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The Cambridge Companion to Dewey (review)

From: Education and Culture
Volume 27, Number 2, 2011
pp. 92-96 | 10.1353/eac.2011.0015

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In a typical book review, I would look for and examine what is new about a particular thinker’s idea or presentation. However, as I read The Cambridge Companion to Dewey I find that I cannot and should not use the same criteria for evaluation. I pick up a Cambridge Companion when I need an introduction or a refresher on material—not when I need to see what the cutting-edge scholarship is. That being said, a companion ought not propagate the status quo or fail to communicate what is current in the understanding of a figure or an area. Therefore, a companion ought, first, to provide an adequate introduction to a literate, but inexpert, person to the field it purports to introduce. Second, a companion should show the diversity of thought about a subject—what are the controversies and various thoughts about a figure that one might encounter. I do not expect every heterodox reading of a figure, but I would desire to know various understandings of that figure. Finally, a companion should impart the tools to start independent research on the figure in question. With this in mind, I turn to The Cambridge Companion to Dewey.

Robert Westbrook’s biographical chapter is accessible and informative. His discussion of the role of Dewey’s first wife Alice and his political awareness in Chicago is instructive on how deeply democratic social life informs Dewey’s thought.

Ruth Anna Putnam’s contribution to the volume is laudatory. While using the general language of contemporary philosophy, she dissolves many of the problems analytic philosophers might have in interpreting Dewey’s language. It is also noteworthy that Putnam acknowledges Dewey’s similarities and indebtedness to Peirce in regard to the theory of truth—the agreement of all possible inquirers after all possible inquiry. Putnam, further, does an admirable job of showing how Dewey does not fall into the opposing schools of realism or antirealism, instead presenting Dewey’s philosophy of experience. Dewey’s theory of inquiry is not simply another epistemological category but a unifying activity that brings together all parts of inquisitive activity—including ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.

Richard M. Gale provides a highly critical chapter suggesting that Dewey’s naturalism is a distinctly humanistic variety of naturalism that seeks to set up a near-Hegelian, completely continuous metaphysical monism in which the organism and environment collapse together. Gale suggests this is a version of claiming that naturalism of Dewey’s sort “depict[s] nature as made for us human beings because it answers back to our deepest feelings and aspirations” (55). Gale understands Dewey’s naturalism to hold that all of nature is continuous and that our interaction with it as organisms is wholly aesthetic with cognition as an immanent quality (even accusing Dewey of scholasticism by claiming that Dewey holds that inquiry is immanent in all matter because an effect cannot have more reality than its cause).

Isaac Levi also contributes a critical chapter on Dewey’s theory of inquiry. Levi presents Dewey’s theory of inquiry against Peirce’s theory of fixing belief—pointing out that Peirce’s theory allows for the fixation of belief in irrational, but all too human, manners that have more explanatory power. Levi’s concern is that doubt can be settled by means other than inquiry. This criticism of Deweyan inquiry arises from Dewey’s commitment that all problematic situations ought to be brought to determinacy by inquiry. This would imply, on Levi’s reading, that whenever a belief is formed the inquirer should play that belief out to all its logical consequences (88). Levi’s overall point is that there are, when we investigate the problems of life as opposed to the problems of philosophers, many (often successful) means of fixing belief. Further, Levi suggests a reconstruction of Dewey’s thought where we understand belief as commitment to a point of view.

J. E. Tiles argues that Dewey’s philosophy takes James’s radical empiricism as a starting point and expands his philosophy of experience to include not only the possibility of experience as an interaction of organism and environment, but also recognizes that experience occurs consciously and subconsciously (102–03). Tiles adequately...



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