To appreciate all aspects of the thought of John Dewey, who was a philosopher, educationalist and social campaigner, we need to understand his theory of inquiry or what he sometimes called his logic. Unlike Peirce, from whom Dewey takes many of his ideas, this theory of inquiry encompasses morals and politics as well as science.
Inquiry begins when we encounter a problem of some kind. When things go smoothly there is a seamless interaction between ourselves and the world. This is the normal course of experience. However, sometimes what we expect to happen does not. The results of an experiment are not what we predicted; a piece of legislation does not have the desired effect; our hammer breaks or something similar. The first task of inquiry is to isolate what has gone wrong and then to attempt to reconfigure our ideas and tools to help us cope with the problem. This practice is social. To ensure we get the best answer possible we must consult widely within our community in order to eliminate errors and oversights due to our own idiosyncrasies and biases. Finally, we return with our new beliefs and tools to experiment to see how things go and to improve and modify where necessary. However, even after this is done the beliefs that we have arrived at will be provisional for two reasons: first, because we are fallible; and second, because the contexts in which the problems initially arose are continually evolving and being changed by our solutions.
Dewey was tempted to call the beliefs that we come to at the end of our inquiries ‘truths’, but fearing this would just cause confusion opted instead for the term ‘warranted assertions’. Although there is no end point to our inquiry, we can be said to make progress by coping better with a wider range of experience. The more I know about something, the deeper its meaning for me and the more possibilities there are in my interactions with it. For example, the greater the theoretical knowledge a scientist has of an electron, the more she will be able to interact with and manipulate electrons; and equally the more she can manipulate an electron, the more she will know about it.
Dewey claims that this picture of inquiry dissolves old problems of knowledge. Beliefs and desires are not representations of an external world, but tools, like hammers, which help us interact with the world. It makes no sense therefore to ask how we can be certain that our beliefs represent things as they really are. Moreover, according to Dewey, the division between the subject of experience (i.e. ourselves) and the experienced object, a division which lies behind many sceptical questions, is not our primary experience, it is rather the result of the first stage of analysis when we realize something has gone wrong. Experience in its original, unproblematic sense forms a unity.
To be successful, inquirers have to respond intelligently and imaginatively to new situations. This has a direct bearing on the way we think of education. Just as knowledge is not the passive acquiring of bits of experience, education should not be the passive activity of learning isolated facts. Proper learning is training the mind to cope with new experiences better and more imaginatively. The ideal educational system must stimulate children with new experiences and cultivate the imaginative and varied responses required for inquiry. Dewey had the chance to apply some of these ideas in the Laboratory School he established at Chicago University.
Dewey's theory of inquiry also has political consequences. A society progresses when it solves its problems. Inquiry is at its best when it is social, when it involves as many minds as possible and when it is willing to experiment and to adapt in the light of the new contexts and difficulties which it encounters. According to Dewey, the system of government which ensures both this participation and experimentation is democracy.
The philosopher, as well as describing this process of inquiry, is also an inquirer seeking solutions to problems. What is special about the philosopher is that she has the opportunity and training to stand furthest back from the details of society to question some of its fundamental values; and it is the role of the philosopher to be always questioning. However, even she cannot view things entirely from the outside and thus her proclamations must be treated also as provisional and fallible.
Dewey remained philosophically and politically active right up until his death in 1952. By that time the pragmatism which he had spent his career articulating was on the wane. Philosophy departments became largely dominated by the more technical analytical style which continues to dominate today. However, the last twenty years have seen renewed interest in Dewey's ideas among many philosophers, including such philosophical heavyweights as Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty, and indeed there is much to learn from this humane and optimistic voice which sees the problems of philosophy as the problems of society.
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