Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dewey's Remarkable Logic

I've gone back to perusing John Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, and have cracked open a recent book of studies related to it.  I do so as I find myself agreeing with those who think that logic was always his first concern and his view of it most unusual and interesting.

He'd written on the subject for many years before he wrote this work in 1938, but his conception of it found its fullest expression at that time and in that book.  It baffled many, including Bertrand Russell, who must have thought he had a kind of proprietary interest in logic after Principia Mathematica (although he had to share the honor of authoring that tome with Whitehead, which it seems he did rather grudgingly).  And this confusion can't be entirely attributed to Dewey's often perplexing writing style, which is itself a kind of wonder.  He doesn't employ the obscure, almost mystical, jargon and hierophantic phrasing common (I think) to certain continental philosophers of his time and ours; he writes in good old English and uses words we read all the time, for the most part.  However, I find that in reading him, while I seem to know what he is saying, I'm not really sure I do until he has worked himself to a conclusion.  His style of writing seems to be indirect.

The confusion felt by his critics may also be attributed to the fact that while he addresses what would be deemed logic by most--Aristotelian, symbolic, mathematical--he doesn't think of them as being what others think them to be nor does he treat it as they do.  Logic to Dewey is something more than any logics.  If I understand him correctly, he sees logic as something which derives from our interaction with our environment and our need to meet and solve problems and disturbances as they arise due to that interaction.  Logic is, in other words, a method we employ in living, part of intelligent inquiry which includes the scientific or experimental method; or, perhaps, the theory underlying intelligent inquiry of all kinds.

Throughout his career, Dewey criticized what he thought was the tendency in philosophy since the time of the ancients to view the mind as separate from the body and from what we still like to call the "external world."  He thought this resulted in a "spectator" theory of knowledge and experience.  As a consequence of the prevalence of this view, logic was considered by some to be a kind of system or structure the mind imposes on the external world--something springing from the mind, as it were, possibly prompted by the external world which we experienced, if we did so at all, as sense impressions or some equivalent thought to intrude between the world and our minds.  Also as a result of this view, philosophers developed the various dualisms which plague us still, e.g. the mind/body distinction.

Russell it seems referred to Dewey's conception of logic as psychological, and it may be possible to describe it as such if we include within that characterization the view that our thought--including logic--derives from and indeed originates in our functioning as a living organism in the universe.  It is not writ into the structure of the universe or our mind, waiting to be discovered or applied.  Instead, it it is developed, used, perfected through use, subject to revision depending on how well it answers our needs.  This view of logic must have astonished if it did not enrage those who see it as something pristine and unsoiled by mere life.

It seems that Dewey is enjoying (an odd word for those dead) like pragmatism a kind of Renaissance or renewal of interest.  I think that's due not to some of the so-called neo-pragmatists like Rorty, who I think misunderstood him in a rather spectacular manner, but due instead to a recognition that Dewey's thought was in its way revolutionary and allows for a place for philosophy in life--in determining how to live and what to do--not merely in the classroom or in literary or cultural criticism.  Some have taken his willingness to think of "truth" as contingent and subject to revision as being indicative of relativism and as sanctioning a sort of postmodernism, but in doing so they ignore his constant insistence on the application of inquiry in the form of the scientific or experimental method, modified to address all issues, as intelligence.  Creative intelligence has a place in addressing the problems of the real world of which we are a part.

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