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Dewey and Eros: A Response to Prawat

by James Garrison - 2001

A response to Richard Prawat.

Many readers of Richard S. Prawat’s (2000) paper, “Dewey and Peirce, the Philosopher’s Philosopher,” must wonder how it came to appear in a journal renowned for publishing original work of broad interest to the field of education. An extremely philosophical paper, it addresses educational topics only indirectly at best. It does, however, critique a book of mine that connects Dewey directly to classroom practice (Garrison, 1997). One would expect Prawat’s paper to appear in a philosophy of education journal. Its thesis is so stunning, so remarkable, that if true, it would transform Deweyan scholarship. It seems more appropriate to submit such a paper to the flagship journal of American philosophy, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. That such a specialist paper is deemed interesting to a general readership in education speaks highly of John Dewey’s continuing legacy.

Prawat’s paper really deals with two separate issues. The first is a refutation of Garrison (1997) whereas the second involves a claim about Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. Prawat asserts that after 1915 Dewey increasingly embraced the thought of Peirce. Loosely, the connection between these two issues is the claim that Dewey abandoned his early concern with the “need-frustration-action-resolution” model supposedly borrowed from William James in favor of a theory of inquiry borrowed from Peirce. This is the main thesis of Prawat’s paper; let us call it “the discontinuity thesis.” It is unsustainable.

Nowhere in my book do I speak of a “need-frustration-action-resolution” cycle. Stating it this way is a misrepresentation of Dewey’s, and my own, position. Live creatures, by virtue of being alive, act constantly. Need, frustration, etc., only redirect action. What I, or more exactly Dewey, talk about, early and late, is the rhythm of equilibrium-disequilibrium-restoration of equilibrium as well as need-inquiry-satisfaction. When intelligence is involved in restoring equilibrium, we call it inquiry. Let us begin with Dewey’s famous 1938, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry:

Indeed, living may be regarded as a continual rhythm of disequilibration and recoveries of equilibrium.... The state of disturbed equilibration constitutes need. The movement towards its restoration is search and exploration. The recovery is fulfillment or satisfaction (LW 12: p. 34).1,2

When “search and exploration” is intelligent, it involves reflection and inquiry. Inquiry for Dewey starts in disequilibration and terminates with the restoration of equilibrium. There is no discontinuity. By the time I am done, I may exhaust the reader with many similar passages from Dewey’s later works.

In his critique, Prawat seems to concentrate on chapter 4 of my Dewey and Eros. The chapter is titled, “The Aesthetic Context of Inquiry and the Teachable Moment.” The chapter strives to make a concrete connection between abstract theory and teaching practice. The illustrations come from the elementary school classroom, and a former elementary school teacher, reflecting on her classroom practice, wrote a section of the chapter. Since I believe Prawat has seriously misunderstood the main concepts of Dewey and Eros, I urge readers to examine the book, especially chapter 4. There I show that for Dewey, inquiry, including scientific inquiry, is an art involving, need, desire, interest, imagination, and perception.

I respond primarily to some of Prawat’s many misinterpretations of my work. I only discuss Prawat’s interpretations of the relation of Peirce to Dewey when they bear directly on issues raised in the first third, or so, of his paper. That is, I hope, enough for the nonspecialist reader to see what is happening. Mine is an awkward situation because I must respond to a technical philosophical argument not written for a general readership while saying something useful about education. I will do my best.

In representing the work of Peirce, Dewey, and Garrison, Prawat often winnows and selects passages drawn completely out of context and assembled awkwardly to bolster his argument. Sometimes simply restoring the context of a quote is enough to show the misleading way in which he represents, or perhaps misunderstands, positions. By focusing on Dewey’s theory of inquiry, Prawat effectively intellectualizes Dewey. Prawat (1995) wants to argue that Dewey holds an abstract, conceptual, and “idea-based social constructivism” (p. 20). He dismisses what he calls “the erroneous assumption that Dewey favored an activity-oriented, child-centered approach to learning” (p. 13). As I showed in an earlier work (Garrison, 1995), Prawat is right to say that Dewey does not hold a “child-centered approach to learning” but wrong to claim it is not “activity-oriented.”3 Prawat flirts with what Dewey calls “intellectualism” and “the intellectualist fallacy.” The fallacy involves “the theory that all experiencing is a mode of knowing, and that all subject-matter [is] to be reduced and transformed till it is defined in terms identical with the characteristics presented by refined objects [ideas, or essences] of science” (LW 1: p. 28). Ideas play a relatively small though important role in Dewey’s, philosophy (see Tiles, 1988, pp. 150-151 and MW 4: 91 ff.) and cognition is only part of the larger unity of the act. Still, ideas connect to action, art, and creation of linguistic meaning in ways Prawat rejects; Dewey declares, “The idea is, in short, art and a work of art. As a work of art, it directly liberates subsequent action and makes it more fruitful in a creation of more meanings and more perceptions” (LW 1: p. 276).

Besides the discontinuity thesis already mentioned, I locate four other themes where Prawat argues that Garrison (1997) goes awry. All are related to the basic thesis of discontinuity. The first is that although I am right to say action is “the linchpin in Dewey’s early writings,” I am wrong about his later writings. Prawat then states, “Action is important for the later Dewey, but it is action of a profoundly different sort from what the early Dewey had in mind. The kind of action that is of greatest interest to him, and to Peirce, is that which is intimately connected to disciplined inquiry.” This is really a restatement of the discontinuity thesis. I have no difficulty showing that a variety of actions including inquiry, remains equally important for Dewey throughout his career and that many actions besides cognitive thought are important for inquiry. If anything, though, it is artistic and creative action that becomes increasingly crucial to his later work (see Hans Joas, 1996). Prawat also argues that I am especially wrong to think action arises out of need. That is not what I say; this charge is a typical instance of Prawat attributing a false position to me in order to refute the position that I, and almost the entirety of the new scholarship on Dewey, actually defend. In fact, action does not arise out of need for Dewey. Again, the live creature acts by virtue of being alive; needs, desires, and interests only alter the course of action. In education, this means that we do not motivate students to act; we redirect action by focusing their attention on different events, objects, concepts, or values. Though, physical need coupled with cognitive doubt can initiate inquiry. Felt physical need is simply part of being in a state of cognitive doubt for Dewey, or Peirce for that matter.

The third thesis is that I claim “inquiry involves ‘retooling’ with language.” True, though I also claim inquiry involves retooling many other things as well. Mostly it is a matter of retooling logical essences, concepts, and categories, but sometimes we need to retool meanings as well. Once we understand what a tool is for Dewey, that connection becomes clear. Larry Hickman (1990), the director of the Center for Dewey Studies makes a strong case for reading the entirety of Dewey’s philosophy as a philosophy of technology in which retooling is very important. I agree with Larry regarding Prawat’s fourth thesis in that I am mistaken to claim. “qualitative thought is connected to cognitive thought through a process of creative or imaginative mediation.” It is easy to show that creative or imaginative mediation does indeed connect qualitative thought to cognitive thought for Dewey.3 There are many other things involved in making the connection, though. Here Prawat claims I overlook things that, in fact, I explicitly discuss in my book but which he strangely enough ignores.

Let me begin my rebuttal of Prawat by saying a few things about Peirce. Prawat wants to present Peirce as “the great forgotten man in American philosophy.” For those such as myself who were educated, or more accurately trained, in an analytical philosophy department, as was almost universal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there is a hidden irony here. Dewey largely disappeared from academic philosophy with the influx of the logical positivist in the 1930s. Only in the last twenty years has there been some renewed interest in his work. It is Peirce, seen as predecessor of “the linguistic turn” as well as a pioneer of semiotics, whom philosophy departments still laud. Dewey is the great forgotten man. Most philosophy departments today teach Peirce, and most students come upon Dewey only by accident, if at all. I did not encounter Dewey until after I had earned my doctorate and was a junior investigator on a NSF grant in mathematical logic. I picked up his Experience and Nature (LW 1) in our department library and became mesmerized by a philosophy unlike anything I knew. This random encounter with Dewey changed my life and eventually led me some place where everyone knew who Dewey was and where few had ever heard of Peirce—education.

Peirce is the founder of pragmatism, hardly an obscure achievement. Nor did Dewey learn of Peirce late in his career, as you might expect from reading Prawat; Peirce was on Dewey’s doctoral examining committee. Further, Peirce eventually sought to separate himself from the pragmatists who came after him, especially James, but Dewey, too. Peirce (1905/1998) coined the term “pragmaticism” a word he thought “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (p. 335). Prawat fails to mention something well known to Peirce scholars—that we must distinguish an earlier more naturalistic Peirce from the later version committed to philosophical idealism. Peirce concludes the same essay in which he proclaims “pragmaticism” by declaring: “The truth is that pragmaticism is closely allied to the Hegelian absolute idealism” (p. 345). I wonder which Peirce Prawat has in mind? It matters because the later Peirce embraces idealism during the same years the early Dewey was abandoning it.

Prawat claims that in the 1916 Essays in Experimental Logic Dewey “disavows instrumentalism” under Peirce’s influence. We will say more about this so-called disavowal later. Given Peirce’s statement above, if Dewey was under Peirce’s influence at this time we should see him shifting toward Hegel (and not Kant as Prawat indicates). Actually, Dewey was heading away from Hegel when Studies in Logical Theory appeared in 1903, and he never looked back. In a biography prepared by his daughters, who consulted closely with their father, we find that Dewey goes in the opposite direction from Peirce after 1903:

The Decennial of the founding of the University was celebrated by the publication by the University of Chicago Press of a series of monographs representing all departments. Among the publications was a volume by graduate students in philosophy called Studies in Logical Theory, with a series of introductory essays giving an analysis of Lotze’s logical theory by Dewey. The volume would probably have attracted little attention even among university teachers of philosophy had it not received a cordial greeting from William James, whose review hailed the birth of a “Chicago School” of thought, working along lines sympathetic to his pragmatism. This secured for it a certain recognition for the most part hostile. Dewey’s contribution marks a final and complete break with his early Hegelian idealism and launches his instrumental theory of reflective thought. (Dewey, 1939/1989, p. 33)

There is little doubt that this statement, composed nearly a quarter of a century after Dewey’s supposed Peircean turn and over thirty-five years after Studies appeared represents Dewey’s own later assessment of what Studies meant for him. Dewey is giving up idealism (Hegelian or Kantian) at precisely the same time Peirce is embracing it.

Contrary to the impression a reader might derive from the end of Prawat’s paper, Dewey reconstructs Peirce’s “synchism,” one of the three chief principles of Peirce’s later idealism.4 Dewey must; otherwise, he would follow Peirce into Scotistic realism, a doctrine completely compatible with his later absolute idealism. We cannot get into what all that means here. Let us just say it involves Peirce’s formalism, his notion that we get our ontology from our logic, and his commitment to an ontology of fixed, immutable essences, all of which Dewey entirely abandons by 1915.5 I suspect Prawat agrees with Peirce and would like magically to turn Dewey into Peirce. As Sleeper (1986) remarks, Dewey turns Peirce’s synchism, or the continuity of convergent Scotistic realism, into a more modest “continuity of inquiry and the category of [creative] transformation” (p. 203).

Further for Dewey, unlike Peirce, logic is not normative for the sciences in any absolute sense. Dewey derives logic from science and other social practices. The payoff for education is that if there are no fixed essences, there is no fixed essence of “man.” Instead, ones individuality is “wrought ought” in their transactions with the environment, especially the social environment. Dewey’s constructivism is very rich and complete (see Garrison, 1998). Dewey extensively reconstructs Peirce, but one gets no sense of that from reading Prawat. In his essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” Dewey remarks, “Unfortunately Peirce was not at all a systematic writer and never expounded his ideas in a single system. The pragmatic method which he developed applies only to a very narrow and limited universe of discourse” (LW 2: p. 3). Prawat for some reason tries to limit Dewey to that narrow world. This essay also helps situate Dewey in American pragmatism and shows why James remains a continuing influence on him. The famous Dewey scholar, Lewis Feur, remarks in his introduction to a very late volume, “The influence of William James on Dewey deepened with the years, and in 1942, the centenary of James’s birth provided occasions for Dewey to explain James’s greatness” (LW 15: p. xxii). Dewey has a great deal positive to say in this late work about both James and Peirce. Strangely, from Prawat’s perspective, in his 1930 autobiographical essay, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Dewey acknowledges the extensive influence of James but Peirce’s name does not appear (LW pp. 147-160).

We do not have time to get into the details of Dewey’s reconstruction of Peirce (see Sleeper, 1986), but it matters immensely. I want, however, to provide one example of how Prawat misrepresents Dewey’s no doubt considerable debt to Peirce.6 Near the end of his paper, Prawat argues that although Dewey at first reconstructed Peirce, by the time he introduces his 1916 revision of Essays in Experimental Logic he backs down. The argument here is thin, and will not stand sustained analysis. We are also told that Dewey “explicitly disavows instrumentalism,” the belief that “makes knowledge merely a means to a practical end, or to the satisfaction of practical needs.” I suspect Prawat means this citation to devastate Garrison (1997); all we need to do, though, is not confuse practicalism with pragmatism. Let us expand the textual context of this passage by citing from the next paragraph:

In the logical version of pragmatism termed instrumentalism, action or practice does indeed play a fundamental role . . . To use a term which is now more fashionable ... than it was earlier, instrumentalism means a behavioristic theory of thinking and knowing. It means that knowing is literally something which we do that analysis is ultimately physical and active; that meanings in their logical quality are standpoints, attitudes, and methods of behaving toward facts, and that active experimentation is essential to verification. Put in another way it holds that thinking does not mean any transcendent states or acts suddenly introduced into a previously natural scene, but the operations of knowing are (or are artfully derived from) natural responses of the organism, which constitute knowing in virtue of the situation of doubt in which they arise in virtue of the uses of inquiry, reconstruction, and control to which they are put. There is no warrant in the doctrine for carrying over this practical quality into the consequences in which action culminates and by which it is tested and corrected. A knowing as an act is instrumental to the resultant controlled and more significant situation; this does not imply anything about the intrinsic or the instrumental character of the consequent situation. That is whatever it may be in a given case. (LW 10: p. 367)

I reproduce this long passage, warts and all, for several reasons. First, it illustrates how Prawat misleads readers by selectively decontextualizing complex arguments to back up his claims. Second, Garrison (1997) cites most of the above passage. Third, clearly Dewey does not reject instrumentalism. Fourth, art is a part of inquiry for Dewey as early as 1916 and will become so more explicitly as the years pass. Fifth, action clearly plays a large role in Dewey’s thinking. In fact, it took a great deal of work in my 1997 book to distinguish Dewey’s behaviorism from that of his student John B. Watson. The difference is that Dewey is concerned with meaningful behavior (I would rather say action), rejected positivism, emphasized the social nature of the individual, and allowed talk about consciousness.

Sixth, practical consequences are just whatever they are. If the results are useful, fine, but that is not the point of inquiry. The point of inquiry is to determine the results of fixed operations. Everyone knows Dewey bases his theory of truth on “warranted assertibility.” The warrant derives from the operations performed. Indeed, “The subject-matter of logic is determined operationally” (LW 12: p. 22). I seriously doubt Peirce would agree. Seventh, it illustrates how Prawat equivocates. Clearly, there is an active, practical aspect to knowing. In the paragraph Prawat cites from Dewey affirms that the term ‘pragmatic’ means only the rule of referring all thinking, all reflective considerations, to consequences for final meaning and test. Nothing is said about the nature of the consequences; they may be aesthetic, or moral, or political, or religious in quality—anything you please. All that the theory requires is that they be in some way consequences of thinking; not, indeed, of it alone, but of it acted upon in connection with other things” (MW 10: p. 366). The quality of the consequences of inquiry is whatever it is. The mistake is carrying over this practical quality into the “consequent situation” be it moral, aesthetic, political, or religious or whatever. Whether or not knowledge satisfies practical needs, “practical being taken to signify some quite definite utilities of a material or bread-and-butter type,” is another question. Knowledge is whatever consequence the practical and active operations of inquiry warrant. Whether or not it is what we want or whether it is useful for securing bread and butter or any other quality we choose is irrelevant in itself. Knowing consequences, nonetheless, involves needs including the need to know. We may, if we like, apply knowledge to obtain guns or butter. The mistake is to reduce knowing to mere practicalism.

Decades later in his 1938 Logic, Dewey notes that “instrumental” stands for “the relation of means-consequence” (LW 12: p. 22). More to the point, “Rationality as an abstract conception is precisely the generalized idea of the means-consequence relation as such” (LW 12: p. 17). Rationality is about means-consequence connections regardless of whether or not those connections satisfy some specific human need or not.

Dewey’s fullest definition of inquiry states: “Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (LW 12: p. 108). Elsewhere, Dewey is very clear about what constitutes any unity when he notes that “no experience of whatever sort is a unity unless it has esthetic quality” (LW 10: p. 47). What is a “situation,” the reader no doubt wonders.7 Dewey writes,

What is designated by the word “situation” is not a single object or event or set of objects and events. For we never experience nor form judgments about objects and events in isolation, but only in connection with a contextual whole. This later is called a “situation.” (LW 12: p. 72)

So what makes a situation a whole? The answer is that “a situation is a whole in virtue of its immediately pervasive quality. When we describe it from the psychological side, we have to say that the situation as a qualitative whole is sensed or felt.” Worse than that, from Prawat’s perspective, “It is not anything that can be expressed in words for it is something that must be had.... Esthetic [sic] experience, in its emphatic sense, is mentioned as a way of calling attention to situations and universes of experience” (LW 12: 75). Dewey insists that esthetic cannot be sharply marked off from intellectual experience since the latter must bear an esthetic stamp to be itself complete” (LW 10: 45). Intelligent inquiry artistically transforms situations. Further,

The unsettled or indeterminate situation might have been called a problematic situation. This name would have been, however, proleptic and anticipatory. The indeterminate situation becomes problematic in the very process of being subjected to inquiry. The indeterminate situation comes into existence from existential causes, just as does, say the organic imbalance of hunger [disequilibration, or need]. There is nothing intellectual or cognitive in the existence of such situations, although they are the necessary condition of cognitive operations or inquiry. In themselves they are precognitive. (LW 12: 111)

Inquiry does not begin with a problem for Dewey. It begins with a precognitive qualitative situation of disequilibrium that inquiry seeks to transform. The educational payoff here is that students are motivated to inquire when they are in a state of disequilibrium then they are hungry to learn. Disequilibrium is part of the teachable moment, and the value of disruptive teaching, for teacher and student alike. By the way, in his discussion of the indeterminate situation of inquiry, Dewey explicitly refers back to his discussion of the rhythm of equalibration-disequalibration-restoration of equilibration when discussing “the indeterminate situation” (LW 12: p. 110 fn.).

Dewey notes, “If the unique quality of the situation is had immediately, then there is something that regulates the selection and weighing of observed facts and their conceptual ordering” (LW 12: p. 76). In his 1930 essay, “Qualitative Thought,” Dewey states, “The word ‘intuition’ has many meanings. But in its popular . . . usage it is closely connected with the single qualitativeness underlying all the details of explicit reasoning . . . [I]ntuition precedes conception and goes deeper.... Reflection and rational elaboration spring from and make explicit a prior intuition” (LW 5: p. 249). It is here that emotionally charged selective attention does its work. If we attend to the wrong aspects of the situation, it will not matter if our inquiry is deductively perfect. Knowing all the syllogisms will not help you in the classroom if you do not attend to the needs of the students. Next comes a possible solution. Here, “The possible solution presents itself as an idea. . . . Ideas are anticipated consequences (forecasts) of what will happen when certain operations are executed under and with respect to observed conditions” (LW 12: p. 113). Notice, “ideas” are only a part of inquiry not the center. Dewey added a footnote here to the effect that they are a part of a larger function. Ideas are nearly synonymous with hypotheses; they are not knowledge for Dewey, although they may become knowledge. The foregoing pattern repeats in Dewey early and late.

Obviously, constructing hypotheses involves imagination, but do not take my word for it. Here is how Dewey describes deliberation:

[D]eliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action. It starts from the blocking of efficient overt action . . .Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like . . . But the trial is in the imagination, not in overt fact. ... An act overtly tried out is irrevocable its consequences cannot be blotted out. (MW 14: pp. 132-133)

An act tried out in imagination is not final or fatal (MW 14: pp. 132-133). Imagination is not, as Prawat would have it, something Garrison (1997) has to graft onto Dewey to connect quality with the conclusions of inquiry. Imagination is where hypotheses, ideas if you please, come from.8 The next phase involves testing of hypotheses (ideas). If the hypothesis secures the desired transformation of the situation, then inquiry concludes.

Having just cited from Human Nature and Conduct, it is appropriate to add the following: “Rationality, once more, is not a force to evoke against impulse and habit. It is the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires” (LW 14: p. 136). Dewey is serious here; this passage is just one of many reasons I titled my book Dewey and Eros.

There is much more to say and I say it in Dewey and Eros, but for now this should suffice. There is enough to see that Prawat’s discontinuity thesis is false. If you need more, I recommend reading “Qualitative Thought,” generally considered the most important of all of Dewey’s later essays. There he tells us, “The situation as such is not and cannot be stated or made explicit” (LW 5: p. 247). He also states, “Scientific thought is, in its turn, a specialized form of art, with its own qualitative control” (p 252). This is something he said before (LW 1: p. 268), later he would say that science itself is but a central art auxiliary to the generation and utilization of other arts” (LW 10: p. 33).

Supposedly, I am searching desperately for the solution to “the problem of ‘intelligent affect’.” Please look at Dewey’s 1925 essay, “Affective Thought”; the very tide tells the reader I do not have to look for a solution to this nonexistent problem. It is in the title of this paper. There, Dewey states,

But what is summed up here under the idea of “affectivity” is that an organism has certain basic needs which cannot be supplied without activity that modifies the surroundings; that when the organism is in any way disturbed in its “equilibration” with its environment, its needs show themselves as restless, craving, desiring activity which persists until the acts thus induced have brought about a new integration of the organism and its relation to the environment. Then it is shown that thinking falls within the scope of this principle; reasoning is a phase of the generic function of bringing about a new relationship between organisms and the conditions of life, and like other phases of the function is controlled by need, desire and progressive satisfaction. (LW 2: p. 105)

Although Dewey is reflecting on someone else’s work here, he endorses the position. Dewey then goes on to do what Prawat claims is impossible; he flatly states, “Desire, interest, accomplishes what in the traditional theory a pure intellect was evoked to accomplish.... Reasoning and science are thus obviously brought nearer to art. The satisfaction of need requires that surroundings should be changed” (LW 2: p. 106).

Look at the section of Dewey’s 1932 Ethics subtitled, “The Union of Desire and Thought” (LW 7: pp. 186-191). Consider, “In one case, original impulse dictates the thought of the object; in the other case, this original impulse is transformed into a different desire because of objects which thought holds up to view. But no matter how elaborate and how rational is the object of thought, it is impotent unless it arouses desire” (LW 7: p. 187). He connects this union with the notion of freedom, “the union of thought and desire is just what makes an act voluntary” (LW 7: 189). The section titled “Sensitivity and Thoughtfulness” opens by claiming, “The permanent element of value in the intentional theory lies in its implicit emphasis upon the importance of direct responsiveness to the qualities of situations and acts. ... But they are conditions without which such knowledge cannot arise” (LW 7: p. 268). Again, “Emotional reactions form the chief materials of our knowledge of ourselves and of others” (LW 7: p. 269). Because, as I show in Dewey and Eros, desire is a part of the architectonic of all practical, means-consequence reasoning since Aristotle, desire is always a part of thought (p. xviii). The first premise of the practical syllogism states “I desire V,” where “I” is a person, desire is the ancient Greek “eros,” and “V” is some value. Besides desire, values become involved in practical reasoning when they are the consequence sought. Because of what Dewey calls the “essential unity of the self and its acts,” the opening sentence of my book reads, “We become, what we love.” This is not a sentimental statement.

The reference to Aristotle above is relevant. Dewey took a neo-Aristotelian turn after arriving at Columbia and coming to know F. J. E. Woodbridge.9 This well known influence surely rivals any awakening appreciation of Peirce. Meanwhile, Thomas M. Alexander (1987) remarks, “The search for an adequate aesthetics of experience is what drives the development of Dewey’s philosophy” (p. xvi). Dewey’s quest for an aesthetics that unified his entire philosophy of experience also intensifies after he moved to Columbia in 1904. This quest culminates with the publication of Art as Experience.

That the artistic and aesthetic plays a prominent role in Dewey’s thinking about inquiry is clear enough. Dewey observes in his 1938 Logic, “What I have said in Art as Experience, in chapter vii, on ‘The Natural History of Form’ can be carried over, mutatis mutandis, to logical forms” (LW 12: p. 372). Early in this chapter 7, Dewey states, “Intellectual relations subsist in proposition; they state the connection of terms with one another. In art, as in nature and in life, relations are modes of interaction but they exist as actions and reactions in which things undergo modification. Art expresses; it does not state. It is concerned with existences in their perceived qualities, not with conceptions symbolized in terms” (LW 10: p. 139). Propositions of the “if-then” type express subsistent intellectual relations; these relations conveniently summarize existential relations, that is, “actions and reactions” in which “things are modified.” Of themselves knowledge propositions do not modify the existential in themselves practical at all unless used to modify an existential qualitative situation. That was Dewey’s point back in 1916; the point where Prawat mistakenly thinks Dewey abandoned instrumentalism. As we saw, Dewey retained his instrumentalism; but knowledge is not instrumental in changing existential situations unless used for that purpose. It is one thing to know the propositions of good teaching, quite another to embody them in the classroom. Any first year teacher knows this.

Logical forms include logical essences, laws such as the law of excluded middle or the “if-then” propositions of which Prawat speaks so passionately. The year 1915 also saw the publication of an essay on metaphysics—the first since Dewey’s abandonment of absolute idealism. Experience and Nature (1925) is undoubtedly his greatest work on that topic. Clearly, metaphysics is occupying his thought from 1915 to 1925, and it is metaphysics as far from that of Peirce as you can possibly get. Oddly enough, that brings us to Prawat’s third thesis that I claim “inquiry involves ‘retooling’ with language.” It does, but it also involves other things.

Dewey carefully distinguishes between existence, the topic of metaphysics, and essences, and the topic of logic (see Garrison 1999 and forthcoming, a). That is the difference between intellectual, logical relations that subsist and existential qualitative situations (See LW: 95 ff.). Qualities are an immediate experience of existence, they are given when we interact with the rest of existence, but they have neither meaning nor essence that requires work because they are taken. So what connects existence to essence? Dewey is very clear, “Yet there is a natural bridge that joins the gap between existence and essence; namely communication, language, discourse” (LW 1: 133). Prawat claims that I am mistaken about what language is in Dewey, although he never really tells us what the mistake is. He does say that, The attribute that physical tools share with propositions, the ‘tool’ of the tool of tools used in inquiry, is very specific and focused. Both propositions and shovels are inherently ‘if-then’ relational instruments.” Actually, Dewey finds existential means-consequence relations fundamental, they are what transforms situations. Propositional “if-then” relations subsist because they intellectually describe existential relations. Prawat is confusing existence, and language, with essence. Here is how Dewey defines “tool”:

The invention and use of tools have played a large part in consolidating meanings, because a tool is a thing used as means to consequences, instead of being taken directly and physically.... As to be a tool or to be used as means for consequences, is to have and to endow with meaning, language, being the tool of tools, is the cherishing mother of all significance. Moreover, tools and artifices of agency are always found in connection with some division of labor. (LW: p. 146)

Labor, action or behavior are what existentially and artistically transform the world. We use technologies and eventually they use us, but we provide the animating forces, for now at least. The “means-consequence” relation makes something a tool; the formal, logical “if-then” relation is one instance of this larger relation.

Dewey observes, “Meanings are rules for using and interpreting things, interpretation being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence” (p. 147). Prawat probably does not like it when Dewey says, “Meaning is not indeed a psychic existence; it is primarily a property of [social] behavior, and secondarily a property of objects [and propositions]” (LW 1: p. 141). We derive logical essences and truth from meanings. The sentence “there is a live unicorn in your bedroom right now” is meaningful, though inquiry will probably show it is false. It is true, though, in the fantasy story I created with Ausha (not her real name) in a fourth grade reading writing workshop (the unicorn was blue with red stripes, wow!). Dewey states, “Thus the essence . . . which makes the thing what it is, emerges from the various meanings which vary with varying conditions and transitory intents” (LW 1: p. 141). Our logic may modify the meanings they emerge from, but then modified meanings surely may modify our logic. Dewey even emphasizes the semantically creative aspect of logic “Rules of logical order and consistency appertain to economy and efficiency of combination and separation in generating new meanings; not to meanings as such” (LW 1: p. 152). In other words, “inquiry involves retooling language,” precisely what Prawat says is one of my mistakes. Inquiry often involves retooling language; the converse also holds.

Let us deepen what it is to possess meaning for Dewey because it helps us see that meanings also possess us. In a highly instructive passage, Dewey writes,

We may think of habits as means waiting, like tools in a box to be used by conscious resolve. But they are something more than that. They are active means, means that project themselves energetic and dominating ways of acting. We need to distinguish between material, tools and means proper. Nails and boards are not strictly speaking means of a box. They are only materials for making it. Even the saw and hammer are means only when they are employed in some actual making. Otherwise they are tools, or potential means. (MW 14: p. 22)

First, note Dewey indicates that embodied, affective habits are tools— means to the agent’s ends or purposes. Next, he makes a subtle but very substantial distinction between actual and potential tools. Tools in a box or habits in a body are only means potentially (they are materials for creation); this potential is not actualized until the agent actively coordinates them with each other as well as other material conditions within some context. Not until the agent coordinates hammer, saw, and nails with her idea (i.e., form) of a box, do the tools in the box become means to the agents (artists) end. Perhaps the end is a box to put the tools in for safekeeping. Furthermore, not until every thing, including hammer, saw, nails, boards, ruler, idea, and the agent’s skillful artistic habits, is functionally coordinated as a single entity is any thing, phase, or subfunction a means to the end.

Carpentry is a social practice; acquiring the habits necessary to coordinating a context of practice involves acquiring the mind of a carpenter. The same holds for teaching. That is why disciplined activities are such an important part of Dewey’s theory of education. It is a fine example of acquiring a mental function by participating in a social activity. Moreover, it is developmental because Dewey insists on the “essential unity of the self and its acts” (op. cit.). Because of this unity, any action, which is always really a trans-action, has consequences that modify the agent. Finally, for Dewey, means constitute the end; until an act is fully coordinated, we cannot determine what is end and what is means. Even then, our arbitrary interests make the determination; the existential situation simply is what it is. Good artists are flexible; they play with possibilities that arise during the creative process. Dewey’s “instrumentalism” is so different from most other versions that assume means are detachable from ends that it is unfortunate he uses the word to describe his philosophy of tool mediation.

Let us expand still further. In Experience and Nature (LW 1). Dewey defines a tool as “a thing used as an agency for some concluding event” (p. 104). Agency, action, is built into Dewey’s instrumentalist theory of inquiry. In the context of any social practice, the most important tool is always the practitioner, so we should not be surprised that Dewey understands “the self as the tool of tools, the means in all use of means” (p, 189). Garrison (1987) uses this idea to insist that it is more important that teachers be somebody than know something, though knowing is necessary. Further, to care for others, teachers must learn to care for themselves; this means overcoming selflessness. This is something that good people often find hard to do, but they must not allow bad people to take advantage of them.

There are many troubling philosophical errors in Prawat’s paper, but I will conclude with only one more. Ralph Sleeper (1986) has done the best job of mapping the similarities between Peirce and Dewey of anyone of whom I am aware. Sleeper notes that although Dewey makes extensive use of Peirce’s psychological doubt-belief theory of inquiry, he eschews Peirce’s identification of logic exclusively with semiotics. The reader has seen enough to accept the latter half of this statement, but what of the former? That is the strangest thing of all. Peirce’s doubt-belief theory of inquiry is the equilibrium-disequilibrium-restoration of equilibrium cycle that Prawat claims Dewey abandons. James also borrowed the doubt-belief cycle from Peirce, although he gave it the more thorough biological treatment Dewey preferred. If Dewey abandons it after 1915, he is moving away from Peirce not toward him as Prawat claims. Ironically, the one thing we know Dewey borrows from Peirce, albeit via James, is the one thing Prawat most wants to reject in Dewey.

Peirce thinks that a belief is an embodied habit of action evincing emotion. Peirce (1877/1992) observes, “Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions” (p. 114). For Peirce, beliefs involve habits of action that evince feeling. Peirce (1887-1888/1992) indicates,

The genuine synthetic consciousness, or the sense of the process of learning, which is the preeminent ingredient and quintessence of reason has its physiological basis quite evidently in the most characteristic property of the nervous system, the power of taking habits, (p. 264)

The pedagogical implication is clear, learning must have a firm biological basis and mind is not separate from the body—its feelings, desires, and interests. The reader of the Prawat paper is probably shocked. They will also feel shocked that Peirce (1877/1992) proclaims,

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry. ... It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject any belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure the result, (p. 114)

Inquiry arises when our embodied habits of action fail us. If we are intelligent, then in an emotionally irritating state of disequilibrium we inquire to restore harmony of functioning.

What about logical “if-then” propositions? Intellectual relations are very important in Dewey, of course. The question is where do they belong in the architectonic of his philosophy. Remember, Dewey carefully distinguishes between metaphysical existence, linguistic meaning (the bridge), and logical essences, truth, and so forth. Logic essence is the distilled import of existence. The analogy goes like this: Existence resembles grapes on the vine, whereas language is like the grape press; wine is the distilled essence of the grape. The point is that you cannot have the product without the process. Without the processes of intuition, selective attention, need, desire, interests, imagination, social cooperation in language, and the tools of inquiry (including the inquirer), you cannot have the contingent, always fallible product—logical essences and propositions. As in wine making, if you change any part of the process you will probably change the product. Of the art of inquiry, Dewey states,

Selective emphasis, choice, is inevitable whenever reflection [inquiry] occurs. This is not an evil. Deception comes only when the presence and operation of choice is concealed, disguised, denied. Empirical method finds and points to the operation of choice as it does to any other event. Thus it protects us from conversion of eventual functions into the antecedent existence: a conversion that may be said to be the philosophic fallacy. (LW 1: p. 34)

Confusing the consequences of inquiry with antecedent conditions is “the philosophic fallacy.” I think Prawat’s work on Dewey commits this fallacy repeatedly.

If the things I have been saying about Dewey and Eros sound very different from the Dewey you read in your school of education, it is. There are some exciting new works on Dewey out there. I brought many of those who are creating the new scholarship on Dewey together in Garrison (1995). These scholars were eager to write about Dewey and education. I have hoped for half a decade that educators would follow. Garrison (1997) strives to connect the new scholarship to teaching. Of course, I think it is worth reading; but if nothing else, it seems provocative.


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Dewey, J. (1939/1989). Biography of John Dewey In Paul A. Schilpp (Ed.) The Philosophy of John Dewey (pp. 3-45) La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Garrison, J. (1995). The new scholarship on Dewey Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Garrison, J. (1996). The unity of the activity: A response to Prawat Educational Researcher 25 (6) 21-23.

Garrison, J. (1997). Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and desire in the art of teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Garrison, J. (1998). Toward a pragmatic social constructivism In M. Larochelle, N. Bednarz, & J. Garrison (Eds.), Constructivism and education (pp. 43-60) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Peirce, C. S. (1905/1998). What pragmatism is In The Essential Peirce (Vol. 2, pp. 331-345) Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Prawat, R. S. (1995). Misreading Dewey: Reform, projects, and the language game Educational Researcher, 24 (7), 13-22.

Prawat, R. S. (2001), Dewey and Peirce, the philosopher’s philosopher Teachers College Record, 103 (4), 677-721.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 4, 2001, p. 722-738
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10775, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:17:47 AM

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