The Question of Certainty by John Dewey

The philosophy of John Dewey is often identified with Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and other thinkers loosely identified as "pragmatic." As a school of thought, pragmatism made its entrance into history under the banner of modernism, with its emphasis on scientific progress and its disdain of historical and metaphysical truths. The pragmatists rejected Hegel’s notion that "philosophy aims at knowing what is imperishable, eternal, and absolute." Since objective truth is not something that can be discovered through the faculty of reason, they argued, epistemology and its preoccupation with the "foundations" of knowledge must be abandoned altogether. They believed that ideas and propositions cannot be judged by objective criteria since it is impossible to establish such criteria; instead, they should be judged by the results they produce when put into practice. In Santayana’s memorable phrase, the pragmatists insisted that "it’s better to pursue truth than to possess it."

Review of Dewey's: The Quest for Certainty - Angelfire

John Dewey's explanation of his intrumentalist version of Americn Pragmatism
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John Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty

John Dewey was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, followed by a brief stint as a high school teacher, he earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He went on to teach at the University of Michigan for about ten years, the University of Chicago for another ten, and finally Columbia University where he chaired the philosophy department for over twenty years. After his retirement in 1930, he remained active and continued to write many articles and books not only on philosophy and logic but on art, education, science, and social and political reform. Among his many books are , , , and . In addition to his life as a philosopher and teacher, he was a tireless social activist and championed a wide range of humanitarian causes during his lifetime. He died in 1952.

The Quest For Certainty : Dewey,John

Dr. John Dewey, the philosopher from whose teachings has grown the school of progressive education and "learning by doing," died of pneumonia in his home, 1158 Fifth Avenue, at 7 o'clock last night. He was 92 years old.

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Dewey, John | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In reviewing Dr. Dewey's "Problems of Men," published in June, 1946, Dr. Alvin Johnson, president emeritus of the New School for Social Research, said Dr. Dewey struck "straight at reactionary philosophers." In replying to his philosophical and educational critics, Dr. Johnson said that Dewey concluded: "Philosophy counts for next to nothing in the present world-wide crisis of human affairs and should count for less. It needs a thorough house-cleaning and the final, definitive abandonment of most of its traditional values. Those values are class values. They were established in a time when the masses of mankind lived in slavery, or near-slavery, and when a little body of the elect could occupy themselves with speculations on the divine and the absolute. The present world belongs to a democracy. And the democracy cannot waste time on recondite speculations that have nothing to do with life."

Dewey, John (1859-1952) | Theorie & Praxis …

Excerpt and synopsis from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Richard Field’s article.
According to Dewey, the central aim of the metaphysical tradition had been the quest for certainty and the search for the immutable. The pragmatic theory, by showing that knowledge is a product of an activity directed to the fulfillment of human purposes, and that a true (or warranted) belief is known to be such by the consequences of its employment rather than by any psychological or ontological foundations, rendered this longstanding aim of metaphysics, in Dewey's view, moot, and opened the door to renewed metaphysical discussion grounded firmly on an empirical basis.

Dewey asserts that things experienced empirically "are what they are experienced as." Dewey uses as an example a noise heard in a darkened room that is initially experienced as fearsome. Subsequent inquiry (e.g., turning on the lights and looking about) reveals that the noise was caused by a shade tapping against a window, and thus innocuous. But the subsequent inquiry, Dewey argues, does not change the initial status of the noise: it was experienced as fearsome, and in fact fearsome. The point stems from the naturalistic roots of Dewey's logic. Our experience of the world is constituted by our interrelationship with it, a relationship that is imbued with practical import. The initial fearsomeness of the noise is the experiential correlate of the uncertain, problematic character of the situation, an uncertainty that is not merely subjective or mental, but a product of the potential inadequacy of previously established modes of behavior to deal effectively with the pragmatic demands of present circumstances. The subsequent inquiry does not, therefore, uncover a reality (the innocuousness of the noise) underlying a mere appearance (its fearsomeness), but by settling the demands of the situation, it effects a change in the inter-dynamics of the organism-environment relationship of the initial situation--a change in reality.

There are two important implications of this line of thought that distinguish it from the metaphysical tradition. First, although inquiry is aimed at resolving the precarious and confusing aspects of experience to provide a stable basis for action, this does not imply the unreality of the unstable and contingent, nor justify its relegation to the status of mere appearance.

Second, the fact that the meanings we attribute to natural events might change in any particular in the future as renewed inquiries lead to more adequate understandings of natural events (as was implied by Dewey's fallibilism) does not entail that our experience of the world at any given time may as a whole be errant. Thus the implicit skepticism that underlies the representational theory of ideas and raises questions concerning the veracity of perceptual experience as such is unwarranted. Dewey stresses the point that sensations, hypotheses, ideas, etc., come into play to mediate our encounter with the world only in the context of active inquiry. Once inquiry is successful in resolving a problematic situation, mediatory sensations and ideas drop out; and things are present to the agent in the most naively realistic fashion.

These contentions positioned Dewey's metaphysics within the territory of a naive realism, and in a number of his articles, such as "The Realism of Pragmatism" (1905), "Brief Studies in Realism" (1911), and "The Existence of the World as a Logical Problem" (1915), it is this view that Dewey expressly avows (a view that he carefully distinguishes from what he calls "presentational realism," which he attributes to a number of the other realists of his day).

can be read as mirroring Dewey's Quest for Certainty

John Dewey was born at Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 20, 1859, son of Archibald S. Dewey and Lucina A. Rich Dewey. His father was a merchant who traced his ancestry to 1640. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous Vermont farmer of Cape Cod ancestry.