Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Hidden Link in Dewey's Theory of Evaluation

by Gail Kennedy - 1955

The author reviews the theory of evaluation from which Dewey's whole philosophy is developed, and discloses the hidden link. What makes it so difficult for Dewey's critics to understand his theory of evaluation is that he nowhere explicitly shows that the only possible answer to the question, Why should I do this? must be, in effect, Because this is the most adequate solution of the problem indicated by your question. It is his failure to be sufficiently explicit on this point which constitutes what the author calls the hidden link in Dewey's theory of evaluation.

THE problem," says Dewey, "of restoring integration and cooperation between man's beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of modern life.1 It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life."2 This problem has two correlative aspects: "the relation of physical science to the things of ordinary experience"3 and "the relation that exists between the beliefs about the nature of things due to natural science and beliefs about values."4

Originally Dewey accepted an idealistic solution of this problem, one in which value is equated with existence in a way that would obviate any conflict between our belief in the results of scientific inquiry and our other beliefs. However, during the long period in which Dewey attempted to deal with problems of ethics on this basis he became increasingly convinced of the paralyzing effect produced by the equation of value with existence. Such an equation transformed moral activity into an illusion. Metaphysical idealism, he realized, makes practical idealism impossible. At this juncture he came under the influence of James's Principles of Psychology. The thing that impressed him most about this great book was the way in which James showed that all mental activity is essentially purposeful in character, and that this purposefulness is grounded in the efforts of the live creature in his environment to adapt himself to changing conditions. In this biologically determined purposefulness Dewey found a clue to the analysis of our moral judgments. In making this analysis he first formulated his instrumentalism.

From this point on, Dewey turns from idealism to a biologically oriented naturalistic philosophy. He no longer tries to solve the problem of the relation of our scientific knowledge to value judgments by the idealistic tour de force of invoking a transcendent spiritual principle which pervades all nature, but resorts to a detailed analysis of the actual processes of inquiry which lead to the formation of moral judgments. Thus Dewey substitutes a methodological for a metaphysical solution of the problem. This methodological theory, which he called "instrumentalism," was derived, then, from his reflections on the problem of evaluation and later extended to cover inquiry in every field. The crystallization of his new point of view is expressed in an article published in 1903, "The Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality."5 Thirty-six years later, while commenting on the essays in the volume The Philosophy of John Dewey, he says: "Were I anonymously to turn critic of my own philosophy, this is the place from which I should set out. I should indicate that after insisting upon the genuineness of affectional and other 'tertiary' qualities as 'doings of nature,' Dewey then proceeds to emphasize in his theory of knowing, as that is manifested in both science and common sense, the operations of transformation, reconstruction, control, and union of theory and practice in experimental activity which are analogous to those involved in moral activity."6


In this paper I wish to review the theory of evaluation from which Dewey's whole philosophy is developed. The theory has been stated by him many times in a great variety of contexts. To me it seems both clear and adequate. Yet, despite all of his efforts to communicate it, the theory has been widely misconstrued. There are at least two explanations for this. One is that Dewey's analysis cuts across traditional modes of thinking in a way which makes him, for those whose habits of mind are indurated in those modes, peculiarly difficult to understand. Such people, in Dewey's own opinion, come to his discussions of the subject with a factitious conception of the problem which prevents them from perceiving the relevance of what he has to say. More important than the operation of this prejudice is, I think, a certain inability on Dewey's own part to perceive just what it was that the critics found unsatisfactory about his position. To them Dewey seems somehow to slide over without answering what for them is the vital question. Even the most sympathetic of his critics feel that there is a missing link in his argument, and his failure explicitly to raise and discuss what they would regard as a crucial point leads them to the conclusion that he has not really solved his problem.

What is the missing link? Perhaps I can explain it this way: Dewey, in the opinion of his critics, nowhere squarely faces and explicitly discusses the question, What, in your theory, is the precise relation between descriptive and prescriptive statements? or, How, according to your theory, are statements that such and such is the case related to statements that such and such ought to be done? Now Dewey himself would, I think, reply, "But I have answered this question. Consider, for example, my chapter in the Quest for Certainty where I said, 'Judgments about values are judgments about the conditions and the results of experienced objects; judgments about that which should regulate the formation of our desires, affections and enjoyments.’7 I was so well aware of your question that I called this statement the main proposition of my theory and even put it in italics."

To this, however, the critic would say, "You have merely juxtaposed a statement about matters of fact and a statement about obligation. What justification have you for assuming an equivalence between them? Your original objection to the idealistic position was that it evades the problem of evaluation by equating fact with value. But is not this just another way of doing the same thing? How, by piling up descriptive statements can one ever get to a prescription?"8

Now I believe that Dewey does have an answer to this question, but that you have to read him with unusual care, sometimes between the lines, to find it. This is not a case, in my opinion, of the missing link, but of the hidden one. My endeavor here is to disclose that hidden link.


It is first necessary to distinguish two types of evaluation when only one is relevant. There is a common kind of evaluation which starts with antecedent standards and is essentially circular. If, for example, one of the questions in the Simon-Binet test is to repeat a series of numbers backward, it is this ability which is tested, and we have to conclude that what intelligence tests test is what they do test. Transferring the illustration to ethics, when Aristotle says that only the good man is a proper judge of the good, this statement is a necessary consequence of the fact that his ethics is based on a set of antecedent values. For the same reason, he has to state that we deliberate about means only, never about ends.

Most, if not all, of the historic theories of ethics are involved in this kind of circularity. They beg the question with which we are concerned. Systems as diverse as those of Bentham and Hegel have this in common, that they are based on antecedent values. For Hegel, correct evaluation is successful prediction because, since the real is the rational, whatever will be is what should be. For Bentham, the problem is a little more complex. In the first three sentences of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he says: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne." For Bentham, then, evaluation is also reduced to the calculation of future consequences since it is predetermined that the standard is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. No one would deny, I believe, that scientific methods of inquiry are, in principle at least, applicable to this first kind of evaluation, the problem merely being, given the end, to determine the appropriate means. The answer to the question, What are the appropriate means? is clearly some statement concerning matters of fact. This is a problem of evaluation only in the Pickwickian sense, since the question, What is valuable? is not actually raised at all.

But we are now concerned with another kind of evaluation, with the evaluative process in situations which are problematic in a different sense, situations where what is questioned is the nature of the end itself. In this type of situation, value problems specifically occur because questions of purpose become focal. This is the type of problematic situation where the criteria of evaluation are themselves involved in the sense that it is they which have become problematic. Real value judgments, then, are practical judgments. They become necessary at those junctures in inquiry where the questions arise: What should I do? or, What would it be best to do? The problem indicated by these questions can appear in any context of purposeful activity, whether it be in the domain of practical life, scientific inquiry, or artistic production. Situations where these questions do occur are those in which there is a genuine element of novelty; this element of novelty causes antecedent standards of judgment to become in some degree or other inadequate. It is the ingression of novelty, of unforeseen circumstances and consequences, which stimulates the evaluative process, a continuing revision of ends, and a concomitant alteration of operative means. What then occurs is a constant interplay within the process of inquiry between means and ends. The more problematic the situation is in this respect, the greater the element of evaluation involved.

No one, I am sure, will doubt that as a matter of fact there is such a thing as the progressive development of standards, that this is one of the results of continuing inquiry, that our norms do grow out of our experience under the stimulus of an ingression of novelty. Thus "health" is a criterion which has continually changed in meaning during the long history of medicine, and in the law, "due process" is a standard which has been progressively developed as new cases involving this conception have been argued and decided. In every field of practice, criteria gradually evolve as more and more of the specific problems within that field are solved. Since this development of new standards during a process of continuing inquiry does as a matter of fact occur, it should be possible to formulate an adequate theory as to how it occurs. The question, then, is, Does Dewey give us an adequate account of the evaluative process within which there is a development of standards or the formation of new ends?


Dewey's answer to this question begins with a behavioral description of the live creature in his environment. The organism displays in its interactions with the environment a complex set of activities. So far as human behavior, at least, is concerned, the focal concept in his description of this behavior is that of habit. These habits are implicitly intentional: they express a purpose. When we reflect upon the meaning of any given habit, we recognize that its import is the production of certain effects. To become aware of the meaning of a habit is to envisage an activity with certain consequences; it is to have an idea, a plan of action. This is the conception of habit that led Peirce to his definition of meaning, a definition to which Dewey would subscribe: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."9 Peirce's definition refers to the behavior of the object of our conception; a correlative definition of meaning by reference to the subject doing the conceiving is the operational one offered by Bridgman: "In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations: the concept is synonymous 'with the corresponding set of operations"10

Every habit, then, is the embodiment of a value. So long, however, as there is not a block to the ongoing activities of an individual these values remain implicit, and no problem of evaluation arises. It is only when some sort of impasse occurs that a problematic situation is created and the necessity for an evaluation occurs. Those situations which produce a problem of evaluation are of two kinds: the problem may be one of overcoming some impediment to the successful operation of a single existing set of habits, or it may be that there is a conflict between two sets of habits which are incompatible within the existing situation. In both cases there is a genuine problem of evaluation because in both cases the question must be raised whether what is at present valued —the intentional object of any habit involved—is really valuable.

This is a real question; surely it is possible to give it an intelligible answer. Dewey believes that one can, and his answer to the question, as I understand it, is as follows: At this juncture the only thing one can do is re-examine the habits which are here in question, not, however, making a re-examination of their intentional objects as such but a re-examination of these habits as operative means to the attainment of those objects. Ends must be re-evaluated indirectly by looking again to the means.

In the simpler of the two cases, the frustration of a single habit or set of habits, the problem would be: How can the habit be modified or re-formed in a way which will somehow overcome the obstacle? Deliberation is an imaginative rehearsal of the possible consequences of a projected course of action. If, during this process of deliberation, more than one course of action which seems to be a practicable solution of the problem is envisaged, then this question becomes relevant: Which is the better of these alternative possibilities? And the question can be answered in such terms as the following: At this juncture alternative A, for certain reasons, appears to be a better means than alternative B of dealing with the situation. Therefore, one ought to choose A, if one respects the claim implicit in the situation—that the problem should be solved.

Now if problematic situations of the sort just described do occur and are dealt with in this way, then value judgments are derived from propositions whose import is some matter of fact. This is so because any proposed revision of the operative means, that is, modification of the existing set of habits, entails a corresponding redefinition of the end in view. How can one alter the intention, the habit, without also modifying the intentional object? In operational terms the conception of the intentional object, the end in view, is a function of the set of operations, the means by which that object is attained. Or, in Dewey's language, the continuity and interpenetration of means and ends is such that any modification of the means is in so far forth constitutive of a new end. But the decision in the case of an impeded habit, that one course of action is better than another, can be justified only by statements of fact. One must answer the question, Why is this alternative better than that? by replying, Because this alternative is the more adequate or more effective means of solving the problem. And that any given means is more effective within the context of that situation is a question of fact.

At this point one might bring up the following difficulty: But isn't there an ambiguity in the phrase "solving the problem"? The habit which was blocked represented an antecedent value. The initial problem was to realize this value. How can one solve that problem by modifying the original habit and thus instituting a new value? It may be granted that mere statements of fact are sufficient to answer the question, What is the most appropriate means to the attainment of a given value? but it does not follow that mere statements of fact are a sufficient reason for positing a new value.

To this objection Dewey's answer is that in any inquiry the object of knowledge is not antecedent but eventual—otherwise there would not be a real problem. A genuinely problematic situation is one in which inquiry must result in a discovery of some sort if the problem is to be solved. To say, in the instance we are discussing, that the "problem" is to find the most appropriate means to the attainment of a given value is a misconstruction of the situation. If the existing habit had operated successfully, it would have attained its object and no evaluation would have been needed. The problem is not how to realize an antecedent intention. That intention is eliminated by its failure in this situation. The problem is to form a new intention. What, then, is the guiding principle in forming the new intention? The guiding principle, Dewey says, is the principle of continuity. It is this principle which guides the choice between alternatives in every field of inquiry.

Now I have said that one alternative will be judged better than another because it is more "adequate" or more "effective" as a solution of the problem. The particular criteria of adequacy or effectiveness will, of course, vary with the type of problem. They are the subtle and elusive components of what we name vaguely by such words as intuition, tact, taste, flair and judgment. What these terms denote is the aesthetic aspect of the problematic situation. As Dewey puts it, "the immediate existence of quality, and of dominant and pervasive quality, is the background, the point of departure, and the regulative principle of all thinking."11 It is by means of this pervasive quality that one "judges" the relative congruence of two or more choices to the original intention. The principle of continuity is an abstract expression for this controlling factor.

To revert to our first case, the impediment of a single habit or set of habits: The meaning of a habit is certain conceivable consequences. Both deliberation and overt experiment proceed upon the basis of imagined or actual modifications of the original habit which have a certain felt congruence with it. As a result, one becomes aware of new consequences. An idea, or a habit, says Peirce, is a little person which can grow by exercise. He states this as the law of mind: "that ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectability."12 Thus there is a growth of habit under the stimulus of novelty and therewith a change in the character of the end or the intentional object. This process of growth involves choices which can be justified as better under the circumstances because they are, in accordance with the principle of continuity, more relevant to the original intention; and the validity of this claim can be tested by noting the consequences of acting upon the chosen alternative.

The second type of problematic situation in which evaluation is required, that wherein two or more habits or sets of habits are incompatible, makes explicit an additional complication in the evaluative process. Each habit or set of habits may independently of the other be revised in terms of its own objective. This means that the principle of continuity applies indifferently to both habits. How, then, can one discriminate between them? Dewey's position here is that to answer this question we must extend the context of what is meant by "problematic" in the situation. While in practice it often seems to be the case that one is confronted with an either-or choice, acting solely on one of these initial alternatives and "suppressing" the other will not, as a matter of fact, be the outcome. There are, of course, many cases where under the pressure of events one is forced to make an either-or choice. However, suppression, whether it be a willful choice or one dictated by circumstances, means that the alternative which is apparently denied an outlet will in fact operate to impede and deflect from its objective the overt activity of the habit which was chosen. Taken simply as a disjunction, it is not possible to "choose" one of the alternatives in this fashion without also choosing subconsciously to realize the other as well. The real problem is to find, if possible, some third procedure which will enable the largest net potentiality for further growth. If we consider the individual as a complex system of habits organized into various sets more or less intimately related to one another, then it is those other parts of the total system which are adjacent, as it were, to the two incompatible sets which become involved in the problematic situation. The principle of continuity still applies, but it applies in a more extensive way; it is that alternative having the highest degree of relevance to these associated habits which is better than the other alternatives under consideration. And here, as in the first instance, a chosen alternative can be justified as the most adequate means only by reference to matter-of-fact propositions and can be tested by an appeal to the overt consequences of carrying it into action.

The analysis here presented is entirely general in form. So far as it is valid, it would apply to all fields of inquiry. When scientists were attempting to determine the significance of the Michaelson-Morley experiment, when the members of the Supreme Court were arriving at an opinion in which they concluded that "separate but equal" educational facilities do not meet the constitutional requirement "equal protection of the laws," when Cezanne left two areas of the canvas in one of his portraits unpainted because he could find no way of completing the picture without spoiling it, when Lincoln gave the order to send a relief expedition to Fort Sumter—in all these cases, presumably, when the decision was arrived at, it could have been a result of the process of evaluation this paper has attempted to describe. Evaluations are not the peculiar prerogative of fields of inquiry denoted by such terms as "ethical" and "aesthetic"; they occur wherever there are genuinely problematic situations.

We are now in a position to state, I hope, how a set of descriptive statements may, within the context of an evaluative process, become prescriptive. If the question is raised, Why this alternative rather than another? the answer is, Because it is a more adequate solution of the problem. Since what the situation demands—the claim made by it—is the most adequate solution possible, it follows that whichever proposed alternative does seem more adequate is within that context the better. It is the "good" of that situation or it is the "right" thing to do in that situation. And whether this proposed alternative is in reality the better means can be tested by reference to factual knowledge. Therefore, the grounds upon which any prescriptive statement is based are statements derived from observation and experiment.

What makes it so difficult, I believe, for Dewey's critics to understand his theory of evaluation is that he nowhere explicitly shows, so far as I am aware, that the only possible answer to the question, Why should I do this? must be, in effect, Because this is the most adequate solution of the problem indicated by your question. It is his failure to be sufficiently explicit on this point which constitutes what I have called the hidden link in Dewey's theory of evaluation.

1 On October 20, 1954, in connection with the Columbia University Bicentennial, the John Dewey Society sponsored a John Dewey Memorial Program at Teachers College. An afternoon session treated the problem "Systems of Value and Methods of Inquiry"; an evening session was devoted to the theme "Liberalism Resurgent." This paper, and that of Professor Ratner which follows, were among those read at the afternoon session. Dr. Kennedy teaches courses in ethics, educational philosophy, and general American philosophy at Amherst College. His paper has also appeared in the Journal of Philosophy.

2 John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (New York: Minton, Balch and Company, 1929), p. 255.

3 Ibid., p. 252.

4 Ibid., p. 256.

5 Reprinted in Problems of Men (New York: New York Philosophical Society, 1946).

6 Paul A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey (New York: The Tudor Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 579-80.

7 The Quest for Certainty, p. 265.

8 For instance, Randolph Bourne, an early disciple, turned against Dewey because he was unable to find in his writings a definitive answer to this question. In an essay, "Twilight of the Idols," written in 1917, Bourne says: "To those of us who have taken Dewey's philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred that values could be subordinated to technique. We were instrumentalists, but we had our private Utopias so clearly before our minds that the means fell always into place as contributory. And Dewey, of course, always meant his philosophy, when taken as as philosophy of life, to start with values. But there was always that unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created, and it became easier and easier to assume that just any growth was justified and almost any activity valuable so long as it achieved its ends. The American, in living out his philosophy, has habitually confused results with product, and been content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether it was the desirable place to get. . . . You must have your vision, and you must have your technique. The practical effect of Dewey's philosophy has evidently been to develop the sense of the latter at the expense of the former."

9 Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love and Logic (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923), p. 45.

10 P. W. Bridgman, The Logic of Modern Physics (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), p. 5. (Italics are in the original.)

11 John Dewey, "Qualitative Thought," in Philosophy and Civilization (New York: Minton, Balch and Company), pp. 93-116.

12 Peirce, op. cit., p. 204.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 56 Number 8, 1955, p. 421-428
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4705, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:34:52 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue