Experience and Nature by Dewey


John Dewey (1859-1952) called Modernism a “new intellectual temper”. He formed part of the new modern professional thinkers who accepted responsibility for helping their culture to accept the modern world of social change and incongruity while advocating negotiation of differences. Advancing pragmatism was his contribution.

Dewey believed that the traditional characteristic of Western philosophy lay in the assumption that what is knowable and real is changeless, perfect and eternal. This belief was based both on Plato's Forms and the Christian God, a pure, static, transcendent being. The corollary is that anything that changes is imperfect and less real. René Descartes expressed another version of the same assumption by presenting all experience as subjective and exclusively mental so that it cannot offer evidence of the physical world. This tradition introduced a basic division between Reality and the variety of human experience.

The author rejected any dualism between experience and being and proposed that all things are subject to change. He denied the existence of static beings and changelessness. He also dismissed Descarte's concept of pure subjective experience because the human subject is part of nature and experiences form part of a process of worldly events. He argued that humans should focus on adapting to changes, not on attempting to transcend them.

As a philosopher he embraced a pragmatic approach which he called “cultural naturalism” and "instrumentalism". This was an attempt to reconstruct philosophy where, following William James, Dewey sought to deintellectualise philosophy and focus thinking on social conditions and everyday values. He also reset philosophy within darwinian evolutionary theory where adapting to change is a constant.

Dewey was one of the founders of U.S. pragmatism started by Peirce and continued by James, among others. James had viewed reality not as static data, but as in constant flux, arguing that the physical is unclear and messy. This was adopted by Dewey. 

Another concept he embraced from early pragmatism was the value of experimentation. Many pragmatists were inspired by contemporary scientific advances and in fact were practising scientists. Following scientific credo Dewey rejected the concept of accepting any idea as an infallible interpretation of reality.

Dewey focused his criticism on the dualisms of traditional metaphysics and epistemology: mind/body, nature/culture, self/society, and reason/emotion. He rebuilt their divisions as integral parts of a larger continuity. He contended that human thinking does not lie outside the world it is trying to know since knowing is not an attempt to discover the "real", but one of the ways in which humans cope with problems. Minds are not passive observers, but work actively, adapting innovating and experimenting with ideas based on pragmatic bases. Knowing, for Dewey, comes about through rational calculation and use of the emotions.

As well as academic publications Dewey wrote about public issues of the time such as human freedom, economic alienation, race relations, women’s suffrage, war and peace and education. He applied feedback between ideas and practice so that his public research fed back into his theories.


Experience and Nature was published in 1925. It consists of 10 chapters.

I. Experience and Philosophic Method describes the general characteristics of nature and experience. He states that they are not separate, as previous philosophers held. He identifies this erroneous concept as the fallacy of selective emphasis, since it either emphasised one or the other. He proposes the adoption of an "empirical naturalism" by recognising that our beliefs must be related to the experiences which produced them:

“In the natural sciences there is a union of experience and nature which is not greeted as a monstrosity; on the contrary, the inquirer must use empirical methods if his findings are to be treated as genuinely scientific. The investigator assumes as a matter of course that experience, controlled in specifiable ways, is the avenue that leads to the facts and laws of nature.”

II. Existence as Precarious and as Stable. Dewey describes the two basic features of existence: precariousness, and stability. He argues that the philosophical tradition erred by emphasising one and ignoring the other:

“A philosophy which accepts the denotative or empirical method accepts at full value the fact that reflective thinking transforms confusion, ambiguity and discrepancy into illumination, definiteness and consistency."

III. Nature, Ends and Histories. The philosopher addresses consummatory experiences which are moments in life, limited in time, but with a unified quality. (Literary writers like Joyce later called them 'epiphanies'.) All aesthetic experiences have this quality of consummation:

“Human experience in the large, in its coarse and conspicuous features, has, for one of its most striking features, preoccupation with direct enjoyment, feasting and festivities; ornamentation, dance, song, dramatic pantomime, telling yarns and enacting stories.”

IV. Nature, Means and Knowledge. Dewey insists that scientific theory is not a different world from that of consummation. Science studies the patterns of experience in order to anticipate consummations. He defines truth as:

 “...processes of change so directed that they achieve an intended consummation.” 

V. Nature, Communication and Meaning. The author discusses meaning, communication and value within nature and experience. He describes language not as expression, but as communication, contending that it is a social event. He criticises traditional philosophy which conceived language as a thing, separating it from its use and concluding that it held essences:

"... the classic thinkers created a cosmos after the model of dialectic, giving rational distinctions power to constitute and regulate; modern thinkers composed nature after the model of personal."

VI. Nature, Mind and the Subject. In this chapter the author analyses the emergence of subjectivity and self-identity in nature. He understands the self as the centre of organised energies and underscores the self's social relationships. His contention is that the self is not an independent presence, but that humans should conceive themselves as social individuals in nature.

“Personality, selfhood, subjectivity are eventual functions that emerge with complexly organized interactions, organic and social.”

VII. Nature, Life and Body-Mind. Dewey renews his criticism of classical, medieval and modern philosophical traditions about the relationship between body and mind which he argues are confused.

- “To the Greeks, all life was psyche, for it was self-movement and only soul moves itself.”

- “In Pauline Christianity and its successors, the body is earthly, fleshly, lustful and passionate; spirit is Godlike, everlasting; flesh is corruptible; spirit incorruptible. The body was conceived in terms of moral disparagement colored by supernatural religion.”

- In medieval thought: "...when men ceased to interpret and explain facts in terms of potentiality and actuality, and resorted to that of causality, mind and matter stood over against one another in stark unlikeness; there were no intermediates to shade gradually the black of body into the white of spirit.” 

To replace these traditions Dewey proposes that the physical and mental are not different sorts of Being, but different ways of organising experience and nature.

VIII. Existence, Ideas and Consciousness. This is a discussion on the nature and role of awareness. Dewey contends that consciousness is not only immediate (awareness of objects and meanings) but also relational and social. For him mind is a system and awareness is a focus:

“It is this double relationship of continuation, promotion, carrying forward, and of arrest, deviation, need of supplementation, which defines that focalization of meanings which is consciousness, awareness, perception. Every case of consciousness is dramatic; drama is an enhancement of the conditions of consciousness.” 

Awareness depends on context and context affects meaning. 

IX. Experience, Nature and Art. For 'art' the author understands consummatory experience, which is a summary of the whole book. He analyses the connection between means and ends and concludes that means are for ends which are present during the pursuit of means. 

 “...all the intelligent activities of men, no matter whether expressed in science, fine arts, or social relationships, have for their task the conversion of causal bonds, relations of succession, into a connection of means-consequence, into meanings. When the task is achieved the result is art: and in art everything is common between means and ends."

X. Existence, Value and Criticism. Here the author proposes a view of philosophy as criticism and he relates it to experience, values and nature:

 “...philosophy is inherently criticism, having its distinctive position among various modes of criticism in its generality; a criticism of criticisms, as it were."


The precarious

Precariousness is part of Dewey's epistemology. For him thinking, and thus knowing, is a response to the changeable and unstable aspects of nature, since a precarious event interrupts experience and makes it a problem. Obstacles, disruptions, dangers, surprises, arbitrary cruelty and unexpected kindness are all examples of the precarious. For Dewey, human ideals, norms and knowledge are linked to the precariousness of constantly changing nature, a concept based on darwinian evolution.

Dewey thought that all that occurs in life is a natural event since we are part of Nature and that necessarily entails uncertainty. This extends to social values, human ideologies and knowledge, all of which are immersed in unpredictability.


Another of Dewey's features of nature, developed in his metaphysics is continuity within the changes of natural processes. For him history consisted of processes of change which had a clear goal. He argued that when identified these historical processes could be modified and their outcome varied. This implies that no one is fated by nature, temperament, character or social role so that individual development is always possible. 

Dewey's interest in education was based on that belief. His theory of education stated that individuals learned through experiences and interacting with their environment. This interplay led them to develop new ideas and practices, which in turn fed back to their experiences and social interactions.


The traditional, aristotelian, concept of final cause conceives it, teleologically, as a goal. Moral goals are absolutes: happiness, the general good...

Dewey construes ends as the consciously constructed outcomes of a history. We experience spontaneous intrusions of the precarious in our ordered world and so we should analyse the situation and think of the necessary changes to pursue our goals. He considers a good outcome any constructed goal that allows the individual to develop while accounting for the precarity of the situation.


Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism” which is the concept that knowledge is the result of correlating events and processes of change. To study this relationship he needed to introduce experimental variations to conclude how the differences correlate and measure them. For example experiments might seek to understand how illnesses change depending on treatments, or how students learn better depending on instruction methods.

Following traditional pragmatism the author believed that ideas were tools humans use to make sense of the world. For him concepts were action plans to forecast future events: ideas about vaccines will predict their future efficacy against disease. Experimentation is what tests the accuracy of these prognoses. This pragmatic instrumentation is based on the concept that ideas will allow humans to direct natural events and social processes for the benefit of all.


Dewey did not offer an answer to how instrumentalism could determine the difference between good and evil. However, he proposed democracy as a source of moral values to guide decision-makers towards human development. He recognised the fallibility of the democratic process in that, unlike religion, philosophy or political ideologies, it did not provide moral absolutes. He regarded it as a collaborative procedure, a social intelligence, and he trusted that people under a democratic regime would cooperate honestly in experimental inquiry.


Dewey's theory of mind rests on several bases: naturalism, nonreductivism and orientation to process.

Regarding naturalism Dewey insisted on using empirical research drawn from several sources: natural and social sciences. He rejects any explanations that rely on the supernatural or pure rationality.

Dewey was also careful to avoid any reductionist tendency that put limits on the explanations of certain sciences. He understood that no one account, scientific or philosophical, ever tells the whole story. He concluded that there must be multiple levels of explanation for mental phenomena, including art and aesthetic experiences.

The process oriented aspect of his approach meant that he always regarded experience and thinking as processes of interactions between organisms and their environment. He refused to believe in separate faculties for cognitive functions or static structures for dynamic cognitive processes.

Dewey's fundamental reference is experience. This meant the inclusion of all that happens from the side of the experiencing organism and slso that of the complex environments it interacts with. He describes experience as including:

“...what men do and suffer, what they strive for, love, believe and endure, and also how men act and are acted upon, the ways in which they do and suffer, desire and enjoy, see, believe, imagine—in short, processes of experiencing.”

Dewey's argument was that we have inherited a philosophical approach which fragments experience into binary categories: subjective/objective, passive/active processes, mental/physical components which must somehow be unified. In contrast Dewey argued that experience is a dynamic process which emerges from the interaction between an active organism and its environment.

In his article The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology (1896), he challenged the stimulus-response interpretation of experience, arguing that it comes to us as unities which depend on our dynamic engagement with our environment. He criticises the common interpretation of the reflex arc which assumes sensoriomotor responses as separate, while they are actually coordinated and derive their significance:

"... purely from the part played in maintaining or reconstituting the coordinations.”

Any accounts that involve other non-dynamic interpretations of experience are judged by Dewey as falsifications of our experience.

For the author 'mind' has biological foundations and is also a social phenomenon. His challenge is to demonstrate how conceptualizing, reasoning and use of language emerge from sensorimotor and affective functions. His answer is 'the principle of continuity'  meaning that rationality has grown out of organic activities, yet is unlike those activities. It is his attempt to explain 'mind' in a non-dualist fashion, as grounded in physical operations in beings whose cognitive abilities have been gradually shaped by evolution.

He explains this conundrum in terms of the increasing complexity and interaction among natural events. In this way novel biological functions emerge at each higher level. Thus the psychophysical evolves as different from sentience and movement in organisms. The 'mental' capacity to conceptualise, reason and use symbols arises in selected species and so mind is embodied:

"In ultimate analysis the mystery that mind should use a body, or that body should have a mind, is like the mystery that a man cultivating plants should use the soil; or that the soil which grows plants at all should grow those adapted to its own physico-chemical properties and relations."

According to the author we can speak of mind appropriately when our interaction with our environment involves the ability to recognise patterns, make distinctions and coordinate behaviours through symbolic interactions. Mind is an evolutionary skill that exists through bodily interaction with the environment. It emerges from the efforts of certain developed organisms which coordinate their activities by symbolisation.

Dewey's approach is compatible with the dominant views in today's cognitive neuroscience which hold that organism and environment are related terms defined by their interactions. Mind does not exist without a functioning body, nor a functioning brain without cognitive activity interacting with the world. In Experience and Nature, Dewey insists on this interconnectivity, claiming that:

“...to see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy.” 

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