John Dewey’s Instrumentalism

  John Dewey (1859-1952) saw Darwin’s The Origin of Species as a landmark in thought calling for a reconstruc­tion in philosophy to better enable us to adapt to each other and our social and physi­cal environment.  This recon­struction should also enable us to regard ourselves as engaged in a continuing enquiry always need­ing improvements in methods of learning from experience but never having any fully envisio­ned end.

  Dewey saw the process of enquiry not as arriving at fixed truths but as leading to an amelioration of social ills.  He believed that correct moral choices could be made through the use of intelligence and a willingness to learn from experience.  The kind of “use of intelligence” required involves carefully inves­tigating situations where difficult choices have to be made–uncovering facts, devising alterna­tives, deducing possible conse­quences, devising further observations and experiments, and choosing a unifying course of action.  Through a process of making decisions, overcom­ing obstacles, reaching tentative conclusions, and setting new goals we develop moral judgment.  In this process, ideas are the instruments that lead to action.  Hence the name, Instrumentalism.

  This development process is what education is all about.  In his book, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey says:

The contrast usually assumed between the period of education as one of social dependence and of maturity as one of social independence does harm.  We repeat over and over that man is a social animal, and then confine the significance of this statement to the sphere in which sociality seems least evi­dent, politics.  The heart of the social­ity of man is in education.  The idea of education as prepara­tion and of adulthood as a fixed limit of growth are two sides of the same obnoxious untruth…  Govern­ment, business, art, reli­gion, all social institu­tions have a meaning, a purpose.  That purpose is to set free and to develop the capacities of human individuals without respect to race, sex, class, or economic status.  (185-6).

  Dewey believes that in the process of enquiry described above, what is good or bad in specific situations comes to be recognized and a power to judge goodness and badness emerges.

  The theory of ethics to be presented agrees with Dewey on all of these points.  It makes additions which are dis­tilla­tions of ideas that had begun to emerge just before Dewey’s death in 1952.

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