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  • John Dewey's Theoretical Framework from 1903–1916:Prefigurations of a Naturalistic Metaphysics
  • Paul Benjamin Cherlin

1. Introduction

The 1925 publication of Experience and Nature marks a new period in John Dewey's thought: he had become interested in developing a naturalistic metaphysics. Despite his new metaphysical orientation, Dewey's mature philosophy is compatible with and builds upon works that fall within his Middle Period, from 1903–1924.1 While this is usually accepted as true, my more substantial claim is that we cannot get a clear picture of Dewey's metaphysics apart from what came before. More than simply showing that Dewey's characterization of specific topics, such as "logic," or specific terms, such as "belief," are compatible with his later discussions, this article will demonstrate that the broader dynamics, themes, and methodological strategies continually utilized by Dewey in his Middle Period suggest a new interpretation of Dewey's metaphysics. I concentrate on the works that fall between 1903 and 1916, culminating my discussion with Dewey's masterful introduction to Essays in Experimental Logic. I conclude this paper by summing up the points made throughout, and by briefly discussing the practical upshot of Dewey's metaphysics. I do so in order to put things into perspective, placing what seems a highly theoretical enterprise into a world of everyday affairs.

Because "metaphysics" can mean so many different things, it will be useful to preface my discussion by briefly describing Dewey's use of the term. Metaphysics concerns the general characteristics of nature, what it means to exist, and how existences interrelate and interact. Dewey writes of the features, patterns, or "traits" that are common to everything that exists, calling these features the generic traits of existence.

With this said, Dewey's exposition of his "generic traits" is informal, unsystematic, and arguably vague. As a result, generic traits have been characterized [End Page 57] in a multitude of ways within critical literature. According to some interpretations, they are contingent "tools" for criticism, denoting a broad methodology or a set of regulative principles rather than ontological properties.2 In other accounts, they only describe the general features of human experience, and not existence.3 And to some, they are a distracting blemish upon an otherwise anti-metaphysical philosophical program.4

On my own reading, these traits are best understood as types of pervasive and "tensional" patterns that account for a shared economy of existence, for the fact that all natural existences can potentially interact within a shared world. A study of the Middle Works strongly suggests that the generic traits are, in fact, patterns or, to use one of Dewey's own terms, "double movements" that are basic to everything that exists.

It can be said that the most significant insight of the Middle Period is that the bulk of human experience is immediate and not specifically reflective. Reflective thought is an applied process of thinking that is actively working toward the resolution of some doubt. Immediate experience describes our cultural context, our settled meanings, our underlying feelings; it is what Dewey often refers to as our world of "use and enjoyment." With this general premise at hand, Dewey discusses an important set of terms including "beliefs," "existences," "qualities," "truth," and "meaning." When we closely examine the basic ways in which Dewey characterizes these terms, a number of recurring methodological strategies and common traits come into focus. While Dewey is not always consistent with his nomenclature, these "common traits" or recurring themes include "double movement," the idea that that things are necessarily engaged in types of dyadic exchanges (such as organism-and-environment, stimulus-and-response, impulse-and-habit), "continuity," the idea that phenomena are interactive within a more comprehensive dynamic system, and "tensional relations," the idea that types of conflicts or frictions are themselves at the heart of any productive process. It is these common traits that relate and unite Dewey's various philosophical topics into a singular vision. If metaphysics is understood as a way of conceiving the interrelations of phenomena (a topic that, for Dewey, coincides with a study of what it means to exist), then these common traits are important to identify and understand.

2. The Metaphysical Significance...


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