Saturday, April 10, 2010

Homage to John Dewey

More and more, I find myself admiring Dewey as a philosopher.  He has been, for me, a difficult read at times.  His writing style is very dense, and he seems to have a tendency to circle around an idea rather than nail it definitively.  This makes comprehending him difficult for the impatient reader.

But he is, for me, the most sensible of philosophers; by which I mean that he makes a great deal of sense, and by doing so manages to rescue philosophy from its traditional fascination with matters having little or nothing to do with "ordinary day to day life."  He is a bitter foe of dualisms of all kind.  He accepts humans as organisms which are a part of reality, not somehow separate from it.  Thought, therefore, results from our interaction with our environment, and our effort to bring about results we find useful or desirable.  We are not mere observers of an external world, we are particpants in the world.  The view that our minds are in some fashion apart from the world (and our bodies, for that matter) leads to silly questions regarding whether there really is an external world, and whether other minds really exist.

Humans as participants in the world can influence it; having intelligence, and the ability to learn from experience, they can influence it by recognizing problems and solving them.  Morality and valuation do not have their origin in, nor are they justified by, an appeal to the supernatural, but to the "natural" human interaction with other humans and the world.  His is a very positive naturalism.  Many philosophers, particularly it seems european philosophers, seem to have convinced themselves that if there is no God, then there is no meaning to life, no right or wrong, etc. and we march on to nihilism, or despair, or at least pessimism.  Or, alternatively, that God must exist, because if he does not then there is no meaning to life, no right or wrong, and so on and so forth.

Dewey, though, manages to avoid both the "Quest for Certainty" and the abyss that seems to open up before all too many modern and post-modern thinkers.  Perhaps he does so by accepting that we are part of reality rather than apart from it (and, therefore, not inherently better and more important than it or others).

It's interesting that what he sought to achieve--a recovery or reformation of philosophy--was also being sought by Wittgenstein and others, in the sense that they like Dewey were engaged in efforts to point out that many traditional philosophical problems were the result of misconceptions and misuse of language.  Dewey, though, thought the task of philosophy was not merely to save itself from the bewitchment of language, but also to resolve the actual "problems of men."

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