- Faith in Life: John Dewey’s Early Philosophy by Donald J. Morse
Presumably, great men, including John Dewey, have great flaws. For decades, Dewey scholars assumed that the Hegelian cast of his early philosophy proved, prima facie, that it was merely derivative and hopelessly metaphysical in the worst possible sense of that term, as though nothing original or practically applicable to real life could possibly come from studying Hegel. I believe it is fair to say that, among Dewey scholars, the term “Hegelian” became an ossified pejorative that required little, if any, explanation. “Hegelian,” and related terms such as “idealism” and “the dialectic,” were exempt from further inquiry. In recent years a growing number of scholars have taken closer looks at Dewey’s early writings, but Donald Morse claims that those who have, such as John Shook and myself, “consider the early efforts solely in terms of how they relate to Dewey’s later thought” (p. 1). I disagree with Morse on that point, and I suspect Shook would too, since we have both argued that Dewey’s early thought is worthy of closer scrutiny on its own terms. Nonetheless, I welcome Morse’s focus on Dewey’s early psychological writings as an interesting addition to the field.
Morse marshals considerable evidence from Dewey’s early works for the claim that his primary concern during those years was combating philosophical pessimism, a manifestation of what intellectual historians describe more broadly as modernism.1 In order to resist pessimism, Dewey sought to demonstrate that human life can in fact be meaningful. Jim Garrison and I have made similar arguments about the importance of meaning to Dewey in our contention that he was a philosopher of Bildung.2 Morse mentions the Bildung tradition, but claims Dewey goes “beyond this tradition” (p. 75). That assertion is based on Morse’s perplexing assumption that the Bildung tradition requires a predefined goal. But what really sets Morse’s account of Dewey’s early philosophy apart from previous scholarship is that he devotes four chapters to analysis of Dewey’s 1887 Psychology, largely to the neglect of articles Dewey also published during that period. Morse’s emphasis on the Psychology [End Page 250] does make Dewey’s early thought look different, but I believe that it also looks less sophisticated. On Morse’s reading, the primary lesson of Dewey’s Psychology is that, in order to function in the world, we must have faith in a meaningful cosmos in which we know things by their relationships to other things within the world order. Certainly for the early Dewey, the true is the whole.
I would maintain that Dewey resorted to faith in his Psychology because, in that particular work, he is uncharacteristically plagued by the traditional problem of knowledge. As Morse relates, in his Psychology Dewey describes the world as a locus of motions rather than a Newtonian world of matter in motion. Morse quotes Dewey on this point: “‘For psychological purposes,’ therefore, ‘the world may be here regarded, not as a world of things with an indefinite number of qualities, but as a world of motions alone’” (p. 86). The objects of knowledge are not found in the world, but formed by our minds out of a sensuous continuum. But Dewey struggles to explain the relationship between motions and sensations because, at times he implicitly assumes that motions and the sensations that lead to knowledge are metaphysically distinct. Motions exist in space; sensations do not. Morse points out that Dewey was worried about materialists who reduce sensations to material causes, thus denying the reality of a non-material realm. Dewey seeks to counter materialism by arguing that motions are not the cause of sensations because a cause and its effect must be of an identical nature. Dewey asserts that sensations are not motions, but at the same time, as Morse also notes, Dewey maintains that the self is activity. “Dewey’s view seems to be that there really is only one stuff, motions, some portion of which—call it minds—from...