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  • Dewey’s Denotative-Empirical Method:A Thread Through the Labyrinth
  • Thomas Alexander

In teaching Experience and Nature last spring, I had my students do a one-page writing assignment after having read both versions of Dewey's first chapter, "Experience and Philosophic Method." The question was, "What is Dewey's denotative-empirical method?" They were forewarned—did not Dewey himself feel compelled to rewrite the whole first chapter for the second edition?1 But in reviewing their responses I was reminded of the old story from Rumi's Masnavi of the blind men and the elephant: the elephant is like a tree trunk, like a snake, a rope, like a large flat leaf, like a smooth piece of wood, a wall.2 The exercise achieved my immediate purpose, which was of course to shake the assurance of anyone who approached this book with the false confidence that the terms "experience," "method," or "denote" (or any of the other key terms) were easily understood. We found that Dewey, instead of "clarifying" the method to be used in the rest of the undertaking, made it a question that haunted us throughout the reading of the book. It only seems fair I should make the attempt as well.

I will present what I consider to be the central features of Dewey's "denotative-empirical method"—which he presents as philosophical method—and expand somewhat upon them. The result is not merely to have a more complete articulation of Dewey's "method," but to imagine where the ultimate goals of the rich "way" of experience that Dewey opened up can lead us.3 This also permits going beyond merely seeing Dewey as an "instrumentalist" and to contextualize "instrumentalism" within a broader and deeper philosophical methodology. Instrumentalism is Dewey's theory of inquiry, i.e., his theory of knowing. The "denotative method" on the other hand is philosophical method, i.e., a way of preventing philosophy from succumbing to "intellectualism"; it is a way of putting "knowing" in context and making "experience" serviceable for the real philosophical project: wisdom. Here I find aesthetics a particularly significant, though neglected, aspect of Deweyan philosophy. I will give a careful synopsis of what Dewey himself says about the denotative-empirical method in both versions of the introductory chapter, focusing on the less well-known (but more successful) draft of 1925. Both take up the "problem of philosophy" and [End Page 248] present "the denotative-empirical method" as a corrective. I believe that so few of Dewey's interpreters have understood the real nature of this method and its implications for how we do philosophy that it holds some revealing lessons for us, which many, including those who profess to be "pragmatists," may find surprising and even troubling.

Dewey asks the reader to discern between "experience" as a philosophical concept and experience as it is lived, as "had" or "undergone" and as "done." This is accomplished within the context of a highly refined philosophical work that presents its own "theory" about experience. Dewey wants to theorize about experience, but not in a way that allows the theory to hide experience on its pretheoretical level. The "denotative-empirical method" is given as a method of "disclosing" experience without transforming it into a mere theoretical object. A good deal of Dewey's so-called murkiness comes from this difficult endeavor.

The concern for a "thick" view of experience is evident even in Dewey's Psychology (1887) and was the reason he was susceptible to the influence of James's Principles of Psychology. By 1903 Dewey had made a revolutionary move with his "Postulate of Immediate Empiricism" to reject the equation of "Reality" with "the Known." Reality was not primarily encountered in moments of knowing. This break with 2,500 years of Western philosophy governs the subsequent development of Dewey's thought, achieving its first coherent statement in the 1917 introduction to the Essays in Experimental Logic and then in Experience and Nature. It is this turn that makes, I believe, Art as Experience more of a key in understanding Dewey's philosophy than has been generally recognized.

Philosophy, Dewey says, has been highly successful in substituting its own secondary, refined, theorized...


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