John Dewey and the American Spirit

1957This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

With the death of Professor John Dewey in June, 1952, there passed from the contemporary American scene a man whose writings probably reflected the real America since the turn of the century more revealingly than those of any other contemporary philosopher. Our faith in democracy as the ultimate guarantee of the perfectibility of society and the individual, our optimism concerning the wholly secular public school, the decline of Protestantism as a pervading Christian influence, our practical atheism, and our materialism—it is all duly recorded in Professor Dewey’s special brand of pragmatism known as instrumentalism.

As a philosopher he threw overboard all metaphysics, and he repudiated all absolutes—except, of course, the two which he introduced more or less sub rosa, namely, evolution as a cosmic and social principle, and scientific method as the only means of arriving at truth. And the only truth worth having, according to Professor Dewey, is not truth in any absolute or final sense but rather truth in the sense of “truth made,” truth provisional, truth for the time being. He refused to recognize the genuineness of any problem not in the end referable to experiment and practice, and he defined knowledge as the “intelligent control of a material situation.” Ideas are mere tools, and human intelligence is simply an “organ for the control of nature through action.” The only problems ever really solved are practical ones, whereas metaphysical and religious ones are simply outgrown. There are no eternal verities and no final answers, and any school of philosophy proposing final answers ipso facto degrades itself to a school of apologetics and propaganda.

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