John Dewey: Philosopher of the American Mental Deconstruction

C) Selective Emphasis: Choice as Ultimate Reality

Human consciousness is, then, according to Dewey, a nexus of natural "lines of action," which, because of its complexity, in some way, "includes" more of Nature than any other type of event. Here we must avoid thinking that Dewey intends a portrayal of the human mind like that of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas, of course, by emphasizing the fundamentally passive character of human mind, "passive" because receptive, also speaks of the human mind as a microcosm, as being open to all that exists. Wisdom, which is the highest of the intellectual virtues, according to St. Thomas, "includes" within itself, in some real way, the whole of being, since it, in one apprehending glance, "connects" the whole of experienced empirical, aesthetic, and moral reality with the source and creator of all that reality. Instead of this objective cosmic orientation of the human mind, which culminates in the virtue of wisdom and used to be the goal of the ancient tradition of education in the Western world, Dewey presents a totally distinct and contrary vision of the state and purpose of human thought and consciousness. In his portrayal, we can discern how easily an atheistic assumption leads, inexorably, to a pantheistic characterization of the universe.

We find these subtle pantheistic undertones in the instrumentalist philosophy of Dewey, even though he goes out of his way to portray human thought as not in any way qualitatively distinct from other, less complex, natural events. This, along with his persistent denial of the existence of substances or "things," causes him to make the following statement concerning the complete identity of human thought with gross nature: "It [Empirical Naturalism] thus notes that thinking is not different in kind from the use of natural materials and energies, say fire and tools, to refine, reorder, and shape other natural matters, say ore. In both cases, they are matters, which as they stand, are satisfactory and there are also adequate agencies for dealing with them and connecting them. At no point or place is there any jump outside empirical, natural objects and their relations. Thought and reason are not specific powers."19

And, yet, how could it be that the "event" of human consciousness can "choose" instrumentalities that are intended to advance the particular end which the mind intends at the moment that it chooses. Brute matter cannot free itself from its own identity so as to consciously "reach towards" that which is other than itself and which is "used" so as to advance a preconceived project. Does not the mind "stand above" its tool? Here, Aristotle's portrayal of an instrumental cause, a tool used by the mind to achieve a particular finite end and to facilitate a mental and physical operation, would perfectly account for the reality which Dewey is attempting to portray. This Aristotelian solution, however, cannot be accepted because it would incline us to understand the mind to be a substance or, at least, a faculty of a substance.

Dewey's pragmatism and instrumentalism, along with his critique of all the philosophical systems that came before him, cannot be understood without consideration being given to his principle of selective emphasis. Dewey states, "Selective emphasis, with the accompanying omission and rejection, is the heart-beat of mental life. To object to the operation is to discard all thinking."20 "Selective-emphasis" than portrays the very essence of cosmic and psychic life. To reject or ignore this operation is to lose sight of what thought is all about. According to Dewey, "selective emphasis" is "the favoring of cognitive objects and their characteristics at the expense of [other] traits." The principle of selective emphasis introduces "partiality and partisanship into philosophy."21 The mind in this selective process emphasizes and utilizes those aspects of its experience that it feels to be of use in advancing its own existence. The mind then creates its own experience, as an artist would fashion a painting or a sculpture. What is experienced and what becomes "real," in the experience, is what is felt to be useful by consciousness. What Dewey does not make clear is whether or not the mind knows it is doing this choosing of aspects of potential experience. Does the mind know that it is, necessarily, fashioning a world for itself in the moment of its experience of a, seemingly, objective world of things? As with so many philosophers, Dewey appears to suggest that it is only by grasping his philosophy that we can hope to understand the very nature of what man has been doing since his beginning. If we understood and accepted "empirical naturalism," we would recognize the inherently individual, instrumentalist, and relativistic nature of all human thought. How this view of things can be portrayed by Dewey as objective, and not merely as relating to HIS OWN subjective project, is an insoluble problem for all relativistic thinkers. Why should his philosophy transcend the enchainment of the mind to personal and biologically determined choices? What does "biologically determined choices" mean? Doesn't choice depend on spirit's "standing above" the material domain in some real and ontological way?

It is not that Dewey is in any way rejecting mind's fabrication for itself of a reality in the experienced event. All conscious and unconscious instances of Nature do exactly this. It is also perfectly natural, says Dewey, to attribute the title "reality" or "higher being" or "superior value" to that which we choose as useful for our own existence. Such is in the very nature of things, says Dewey. What past philosophical systems have done, and Dewey refers to this, as the "fallacy of selective emphasis," is to forget this act of mental selection and emphasis and, instead, christen as "the highest instance of being," what THEY choose as useful ideas for their own existence. They forget that all minds simply grab hold of ideas as useful instrumentalities to advance THEIR OWN LIVES, speaking, instead, as if they were simply giving an account of what reality is like IN ITSELF.22 Rather than acknowledging that their own particular view of life and being itself, is artistically fashioned in a way which augments personal, collective, and biological life, these "absolutists" of both philosophy, ideology, and religion, simply speak as if they are articulating the right, divinely-ordained, fixed order of things as fashioned by the Divine Artist. With this rejection of such "absolutism" in mind, Dewey will speak of the role of philosophy in the new age as a "critique of prejudices";23 "prejudices," in this instance, being the belief that there is an objective system existing in the world, of intrinsically meaningful and valuable beings, which exists independently of all human intentions and projects. Such absolutism, especially the absolutism of the Christian Religion, is the greatest threat to Dewey's anthropocentric world.

D) Education as Socialization

We have seen, in our consideration of Dewey's instrumentalist philosophical system, a denial of all the major doctrines and insights of Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy. He has rejected the spirituality of the soul, the speculative intellect, the immortality of the human soul, the act of contemplation, any form of life after death, all of Aristotle's 4 causes, the concurrent causality of God's creative and sustaining power, the very existence of a transcendent God, and the universal human understanding that education has as its purpose the mental appropriation of the structure of the objective order. This act of educational and intellectual deconstruction is surely a worry for those who understand Dewey's critical influence on the American public education system, which "educates" an estimated 75% of the nation's youth. If Dewey does not see education as a way of introducing the young mind to objective values and principles that will expand their appreciation for all that they experience throughout their lives, what exactly does Dewey understand education to be about?

In this regard, we must not be fooled by his advancement of the individual, his/her own interests and valuations, since this individualism seems to be upheld only when it serves to fragment and undermine the traditional forms of social and religious cohesion in American society. Indeed, in speaking about the entire educational and disciplinary regimen of the past, really the ENTIRE past, Dewy states, "The individual characteristics of mind were regarded as deviations from the normal, and as dangers against which society had to protect itself. Hence the long rule of custom, the rigid conservatism, and the still existing conformity and intellectual standardization."24 Such "rigidity" is brought about by a false notion of value and meaning, according to Dewey. Value and meaning are continually changing qualities, which depend upon the "project" of a particular political or social system. To speak of the right of eternal values and norms to "shape" our actions, would be to hinder the free choice of man. Since there are no eternal values and principles to locate and to uphold, since there is no intrinsic and eternal meaning present in things, all knowledge must be experimental, "To be intelligently experimental is but to be conscious of this intersection of natural conditions so as to profit by it instead of being at its mercy."25 Human action comes down to, "Administering the unfinished process of existence."26 Such a process of human action, which has no eternal or even guaranteed natural reward affixed to it, simply "contributes" to "a world which is not finished and which has not consistently made up its mind where it is going and what it is doing."27

Such a profoundly nihilistic conception of the universe in general, and human action in particular, fits in perfectly with the democratic construction of meaning and value that Dewey would advance as his new "progressive" social ideal commensurate with his instrumentalist philosophy. The mind does not merely order itself, but it is itself fashioned by social intercourse and communication. "Truth" is, then, what the community has understood to be useful for itself and commensurate with its own agreed upon tasks. To be an "educated" individual, then, is not to grasp the principles of a particular science so as to individually know the truth of things, but to be a cooperator in the democratic creation of meaning, value, and useful instruments.

To refute and, ultimately, counter-act the American Naturalism of John Dewey, we must deny and challenge his first principles, his arbitrary exclusions, his distortive portrayal of our philosophical tradition, and, finally, we must take seriously our own Catholic intellectual heritage so that the very process of education, dislodged and maligned by the likes of Dewey, will not be forgotten but will continue to cultivate the young minds which cry to their Creator, and subsequently to us, for their "rational milk."


1 Richard Hertz, Chance and Symbol (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 107. [Back]

2 See, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisted: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot (Washignton, D.C: Regnery Gateway, 1990), p. 188. Cf. Felix Morley, in Barrons Magazine, June 18, 1951. [Back]

3 Cf. Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God: The Gifford Lectures, 1974-1976 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978), p. 440. As an indication of Deweys intellectual debt to Darwin and his materialist theory of Natural Selection and naturalistic Monism, M. Grene wrote, "The firmest lesson of Darwinism for metaphysics. . . is of course the lesson of our own animal nature, our demotion from supernatural support to a place in nature comparable to that of any other living thing. . . . certainly the attempt to overcome Cartesian dualism, which still remains, alas, the major philosophic task of the waning 20th century, found its first massive support in the Darwinian theory" (The Understanding of Nature: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology [Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1975], p. 195). [Back]

4 Cf. The New York Times, June 28, 1939, cited by Thomas F. Woodlock in his column, "Thinking it Over," the Wall Street Journal, December 22, 1939. [Back]

5 John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958), p. 110. [Back]

6 Cf. note 4. [Back]

7 Kuehnelt-Leddihn, p. 408, note 579. Cf. Teachers College Record, vol. 27, no. 6. (February 1926). [Back]

8 James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959), p. 271. [Back]

9 Ibid., p. 272. [Back]

10 Ibid., p. 269. [Back]

11 Ibid., p. 272. [Back]

12 Ibid., p. 272. Cf. F. Smith, O.P. "A Thomistic Appraisal of the Philosophy of John Dewey," The Thomist, 18 (1955), pp. 127-185. [Back]

13 Dewey, Nature, p. xi. [Back]

14 Ibid., p. 3a. [Back]

15 Ibid., p. 4a. [Back]

16 Collins, p. 270. [Back]

17 Dewey, Nature, p. 11. [Back]

18 Ibid., p. 10. [Back]

19 Ibid., pp. 66-67. [Back]

20 Ibid., pp. 24-25. [Back]

21 Ibid. [Back]

22 Ibid. [Back]

23 Ibid., pp. 36-37. [Back]

24 Ibid., xiv. [Back]

25 Ibid., p. 70. [Back]

26 Ibid., p. 76. [Back]

27 Ibid. [Back]

1, 2,