John Dewey: Philosopher of the American Mental Deconstruction

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

"I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand. I believe that our personality is a cosmic ganglion [i.e., a focus of strength and energy], just as when certain rays go on after the meeting as they did before, so, when certain other streams of energy cross at a meeting point, the cosmic ganglion can frame a syllogism or wag its tail."1 That we should find such a cavalier statement of nihilistic fancy being voiced by a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., should not be surprising for any one who has considered the most recent examples of American judicial nihilism as this is express in Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania. All of these decisions, which have embedded the Nihilistic principle that there is no intrinsic, God-ordained worth given to things independent of a citizen's evaluation of those things deep in the American constitutional order, have been simply the latest and most egregious examples of a legal, political, and educational outlook that traces its genealogy to 19th century Liberalism. That this idea that man is free to evaluate the world around him, and so bind the State with his evaluations as expressed in the collective will of the majority of voting citizens, continued to shape American jurisprudence well after the 19th century cannot be doubted. An example of this judicial nihilism, can even be found quite manifestly in an opinion handed down by Supreme Court Justice Vinson in 1951, "Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes, that a name, a phrase, a standard has meaning only when associated with the considerations which give birth to nomenclature. To those who would paralyze our Government in the face of impending threat by encasing it in a semantic straightjacket [i.e., Truth?], we must reply that all concepts are relative."2

This relativism and legal positivism (i.e., the conception that law has no more ultimate grounding than the intent and decision of the established lawmakers in a particular country during a particular time period), did not merely cut American Jurisprudence off from any explicit grounding in Natural or Divine Positive Law ("Positive" law is that which is explicitly promulgated by the law giver, rather than contained implicitly in his intentions. The 10 Commandments are the prime instance of the Divine Positive Law). Rather, such thinking began to permeate American society at large by first shaping American educational theory and practice.

It is an old adage that "a fish rots first from its head," in this case, the "head" that was rotted by this destructive philosophical Nihilism, was the teaching profession and those philosophers of the early 20th century who tried to engender and propagate this position. The point of origin from which these notions permeated American education was, during the early decades of the 20th century, Teachers College, Columbia University. Here two professors, John Dewey and Edward Lee Thorndike, adapted Darwinistic Naturalism and a Relativism born of Atheism to educational theory. That such a destructive set of ideas would be applied to education is to be expected, and, yet, it is most insidious since the very essence and intent of education is to lead young minds to a participation in the true by introducing them to the unchanging structures and underlying principles and laws of existence. This appreciation of the true is supposed to lead to a more fetching appraisal of the good and, finally, a savoring of the form and fittingness of the moral good, which is the beautiful. To reject outright the very objective existence of a truth involving conformity to real stable being, of a good serving as the end of rational action, and of a beautiful that reveals the superabundant generosity of the Divine Creator, is to circumvent the very rationale of the educational process. That the intended victims of such an educational overthrow, for "victims" they truly are, should be the most naturally credulous and malleable segment of our civic body, is to be expected from those who have as their ultimate objective revolutionary transformation of all which has hitherto been considered most human and most abiding. As we will find when considering the philosophical thought of John Dewey, such purveyors of Militant Absurdity take a certain delight in proclaiming the inherent meaninglessness of man's hitherto greatest aims, his sweetest consolations, and his confident regard for the One Who made him. Such is the cruelty of men who have willed their own will, in spite of God.

That such anthropological and theological cruelty should be inspired by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and its dynamic for competitive destruction of that which is other, is not surprising.3 Such a foundation for the American educational nihilism and relativism can be clearly discerned in the following statements of Professors Thorndike and Dewey. When speaking of the moral relativism that forms part of his theory of human nature, Thorndike writes, "Man's traits, insofar as they are a part of his inheritance, owe their origin and biological meaning to their survival value. All natural traits and impulses of human beings must therefore be fundamentally good, if we consider the good as the biologically useful. Cruelty, selfishness, lust, cowardice, and deceit are normal ingredients of human nature, which have their useful role in the struggle for existence. Intrinsically they are all virtues. It is only their excess or their exercise under the wrong conditions that justly incur our moral disapproval."4 The evocation of Rousseau's Noble Savage and Nietzsche's "Blond Beast" are obvious. The Natural Man who is good, not on account of the conformity of his actions to reason or their suffusion with grace, but rather, because of his "authenticity" with regard to his display of "raw nature." If Thorndike holds that a Good God did not create Nature, is cannot be surprising that he dismisses the idea that Nature inclines towards achievement of the good. Professor Dewey writes in a similar vein when he states the following, "Modern science made it clear that nature has no preference for good things over bad things; its mills turn out any kind of grist indifferently."5 That such brutish and destabilizing ideas were the products of lonely, alienated eccentrics can be easily dismissed, when we consider the statements of two prominent men in American academia. Dean Seashore of the University of Iowa stated that, "No school is uninfluenced and no humanistic science is unaffected by Thorndike's [and concomitantly, Dewey's] labor."6 Also, Dean James E. Russell insisted that, "in developing the subject of educational psychology and in making it fit study for students in all departments, Professor Thorndike has shaped the character of the college [i.e., Dewey's Teachers College, Columbia University] in its youth as no one else has done and as no one will ever have the opportunity of doing."7 Since the Teachers College at Columbia University, New York City exercised the greatest influence on the educational psychology and methodology of the American primary, secondary, and university educational system, a study of the philosopher who embodied and developed the Empirical Naturalism of this institution, John Dewey (1859-1952), is of critical import.

A) Dewey and American Naturalism

To understand John Dewey and the climate that he has created in the American public education system, we must first understand that intellectual movement of which he was a part. It was Dewey himself who gave this emerging movement, of the first half of the 20th century, the name of "Empirical Naturalism." Both terms in this appellation are critical to understanding the presuppositions that are present in this philosophical system. The system of thought is "empirical," on account of the fact that no form of intellectual inquiry is acknowledged as efficacious, which departs from or in any way "transcends" the methods of inquiry that characterize the modern empirical sciences. For Dewey and others in the school of American Naturalism, such as John Randall, Jr., there is no knowable or cognitively experienceable reality that escapes the scope of this method.8 All those sciences that so occupied the concerns of thinkers in the past, most particularly theology and metaphysics, are deemed to be illusory: "The holy jungle of transcendental metaphysics"9 as the Naturalists dismissively state. The human mind's way to God through a contemplation of the workings of Nature is, therefore, cut off since no such movement of the mind can pass "empirical muster."

It is, ultimately, inconsequential that the sciences that were considered the highest ones in the civilization built by the Catholic Church and the one's affirmed as such by the ancient sages, Plato and Aristotle, should be dismissed outright as barren of truly significant insight. The reason for this is on account of the second postulate of "Empirical Naturalism," "Nature," as a self-subsistent web of interacting material events, is equatible with Being itself. As P. Romanell, in his Toward a Critical Naturalism claimed, "Nature is not itself a problem for the naturalistic philosopher; rather, nature constitutes the subject matter of all genuine problems. Here, the grand (indemonstrable) assumption underlying any naturalistic position, is: Nature is all there is." Such obvious "reductionism," or the limitation of the scope of true being to that which is but one region of real beings, is very close to, if not identical with, Karl Marx's arbitrary and, as they themselves admit, indemonstrable equation of reality with matter. For those not drawn to this position, it looks like an arbitrary exclusion of that which transcends the empirical.

If nothing can be inferred about the world other than its materiality and if nothing can even be postulated which transcends the empirical realm of quantifiable objects, than the two great realities, which both theology and philosophy have dealt with for the past twenty-five centuries, God and personal immortality, become "impossible" and "meaningless." Indeed, the most cohesive stand among American Naturalists was their rejection of God and personal immortality. Their rationale and justification for rejecting even the possibility that God and the immortal soul could exist, was the Positivism of Auguste Comte (1798  1857). Comte's Positivism rested on the postulate that nothing can transcend the universe of sense events and their laws; that the only absolute is this finite world of ours.10 Such a restriction of both cognitive and scientific inquiry was used to justify the atheism of Dewey and the other American Naturalists.

That these Naturalists, Dewey included, would not allow the mind to search for a Cause beyond the finite relations of material interactions, created a situation in which the very reality of God, His majesty and power as revealed in and through His Creation, was treated as a mere idea, which happened to exist in the mind of primitive and superstitious men in the past. By reducing the reality of God to that of a constructed human idea, Dewey follows in the wake of a host of other modern philosophers, beginning with Descartes, whose only "use" for God, assuming that they had a "use" for Him, was to serve as a logical step in a methodological unfolding of their philosophic systems. In so many ways, John Dewey, especially with regard to his position on God, the soul, and objective morality -- even with regard to his position on the topic of objective being -- can be referred to as the American Nietzsche, a man who sought to "liberate" modern man from his suffocation under the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God.

Dewey's antagonism to the idea of God should not be underestimated. In fact, we can consider Dewey's antagonism to the Christian God as being his most particular intellectual characteristic. Since Dewey, on account of his positivistic and empiricist method, cannot argue on the metaphysical level against the traditional arguments for the existence of God, what he is going to do in his writings is to ask why was it that man first formulated the idea of God and what effect that idea had on the subsequent development of civilization.

John Dewey's answer to the "why" of the human "creation" of the idea of God is almost identical to the philosopher of the Ubermensch, the Nihilistic Superman, Friedrich Nietzsche. The believing mind is lacking in nerve. It is an example of a biological life form, and, indeed, the Darwinist professor can speak of no other form of life, which is shaken and unnerved by change, contingency, and the relativity found in our universe. In order to "escape" this sense of abandonment to the finite and the fluctuating, the believing mind yearns for an ideal sphere of immutable, necessary, absolute being where man can be safe from the dangers of worldly existence. The believer than deludes himself by converting this transcendental goal into an actuality, by mistaking an eventual ideal for an independently existing divine being.11

When we consider Dewey's objections to the belief in God, we must remember that in many ways he is merely presenting a "straw man" argument, and insuring the persuasiveness of the Naturalist (i.e., anti-supernaturalist) position by excluding from consideration the overwhelming intuition, and, here, we must remember that St. Thomas Aquinas says that the existence of God is on the very edge of being completely self-evident, that God exists and that we can know this certainly by considering the complexity of creatures and the movement towards rational and fulfilling ends by those same creatures. In considering whether Dewey's unique form of atheism has cogent arguments behind it, we must keep in mind his methodological exclusion of the act of the mind by which man recognizes his utter dependency, even for his very act of existence, on God. It is this act of existence, possessed by all things that stand outside of nothingness, which stands as the most obvious obstacle in the anti-supernaturalist attempt to dismiss as "meaningless," the sustaining presence of God to His entire creation.

After relegating God to the status of an idea, and tracing that idea anthropologically to man's supposed fear of change and desire for the stable, Dewey than presents 5 reasons why it must be the case that philosophically, politically, socially, and educationally, we must dismiss the traditional understanding of God from our considerations. These 5 reasons will broach the whole topic of Dewey's pragmatist and instrumentalist theories concerning the very extent and character of reality, which we will consider in the coming sections of this article.

First, the idea of God causes there to be a "breach" in the continuity of Nature. No longer can reality itself be equated with nature. This most basic "problem" with the "idea" of God, and notice here that we are only considering the idea of God in a pragmatic way, how "useful" for man's development is the idea, produces several fundamental methodological problems. First, there is a sharp "devaluation" by the mind of the believer of everything finite, contingent, and changing. This leads to the believer withdrawing his energies from the everyday world and its urgent practical tasks. This withdrawal of the mind from practical tasks and inquiries that ensure the progressive development of human civilization, "destroys the continuity of scientific method" by allowing for a form of knowledge, in this case restful contemplation of the Created Order and the silent acknowledgement on the part of the mind of the bountifulness of the Creator, which departs from the normal procedures and modes of knowing employed in the empirical sciences. Hence we have John Dewey's chief "contribution" to American philosophical thought, his insistence upon the dual threat of God to Nature and to Scientific Method.12

B) Being as Event: Dewey's Metaphysics

In order to understand the standpoint that Dewey advocates, as the only one compatible with the discoveries of modern empirical science and post-revolutionary socio-political ideas, it is important to think of the place where Rene Descartes (1594-1650) left philosophy after he challenged the intellectual synthesis of philosophical wisdom and theological doctrine as worked out by St. Thomas Aquinas and the other Catholic Scholastics. In this regard, we must recall that it was Descartes' throwing into doubt of the information provided by his senses that brought him to his own "thinking self" as the only indubitable touchstone of existence. It was from this foundational res cogitans or "thinking self" that the ideas of God as an infinite "thinking self," who was also the creator of the cogito, along with the idea of Nature, understood to be mere res extensa or "an extended thing" capable of being analyzed by mathematical methods, emerged in Descartes' philosophical system. Descartes rationalistic analysis, reducing reality to those elements of it capable of having significance for mathematical reasoning, had the effect of bifurcating reality into "that which thinks" (i.e., God and the finite thinking self) and "that which is extended in space" (i.e., the material world). This "splitting" of reality into three substances (i.e., an infinite thinking self [God], a finite thinking self [Man, or at least Descartes!], and an infinitely extended thing [namely, material Nature]) that had little to do with one another, caused a fissure in reality, as philosophically understood, totally unknown to healthy, realist Thomistic philosophy. Much, if not most, of modern philosophy after Descartes, was specifically an attempt to "put together" what Descartes had so completely broke apart. Generally, modern philosophers, who dissent from the tradition of the perennial philosophy as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas, will attempt to unify reality by "collapsing" it into one of Descartes' three substances. George Friedrich Hegel and Benedict Spinoza will collapse all of reality, ultimately, into God (thus becoming pantheists), Kant and the Idealists will include it all within Mind, and Marx and Nietzsche will exalt material Nature as the whole of being (Thus agreeing with the Ludwig Feurbach's maxim: Der Mensch ist was er isst. Man is what he eats!). Dewey will agree with the latter thinkers who speak of Nature as the only reality. He will, however, speak of Nature, not as a realm of substantial and stable beings, but rather, as a network of real, but passing, "events."

When John Dewey criticized "dualism," as the greatest of philosophical mistakes, he was not only criticizing this, relatively recent, Cartesian innovation in philosophy; rather, he directs his bitterest words and his most dismissive statements at the ancient Greeks who exalted the life of leisured philosophical contemplation as being the ideal human life. Since Dewey, as a typical representative of a certain "activist" and "if it works, it is" American mentality, refuses to allow for a purely receptive "moment" of intellectual, contemplative insight into the fixed structure of the real, he will try to analyze the Greek love for and striving after the contemplative "moment" in terms of some historical socio-psychological situation which "produced" the "idea" of contemplation. The two historical situations that he speaks of are the Greek failure to achieve technological progress, the exaltation of the speculative being then mere psychological compensation, and the social division between men of leisure and slaves. According to Dewey, in his 1925 book entitled Experience and Nature, the exaltation of the contemplative life, which attempts to make the mind "mirror" the established cosmic order and, hence, attain to philosophical wisdom, was a power drive designed to justify and perpetuate the radical social divisions between leisured aristocrats and slaves dedicated to manual labor. This instinctive dislike of class divisions and inequality, on the part of Dewey, causes him to reject the very Thomistic conception of society and, particularly, the practical affairs of society, as having, as their ultimate raison d'etre, the achievement of a state of contemplative knowledge of truth, both in this life and the next.

Dewey, however, is not only going to reject "dualism" when he believes he finds it in the distinction between a spiritual world of unchanging perfect being and a constantly changing world of imperfect and contingent being, which is reflected, at least in Dewey's mind in the Christian distinction between Nature and Supernature. He, also, sought to overcome the "dualism" that he finds within the philosophical understanding of mind and its relationship to its objects. It is in his attempt to "overcome" this separation and alienation of mind from its objects, as this was brought about by Descartes, that Dewey presents to us his most radical reevaluation of the very structure of both the mind and the world that the mind perceives.

We have seen how Dewey rejected the most fundamental idea that was had by the great philosophical tradition of the Classical/Christian world, that the mind is fundamentally passive in the face of a natural structure which is perceived, not fashioned by the mind. The mind is only actualized as a knowing power when it comes into contact with that which is already actual, something that is real and of a very specific character. According to the view of the perennial philosophical tradition, only the Divine Mind creates and sustains in its very act of knowing.

From this rejection of all speculative knowledge, he moves on to advance the tendency of modern science to reject the idea of substance as proof that such an idea is out of date and to be rejected as retrograde and meaningless. According to Dewey, modern quantitative physics, as exemplified by Galileo and Descartes, having rejected any knowability of formal and final causality (i.e., the formal cause being that which makes a thing be a certain type of substance and the final cause being that which orients a thing towards its own particular type of fulfillment.), "desubstantialized" nature, pulverizing it into "events," which are never "things," but which may have similar properties to other events. In attempting to explain the universally held recognition that substances exist -- that there are real things that make up our world, Dewey again gives a psychological explanation, citing the "traditional philosophical preference for unity, permanence, universals, over plurality, change and particulars."13 Man cannot take the instability and evanescence of existence, so he posits for himself a world of "things" that allows him to gain a false and enervating sense of security.

If Dewey insists that the idea of stable substances is a fabrication of the Greek mind, which sought the unchanging and permanent, how does he describe the "events" that he claims are the sole content of the real? What are they in general and, most especially, what is the nature of that "event" referred to as "human mind"? Is human consciousness just one event amongst many such natural events?

"It is sometimes contended, for example, that since experience is a late comer in the history of our solar system and planet, and since these occupy a trivial place in the wide areas of celestial space, experience is at most a slight and insignificant incident in nature."14 When this comes from one who has criticized the "dualism" of traditional and modern philosophy, which has created a separation between mind and an independently existing world of quantifiable and substantial beings, you would expect his answer to be, "No, the event of human conscious experience is not fundamentally different from any other event in the whole web of natural occurrences." Indeed, Dewey states, "These commonplaces prove that experience is of as well as in nature. Things interacting in certain ways are experience; they are what is experienced."15 When, however, we know that Dewey indicated that the highest and most fruitful incidents of experience are those in which events possess within themselves an intentional direction towards a practical achievement, hence when an event becomes an instrument gaining its own significance, not from its antecedent causes, but rather, from its consequences, we see that it is only conscious experience that is of primary interest and significance for the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey. That he should focus on the human mind as being the "event" that most perfectly portrays the essential instrumentalist character of Nature is indicative of his own profound indebtedness to Hegel's Idealism. For Hegel too, human consciousness is going to serve as the primary means by which the one being, the Absolute, achieves its fulfillment and realizes its own unique character. We have seen above how Dewey, and all the other American Naturalists, have appropriated for their own anti-supernaturalist thesis, two basic assumptions of Hegel, first, that there is a single unitary whole of being and second, that this whole is knowable through a single method of inquiry.16 Dewey felt that the common-sense description of personal subjective mind, encountering through sensation and thought, that which is organized, existing, and substantial, and "other" than the mind itself, presents insoluble problems for philosophy, in that a description of the relationship between two distinct substantial realities needs be given.

Empirical Naturalism, according to Dewey, understands "integrated unity" to be the starting point of philosophic thought. Such "integrated unity" contrasts with "this conception of experience as the equivalent of subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly of physical objects."17 Such a "dualistic" articulation of the mind's relationship to the world presents problems such as, "How an outer world can affect an inner mind; how the acts of mind can reach out and lay hold of objects defined in antithesis to them. Naturally it is at a loss for an answer, since its premises make the fact of knowledge both unnatural and unempirical."18 Dewey insists that this view of human consciousness that he has is "empirical," primarily because he loses himself completely in the "moment" of experience, intentionally placing outside the boundaries of inquiry the idea of a substantial mind which is doing the thinking and of the thing which is being thought. He speaks of experience as being "double-barreled" in that it includes act and material, subject and object in one unanalyzed totality. This integrated unity of all relevant elements in a single, utterly unique moment is "the smelling of a rose," rather than "nose meets rose." What is real is the moment, the instant event, and the unrepeatable synthesis of natural causal threads. When we think of Dewey's "event," especially the "event" of human conscious experience, we could think of it as a stitch or, to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, a "cosmic ganglion," which brings together diverse threads and stitches them together into one momentary "experience." The problem with attempting to employ this analogy is that, since Dewey denies the reality of the cause and effect connection and any idea of a First Cause, we have a stitch without a knitter, without knitting needles, and, since these events are momentary, without a resultant warming blanket. Such seems to be the consequence of Dewey's categorical denial of formal, final, material, and efficient causality, along with his instinctive aversion to any mention of a transcendent Being who is actually doing the knitting.

Next Page: Selective Emphasis: Choice as Ultimate Reality
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