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Dewey, John (1859–1952)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-DD016-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/dewey-john-1859-1952/v-1

Article Summary

The philosophy of John Dewey is original and comprehensive. His extensive writings contend systematically with problems in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and education, and philosophical anthropology. Although his work is widely read, it is not widely understood.

Dewey had a distinctive conception of philosophy, and the key to understanding and benefiting from his work is to keep this conception in mind. A worthwhile philosophy, he urged, must be practical. Philosophic inquiry, that is, ought to take its point of departure from the aspirations and problems characteristic of the various sorts of human activity, and an effective philosophy would develop ideas responsive to those conditions. Any system of ideas that has the effect of making common experience less intelligible than we find it to be is on that account a failure. Dewey’s theory of inquiry, for example, does not entertain a conception of knowledge that makes it problematic whether we can know anything at all. Inasmuch as scientists have made extraordinary advances in knowledge, it behoves the philosopher to find out exactly what scientists do, rather than to question whether they do anything of real consequence.

Moral philosophy, likewise, should not address the consternations of philosophers as such, but the characteristic urgencies and aspirations of common life; and it should attempt to identify the resources and limitations of human nature and the environment with which it interacts. Human beings might then contend effectively with the typical perplexities and promises of mortal existence. To this end, Dewey formulated an exceptionally innovative and far-reaching philosophy of morality and democracy.

The subject matter of philosophy is not philosophy, Dewey liked to say, but ‘problems of men’. All too often, he found, the theories of philosophers made the primary subject matter more obscure rather than less so. The tendency of thinkers is to become bewitched by inherited philosophic puzzles, when the persistence of the puzzle is a consequence of failing to consider the assumptions that created it. Dewey was gifted in discerning and discarding the philosophic premises that create needless mysteries. Rather than fret, for instance, about the question of how immaterial mental substance can possibly interact with material substance, he went to the root of the problem by challenging the notion of substance itself.

Indeed, Dewey’s dissatisfaction with the so-called classic tradition in philosophy, stemming at least from Plato if not from Parmenides, led him to reconstruct the entire inheritance of the Western tradition in philosophy. The result is one of the most seminal and fruitful philosophies of the twentieth century.

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Citing this article:
Gouinlock, James. Dewey, John (1859–1952), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/dewey-john-1859-1952/v-1.
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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