November 20, 2004

Was John Dewey a Member of the Reality-Based Community?

I'm happy with the idea of John Dewey as a defender of justice and the American Way, but realism?

Peter Godfrey-Smith, "Dewey on Naturalism, Realism and Science", Philosophy of Science 69 (2002): S25--S35 [Free PDF]
Abstract: An interpretation of John Dewey's views about realism, science, and naturalistic philosophy is presented. Dewey should be seen as an unorthodox realist, with respect to both general metaphysical debates about realism and with respect to debates about the aims and achievements of science.

I like his opening:

Everyone believes that their favorite philosophers are misunderstood. The problem will be especially acute insofar as one's favorite philosopher is oneself, but most of us extend the claim beyond this special case. Although everyone makes such claims about someone, I believe I am on firm ground in claiming that John Dewey is an unusually misunderstood philosopher.

Much of the blame for this misunderstanding can be assigned to Dewey himself, as his most important works are written in an opaque style, and terminologically he was both eccentric and uncompromising.... I imagine that many contemporary naturalists think of Dewey as well-meaning but woolly-minded, as someone with good instincts but a lack of rigor and a Hegelian hangover. I will argue that there is more to Dewey than that.

My problem with reading Dewey has generally been that he writes very vaguely and abstractly about the importance of concrete particulars, leaving me feeling irritated and lost. (Godfrey-Smith aptly describes Dewey's book Logic as "mind-numbing".) For this reason I'd never bothered to read his later works, which are the ones Godfrey-Smith bases his (quite convincing) interpretation on. Since it is convincing, I'll quote his summary of his view of Dewey, which comes towards the close of the paper.

Scientific activity goes on within a natural world with a real, objective structure. One set of natural properties --- relations, correlations, powers of interaction, dependences --- are the focus of scientific strategies of investigation and description. Scientific description of these features of nature is in no sense restricted to the observable.

Scientific work does not only try to describe this network of properties; scientific activity is itself embedded within --- is part of --- this network. The results of science are often technologies that enable us to achieve new kinds of causal control over the flow of natural events. Those effects of science on nature are obvious, but there is also a more subtle sense in which scientific work transforms the networks of dependence relations with which it deals. Scientific work aims to construct theories, models, and investigative practices that bring scientists themselves, and the communities of which they are part, into special kinds of connection with the preexisting networks of dependence relations. In so doing, scientific work adds to, and hence alters, those pre-existing networks. Those networks of dependence become newly connected to the domain of human thought and action. That is one reason why the concept of correspondence is inappropriate in a description of how a good scientific theory relates to the world. Scientific activity can be described, in a low-key and vernacular way, as an attempt to describe how the world is. But "describe" here (and in the previous paragraph) should be understood in a thin sense that does not commit us to a semantic theory using the concept of correspondence truth. For Dewey, even a moderate, abstract concept of correspondence will inevitably obscure the sense in which a scientific theory aims to 'add structure' to the network of relations with which it is concerned.

Except for the last part, this seems to me entirely sensible and correct. (I don't see why it can't get along perfectly amicably with a semantic, correspondence notion of truth, as found in e.g. Tarski. But then I have never understood the opposition to the correspondence notion of truth.) This makes me want to read The Quest for Certainty, and it's in print, but I'll try the library before risking money on Dewey's prose...


Posted at November 20, 2004 13:45 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth