Book Summaries Philosophy

John Dewey (A History of Western Philosophy)

John Dewey is another proponent of American Pragmatism. He had a profound influence on education and political theory. Russell agrees with much that he has to say. Like William James, Dewey was a New Englander, and he carries on the tradition of New England liberalism.

Dewey was influenced positively by his visit to China, and negatively by his visit to Russia. He was reluctantly a supporter of the first World War. He did not think that the Soviet regime would have been satisfactory had Trotsky rather than Stalin had been Lenin’s successor. He was persuaded that violent revolution leading to dictatorship could not achieve a good society.

The most important part of his philosophical work was in his criticism of the traditional notion of ‘truth’, which is embodied in his theory ‘instrumentalism’. Truth is thought by most philosophers as static and final; perfect and eternal. The religious think of it as God’s thoughts. The perfect model of truth is the multiplication table (precise and free from temporal considerations).

Men gradually will learn more, but each piece of knowledge is something final. Hegel does not think of human knowledge in this way. He thinks of human knowledge as an organic whole, gradually growing in each part, and not perfect in any part until the whole is perfect. But Dewey, while influenced by Hegel, rejects the Absolute and eternal world. For Dewey, reality is temporal, and process, while evolutionary, is not the unfolding of an eternal idea.

Dewey divides belief into two classes, of one which is good and the other bad. A belief may be good at one time and bad at another; this happens when theories improve on what came before but are will be succeeded by better ones. A belief is good or bad depending on whether the activities which it inspires in the person holding the belief have consequences that are satisfactory or unsatisfactory to it. A belief about some event in the past is good or bad, not according to whether the event took place, but according to the future consequences of the belief.

But Russell notes that this leads to a confusing result. A normal person, if asked whether they had coffee in the morning, will simply try to remember. But a student of Dewey would need to conduct a couple of experiments, one in which he makes himself believe that he had coffee, and another in which he does not believe he had coffee, and will then compare the consequences.

Dewey judges a belief by its effects while Russell judges it by its causes where a past occurrence is concerned. A belief is true or almost true if It has a relation to its causes.

Dr Dewey holds that it has ‘warranted assertability’—which he substitutes for ‘truth’—if it has certain kinds of effects. This divergence is connected with a difference of outlook on the world. The past cannot be affected by what we do, and therefore, if truth is determined by what has happened, it is independent of present or future volitions; it represents, in logical form, the limitations on human power. But if truth, or rather ‘warranted assertability’, depends upon the future, then, in so far as it is in our power to alter the future, it is in our power to alter what should be asserted. This enlarges the sense of human power and freedom.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Russell then proceeds to connect philosophies with the social environments of the philosophers that conceived of them. The belief in human power, and the refusal to admit brute facts is linked to the hopefulness that has resulted from machine production and the scientific manipulation of the environment. This remark by Russell is then contradicted by Dewey himself.

Russell says:

To my regret and surprise, this statement, which I had supposed completely innocuous, vexed Dr Dewey, who replied: ‘Mr Russell’s confirmed habit of connecting the pragmatic theory of knowing with obnoxious aspects of American industrialism … is much as if I were to link his philosophy to the interests of the English landed aristocracy.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

In Dewey’s defense, the truth or falsehood of a belief should not have anything to do with the background of the person who holds it. Such a reductionistic approach can be applied to any thinker, as Dewey demonstrated, and would make any kind of discussion meaningless.

In his own defense, Russell maintains that he is not alone in connecting Dewey’s thoughts to the technological climate he finds himself in. Santayana says: ‘In Dewey, as in current science
and ethics, there is a pervasive quasi-Hegelian tendency to dissolve the individual into his
social functions, as well as everything substantial and actual into something relative and

Dewey’s world, to Russell, is one in which human beings are all that exist. It is a power philosophy, but unlike Nietzsche’s, it is not a philosophy of individual power, but of community power.

It is this element of social power that seems to me to make the philosophy of instrumentalism attractive to those who are more impressed by our new control over natural forces than by the limitations to which that control is still subject.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

The attitude of man to towards his environment has changed throughout time. The Greeks, with their hatred of hubris and belief in fate, avoided any kind of insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried this submission further; humility towards God was the first duty of the Christian.

The Renaissance revived human pride, but exaggerated it until it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was undone by the Reformation and Counter-reformation.

But modern technique, while not favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the feeling of collective power of human society. Man, formerly too humble, thinks of himself as a God. Papini, the Italian pragmatist, urges us to substitute the ‘imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.

In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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