Reconstruction in Philosophy by John Dewey

"While it is impossible to retain and recover by deliberate volition old sources of religion and art that have been discredited, it is possible to expedite the development of the vital sources of a religion and art that are yet to be... by the courage of intelligence to follow whither social and scientific changes direct us." (p. 212)
Had this book been written and published in the 1990s, rather than the 1910s, its title may have been something far more eye-catching like A New Philosophical Approach Leading to Continual, Rapid Progress and Improvement, Why Do We Continue to Want to Live in the Dark Ages?, or What is Wrong With Us?. Instead, a rather dull title was chosen which probably caused the book to be read by only fans of the great thinker John Dewey. Those are about the only people who don't need to read this book as they already appreciate and understand his outstanding philosophy.

Twenty-five years after writing the bulk of the text, Dewey added a lengthy (almost fifty page) introduction which explains the title a bit by saying that "reconstruction can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing (in the literal sense of that word) the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and inclusively human--that is to say, moral--facts of the present scene and situation". (p. xxvii) This idea that morals should be looked at using scientific methodology, similar to how the natural world is examined, is not frequently heard. Religionists may claim that Dewey is trying to get science to tread on religion's turf (and they would be right in making that suggestion). Even scientists frequently draw a thick line between the two (such as Richard P. Feynman in The Meaning of It All). Dewey, however, sees nothing wrong with using inquiry in the arena of topics, "prejudices, traditions and institutional customs that consolidated and hardened in a pre-scientific age". (p. xxvi) An active "construction of a moral human science which serves as a needful precursor of reconstruction of the actual state of human life toward order and toward other conditions of a fuller life than man has yet enjoyed" is Dewey's aim. (p. xxxvi)

Following the introduction (which can be rather long-winded and overly laden with philosophical jargon at times), the reader is treated to a series of lectures given in 1919 at the Imperial University of Japan in Tokyo. These are put into eight chapters packed with insight that is probably more needed today than it was when originally given. Chapter 1, "Changing Conceptions of Philosophy", and Chapter 5, "Changed Conceptions of the Ideal and the Real", are about the most thought-provoking pieces of information I've ever read. They are essentially brief histories of how people have thought about life, why those thoughts were positive as stepping stones, and why we need to continue to move on in our thinking. The ultimate goal and result we can experience by understanding our past and forming anew our future is the attainment of "a more ordered and intelligent happiness". (p. 27) As Dewey explains it, "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." (p. 25)

Dewey continues his lectures by discussing the various ways people come to 'know' things. The word 'experience' has new meaning after Dewey describes Bacon's contributions to philosophy. "A logic of discovery on the other hand [as opposed to recognized canons of orthodoxy] looks to the future. Received truth it regards critically as something to be tested by new experiences rather than as something to be dogmatically taught and obediently received. Its chief interest in even the most carefully tested ready-made knowledge is the use which may be made of it in further inquiries and discoveries. Old truth has its chief value in assisting the detection of new truth." (p. 83) Powerful statements are made as to what the scientific method actually involves. This area is one in which people are frequently not well informed. Understanding the differences between scientific methodology and other methodologies which supposedly lead to truth is one of the key points Dewey covers.

Dewey argues for truth as utility rather than mere 'truth for truth's sake'. Things should be ascribed their active state instead of some static end. Life is not a destination--but the journey. Likewise, one should not aim for 'health'--but to be 'healthy'. "Change [should be] associated with progress rather than with lapse and fall. Since changes are going on anyway, the great thing is to learn enough about them so that we be able to lay hold of them and turn them in the direction of our desires. Conditions and events are neither to be fled from nor passively acquiesced in; they are to be utilized and directed. They are either obstacles to our ends or else means for their accomplishment. In a profound sense knowing ceases to be contemplative and becomes practical." (p. 116) On a similar note, instead of painting the 'ideal' and 'real' as two completely incompatible areas, "when the belief that knowledge is active and operative takes hold of men, the ideal realm is no longer something aloof and separate; it is rather that collection of imagined possibilities that stimulates men to new efforts and realizations." (p. 118)

"Inquiry", its true definition, usefulness, and power to emancipate is discussed. (See especially pages 146-148) I found myself nodding my head in complete agreement and wondering why I don't ever remember hearing this sort of discussion during my school years when I was supposed to be obtaining an education. The chief obstacle to our appreciation of inquiry, scientific methodology, and the like are the notions that lie "at the back of the head of every one who has, in however an indirect way, been a recipient of the ancient and medieval tradition." (p. 158)

Near the end of the book, Dewey returns to his focus and main point. Namely, "when all is said and done in criticism of present social deficiencies, one may well wonder whether the root difficulty does not lie in the separation of natural and moral science." (p. 173) When scientific inquiry and real thought becomes the basis for morals, "mistakes are no longer either mere unavoidable accidents to be mourned or moral sins to be expiated and forgiven. They are lessons in wrong methods of using intelligence and instructions as to a better course in the future. They are indications of the need of revision, development, readjustment. Ends grow, standards of judgment are improved... Moral life is protected from falling into formalism and rigid repetition. It is rendered flexible, vital, growing." (p. 175).

John Dewey's philosophy has been named 'pragmatic humanism'. He is an advocate of "meliorism" which he defines as being "the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered. It encourages intelligence to study the positive means of good and the obstructions to their realization, and to put forth endeavor for the improvement of conditions. It arouses confidence and a reasonable hopefulness as optimism does not." (p. 178)

Unlike King Agrippa who in Acts states to Paul that "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian"; John Dewey, thou persuadest me to be a pragmatic humanist.

"A modern classic. "Dewey's lectures have lost none of their vigor... The Historical approach, which underlay the central argument, is beautifully exemplified in his treatments of the origin of philosophy." -- Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

"It was with this book that Dewey fully launched his campaign for experimental philosophy." -- The New Republic