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  • More than “Mere Ideas”: Deweyan Tools for the Contemporary Philosopher
  • Barbara S. Stengel (bio)

It looks as if you had more faith in my ideas than I have myself—but I honestly believe that they are methods of action and not mere ideas. . . . I don’t see myself as the one to take the lead in putting them into action. … In the main the younger generation has got to do it, and meantime it is a practical matter as far as it goes to get more persons more used to the idea of the tools—tho of course they won’t be really tools till they are really used.

—John Dewey1

John Dewey was born into a world ripe for philosophical reconstruction, as scientific advancement, technological innovation, and social reinterpretation reconfigured the intellectual landscape. Dewey rendered his world intelligible through three important “moral ideas”2:

  1. 1. The voice and the perspective of “the other” is an essential source for understanding.

  2. 2. The practice of intelligence requires a logic of continuity.

  3. 3. What is matters in the construction of what can and ought to be.

These moving ideas, these tools, are familiar to contemporary scholars—critical theorists, feminists, and scientists respectively—who claim them as their own while any link to Dewey is obscured or ignored. Here I explore Dewey’s early recognition of these tools. I suggest that Dewey speaks in a voice we can still hear today precisely because these seemingly new ideas were embedded in his philosophical, pedagogical, and relational habits of mind. However, I do so—and conclude—with the caution that “doing Dewey” requires a dynamic rather than static approach to philosophic ideas as heuristic habits are always subject to reconstruction. I begin with some relevant observations about Dewey’s biography. [End Page 89]

Biographical Notes

It is well known that John Dewey was born the same year that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. As commentators mark Darwin’s achievement in theorizing natural selection, most note the ways in which Darwin was “ahead of his time.” He was able to imagine natural selection as the means of evolution ahead of the evidence for its existence—ahead even of the mechanisms (for example, Mendelian genetics, DNA) that would explain it—and to imagine (and swallow) the implications of natural selection for the status of humans in the world.

Dewey too, was ahead of his time, in part because this world of science framed his thinking. While the Darwin synchronicity and influence is clear, it is less well known that Dewey knew Albert Einstein; that his daughter Jane was an MIT-trained physicist in the field of quantum physics; or that Dewey corresponded with Scudder Klyce who sent him treatises on quantum theory. Uncertainty and relativity, features of the cutting edge physical science of his time, also challenged Dewey’s thinking about thinking.

Dewey’s attraction to the evolution of species and processes of natural selection runs parallel to his interest in the Hegelian evolution of ideas. But remember that Dewey—who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Kant—turned to Hegel rather than Kant because “the road to empiricism is much easier from Hegel than it is from the bog of Kant.”3 This road to empiricism was Dewey’s path. In his own words, Dewey “jumped thru Hegel . . . not just out of him. I took some of the hoop (continuity, anti-hard and fast separations) with me. . . . [H]e saved me from the Kantian bug which was all the vogue—and . . . headed [me] away from subject-object, individual-social, mind-matter etc isolates.”4

A significant transition occurs in Dewey’s philosophy in the decade between 1886 and 1896. The clear signal that Dewey’s thinking had changed irrevocably appears in “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” (1896), where organic circuit rather than dualistic sequence becomes Dewey’s solution to virtually every philosophic puzzle. Dewey recognizes the transition and speculates as to the causes:

I should find it rather difficult to give any very definite account of my change from the philosophical standpoint. I may, however, mention three things which are quite influential. In the first place I was much struck in the...


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pp. 89-100
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