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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 326-329

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Book Review

Dewey's Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality

Dewey's Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality. John R. Shook. The Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy. Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Pp. ix + 316. $46.00 h.c. 0-8265-1355-7; $22.95 pbk. 0-8265-1362-X.

I once was curious about the influence of Wilhelm Wundt on Dewey and made some effort to satisfy my interest. But the task turned out to be a difficult one, involving a greater investment of time and energy than I was willing to make. John Shook, in his fine study of the development of Dewey's empirical theory of knowledge and reality, has done this work for me. Moreover, he claims, we should be interested in this obscure episode in intellectual history if we are get Dewey's philosophical development right. Not only that, but if we are to adopt Dewey's genetic approach, we must spend the time and effort to come to understand [End Page 326] Dewey's distinctive philosophical idealism and how it was transformed by his integration of Wundt's voluntarianism--not James's pragmatism--into Dewey's instrumentalism.

Shook thus challenges the conventional view of Dewey's development. To place Dewey in a line that runs from Peirce to James to Dewey has its advantages. Not only did it make the development simple and straightforward, but it enabled the realist and naturalist interpreters, such as Elizabeth Flowers, to shape the conventional account that distanced Dewey from his immature idealism. According to Shook, however, this simple linear account obscures two idealist tenets, that experience is philosophically absolute and knowledge transforms experience to create its objects, and two pragmatist tenets, that thinking is purposive and it serves human needs--tenets that are constant throughout Dewey's career.

I can accept Shook's claim about the pragmatist tenets. His claim about the idealist tenets, by contrast, troubles me. But before I explore these and other difficulties, let me say a word more about what makes this book a "must-have" for anybody who would understand Dewey's development, if not his thinking.

Shook organizes his book in six chapters. In the first, he positions his account against the conventional view and argues that a proper account will not make the mistake of opposing Dewey's instrumentalist epistemology and naturalistic metaphysics. In the next two chapters, he sorts out the kind of idealist that the early Dewey was and the influence of Wundt on his psychology and philosophy of mind. This discussion, in turn, leads to chapter 5, a reconstruction of Dewey's views on a variety of matters resulting in a "thoroughly empirical metaphysics" (1). The last two chapters, five and six, focus on Dewey's mature instrumentalism and his empiricism.

The well-researched, careful treatment of Dewey's early idealism and his emerging philosophical psychology under the influence of Wundt is unparalleled in Dewey scholarship. It goes beyond Morton White's The Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism (1943) in both scope and depth. Shook considers Dewey's instrumentalism in relation to his naturalism and gives a more nuanced account of his emerging instrumentalism. White is aware of Wundt's influence but never investigates it. Jennifer Welchman examines Dewey's early idealism in Dewey's Ethical Thought (1995), providing an important corrective to White. But her effort is not as broad-gauged as Shook's, and her references to Wundt are confined solely to the subject of his American students.

But as impressive as Shook's scholarship is, I am not satisfied that he has made the case that one should understand this development to understand Dewey's mature philosophy and that the later Dewey subscribed to the idealist tenets that Shook attributes to him. Shook explicitly denies that a historical "understanding is necessary for grasping his epistemology" (3). Yet he thinks it important enough that he has written a book, one of whose goals is to provide "a comprehensive account...


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