Friday, January 06, 2012

A Philosopher for our Times - John Dewey

By Gary Berg-Cross
John Shook will be talking Saturday Dec. 7th at the WASH MDC chapter about "The Psychology of Religion, the Sociology of Theology, and the Humanist Strategic Response." As part of this we are likely to hear a bit about John Dewey and Pragmatism as evidenced by his recent book, John Dewey's Philosophy of Spirit by John R. Shook and James A. Good, published by Fordham University Press, in 2010.

John has woven together the threads of some of Dewey philosophical concepts and values into a poem.
A Philosopher's Faith
Inspired by John Dewey
My person returns to unwind all its threads,
Woven by language into the habits of heads;
An old wearied head must bow down one final eve,
But my lively thought shines in cloth I helped to weave.

Your gift by my leave is but some seeds yet to grow,
Whose value was found in times of need long ago;
Sow all of these seeds in our vast garden with care,
Protect and defend the greater harvest to share.

To view such swift change, see truths melt under new suns,
To watch how scared souls kept on refining their guns;
My nation was home despite such strife with no cease,
My freedom was here while humbly searching for peace.

By trial did I live, by more trial find my thought’s worth,
My death you will get if you conceive no new birth;
No life without doubt, for the best fail now and then,
No rest for my faith, that each new day tests again.
--John Shook
It’s fair to say that I’m a fan or John Dewey’s life and thoughts. I was dimly aware of him as one of America's premier "public intellectuals,". I had run into philosophic and pragmatic influence on progressive education, which served as a testing ground for some of his psychological-philosophical thinking.Some of that was readily available
“It was no accident”, he observed in Philosophy of education (see Middle works of John Dewey 1912-13, “that like himself many great philosophers had taken a keen interest in the problems of education because there was ‘an intimate and vital relation between the need for philosophy and the necessity for education.’ If philosophy was wisdom, a vision of ‘the better kind of life to be led’, then consciously guided education was the praxis of the philosopher. ‘If philosophy is to be other than an idle and unverifiable speculation, it must be animated by the conviction that its theory of experience is a hypothesis that is realized only as experience is actually shaped in accord with it. And this realization demands that man’s dispositions be made such as to desire and strive for that kind of experience.’ The shaping of dispositions might take place in various institutions, but in modern societies the school was the most crucial, and as such it was an indispensable arena for the shaping of a philosophy into a ‘living fact’ “(Dewey, 1912-13, p. 298, 306-7 quoted in JOHN DEWEY (1859-1952) by Robert B. Westbrook).
My formal education didn’t include much of Dewey’s thinking but his unifying concept critiquing the simple Reflex Arc concept. In his "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896) paper, Dewey advanced a Functional School of Psychology by integrating his early Hegelianism with William James' recent take on evolutionary naturalism. Dewey's critique argues made the point that the idea of a stimulus based reflex arc account of human action fails because it contains an apparent logical paradox based on physical-mental dualism. What really is needed is an intentional level of analysis including feedback as the R of response affects the environment and changes the stimulus situation - see Figure on the left).
An "explanatory" account of animal or human action, he argues, needs to include this larger, intentional unit of analysis, which reconceptualized sensori-motor coordination.
Thus he added a cognitive, coordinating aspect that transcended and reformed old dualistic theories. A more thoughtful reflex arc provided the space and structure to reconceptualize stimulus-response behavior into a cognitive theory of habit. It emphasized active conceptualization and adaptive reconstruction as part of learning, an idea pursued in his experimental educational endeavors.
As a graduate student dating a Teacher’s College student at Columbia I got a bit closer to Dewey, whose name I could see along with other famous educators on engraved on the building. I had time later in life to select one of Dewey’s works as vacation reading and there I discovered that Dewey’s middle and later books were all on topics of interest to me (How we think ,1910, Democracy and education, 1916, Experience and Nature, 1925 etc.).
It was only more recently that I learned enough to see Dewey life and progression as a whole and understand how his early work and teaching in Psychology (e.g. pushing social theory beyond an instincts explanation) became an adjunct to his philosophy and work on broader public problems. His reconstruction idea for philosophy reflected his own life’s journey. When asked if he would update a book for a 2nd edition he was known it say, “it will be a different book.” His ideas were always evolving.

Coming from an idealist background of Kant and Hegel, Dewey intellectual life was tempered by the pragmatist influence of Charles Peirce and William James. Trained in emerging experimental psychology Dewey constructed a natural philosophy in which vague concepts of mind were forged into more defined cognitive models. In these human thought was understood as instrumental practical problem-solving, which advances incrementally by testing rival hypotheses against experience in order to achieve the "warranted assertability" that grounds coherent action.
Dewey continually updated to his ideas in a search for truth and progress. The process of inquiry was central to his stance addressing the problems of society that consumed him. We can also say that he provided many good ideas to the modern Secular Humanism movement along with scientific/pan-objectiveness. In the 50s his voice could still be heard on cultural controversies and Dewey still provides a good model for the combined role of philosophy and philosophy to address the larger problems of society. Updated psychological models of human bias are one type of experimental result that Dewey might have appreciated and used to guide coherent action to make us a better society.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

On WASH's Facebook page Ralph Ellectual challenged the idea that philosopher for our times saying,"

"Dewey is most certainly not a philosopher for our times, but at least Berg-Cross's cognitive psychology angle is of interest."

Among the reasons that I see Dewey and Dewey-style important for our times is that he argued for an adequate role for philosophy in addressing human and societal problems as opposed to philosopher's problems. He marshaled not only philosophy and psychology to this task but many other disciplines and made real efforts on experimental education.
Some have applied more modern understanding of these topics to understand and solve our problems and this follows in Dewey's footsteps.
The need for reflective inquiry by people and groups is evident in much of the intellectual poverty we see in our national discussion. We still search for an adequate place for intelligence in human affairs.

lucette said...

Shook's talk was not about Dewey. There was some snafu. The talk was about philosophy and psychology of religion.
Shook, the speaker refused to take my question even after he had bypassed me six times for six long speeches from six members of the audience. Shook said very angrily, in front of the entire audience: "Lucette, I have already taken two questions from you" to try to justify his bizarre behavior. In fact, I had uttered at most five words during Shook's speech and they were not questions, just details that were better mentioned quickly during the speech.
I think that an apology from Shook is in order.