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I. The Professed Metaphysics of John Dewey Introduction

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Richard M. Gale

The Metaphysics of John Dewey

I. The Professed Metaphysics of John Dewey


John Dewey was not the greatest philosopher of all time, only the greatest person ever to have been a philosopher. His greatness was his character, his heart; for, more than any other philosopher, Dewey cared about improving the lives of his fellow human beings, and he worked with unmatched energy and dedication throughout his long life, which spanned almost ninety-two years, in the service of this ideal.1 He can best be described as a Biblical prophet who had a Ph.D. in philosophy. He even likened himself to John the Baptist,2 which is an apt comparison since both claimed to foresee the coming of a Messiah who would enable us to make everything right with ourselves and our society. But Dewey’s Messiah, unlike John’s, is not going to ride into town on the back of a donkey wearing open-toed sandals, like some kind of hippie. Rather his Messiah dwells within each person, being nothing but their native intelligence, which makes it possible for them to develop into effective cooperative problem solvers, provided that they employ a generalized form of scientific method, called “inquiry.” Dewey not only worked tirelessly at articulating the nature of inquiry but attempted to apply it to most of the societal ills of his day and often with considerable success. In a more enlightened society than ours, he would be among Mattel’s best selling action figures, no doubt with a manually adjustable mustache – let it droop when he is writing in his study (the figure comes with a toy desk and a beat-up old typewriter) and point upward when engaged in a heated public debate.

Dewey wrote with the apostolic fervor of someone who has seen the truth in full frontal nudity and knows how it can be used to save us. This gave his writings a very preachy quality, which would have been offensive were it not for the fact that they reeked with a sincerity the like of which has never been matched, not even by Elvis Presley. Moreover, his sermons had the ring of truth. Ever since I first read John Dewey, which was in my first class in philosophy in 1950, I have firmly believed that if I would place one hand on my copy of his Experience and Nature, opened or unopened, it didn’t matter, and the other on where it hurt, I would be cured. Many times throughout my adult life I have been tempted to put five dollars in an envelop and send it to him so that he would pray for me, as well as all the sick and shut-ins.

But what exactly was Dewey’s vision of salvation like? And what is needed to achieve it? Salvation is a process of full human flourishing in which people, through their own free actions, bring about a full realization and integration of all of their best potentialities. To achieve a full integration of the self it is necessary to achieve a unification with both one’s natural environment and society. Dewey appealed to the emerging social sciences in support of his view that everything that is distinctive about human beings results from their active participation within a society of fellow humans. Because of this deep involvement between persons, such that each person’s self-realization depends upon that of the other persons in her society, it follows that each person can find salvation only if everyone else does. But to achieve full human flourishing, they must learn the technique of gaining control over their environment, both physical and social, so that they can effectively bring about their growth, that is, their creation of ever higher order syntheses and unifications, both within themselves and in their relations with nature and their fellow persons.

What technique of problem solving will best aid such growth? Past experience teaches us that it is a general version of the method that has been so successfully employed in science, as well in our successful problem-solving activities in everyday life. Such inquiries begin with an indeterminate or problematic situation that calls for action in order to restore integration and harmony between an organism and its environment. Relevant facts of the case must be gathered so that a likely plan of action can be devised and then acted on so. If the original indeterminate situation thereby gets transformed into a determinate one, the inquiry has succeeded. If this fails to happen, a new plan of action must be devised, and so on until we succeed. This method of inquiry can be successfully employed only in a society that is democratic in the moral sense of according to everyone the freedom, both positive and negative, to realize their potentialities through joint, cooperative inquiry. To enable people to become effective joint inquirers they must be educated in a way that will develop in them the ability to inquire in a collective and cooperative manner, in which they accord to all of their fellow inquirers all the rights and privileges appertaining to respected and empowered fellow inquirers. Only when we learn how to apply the technique of scientific inquiry to our social, political, economic, and moral problems will salvation be realized. To accomplish this we must make use of our best available scientific knowledge to devise plans for large-scale social action so as to eliminate or at least ameliorate these “problems of men,” to use a title of one of Dewey’s books.

Dewey’s panacea of salvation-through-inquiry seems eminently reasonable. However, it is easier said than done, for there are, as Dewey never tires of pointing out, sinister repressive forces afoot in contemporary societies that block the realization of a Deweyan moral democracy and thereby prevent the effective wide-scale use of the method of inquiry to solve the problems of men. Some of these forces, Dewey argues, undermine our negative freedom by blocking our freedom of speech and assembly. Others undermine our positive freedom to gain effective control of our lives by preventing us from being afforded the requisite social, political, economic, and educative opportunities to become effective inquirers.

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