- The Dialectical Biologist, circa 1890:John Dewey and the Oxford Hegelians
john dewey is rarely discussed in mainstream analytic philosophy nowadays. Looking only at the Philosophical Review, a journal in which Dewey himself published twenty-two articles, it seems that he is no longer viewed as an important interlocutor: his name has been mentioned in only two book reviews and one article since 2000.1 This apparently low opinion of Dewey’s work among analytic philosophers may be related to Richard Rorty’s claim, in his American Philosophical Association presidential address of 1979, that for the pragmatist “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.”2 This characterization of pragmatism is controversial. Susan Haack, for one, is vehemently opposed to Rorty’s account.3 Nevertheless, his vision of pragmatism—focused on community, conversation, and history—has been dominant.
Rorty’s emphases, unfortunately in my view, have obscured one of the central features of Dewey’s thought: his biology-inspired naturalism. Anyone reading a substantial cross-section of Dewey’s works is struck by the constant references to organism and environment. Even his aesthetic theory, where such biological ideas are perhaps least expected, began with a discussion of experience as organism-environment interaction: “The first great consideration is that life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it.”4 Rorty, [End Page 747] of course, did not simply ignore Dewey’s connection to biology: following James Kloppenberg, he viewed Dewey as occupying the conceptual space “between Hegel and Darwin.” But Rorty rejected Dewey’s own understanding of these thinkers as engaged with biology and evolution, choosing instead to link them with historicism and relativism.5 On this reading, Dewey’s philosophy is not truly biological even when it explicitly refers to biology.
Running counter to Rorty, recent champions of Dewey’s naturalism—and especially his approach to ethics—tend to think that his idealist ancestry only detracts from his views. Cheryl Misak, in her book The American Pragmatists, writes, “Dewey’s attempt at bringing Hegelian insights to the empiricist or naturalist picture seems always less than satisfactory.” As Misak indicates, following recent scholarship, Dewey’s philosophy retained key aspects of idealism even after his biological turn. For those seeking a naturalist Dewey, however, these Hegelian traces are an embarrassment—responsible for muddled metaphysics. As Peter Godfrey-Smith once put it, modern naturalists tend to see Dewey “as someone with good instincts but a lack of rigor and a Hegelian hangover.”6
In this paper, I suggest that these two perspectives on Dewey’s philosophy present a false choice. Rather than viewing Dewey as either a historicist (inspired by Hegel) or a naturalist (inspired by biology), we should see him as strange but potentially fruitful combination of both.7 My strategy is primarily historical: I demonstrate that the notion of organism-environment interaction central to Dewey’s pragmatism stems from a Hegelian approach to adaptation; his turn to biology was not necessarily a turn away from Hegel. I argue that Dewey’s account of the organism-environment relation derives from the work of Oxford Hegelians such as Edward Caird and Samuel Alexander, who were attempting to reconcile evolutionary ideas with a critique of Herbert Spencer’s environmentalist account of human thought and action. These British Idealists insisted that adaptation or adjustment results from the reciprocal action of organism and environment: just as the environment affects the organism, the organism affects the environment. They also claimed that organism and environment were best seen as two aspects of one thing—life. This dialectical account of organism-environment interaction played a key role in Dewey’s philosophy from the 1890s to the 1940s, despite other shifts in his thinking. [End Page 748]
“Reciprocal action” sounds reasonable to most, but organism and environment as “aspects of one thing” tends to raise eyebrows. Godfrey-Smith locates both ideas in the work of Richard Lewontin, co-author of The Dialectical Biologist. Lewontin insists that “the environment is a product of the organism, just as the organism is a product of the environment.”8 As Godfrey-Smith suggests, Lewontin seems to go beyond this...