From Essential Selections in 19th and 20th Century Philosophy, by James Fieser


Copyright 2014, updated 5/1/2015


AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY AND INSTRUMENTALISM (“Philosophy and American National Life” 1905)


Democracy at the Heart of American Philosophy

It is today generally recognized that systems of philosophy however abstract in conception and technical in exposition, lie, after all, much nearer the heart of social, and of national, life than superficially appears. If one were to say that philosophy is just a language, one would doubtless give occasion for rejoicing to those who already believe that philosophy is “words, words, words”; that it is only an uncouth terminology invented and used for the mystification of common sense. Yet mathematics, too, is only a language. Much, most, depends upon what the language is of and about. And, speaking roundly, philosophy is a language in which the deepest social problems and aspirations of a given time and a given people are expressed in intellectual and impersonal symbols. It has been well said that philosophy is a reflective self-consciousness of what first exists spontaneously, effectively, in the feelings, deeds, ideas of a people.

            It is not a futile question to ask after the reciprocal influences of American national life and American philosophy. . . .

            It is reasonably sure, however, that the answer is not to be sought in some special philosophic-ism. We may discount the belief current in Europe that American philosophy is bound to be a system if not of Materialism, at least of Mechanicalism; a highly “positive,” non-spiritual type of thought. We may dismiss the idea of an American author that our philosophy is sure to be Realism, because the Americans are so essentially a hard-headed people. Not in such wholesale and exclusive labels are we to look for what we are after, but rather in certain features which color the atmosphere, and dye the spirit of all our thinking. American philosophy must be born out of and must respond to the demands of democracy, as democracy strives to voice and to achieve itself on a vaster scale, and in a more thorough and final way than history has previously witnessed. And democracy is something at once too subtle and too complex and too aspiring to be caught in the meshes of a single philosophical school or sect.

            It is, then, to the needs of democracy in America that we turn to find the fundamental problems of philosophy; and to its tendencies, its working forces, that we look for the points of view and the terms in which philosophy will envisage and solve these problems.  . . .


Instrumentalism and the Method of Philosophy

But since any detailed treatment of philosophic questions is not here in place, I conclude with a few words upon the subject of method. An absence of dogmatism, of rigidly fixed doctrines, a certain fluidity and socially experimental quality must characterize American thought. Philosophy may be regarded as primarily either system or method. As system, it develops, justifies and delivers a certain definite body of doctrine. It is taken to discover, or at least to guarantee, a more or less closed set of truths which are its peculiar and exclusively appropriate object. Its worth is measured by the finality and completeness of this independent and exclusive body of doctrines. Mediaeval philosophy is a typical example of what I mean, but the idea did not pass away with the waning of scholasticism. It animates as an ideal most philosophic thought of later times. Or, if questioned, it is questioned only in the interests of scepticism. But there is also struggling for articulation a conception of philosophy as primarily method: — system only in the sense of an arrangement of problems and ideas which will facilitate further inquiry, and the criticism and constructive interpretation of a variety of life-problems. This point of view is not sceptical. It is not undogmatic in the sense of mere looseness of definition and avoidance of classification, nor yet in the sense of a careless eclecticism. But it aims at a philosophy which shall be instrumental rather than final, and instrumental not to establishing and warranting any particular set of truths, but instrumental in furnishing points of view and working ideas which may clarify and illuminate the actual and concrete course of life.

            Such a conception of the aim and worth of philosophy is alone, I take it, appropriate to the inherent logic of our America. Philosophers are not to be a separate and monopolistic priesthood set apart to guard, and, under certain conditions, to reveal, an isolated treasury of truths. It is theirs to organize — such organization involving, of course, criticism, rejection, transformation — the highest and wisest ideas of humanity, past and present, in such fashion that they may become most effective in the interpretation of certain recurrent and fundamental problems, which humanity, collectively and individually, has to face. For this reason philosophers must be teachers as well as inquirers.


THE INFLUENCE OF DARWIN ON PHILOSOPHY (from “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy” 1909)


Darwinian Shift from Fixity to Transition

That the publication of the “Origin of Species” marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert. The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the “Origin of Species “ introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.

            No wonder, then, that the publication of Darwin’s book, a half century ago, precipitated a crisis. The true nature of the controversy is easily concealed from us, however, by the theological clamor that attended it. The vivid and popular features of the anti-Darwinian row tended to leave the impression that the issue was between science on one side and theology on the other. Such was not the case-the issue lay primarily within science itself, as Darwin himself early recognized. . . .

            The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life. When he said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se muove [and yet it moves], he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon [i.e. instrument] of asking questions and looking for explanations.


Darwinian shift from Design to Chance as the Principal Causal Explanation

The exact bearings upon philosophy of the new logical outlook are, of course, as yet, uncertain and inchoate. We live in the twilight of intellectual transition. One must add the rashness of the prophet to the stubbornness of the partizan to venture a systematic exposition of the influence upon philosophy of the Darwinian method. At best, we can but inquire as to its general bearing-the effect upon mental temper and complexion, upon that body of half-conscious, half-instinctive intellectual aversions and preferences which determine, after all, our more deliberate intellectual enterprises. In this vague inquiry there happens to exist as a kind of touchstone a problem of long historic currency that has also been much discussed in Darwinian literature. I refer to the old problem of design versus chance, mind versus matter, as the causal explanation, first or final, of things.

            As we have already seen, the classic notion of species carried with it the idea of purpose. In all living forms, a specific type is present directing the earlier stages of growth to the realization of its own perfection. Since this purposive regulative principle is not visible to the senses, it follows that it must be an ideal or rational force. . . . The design argument thus operated in two directions. Purposefulness accounted for the intelligibility of nature and the possibility of science, while the absolute or cosmic character of this purposefulness gave sanction and worth to the moral and religious endeavors of man. . . .

            The Darwinian principle of natural selection cut straight under this philosophy. If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them. Hostile critics charged Darwin with materialism and with making chance the cause of the universe.

. . .


Darwinian Shift from Questions of Absolute Origins to Specific Conditions

What does our touchstone [of design verses chance] indicate as to the bearing of Darwinian ideas upon philosophy? In the first place, the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses — what you will — one type of problems and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them. . . .

            When Henry Sidgwick casually remarked in a letter that as he grew older his interest in what or who made the world was altered into interest in what kind of a world it is anyway, his voicing of a common experience of our own day illustrates also the nature of that intellectual transformation effected by the Darwinian logic. Interest shifts from the wholesale essence [in] back of special changes to the question of how special changes serve and defeat concrete purposes; shifts from an intelligence that shaped things once for all to the particular intelligences which things are even now shaping; shifts from an ultimate goal of good to the direct increments of justice and happiness that intelligent administration of existent conditions may beget and that present carelessness or stupidity will destroy or forego. . . .

            The displacing of this [older] wholesale [essence] type of philosophy [with the newer Darwinian logic] will doubtless not arrive by sheer logical disproof, but rather by growing recognition of its futility. Were it a thousand times true that opium produces sleep because of its dormitive energy, yet the inducing of sleep in the tired, and the recovery to waking life of the poisoned, would not be thereby one least step forwarded. And were it a thousand times dialectically demonstrated that life as a whole is regulated by a transcendent principle to a final inclusive goal, none the less truth and error, health and disease, good and evil, hope and fear in the concrete, would remain just what and where they now are. To improve our education, to ameliorate our manners, to advance our politics, we must have recourse to specific conditions of generation. . . .

            Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists — though history shows it to be a hallucination that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them. Old questions are solved by disappearing, evaporating, while new questions corresponding to the changed attitude of endeavor and preference take their place. Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, new intentions, new problems, is the one effected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in the “Origin of Species.”




Ordinary Consciousness involves Desire, not Speculation

. . . [E]arly man when left to himself, when not actually engaged in the struggle for existence, lived in a world of memories which was a world of suggestions. A suggestion differs from a recollection in that no attempt is made to test its correctness. Its correctness is a matter of relative indifference. The cloud suggests a camel or a man’s face. It could not suggest these things unless some time there had been an actual, literal experience of camel and face. But the real likeness is of no account. The main thing is the emotional interest in tracing the camel or following the fortunes of the face as it forms and dissolves. . . .

            I hope that I do not seem to you to have gone too far afield from my topic, the origin of philosophies. For it seems to me that the historic source of philosophies cannot be understood except as we dwell, at even greater length and in more detail, upon such considerations as these. We need to recognize that the ordinary consciousness of the ordinary man left to himself is a creature of desires rather than of intellectual study, inquiry or speculation. Man ceases to be primarily actuated by hopes and fears, loves and hates, only when he is subjected to a discipline which is foreign to human nature, which is, from the standpoint of natural man, artificial. Naturally our books, our scientific and philosophical books, are written by men who have subjected themselves in a superior degree to intellectual discipline and culture. Their thoughts are habitually reasonable. They have learned to check their fancies by facts, and to organize their ideas logically rather than emotionally and dramatically. When they do indulge in reverie and day-dreaming—which is probably more of the time than is conventionally acknowledged—they are aware of what they are doing. . . .


Philosophy as a Social Function, not a Search for Absolute Knowledge

If this lecture succeeds in leaving in your minds as a reasonable hypothesis the idea that philosophy originated not out of intellectual material, but out of social and emotional material, it will also succeed in leaving with you a changed attitude toward traditional philosophies. They will be viewed from a new angle and placed in a new light. New questions about them will be aroused and new standards for judging them will be suggested.

            If anyone will commence without mental reservations to study the history of philosophy not as an isolated thing but as a chapter in the development of civilization and culture; if one will connect the story of philosophy with a study of anthropology, primitive life, the history of religion, literature and social institutions, it is confidently asserted that he will reach his own independent judgment as to the worth of the account which has been presented today. Considered in this way, the history of philosophy will take on a new significance. What is lost from the standpoint of would-be science is regained from the standpoint of humanity. Instead of the disputes of rivals about the nature of reality, we have the scene of human clash of social purpose and aspirations. Instead of impossible attempts to transcend experience, we have the significant record of the efforts of men to formulate the things of experience to which they are most deeply and passionately attached. Instead of impersonal and purely speculative endeavors to contemplate as remote beholders the nature of absolute things-in-themselves, we have a living picture of the choice of thoughtful men about what they would have life to be, and to what ends they would have men shape their intelligent activities.

            Any one of you who arrives at such a view of past philosophy will of necessity be led to entertain a quite definite conception of the scope and aim of future philosophizing. He will inevitably be committed to the notion that what philosophy has been unconsciously, without knowing or intending it, and, so to speak, under cover, it must henceforth be openly and deliberately. When it is acknowledged that under disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with the precious values embedded in social traditions, that it has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies, it will be seen that the task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day. Its aim is to become so far as is humanly possible an organ for dealing with these conflicts. That which may be pretentiously unreal when it is formulated in metaphysical distinctions becomes intensely significant when connected with the drama of the struggle of social beliefs and ideals. Philosophy which surrenders its somewhat barren monopoly of dealings with Ultimate and Absolute Reality will find a compensation in enlightening the moral forces which move mankind and in contributing to the aspirations of men to attain to a more ordered and intelligent happiness.


ETHICS AND EVOLUTION (“Evolution and Ethics,” 1898)


The Relation between Evolutionary and Ethical Concepts

I undertake the discussion of the question of the relation of evolution and ethics. A generation ago the entire interest was in the exact relation between man and the lower animals. We had one school concerned with reducing this difference to the lowest possible limits and urging that the consciousness of man, intellectual and moral, as well as his physical nature, might be considered a direct inheritance through easy gradations from some form of the anthropoid ape. We had another school equally concerned with magnifying the difference, making it, if possible, an unbridgeable chasm. It would be a bold man who would say that this controversy has been settled by the actual weight of concrete detailed evidence, or even that it has been very far advanced. The writings which really throw light on the question, in either direction (so far as the facts are concerned and not merely general considerations), can probably be easily numbered on the fingers of the two hands. Yet suddenly we find that discussion of this question has practically ceased, and that what engages controversy is the relation of what I may call the evolutionary concepts in general to the ethical concepts. Points of agreement and disagreement between the ideas involved in the notion of evolution and those involved in the notion of moral conduct are searched for. It is the state of the imagination and the direction of interest which have changed. . . .


Evolutionary Fitness for Humans involves Social Adaptation

I have discussed this particular case [of survival of the fittest] in the hope of enlarging somewhat our conception of what is meant by the term “fit”; to suggest that we are in the habit of interpreting it with reference to an environment which long ago ceased to be. That which was fit among the animals is not fit among human beings, not merely because the animals were non-moral and man is moral; but because the conditions of life have changed, and because there is no way to define the term “fit” excepting through these conditions. The environment is now distinctly a social one, and the content of the term “fit” has to be made with reference to social adaptation. Moreover, the environment in which we now live is a changing and progressive one. Everyone must have his fitness judged by the whole, including the anticipated change; not merely by reference to the conditions of today, because these may be gone tomorrow. If one is fitted simply to the present, he is not fitted to survive. He is sure to go under. A part of his fitness will consist in that very flexibility which enables him to adjust himself without too much loss to sudden and unexpected changes in his surroundings. We have then no reason here to oppose the ethical process to the natural process. The demand is for those who are fit for the conditions of existence in one case as well as in the other. It is the conditions which have changed. . . .

            The very highest habits and ideals which are organizing today with reference to existing conditions will be just as much, and just as little, an obstacle to the moral conduct of man millions of years from now, as those of the ape and the tiger are to us. So far as they represent the survival of outworn conditions, they will demand re-constitution and re-adaptation, and that modification will be accompanied by pain. Growth always costs something. It costs the making over of the old in order to meet the demands of the new.

            This struggle, then, is not more characteristic of the ethical process than it is of the biological. Long before man came upon the earth, long before any talk was heard of right and wrong, it happened that those who clung persistently to modes of action which were adapted to an environment that had passed away, were at a disadvantage in the struggle for existence, and tended to die out. . . .


Transition from Unconscious Biological Adaptation to Conscious Adaptation through Experimentation

Now, in man we have this power of variation and consequent discovery and constitution of new environments set free. All biological process has been effected through this, and so every tendency which forms this power is selected; in man it reaches its climax. So far as the individual is concerned, the environment (the specific conditions which relate to his life) is highly variable at present. The growth of science, its application in invention to industrial life, the multiplication and acceleration of means of transportation and intercommunication, have created a peculiarly unstable environment. It shifts constantly within itself, or qualitatively, and as to its range, or quantitatively. Simply as an affair of Nature, not of art (using these terms in Mr. Huxley’s sense) it is a profitable, an advantageous thing that structural changes, if any occur, should not get too set. They would limit unduly the possibility of change in adaptation. In the present environment, flexibility of function, the enlargement of the range of uses to which one and the same organ, grossly considered, may be put, is a great, almost the supreme, condition of success. As such, any change in that direction is a favorable variation which must be selected. In a word, the difference between man and animal is not that selection has ceased, but that selection along the line of variations which enlarge and intensify the environment is active as never before.

            We reach precisely the same conclusion with respect to “selection” that we have reached with reference to the cognate ideas—”fit” and “struggle for existence.” It is found in the ethical process as it is in the cosmic, and it operates in the same way. So far as conditions have changed, so far as the environment is indefinitely more complex, wider, and more variable, so far of necessity and as a biological and cosmic matter, not merely an ethical one, the functions selected differ.

            There are no doubt sufficiently profound distinctions between the ethical process and the cosmic process as it existed prior to man and to the formation of human society. So far as I know, however, all of these differences are summed up in the fact that the process and the forces bound up with the cosmic have come to consciousness in man. That which was instinct in the animal is conscious impulse in man. That which was “tendency to vary” in the animal is conscious foresight in man. That which was unconscious adaptation and survival in the animal, taking place by the “cut and try” method until it worked itself out, is with man conscious deliberation and experimentation. That this transfer from unconsciousness to consciousness has immense importance, need hardly be argued. It is enough to say that it means the whole distinction of the moral from the unmoral. We have, however, no reason to suppose that the cosmic process has become arrested or that some new force has supervened to struggle against the cosmic. Some theologians and moralists, to be sure, welcomed Huxley’s apparent return to the idea of a dualism between the cosmic and the ethical as likely to inure favorably to the spiritual life. But I question whether the spiritual life does not get its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe; when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes, is moved on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature; and that in this moral struggle he acts not as a mere individual but as an organ in maintaining and carrying forward the universal process.




Moving Beyond Traditional Morality’s Quest for Rules

Ethical theory began among the Greeks as an attempt to find a regulation for the conduct of life which should have a rational basis and purpose instead of being derived from custom. But reason as a substitute for custom was under the obligation of supplying objects and laws as fixed as those of custom had been. Ethical theory ever since has been singularly hypnotized by the notion that its business is to discover some final end or good or some ultimate and supreme law. This is the common element among the diversity of theories. Some have held that the end is loyalty or obedience to a higher power or authority; and they have variously found this higher principle in Divine Will, the will of the secular ruler, the maintenance of institutions in which the purpose of superiors is embodied, and the rational consciousness of duty. But they have differed from one another because there was one point in which they were agreed: a single and final source of law. Others have asserted that it is impossible to locate morality in conformity to law-giving power, and that it must be sought in ends that are goods. And some have sought the good in self-realization, some in holiness, some in happiness, some in the greatest possible aggregate of pleasures. And yet these schools have agreed in the assumption that there is a single, fixed and final good. They have been able to dispute with one another only because of their common premise.

            The question arises whether the way out of the confusion and conflict is not to go to the root of the matter by questioning this common element. Is not the belief in the single, final and ultimate (whether conceived as good or as authoritative law) an intellectual product of that feudal organization which is disappearing historically and of that belief in a bounded, ordered cosmos, wherein rest is higher than motion, which has disappeared from natural science? It has been repeatedly suggested that the present limit of intellectual reconstruction lies in the fact that it has not as yet been seriously applied in the moral and social disciplines. Would not this further application demand precisely that we advance to a belief in a plurality of changing, moving, individualized goods and ends, and to a belief that principles, criteria, laws are intellectual instruments for analyzing individual or unique situations?


Morality involves Intelligent Inquiry into Concrete Situations

The blunt assertion that every moral situation is a unique situation having its own irreplaceable good may seem not merely blunt but preposterous. For the established tradition teaches that it is precisely the irregularity of special cases which makes necessary the guidance of conduct by universals, and that the essence of the virtuous disposition is willingness to subordinate every particular case to adjudication by a fixed principle. It would then follow that submission of a generic end and law to determination by the concrete situation entails complete confusion and unrestrained licentiousness. Let us, however, follow the pragmatic rule, and in order to discover the meaning of the idea ask for its consequences. Then it surprisingly turns out that the primary significance of the unique and morally ultimate character of the concrete situation is to transfer the weight and burden of morality to intelligence. It does not destroy responsibility; it only locates it. A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation —that is to say the action needed to satisfy it—is not self-evident. It has to be searched for. There are conflicting desires and alternative apparent goods. What is needed is to find the right course of action, the right good. Hence, inquiry is exacted: observation of the detailed makeup of the situation; analysis into its diverse factors; clarification of what is obscure; discounting of the more insistent and vivid traits; tracing the consequences of the various modes of action that suggest themselves; regarding the decision reached as hypothetical and tentative until the anticipated or supposed consequences which led to its adoption have been squared with actual consequences. This inquiry is intelligence. Our moral failures go back to some weakness of disposition, some absence of sympathy, some one-sided bias that makes us perform the judgment of the concrete case carelessly or perversely. Wide sympathy, keen sensitiveness, persistence in the face of the disagreeable, balance of interests enabling us to undertake the work of analysis and decision intelligently are the distinctively moral traits—the virtues or moral excellencies. . . .

            Moral goods and ends exist only when something has to be done. The fact that something has to be done proves that there are deficiencies, evils in the existent situation. This ill is just the specific ill that it is. It never is an exact duplicate of anything else. Consequently the good of the situation has to be discovered, projected and attained on the basis of the exact defect and trouble to be rectified. It cannot intelligently be injected into the situation from without. Yet it is the part of wisdom to compare different cases, to gather together the ills from which humanity suffers, and to generalize the corresponding goods into classes. Health, wealth, industry, temperance, amiability, courtesy, learning, esthetic capacity, initiative, courage, patience, enterprise, thoroughness and a multitude of other generalized ends are acknowledged as goods. But the value of this systematization is intellectual or analytic. Classifications suggest possible traits to be on the lookout for in studying a particular case; they suggest methods of action to be tried in removing the inferred causes of ill. They are tools of insight; their value is in promoting an individualized response in the individual situation.

            Morals is not a catalogue of acts nor a set of rules to be applied like drugstore prescriptions or cook-book recipes. The need in morals is for specific methods of inquiry and of contrivance: Methods of inquiry to locate difficulties and evils; methods of contrivance to form plans to be used as working hypotheses in dealing with them. And the pragmatic import of the logic of individualized situations, each having its own irreplaceable good and principle, is to transfer the attention of theory from preoccupation with general conceptions to the problem of developing effective methods of inquiry.


ETHICS BASED ON HUMAN NATURE (Human Nature and Conduct, 1922, Introduction)


Traditional Morality aimed at Controlling Human Nature

Morality is largely concerned with controlling human nature. When we are attempting to control anything we are acutely aware of what resists us. So moralists were led, perhaps, to think of human nature as evil because of its reluctance to yield to control, its rebelliousness under the yoke. But this explanation only raises another question. Why did morality set up rules so foreign to human nature? The ends it insisted upon, the regulations it imposed, were after all outgrowths of human nature. Why then was human nature so averse to them? Moreover rules can be obeyed and ideals realized only as they appeal to something in human nature and awaken in it an active response. Moral principles that exalt themselves by degrading human nature are in effect committing suicide. Or else they involve human nature in unending civil war, and treat it as a hopeless mess of contradictory forces.

            We are forced therefore to consider the nature and origin of that control of human nature with which morals has been occupied. And the fact which is forced upon us when we raise this question is the existence of classes. Control has been vested in an oligarchy. Indifference to regulation has grown in the gap which separates the ruled from the rulers. Parents, priests, chiefs, social censors have supplied aims, aims which were foreign to those upon whom they were imposed, to the young, laymen, ordinary folk; a few have given and administered rule, and the mass have in a passable fashion and with reluctance obeyed. Everybody knows that good children are those who make as little trouble as possible for their elders, and since most of them cause a good deal of annoyance they must be naughty by nature. Generally speaking, good people have been those who did what they were told to do, and lack of eager compliance is a sign of something wrong in their nature.

            But no matter how much men in authority have turned moral rules into an agency of class supremacy, any theory which attributes the origin of rule to deliberate design is false. To take advantage of conditions after they have come into existence is one thing; to create them for the sake of an advantage to accrue is quite another thing. We must go back to the bare fact of social division into superior and inferior. To say that accident produced social conditions is to perceive they were not produced by intelligence. Lack of understanding of human nature is the primary cause of disregard for it. Lack of insight always ends in despising or else unreasoned admiration. When men had no scientific knowledge of physical nature they either passively submitted to it or sought to control it magically. What cannot be understood cannot be managed intelligently. It has to be forced into subjection from without. The opaqueness of human nature to reason is equivalent to a belief in its intrinsic irregularity. Hence a decline in the authority of social oligarchy was accompanied by a rise of scientific interest in human nature. This means that the make-up and working of human forces afford a basis for moral ideas and ideals. Our science of human nature in comparison with physical sciences is rudimentary, and morals which are concerned with the health, efficiency and happiness of a development of human nature are correspondingly elementary. . . .


Morals Based on Human Nature and Facts

It is not pretended that a moral theory based upon realities of human nature and a study of the specific connections of these realities with those of physical science would do away with moral struggle and defeat. It would not make the moral life as simple a matter as wending one’s way along a well-lighted boulevard. All action is an invasion of the future, of the unknown. Conflict and uncertainty are ultimate traits. But morals based upon concern with facts and deriving guidance from knowledge of them would at least locate the points of effective endeavor and would focus available resources upon them. It would put an end to the impossible attempt to live in two unrelated worlds. It would destroy fixed distinction between the human and the physical, as well as that between the moral and the industrial and political. A morals based on study of human nature instead of upon disregard for it would find the facts of man continuous with those of the rest of nature and would thereby ally ethics with physics and biology. It would find the nature and activities of one person coterminous with those of other human beings, and therefore link ethics with the study of history, sociology, law and economics.

            Such a morals would not automatically solve moral problems, nor resolve perplexities. But it would enable us to state problems in such forms that action could be courageously and intelligently directed to their solution. It would not assure us against failure, but it would render failure a source of instruction. It would not protect us against the future emergence of equally serious moral difficulties, but it would enable us to approach the always recurring troubles with a fund of growing knowledge which would add significant values to our conduct even when we overtly failed—as we should continue to do. Until the integrity of morals with human nature and of both with the environment is recognized, we shall be deprived of the aid of past experience to cope with the most acute and deep problems of life. Accurate and extensive knowledge will continue to operate only in dealing with purely technical problems. The intelligent acknowledgment of the continuity of nature, man and society will alone secure a growth of morals which will be serious without being fanatical, aspiring without sentimentality, adapted to reality without conventionality, sensible without taking the form of calculation of profits, idealistic without being romantic.




What Education Is

I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the [human] race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization. The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process. It can only organize it or differentiate it in some particular direction.

            I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms. The value which they have is reflected back into them. For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language. . . .

            In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass. Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests, and habits. It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. These powers, interests, and habits must be continually interpreted–we must know what they mean. They must be translated into terms of their social equivalents–into terms of what they are capable of in the way of social service.


What the School Is

I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.

            I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

            I believe that the school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.

            I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, or that are worth living for their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality and tends to cramp and to deaden.

            I believe that the school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form. Existing life is so complex that the child cannot be brought into contact with it without either confusion or distraction; he is either overwhelmed by the multiplicity of activities which are going on, so that he loses his own power of orderly reaction, or he is so stimulated by these various activities that his powers are prematurely called into play and he becomes either unduly specialized or else disintegrated. . . .


The Subject-Matter of Education

. . . I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum. If education is life, all life has, from the outset, a scientific aspect, an aspect of art and culture, and an aspect of communication. It cannot, therefore, be true that the proper studies for one grade are mere reading and writing, and that at a later grade, reading, or literature, or science, may be introduced. The progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.

            I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

            I believe that to set up any end outside of education, as furnishing its goal and standard, is to deprive the educational process of much of its meaning and tends to make us rely upon false and external stimuli in dealing with the child.


The Nature of Method

I believe that the question of method is ultimately reducible to the question of the order of development of the child’s powers and interests. The law for presenting and treating material is the law implicit within the child’s own nature. Because this is so I believe the following statements are of supreme importance as determining the spirit in which education is carried on:

            1. I believe that the active side precedes the passive in the development of the child nature; that expression comes before conscious impression; that the muscular development precedes the sensory; that movements come before conscious sensations; I believe that consciousness is essentially motor or impulsive; that conscious states tend to project themselves in action.

            I believe that the neglect of this principle is the cause of a large part of the waste of time and strength in school work. The child is thrown into a passive, receptive, or absorbing attitude. The conditions are such that he is not permitted to follow the law of his nature; the result is friction and waste. . . .


The School and Social Progress

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.

            I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile. . . .

            I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.

            I believe that this conception has due regard for both the individualistic and socialistic ideals. It is duly individual because it recognizes the formation of a certain character as the only genuine basis of right living. It is socialistic because it recognizes that this right character is not to be formed by merely individual precept, example, or exhortation, but rather by the influence of a certain form of institutional or community life upon the individual, and that the social organism through the school, as its organ, may determine ethical results.

            I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. . . .


Source: John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897); “Evolution and Ethics” (1898); “Philosophy and American National Life” (1905); “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy” (1909); Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) 1, 7; Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Introduction.


Questions for Analysis








Questions for Analysis






6. Because of its progressivism, Dewey's "progressive" philosophy of education is often held responsible for all that is wrong with the American educational system today. Some common targets of criticism are Dewey's views that education should promote the practical over the abstract and that it should be a tool of economic and progressive social change. Develop these criticisms and discuss how Dewey might respond.