notification.

He notes that a very small percentage of customers complete the postsale survey, and the results are far from scientific. He also notes that it appears the interface is not capable of cross-checking inventory to provide immediate information concerning back orders, so that the customer “buys it” only to learn several days later that it was not in stock. This seems to be especially problematic for edible products, because people may tend to order them for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. But we don’t really know this for sure because of the low participation in the postsale survey.

Mariah: There are four edible products that frequently sell out. So far, we haven’t been able to boost the appeal of other edibles so that people would order them as a second choice when these sales leaders aren’t available. We also have several rare, exotic products that are slow movers. They have potential, but currently are underperformers.

Suri: We know from a zip code analysis that most of our customers are from a few specific geographic areas associated with above-average incomes. We have very few credit cards declined, and the average sale is over $100. Shipping costs represent on average 8 percent of the total sales cost. We do not have sufficient information to produce a customer profile. There is no specific point in the purchase process where basket abandonment tends to happen; it happens fairly uniformly at all steps.

Consider Possible Solutions to the Problem

The group has listened to each other and now starts to brainstorm ways to address the challenges they have addressed while focusing resources on those solutions that are more likely to produce results.

Kevin: Is it possible for our programmers to create a cross-index feature, linking the product desired with a report of how many are in stock? I’d like the customer to know right away whether it is in stock, or how long they may have to wait. As another idea, is it possible to add incentives to the purchase cycle that won’t negatively impact our overall profit? I’m thinking a small volume discount on multiple items, or perhaps free shipping over a specific dollar amount.

Mariah: I recommend we hold a focus group where customers can sample our edible products and tell us what they like best and why. When the best sellers are sold out, could we offer a discount on related products to provide an instant alternative? We might also cull the underperforming products with a liquidation sale to generate interest.

Suri: If we want to know more about our customers, we need to give them an incentive to complete the postsale survey. How about a 5 percent off coupon code for the next purchase to get them to return and to help us better identify our customer base? We may also want to build in a customer referral rewards program, but it all takes better data in to get results out. We should also explore the supply side of the business by getting a more reliable supply of the leading products and trying to get discounts that are more advantageous from our suppliers, especially in the edible category.

Decide on a Solution

Kevin, Mariah, and Suri may want to implement all the solution strategies, but they do not have the resources to do them all. They’ll complete a cost-benefit analysis , which ranks each solution according to its probable impact. The analysis is shown in Table 19.6 “Cost-Benefit Analysis” .

Table 19.6 Cost-Benefit Analysis

Now that the options have been presented with their costs and benefits, it is easier for the group to decide which courses of action are likely to yield the best outcomes. The analysis helps the group members to see beyond the immediate cost of implementing a given solution. For example, Kevin’s suggestion of offering free shipping won’t cost Favorites much money, but it also may not pay off in customer goodwill. And even though Mariah’s suggestion of having a focus group might sound like a good idea, it will be expensive and its benefits are questionable.

A careful reading of the analysis indicates that Kevin’s best suggestion is to integrate the cross-index feature in the ordering process so that customers can know immediately whether an item is in stock or on back order. Mariah, meanwhile, suggests that searching for alternative products is probably the most likely to benefit Favorites, while Suri’s two supply-side suggestions are likely to result in positive outcomes.

Implement the Solution

Kevin is faced with the challenge of designing the computer interface without incurring unacceptable costs. He strongly believes that the interface will pay for itself within the first year—or, to put it more bluntly, that Favorites’ declining sales will get worse if the Web site does not have this feature soon. He asks to meet with top management to get budget approval and secures their agreement, on one condition: he must negotiate a compensation schedule with the Information Technology consultants that includes delayed compensation in the form of bonuses after the feature has been up and running successfully for six months.

Mariah knows that searching for alternative products is a never-ending process, but it takes time and the company needs results. She decides to invest time evaluating products that competing companies currently offer, especially in the edible category, on the theory that customers who find their desired items sold out on the Favorites Web site may have been buying alternative products elsewhere instead of choosing an alternative from Favorites’s product lines.

Suri decides to approach the vendors of the four frequently sold-out products and ask point blank, “What would it take to get you to produce these items more reliably in greater quantities?” By opening the channel of communication with these vendors, she is able to motivate them to make modifications that will improve the reliability and quantity. She also approaches the vendors of the less popular products with a request for better discounts in return for their cooperation in developing and test-marketing new products.

Follow Up on the Solution

Kevin: After several beta tests, the cross-index feature was implemented and has been in place for thirty days. Now customers see either “in stock” or “available [mo/da/yr]” in the shopping basket. As expected, Kevin notes a decrease in the number of chat and phone inquiries to the effect of, “Will this item arrive before my wife’s birthday?” However, he notes an increase in inquiries asking, “Why isn’t this item in stock?” It is difficult to tell whether customer satisfaction is higher overall.

Mariah: In exploring the merchandise available from competing merchants, she got several ideas for modifying Favorites’ product line to offer more flavors and other variations on popular edibles. Working with vendors, she found that these modifications cost very little. Within the first thirty days of adding these items to the product line, sales are up. Mariah believes these additions also serve to enhance the Favorites brand identity, but she has no data to back this up.

Suri: So far, the vendors supplying the four top-selling edibles have fulfilled their promise of increasing quantity and reliability. However, three of the four items have still sold out, raising the question of whether Favorites needs to bring in one or more additional vendors to produce these items. Of the vendors with which Favorites asked to negotiate better discounts, some refused, and two of these were “stolen” by a competing merchant so that they no longer sell to Favorites. In addition, one of the vendors that agreed to give a better discount was unexpectedly forced to cease operations for several weeks because of a fire.

This scenario allows us to see that the problem may have several dimensions as well as solutions, but resources can be limited and not every solution is successful. Even though the problem is not immediately resolved, the group problem-solving pattern serves as a useful guide through the problem-solving process.

Key Takeaway

Group problem solving can be an orderly process when it is broken down into seven specific stages.

  • Think of a problem encountered in the past by a group of which you are a member. How did the group solve the problem? How satisfactory was the solution? Discuss your results with your classmates.
  • Consider again the problem you described in Exercise 1. In view of the seven-step framework, which steps did the group utilize? Would following the full seven-step framework have been helpful? Discuss your opinion with a classmate.
  • Research one business that you would like to know more about and see if you can learn about how they communicate in groups and teams. Compare your results with those of classmates.
  • Think of a decision you will be making some time in the near future. Apply the cost-benefit analysis framework to your decision. Do you find this method helpful? Discuss your results with classmates.

Adler, R. (1996). Communicating at work: Principles and practices for business and the professions . Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication . Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Business Communication for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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John Dewey (1859–1952) was one of American pragmatism’s early founders, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and arguably the most prominent American intellectual for the first half of the twentieth century. Dewey’s educational theories and experiments had global reach, his psychological theories influenced that growing science, and his writings about democratic theory and practice helped shape academic and practical debates for decades. Dewey developed extensive and often systematic views in ethics, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, and philosophy of religion. Because Dewey’s approach was typically genealogical, couching his views within philosophy’s larger history, one finds in Dewey a fully developed metaphilosophy.

Dewey’s “cultural naturalism” (which he favored over “pragmatism” and “instrumentalism”) is a critique and reconstruction of philosophy within the ambit of a Darwinian worldview (Lamont 1961; MW4: 3). Following William James, Dewey thought philosophy had become overly technical and intellectualistic, divorced from assessing everyday social conditions and values ( FAE , LW5: 157–58). Philosophy, he believed, needed to be reconnected with education-for-living (philosophy as “the general theory of education”), viz., social criticism at the most general level, a “criticism of criticisms” ( EN , LW1: 298; see also DE , MW9: 338).

Understood within the Darwinian evolutionary arena, philosophy becomes an activity taken by interdependent organisms-in- environments. From this standpoint of active adaptation, Dewey criticized traditional philosophers’ tendency to abstract and reify concepts derived from living contexts. Along with other classical pragmatists, Dewey critiqued metaphysical and epistemological dualisms (e.g., mind/body, nature/culture, self/society, and reason/emotion) reconstructing their elements as parts of larger continuities. For example, human thinking is not a phenomenon categorically external from the world it seeks to know; indeed, such knowing is not a purely rational attempt to escape illusion and discover ultimate “reality” or “truth”. Rather, knowing is one among many ways organisms with evolved capacities for thought and language cope with problems. Minds, then, are not passive observers but are engines of active adaptation, experimentation, and innovation; ideas and theories are not rational fulcrums to transcend culture, but rather function within culture, adjudged on situated, pragmatic grounds. Knowing, then, is no “divine spark”, for while knowing (or inquiry , to use Dewey’s term) includes calculative or rational elements, these are agentially entangled with the body and emotions.

Beyond academia, Dewey was an active public intellectual, infusing contemporary issues with insights found in philosophy. He addressed topics of broad moral significance, such as human freedom, economic alienation, race relations, women’s suffrage, war and peace, and educational methods and goals. Typically, he integrated discoveries made via public inquiries back into his academic theories. This practice-theory-practice rhythm powered every area of Dewey’s intellectual enterprise, and perhaps explains the enduring usefulness of his philosophy in many academic and practical arenas. The fecundity of Dewey’s ideas continues to manifest in aesthetics, education, environmental policy, information theory, journalism, medicine, political theory, psychiatry, public administration, sociology, and philosophy, per se.

Short Chronology of the Life and Work of John Dewey

2.1 associationism, introspectionism, and physiological psychology, 2.2 the “reflex arc” and dewey’s reconstruction of psychology, 2.3 instincts/impulses, 2.4 perception/sensation, 2.5 acts and habits, 2.6 emotion, consciousness, 3.1 the development of “experience”, 3.2 traditional views of experience and dewey’s critique, 3.3 dewey’s positive account of experience, 3.4 metaphysics, 3.5 the development of “metaphysics”, 3.6 the project of experience and nature, 3.7 empirical metaphysics and wisdom, 3.8 criticisms of dewey’s metaphysics, 4.1 the organic roots of instrumentalism, 4.2 beyond empiricism, rationalism, and kant, 4.3 inquiry, knowledge, and truth, 5.1 experiential learning and teaching, 5.2 traditionalists, romantics, and dewey, 5.3 democracy through education, 7. political philosophy, 8. art and aesthetic experience, 9.1 dewey’s religious background, 9.2 aligning naturalism and religion, 9.3 “religion” vs. “religious”, 9.4 faith and god, 9.5 religion as social intelligence—a common faith, collections, abbreviations of dewey works frequently cited, individual works, b. secondary sources, other internet resources, related entries, 1. biographical sketch.

John Dewey lead an active and multifarious life. He is the subject of numerous biographies and an enormous literature interpreting and evaluating his extraordinary body of work: forty books and approximately seven hundred articles in over one hundred and forty journals.

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20, 1859 to Archibald Dewey, a merchant, and Lucina Rich Dewey. Dewey was the third of four sons; the first, Dewey’s namesake, died in infancy. He grew up in Burlington, was raised in the Congregationalist Church, and attended public schools. After studying Latin and Greek in high school, Dewey entered the University of Vermont at fifteen and graduated in 1879 at nineteen. After college, Dewey taught high school for two years in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Subsequent time in Vermont studying philosophy with former professor H.A.P. Torrey, along with the encouragement of the editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy , W.T. Harris, helped Dewey decide to attend graduate school in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in 1882. There, his study included logic with Charles S. Peirce (which Dewey found too “mathematical”, and did not pursue), the history of philosophy with George Sylvester Morris, and physiological and experimental psychology with Granville Stanley Hall (who trained with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig and with William James at Harvard). [ 1 ]

Though Dewey later attributed important credit to Peirce’s pragmatism for his mature views, Peirce had no sizable impact during graduate school. There, his main influences—Neo-Hegelian idealism, Darwinian biology, and Wundtian experimental psychology— created a tension he fought to resolve. Was the world fundamentally biological, functional, and material or was it inherently creative and spiritual? In no small part, Dewey’s career was launched by his attempt to mediate and harmonize these views. While sharing the idea of “organism”, Dewey also saw in both — and rejected— any aspects he deemed overly abstract, atomizing, or reductionistic. His earliest attempts to create a “new psychology” (aimed at merging experimental psychology with idealism) sought a method to understand experience as integrated and whole. As a result, Dewey’s early approach modified English absolute idealism. In 1884, two years after matriculating, Dewey graduated with a dissertation criticizing Kant from an Idealist position (“The Psychology of Kant”); it remains lost.

While scholars still debate the degree to which Dewey’s mature philosophy retained early Hegelian influences, Hegel’s personal influence on Dewey was profound. New England’s religious culture, Dewey recalled, imparted an “isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, [and] of nature from God”, and he reacted with “an inward laceration” and “a painful oppression”. His study (with George Sylvester Morris) of British Idealist T.H. Green and G.W.F. Hegel afforded Dewey personal and intellectual healing:

Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was, however, no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me. ( FAE , LW5: 153)

Philosophically, early encounters with Hegelianism informed Dewey’s career-long quest to integrate, as dynamic wholes, the various dimensions of experience (practical, imaginative, bodily, psychical) that philosophy and psychology had defined as discrete.

Dewey’s family, as well as his reputation as a philosopher and psychologist, grew while at various universities, including the University of Michigan (1886– 88, 1889–1894) and the University of Minnesota (1888–89). At Michigan, Dewey developed long-term professional relationships with James Hayden Tufts and George Herbert Mead. In 1886, Dewey married Harriet Alice Chipman; they had six children and adopted one. Two of the boys died tragically young (two and eight). Chipman had a significant influence on Dewey’s advocacy for women and his shift away from religious orthodoxy. During this period, Dewey wrote articles critical of British idealists from a Hegelian perspective; he taught James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), and labeled his own view “experimental idealism” (1894a, The Study of Ethics , EW4: 264).

In 1894, at Tuft’s urging, President William Rainey Harper offered Dewey leadership of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, which also included Psychology and Pedagogy. Motivated to put these disciplines into active collaboration, Dewey accepted and began building the department by hiring G.H. Mead from Michigan and J.R. Angell, a former student at Michigan (who also studied with James at Harvard). Dubbed the “Chicago School” by William James, Dewey, Tufts, Angell, Mead and several others developed “psychological functionalism”. He also published the seminal “Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” (1896, EW5; hereafter RAC ), and broke from transcendental idealism and his church.

At Chicago, Dewey founded The Laboratory School, a site to test psychological and educational theories. Dewey’s wife Alice was the principal from 1896–1904. Dewey became active in Chicago’s social and political causes, including Jane Addams’ Hull House; Addams became a close personal friend of the Dewey’s. Dewey and his biographer, daughter Jane Dewey, credited Addams with helping him develop his views on democracy, education, and philosophy. The significance of Dewey’s intellectual debt to Addams is still being uncovered (“Biography of John Dewey”, Dewey 1939a; see also Seigfried 1999, Fischer 2013).

In 1904, conflicts related to the Laboratory School lead Dewey to resign his Chicago positions and move to the philosophy department at Columbia University in New York City. There, he established an affiliation with Columbia’s Teacher’s College. Important influences at Columbia included F.J.E. Woodbridge, Wendell T. Bush, W.P. Montague, Charles A. Beard (political theory) and Franz Boas (anthropology). Dewey retired from Columbia in 1930, going on to produce eleven more books.

In addition to many significant academic publications, Dewey wrote for various non-academic audiences, notably in the New Republic ; he was active in leading, supporting, or founding a number of important organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the American Philosophical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the New School for Social Research. Dewey spoke out to support progressive politics and social change. His renown as a philosopher and educator lead to numerous invitations; in 1922, he inaugurated the Paul Carus Lectures (revised and published as Experience and Nature , 1925), gave the 1928 Gifford Lectures (revised and published as The Quest for Certainty , 1929), and gave the 1933–34 Terry Lectures at Yale (published as A Common Faith , 1934a). He traveled for two years in Japan and China, and made notable trips to Turkey, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and South Africa.

In 1946, almost two decades after Alice Chipman Dewey died (1927), Dewey married Roberta Lowitz Grant. John Dewey died of pneumonia in his home in New York City on June 1, 1952.

Source: H&A 1998, xiv

  • 1859 Oct. 20. Born in Burlington, Vermont
  • 1879 Receives A.B. from the University of Vermont
  • 1879–81 Teaches at high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania
  • 1881–82 Teaches at Lake View Seminary, Charlotte, Vermont
  • 1882–84 Attends graduate school at Johns Hopkins University
  • 1884 Receives Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University
  • 1884 Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan
  • 1886 Married to Alice Chipman
  • 1888–89 Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota
  • 1889 Chair of Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan
  • 1894 Professor and Chair of Department of Philosophy (including psychology and pedagogy) at the University of Chicago
  • 1897 Elected to Board of Trustees, Hull-House Association
  • 1899 The School and Society
  • 1889–1900 President of the American Psychological Association; Studies in Logical Theory
  • 1904 Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University
  • 1905–06 President of the American Philosophical Society
  • 1908 Ethics
  • 1910 How We Think
  • 1916 The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, Democracy and Education, Essays in Experimental Logic
  • 1919 Lectures in Japan
  • 1919–21 Lectures in China
  • 1920 Reconstruction in Philosophy
  • 1922 Human Nature and Conduct
  • 1924 Visits schools in Turkey
  • 1925 Experience and Nature
  • 1926 Visits schools in Mexico
  • 1927 The Public and its Problems
  • 1927 Death of Alice Chipman Dewey
  • 1928 Visits schools in Soviet Russia
  • 1929 The Quest for Certainty
  • 1930 Individualism, Old and New
  • 1930 Retires from position at Columbia University, appointed Professor Emeritus
  • 1932 Ethics
  • 1934 A Common Faith, Art as Experience
  • 1935 Liberalism and Social Action
  • 1937 Chair of the Trotsky Commission, Mexico City
  • 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Experience and Education
  • 1939 Freedom and Culture, Theory of Valuation
  • 1946 Married to Roberta (Lowitz) Grant; Knowing and the Known
  • 1952 June 1. Dies in New York City

2. Psychology

Dewey’s involvement with psychology began early. He hoped the emerging discipline would answer philosophy’s deepest questions. His initial approach resembled Hegelian Idealism, though it did not incorporate Hegel’s dialectical logic; instead he sought new methods in psychology (Alexander 2020). By overcoming longstanding divisions (between subject and object, matter and spirit, etc.) he would show how human experiences —physical, psychical, practical, and imaginative —all integrate in one, dynamic person ( FAE , LW5: 153). Dewey’s large ambitions for psychology (as the new science of self-consciousness), imagined it as the “completed method of philosophy” (“Psychology as Philosophic Method”, EW1: 157). Nominally a textbook, Psychology (1887 EW2) introduced psychology’s study of the self as ultimate reality.

Dewey developed his own psychological theories. Extant accounts of behavior were flawed, premised upon outdated and false philosophical assumptions. (He eventually judged that such larger questions about the meaning of human existence exceeded the resources of psychology.) Dewey’s work at this time reconstructed components of human conduct (instincts, perceptions, habits, acts, emotions, and conscious thought) and these proved integral to later, mature accounts of experience. They informed his lifelong contention that mind, contrary to long tradition, is not fundamentally subjective and isolated, but social and interactive, emerging in nature and culture.

Dewey’s entry into psychology coincided with two dominant trends: introspectionism (arising from associationism, a.k.a., “mentalism”) and the newer physiological psychology (imported from Germany). Earlier British empiricists, such as John Locke and David Hume, explained intelligent behavior with (1) internally inspected (“introspected”) entities, including perceptual experiences (e.g., “impressions”), and (2) thoughts or ideas (e.g., “images”). These accrue toward intelligence via an elaborate process of associative learning. Discovery-by-introspection was indispensable to many empiricists, and to physiological cum experimental psychologists (e.g., Wundt).

Dewey was deeply influenced by graduate study of physiological psychology with G. Stanley Hall, whose classes included theoretical, physiological, and experimental psychology. Dewey conducted laboratory experiments on attention. Unlike the introspectionists, Hall’s methods incorporated strict experimental controls, a biology-based approach which proffered Dewey an organic and holistic model of experience capable of overcoming the subjectivist dualisms plaguing the older, associationist models. [ 2 ] However, Dewey still found experience atomized and mechanistic in physiological psychology, stemming from a reliance upon “sense data”. From his Hegelian perspective, this psychology could never account for a wider, socio-cultural world. Briefly, for Dewey, “organism” entails “environment” and “environment” entails “culture”. A rigorously empirical psychology could restrict study to “the” mind but was bound to forge connections with other sciences. [ 3 ]

Dewey sought an account of psychological experience that respected experimental limits and culture’s pervasive influences. James’s tour de force, The Principles of Psychology (1890), modeled how to explain the conscious and intelligent self without appealing to a transcendental Absolute. The Principles’ emphatically biological conception of mind, Dewey recalled, gave his thinking “a new direction and quality” and “worked its way more and more into all my ideas and acted as a ferment to transform old beliefs” ( FAE , LW5: 157). Rather than measuring psychic phenomena against preexisting abstractions, it deployed a “radical empiricism” that starts from lived experience’s actual phases and elements and aims to understand its functional origins.

One expression of this Jamesean turn was Dewey’s seminal critique of the reflex arc concept (1896). The “reflex arc” model of behavior was an influential way to empirically and experimentally explain human behavior using stimulus-response (cause-effect) pairings. It sought to displace less observable and testable approaches relying upon “psychic entities” or “mental substance”. In the model, a passive organism encounters an external stimulus, causing a sensory and motor response — a child sees a candle (stimulus), grasps it (response), burns her hand (stimulus), and pulls her hand back (response). This makes explicit the event’s basic stimuli and responses, describing connections in mechanistic and physiological terms. No recourse to mysterious and unobservable entities is necessary.

Dewey criticized the reflex arc on several grounds. First, events (sensory stimulus, central response, and act) are artificially separated for purposes of analysis. “The reflex arc”, Dewey wrote, “is not a comprehensive, or organic unity, but a patchwork of disjointed parts, a mechanical conjunction of unallied processes” ( RAC , EW5: 97). Second, the model falsifies genuine interaction; organisms do not passively receive stimuli and then actively respond; rather, organisms continuously interact with environments in cumulative and modifying ways. The child encountering a candle is already actively exploring, anticipating; noticing a flame modifies ongoing actions. “The real beginning is with the act of seeing; it is looking, and not a sensation of light” ( RAC , EW5: 97). Third, the model too rigidly designates certain events ( the stimulus, the response); it reifies them and ignores a wider, ongoing matrix of activity. Effectively, Dewey was pointing out the ironic fact that the reflex arc model — intending to shed metaphysical assumptions — was inadvertently creating new ones. We are seeking to discover, Dewey argued, “what stimulus or sensation, what movement and response mean ” and we are finding that “they mean distinctions of flexible function only, not of fixed existence ” ( RAC , EW5: 102; emphasis mine). His suggestion is pragmatic; rather than an underlying reality ( pure stimulus, pure response), psychology should look to meanings. Pragmatically, then, terms such as stimulus, response, sensation, and movement “mean distinctions of flexible function only, not of fixed existence” ( RAC , EW5: 102). Meanings of terms are understood once they are seen as functional acts in a dynamic context that includes aims and interests. [ 4 ]

Dewey’s critique and reconstruction of the reflex arc presaged other important developments in his pragmatism. The wider lesson was the need to pay greater attention to context and function, and he applied it over his career to science more broadly, and to logic and mathematics. This was a warning not to mistake analyses’ eventual outcomes as evidence for already-existing entities. [ 5 ] It was also a reminder that specific applications of theory earned salience by their value in a longer temporal context, checked both prospectively and retrospectively.

Rather than recount Dewey’s extensive reconstruction of the human self, here is a cursory review to illustrate how he developed some basic notions: instincts/impulses, perceptions, sensations, habits, emotions, sentiency, consciousness, and mind.

James had already attacked attempts to explain complex, developed behavior by reference to preexisting impulses and instincts (e.g., “Habit”, James 1890: chapter 4); Dewey continued the assault. Such explanations fail to consider instinct’s plastic and pliable character. Across a variety of individuals, instincts considered simple or basic are anything but—they blossom into many different habits and customs. [ 6 ] Also, instincts are not pushing an essentially passive creature, but are actively taken up in diverse circumstances, for diverse purposes. “Instinct”, like “stimulus”, has meaning depending upon contextual factors which may include biological and socio-linguistic responses. There is no psychology without social psychology, no plausible inquiry into pure, biological instincts (or other “natural” powers) without consideration of social and environmental factors, let alone the particularities of a given inquiry. As interactive phenomena-in-environment, instincts/impulses are better framed as transactions ( HNC , MW14: 66).

Dewey’s argument about instincts applied to perception and sensation as well — do not base an empirical science on unquestioned, metaphysical posits, and do not rely upon strictly analytical methods that use simple elements to build up complex behavior. Too often, such methods are inadequate to explain psychological phenomena. Accordingly, Dewey attacked the then-common view that a perception (1) was simply and externally caused, (2) completely occupied a mental state, and (3) was passively received into an empty mental space.

Such elements grow out of an erroneous “psychophysical dualism” that radically separates perceiver from world. Consider (1), perception as causation. Perception as simply and externally caused is contravened by the Darwinian, ecological model. There, organism-environment interactions include, but are not ontologically reducible to , “minds”, “bodies”, and their impingements— the so-called “impressions” and “ideas” of modern philosophy. We do encounter surprising, unbidden events but such occurrences do not justify leaping to metaphysical conclusions, that there is a world “out there” and a mind “in here”.

While experience is profoundly qualitative, qualities are never simply received nor are they contextless. This new view of qualities rejects the longstanding dualism between “objective” and “subjective”. A lemon’s “yellowness” or “tartness” are neither in a perceiver nor in a lemon; each quality emerges from complex interactions that can later be characterized ( as “tartness”) for reasons germane to the inquiry. Dewey wrote,

The qualities never were ‘in’ the organism; they always were qualities of interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake. ( EN , LW1: 198–199)

Thus, as discriminated, perceptions and qualities are made in inquiry and language, not reports of ontological entities that are simple, discrete, or ultimate. “Perception”, then, is shorthand for more complicated interacting events. “Red” abstracts from a more complex experience (e.g., red-car-merging-into-my-lane), and the pragmatic question becomes, What is the function of this abstraction? How does it mediate thought or action for future experiences? (“A Naturalistic Theory of Sense-Perception”, LW2: 51; EN , LW1: 198–199)

Regarding (2), perceptions pervading mental states, Dewey echoes James in “The Stream of Thought” (James 1890: chapter 9). While a perception may occupy mental focus, there is also an attendant “fringe” which contributes contrast and creates, in the wider situation, an “underlying qualitative character” (“Qualitative Thought”, LW5: 238 fn. 1). The aforementioned “tartness” of the lemon relies for its character upon a slew of “fringe” conditions (e.g., immediate past flavors, gustatory anticipations, etc.).

Finally, regarding passive reception (3), perception is already a “taking up” by organisms already functioning in situations; there is no instantaneous and passive apprehension of stimuli. Taking up always means selectivity, a process of adjustment that take some time. Perception is never naïve, never a confrontation with some “given” content already imbued with inherent meaning. Long before Wilfred Sellars (see entry on Sellars ) dismissed the passive-perception-encounter as modern empiricism’s “Myth of the Given”, Dewey had rebuked such claims. All seeing is seeing as —adjustments within larger acts. These habits of adjustment can change (subsequent selections and interpretations are modified), so what is perceived can shift ( DE , MW9: 346).

The 1896 “Reflex Arc” paper argued that simpler constituents are insufficient to explain complex behavior; Dewey found that the “act” provided a better starting point ( HNC , MW14: 105). Acts help organisms cope with their environment; they direct movement. Acts exhibit selectivity and express interest, which make things meaningful. Our ancestors’ selective acts to satisfy instinctive hunger resulted in choosing certain foods (safe) over others. Over time, more elaborate interest in food becomes social norms (dining, e.g.) and aesthetic expectations (cuisine).

Following James and Peirce, Dewey integrates “habit” deeply into his philosophy, using it to explain various dimensions of human experience (biological, ethical, political, and aesthetic) as manifested in complex and social behaviors—walking, talking, cooking, conversing. [ 7 ] Habits are complex, composed of acts which unfold in time. Acts may begin with instinct borne of need and muddle toward reintegration and satisfaction. To become a habit, an act-series changes gradually and cumulatively; one act leads to the next. “Habit” emerges when acts cumulatively link to structure experience. Habit, Dewey wrote, “is an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts” ( HNC , MW14: 32). Such “ways” draw on past experiences, including social and linguistic interaction. Habits shared by groups are “customs”.

Dewey challenged assumptions about the routine nature of habits. Habits may become routine, but are not strictly automatic or insulated from conscious reformulation. Indeed, they cannot be literally automatic because every situation is somehow new. Thus, the same exact acts never repeat. Unlike machine routines, organic habits remain plastic, changeable. Habitually eating sweets is subject to contingency (toothache) and modification (restraint); thus, conscious reflection is the first stage of habits’ revision.

He also challenged the notion that habits were dormant powers, waiting to be invoked. Instead, habits are “energetic and dominating ways of acting” determining what we do and are: “All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self” ( HNC , MW14: 22, 21). Habits are not individual possessions or inner forces; rather, they are transactions between organisms and environments, functions making adaptation or reconstruction possible.

Habits enter into the constitution of the situation; they are in and of it, not, so far as it is concerned, something outside of it. (“Brief Studies in Realism”, MW6: 120)

Because situations are cultural as well as bio-physical, habits are ineliminably social. So-called “individual” habits emerge within the social world of friends, family, home, work, media, etc. Change of habit, then, is not a project of invoking sheer willpower, but rather one of intelligent inquiry into relevant, frequently wider and social, conditions (psychological, sociological, economic, etc.).

Dewey redescribed “emotion” as he did “habit” — a basic form of involvement in “coordinated circuits” of activity. But while habits are controlled responses to problematic situations, emotion is not predominantly controlled or organized; emotion is an organism’s “perturbation from clash or failure of habit” ( HNC , MW14: 54). As with the other psychological accounts, Dewey reconstructs emotion as transactional with other experiences (also typically analyzed as discrete — “rational,” “physical,” etc.).

Dewey’s account draws upon Darwin and James. Darwin argued that internal emotional states cause organic expressions which, depending on their survival value, may be subject to natural selection. James sought to decrease the distance between emotion and accompanying bodily expression. In cases of emotion, a perception excites a pre- organized physiological mechanism; recognizing such changes just is the emotional experience: “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike” (James 1890 [1981: 450]). Dewey’s “The Theory of Emotion” (1894b & 1895, EW4) pushed James’ point further, toward an integrated whole (feeling-and-expression). Being sad is not merely feeling sad or acting sad but is the purposive organism’s overall experience. In effect, Dewey is gently correcting James’ (1890) reiteration of mind-body dualism. To understand emotion, we must see that “the mode of behavior is the primary thing” (“The Theory of Emotion”, EW4: 174). Like habits, emotions are not private possessions but emerge from the dynamic organism-environment complex; emotions are “called out by objects, physical and personal” as an intentional “response to an objective situation” ( EN , LW1: 292). As I encounter a strange dog, I am perplexed about how to react; usual habits are inhibited and there is emotion. (“The Theory of Emotion”, EW4: 182) We may say emotions are intentional insofar as they are “ to or from or about something objective, whether in fact or in idea” and not merely reactions “in the head” ( AE , LW10: 72).

Philosophically, emotion is a central feature of Dewey’s critique of traditional epistemology and metaphysics. By pursuing simple or pure rational access (to truth, reality) such systems misrepresent and castigate emotion as distraction, confused thought, or bodily interference; naturally, emotion becomes something needing to be suppressed, controlled, or bracketed. For Dewey, emotion is courses through individuals (reasoning, acting) and social groups (creating cultural meanings). He connects the traditional balkanization of emotion to non-philosophical motives, such as the segregation of leisure from labor and men from women. On Dewey’s reading, traditional rationalistic approaches require not just logical but moral critique.

2.7 Sentiency, Mind, and Consciousness

Dewey’s accounts of sentiency, mind, and consciousness build upon those of impulse, perception, act, habit, and emotion. A cursory view completes this sketch of Dewey’s psychology.

As with other psychic phenomena, sentience emerges through organism-environment transactions. Creatures seek to satisfy needs and escape peril; when precarity disrupts stability a struggle to reestablish balance begins, and what follows is adjustment of self, environment, or both. Sometimes previously successful methods (pre-organized responses) fail, and we become ambivalent. Divided against ourselves about what to do next, it proves advantageous to inhibit practiced responses (look before leaping). It is this inhibitory pause of action that, Dewey wrote, “introduces mental confusion, but also, in need for redirection, opportunity for observation, recollection, anticipation” ( EN , LW1: 237). In other words, inhibition makes new ways of considering alternatives possible, imbuing crude, physical situations with new meaning. Thus, Dewey wrote, sentiency or feeling

is in general a name for the newly actualized quality acquired by events previously occurring upon a physical level, when these events come into more extensive and delicate relationships of interaction. ( EN , LW1: 204)

At this stage, the new relationships are not yet known ; they do, however, provide the conditions for knowing. Symbolization, language, liberates these now-noticed relationships using tools of abstraction, memory, and imagination ( EN , LW1: 199).

Dewey rejected traditional accounts of mind-as-substance (or container) and more contemporary reductions of mind to brain states ( EN , LW1: 224–225). Rather, mind is activity, a range of dynamic processes of interaction between organism and world. Language offers some clues to the diversity of ways we can think of mind: as memory (I am re mind ed of X); as attention (I keep her in mind , I mind my manners); as purpose (I have an aim in mind ); as care or solicitude (I mind the child); as heed (I mind the traffic stop). “Mind”, then, ranges over many activities: intellectual, affectional, volitional, or purposeful. It is

primarily a verb…[that] denotes every mode and variety of interest in, and concern for, things: practical, intellectual, and emotional. It never denotes anything self-contained, isolated from the world of persons and things, but is always used with respect to situations, events, objects, persons and groups. ( AE , LW10: 267–68)

As Wittgenstein ( entry on Wittgenstein, section on rule-following and private language ) pointed out 30 years later, no private language (see entry on private language ) is possible given this account of meaning. While meanings might be privately entertained, they are not privately invented; meanings are social and emerge from symbol systems arising through collective communication and action ( EN , LW1: 147).

Active, complex animals are sentient due to the variety of distinctive connections they have with their environment. But “mentality” (mindfulness) arises due to the eventual ability to recognize and use meaningful signs. With language, creatures can identify and differentiate feelings as feelings, objects as objects, etc.

Without language, the qualities of organic action that are feelings are pains, pleasures, odors, colors, noises, tones, only potentially and proleptically. With language they are discriminated and identified. They are then “objectified”; they are immediate traits of things. ( EN , LW1: 198)

The bull’s charge is stimulated by the red flag, but the automobile driver takes the red stoplight as a sign.

Dewey thus de-divinized mind while accentuating new aspects of mind’s significance. No longer our spark of divinity, as some ancients held, mind is also no mere ghost in a machine. Mind is vital , investigating problems and inventing tools, aims, and ideals. Mind bridges past and future, an “agency of novel reconstruction of a pre- existing order” ( EN , LW1: 168).

Like mind, consciousness is also activity—the brisk transitioning of felt, qualitative events. Profoundly influenced by James’s metaphor of consciousness as a constantly moving “stream of thought” ( FAE , LW5: 157), Dewey did not conclude that an account of consciousness could be adequately captured in words. Talk about consciousness is always elliptical—it is “vivid” or “conspicuous” or “dull”—always falling shy of the phenomenon. Because the experience of consciousness is ever-evanescent, we cannot fix it as with objects of our attention— for example, “powers”, “things”, or “causes”. Dewey, then, evokes but does not define consciousness. Consider these contrasts in Experience and Nature , ( EN , LW1: 230)

As the comparison makes obvious, psychological life is processual and active; accordingly, Dewey describes consciousness in terms suiting dynamic organisms. Consciousness is thinking-in-motion, ever-reconfiguring series of events that are felt as qualitative experience proceeds. If mind is a “stock” of meanings, consciousness is the realization-and-reconstruction of meanings, reconstructions which can reorganize and redirect activity ( EN , LW1: 233).

Dewey occasionally tried to convey his notion of consciousness performatively, inviting readers to reflect about consciousness while they were reading about it. Here, again, “focus” and “fringe” play a crucial role. ( EN , LW1: 231). As physical balance controls walking, mental meanings adjust and direct ongoing foci and interpretation.

3. Experience and Metaphysics

Dewey’s notion of “experience” evolved over the course of his career. Initially, it contributed to his idealism and psychology. After he developed instrumentalism in Chicago during the 1890’s, Dewey moved to Columbia, revising and expanding the concept in 1905 with his historically significant “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism” ( PIE , MW3). “The Subject-matter of Metaphysical Inquiry” (1915, MW8) and the “Introduction” to Essays in Experimental Logic (1916, MW10) developed the concept, showing “experience” did more than rebut subjectivism in psychology, but was also central to his metaphysical accounts of existence and nature (Dykhuizen 1973: 175–76). This was concretized in Dewey’s 1923 Carus Lectures, revised and expanded as Experience and Nature (1925, revised edition, 1929; EN , LW1). Further extensions and elaborations followed, notably in Art as Experience (1934b, AE , LW10). [ 8 ]

Pivotal to his oeuvre, interested readers should track experience across this entry; here, the focus will be on Dewey’s philosophical method and metaphysics.

Why was experience so important that it permeated Dewey’s approach to philosophy? Three influences were paramount. First, Dewey inherited Darwin’s idea of nature as a complex congeries of changing, transactional processes without fixed ends; in this context, experience means the undergoing and doing of organisms-in-environments, “a matter of functions and habits, of active adjustments and readjustments, of coordinations and activities, rather than of states of consciousness” (“A Short Catechism Concerning Truth”, MW6: 5). Second, Dewey took from James a radically empirical approach to philosophy—the insistence that perspectival experience, (e.g., the personal , emotional , or temperamental ) was philosophically relevant, including to abstract and logical theories. Finally, Dewey accepted Hegel’s emphasis on experience beyond the subjective consciousness — manifest in social, historical, and cultural modes. The self is constituted through experiential transactions with the community, and this vitiates the Cartesian model of simple, atomic selves (and any methods based upon that presumption). Understood this way, philosophy starts where we start, personally — with complex, symbolic, and cultural forms.

These influences, plus Dewey’s own inquiries, convinced him “experience” was the linch-pin to a broader theory of human beings and the natural world. This renewed focus on experience also amounted to a metaphilosophy; it discarded the assumption that philosophy gave special insights into ultimate truth or reality. Philosophy was equipment for living.

As both sheer terminology and as Dewey deployed it, “experience” generated much confusion and debate. Dewey commented about this toward the end of his life. [ 9 ] Decades later, one of Dewey’s foremost philosophical celebrants, Richard Rorty, lambasted Dewey for both the term and (what Rorty perceived as) Dewey’s intentions. [ 10 ] (Rorty 1977, 1995, 2006) (Rorty 1977, 1995, 2006) Nevertheless, since the term lives on, both in Dewey’s work and in everyday discourse, it deserves continued analysis.

Understanding Dewey’s view of experience requires, first, some notion of what he rejected. It was typical for many philosophers to construe experience narrowly, as the private contents of consciousness. These might be perceptions (sensing), or reflections (calculating, associating, imagining) done by the subjective mind. Some, such as Plato and Descartes, denigrated experience as a flux which confused or diverted rational inquiry. Others, such as Hume and Locke, thought experience (as atomic sensations) provided the mind at least some resources for knowing, but with limits. All agreed that percepts and concepts were different and in tension; they agreed that sensation was perspectival and context-relative; they also agreed that this relativity problematized the assumed mission of philosophy—to know with certainty—and differed only about the degree of the problem.

Dewey disputed the empiricist conviction that sensations are categorically separable contents of consciousness. This belief produced a “whole epistemological industry” devoted to the general problem of “correspondence” and a host of specific puzzles (about the existence of an external world, other minds, free will, etc.) (“Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth”, LW14: 179). This “industry” isolates philosophy from empirically informed accounts of experience and from pressing, practical problems. Regarding mental privacy, Dewey argued that while we have episodes of what might be called mental interiority, it is a later development: “Personality, selfhood, subjectivity, are eventual functions that emerge with complexly organized interactions, organic and social” ( EN , LW1: 162; see also 178–79). Regarding sensorial atomicity, discussed previously in the section on psychology ,

Dewey explained sensation as embedded in a larger sensori-motor circuit, a transaction which should not be quarantined to any single phase—nor to consciousness.

Dewey levied similar criticisms against traditional accounts of reflective thought. He denied a substantial view of mind, especially one ontological apart from body, history, or culture. Reasoning is one function of mind, not the exercise of a separate “faculty”. There is no reason to purify reasoning of feeling, either; reasoning is always permeated with feelings and practical exigencies. It may be practical, at times to “bracket out” a feeling or exigency when they interfere with mental calculating, but it is nevertheless true that reasoning subsists in a wider and “qualitative world” (“Psychology and Work”, LW5: 243).

We have, already, an outline of Dewey’s view: experience is processual, transactional, socially mediated, and not categorically prefigured as “rational” or “emotional”. We add three additional, positive characterizations of experience: first, as experimental ; second, as primary (“had”) or secondary (“known”); and third, as methodological .

First, experience exhibits a fundamentally experimental character. Dewey’s saw, during decades in education, how children’s experiences alternate between acting and being acted upon. Such phases become “experimental” when agents (students) consciously relate what is tried with what eventuates as they come to understand which actions are significant for controlling future events. When experience is experimental, we name the outcome “learning”. [ 11 ]

Second, most of experience is not known or reflective; it is barely regulated or reflected upon. As such, it is “felt” or “had”. Dewey also calls such experience direct and primary. The other kind experience, the focus of philosophy, is characterized by “knowing” or mediation-by-reflection. Dewey labels these “indirect”, “secondary”, or “known”. Known experience abstracts from had (or direct) experience purposefully and selectively, isolating certain relations or connections. The Quest for Certainty provides a cogent description:

[E]xperienced situations come about in two ways and are of two distinct types. Some take place with only a minimum of regulation, with little foresight, preparation and intent. Others occur because, in part, of the prior occurrence of intelligent action. Both kinds are had ; they are undergone, enjoyed or suffered. The first are not known; they are not understood; they are dispensations of fortune or providence. The second have, as they are experienced, meanings that present the funded outcome of operations that substitute definite continuity for experienced discontinuity and for the fragmentary quality due to isolation. ( QC , LW4: 194) [ 12 ]

Dewey’s had/known distinction describes existence without presupposing a dualism between appearance/reality. Much can be unknown without therefore being illusory or merely apparent. Pace Plato, we are not trapped in a cave of illusions with reason as our only escape. We cope with a world that is often confusing or opaque; as we try to make meaning, we keep track of ideas especially helpful predicting and controlling circumstances. Some other experiences are simply enjoyed without making them less real .

Third, Dewey’s renewed and expanded focus on experience was methodological. This requires some unpacking. Dewey’s distinction between experience “had” and “known” was more than a phenomenological observation; it was directive about how philosophy should be done. (We can see this kind of move embedded in Peirce’s pragmatic maxim and James’s radical empiricism.) For Dewey, experience is not just “stuff” presented to (or witnessed by) consciousness; experience is activity, engagement with life. Philosophy, too, is a form of lived activity, which means that doing philosophy properly requires a different starting point. In life, even philosophers do not start with a theory. Theories undoubtedly enter in, but not first. “The vine of pendant theory”, Dewey wrote about the denotative method, “is attached at both ends to the pillars of observed subject-matter” ( EN , LW1: 11; see also 386). [ 13 ]

Following James and Peirce, Dewey is challenging the theoretical assumptions of previous philosophies—“substances”, “mind vs. body”, “pleasure as natural aim”, and so on. Dewey’s philosophical work did critique those concepts, but the point here is metaphilosophical—that we do not start with what is abstract, conceptual. Dewey’s concern with such theoretical starting points was that they isolate philosophy from a more thoroughgoing empiricism capable of engaging actual human problems.

“Experience as method”, then, is both a warning and a positive recommendation. It warns philosophers to recognize that while intellectual terms may seem “original, primitive and simple” they should be understood as the historically and normatively situated “products of discrimination and classification” ( EN , LW1: 386; see also 371–372, 375). “Knowing” does not stand beyond experience or nature, but is an activity with its own standpoint and qualitative character. Whatever theory is eventually devised, a genuinely experiential method will check it against ordinary experience ( EN , LW1: 26). [ 14 ]

The experiential or denotative method tells us that we must go behind the refinements and elaborations of reflective experience to the gross and compulsory things of our doings, enjoyments and sufferings—to the things that force us to labor, that satisfy needs, that surprise us with beauty, that compel obedience under penalty. ( EN , LW1: 375–76)

Such a method is critical because it forces inquirers to check previous interpretations and judgments against their live encounters in a new situation ( EN , LW1: 364). Philosophy has to engage with new subject matters (and theories), accept challenges beyond the traditional “problems of philosophy”, and embrace the idea that “the starting point is the actually problematic ” ( EN , LW1: 61).

Much that is central to Dewey’s metaphysics has been discussed—the transactional organism-environment setting, mind, consciousness, and experience. Accordingly, this section will examine how Dewey conceived of “metaphysics”, the main project in Experience and Nature , how he attempted to reconnect empirical metaphysics with an ancient idea (philosophy as wisdom), and some of the criticisms his conception received.

Debate over a definite meaning for the term “metaphysics”, was as alive in Dewey’s day as in ours. From the beginning, Dewey sought to critique and reconstruct metaphysical concepts (e.g., reality, self, consciousness, time, necessity, and individuality) and systems (e.g., Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel). Like his fellow pragmatists Peirce, James, and Mead, Dewey wished to transform not eradicate metaphysics. Dewey’s early metaphysical views were closest to idealism, but engagements with experimental science and instrumentalism convinced him to abandon the traditional goal of ultimate and complete accounts of reality.

His interest in metaphysics was revivified at Columbia by colleague F. J. E. Woodbridge, who thought metaphysics could be done in a “descriptive” rather than an extra-physical way (“Biography of John Dewey”, in Schilpp 1939: 36). While many of Dewey’s most important metaphysical works focused on experience (discussed above), special attention is due to “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism” (1905, PIE , MW3), “The Subject-Matter of Metaphysical Inquiry” (1915, MW8), and his “Introduction” to Essays in Experimental Logic (1916c, MW10). [ 15 ] These were all vital precursors to his magnum opus, Experience and Nature . EN ’s final chapters, dealing with art and consummatory experience, were further developed in Art as Experience (1934b, LW10), a text containing additional and significant metaphysical discussions.

While labels tend to obscure what was innovative in his work, it is safe to say Dewey composed a realist, naturalistic, non-reductive, emergentist, process metaphysics. [ 16 ] He described nature’s most general features (“generic traits”) while trying to do empirical justice to the world as encountered. His account also aimed to remain fallible and useful for future researchers seeking to improve life with philosophy. In the end, Dewey described his efforts as a “metaphysics” and as a “system”: “the hanging together of various problems and various hypotheses in a perspective” (“Nature in Experience”, LW14: 141–142). He did not propose a metaphysics from a god’s eye point of view, but one informed and motivated by “a definite point of view” and linked to the contemporary, human world (“Half-hearted Naturalism”, LW3: 75–76 ).

Experience and Nature provides extended criticism of past metaphysical approaches, especially their quest for certainty and assumption of an Appearance/Reality framework, and a positive, general theory regarding how human existence is situated in nature. It is empirical, descriptive, and hypothetical, eschewing claims of special access beyond “experience in unsophisticated forms”. Such experience, Dewey argued, gives us “evidence of a different world and points to a different metaphysics” ( EN , LW1: 47). EN looks to existing characteristics of human culture, anthropologically, to see what they reveal, more generally, about nature. One significant product is Dewey’s isolation, analysis, and description of “generic traits of existence” and their relations to one another.

While this entry lacks space for even a bare summary, it is noteworthy that EN begins with an extensive discussion of method and experience as a new starting point for philosophy. An extensive presentation of the generic traits follows, which later informs discussions about science, technology, body, mind, language, art, and value. While the traits are not presented systematically (à la other metaphysicians such as Spinoza or Whitehead) there is a progression moving from the more basic to the more complex. [ 17 ]

One might ask, How can metaphysics contribute to the world beyond academic philosophy? Dewey aimed to return philosophy to an older, ancient mission—the pursuit of wisdom. And while Dewey describes philosophy as inherently critical, a “criticism of criticisms”, it still raises questions about the objectives of an empirical, hypothetical, naturalistic metaphysics? ( EN , LW1: 298) Dewey raises the issue, himself, prophylactically:

As a statement of the generic traits manifested by existences of all kinds without regard to their differentiation into physical and mental, [metaphysics] seems to have nothing to do with criticism and choice, with an effective love of wisdom. ( EN , LW1: 308)

His answer comes by way of an account of existence’s generic traits, which purportedly provides “a ground-map of the province of criticism, establishing base lines to be employed in more intricate triangulations” ( EN , LW1: 308). [ 18 ] A new metaphysics, like a new map, offers new possibilities for framing and explaining the world. This could discredit entrenched truisms—e.g., men are rational, women are emotional, humans are intelligent, animals are dumb, etc.— or facilitate new connections and new meanings. As Dewey saw it, the long tradition of philosophy had rendered too basic conceptual tools (kinds, categories, dualisms, aims, and values) unassailable; his reconsideration offered a new basis for metaphysics, one which would be relevant and revisable.

"Map-making" suggested a new way to do metaphysics and a new role for philosophers. Philosophers, on this model, become “liaison officers”, intermediators able to facilitate communication between those speaking at cross purposes or in different jargons ( EN , LW1: 306). Drawing from contemporary circumstances and purposes, the maps drawn could not promise certainty or permanency but would need to be redrawn according to changing needs and purposes. Their test, as with the rest of Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy, would lay in their capacity to sharpen criticisms and secure values.

Dewey received and responded to many criticisms of his metaphysical views. Critics often overlooked that his aim was to undercut prevailing metaphysical genres; often, his view was rashly consigned to some other extant camp. (He was characterized, variously, as a realist, idealist, relativist, subjectivist, etc. See Hildebrand 2003.) One recurrent criticism was that his statement in PIE (that “things are what they are experienced as” ) could not yield a metaphysics because it merely reported subjective and immediate experience; such reports, the criticism went, prevented a more mediated and (properly) objective account. Twenty years later, EN received similar reactions by critics who attacked Dewey’s non-binary approach to experience and nature. [ 19 ]

Subsequent criticisms focused upon Dewey’s supposed neglect of a tension between “qualities” vs. “relations”. Qualities, the argument ran, are immediate, whereas relations are mediate; how could Dewey claim they coexist in the same item of experience? This seemed to embody a contradiction. [ 20 ] Richard Bernstein (1961) seized on this issue, and claimed that Dewey harbored two irreconcilable strains, a “metaphysical strain” and a “phenomenological strain”, but failed to sufficiently account for them with his “principle of continuity”. One response to Bernstein argued that his critique unwittingly reenacted the very spectatorial standpoint Dewey’s experiential starting point seeking to overcome. [ 21 ]

In recent years, some debate whether Dewey should have engaged in metaphysics at all. Richard Rorty and Charlene Haddock Seigfried argued that Dewey’s critique of traditional metaphysics was as far as he should have gone; his further efforts diverted him from more important ethical work (Seigfried 2001a, 2004) or plunged him into foundationalist projects previously disavowed (“Dewey’s Metaphysics” in Rorty 1977). Defenders argue that Dewey’s genuinely new approach to metaphysics avoids old problems while contributing something salutary to culture at large (Myers 2020, Garrison 2005, Boisvert 1998a, Alexander 2020).

4. Inquiry and Knowledge

The interactional, organic model Dewey developed in his psychology informed his theories of learning and knowledge. Within this framework, a range of traditional epistemological proposals and puzzles (premised on metaphysical divisions such as appearance/reality, mind/world) lost credibility. “So far as the question of the relation of the self to known objects is concerned”, Dewey wrote, “knowing is but one special case of the agent-patient, of the behaver-enjoyer-sufferer situation” (“Brief Studies in Realism”, MW6: 120). As with psychology, Dewey’s wholesale repudiation of the traditional metaphysical framework required extensive reconstruction in every other area; “instrumentalism” was one popular name for Dewey’s reconstruction of epistemology (or “theory of inquiry”, as Dewey preferred). [ 22 ]

As with his earlier functional approach to psychology, Dewey’s instrumentalism leveraged Darwin to dissolve entrenched divisions between, for example, realism/idealism, science/religion, and empiricism/rationalism. Change and transformation become natural features of the actual world, and knowledge and logic are recast as ways to adapt, survive, and thrive. The better way to understand reasoning is by looking to the dynamic and biological world which harbors it, rather than the traditional paradigms of static precision, physics or mathematics. [ 23 ]

Early statements of instrumentalism (and definitive breaks by Dewey with Hegelian logic) may be seen in “Some Stages of Logical Thought” (Dewey 1900 [1916], MW1); that essay follows Peirce ( entry on Peirce section on pragmatism, pragmaticism, and the scientific method ], [ 24 ] especially the well known 1877–78 articles championing the larger framework of scientific thinking, namely the “doubt-inquiry process” (MW1: 173; see also Peirce 1877, 1878). This account is developed in Studies in Logical Theory (Dewey 1903b, MW2), by Dewey and his collaborators at Chicago. In the work, Dewey acknowledges a “preeminent obligation” to James (Perry 1935: 308–309). [ 25 ]

Studies criticizes transcendentalist logic extensively, concluding that logic should not assume either thought or reality’s existence in general but should rest content with the function or use of ideas in experience :

The test of validity of [an] idea is its functional or instrumental use in effecting the transition from a relatively conflicting experience to a relatively integrated one. ( Studies , MW2: 359)

Thus, instrumentalism abandons all psycho-physical dualisms and all correspondentist theories of knowing. Dewey wrote,

In the logical process the datum is not just external existence, and the idea mere psychical existence. Both are modes of existence—one of given existence, the other of possible , of inferred existence….In other words, datum and ideatum are divisions of labor, cooperative instrumentalities, for economical dealing with the problem of the maintenance of the integrity of experience. ( Studies , MW2: 339–340)

While instrumentalism was of a piece with Dewey’s other views, it was also responding to dialectic within philosophy’s epistemological positions, particularly between British empiricism, rationalism (see entry on rationalism vs. empiricism ), and the Kantian synthesis.

Classical empiricists insisted that sensory experience provided the origins of knowledge. They were motivated, in part, by the concern that rationalistic accounts effort to link knowledge with thought alone (away from particular sense stimuli), were too unchecked. Without the constraints of sense experience, philosophy was doomed to keep producing wildly divergent systems. Classical empiricists, like Dewey, shared a genuine interest in scientific progress; such progress required, first, escape from unfettered speculation. The account developed by figures such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume claimed that (in Locke’s version) the world writes on a receptive blank slate, the mind, in the language of ideas. Using faculties of memory, association, and imagination, knowledge is generated; extension of knowledge must, on this account, be traceable to origination in sense experience.

Rationalists, in contrast, argued that knowledge was both abstract and deductively certain. Sensory experiences are fluid, individualized, and permeated by the relativity borne of innumerable external conditions. How could a philosophical account of genuine knowledge—necessarily certain, self-evident, and unchanging—be derived using sensorial flux? No, knowledge must be derived from inner and certain concepts. Knowledge, then, is produced by an immaterial entity, mind, with an innate power to reason, independent of the contingencies of practical ends and physical bodies.

Kant responded to the empiricist-rationalist tension by reigning in their ambitions; philosophy must stop attempting to transcend the limits of thought and experience. Philosophy’s more modest and proper aspiration is to discover what can be known in the phenomenal world. Kant, then, refused an originary role to either percepts or concepts, arguing that sense and reason are co-constitutive of knowledge. More important, Kant argued for mind as systematizing and constructive.

Dewey’s response to this three-way epistemological conflict was foreshadowed in the earlier discussion of the “Reflex Arc” paper and the idea of sensori-motor circuits. For Dewey, any proposal premised on a disconnected mind and body—or upon one assuming that stimuli (causes, impressions, or what have you) were atomic and in need of synthesis—was a non-starter. [ 26 ]

Accepting some of Kant’s criticisms of rationalism and empiricism, Dewey rejected Kant’s propagation of several significant but unjustified assumptions: that knowledge must be certain; that nature and intellect were categorically distinct; and that it was justified to posit a noumenal realm (things-in-themselves). Dewey also questioned Kant’s supposition that the sensations ingredient to knowledge are initially inchoate; such a claim was, Dewey believed, driven by Kant’s architectonic. Methodologically, perhaps most significantly, Dewey followed James in criticizing Kant’s standpoint as too spectatorial. From a pragmatic, Jamesean, “radical empiricist” standpoint, one may accept a wide variety of phenomenon (clear, vague, felt, remembered, anticipated, etc.) as real even though they are not known .

Thus, for Dewey, Kant falls short of the philosophical perspective needed to synthesize perception and conception, nature and reason, practice and theory. While Kant’s model of an active and structuring mind was a clear advance over passive ones, it retained the retrograde picture of knowledge as reality’s faithful mirror. Kant failed to see knowledge as a dynamic instrument for managing (predicting, controlling, guiding) future experience. This pragmatic conception of knowledge judges it as one would an eye or hand, gauging how it affects the organism’s ability to cope:

What measures [knowledge’s] value, its correctness and truth, is the degree of its availability for conducting to a successful issue the activities of living beings. (“The Bearings of Pragmatism Upon Education”, in MW4: 180)

Thus, Dewey replaced Kant’s mind-centered system with one centered upon experience-nature transactions—“a reversal”, Dewey wrote, “comparable to a Copernican revolution” ( QC , LW4: 232).

In the context of instrumentalism, what is “logic” and “epistemology”? Dewey does not discard these but insists on a more empirical approach. How do reasoning and learning actually happen? [ 27 ] Dewey comprehensively addresses logic in his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry ( LTI , LW12), which calls logic the “inquiry into inquiry”. LTI attempts to systematically collect, organize, and explicate the actual conditions of different kinds of inquiry; the aim, previewed in his 1917 “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy”, is pragmatic and ameliorative: to provide an “important aid in proper guidance of further attempts at knowing” (MW10: 23).

Throughout his career, Dewey described the processes and patterns evinced in active problem solving. Here, we consider three: inquiry, knowledge, and truth. There is, Dewey argued, a “pattern of inquiry” which prevails in problem solving. “Analysis of Reflective Thinking” (1933, LW8) and LTI (LW12) describes five phases. Disavowing the usual divide between emotion and reason, inquiry begins (1) with a feeling of something amiss, a unique and particular doubtfulness; this feeling endures as a pervasive quality imbued in inquiry and serves as a kind of “guide” to subsequent phases. Next, because what is initially present is indeterminate, (2) a problem must be specifically formulated; note that problems do not preexist inquiry, as typically assumed. [ 28 ] Next, (3) a hypothesis is constructed, one which imaginatively utilizes both theoretical ideas and perceptual facts in order to forecast possible consequences of eventual operations. Next, (4) one reasons through the meanings involved in the hypothesis, estimating implications or possible contradictions; frequently, discoveries here direct one return to an earlier phase (to reformulate the hypothesis or redescribe the problem). [ 29 ] Finally, inquiry closes, (5) acting to evaluate and test the hypothesis; here, inquiry discovers whether a proposed solution resolves the problem, whether (in LTI ’s terminology) inquiry has converted an “indeterminate situation” into a “determinate one”.

The inquiry pattern Dewey sketched is schematic; actual cases of reasoning often lack such discreteness or linearity. Thus, the pattern is not a summary of how people always think but rather how exemplary cases of inquirential thinking unfold (e.g., in the empirical sciences).

Knowledge, on Dewey’s transactional model of inquiry, departs from tradition and brought to earth. “Knowledge, as an abstract term”, Dewey wrote,

is a name for the product of competent inquiries. Apart from this relation, its meaning is so empty that any content or filling may be arbitrarily poured in. ( LTI , LW12: 16)

To understand a product, one must understand the process; this is Dewey’s approach. By denying that knowledge is an isolated product, he effectively denies a metaphysics that makes mind- the-substance separate from everything else. He does not depreciate knowing as an activity , and strongly maintains that “intelligence” is crucial to mediating individual and societal conflicts. [ 30 ]

Truth is also radically reevaluated. Truth long connoted an ideal— an epistemic fixity (a correspondence, a coherence) capable of satisfying the need for further inquiry. Since this is not the actual situation human beings (or philosophy) inhabits, the ideal should be set aside. Still, Dewey was ever the (re)constructivist; in “Experience, Knowledge, and Value” (1939c) he provided an account. Truth no longer points toward something transcendental but toward the process of inquiry (“Experience, Knowledge, and Value”, LW14: 56–57). A proposition is “true” insofar as it serves as a reliable resource:

In scientific inquiry, the criterion of what is taken to be settled, or to be knowledge, is being so settled that it is available as a resource in further inquiry; not being settled in such a way as not to be subject to revision in further inquiry. ( LTI , LW12: 16)

Truth is not beyond experience, but is an experienced relation, particularly one socially shared. In How We Think , Dewey wrote,

Truth, in final analysis, is the statement of things “as they are,” not as they are in the inane and desolate void of isolation from human concern, but as they are in a shared and progressive experience….Truth, truthfulness, transparent and brave publicity of intercourse, are the source and the reward of friendship. Truth is having things in common. ( HWT , MW6: 67; see also “The Experimental Theory of Knowledge”, 1910b, MW3: 118)

In Dewey’s instrumentalism, then, knowledge and truth are adjectival not nominative, describing a process which, as Peirce tells us, can persist as long as we do. “There is no belief so settled as not to be exposed to further inquiry” (LTI, LW12: 16). Words like “knowledge” and “truth” are honored because of their historic service as tools for past inquiries and their aid in securing values.

5. Philosophy of Education

Around the world, Dewey remains as well known for his educational theories (see entry on philosophy of education, section Rousseau, Dewey, and the progressive movement ) as for his philosophical ones. A closer look shows how often these theories align. Recognizing this, Dewey reflected that his 1916 magnum opus in education, Democracy and Education ( DE , MW9) “was for many years that [work] in which my philosophy, such as it is, was most fully expounded” ( FAE , LW5: 156). DE argued that philosophy itself could be understood as “the general theory of education”, avoiding further hyper-specialization and investing more earnestly in everyday problems.

This was a call to see philosophy from an educational standpoint:

Education offers a vantage ground from which to penetrate to the human, as distinct from the technical, significance of philosophic discussions….The educational point of view enables one to envisage the philosophic problems where they arise and thrive, where they are at home, and where acceptance or rejection makes a difference in practice. If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education . ( DE , MW9: 338)

Dewey was active in education his entire life. Besides high school and college teaching, he devised curricula, established, reviewed and administered schools and departments of education, participated in collective organizing, consulted and lectured internationally, and wrote extensively on many facets of education. He established the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School as an experimental site for theories in instrumental logic and psychological functionalism. This school also became a site for democratic expression by the local community.

Dewey’s “Reflex Arc” paper applied functionalism to education. “Reflex” argued that human experience is not a disjointed sequence of fits and starts, but a developing circuit of activities. Framed this way, learning is a cumulative, progressive process where inquirers move from dissatisfying doubt toward satisfying resolutions of problems. “Reflex” also shows that the subject of a stimulus (e.g., the pupil) is not a passive recipient but an agent actively selecting stimuli within a larger field of activities.

Cognizance of these facts, Dewey argued, compelled educators to discard pedagogies based on the mind as “blank slate”. In The School and Society Dewey wrote, “the question of education is the question of taking hold of [children’s] activities, of giving them direction” (MW1: 25). How We Think (1910c, MW6) primarily aimed to help teachers apply instrumentalism. Overall, education’s intellectual goals would advance by acquainting children using the general intellectual habits of scientific inquiry.

The native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind. ( HWT , MW6: 179)

These proposals entailed the revision of the teacher’s role; while teachers still had to know their subject matter, they also needed to understand students’ cultural and personal backgrounds. If learning was to incorporate actual problems, more careful integration of content with particular learners was needed. Motivational tactics also had to change. Rather than rewards or punishments, Deweyan teachers were to reimagine the whole learning environment, merging the school’s existing goals with pupils’ present interests. One strategy was to identify specific problems that could bridge curriculum and student and then formulate learning situations to exercise them. [ 31 ] This problem-centered approach was demanding, requiring teachers to train in subject matters, child psychology, and pedagogies for weaving these together. [ 32 ]

Dewey’s educational philosophy emerged amidst a fierce 1890’s debate between educational “romantics” and “traditionalists”. Romantics (also called “New” or “Progressive” education by Dewey), urged a “child- centered” approach; the child’s natural impulses provided education’s proper starting point. Education should not fetter creativity and growth, even if content must sometimes be attenuated. Traditionalists (called “Old” education by Dewey) pressed for “curriculum-centered” approaches. Children were empty cabinets curriculum fills with civilization’s contents; the main job of instruction was to ensure receptivity with discipline.

Dewey developed an interactional model to move beyond that debate, refusing to privilege either child or society. (See “My Pedagogic Creed”, 1897b, EW5; The School and Society , 1899, MW1; Democracy and Education , 1916b, MW9; Experience and Education , 1938b, LW13, etc.) While Romantics correctly identified the child (replete with instincts, powers, habits, and histories) as an indispensable starting point for pedagogy, Dewey denied that the child was the only starting point. Larger social groups (family, community, nation) have a legitimate stake in passing along extant interests, needs, and values as part of an educational synthesis.

Still, of these two approaches, Dewey more adamantly rejected traditionalists’ (overly) high premium on discipline and memorization. While recognizing the legitimacy of conveying content (facts, values), it is paramount that schools eschew indoctrination. Educating meant incorporating , giving wide latitude for unique individuals who, after all, would inherit and have dominion over the changing society. This is why who the child was mattered so much. Following colleague and lifelong friend G.H. Mead’s ideas about the social self, Dewey argued that schools had to become micro-communities to reflect children’s growing interests and needs. “The school cannot be a preparation for social life excepting as it reproduces, within itself, the typical conditions of social life” (“Ethical Principles Underlying Education”, 1897a, EW5: 61–62). [ 33 ]

Connecting child, school, and society aimed not only to improve pedagogy, but democracy as well. Because character, rights, and duties are informed by and contribute to the social realm, schools were critical sites to learn and experiment with democracy. Democratic life includes not only civics and economics, but epistemic and communicative habits as well: problem solving, compassionate imagination, creative expression, and civic self-governance. The range of roles a child might inhabit is vast; this creates a societal obligation to make education its highest political and economic priority. During WWII, Dewey wrote,

There will be almost a revolution in school education when study and learning are treated not as acquisition of what others know but as development of capital to be invested in eager alertness in observing and judging the conditions under which one lives. Yet until this happens, we shall be ill-prepared to deal with a world whose outstanding trait is change. (“Between Two Worlds”, 1944, LW17: 463)

Democracy is much more comprehensive than a form of government, it is “not an alternative to other principles of associated life [but] the idea of community life itself” ( PP , LW2: 328). Individuals exist in communities; as their lives change, needs and conflicts emerge that require intelligent management; we must make sense out of new experiences. Education empowers that by teaching the attitudes and habits (imaginative, empirical) that made the experimental sciences so successful. Dewey called these attitudes and habits “intelligence”. [ 34 ]

Informing these areas—science, education, and democratic life—is Dewey’s naturalism, which redirects hope away from what is immutable or ultimate (God, Nature, Reason, Ends) toward the human capacity to learn from experience. In “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” (1939b) Dewey wrote,

Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich and order the ongoing process. Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education. All ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process become arrests, fixations. They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences. (“Creative Democracy”, LW14: 229)

Democracy’s success or failure rests on education. Education is most determinative of whether citizens develop the habits needed to investigate problematic beliefs and situations while communicating openly. While every culture aims to convey values and beliefs to the coming generation, the most important thing is to distinguish between education which inculcates collaborative and creative hypothesizing from education which foments obeisance to parochialism and dogma. This same caution applies to philosophy itself.

Dewey wrote and spoke extensively on ethics throughout his career; some writings were explicitly about ethics, but ethical analyses appear in works with other foci. [ 35 ] As elsewhere, Dewey critiques then reconstructs traditional views; he argued it is typical for traditional systems (e.g., teleological, deontological, or virtue-based) to seek comprehensive and monocausal accounts of, for example, ultimate aims, duties, or values. Such ideal theorizing is obligated to explain morality’s requirements for all individuals, actions, or characters.

Dewey argued for a more experimental approach. Rather than an ultimate explanatory account of moral life, ethics should describe intelligent methods for dealing with novel and morally perplexing situations. No ultimate values should be stipulated or sought. [ 36 ] The only value Dewey celebrated as (something like) ultimate was “growth”. [ 37 ] Ethics means inquiry into concrete, problematic conditions; such inquiry may use theories to inform hypotheses tested in experience. Reliable hypotheses may come to be called “knowledge”, but must, in the end, be considered fallible and revisable. Actual resolutions to moral problems typically point toward plural factors (aims, duties, virtues), rather than just one ( TIF , LW5). Moreover, actual conduct (including inquiry) is undertaken not by isolated, rational actors but by social beings. [ 38 ] “Conduct”, Dewey wrote,

is always shared; this is the difference between it and a physiological process. It is not an ethical “ought” that conduct should be social. It is social, whether bad or good. ( HNC , MW14: 16)

Dewey’s ethical theory, like those in education and politics, utilizes his transactional views of experience, habit, inquiry, and the communicative, social self. It also exemplifies his metaphysics — a world both precarious and stable, where conflict is natural and quests to ignore or permanently eradicate it are fantastical. [ 39 ] Conflict is a generic trait of life, not a defect; theories denying this tend to be so reductive and absolutist that they divorce inquiry from the essential details of concrete situations, cultures, and persons. Such strategies tend to fail. [ 40 ]

Progress in ethical theory, then, means inquiry that is more discriminating and revelatory of consequences and alternatives. [ 41 ] Improving inquiry requires better methods of deliberation; this means being open to contributions from many sources: sciences, social customs, jurisprudence, biographies, moral systems of the past. [ 42 ] Deliberation especially benefits from what Dewey called “dramatic rehearsal”, where imaginative enactment of possible scenarios can illuminate the emotional weight and color of potential ethical choices. [ 43 ]

For further details on Dewey’s ethics, see the entry Dewey’s moral philosophy by E. Anderson (2023) and Hildebrand (2018).

Dewey’s political philosophy, like other areas, builds on the idea that individuals are not self-subsistent social atoms but are constituted in social environments; it also builds on humans’ ability to inquire to solve problems in hypothetical and experimental ways. [ 44 ] As elsewhere, theory is instrumental; concepts do not uncover an underlying “reality,” but are functional (or not) in particular, practical circumstances. Concepts and theories in political theory are fallible and amenable to reconstruction. Dewey rejected approaches relying upon non-empirical, a priori assumptions (e.g., about human nature, progress, etc.) and those proposing ultimate, typically monocausal, explanations. His work criticized and reconstructed core concepts (individual, freedom, right, community, public, state, and democracy) along naturalist and experimentalist lines. Besides numerous articles (for academic and lay audiences), Dewey’s political thought is found in books including The Public and Its Problems (1927b, LW2), Individualism, Old and New (1930f, LW5), Liberalism and Social Action (1935, LW11), and Freedom and Culture (1939d, LW13). Because Democracy and Education (1916b, DE , MW9) emphasizes profound connections between education, society, and democratic habits—it also merits study as a “political” work.

Enormous changes occurred during Dewey’s lifetime, including massive US population growth, the rise of industrial, scientific, technological, and educational institutions, the American Civil War, two world wars, and a global economic depression. These events strained prevailing liberal theories, and Dewey labored to reconceive democracy and liberalism. “The frontier is moral, not physical”, Dewey urged, proposing that democracy was tantamount to a “way of life” which required continual renewal to survive. [ 45 ] Beyond governmental machinery (universal suffrage, recurring elections, political parties, trial by peers, etc.), he also characterized democracy as “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” ( DE , MW9: 93; see also, PP , LW2: 325). Such experience, expressed through collaborative inquiry, required intellectual and emotional competencies so that shared problems and value differences could be discussed and addressed. Ultimately, democracy requires faith that experience is a sufficient resource for future solutions, and that recourse to transcendent rules or aims can be outgrown. [ 46 ]

Dewey’s analysis of individualism arose from earlier academic interests and his sensitivity to contemporary economic and technological pressures. [ 47 ] The older “atomic” individualism—where natural egoists vie to maximize their standing—was now harming not protecting individuals; deployed as a rhetorical pretext, it was enabling wealthy and powerful interests to undermine most of the protections which initially justified liberalism. [ 48 ]

Dewey’s counter-proposal was “renascent liberalism”. [ 49 ] Reconstructing its core concept (“atomic” individuals become “social”), made other key political notions revisable—e.g., “liberty”, “freedom”, and “rights” —as all were resituated in an instrumentalist framework ( LSA , LW11: 35; E , MW5: 394). [ 50 ] Also revised are notions of “community” and “public”. A democratic “public” forms around problems, and aims to conduct experimental inquiry that leads to redress ( PP , LW2: 314). Dewey also expressed a grave concern, still with us today, regarding “inchoate” publics. Such publics include members lacking the education, time, and attention necessary for inquiry. They present democracy with perhaps its most significantly undermining condition ( PP , LW2: 321, 317).

For further details on Dewey’s political theory, see the entry on Dewey’s political philosophy by M. Festenstein (2023) and Hildebrand (2018).

Dewey’s magnum opus on aesthetics, Art as Experience ( AE , LW10: 31) states that art, as a conscious idea, is “the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity” (31). [ 51 ] Such high praise deserves notice. Dewey began writing about aesthetics very early, regarding art’s relevance to psychology (1887, EW2), to education (1897c, EW5), the invidious distinction between “fine” and “practical” art (1891, EW3: 310–311), and on Bosanquet (1893, EW4). His own theory emerged in Experience and Nature (1925a, EN , LW1) and flourished in AE (1934b); he proposed aesthetics as central to philosophy’s mission, namely rendering everyday experience more fulfilling and meaningful.

Dewey’s aesthetics has four main objectives and an overarching purpose. First, it explicates artworks’ ontology, the interrelated processes of making and appreciation, and specifies the functions of interpretation and criticism. [ 52 ] Second, it examines arts’ social role in presenting, reimagining, and projecting human identity. Third, it analyzes the communicative functions of art, especially in education and political life. Finally, it describes and analyzes the implications of art’s expression as experience; such experience can reach levels of integration as they become qualitatively distinct, or “consummatory”. [ 53 ] Consummatory experience happens occasionally; sometimes it occurs not in an “artistic” context (concert, museum, etc.) but in unexpectedly quotidian circumstances. It is life at its fullest. The overarching purpose of Dewey’s aesthetics is determining how more of life’s experiences could become consummatory.

The main problem posed by AE is: How did a chasm arise between the arts, artists and ordinary people? How have cultural conditions and aesthetic theories (reinforced by institutions) isolated “art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing”? ( AE , LW10: 16) AE makes art’s natural continuities with everyday life explicit, while seeking to prevent its reduction to mere entertainment or “transient pleasurable excitations”. ( AE , LW10: 16) [ 54 ] Dewey criticizes traditional aesthetics’ spectatorial (or theoretical) starting point and offers radically empirical accounts of art making, appreciation, expression, form, and criticism. Because aesthetic experience has organic roots, it can be recognized even in everyday objects and events. [ 55 ] Again, the goal is dissolution of dualisms between “fine” and “useful” objects to foment a greater “continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living” ( AE , LW10: 16).

For further details on Dewey’s aesthetics, see entry on Dewey’s aesthetics by T. Leddy (2021) and Hildebrand (2018).

9. Religion, Religious Experience and A Common Faith

The whole story of man shows that there are no objects that may not deeply stir engrossing emotion. One of the few experiments in the attachment of emotion to ends that mankind has not tried is that of devotion, so intense as to be religious, to intelligence as a force in social action. ( A Common Faith , 1934a, LW9: 52–53)

Dewey grew up in a religious family; his devout mother pressured her sons to live up to a similar devotion. His family church was Congregationalist; a bit later, including in college, Liberal Evangelicalism proved more acceptable. At twenty-one, while living in Oil City, Pennsylvania, Dewey had a “mystic experience” which he reported to friend Max Eastman:

There was no vision, not even a definable emotion—just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries [about whether he prayed sufficiently in earnest] were over. (Dykhuizen 1973: 22)

Dewey belonged to congregations for about thirty-five years, turning away circa 1894 as he left for a post in Chicago. After that, Dewey’s deepest loyalties lay outside religion; he was, as John J. McDermott put it,

an unregenerate philosophical naturalist, one for whom the human journey is constitutive of its own meaning and is not to be rescued by any transcendent explanations, principles of accountability, or posthumous salvation. (McDermott 2006, 50–51)

Dewey returned to philosophical issues of religion in the 1930’s. “What I Believe” (1930, LW5) argued for a new kind of “faith”, a “tendency toward action”. Such a faith was not transcendental, but signified that “experience itself is the sole ultimate authority” (“What I Believe”, LW5: 267). This faith arises actively, from “the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning” (“What I Believe”, LW5: 272). In 1933–34, Dewey gave the Terry Lectures at Yale, published as A Common Faith (1934a, ACF , LW9), his major statement on religion and religious experience.

Dewey’s endeavor in A Common Faith seems, in retrospect, insurmountable: to reconstruct religion in a way harmonious with his empirical naturalism, while transforming religious experience and belief to support and advance a secular conception of democracy. Religions vary, of course, but typically posit transcendent, eternal, unobservable entities and reveal themselves in ways which are not, shall we say, open to verification. Empirical experience, typically, is cast as inferior—castigated as flux, illusion, uncertainty, or confusion — and must be set aside. Dewey had squared himself against the metaphysics, epistemology, and seemingly the morality, of major religions.

Who was ACF ’s intended audience? Dewey was not addressing believers content with supernatural religion, nor religious liberals seeking a compromise that would place scientific and spiritual truths in separate categories. He was not addressing militant atheists, and rejected their dogmatism. [ 56 ] Rather, ACF addressed those who had abandoned supernaturalism yet still believed themselves religious (“Experience, Knowledge, and Value”, LW14: 79–80). ACF meant to salvage whatever made the religious attitude valuable in experience while shedding traditional religious frameworks and supernaturalistic beliefs.

Dewey’s strategy was to divorce “religious experience” from religion, showing how the former might arise within a natural and social context. [ 57 ] He found that none of the qualities reported by religious experiencers (feelings of peace, wholeness, security, etc.), offered evidence for the supernatural. ( ACF , LW9ff.) He also found that religious experience is not self-enclosed; it can color or affect other experiences. Just as sunset may exhibit “aesthetic” dimensions or a linguistic remark may betray a “moral” tint, various experiences may have a “religious” aspect ( ACF , LW9: 9.). The “religious” character of experience, then, is attitudinal, lending “deep and enduring support to the processes of living” ( ACF , LW9: 15). Dewey analyzed such religiosity as a kind of coping. Consider three options for coping: (1) accommodate an obstacle by resigning to put up with conditions imposed; (2) adapt or modify the obstacle’s conditions to one’s liking; finally, (3) adjust to the obstacle by changing one’s attitude and altering conditions. (Consider, as adjustment , the case of of becoming a parent which demands significant changes that encompass both self and environment.) Option (3) ( adjustment ) is characteristic of religious experience for it is “inclusive and deep seated” and transformative of attitudes in “generic and enduring” ways ( ACF , LW9: 12,13). Adjustment projects imaginative possibilities and puts them into action—both in oneself (wants, aims, ideals) and in surrounding conditions. The cumulative impact of adjustment is often the evolution of identity ( ACF , LW9: 13). [ 58 ]

Dewey’s effort to naturalize religion reinterpreted other traditional notions, including “faith” and “God”. Typically, faith is juxtaposed against reason. Faith requires neither empirical inquiry nor verification; it reposes in the transcendent and ultimate, in “things not seen”. It typically connotes intellectual acceptance, without proof, of religious propositions (e.g., “God exists and loves mankind”).

Dewey made at least two important criticisms of traditional faith. First, faith is too closely identified with intellectual acceptance, eclipsing its pragmatic side; faith in a cause , for example, indicates a practical willingness to act strong enough to modify present desires, purposes, and conduct. By over-identifying faith with intellectual recognition, traditional accounts undermine inquiry and constructive action. Second, faith tends to reify its objects (e.g., “sin”, “evil”, etc.) making them immune to inquiry and redescription. Creeds based on such interpretations of faith attempt to “solve” problems with formulaic appeals to absolutes. The better approach, Dewey argues, is fallibilistic and experimental: approaching problems with empirical inquiry. Insofar as traditional faith frustrates inquiry (and solutions), it tends to run counter to moral aims.

One faith Dewey can accept he calls “natural piety”. Natural piety is not grounded in unseen, supernatural powers; it is a “just sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts” and the recognition that, as parts, we are

marked by intelligence and purpose, having the capacity to strive by their aid to bring conditions into greater consonance with what is humanly desirable. (ACF, LW9: 18)

Faith grounded in natural piety accepts the idea that “experience itself is the sole ultimate authority” (“What I Believe”, LW5: 267).

Regarding God, Dewey’s naturalism disallows traditional models—a single being responsible for the physical and moral universe, and its inhabitants. Belief in God is neither warranted nor advisable. Instead, Dewey offers a reconstructed “God”. He proposes we think not of a singular object (person) but of the qualities to which God is compared—goodness, wisdom, love, etc. Such descriptions reveal our highest ideals. Remove the possessor of the ideals and consider how ideals pull us from possibility (imagination, calculation, action) to actualization —and one begins to understand "God" in Dewey’s sense:

This idea of God, or of the divine is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions—including man and human association—that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization….It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God”. ( ACF , LW9: 34; see also 29–30)

As a pragmatist, a meliorist, and a humane democrat, Dewey sought to harness the undeniable power of religion and religious experience toward ends beneficial to all. Religion provides people with a story about the larger universe and how we fit. He knew simple critiques of religion were ineffective because they leave powerful needs unmet. Dewey did not propose swapping out old religious institutions for new ones; he hoped that emancipating religious experience from institutional and ideological shackles might free its energies toward a “common faith”, a passion for imaginative intelligence in pursuit of moral goods. Methods of inquiry and criticism are not mysteries; society is already deeply familiar with them. What was necessary would be for religious persons to connect inquiry with the enhancement of religious experience and values ( ACF , LW9: 23). If persons could appreciate how many celebrated accomplishments were due not to God but to intelligent, human collaboration, then perhaps the idea of community could inspire a non-sectarian, common faith. [ 59 ]

Dewey thought his call for a common faith was deeply democratic. The idea of the supernatural was, by definition, suspicious of experience (as an adequate guide) and, consequently, suspicious of empirical methods. Unchecked by lived experience or experiment, supernaturalism can produce deep divisions. Dewey’s common faith, in contrast, is bound up with experimental inquiry and open communication. This is why Dewey’s exhortation to exchange traditional religious faith for a common faith is another expression of his ideal of experimental democracy.

A. Works by Dewey

Citations to John Dewey’s works are to the thirty-seven-volume critical edition The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882–1953 , edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991). The series includes:

  • [EW] 1967, The Early Works , 1882–1898, 5 volumes.
  • [MW] 1976, The Middle Works , 1899–1924, 15 volumes.
  • [LW] 1981, The Later Works , 1925–1953, 17 volumes.

This critical edition was also published in electronic form as:

  • The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882–1953: The Electronic Edition , Larry A. Hickman (ed.), Charlottesville, Va.: InteLex Corporation, 1996, available online . To insure uniformity of citation, the electronic edition preserves the line and page breaks of the print edition.

In-text citations give the original publication date, series abbreviation, followed by volume and page number. For example LW10: 12 refers to page 12 of Art as Experience , which is published as volume 10 of The Later Works .

  • [ ACF ] 1934a, A Common Faith
  • [ AE ] 1934b, Art as Experience
  • [ DE ] 1916b, Democracy and Education
  • [ E ] 1908, Ethics , with James H. Tufts,
  • [ E-rev ] 1932, Ethics , revised edition, with James H. Tufts,
  • [ EEL ] 1916c, “Introduction” to Essays in Experimental Logic
  • [ EN ] 1925a, Experience and Nature
  • [ FAE ] 1930a, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism”
  • [ H&A ] 1998, The Essential Dewey
  • [ HNC ] 1922a, Human Nature and Conduct
  • [ HWT ] 1910c, How We Think
  • [ ION ] 1930f, Individualism, Old and New
  • [ LSA ] 1935, Liberalism and Social Action
  • [ LTI ] 1938c, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry
  • [ PIE ] 1905, “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”
  • [ PP ] 1927b, The Public and Its Problems
  • [ QC ] 1929, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action
  • [ RAC ] 1896, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”
  • [ RIP ] 1920, Reconstruction in Philosophy
  • [ TIF ] 1930d, “Three Independent Factors in Morals”
  • [ TV ] 1939e, Theory of Valuation
  • 1884, “The New Psychology”, Andover Review , 2(Sept.): 278–289. Reprinted in EW1: 48–60.
  • 1886, “Psychology as Philosophic Method”, Mind , old series, 11(42), 153–173. Reprinted in EW1: 144–67. doi:10.1093/mind/os-XI.42.153
  • 1887, Psychology , New York: Harper and Brothers. Reprinted in EW2.
  • 1891, Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics , Ann Arbor, Michigan: Register Publishing Company. Reprinted in EW3: 239–388.
  • 1893, Dewey, review of Bosanquet, “A History of Aesthetic, by Bernard Bosanquet, formerly Fellow of University College, Oxford” , Philosophical Review , 2 (Jan. 1893):63–69. Reprinted in EW4: 189–197.
  • 1894a, The Study of Ethics: A Syllabus , Ann Arbor, MI: The Inland Press. Reprinted in EW4: 220–362.
  • 1894b, “The Theory of Emotion I: Emotional Attitudes”, Psychological Review , 1(6): 553–569. Reprinted in EW4: 152–169. doi:10.1037/h0069054
  • 1895, “The Theory of Emotion II: The Significance of Emotions”, Psychological Review , 2(1): 13–32. Reprinted in EW4: 169–188. doi:10.1037/h0070927
  • [ RAC ] 1896, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”, Psychological Review , 3(4): 357–370. Reprinted in EW5: 96–109. doi:10.1037/h0070405
  • 1897a, “Ethical Principles Underlying Education”, in Third Yearbook of the National Herbart Society , Chicago: The National Herbart Society, pp. 7–33. Reprinted in EW5: 54–83.
  • 1897b, “My Pedagogic Creed”, School Journal , 54(Jan.): 77–80. Reprinted in EW5: 84–95.
  • 1897c, “The Aesthetic Element in Education”, Addresses and Proceedings of the National Educational Association , pp. 329–30. Reprinted in EW5: 202–204.
  • 1899, The School and Society , Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted in MW1.
  • 1900 [1916], “Some Stages of Logical Thought”, The Philosophical Review , 9(5): 465–489. Revised and reprinted in 1916d: 183–219. Reprinted in MW1: 152–175. doi:10.2307/2176692
  • 1903a, “Democracy in Education”, Elementary School Teacher , 4 (1903): 193–204. Reprinted in MW3: 229–239.
  • 1903b, Studies in Logical Theory , Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted in MW2: 293–378.
  • [ PIE ] 1905, “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods , 2(15): 393–399. Reprinted in MW3: 158–167. doi:10.2307/2011400
  • 1906, “Beliefs and Realities” (later retitled “Beliefs and Existences”), Philosophical Review , 15(2): 113–119; originally read as the Presidential Address at the fifth annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association, at Cambridge, December 28, 1905. Reprinted in MW3: 83–100. doi:10.2307/2177731
  • [ E ] 1908, with James H. Tufts, Ethics , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in MW5.
  • 1908–1909, “The Bearings of Pragmatism Upon Education”, Progressive Journal of Education , originally three papers, 1(Dec. 1908): 1–3; 1(Jan. 1909): 5–8; 1–(Feb. 1909): 6–7. Reprinted in MW4: 178–191
  • 1910a, “A Short Catechism Concerning Truth”, in The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy , New York: Henry Holt and Co., pp. 154–168. Reprinted in MW6: 3–11.
  • 1910b, “The Experimental Theory of Knowledge”, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy , New York: Henry Holt and Co., pp. 77–111. Reprinted in MW3: 107–127.
  • [ HWT ] 1910c, How We Think , Boston: D. C. Heath and Co. Reprinted in MW6.
  • 1912, “Contributions to A Cyclopedia of Education”, in MW7: 207–366.
  • 1915, “The Subject-Matter of Metaphysical Inquiry”, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods , 12(13): 337. Reprinted in MW8: 3–13. doi:10.2307/2013770
  • 1916a, “Brief Studies in Realism”, in 1916d: 250–280. Reprinted in MW6: 103–122. Revised version of an article in two parts in 1911, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods , 8(15): 393–400, 8(20): 546–454.
  • 1916b, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education , New York: Macmillan. Reprinted in MW9.
  • [ EEL ] 1916c, “Introduction” to 1916d: v–vi. Reprinted in MW10: 320–365.
  • 1916d, Essays in Experimental Logic , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1917, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy”, in his Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude , New York: Henry Holt and Co., pp. 3–69. Reprinted in MW10: 3–49
  • [ RIP ] 1920, Reconstruction in Philosophy , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in MW12.
  • [ HNC ] 1922a, Human Nature and Conduct , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in MW14.
  • 1922b, “Realism without Monism or Dualism”, Journal of Philosophy , 19(12): 309–317, 19(13): 351–361 Reprinted in MW13: 40–60. doi:10.2307/2939872 doi:10.2307/2939610
  • 1923, “Individuality in Education”, General Science Quarterly , 7(3): 157–166. Reprinted in MW15: 170–179. doi:10.1002/sce.3730070301
  • [ EN ] 1925a, Experience and Nature , Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
  • 1925, “The Naturalistic Theory of Perception by the Senses”, The Journal of Philosophy , 22(22): 596–606. Reprinted in LW2: 44–54 as “A Naturalistic Theory of Sense-Perception”. doi:10.2307/2015056
  • 1927a, “Half-Hearted Naturalism”, The Journal of Philosophy , 24(3): 57–64. Reprinted in LW3: 73–81. doi:10.2307/2014856
  • [ PP ] 1927b, The Public and Its Problems , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in LW2.
  • 1927c, “The Rôle of Philosophy in the History of Civilization”, The Philosophical Review , 36(1): 1–9. Reprinted in LW3: 3–11 as “Philosophy and Civilization”. doi:10.2307/2179154
  • 1928, “Social as a Category”, Monist , 38(2): 161–177. Reprinted in LW3: 41–54 as “The Inclusive Philosophical Idea”,. doi:10.5840/monist192838218
  • [ QC ] 1929, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action , New York: Minton, Balch and Co. Reprinted in LW4.
  • [ FAE ] 1930a, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism”, in Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements , George Plimpton Adams and William Pepperell Montague (eds), London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan Co., volume 2: 13–27. Reprinted in LW5: 147–60.
  • 1930b, “Psychology and Work”, Personnel Journal , 8(February): 337–341. Reprinted in LW5: 236–242
  • 1930c, “Qualitative Thought”, Symposium , 1(January): 5–32. Reprinted in his Philosophy and Civilization , New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1931, pp. 93–116. Reprinted in LW5: 243–262.
  • [ TIF ] 1930d, “Trois facteurs indépendants en matière de morale”, Charles Cestre (trans.), Bulletin de la société française de philosophie , 30(4): 118–127. First publication in English, 1966, “Three Independent Factors in Morals”, Educational Theory , 16(3): 198–209, Jo Ann Boydston (trans.). Reprinted in LW5: 279–288. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1966.tb00259.x
  • 1930e, “What I Believe”, Forum , 83(March): 176–182. Reprinted in LW5: 267–278.
  • [ ION ] 1930f, Individualism, Old and New , New York: Minton, Balch and Co. Reprinted in LW5: 41–124.
  • 1931, “Context and Thought”, University of California Publications in Philosophy , (Berkeley: University of California Press), 12(3): 203–224. Reprinted in LW6: 3–21.
  • [ E-rev ] 1932, with James H. Tufts, Ethics, Revised Edition , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in LW7.
  • 1933, “Analysis of Reflective Thinking”, in How We Think. a Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process , new edition, Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., ch. 7. Reprinted in LW8: 196–209.
  • [ ACF ] 1934a, A Common Faith , New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Reprinted in LW9.
  • [ AE ] 1934b, Art as Experience , New York: Minton, Balch and Co. Reprinted in LW10.
  • [ LSA ] 1935, Liberalism and Social Action , New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted in LW11: 1–66.
  • 1936a, “A Liberal Speaks Out for Liberalism”, New York Times Magazine , 23 February 1936, pp. 3, 24. Reprinted in LW11: 282–288.
  • 1936b, “Authority and Social Change”, School and Society , 44(10 October 1936): 457–466. Reprinted in LW11: 130–145.
  • 1937, “Freedom”, chapter 9 in National Education Association, Implications of Social-Economic Goals for Education: A Report of the Committee on Social- Economic Goals of America , Washington, DC: National Education Association, pp. 99–105. Reprinted in LW11: 247–255.
  • 1938a, “Democracy and Education in the World of Today”, pamphlet by the Society for Ethical Culture, New York. Reprinted in LW13: 294–303.
  • 1938b, Experience and Education , New York: Macmillan. Reprinted in LW13.
  • [ LTI ] 1938c, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry , New York: Henry Holt and Co. Reprinted in LW12.
  • 1939a, “Biography of John Dewey”, Jane M. Dewey (ed.), in Schilpp 1939: 3–45.
  • 1939b, “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us”, in John Dewey and the Promise of America, Progressive , (Education Booklet No. 14), Columbus, OH: American Education Press. Reprinted in LW14: 224–230.
  • 1939c, “Experience, Knowledge, and Value: A Rejoinder”, in Schilpp 1939: 515–608, in LW14: 3–90.
  • 1939d, Freedom and Culture , New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted in LW13: 65–188.
  • [ TV ] 1939e, Theory of Valuation , Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Reprinted in LW13.
  • 1940a, “Nature in Experience”, The Philosophical Review , 49(2): 244–258. Reprinted in LW14: 141–154. doi:10.2307/2180802
  • 1940b, “Time and Individuality”, in Time and Its Mysteries , series 2, New York: New York University Press, pp. 85–109. Reprinted in LW14: 98–114.
  • 1941, “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth”, The Journal of Philosophy , 38(7): 169–186. Reprinted in LW14: 168–188. doi:10.2307/2017978
  • 1944, “Between Two Worlds”, Address delivered at the Winter Institute of Arts and Sciences, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla., 20 March 1944. Printed in LW17: 451–465.
  • 1949, “Experience and Existence: A Comment”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , 9(4): 709–713. Reprinted in LW16: 383–390. doi:10.2307/2103300
  • [ H&A ] 1998, The Essential Dewey , L. Hickman and T. M. Alexander (eds.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Adajian, Thomas, 2012, “The Definition of Art”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.
  • Alexander, Thomas M., 1987, John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling , Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • –––, 2013, The Human Eros: Eco-Ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence , New York: Fordham University Press.
  • –––, 2020, “Dewey’s Naturalistic Metaphysics”, in Steven Fesmire (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Dewey , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 25–52.
  • Anderson, Elizabeth, 2018, “Dewey’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >
  • Bernstein, Richard J., 1961, “John Dewey’s Metaphysics of Experience”, The Journal of Philosophy , 58(1): 5–14. doi:10.2307/2023564
  • –––, 1966, John Dewey , New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
  • –––, 2010, The Pragmatic Turn , Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Biletzki, Anat and Anat Matar, 2018, “Ludwig Wittgenstein”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >
  • Boisvert, Raymond D., 1988, Dewey’s Metaphysics , New York: Fordham University Press.
  • –––, 1998a, “Dewey’s Metaphysics: Ground-Map of the Prototypically Real”, in Larry Hickman (ed.), Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation , Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 149–165.
  • –––, 1998b, John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time , Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Browning, Douglas, 1998, “Dewey and Ortega on the Starting Point”, The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society , 34(1): 69–92.
  • Burch, Robert, 2014, “Charles Sanders Peirce”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >
  • Burke, F. Thomas, D. Micah Hester, and Robert B. Talisse (eds.), 2002, Dewey’s Logical Theory: New Studies and Interpretations , Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Burke, Tom, 1994, Dewey’s New Logic: A Reply to Russell , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Campbell, James, 1995, Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence , Chicago and La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
  • Candlish, Stewart and George Wrisley, 2014, “Private Language”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >
  • Caspary, William R., 2000, Dewey on Democracy , Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • deVries, Willem, 2016, “Wilfred Sellars”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >
  • Dykhuizen, George, 1973, The Life and Mind of John Dewey , Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Eldridge, Michael, 1998, Transforming Experience: John Dewey’s Cultural Instrumentalism , Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Fesmire, Steven, 2003, John Dewey and Moral Imagination , Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • –––, 2015, Dewey , London/New York: Routledge.
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  • ––– (ed.), 2001b, Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey , University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • –––, 2004, “Ghosts Walking Underground: Dewey’s Vanishing Metaphysics”, The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society , 40(1): 53–81.
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  • A Brief Account: John Dewey’s Ethics, Political Theory, and Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics , by David L. Hildebrand (2018)
  • John Dewey, American Pragmatist, at
  • Gouinlock, James S., “John Dewey”, Encyclopedia Britannica , revision: 27 September 2018. URL = < >
  • John Dewey, entry by Jim Garrison in Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Education (internet Archive)
  • Field, Richard, “John Dewey (1859–1952)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . URL = < >
  • Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, resources (research and teaching) on John Dewey and other American Philosophers
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John Dewey. "The Analysis of a Complete Act of Thought" Chapter 6 in How we think . Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, (1910): 68-78.

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How We Think

Chapter 6: the analysis of a complete act of thought, table of contents | next | previous.

Object of Part Two

AFTER a brief consideration in the first chapter of the nature of reflective thinking, we turned, in the second, to the need for its training. Then we took up the resources, the difficulties, and the aim of its training. The purpose of this discussion was to set before the student the general problem of the training of mind. The purport of the second part, upon which we are now entering, is giving a fuller statement of the nature and normal growth of thinking, preparatory to considering in the concluding part the special problems that arise in connection with its education.

In this chapter we shall make an analysis of the process of thinking into its steps or elementary constituents, basing the analysis upon descriptions of a number of extremely simple, but genuine, cases of reflective experience. [1]

A simple case of practical deliberation

I. "The other day when I was down town on 16th Street a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12.20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o'clock. I reasoned that

(69) as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station ? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part Of I 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o'clock."

A simple case of reflection upon an observation

2. "Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river, is a long white pole, bearing a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

"I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of such a pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited : (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried like poles,

(70) this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

"In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot's position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, be would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly."

A simple case of reflection involving experiment

3. "In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler ? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat or by decrease of pressure, or by both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled

(71) in the water. If heated air was the cause , cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside.

"But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse."

These three cases have been purposely selected so as to form a series from the more rudimentary to more complicated cases of reflection. The first illustrates the kind of thinking done by every one during the day's business, in which neither the data, nor the ways of dealing with them, take one outside the limits of everyday experience. The last furnishes a case in which neither problem nor mode of solution would have been likely to occur except to one with some prior scientific training. The second case forms a natural transition; its materials lie well within the bounds of everyday, unspecialized experience; but the problem, instead of being directly involved in the person's business, arises indirectly out of his activity, and accordingly appeals to a somewhat theoretic and impartial interest. We

(72) shall deal, in a later chapter, with the evolution of abstract thinking out of that which is relatively practical and direct; here we are concerned only with the common elements found in all the types.

Five distinct steps in reflection

Upon examination, each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.

(a) in the lack of adaptation of means to end

I. The first and second steps frequently fuse into one. The difficulty may be felt with sufficient definiteness as to set the mind at once speculating upon its probable solution, or an undefined uneasiness and shock may come first, leading only later to definite attempt to find out what is the matter. Whether the two steps are distinct or blended, there is the factor emphasized in our original account of reflection ― viz. the perplexity or problem. In the first of the three cases cited, the difficulty resides in the conflict between conditions at hand and a desired and intended result, between an end and the means for reaching it. The purpose of keeping an engagement at a certain time, and the existing hour taken in connection with the location, are not congruous. The object of thinking is to introduce congruity between the two. The given conditions cannot themselves be altered; time will not go backward nor will the distance between 16th Street and 124th Street shorten itself. The problem is the discovery of intervening terms which when inserted between the remoter end and the given means will harmonize them with each other.

(b) in identifying the character of the object

In the second case, the difficulty experienced is the incompatibility of a suggested and (temporarily) accepted belief that the pole is a flagpole, with certain other facts. Suppose we symbolize the qualities that suggest flagpole by the letters a, b, c; those that oppose this suggestion by the letters p, q, r. There is, of course, nothing inconsistent in the qualities themselves; but in pulling the mind to different and incongruous conclusions they conflict ― hence the problem. Here the object is the discovery of some object (0), of which a, b, c, and p, q, r, may all be appropriate traits-just as, in our first case, it is to discover a course of action which will combine existing conditions and a remoter result in a single whole. The method of solution is also the same: discovery of intermediate qualities (the position of the pilot house, of the pole, the need of an index to the boat's direction) symbolized by d, g, 1, o, which bind together otherwise incompatible traits.

(c) in explaining an unexpected event

In the third case, an observer trained to the idea of natural laws or uniformities finds something odd or exceptional in the behavior of the bubbles. The problem is to reduce the apparent anomalies to instances of well-established laws. Here the method of solution is also to seek for intermediary terms which will connect, by regular linkage, the seemingly extraordinary movements of the bubbles with the conditions known to follow from processes supposed to be operative.

2. Definition of the difficulty

2. As already noted, the first two steps, the feeling of a discrepancy, or difficulty, and the acts of observation that serve to define the character of the difficulty may, in a given instance, telescope together. In cases of striking novelty or unusual perplexity, the difficulty, however, is likely to present itself at first as a shock, as

(74) emotional disturbance, as a more or less vague feeling of the unexpected, of something queer, strange, funny, or disconcerting. In such instances, there are necessary observations deliberately calculated to bring to light just what is the trouble, or to make clear the specific character of the problem. In large measure, the existence or non-existence of this step makes the difference between reflection proper, or safeguarded critical inference and uncontrolled thinking. Where sufficient pains to locate the difficulty are not taken, suggestions for its resolution must be more or less random. Imagine a doctor called in to prescribe for a patient. The patient tells him some things that are wrong; his experienced eye, at a glance, takes in other signs of a certain disease. But if he permits the suggestion of this special disease to take possession prematurely of his mind, to become an accepted conclusion, his scientific thinking is by that much cut short. A large part of his technique, as a skilled practitioner, is to prevent the acceptance of the first suggestions that arise; even, indeed, to postpone the occurrence of any very definite suggestion till the trouble ― the nature of the problem ― has been thoroughly explored. In the case of a physician this proceeding is known as diagnosis, but a similar inspection is required in every novel and complicated situation to prevent rushing to a conclusion. The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment; and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution. This, more than any other thing, transforms mere inference into tested inference, suggested conclusions into proof.

3. The third factor is suggestion. The situation in

3. Occurance of a suggested explanation or possible solution

(75) which the perplexity occurs calls up something not present to the senses : the present location, the thought of subway or elevated train; the stick before the eyes, the idea of a flagpole, an ornament, an apparatus for wireless telegraphy; the soap bubbles, the law of expansion of bodies through heat and of their contraction through cold. (a) Suggestion is the very heart of inference ; it involves going from what is present to something absent. Hence, it is more or less speculative, adventurous. Since inference goes beyond what is actually present, it involves a leap, a jump, the propriety of which cannot be absolutely warranted in advance, no matter what precautions be taken. Its control is indirect, on the one hand, involving the formation of habits of mind which are at once enterprising and cautious; and on the other hand , involving the selection and arrangement of the particular facts upon perception of which suggestion issues. (b) The suggested conclusion so far as it is not accepted but only tentatively entertained constitutes an idea. Synonyms for this are supposition, conjecture, guess, hypothesis, and (in elaborate cases) theory. Since suspended belief, or the postponement of a final conclusion pending further evidence, depends partly upon the presence of rival conjectures as to the best course to pursue or the probable explanation to favor, cultivation of a variety of alternative suggestions is an important factor in good thinking.

4. The rational elaboration of an idea

4. The process of developing the bearings ― or, as they are more technically termed, the implications ― of any idea with respect to any problem, is termed reasoning . [2] As an idea is inferred from given facts, so reasoning

(76) sets out from an idea. The idea of elevated road is developed into the idea of difficulty of locating station, length of time occupied on the journey, distance of station at the other end from place to be reached. In the second case, the implication of a flagpole is seen to be a vertical position; of a wireless apparatus, location on a high part of the ship and, moreover, absence from every casual tugboat; while the idea of index to direction in which the boat moves, when developed, is found to cover all the details of the case.

Reasoning has the same effect upon a suggested solution as more intimate and extensive observation has upon the original problem. Acceptance of the suggestion in its first form is prevented by looking into it more thoroughly. Conjectures that seem plausible at first sight are often found unfit or even absurd when their full consequences are traced out. Even when reasoning out the bearings of a supposition does not lead to rejection, it develops the idea into a form in which it is more apposite to the problem. Only when, for example, the conjecture that a pole was an index-pole had been thought out into its bearings could its particular applicability to the case in hand be judged. Suggestions at first seemingly remote and wild are frequently so transformed by being elaborated into what follows from them as to become apt and fruitful. The development of an idea through reasoning helps at least to supply the intervening or intermediate terms that link together into a consistent whole apparently discrepant extremes (ante, p. 72).

Corroboration of an idea and formation of a concluding belief

5. The concluding and conclusive step is some kind of experimental corroboration, or verification, of the conjectural idea. Reasoning shows that if the idea be adopted, certain consequences follow. So far the conclusion is hypothetical or conditional. If we look and find present all the conditions demanded by the theory, and if we find the characteristic traits called for by rival alternatives to be lacking, the tendency to believe, to accept, is almost irresistible. Sometimes direct observation furnishes corroboration, as in the case of the pole on the boat. In other cases, as in that of the bubbles, experiment is required; that is, conditions are deliberately arranged in accord with the requirements of an idea or hypothesis to see if the results theoretically indicated by the idea actually occur. If it is found that the experimental results agree with the theoretical, or rationally deduced, results, and if there is reason to believe that only the conditions in question would yield such results, the confirmation is so strong as to induce a conclusion at least until contrary facts shall indicate the advisability of its revision.

Thinking comes between observations at the beginning and at the end

Observation exists at the beginning and again at the end of the process: at the beginning, to determine more definitely and precisely the nature of the difficulty to be dealt with; at the end, to test the value of some hypothetically entertained conclusion. Between those two termini of observation, we find the more distinctively mental aspects of the entire thought-cycle : (i) inference, the suggestion of an explanation or solution, (ii) reasoning, the development of the bearings and implications of the suggestion. Reasoning requires some experimental observation to confirm it, while experiment can be economically and fruitfully conducted only

(78) on the basis of an idea that has been tentatively developed by reasoning.

The trained mind one that judges the extent of each step advisable in a given situation

The disciplined, or logically trained, mind ― the aim of the educative process -is the mind able to judge how far each of these steps needs to be carried in any particular situation. No cast-iron rules can be laid down. Each case has to be dealt with as it arises, on the basis of its importance and of the context in which it occurs. To take too much pains in one case is as foolish -as illogical ― as to take too little in another. At one extreme, almost any conclusion that insures prompt and unified action may be better than any long delayed conclusion; while at the other, decision may have to be postponed for a long period ― perhaps for a lifetime. The trained mind is the one that best grasps the degree of observation, forming of ideas, reasoning, and experimental testing required in any special case, and that profits the most, in future thinking, by mistakes made in the past. What is important is that the mind should be sensitive to problems and skilled in methods of attack and solution.

These are taken, almost verbatim, from the class papers of students.

  • This term is sometimes extended to denote the entire reflective process-just as inference (which in the sense of test is best reserved for the third step) is sometimes used in the same broad sense. But reasoning (or ratiocination) seems to be peculiarly adapted to express what the older writers called the "notional " or " dialectic " process of developing the meaning of a given idea.

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Home Issues VIII-1 Symposia. Dewey’s Democracy and E... What’s the Problem with Dewey?

What’s the Problem with Dewey?

In Democracy and Education Dewey has a rich conception of educational flourishing that stands at odds with the instrumentalism about learning endemic to much contemporary educational policy. And his vision posits deep dependencies between the different domains in which education is transformative: the transformation of the individual learner into an inquirer equipped to adapt in a changing environment and the transformations in the social world required for the provision of opportunities for such experiences to all. In this paper, I trace the roots of Dewey’s conception in his account of inquiry. I focus on the key concept of a ‘problem.’ For Dewey, inquiry begins with a problem, but his concept of a problem is challenging and lacks an adequate theoretical rationale. Problems start with disruptions in our environmental engagement that figure in non-knowing encounters. Dewey needs an account of these pre-cognitive disruptions and of what constitutes their resolution. I argue that the account can be found in the aesthetics of experience. This draws upon some of Dewey’s insights regarding our experience of art objects and it finds a central role for the aesthetics of experience as not only the prompt for inquiry and the unification of experience that settles inquiry, but also in what I call the ‘craft of inquiry’ – the very practice of inquiring. If this is right, any adequate account of learning, let alone a pedagogy fit to encourage learning, must have a central role for aesthetics as providing the conditions for the possibility of learning. A proper appreciation of Dewey signals the opportunity for a radical re-thinking of how to shape a pedagogy fit for educational flourishing – a pedagogy designed for inquirers. And it helps us understand better the deep dependencies between the projects of individual and social transformation.


  • 1 References to John Dewey’s published works are to the critical edition, The Collected Works of John (...)

1 In Democracy and Education Dewey presents a vision of a richly liberal conception of education, one that sees education as fundamentally transformative, from the opening naturalistic conception of living things maintaining ‘themselves by renewal’ to the conception of education as “a constant reorganizing or reconstructing of experience” (MW 9: 82). 1 This is transformative on a number of different levels. It transforms the individual: in ancient Athens “custom and traditional beliefs held men in bondage” (MW 9: 272) and education needs to provide the “reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of consequent experience” (MW 9: 82). However much this requires transformation of the individual, Dewey is clear that there is a social dimension to the transformative role and purpose of education. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not liberate all from the bondage of custom. Our critique of the class divisions in ancient Athens is only honest if “we are free from responsibility for perpetuating the educational practices which train the many for pursuits involving mere skill in production, and the few for a knowledge that is an ornament and a cultural embellishment” (MW 9: 265). A truly democratic society is one “in which all share in useful service and all enjoy a worthy leisure” (MW 9: 265). Education for democracy requires deep immersion in culture for all, for a “democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (MW 9: 93). And, for all this to be possible, pivotally education requires the acquisition of the higher order abilities for learning how to learn, learning how to be an inquirer, for “a society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability” (MW 9: 93-4).

  • 2 See Nussbaum 2009 for a recent appeal to Dewey for the resources to combat the instrumentalism ramp (...)

2 Dewey’s vision is extensive and, arguably, prohibitively expensive. It is extensive for its opposition to the sort of instrumentalism about education with which we have become increasingly familiar. 2 For Dewey, education is about equipping people with the experiences and abilities to take part across the board in the shared enterprise of human culture, in exercises of ‘conjoint communicated experience.’ In addition, it is a conception of education that posits deep dependencies between the provision of individual transformation (personal initiative and adaptability) and social transformations (conjoint communicated experience). It is this latter point that threatens the economic viability of Dewey’s vision. In a policy climate in which service provision is measured for its contribution to the economic well-being of society, a Deweyan liberalism about education will always lose out to an economic instrumentalism that accepts a stratification of opportunities in education. Dewey’s requirement that all experience the immersion in culture on which individual adaptability depends will lose out in the competition for economic resources unless it can provide the basis for a fundamental re-thinking of the intrinsic purposes of education. That is the point of Kitcher’s (2009) well-known defense of Dewey. In this essay, I want to develop some of the tools needed for undertaking this re-thinking.

3 A central question must concern the nature and direction of the dependency between individual transformation and social transformation. I do not propose to decide on the issue of which, if either, is basic? There is, however, room for understanding, in a good deal more detail, the key ideas that drive Dewey’s thinking and which might help hold his vision together. A key idea in Democracy and Education is the concept of adaptability. It operates at both the individual and social level. It requires an ability to respond intelligently to novelty, howsoever that may arise. And although Dewey opens the book with a naturalistic sentiment of life as “a self-renewing process through action upon the environment” (MW 9: 4), that process is already conceived as an open-ended enterprise, for he says, “the living thing […] tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence” (MW 9: 4).

4 This suggests the project of timely adaptation to the contingencies met with in the environment is the individual’s project and demands of the individual the wherewithal to respond to happenings with imagination. And that thought is key to the statement of educational values much later in Chapter 18. Dewey there remarks,

play-activity is an imaginative enterprise. But it is still usual to regard this activity as a specially marked-off stage of childish growth, and to overlook the fact that the difference between play and what is regarded as serious employment should be not a difference between the presence and absence of imagination, but a difference in the materials with which imagination is occupied. (MW 9: 245)

5 He goes on:

The emphasis put in this book […] upon activity, will be misleading if it is not recognized that the imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement. (Ibid.)

6 I want to suggest that at the heart of Dewey’s key concept of adaptability is the imagination; that the heart of what it is to be an inquirer responding to problems is to be a subject with imagination. It is the imagination that is the key driver to the transformations at stake in education. It is the imagination that holds together the different strands of Dewey’s liberalism.

7 If we endorse Dewey’s rich liberalism, we have a tool for a critique of the managerialism about educational policy found throughout Europe. But with what right can we endorse Dewey’s liberalism? I shall trace the case for Dewey’s liberalism back to his conception of inquiry. I want to argue that a proper appreciation of Dewey’s model of inquiry lays the foundation for a radical underpinning of his richly liberal conception of education.

8 Here is a simple way of setting out the trajectory I want to explore:

For Dewey, learning is the activity of inquiry.

Inquiry starts with a problem (it is historically rooted).

Inquiry ends when the problem is solved.

9 Adaptation is done in response to problems, and comes to rest (for the time being) when the problem is solved. So education should be geared to solve problems, not serve the economy, nor the instrumental targets set by modern managerialism. But what are problems and what are Europe’s problems re education? There are multiple potential answers to the latter question, many of which are important, but I want to concentrate on the former question, for I think that our key theoretical problem is that we have no detailed and cogent account of how to answer that first question:

What is a problem?

10 Furthermore, I want to suggest a reading of Dewey on problems that provides a radical critique of much extant thought on education and the conditions for learning: problems start at a level of experience properly called the aesthetic.

  • 3 See Alexander 2012, 2014 and Leddy 2015, although neither quite capture the central role for the ae (...)

11 Others have marked out some of this path, but thus far the role of the aesthetic of experience has not been accorded the full seriousness and importance it warrants. 3 On the approach I pursue, the aesthetic is not merely an important element of experience that figures in both the drive and consummation of inquiry, it is the condition for the very possibility of inquiry. The idea of inquiry does not make sense without an account of its origins, its practice and its resolution in the aesthetic. If this is right, at the heart of any credible pedagogy there must be an account of the role of the aesthetic as the driver, vehicle and consummation of inquiry.

4 See Zeltner (1975: 18-21).

12 Dewey sees inquiry starting with what, for want of a better label, we might call an ‘itch’; it’s the sense of irritation, of things being not quite so. It’s the sense of unease that all is not right, our place in the environment is out of kilter. Inquiry concerns the dynamic that takes us along a trajectory defined by “the rhythm of loss of integration with the environment and recovery of union” (LW 10: 20-1). 4 As Fesmire (2015: 87) explains the dynamic: “Reflective thought is provoked by a hitch in the works, when an unsettled world stops being congenial to our expectations.”

13 The ‘itch’ is the irritation, the sense that things do not fit. It prompts inquiry, which is resolved when a sense of fit is recovered. But the recovery of a sense of fit is also a recovery that equips us with meaning and understanding, a conceptual grasp of how our problems got resolved. The sense of fit cannot, therefore, be wholly isolated from those cognitive processes that provide understanding. We need an account of how the aesthetics of experience, although outwith the range of a conceptual and knowing experience of things, nevertheless provides the condition for the possibility of an inquiry that issues in conceptual knowing, no matter how much we might also want to insist that inquiry’s closure is only properly delivered by a renewed sense of fit that settles the initial itch. On the reading of Dewey I offer, the aesthetic, while not itself part of a knowing experience, is nevertheless the element of experience that makes knowledge gathering possible. The aesthetic needs therefore, notwithstanding its separateness from the field of a knowing experience, to be capable of integration within the whole of the cognitive apparatus (broadly conceived) of the mind’s engagement with the environment. On my reading, the role of the aesthetic in Dewey’s account of inquiry is as a transcendental condition for knowing encounters.

  • 5 “There is nothing intellectual or cognitive in the existence of [problematic] situations, although (...)
  • 6 Hence Alexander’s (2014) critique of linguistic pragmatism in favour of Dewey’s experiential pragma (...)

14 It is important to Dewey that this sense of itch falls outwith the frame of our conceptual take on things. It is a sense of itch that makes things salient. It is, however, difficult to see how this notion of salience can make sense without the idea of the ‘itch’ being a disturbance within a patterning to experience. At the same time, the sense of patterning is not yet a conceptual patterning. To make sense of this idea we need the resources for attributing a patterning to experience, something that can be disrupted. This is what people mean when they speak of the role of the noncognitive in Dewey’s account of aesthetic experience (Alexander 2014). The label ‘noncognitive’ is, however, unhelpful. If there is a real point to some such element of experience, then it is something that is handled by human cognitive resources. For sure, it is something that falls outwith the scope of conceptual content and to deny that would be to run the risk of over-intellectualising experience – something Dewey repeatedly warned against. 5 That makes the aesthetic difficult to capture in our description of the phenomenology of experience and it can seem to render it invisible to the tools of analytic philosophy. 6 But that last point is mistaken. The idea of a notion of aesthetic experience that falls outwith the conceptual content familiar to our ordinary notion of meaning is challenging to describe, but we should not thereby take it as challenging to theorise. If we do not theorise about it with care and attention, then we forfeit the right to deploy it in an account of the logic of inquiry that informs pedagogy.

15 I take the idea of a trajectory from ‘itch to fit’ as a serious attempt to understand Dewey’s dynamic concept of inquiry. My project is to provide a theoretical account of this trajectory and make it serviceable for a fundamental re-shaping of pedagogy. Before outlining some of the detail of the theoretical account of the trajectory from ‘itch to fit,’ I want to set out the methodological options. Understanding Dewey, let alone learning from him, requires care regarding our methodological assumptions just as much as the assumptions that shape our substantive ideas.

1. Methodology

16 There are two issues on which I want to set-out my stand before embarking on the detailed argument. The first issue concerns the sort of argument that is involved in appealing to the aesthetics of experience. The second issue concerns how my account of the aesthetics sits with the common presumption that Dewey’s theory of inquiry involves a form of social constructivism (e.g. Carr 2003: 123 f.; and Fesmire 2015: 90 f.). I start with the first issue.

17 If we are interested in the aesthetics of experience, here are two key questions: (i) What is the aesthetic? (ii) What’s the argument for this element of experience? On the first point, the aesthetic concerns elements of experience that must not be over-intellectualised, for there is an intrinsic indeterminateness to the aesthetic in experience. The aesthetic concerns the itch that demands our attention, an unsettlingness that demands a response. So we need a theory of the ‘itch.’ For the moment, this is what I mean by the aesthetic in Dewey’s account. For sure, lots of what counts as ‘aesthetic’ gets rendered into the conceptual frame of thought and talk. For now, I use ‘aesthetic’ as a more neutral term where others use ‘noncognitive’ (Alexander 2014). Neither term is fully satisfactory, but ‘noncognitive’ suggests a distance from cognition that renders opaque the idea that the aesthetic of the itch provides a condition for the possibility of cognition’s inquiry.

  • 7 For Dewey, problematic situations are “precognitive” (LW 12: 111). And see Alexander (2014: 71): “N (...)

18 The aesthetic itch is what Dewey had in mind when he says that not all experience involves knowing. 7 That can suggest that the answer to the second question is a phenomenological argument. It will be an argument that broadly works along the line of: ‘Look see. This is how it is. Don’t over-describe it or you run the risk of intellectualising it.’ But that is too quick, for our two questions are quite distinct. In terms of what it is, the aesthetic cannot be captured too accurately in the terminology of modern theories of experiential content without losing its phenomenological indeterminacy. But with regard to the argument for it, we need more than a descriptive claim, for we need, as theorists, to be able to give a clear account of the role of the aesthetic. If we can’t deliver that, then we’re just mumbling in the dark. Giving a clear theoretical account of the aesthetic does not mean we over-intellectualise it, but it does mean we have to give an intellectually cogent account of its role and how it integrates with knowing experience and why it is important. Let’s start with that last point.

19 On a phenomenological account, the aesthetic is important because it is required for an account of experience to be full and complete. That is how experience is: it has an aesthetic element. On the argument I want to explore, the aesthetic is important because it provides the condition for the possibility of inquiry; it provides the account of that which renders inquiry possible and which motivates the search for meaning and understanding – that which invites us to adapt. And yet, faithfulness to the phenomenology of the aesthetic means that we owe an account of something that in itself does not provide meaning and understanding. So we need sufficient theoretical granularity to our account of the aesthetic that will support the argument that its existence is a condition for the possibility of inquiry while also accommodating a phenomenology that does not leave it over-intellectualised. We need to talk precisely and with theoretical detail in a way that gives traction to that which is not precise. The theoretical mode of discourse cannot compete with the phenomenological appeal but it needs to legitimise the importance of the phenomenological appeal. Put simply, providing the phenomenology of the Deweyan aesthetic might be an exercise that risks slipping through the net of mainstream analytic philosophy, but providing the theorist’s account of what it is and why it matters is part of the core business of any credible detailed theory of experience. The former project looks to estrange Dewey from the concerns of contemporary philosophy; the latter brings him home.

20 The second methodological issue that I want to note concerns the status of Dewey’s constructivism. There is little doubt that Dewey’s concept of experience is broader than the model of perception as knowledge gathering that dominates contemporary philosophy. As Alexander (2014: 66) notes, “experience” in Dewey’s sense is not “perception” but adaptive existence, which in human existence takes in the form of culture.

21 There are two point at stake here. The first is the point already noted, experience has a dimension that I am calling the aesthetic. This is a dimension that is only problematically captured if one tries to conceive it in terms of contemporary theories of experiential content, regardless of one’s willingness to add ‘nonconceptual content’ alongside conceptual content, or to add a relationalist model of experience to the contentful. One thing that is signaled by ‘culture’ is the indeterminacy of experience that characterises the aesthetic. It’s the point that “not all experience is experience-as-known and that having experience arises and terminates within experience that is not knowing” (Alexander 2014: 71). But there is another element to the appeal to experience as culture, and that’s the social dimension to the construction of culture that many find in Dewey. Alexander again:

We do not begin our inquiries […] except under certain defining situations. Unless one has lived and interacted with others, learning a language and participating in a culture with its stories and traditions, one cannot even begin asking questions. (Alexander 2012: 89)

22 There are a number of issues in this passage. Here are two issues that will dominate in my argument.

23 First, Alexander presents inquiry beginning with questions. That cannot be right, for ‘questions’ do not belong within the domain of the aesthetic. Alexander is well aware of the point and has done much to present Dewey’s concept of inquiry as driven by the non-cognitive. Nevertheless, the use of the idea of ‘question’ here shows the extent of the difficulties we encounter in trying to give a coherent and detailed account of how inquiry starts with the indeterminate ‘itch’ within the aesthetics of experience. I provide a theory of the aesthetic ‘itch’ in the next two sections.

  • 8 There are many forms of dependency on the social that figure in theories of learning; for a critiqu (...)

24 Second, Alexander here gives clear expression to a sense of dependency on situatedness in culture as a precondition for asking questions and beginning inquiry. Inquiry is always situated in a shared culture. 8 It’s not clear to me in what sense Dewey endorses this idea of inquiry’s situatedness in shared culture. I shall develop a reading of Dewey that sees the shared culture as a construct of earlier phases of inquiry. It is a construct that scaffolds later stages, but the shared culture is the product of a more basic notion of culture that is found in the individual’s aesthetics of experience. That is the order of explanation that I offer in my reading of Dewey. I will note the reasons for this as the argument proceeds, but it is important to mark now that although at any stage of inquiry shared culture scaffolds the following stage, the role of shared culture is not constitutive of inquiry but a result of the basic form of inquiry that is individualistic both in its problems and its aesthetics. The root to culture is individual, not shared and it is due to those roots that we acquire shared culture. Shared culture is an explanandum , not the explanans . I am assuming that individual transformation is the motor of the social transformation, not the other way around.

25 The individualism in my reading of Dewey will jar many people’s sense of his emphasis on the social, the cultural and the intrinsically democratising drive of his vision of education. With regard to the political and social impact of Dewey’s concept of inquiry I have no problem. My emphasis on the individual notion of culture is an explanatory device. The priority I see in the individual is an explanatory one. There is not space in this essay to treat this aspect of methodology in adequate detail, but let me mark one root to a social constructivist account of Dewey with which I take issue.

26 It is tempting to think that there are at least two senses of problem. The individual’s problems and society’s problems. Problems are the root to learning. So what drives an individual’s learning? The answer, presumably, is their problems. If we find the individual’s problems as those that they inherit from initiation into socially constructed problems, then the source of individual learning is simply the problems inherited by their initiation into the current cultural forms. But that hides the following diagnostic possibility – the idea of a meta-problem with educational thinking:

The meta-problem with educational thought and policy is that it is not driven by an adequate conception of the problems that drive individual learners – it has no account of individuals’ problems.

27 If individuals’ problems are socially constructed (what you pick up from initiation into culture) there is no such meta-problem. But that means that the potential for a Deweyan critique of instrumentalism about education is wholly dependent on how you draft the problems you inherit on initiation into culture. And that is highly contentious. One way of seeing the bearing of Dewey on European educational thought in the 21st century is to focus on the issue: what are Europe’s problems? And that takes us into a long, although potentially interesting series of empirical and policy issues about European education. My argument is located in a different set of concerns. My central claim is that there is a fundamental flaw in educational thinking that Dewey can help us expose and that the exposure provides a powerful individualist cognitive account of why the aesthetic matters at the heart of our thinking about and practice of education.

  • 9 Although this is individualistic and although I have noted points of contrast with Alexander’s read (...)

28 This is a different route to the familiar broadly social constructivist reading of Dewey. It is the route that takes the meta-problem seriously and finds leverage on the critique of instrumentalism by rooting the critique in an analysis of the concept of ‘problem’ as it figures at the level of the individual learner. My central claim is that Dewey has the resources for a conception of the individual’s problem that drives inquiry. That notion of problem is framed by his account of the aesthetics of experience. Learning begins by confronting a problem framed within aesthetics, an account of experience that is intrinsically open-ended although patterned. This is an account that explains the deep source of Dewey’s pragmatism – the fact that learning is always situated in real historical time. Learning is timely, not timeless. It is the process by which we smooth the itches in current experience and prepare ourselves for what comes next, where what comes next is invariably open-ended and unpredictable. This is a process that we must face not with rules and prior commitments other than a preparedness to interrogate openly and freely in the search for the smoothing that reduces the friction of the next itch wherever it may lie. 9

29 Inquiry starts with a problem. Depending on how we think of problems, this can seem banal and trivial or challenging but elusive. If a problem is identified with a question, the resulting concept of inquiry is trivial and misses Dewey’s main concern. Here’s a first rough way of marking out how the concept of problem can play an important explanatory role in inquiry.

30 Contrast two different models of problem solving:

problem-solving in terms of working out the consequences of what is already known;

problem-solving as learning, as a source for extending cognition.

  • 10 It is interesting to note that such problems are not, of course, problems at all, for unless someon (...)

31 The first sense is trivial. It takes problem solving as little more than moving the conceptual furniture into fresh positions. Many of the things we do in education involve conceptual tidying, but this involves a conception of problem-solving in terms of re-arranging of what is already known into a new configuration, a superficial kind of cognitive make-over. Problem-solving in this sense is exemplified in doing basic arithmetic, for example, let the problem be: what’s 68 + 57? 10

32 The contrast between problems in type (a) and (b) might look too binary, for what about ‘real problems’ as, e.g. in ‘real maths’? That’s a good point in the context of pedagogic policy, but the notion of ‘real’ here means roughly ‘matters in some way to the pupil.’ It is true that there is a sense of that which is, in policy terms, important for gaining pupils’ attention, focus in behaviour, commitment to work, etc. There is also, underlying that, the sense of ‘mattering to the pupil’ that I want to get into focus and that’s the sense of mattering in which the pupil is met with a disruption that demands their attention, a disruption that engages them as inquirer, not simply as a task that is interesting. So ‘real maths’ is important if it offers interesting tasks rather than abstract tasks – agreed. But it is theoretically important if those ‘interesting tasks’ are not just interesting because anchored in some concepts that are key to the pupil (counting change due in a purchase rather than just adding numbers in the abstract), but are enthralling because they present to the pupil an experience or set of experiences that disrupt and reveal new domains to experience that in turn produces cognitive growth – learning.

33 The second sense of problem-solving is the challenging and elusive one. It requires a concept of a problem that arises out of a disruption to experience but where that disruption is not presented within the conceptual resources already available to the learner. It requires a notion of a disruption that can unsettle the learner and drive them into the work of inquiry, but the challenge it presents must be one that opens up new experiences and new concepts, otherwise no real learning will take place. I am assuming here that ‘learning’ requires a transition that delivers cognitive enhancement; at its simplest, the acquisition of new concepts. It is the idea of a disruption in experience that demands attention and demands the work of learning that is key to understanding Dewey’s concept of problem. Whatever else we may say about Dewey, it is clear that the notion of problem-solving he requires is type (b) above.

34 Dewey is clear that problem-solving involves more than mere tasks, it is the means for extending cognition. Problem-solving arises from the things that unsettle us:

The unsettled or indeterminate situation might have been called a problematic situation. This name would have been, however, proleptic and anticipatory. The indeterminate situation becomes problematic in the very process of being subjected to inquiry. The indeterminate situation comes into existence from existential causes, just as does, say, the organic imbalance of hunger. There is nothing intellectual or cognitive in the existence of such situations, although they are the necessary conditions of cognitive operations or inquiry. (LW 12: 111)

35 In this passage we have all the key ingredients for understanding Dewey’s concept of inquiry as problem-solving. Problems arise outwith the scope of intellectual or cognitive experience, they arise from a natural imbalance in our engagement with the environment (akin to hunger). This is a problematic situation. Problematic situations demand our attention, our inquisitiveness. Problematic situations are the necessary condition for inquiry. A problem is a ‘partial transformation’ of a problematic situation. As Dewey goes on to say,

A problem represents the partial transformation by inquiry of a problematic situation into a determinate situation. It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. (LW 12: 111-2)

36 The key concept in all this is that of the problematic-situation. Without that, problems become mere intellectual games with the “semblance but not the substance of scientific activity” (LW 12: 112). It is the concept of a problematic situation that provides the drive to inquiry and identifies the end-point to any given inquiry which is found in conversion of the problematic indeterminacy into a sense of unity. Hence Dewey’s official definition of inquiry:

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. (LW 12: 108)
  • 11 The challenge is, of course, the one that most contemporary philosophers think is incoherent – the (...)

37 Dewey’s concept of a problematic situation is, in outline, clear enough, but it has an inbuilt imbalance in its conception, reflected in Dewey’s observation that to call the situation ‘problematic’ is anticipatory. He says this, for in calling it ‘problematic’ we have already started to respond cognitively to the disruption and to begin to formulate it as a problem. But the unsettling disruption must be separate from such beginnings of cognitive response, or else the cognitive response, the first formulations of a problem, would not be one undertaken in response to the disruption that the indeterminate situation presents in experience. I think it is clearer, therefore, if we see the initial experience as involving a simple sense of disruption. That is the key to what Dewey calls a ‘problematic situation’; there is something that unsettles us. The unsettling character is independent of how we respond to it and begin to treat it as a problem. Our challenge as theorists is to make sense of this initial unsettling character to experience. 11

38 In summary, we have the following key ingredients to Dewey’s concept of inquiry:

39 Outline of Inquiry:

A situation can be salient to us independent of our knowing/conceptual encounters with it.

Salience arises from a disruption to our expectations, where these are understood as part of a more primitive and natural mode of engagement with things than a knowing/conceptual engagement.

Resolution of such disruptions arises when the situation is rendered into a unified whole.

40 If we can make sense of the ideas of salience and expectations independent of knowing conceptual encounters with things, we will then have a model of inquiry as problem-solving as the source for extending cognition. Problem-solving thus conceived will provide the basis for learning as a transformative enhancement to the expressive repertoire of cognition.

41 What I want to argue is that Dewey’s concept of salience in terms of disruptions to expectations involves operations within the aesthetics of experience. This provides an account of experience more primitive than the knowing conceptual encounters. In addition, although it is not obvious from the summary above, the sense of ‘unified whole’ that is achieved at the resolution of a problematic situation is also a contribution to the aesthetics of experience. Inquiry begins and ends in aesthetics. Once we can see how to make sense of these claims, we will also have the resources to see how the aesthetic figures throughout in what I shall call the craft of inquiry. It is tempting to think that the only role for the notion of a nonconceptual salience is as the kick-start to inquiry. Then, once a disruptive situation takes on a conceptual form as it becomes a problem-situation, concepts take over and the resulting unification is also a conceptual ordering of the initial disruptive experience. That is not, however, Dewey’s position. For Dewey, the aesthetic is not only the necessary condition for inquiry, it is also the underlying background to conceptual encounters. It is what Dewey called, “our constant sense of things, as belonging or not belonging, of relevancy, a sense which is immediate [not] the product of reflection” (LW 10: 198).

12 Cf. Shusterman (2010: 37) for this way of reading Dewey’s notion of our experience of art.

42 This background is in all experience and when it is foregrounded, it provides what Dewey calls ‘an experience’ – that’s the consummatory experience that provides the sense of unity at the resolution of disruption. It is akin to the sense of ‘an experience’ when the background expectations and saliences are foregrounded in works of art. 12 The task then is to provide sufficient detail to the nature of the aesthetic to begin to make sense of how it can play this foundational role without lapsing into yet another flashback to the myth of the given.

3. Aesthetic Salience

13 A good starting point for contemporary debate about nonconceptual content is Gunther 2003.

43 Dewey needs a coherent concept of salience. That much is clear. It needs to provide a means of engaging with situations independent of conceptual engagements that provide the content to cognition. The obvious move at this point is to treat the concept of salience that Dewey needs as either a return to the myth of the given or to see it as an instance of an appeal to a notion of nonconceptual content to experience. 13 Both options are fraught with difficulties not least of which is the familiar conundrum: how can a level of experience that is devoid of conceptual content give rise to concepts? But the familiar problems here arise in part because we have not heeded Dewey’s insights. If you set up the problem in terms of how nonconceptual content gives rise to conceptual content, you have ignored Dewey’s claim about the indeterminacy involved in salience. The unsettlingness of a problematic situation is not just a matter of a content (albeit a nonconceptual one) not being satisfied. The notion of unsettlingness is not so determinate. I prefer then not to try to capture the concept of salience in content terms at all, but simply to say that salience at the level of aesthetic of experience arises when a pattern is disrupted. There are two things that need to hold with respect to the notion of pattern for it to capture the concept of salience that Dewey needs. First, the notion of pattern must make sense of the indeterminacy of disruption that Dewey wants; second the notion of pattern need not itself contribute to the content of experience. It is not necessary to treat the pattern involved here as itself an element within experience; what is necessary is that the disruption is an element of experience. I treat the second point first.

44 If experience can make things salient due to a disruption, an ‘unsettlingness,’ then that must be because a pattern that the subject expects has been disrupted. It is difficult to see how we could make sense of disruption without crediting the experiencing subject with some sort of expectation of a pattern. But that does not commit us to treating the pattern, let alone the subject’s expectation of the pattern, as themselves elements of experience. For example, a loose floorboard is salient when you step on it. It thwarts your expectations about the rigidity of the floor you are crossing, but it is an unnecessary extravagance to make such expectations a component of phenomenology as you walk across the floor. There need be no ‘way that you experience the floor’ as a component of your experience as you walk over a stable floor. It is only when you step on the loose board that experience changes and you become aware of the board. And even then, although the loose board becomes salient because a pattern of expectations regarding solidity has been disrupted, there is no need to treat that pattern (the ‘way the board is picked out’) as itself an element of experience. It is enough if we treat the board itself as the item of awareness and experience; that is, we have a direct relational awareness of the loose board brought about by the disruption to a pattern of solidity. The pattern need only register at the sub-personal level of experience as something that the subject’s cognitive machinery monitors. From the point of view of the phenomenology of experience, the solidity of the floor is silent. We say that the subject expects the floor to be solid, but that does not commit us to thinking the subject’s experience is awash with representations of the floor’s solidity. It is enough if their sub-personal cognitive systems represent solidity and, when the expectations of those systems are thwarted, an alarm is registered in personal experience that makes the loose board an item of awareness. If we reserve ‘content’ for that which is available to awareness, then the representation of the patterns of solidity need not themselves ever become available to experience (cf. Luntley 2010 for this idea).

45 The above suggestion does not take us very far in understanding Dewey. What it does is remove the impulse to treat the patterns implicated in an account of expectations as items of conscious experience. That is an important move, but it does not take us to the heart of Dewey’s conception of disruption. Having patterns monitored by sub-personal cognitive in silence and below the radar of conscious awareness does nothing to account for a sense of disruption that captures the indeterminacy of which Dewey speaks. To make sense of Dewey’s conception of what starts inquiry, we need not just a notion of pattern that is, for the most part, monitored below the level of personal awareness, we need a notion of pattern that, even if it becomes accessible to consciousness, delivers the indeterminacy that Dewey posits. This is the bit that seems difficult, but it is the component of Dewey’s thinking that shows why Kant was right to use the label ‘aesthetic’ for that which is a condition for judgement and also why what is so labeled figures in those experiences characteristic of our engagement with art. The patterns implicated in the notion of disruptive salience are patterns that enjoy an indeterminate open-endedness. We need to turn to sources different to standard theories of non-conceptual content in order to make sense of Dewey’s concept of a problem.

4. The Sense of Fit

14 Cf. Fodor 1975, 2008, and many other places.

46 I want to appeal to recent work in both psychology and philosophy to begin to fill out a theory of the kind of disruption that Dewey appears to have in mind. Carey (2009; see also Carey et al. 2011) has set out a comprehensive developmental account of the acquisition of number concepts. It is a bootstrapping theory. Like any bootstrapping theorist, Carey has been criticised for failing to account for the transformative transition from possession of the pre-cursors of number concepts to grasp of number concepts. Any bootstrapping theory that posits a form of experience that is weaker than a conceptually saturated experience but which, nevertheless, is held to give rise to the latter will be met with the outraged response: ‘How did you get all that out of so little?’ Hence the enduring appeal of those who argue that the bootstrapping problem cannot be solved. 14 But what can make that response look inevitable is, in part, the poverty of our conception of what goes into the form of experience that is precursor to the conceptually saturated one. And it is here that Dewey has suggestions that dovetail with two otherwise separate initiatives in contemporary research.

47 Carey does not dwell on the point, but she makes a key observation regarding her account of the experiences that are precursors to grasp of cardinality. She says that before children use numerals to express number concepts, they use them akin to nonsense words in strings like nursery rhymes and similar word games. So the sequence

1, 2, 3, 4…

is learnt as a string akin to

eeny, meeny, miny, mo.
  • 15 Ignoring the transition problem might seem an act of outrageous bravado, but the point is simple. I (...)

48 The rhythm, rhyme and repetition of sounds provides the young child with a use of numerals where they serve as ‘placeholders’ for what will become numerical concepts. I shall ignore the issue of what resources are required to pull off the transition from placeholders to concepts. My interest lies in understanding the starting point. 15

49 A child who knows the sequence for the numerals as placeholders has a sense of pattern to their use, a sense that draws upon formal features of strings found in their rhythm and the repetition of this rhythm, often also involving rhyming games. The young child who hears

expects ‘4’ to come next. There is a pattern to their experience. If you said, ‘1, 2, 3, 5’ they would experience it as wrong. But that notion of ‘wrong’ is not a content notion. It is not a semantic sense of wrong; it is not that the sequence is false. The child may yet have no sense of cardinality. Their sense that the sequence is wrong is just like their sense that

eeny, meeny, mo, miny

is wrong. This is wrong, but no semantic error is involved. Both ‘disruptive’ sequences are sequences that are experienced as disruptive. This does not seem like the loose floorboard. The child might be actively playing with rhyming sequences, enjoying the counting rhymes, aware of the rhythms and rhymes displayed in the repetition and when another child presents the disruptive sequence, it sounds wrong. The challenge is to identify theoretically this notion of ‘wrong.’ Carey does not address the issue, but let’s make some obvious moves.

  • 16 ‘Brought up,’ for these things are only properly understood in the context of their natural history (...)

50 The first thing one might want to say is that anyone brought up with these rhymes acquires a sense that, e.g., ‘mo’ comes after ‘miny.’ 16 It fits. The word belongs in that position. We might say this: it is what you ‘ought’ to say after ‘miny’ in that sequence. And the same applies to the use of ‘4’ after ‘3’ in the counting rhymes. The concept of ‘fit’ here picks out what Ginsborg calls primitive normativity (Ginsborg 2011). The concept of primitive normativity involves a sense of ‘ought’ that characterises our experience of various patterns. It is a phenomenologically real feature. It is primitive in two senses.

51 First, it contributes to a very basic form of experience involving our engagement with various formal features of things, patterns of rhythm, rhyme, repetition in the case of words; balance of hue and intensity with regard to colours, and patterns of line and shade in graphic forms. These are properties that figure large in our experience of art objects, but they figure in patterns that are importantly subjective. This is the second sense in which the normativity of fit is primitive. The sense of fit that applies to the position of ‘mo’ after ‘miny’ is a sense of ought that lacks generality. It is a sense of how things are experienced as belonging in my experience. That I find ‘mo’ belonging after ‘miny’ does not mean that I thereby have resources for criticising you if you produce the sequence

Eeny, meeny, mo, miny.

52 I will find the sequence disruptive, but not with a sense of error that provides resource for critiquing your performance. Your performance will jar. It will sound wrong, but there is no semantic error involved. The error is an aesthetic error, your performance does not fit in the patterns that I have come to expect in the use of these tokens. It is the lack of generality to the position occupied by ‘mo’ that betrays the fact that whatever pattern is involved here, it is not a conceptual pattern.

17 For the generality constraint, cf. Evans 1982.

53 A defining feature of conceptual content is that the bearers of such content exhibit a generality with respect to the place they occupy within structures that carry conceptual content. 17 The word ‘four’ only carries the concept of the number between three and five in the series of natural numbers when it figures in patterns of use that make its applicability correct of sets of things that share the same cardinality, namely they all have four members. As a concept bearing device, the word ‘four’ carries a conceptual content when it has a role applicable to groups of apples, of people, the suits in whist, the riders of the apocalypse, and so on. The word ‘mo’ exhibits no such generality of application. The sense of ‘ought’ governing the fit of ‘mo’ in the nonsense rhyme is therefore quite unlike any sense of ‘ought’ that might be thought applicable to the use of content bearing words when used in adherence to standards of semantic correctness. The objectivity of such standards is manifest in the generality of application that provides the resources to critique others’ usage if, e.g., they use ‘four’ when only three riders go by.

  • 18 Wittgenstein uses the metaphor of a path, indeed a garden path, for the idea of a rule: see Wittgen (...)

54 The idea of primitive normativity opens up scope for a rich structure to experience that populates a good part of the things we ordinarily treat within the aesthetic. The idea of the sense of fit as a subjective ‘ought’ captures that part of our experience of things that finds a heftedness, a sense of belonging and order to experience in the absence of rules and objective demands upon patterns. It introduces patterns that, although oftentimes accompanied with a strong sense of ‘fit’ are, by any sense, quite open-ended and amenable to playful imaginative extension. These are patterns with their accompanying sense of fit that are, nevertheless, open to agential modification. Like the paths we tread when walking across open country, these are patterns to which we feel some sense of allegiance – we respect the path as worn by previous walkers – but we are not beholden to them or to anything else to always walk in just the same way. 18

55 In short, the sense of salience that I think Dewey needs is found in the disruption experienced in the sequence

56 The sequence thwarts our expectation. But there is no determinate sense of error here, for the notion of fit that has been transgressed has no generality to it. For sure a sequence that retained the rhyme but replaced the last word,

Eeny, meeny miny, oh

might not jar as much, but it still does not fit; it lacks the repetition of the em sound expected as the lead consonant to the last three words of the sequence. The indeterminacy is manifest also in the adaptability of fit. The disruptive sequence can be rendered fit by adopting the varied rhyming scheme and placing it within an extended instance of the rhythmic pattern with,

eeeny, meeny, mo, miny mine is big and yours is tiny.

19 See Cook 2000 for a good starting point on the literature on children’s language and play.

57 Such examples are commonplace in the playful engagement with rhythm and rhyme found in young children’s early encounters with language. 19

5. Fit, Work, and Closure

58 The appeal to the idea of fit gives theoretical purchase on the ‘itch,’ the disruptive irritant that starts inquiry and which, when attended to, provides us with a problematic situation. With the idea of an experience that jars our sense of fit, we have the starting point to inquiry. There is much more to be said about how to develop the detail of the cognitive dynamics of this reading of Dewey’s account of inquiry. But we have the beginnings of a reading of Dewey that permits theoretical development in laying out the trajectory of an individual’s engagement with inquiry that offers explanatory leverage on what is going on, rather than merely descriptive comfort.

59 Dewey has inquiry starting with an indeterminate situation and resolving when this is transformed into a ‘unified whole.’ Part of what is implicated in the end point of any inquiry will doubtless involve a conceptual unification, but I think Dewey intended the sense of closure and wholeness at the terminus of inquiry to mean much more than that. On the reading that I have indicated, the closure is also part of the aesthetics of experience. The slogan I offered was to consider inquiry as the dynamic from ‘itch to fit.’ The disruptive ‘itch’ is theorised as the loss of fit. It is proper then to see the conclusion of inquiry as the return to a sense of fit. That is the idea that is clear in Dewey’s conception of inquiry as a dynamic that restores a balance to our engagement with the environment that was unsettled by the problematic situation.

  • 20 Having the aesthetic order restored is also, perhaps, part of what Wittgenstein meant by bringing p (...)

60 In his account of our experience of art, Dewey makes explicit appeal to the notion of ‘an experience’ and I think that is best understood on the model that I am promoting as an appreciation of fit. There are many ways of responding to art objects and many of them involve ascription of content to the objects, whether words, patches of paint or movements of a dancer. But some of the ways of responding to art objects that seem central to many aesthetic experiences involve the response that comes from an appreciation of the formal properties of fit. Apt vocabulary choices can provide the novelist with a sentence whose individual words are hefted in each other’s company in a way that alerts us to the cadence available when words are handled by writers with a craftiness for finding fit. Or consider the resonance of colours in a Malevich abstract, or the thrum of the etched lines and scratchings in the paint in a Ravilious landscape. There are lots of moments when our experience of art draws upon our sense of fit, when the artist provides an arrangement of words, colour or line that brings to our attention the way some patterns can be enjoyed for their sense of fit, whatever other purpose they may also serve. One of the things art can do when it provides what Dewey calls ‘an experience’ is bring to the surface the patterns that provide some of our most basic expectations in experience, the patterns whose disruption prompts inquiry. How natural, then, that inquiry should end in the resolution of those disruptions, in an experience in which the aesthetic order is, for the time being at least, restored. 20

61 And all this is natural in a sense that is central to Dewey’s philosophy. It is natural, for it draws upon features of our experience that fall within a naturalistic account of inquiry as a dynamic between the rhythm of disruption and fit in our sense of aesthetic patterns. The account is, in this respect, properly on a par with the dynamic from hunger to satiation of need in our pursuit of food. What is natural for our species is the ‘hunger’ for patterns that fit. The idea of primitive normativity is the idea of a sense of ‘ought’ that is subjective. It is, however, not idle. It is not subjective in the way that colour or value are sometimes taken to be subjective in error-theories of those properties. The ‘ought’ of fit is subjective, for it is part of how we respond to regularities, but it is a natural response for creatures like us. And that we have this response does explanatory work in our self-understanding, for it is because we respond to patterns with a sense of fit that we seek out patterns, that we adjust them when they are disrupted, that we create new extensions of them when their course dries up. It is our aesthetic sense of fit that is a key driver in the pursuit of pattern making and pattern sustenance. And that, at heart, is the idea running through Dewey’s theory of inquiry.

62 The dynamic from itch to fit is not, in itself, a knowing dynamic. It is not a trajectory of conceptual organisation. It is a naturalistically conceived dynamic. It is, however, I suggest, the necessary condition for the emergence of conceptual organisation. Making good on that suggestion is work for another occasion, but it is important to note that even if that claim can be substantiated, it does not remove the aesthetic dynamic from inquiry; it does not get supplanted by the conceptual dynamic, rather it contributes to it.

6. The Craft of Inquiry

  • 21 “An adequate recognition of the play of imagination as the medium of realization of every kind of t (...)

63 I have suggested a reading of Dewey that provides a naturalistic theory of inquiry. I have used resources from contemporary research to provide a reading of Dewey’s concept of inquiry that provides explanatory purchase on the dynamic from itch to fit. The appeal to the aesthetics of experience in characterising the initial ‘itch’ does not exhaust the explanatory project I am grafting onto Dewey’s theory of inquiry. The aesthetic plays an important role in concluding inquiry, but it also figures in the ongoing culture of inquiry. The work of inquiry also has room for the aesthetics of experience. I want to close with some brief remarks on the phenomenology of inquiry. The details of the theoretical model that I am recommending require more space and the explanatory project of working through the detail of the theoretical model sketched must wait on other occasions. But if the approach is plausible, what does it capture in the phenomenology of inquiry? The answer, I think, is that it provides some important observations about what we might call the ‘craft of inquiry.’ It also gives credence to Dewey’s recommendation that it is the imagination that is the hallmark of human action, and the mark of teaching that is more than merely mechanical. 21

64 When confronted with an initial itch, the unsettlingness that once attended to provides the sense of a problematic situation, it is not obvious how one should respond. As Dewey observes, ‘a problem well put is half-solved.’ But what, then, is it to put a problem well? Clearly, at a minimum, it is something like this: it is to frame the question(s) that drive inquiry in a way that permits solution. But that just invites a further question, ‘What is it to frame a question?’ What is the initial move by which an itch is taken up by cognition? There are lots of things to be said about this, but I want to sketch some ideas that seem to me to illuminate aspects of the phenomenology of inquiry that we rarely talk about, aspects that are themselves part of the aesthetics of experience.

65 An itch is a disruption in a pattern of expectations that lacks the generality due to conceptual patterns. We are unsettled by the disruption. So where there’s an itch, there’s a breach in an aesthetic pattern. By its nature, the pattern breached provides no resources for handling the sense of itch, for there is no generality to the position in the pattern where the breach occurs. So if it feels like a breach, we need other resources to heal the sense of disruption. One option is the simple playful one in which we capture the breach and make it a moment within a different sense of fit. This is the move that is rampant in children’s play with words. It is the move that seals the breach in

by offering the new pattern,

eeny, meeny, mo, miny mine is big, yours is tiny.
  • 22 The big questions concern how much native ability is required in order to support communication and (...)

66 Many breaches are settled in that way, but that is not the way of inquiry, it is the way of aesthetic improvisation. In inquiry, the task is to repair the breach with a response that offers understanding. Inquiry therefore demands, of the inquirer, some grasp of concepts and some thirst for applying them. 22 That means that when inquiry moves to seal a breach in the aesthetic pattern, the move at stake is to find some general pattern to repair the breach. There is no recipe for selecting the general pattern, other than improvisation, the experimentation with ways of treating the breach as an instance not just of a new fit pattern, but of a pattern that is general.

67 If something like this is right, what moral does it suggest with regard to the phenomenology of inquiry? I think it suggests that we should expect to find the phenomenology of inquiry manifest as an imaginative and oftentimes playful experimentation with the aesthetic forms of experience. Of course, we identify hypotheses, we test them by checking their consequences for observation and the inferential shadow they cast over our web of beliefs. But we also judge them with respect to how well they fit with some of our deepest cultural bearings, the intellectual myths and presumptions that reflect some of the shape of the aesthetics of experience. What does this mean? Here’s a simple example.

68 Think of the experience common to many academics on grading student papers: early on in reading the paper, perhaps as early as the first couple of paragraphs, you form a view about the intelligence on offer and the grade due. Some academics are shy of acknowledging this point, for it might reflect an improper rush bordering on prejudice to admit such views arising so early. I think, however, acknowledging it tells us something important about the culture of inquiry. Our early initial judgement might be due to the fact that the student is posing exactly the right questions and making our favoured first inferences in evaluating them. But I think it is rarely that simple. I suspect there is something real and important to the thought that what you are responding to, what makes you think that there is an intelligent voice present in the paper with an impressive grip on things, is that the writing exhibits a sense of fit in their formulation of the key problem. It is the thought we might express by saying something like, ‘it hangs together.’ If so, I suggest that whatever conceptual unity we might be commenting on, there is also and underlying that, an aesthetic unity. This is something that can be salient early on and, of course, one might later revise one’s view on this.

69 Think of the phenomenology of engaging in inquiry, e.g., the phenomenology of writing a paper. How is for you when you start on a research paper? When I started this paper, I did not know that I would write this section on the craft of inquiry. That came later. Did I not know what I was doing when I started? If so, that might betray a lack of foresight on my part, but I suspect a more honest and interesting answer reflects a common and important way of working. We work in inquiry by playing around with the itch – the sense of what bothers us and we gesture towards a sense of what might settle us. Then we experiment and play around with ways of framing the problem. Sometimes, it comes clear very quickly. We crank the handle and churn out the essay, but most of the time, it is not like that. Most of the time, it takes work, graft and craft that is much more exploratory and playful than simply doing the analysis and running through the inferences. Learning involves a trial and error strategy not just in the narrow analytic sense of conjectures and refutations, but in the adjustments to the aesthetics of experience, the imaginative and playful experimenting with the aesthetic form of things until we arrive at a formulation of a problem that delivers the fecundity appropriate for serious cognitive work (MW 9: 245 f.). Even then, there is a considerable to and fro between careful analysis and derivation of the consequence of assumptions and theoretical posits and the crafty manoeuvrings of the domain of fit.

70 The reading of Dewey that I am offering is not based on the appeal to these phenomenological observations. It is based on the explanatory work that the aesthetics of experience enables in providing an understanding of the dynamic from itch to fit. But that explanatory work gains credence if it offers legitimacy to a phenomenology of the craft of inquiry that, to my mind, rings true.

7. The Problem with Dewey

71 I have outlined a reading of Dewey that takes seriously the project of providing an explanatory account of how inquiry is driven by problems. Inquiry is learning. Learning is driven by, brought to rest by and, arguably, its many modes of operations are replete with, manouevrings in the aesthetics of experience. If that is what learning is, we have no pedagogy fit for learning if we do not place the provision of the aesthetics of experience at the heart of our pedagogy. Engagement with the aesthetics of experience is much more than a motivational ‘extra,’ a boost to the cognitive enterprise, a means for framing interest, attention and motivation in the learner. Engagement with the aesthetics of experience is the condition for the very possibility of learning. The theory of pedagogy needs to start with aesthetics.

  • 23 For an implicit grasp of the elusiveness and yet centrality of things that fall under the aesthetic (...)

72 Educators acknowledge this. 23 Policy-makers normally dare not, for the aesthetics is messy, hard to plot, intractable to modern management methods, invariably lost to the schedules of accounting targets, and so on. But if the aesthetics of experience does seem messy to the mindset of 21st century policy makers in education, no matter, for inquiry is, by their lights, messy. That’s the point. That’s the problem with Dewey. And it is perhaps a gesture towards an explanation of why the transformative inquiries of individuals require a transformation in our social spaces so that they provide conjoint common experienes. There is no telling where the messiness of problems will lead, nor where the resources for fit might be found. Such messiness is a problem with Dewey, but it’s a problem we should celebrate and proclaim and by so doing begin to reshape our conception of what pedagogy might become when once we understand how learning happens.

Thanks to the editors of this special volume for giving me the opportunity to expand my initial paper and for their helpful suggestions in this regard.


Alexander T., (2012), John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizon of Feeling , New York, SUNY Press.

Alexander T., (2014), “Linguistic Pragmatism and Cultural Naturalism: Noncognitive Experience, Culture and Human Ethos,” European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy , VI, 2, 64-90.

Brandom R., (1994), Making it Explicit , Cambridge, MA, & London, Harvard University Press.

Carey S., (2009), The Origin of Concepts , Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.

Carey S. et al. , (2011), “Symposium on The Origin of Concepts ,” Behavioural and Brain Sciences 34, 113-67.

Carr D., (2003), Making Sense of Education , London & New York, Routledge.

Cook G., (2000), Language Play, Language Learning , Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Dewey J., (1969-1991), The Collected Works, 1882-1953 , edited by Boydston J. A., 37 vols., Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, Southern Illinois University Press.

Diamond J., (2008), Welcome to the Acquarium: A Year in the Lives of Children , New York & London, The Free Press.

Evans G., (1982), The Varieties of Reference , Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Fesmire S., (2015), Dewey , London & New York, Routledge.

Fodor J., (1975), The Language of Thought , Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Fodor J., (2008), LOT2: The Language of Thought Revisited , Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Ginsborg H., (2011), “Rule-Following and Primitive Normativity,” Journal of Philosophy , CVIII, 5, 227-54.

Gunther Y., (2003), Essays on Nonconceptual Content , Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Kitcher P., (2009), “Education, Democracy and Capitalism,” in Siegel H., (ed.), The Oxford Handbook in Philosophy of Education , New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 300-18.

Kitcher P., (2012), Preludes to Pragmatism , New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kitcher P., (2014), “Extending the Pragmatist Tradition: Replies to Commentators,” Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society , 50, 1, 97-114.

Leddy T., (2015), “Dewey’s Aesthetics,” Zalta E. N., (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , retrievable on [] .

Luntley M., (2010), “Expectations Without Content,” Mind & Language , 25, 2, 217-36.

Luntley M., (forthcoming), “Forgetski Vygotsky,” Educational Philosophy & Theory .

Malloch S., & C.  Trevarthen , (eds.), (2009), Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship , Oxford, Oxford University Press.

McDowell J., (1994), Mind and World , Cambridge, MA, & London, Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum M., (2009), “Tagore, Dewey, and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education,” in Siegel H., (ed.), The Oxford Handbook in Philosophy of Education , New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 52-64.

Sellars W., (1956), “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Feigl H., & Scriven M., (eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science vol. 1, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 253-329.

Shusterman R., (2010), “Dewey’s Art as Experience ,” Journal of Aesthetic Education , 44, 1, 26-43

Wittgenstein L., (1978), Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematic , 3rd edition, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Wittgenstein L., (2005), The Big Typescript: TS 213 , trans. & ed. Luckhardt C. G. & Maximilian A. E., Oxford & Malden, Wiley-Blackwell.

Wittgenstein L., (2009 [1953]), Philosophical Investigation , 4th edition, Oxford & Walden, Wiley-Blackwell.

Zeltner P. M., (1975), John Dewey’s Aesthetic Philosophy , New York, John Benjamin’s Publishing.

1 References to John Dewey’s published works are to the critical edition, The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953 , edited by Boydston J.   A., Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1991, and published in three series as The Early Works 1882-1899 [EW], The Middle Works 1899-1924 [MW], and The Later Works 1925-1953 [LW].

2 See Nussbaum 2009 for a recent appeal to Dewey for the resources to combat the instrumentalism rampant in much educational policy.

3 See Alexander 2012, 2014 and Leddy 2015, although neither quite capture the central role for the aesthetic that I envisage.

5 “There is nothing intellectual or cognitive in the existence of [problematic] situations, although they are the necessary conditions of cognitive operations or inquiry” (LW 12: 111). Alexander (2014: 71) notes: “Not all experience is experience as known […] knowing experience arises and terminates within experience that is not knowing.”

6 Hence Alexander’s (2014) critique of linguistic pragmatism in favour of Dewey’s experiential pragmatism and compare Kitcher’s (2014) jibes against the preoccupations of logic-chopping philosophers who miss the pragmatist drive to “reconnect philosophy with life” ( Ibid . : 99). Note also that Kitcher links this with Dewey’s “worries about the detachment of art from everyday life” ( Ibid . : 100). Similar sentiments run through Kitcher 2012.

7 For Dewey, problematic situations are “precognitive” (LW 12: 111). And see Alexander (2014: 71): “Not all experience is experience-as-known and that knowing experience arises and terminates within experience that is not knowing.”

8 There are many forms of dependency on the social that figure in theories of learning; for a critique of the influential Vygotskian version, see Luntley forthcoming.

9 Although this is individualistic and although I have noted points of contrast with Alexander’s reading of Dewey, I agree fully with the main thrust of his reading that in Dewey we find something usefully called ‘experiential pragmatism’ in contrast to the linguistic pragmatism found in Brandom. And the reason for this lies in the notion of the “irreducibility of the noncognitive” (Alexander 2014: 65). I disagree with Alexander only on the detail of how to make sense of the noncognitive (I prefer ‘aesthetic’), with the need to have a coherent and detailed theoretical account of the aesthetic and the explanatory advantage in seeing the social aesthetic arising out of the individual aesthetic.

10 It is interesting to note that such problems are not, of course, problems at all, for unless someone else asks you the question, ‘What is 68 + 57?,’ it has no obvious appeal; it does not, in the abstract demand attention. This sense of problem-solving is invariably dependent on others raising the question and is, perhaps, one reason for taking the social turn in the account of problems. Dewey contrasts arithmetical examples with real problems, arithmetical problems are, he says, merely “tasks,” things set by others, cf. LW 12: Ch. 6, § II, esp. p. 111.

11 The challenge is, of course, the one that most contemporary philosophers think is incoherent – the challenge of making sense of the ‘given’ as a pre-conceptual input to cognition, for classic treatments see Sellars 1956; McDowell 1994; and Brandom 1994. And that is why Brandom’s version of pragmatism is a linguistic one, he thinks the option of an experiential pragmatism would require returning to the myth of the given. My reading of Dewey is, therefore, a reading that amounts to claiming that the default setting in much contemporary philosophy re the foundational nature of the linguistic needs to be adjusted. There is much at stake here.

15 Ignoring the transition problem might seem an act of outrageous bravado, but the point is simple. If there is an answer to the transition problem, it will arise in the detail of the account we provide in pulling together a staged bootstrapping account of learning. It will not be settled in a single sentence.

16 ‘Brought up,’ for these things are only properly understood in the context of their natural history, something Wittgenstein (2009: § 25) emphasized too: “Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.”

18 Wittgenstein uses the metaphor of a path, indeed a garden path, for the idea of a rule: see Wittgenstein (2005: § 90; and 1978: § 163).

20 Having the aesthetic order restored is also, perhaps, part of what Wittgenstein meant by bringing peace to philosophical perplexities. If so, his quietism is momentary, not enduring; it applies to the settlement of a moment in a Deweyan dynamic, rather than an endpoint to philosophy.

21 “An adequate recognition of the play of imagination as the medium of realization of every kind of thing which lies beyond the scope of direct physical response is the sole way of escape from mechanical methods in teaching” (MW 9: 245).

22 The big questions concern how much native ability is required in order to support communication and the pursuit of inquiry. For an exploration of this in a manner that captures something of Dewey’s insistence on avoiding too intellectualist a view of experience, see Malloch & Trevarthen 2009.

23 For an implicit grasp of the elusiveness and yet centrality of things that fall under the aesthetics of experience as I have been promoting it, see the detailed account of a year in the life of a New York kindergarten class in Diamond 2008.

Electronic reference

Michael Luntley , “ What’s the Problem with Dewey? ” ,  European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], VIII-1 | 2016, Online since 20 July 2016 , connection on 20 April 2024 . URL :; DOI :

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BUS403: Negotiations and Conflict Management (2016.A.01)

Problem-solving and decision-making in groups.

Read this section to learn about common components/characteristics of problems and the five steps in group problem-solving. This article also describes the brainstorming and discussion that should occur before group decision-making, compares and contrasts decision-making techniques, and discusses various influences on decision-making.

Group Problem-Solving Process

john dewey 5 steps problem solving

Group problem solving can be a confusing puzzle unless it is approached systematically.

There are several variations of similar problem-solving models based on US American scholar John Dewey's reflective thinking process. As you read through the steps in the process, think about how you can apply what we learned regarding the general and specific elements of problems. Some of the following steps are straightforward, and they are things we would logically do when faced with a problem. However, taking a deliberate and systematic approach to problem solving has been shown to benefit group functioning and performance. A deliberate approach is especially beneficial for groups that do not have an established history of working together and will only be able to meet occasionally. Although a group should attend to each step of the process, group leaders or other group members who facilitate problem solving should be cautious not to dogmatically follow each element of the process or force a group along. Such a lack of flexibility could limit group member input and negatively affect the group's cohesion and climate.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Define the problem by considering the three elements shared by every problem: the current undesirable situation, the goal or more desirable situation, and obstacles in the way. At this stage, group members share what they know about the current situation, without proposing solutions or evaluating the information. Here are some good questions to ask during this stage: What is the current difficulty? How did we come to know that the difficulty exists? Who/what is involved? Why is it meaningful/urgent/important? What have the effects been so far? What, if any, elements of the difficulty require clarification? At the end of this stage, the group should be able to compose a single sentence that summarizes the problem called a problem statement . Avoid wording in the problem statement or question that hints at potential solutions. A small group formed to investigate ethical violations of city officials could use the following problem statement: "Our state does not currently have a mechanism for citizens to report suspected ethical violations by city officials".

Step 2: Analyze the Problem

During this step a group should analyze the problem and the group's relationship to the problem. Whereas the first step involved exploring the "what" related to the problem, this step focuses on the "why". At this stage, group members can discuss the potential causes of the difficulty. Group members may also want to begin setting out an agenda or timeline for the group's problem-solving process, looking forward to the other steps. To fully analyze the problem, the group can discuss the five common problem variables discussed before. Here are two examples of questions that the group formed to address ethics violations might ask: Why doesn't our city have an ethics reporting mechanism? Do cities of similar size have such a mechanism? Once the problem has been analyzed, the group can pose a problem question that will guide the group as it generates possible solutions. "How can citizens report suspected ethical violations of city officials and how will such reports be processed and addressed?" As you can see, the problem question is more complex than the problem statement, since the group has moved on to more in-depth discussion of the problem during step 2.

Step 3: Generate Possible Solutions

During this step, group members generate possible solutions to the problem. Again, solutions should not be evaluated at this point, only proposed and clarified. The question should be what could we do to address this problem, not what should we do to address it. It is perfectly OK for a group member to question another person's idea by asking something like "What do you mean?" or "Could you explain your reasoning more?" Discussions at this stage may reveal a need to return to previous steps to better define or more fully analyze a problem. Since many problems are multifaceted, it is necessary for group members to generate solutions for each part of the problem separately, making sure to have multiple solutions for each part. Stopping the solution-generating process prematurely can lead to groupthink. For the problem question previously posed, the group would need to generate solutions for all three parts of the problem included in the question. Possible solutions for the first part of the problem (How can citizens report ethical violations?) may include "online reporting system, e-mail, in-person, anonymously, on-the-record," and so on. Possible solutions for the second part of the problem (How will reports be processed?) may include "daily by a newly appointed ethics officer, weekly by a nonpartisan nongovernment employee," and so on. Possible solutions for the third part of the problem (How will reports be addressed?) may include "by a newly appointed ethics commission, by the accused's supervisor, by the city manager," and so on.

Step 4: Evaluate Solutions

During this step, solutions can be critically evaluated based on their credibility, completeness, and worth. Once the potential solutions have been narrowed based on more obvious differences in relevance and/or merit, the group should analyze each solution based on its potential effects - especially negative effects. Groups that are required to report the rationale for their decision or whose decisions may be subject to public scrutiny would be wise to make a set list of criteria for evaluating each solution. Additionally, solutions can be evaluated based on how well they fit with the group's charge and the abilities of the group. To do this, group members may ask, "Does this solution live up to the original purpose or mission of the group?" and "Can the solution actually be implemented with our current resources and connections?" and "How will this solution be supported, funded, enforced, and assessed?" Secondary tensions and substantive conflict, two concepts discussed earlier, emerge during this step of problem solving, and group members will need to employ effective critical thinking and listening skills. Decision making is part of the larger process of problem solving and it plays a prominent role in this step. While there are several fairly similar models for problem solving, there are many varied decision-making techniques that groups can use. For example, to narrow the list of proposed solutions, group members may decide by majority vote, by weighing the pros and cons, or by discussing them until a consensus is reached. There are also more complex decision-making models like the "six hats method," which we will discuss later. Once the final decision is reached, the group leader or facilitator should confirm that the group is in agreement. It may be beneficial to let the group break for a while or even to delay the final decision until a later meeting to allow people time to evaluate it outside of the group context.

Step 5: Implement and Assess the Solution

Implementing the solution requires some advanced planning, and it should not be rushed unless the group is operating under strict time restraints or delay may lead to some kind of harm. Although some solutions can be implemented immediately, others may take days, months, or years. As was noted earlier, it may be beneficial for groups to poll those who will be affected by the solution as to their opinion of it or even to do a pilot test to observe the effectiveness of the solution and how people react to it. Before implementation, groups should also determine how and when they would assess the effectiveness of the solution by asking, "How will we know if the solution is working or not?" Since solution assessment will vary based on whether or not the group is disbanded, groups should also consider the following questions: If the group disbands after implementation, who will be responsible for assessing the solution? If the solution fails, will the same group reconvene or will a new group be formed?

john dewey 5 steps problem solving

Once a solution has been reached and the group has the "green light" to implement it, it should proceed deliberately and cautiously, making sure to consider possible consequences and address them as needed. Certain elements of the solution may need to be delegated out to various people inside and outside the group. Group members may also be assigned to implement a particular part of the solution based on their role in the decision making or because it connects to their area of expertise. Likewise, group members may be tasked with publicizing the solution or "selling" it to a particular group of stakeholders. Last, the group should consider its future. In some cases, the group will get to decide if it will stay together and continue working on other tasks or if it will disband. In other cases, outside forces determine the group's fate.

"Getting Competent"

Problem Solving and Group Presentations Giving a group presentation requires that individual group members and the group as a whole solve many problems and make many decisions. Although having more people involved in a presentation increases logistical difficulties and has the potential to create more conflict, a well-prepared and well-delivered group presentation can be more engaging and effective than a typical presentation. The main problems facing a group giving a presentation are (1) dividing responsibilities, (2) coordinating schedules and time management, and (3) working out the logistics of the presentation delivery. In terms of dividing responsibilities, assigning individual work at the first meeting and then trying to fit it all together before the presentation (which is what many college students do when faced with a group project) is not the recommended method. Integrating content and visual aids created by several different people into a seamless final product takes time and effort, and the person "stuck" with this job at the end usually ends up developing some resentment toward his or her group members. While it's OK for group members to do work independently outside of group meetings, spend time working together to help set up some standards for content and formatting expectations that will help make later integration of work easier. Taking the time to complete one part of the presentation together can help set those standards for later individual work. Discuss the roles that various group members will play openly so there isn't role confusion. There could be one point person for keeping track of the group's progress and schedule, one point person for communication, one point person for content integration, one point person for visual aids, and so on. Each person shouldn't do all that work on his or her own but help focus the group's attention on his or her specific area during group meetings. Scheduling group meetings is one of the most challenging problems groups face, given people's busy lives. From the beginning, it should be clearly communicated that the group needs to spend considerable time in face-to-face meetings, and group members should know that they may have to make an occasional sacrifice to attend. Especially important is the commitment to scheduling time to rehearse the presentation. Consider creating a contract of group guidelines that includes expectations for meeting attendance to increase group members' commitment. Group presentations require members to navigate many logistics of their presentation. While it may be easier for a group to assign each member to create a five-minute segment and then transition from one person to the next, this is definitely not the most engaging method. Creating a master presentation and then assigning individual speakers creates a more fluid and dynamic presentation and allows everyone to become familiar with the content, which can help if a person doesn't show up to present and during the question-and-answer section. Once the content of the presentation is complete, figure out introductions, transitions, visual aids, and the use of time and space. In terms of introductions, figure out if one person will introduce all the speakers at the beginning, if speakers will introduce themselves at the beginning, or if introductions will occur as the presentation progresses. In terms of transitions, make sure each person has included in his or her speaking notes when presentation duties switch from one person to the next. Visual aids have the potential to cause hiccups in a group presentation if they aren't fluidly integrated. Practicing with visual aids and having one person control them may help prevent this. Know how long your presentation is and know how you're going to use the space. Presenters should know how long the whole presentation should be and how long each of their segments should be so that everyone can share the responsibility of keeping time. Also consider the size and layout of the presentation space. You don't want presenters huddled in a corner until it's their turn to speak or trapped behind furniture when their turn comes around.

  • Of the three main problems facing group presenters, which do you think is the most challenging and why?
  • Why do you think people tasked with a group presentation (especially students) prefer to divide the parts up and have members work on them independently before coming back together and integrating each part? What problems emerge from this method? In what ways might developing a master presentation and then assigning parts to different speakers be better than the more divided method? What are the drawbacks to the master presentation method?

John Dewey Explorations


  • Analyze the organization of Dewey’s argument. Dewey begins the essay by stating that “thinking is the method of intelligent learning that employs and rewards mind” (para 1). What does he mean by this statement? Note how he enumerates four necessary methods that can be employed in schools to enhance thinking. Discuss how the four methods are linked together. Is there a necessary sequence to the four methods?
  • In paragraph 6, Dewey discusses the importance of problems and the significant relationship between problem-solving and learning. His discussion here perhaps expands on his claim in the first paragraph that “information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind-crushing load.” Analyze why problem-solving is so important to student learning. Consider Dewey’s distinction, though, between “genuine and simulated or mock problems.” Think of examples of both kinds of problems and how they might promote or detract from thinking.
  • In analyzing the importance of problems to Dewey, consider the following statement, “No one has ever explained why children are so full of questions outside of the school (so that they pester grown-up persons if they get any encouragement), and the conspicuous absence of display or curiosity about the subject matter of school lessons.” What is your answer to Dewey’s question about curiosity in and out of school? Did grade school promote or inhibit your natural curiosity? How might it be changed to promote student curiosity? That’s a big question. Here’s your chance to transform primary school education! If that’s too big a problem to tackle at once, what is one change that could be made to traditional schools to promote student curiosity?
  • In discussing the uses of data, Dewey notes that “pupils who have stored their “minds” with all kinds of material which they have never put to intellectual uses are sure to be hampered when they try to think. They have on practice in selecting what is appropriate, and no criterion to go by; everything is on the same dead static level” (para. 11). Research the concept of “metacognition” and its relationship to learning. How would activities that promote student metacognition solve the problem that Dewey poses here? Alternatively, research how portfolios are being used to promote student metacognition and thinking? Would Dewey approve of student portfolios? Why or why not?
  • Authored by : Stephen Burke. Provided by : Rockland Community College . License : CC BY: Attribution

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The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible pp 1–8 Cite as

The Possible in the Life and Work of John Dewey

  • Kjetil Egelandsdal 2 &
  • Ingunn Johanne Ness 2  
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The American philosopher John Dewey and the tradition of pragmatism is often connected to the concept of experience. This entry explores John Dewey’s pragmatism with a particular emphasis on experience as transformative events based on two main principles – continuity and interaction. In relation to this we discuss how experience is linked to imagination and seen as a transformative source. Experience can be perceived as a creative process in which the meeting of different experiences creates new ideas and new understandings revealing what is possible. Consequently, experiences do not only form the basis for what we can do and understand, but also what we can imagine and create. Despite the positive and educative associations to the concept, experience is not always an educative phenomenon and Dewey realized that some experiences can also be harmful. Thus, in order to understand the complexity of the concept we also elaborate on educative and miseducative experiences, and the relationship between experience and moral judgement.

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Egelandsdal, K., Ness, I.J. (2022). The Possible in the Life and Work of John Dewey. In: The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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Student Problem Solving Analysis by Step John Dewey Reviewed from Learning Style

Profile image of Ni Ummu Kulsum

This research aims to describe the student’s mathematical problem solving based on John Dewey’s step viewed by learning style. The subjects are 2 students with a visual learning style, 2 students with auditory learning style, and a student with kinaesthetic learning. The data was collected through a questionnaire of learning style, the test of mathematics problem solving, interview, and documentation. Then it was analyzed used Milles and Huberman model’s data analyzed technique consist of data reduction, data display, and conclusion (verification). This research shows that: (1) the visual subject confronted the problem by reading the question silently in several times, the subject can’t define the problem correctly, can’t found the right solution so that calculating and the answer is not correct, and can’t test consequences (looking back), (2) the auditory subject confronted the problem with reading the question in several times loudly, the subject can define the problem correctly, ...

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    john dewey 5 steps problem solving

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    The reflective-thinking method originated with John Dewey, a leading American social philosopher. This method provides a structured way for small groups to approach decision-making and problem-solving, especially as people are increasingly distracted by electronics or overwhelmed by access to complex and endless information.

  2. Dewey's Five Steps Of Reflective Thinking

    It is only through a disciplined mind that we attain intellectual freedom, said Dewey. He laid out the following five distinct steps as making up the process of reflective thinking: 1) Define the problem. 2) Analyze the problem. 3) Figure out criteria for solution. 4) Generate possible solutions. 5) Choose the best/most probable solution

  3. 14.3 Problem Solving and Decision Making in Groups

    Group Problem-Solving Process. There are several variations of similar problem-solving models based on US American scholar John Dewey's reflective thinking process (Bormann & Bormann, 1988). As you read through the steps in the process, think about how you can apply what we learned regarding the general and specific elements of problems.

  4. John Dewey on Education: Impact & Theory

    John Dewey (1859—1952) was a psychologist, philosopher, and educator who made contributions to numerous topics in philosophy and psychology. His work continues to inform modern philosophy and educational practice today. Dewey was an influential pragmatist, a movement that rejected most philosophy at the time in favor of the belief that things ...

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    Reflective thinking is action oriented. It's not just about stepping back and contemplating, pondering or questioning. In fact Dewey identifies five steps in reflective thinking (although in ...

  6. 19.3 Group Problem Solving

    This seven-step process (Adler, R., 1996) has produced positive results and serves as a handy organizational structure. If you are member of a group that needs to solve a problem and don't know where to start, consider these seven simple steps: Define the problem. Analyze the problem. Establish criteria.

  7. PDF Planning a "Problem-Solution" Essay

    Planning a "Problem-Solution" Essay . Students are often asked to write essays that address a particular problem. Based on a series of questions, the Dewey Sequence was developed by educator John Dewey as a reflective method for solving problems. The idea is to work through the list of questions and use the answers you come up

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    John Dewey. John Dewey (1859-1952) was one of American pragmatism's early founders, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and arguably the most prominent American intellectual for the first half of the twentieth century. Dewey's educational theories and experiments had global reach, his psychological theories influenced ...

  9. Solving Problems with John Dewey's Inquiry Process A Step by Step Guide

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  10. Problem-Solving as a Theory of Learning and Teaching

    in the field of problem-solving. One, the ground-breading study of problem-solving, How We Think, was first published in 1909. This work, written by John Dewey, is a treatment of the process of reflective thinking combined with searching implications for the teaching-learning process. Dewey's original thesis was that the

  11. John Dewey: How We Think: Chapter 6: The Analysis of a Complete Act of

    Object of Part Two. AFTER a brief consideration in the first chapter of the nature of reflective thinking, we turned, in the second, to the need for its training. Then we took up the resources, the difficulties, and the aim of its training. The purpose of this discussion was to set before the student the general problem of the training of mind.

  12. What's the Problem with Dewey?

    1 References to John Dewey's published works are to the critical edition, The Collected Works of John ; 1 In Democracy and Education Dewey presents a vision of a richly liberal conception of education, one that sees education as fundamentally transformative, from the opening naturalistic conception of living things maintaining 'themselves by renewal' to the conception of education as ...

  13. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Groups: Group Problem-Solving

    Step 1: Define the Problem. Define the problem by considering the three elements shared by every problem: the current undesirable situation, the goal or more desirable situation, and obstacles in the way. At this stage, group members share what they know about the current situation, without proposing solutions or evaluating the information.

  14. John Dewey Explorations

    In paragraph 6, Dewey discusses the importance of problems and the significant relationship between problem-solving and learning. His discussion here perhaps expands on his claim in the first paragraph that "information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind-crushing load.". Analyze why problem-solving is so important to student ...

  15. The Possible in the Life and Work of John Dewey

    Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that originated in the USA around 1870. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952) are considered the most central pragmatists. In recent times, philosophers like Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and Robert Brandom are also regarded as representatives of ...

  16. Critical Reflection: John Dewey's Relational View of Transformative

    By contrast, Dewey's relational view brings attention to how learning and re-learning need to be situated: they are processes shaped by social contexts as well as individual dilemmas. In other words, the active engagement with democratic values that Dewey imagines goes beyond "frames of reference.".

  17. Problem Solving

    Puzzled. Work teams are often formed to find solutions to problems, and of course, there are problems which can arise in the course of conducting work. One problem solving method is John Dewey's reflective thinking process. [3] The following seven-step process based on Dewey's work has produced positive results and been tested over time.

  18. Student Problem Solving Analysis by Step John Dewey Reviewed from

    Abstract and Figures. This research aims to describe the student's mathematical problem solving based on John Dewey's step viewed by learning style. The subjects are 2 students with a visual ...

  19. Dewey Sequence, Dead Fish Theory & Problem-Solving

    One of the most effective approaches to problem-solving is the Dewey Sequence Problem-Solving Strategy. Created and developed by educator John Dewey, the strategy includes six steps to solving a ...

  20. PDF Student Problem Solving Analysis by Step John Dewey Reviewed from

    To solve the problem of mathematical necessary completion measures, or known by steps of mathematical troubleshooting. According to John Dewey in Jamin Carson (2007), the Troubleshooting steps ...

  21. Problem Solving: What is it? How can We Teach it?

    Mary L. Glick "Problem-Solving Strategies," Educational Psychologist, Win ter/Spring 1986, pp. 99-120; Penelope Pet erson, "Teachers' and Students' Cognitional Knowledge for Classroom Teaching and Learning," Educational Research, Ju ne/July 1988, pp. 5-14.

  22. Student Problem Solving Analysis by Step John Dewey Reviewed from

    This research aims to describe the student's mathematical problem solving based on John Dewey's step viewed by learning style. The subjects are 2 students with a visual learning style, 2 students with auditory learning style, and a student with kinaesthetic learning.

  23. Solved What is Step 3 of John Dewey's 5-step Sequence of

    Question: What is Step 3 of John Dewey's 5-step Sequence of Problem Solving?Generating possible solutionsEvaluate solutionsDefine the problemAnalyzing the problem. What is Step 3 of John Dewey's 5 - step Sequence of Problem Solving? Here's the best way to solve it. The correct answer is B. Evaluate solutions.