Some remarks on Dewey's metaphysics and theory of education.

AuthorGarrison, Jim


In a famous and much misunderstood passage in Democracy and Education, Dewey (1916/1980) proclaims: "If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education (338; emphasis in original). My article examines some of what he means by this statement.

We know Dewey as the philosopher of reconstruction. His most ambitious and overlooked reconstruction is that of Western metaphysics, which disrupts the entire framework of western thought and is a major source of the deep discomfort many have with his philosophy of education. I approach Dewey by examining the standard ingredients of western metaphysics that he rejects or reconstructs. They are: Fixed form or essence (eidos), ultimate origin, foundation, or first principle (arche), completion or purpose (telos), the state of completion, perfection, or complete actualization (entelecheia), and substance or subject (ousia). I will also consider actuality, activity, or function (energeia) and potential for change (dynamis).

Metaphysics seems recondite and remote until we ask such existential and educational questions as: What is the ultimate essence of a human being? What is the absolute foundation of human development? What is the telos and perfection of a human life? What are the limits of human potential? What actualizes human potential and how may we use it to create a better individual and collective destiny? For Dewey, there is no fixed and final human essence, no ultimate foundation, no perfect telos, and no substantial subject. We have potential for change, but not latent potential. In my article, I urge the reader to acknowledge the educational inevitability and importance of these metaphysical questions, even if you completely reject Dewey's answers.

The elements of Western metaphysics tend to collapse into each other. Frequently substance is the essence that exists as an innate latent potential actualized through appropriate activities that allow the being to achieve its perfect telos. Many theories of educational development are like this. Perhaps the most influential of all is that of Jean Piaget. In his genetic epistemology, Piaget departs from a foundation of innate biological structures that undergo distinct linear stages of development, or what he calls "mental embryology," to achieve the perfect teleological actualization of the human essence; that is, a rational animal. Dewey completely rejects embryological metaphors of human development along with the hidden metaphysics that makes them so plausible. Dewey's social constructivism diverges widely from Piaget's subjective constructivism.

Dewey separates metaphysical existence from logical essence while insisting that language joins them. He urges us to avoid three fallacies. First, we should shun what Dewey (1925/1981) calls "the philosophic fallacy;" that is, the conversion of eventual functions into antecedent existences (p. 35). For Dewey, essences, teloi, foundations, substances, and so on are contingent social constructions of language and logic. Language provides us with meanings (e.g., there is a seven foot snake in this room). Logic, what Dewey calls the theory of inquiry, determines if we can, in fact warrant linguistic meanings as knowledge (hopefully, inquiry will show there are no snakes in this room). Dewey believes we get our ontology (essences, including the human essence) through the constructive processes of our language and logic, not the other way around. The second fallacy Dewey wishes us to avoid is "intellectualism," by which he means the notion that "all experiencing is a mode of knowing, and that all subject-matter, all nature, is, in principle, to be reduced and transformed till it is defined in terms identical with the characteristics presented by refined objects of science as such" (p. 28). Piaget's emphasis on logicomathematical psychological systems falls into this fallacy. For Dewey, all inquiry begins with immediate, qualitative experiences. We have and feel existence before we know it while much of it we will never name much less know. The last fallacy is dualism; Dewey rejects not only the mind versus matter dualism, but also the knower versus known, the self versus society, and the culture versus nature dualisms. We are participants in existence, not spectators. Piaget's Kantian influenced experimental epistemology is subtly dualistic.

Ultimately, Dewey (1928/1984a) thinks "the social" is "The Inclusive Philosophic Idea" and not metaphysics; hence the importance of education. All meanings, including all statements of essences, relatively stable foundations, purposes, actualizations, substances, the actual, and the possible are social. Dewey drains the swamp of metaphysics into the basin of socially constructed linguistic meanings and logical essences drawn from ordered discourse.

For Dewey, metaphysics is last philosophy not first philosophy; it is a product of language and inquiry. His so-called "generic traits of existence" are what all human inquiries, all domains of social practice, contingently turn out to have in common. These various inquiries include education, carpentry, engineering, jurisprudence, and such. He thinks every domain of inquiry struggles to render those aspects of events that sustain human existence "relatively stable" over the "precarious" events that do not. He also thinks all inquiries disclose the generic traits of interaction, diversity, and change. If there are generic traits common to every domain of inquiry then knowledge of them allows philosophy to become "a messenger, a liaison officer, making reciprocally intelligible voices speaking provincial tongues, and thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged" (Dewey, 1925/1981, 306). (2) Dewey conceived...

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