The Return Of Pragmatism

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The one self-proclaimed pragmatist whose writings Holmes admired (and Holmes was not a man ordinarily given to admiration for the views of other people) was John Dewey. In the final chapter of Experience and Nature (1925), the work of the widest philosophical scope among his many books, Dewey praised Holmes as “one of our greatest American philosophers” and went on to quote a long passage from Holmes’s essay “Natural Law” (1918). Holmes read the book several times with growing pleasure (what was there, after all, not to like?), and his reaction sums up the reaction many of his contemporaries had both to Dewey’s wisdom and to Dewey’s style: “It seemed to me … to have a feeling of intimacy with the inside of the cosmos that I found unequaled. So methought God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.”

Dewey’s influence in his own long lifetime—he was born in 1859, the year of On the Origin of Species , and died in 1952, the year of the hydrogen bomb—touched many fields. He was a psychologist, a philosopher, a political activist, a public intellectual, and a social reformer. But his most lasting contribution was in the field of education, and although pragmatism, once he took it up, underwrote everything Dewey did, it is his work as an educator that shows its consequences most dramatically.

Dewey began his career as an absolute idealist. He was trained at Johns Hopkins, at a time when Peirce was on the faculty, by George Sylvester Morris, a neo-Hegelian, and he wrote his first books under the influence of Hegel. His work began turning in a pragmatist direction after he read James’s Principles of Psychology in 1890. In 1894 he accepted a position as chair of the philosophy department at the newly founded University of Chicago. In 1896 he established the Laboratory School there, an experiment in progressive education run by the department of pedagogy (of which he was also the chair), and began to write the works on education for which he quickly became famous around the world: The School and Society (1899), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), How We Think (1910), and Democracy and Education (1916). The first of these, The School and Society , is one of the most influential educational treatises ever written. Its argument for the importance of the practical in education was adopted (and possibly partly formulated) by Dewey’s close friend Jane Addams as the blueprint for the educational programs at Hull-House, her pioneering social welfare institution in Chicago, at the turn of the century. And the book has never gone out of print.

Dewey regarded Democracy and Education , when it appeared, as the summa of his thought. He believed that philosophers had invented an invidious distinction between knowing and doing, a distinction that had had the intellectually pernicious effect of producing a series of pseudoproblems about the relations between the mind and reality and the socially pernicious effect of elevating a leisure class of speculative thinkers above the world’s workers and doers. There was, Dewey thought, no such distinction. Knowing and doing are indivisible aspects of the same process, which is the business of adaptation. We learn, in the progressivist phrase, by doing. We take a piece of acquired knowledge into a concrete situation, and the results we get constitute a new piece of knowledge, which we carry over into our next encounter with the environment. When we try to pin down knowledge by embalming it in a textbook, we cut off thought from experience, and we damage our relations with the world. Knowledge is not a mental copy of a reality external to us; “it is an instrument or organ of successful action.”

What is democratic about Dewey’s theory is that it conceives of learning as a collaborative activity. Dewey thought of the school as a “miniature community,” a kind of training camp for life in a democracy. “The only way to prepare for social life,” as he put it, “is to engage in social life,” and this emphasis on the associated nature of human existence is crucial to most of what he wrote about politics and social reform. He believed that individual fulfillment could be achieved only through participation in the collective life; for, outside the collectivity no such thing as an individual was possible. “The non-social individual,” he wrote in one of his earliest essays, “is an abstraction arrived at by imagining what man would be if all his human qualities were taken away.”

The emphasis on the community as the ground for our conduct and beliefs echoes Holmes’s conception of experience. It echoes Peirce as well, for Peirce regarded truth as a matter of community consensus rather than individual belief (one of the points on which he was at odds with James). But the thinker Dewey credited with introducing this way of thinking into his own work was George Herbert Mead, whom he met at the University of Michigan in the 1880s and with whom he continued to work after moving to Chicago, where Mead joined him. “From the nineties on,” Dewey said in 1939, eight years after Mead’s death, “the influence of Mead ranked with that of James.”