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five dewey’s constructivism: from the reflex arc concept to social constructivism Jim Garrison  Thinking is preeminently an art; knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking are works of art, as much so as statuary and symphonies (LW 1:283). Dewey carefully distinguishes metaphysical existence from logical essences. This is an immensely important distinction for understanding Dewey’s constructivism, because, while existence is given, essences are constructed, or, as I prefer to say, created. Dewey is a neoDarwinian , and in a Darwinian universe every existence evolves; everything is in process; every individual ‘‘thing’’ is really an event. In Dewey ’s philosophy, existence or ‘‘nature is viewed as consisting of events rather than substances, it is characterized by histories’’ (LW 1:5–6). For him, natural events have no antecedent essences; instead, essences emerge as the constructed consequences of the processes of inquiry. Logical essences or objects of knowledge are constructed. For Dewey, ‘‘Essence is never existence, and yet it is the essence, the distilled import of existence: the significant thing about it, its intellectual voucher’’ (LW 1:144). The subject matter of metaphysics is existence. The subject matter of inquiry and its logic is essence and identity. Evolving essences emerge as the contingent construction of culturally dependent inquiry. PAGE 84 { 84 } ................. 17147$ $CH5 01-07-09 14:25:57 PS jim garrison 85 So, one might ask, what connects existence to essence? Dewey’s answer is straightforward: ‘‘There is a natural bridge that joins the gap between existence and essence; namely communication, language , discourse’’ (LW 1:133). Meanings emerge in human linguistic transactions while essences emerge in the construction of logical judgments during inquiry. Dewey insists, ‘‘Essence . . . is but a pronounced instance of meaning; to be partial, and to assign a meaning to a thing as the meaning is but to evince human subjection to bias’’ (LW 1:144). Existence is like the event of natural grapes on the vine. Linguistic meanings are like the press that wrings juice from the grapes. Logical essences, the product of inquiry, are like distilled wine, the essence of the grape for our purposes. All meanings and essences, including the essence of human being, are the contingent products of constructive processes themselves subject to human need, desire, and purpose. Dewey’s reconstruction of Western metaphysics does for philosophy what Darwin did for biology. A species is the ultimate ontological subject of classical biology and classical metaphysics. The word ‘‘species ’’ is also the Latin for the Greek word for essence—eidos. Dewey did for all essences what Darwin did for species. In ‘‘The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy’’ (MW 4:3–14), Dewey concludes that for classical, and much of modern, philosophy, ‘‘The conception of ειδος, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic of science’’ (MW 4:6). Classical metaphysics, like classical biology, assumes that the telos of inquiry is knowledge of eternal, immutable essences. For Dewey, essences are the contingent logical constructions of inquiry, not antecedently existing necessary ontological givens. Estimates are that 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct (Parker 1992). Dewey’s neo-Darwinian insight is to realize that what holds for biological forms or essences also holds for linguistic meanings and logical forms. Dewey insists that ‘‘even the solid earth mountains, the emblems of constancy, appear and disappear like the clouds. . . . A thing may endure . . . and yet not be everlasting; it will crumble before the gnawing tooth of time, as it PAGE 85 ................. 17147$ $CH5 01-07-09 14:25:57 PS 86 from the reflex arc concept to social constructivism exceeds a certain measure. Every existence is an event’’ (LW 1:63). Human beings must construct enduringly useful meanings and essences from the flux of events, or soon become extinct. If we want to live well, we must create beauty together in an ethical and caring community. For Dewey, individual events have no antecedent fixed meanings or essences; instead, they emerge as the constructed consequence of linguistic and logical transactions involving human beings and the rest of nature: ‘‘Empirical method finds and points to the operation of choice. . . . Thus it protects us from conversion of eventual functions into the antecedent existence: a conversion that may be said to be the philosophic fallacy’’ (LW 1:34; ital. in orig.). We commit the philosophic fallacy whenever we assume that the contingent and constructed products of language or inquiry necessarily exist...


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