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The Quest for Certainty

1928 to 1929
University of Edinburgh

The first chapter, ‘Escape from Peril’, argues that the uncertainty of life in primitive times necessitated looking for certainty in the realm of the true Being or through manipulation by magic. Knowledge of the former became viewed as superior, while the practice of the latter was viewed as lesser. Thus, a division between theory and practice formed which hampered human progress. The development of philosophy came out of a search for the ultimate reality, but has solidified the classification and chasm separating knowledge from belief and practice. ‘Philosophy’s Search for the Immutable’, chapter 2, suggests that delineation between knowledge and action has limited human progress. Dewey argues that a necessary way forward is to re-enlist philosophy to address the ‘interactions of our judgements about ends to be sought with knowledge of the means for achieving them’. In this way the question becomes ascertaining what we need to know to implement proper practice. Rather than seeking knowledge in order to maintain life, he suggests seeking knowledge beyond traditional dogmatic frameworks in order to live and act rightly and with certainty: ‘[J]ust as belief that a magical ceremony will regulate the growth of seeds to full harvest stifles the tendency to investigate natural causes and their workings, so acceptance of dogmatic rules as bases of conduct in education, morals and social matters, lessens the impetus to find out about the conditions which are involved in forming intelligent plans.’ This requires the individual to seek after the corporate good beyond the traditional Christian pursuit of striving for personal salvation.

Chapter 3, ‘Conflict of Authorities’, wrestles with the attempts of Spinoza, Kant and Hegel to rectify the difficulties between ultimate knowing, morals and scientific claims which persist in partitions that keep the two apart. As Dewey understands it, the problem is ‘that knowledge is concerned with the disclosure of the characteristics of antecedent existence and essences, and that properties of value found therein provide the authoritative standards for the conduct of life’. ‘The Arts of Acceptance and Control’, chapter 4, argues for a reorientation of our traditional conceptions of knowledge to incorporate a more scientific experimental model: ‘if we frame our conception of knowledge on the experimental model, we find that it is a way of operating upon and with things of ordinary experience so that we can frame our ideas of them in terms of their interactions with one another’. In so doing, Dewey argues that upon reflective appraisal, actions can be judged in a moral sense by their outcomes and in turn knowledge progresses towards enabling better moral choices. Chapter 5, ‘Ideas at Work’, persists in arguing that knowledge can either be the reduplication of ideas that already exist, like ‘photographs’, or they can take the form of plans of operation which will ‘change the face of the world’. He contends that this is a creative process ‘integral with the course of experience itself, not imported from the external source of a reality beyond’. Dewey states in his sixth chapter, ‘The Play of Ideas’, that ideas need to be tested in experience. As a result, it is justifiable to pursue idealistic systems of philosophy, but they must be tested by experimental means and measured against actual experience. The value of empirical inquiry within science has demonstrated its value and Dewey challenges ‘philosophy to consider the possibility of the extension of the method of operative intelligence to direction of life in other fields’.

In chapter 7, ‘The Seat of Intellectual Authority’, Dewey articulates that scientific hypotheses are necessary steps in attaining clearer understanding of the natural world, whether they are wholly true or not. They often serve their purpose and then are replaced with better and clearer methods. So it should be with philosophical interpretations. Rather than being utterly disregarded if they prove insufficient in some capacity, they still leave fruits, ‘and these fruits are the abiding advance of knowledge’. He regards his proposed experimental method as a philosophical hypothesis which is generally possible and must be tested in action. This process, however, is not as finite as the scientific experiments in a controlled laboratory. ‘The Naturalization of Intelligence’, chapter 8, states that life experiences must be viewed through ‘reflective knowledge’ in order to make sense of them in the wider context of human life; otherwise, they are simply fragmentary events. Like the astronomer who studies stars from afar and must interpret from general observations, so too is the process of reflective knowledge applied to human experience. Chapter 9, ‘The Supremacy of Method’, declares ‘uncertainty is primarily a practical matter’, by which Dewey means, ‘only after expertness has been gained in special fields of inquiry does the mind set out at once from problems’. Through experimental inquiry into human experience a reflective knowledge may take root through which goods may be ascertained and acted out. The importance of importing scientific method and empirical analysis is imperative, as ‘it is . . . the most powerful tool we posses for developing other modes of knowledge’. In traditional philosophy, moral and social issues are largely just framed into larger conceptual systems. Dewey calls for the removal of these artificial barriers of classification which ‘would place method and means upon the level of importance that has, in the past, been imputed exclusively to ends’. ‘The Construction of Good’, chapter 10, is Dewey’s call for philosophy to move from trying to accommodate the conclusions of science and long-held belief systems into looking constructively forward to develop achievable paths to what society might become. Finally, in ‘The Copernican Revolution’ Dewey dispels the possibility of philosophy formulating a complete integrated system of knowledge. Instead, he argues that philosophy ought to endeavour to take the ‘specialized results of science’ and make sense of them in the larger social context, directing it forward ‘in practical action’ for the betterment of humankind. Ultimately, philosophy must ‘search out and disclose the obstructions . . . criticize the habits of mind which stand in the way . . . focus reflection upon needs congruous to present life . . . [and] interpret the conclusions of science with respect to their consequences for our beliefs about purposes and values in all phases of life’.

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh