John Dewey and The Philosopher's Task
reviewed by Michael Glassman - 2003
Philip Jackson performs a valuable service (actually more than one) in his new book John Dewey and The Philosopher’s Task.The philosophical baseline of this book is an exploration of Dewey’s conception of “experience” as presented in one of his most important (Jackson says it may be the most important) philosophic renderings, Experience and Nature. The exploration of this concept takes on a literary quality, foreshadowed in the title, because Dewey wrote four versions of the introductory chapter to this book. There is an inherent mystery in this, why four versions of a chapter that is supposed to explain perhaps Dewey’s most basic concept? Why did a philosopher of such deep convictions feel the need to revise and revise yet again, until he determined to replace the very word he held so closely in his work, “experience”, with the word “culture?” Within these obvious mysteries Jackson finds more subtle questions. What exactly did Dewey see as the philosopher’s task? And how did he reconcile his admiration for the simple beauty of the scientific method with his own desire to describe and engage in the far messier philosophic method? As I look back on my own experience in reading this book I am amazed at the scope of questions Jackson is able to raise in so slim a volume.
Jackson begins his book by reviewing the initial version of the first chapter of Dewey’s Experience and Nature. This book, and especially its first chapter, is presented as the apogee of Dewey’s search for a philosophical description of experience. Dewey’s task is made that much more difficult by the juxtaposition of an incredibly complex concept with an incredibly common word to describe it. ( It helps if the reader already has some knowledge of the history of experience in Dewey’s work - pointing to the fact that this book is not really appropriate for Dewey neophytes.) Dewey realized he had caught lightning in a bottle prior to the turn of the century when concrete practices (such as the development of his laboratory school) and relationships (such as the one he developed with Jane Addams) helped him to combine the organicism of his mentors (e.g., George Morris) with his new found passion for realism in the single active concept of human experience. Prior to the publication of Experience and Nature the concept was always central to Dewey’s thinking but never defined in a manner that could easily avoid misperceptions or even purposeful misuse.
Jackson shows, in his first chapter, how Dewey was able to define, in a very certain manner, exactly what he meant by experience. Jackson’s succinct and eloquent explanation of Dewey’s definition works on two levels. First, it shows the cohesiveness and consistency of Dewey’s work leading up to this point. Second, it sows the seeds of discontent that would fester in Dewey’s soul as a result of his own definition. Whatever peace of mind Dewey might have found from his successful philosophical denouement of one of his core (if not the core) philosophical concepts was short lived. Dewey was back at work less than four years later completely rewriting this first chapter. The important question that Jackson asks is why, especially considering his success in defining such a “slippery” concept, was Dewey not satisfied? Why was he never satisfied?
This is the mystery that Jackson follows through the remainder of his book. The second chapter of Jackson’s book is a very concrete comparison of the first version of the introductory chapter to Experience and Nature with the second version. He actually presents a chart showing differences in the amount of times key phrases were used. If you look carefully it is possible to see the difficulty that will plague Dewey for the next two decades, a difficulty that will become clearer with each succeeding chapter as Jackson (in true Dewey fashion) moves from the concrete to the reflective. It is a problem embedded in Dewey’s distinction between the scientific method and the philosophical method. Dewey must admit that experience in the scientific method is superior for the discovery of tools, concepts, and ideas that are instrumental in human life. At the same time Dewey is not a scientist. He is a philosopher. It is a task he has chosen with eyes wide open. Dewey chooses to be the philosopher because he wants to have an impact on society; he wants to address problems in a way that will lead to a better world. Scientists are trapped within the rigor of their scientific method. Even in the best of circumstances they find what they find and are then swept up by the tides of history. It is the philosopher who, using one of Dewey’s favorites metaphors, develops the maps for society.
There is poignancy in the story Jackson lays out before us in his book. Jackson comments that Dewey was very sure of his ideas, that you do not see him struggle in his writings the way that you see other philosophers struggle with ideas. And yet it is possible to see, with each succeeding chapter of Jackson’s book, that Dewey struggled with the concept of scientist verse philosopher in his own life. My first reading of this book suggests this is why he went back to this first chapter so often. Dewey was a very smart human being who understood and respected the scientific method as well as anybody. He could have been a great scientist. Yet science could not offer him what he desired in his experience, it is not, as Jackson puts it, “melioristic in intent” (p. 59) to the degree that philosophy is. Great science often times does not overtly aim at being of value to society. The scientific method is trapped, to a certain degree, by its own rigors. So Dewey is willing to suffer the pinpricks of a thousand lost arguments. He is willing to cast himself into the ocean of ideas (Dewey’s penchant for nautical terms is an important part of Jackson’s book.) allowing for “drift and hang” of his various positions: all this in the service of a better world.
Jackson’s afterward is especially powerful in what it says about Dewey, but also more subtly about his own work in this book. Dewey was moving in a direction throughout his career, but never towards any particular port. He trusted his experience to carry him forward. He knew the philosophic method would never give him rest. To stretch the ship metaphor a bit further (than either Dewey or Jackson might like) he was a “Flying Dutchman”upon the seas of the world, always looking for answers, scientific certainty always beyond his intellectual grasp. Jackson starts with a specific question about why Dewey was never satisfied with that most important of chapters, but in the mirror of his subject allowed experience to overwhelm him and take him on an intellectual journey. This makes for an extraordinary book that leaves the reader in the same “hang and drift” mode as subject and author. As I started my second read of Jackson’s book I realized that I was developing a different picture of Dewey, and of Jackson’s interpretation of him, a picture that moves in the same direction but with an ending I can’t predict. It is a book and an experience I believe I will return to many times.
Postscript: Today I read an article about how the Bush administration was determined to base all reading funding on science. “Don’t they realize?” I screamed to no person. “Teaching reading is more philosophy than science.” I thought about Dewey and how his ideas remain so brutally relevant. I thought about Jackson and how he has tried to keep Dewey’s ship a sail.
Dewey, John. 1986. Experience and Nature (revised edition). Open Court Publishing Company: New York.