Philosophy 170 Course Notes
Reconstruction in Philosophy

Copyright 1999-2000 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711

John Dewey wrote Reconstruction in Philosophy in 1920 and revised it somewhat in 1948, adding an extensive new preface. Out of all the Dewey pieces that we will read, this semester, this one is the most in line with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James in overtly considering philosophy-as-such and, especially, in taking a position with respect to methodology that represents Pragmatism. It should be compared with Peirce's essay "The Fixation of Belief;" both Dewey's book and Peirce's essay borrow from the thesis of Auguste Comte's Introduction to Positive Philosophy (1842).

While both Comte and Peirce presented views of antiquity that were unsympathetic, Dewey was able to see the importance of these beginnings and emphasized the reasonableness of philosophy's growth-and-development out of poetic and mythic tradition. Reasonable or not, however, Dewey also understood that the time had come for a "reconstruction" of philosophy. The rationalization of myth into metaphysical systems had been guided by an emotional need to retain thematic ties with traditional mythic material. As metaphysical systems were constructed, they tended to emphasize logic and rational argument as their foundations, creating a dangerous separation between philosophical system and human experience. All of this inhibited the imaginative process and kept the results of philosophy tied to any and all of the fundamental errors of the distant past. As a practical and necessary pursuit, philosophy cannot afford to be tied to the past in these ways; nor can it afford to be distanced from human experience in unnatural ways. The question of this book, then, is what reconstructing philosophy should mean. What is an appropriate philosophical methodology for the future?

One should note, incidentally, that this question was no mere invention of American Pragmatists. Soren Kierkegaard had already posed similar questions in the first half of the 19th Century; and Friedrich Nietzsche made the point resoundingly clear in the second half of the Century through pointed criticisms of traditional philosophers and strong suggestions regarding the need of "free spirits" and "noble minds" of the future. In the first half of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger refused to call his work "philosophy" as such and made reference, instead, to "questioning" and "thinking." The 20th Century's greatest philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, equally well de-constructed philosophy and produced radically different ways toward thinking through traditional issues. Wittgenstein compared philosophy to the scaffolding needed to construct a building and suggested that scaffolding must be pulled down after construction is over.

Taking an historical point of view, it becomes clear that science also suffered a developmental pattern similar to philosophy. The difference lies in the fact that science proceeded through a revolutionary transformation from the 16th through the 17th Century. We see this transformation in the scientific approaches of Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton; their philosophical counterparts are in Bacon, Descartes, and Locke. The re-orientation of science from Scholastic demonstration to observational experimentation produced the Modern world as we know it. Science continued, indeed accelerated, its growth as a powerful gatherer of new knowledge about the natural world. Philosophy developed new concepts to rationalize the progress of science. Invention and industry, along with new political ideas and economic modes of organization, moved nations into spectacular new developments. Unfortunately, there was a very dark side to the shapes assumed by the Modern world. By the time Dewey revised and enlarged his book, we had experienced two tremendously destructive world wars. If philosophers had kept up somewhat with the conceptual challenges of rationalizing science, they had not seen the need of a revolutionized philosophical methodology when it came to the future needs of understanding human and social problems. Instead, as explained in his first chapter, philosophy had continued to merely rationalize and systematize poetic and mythic materials that the Modern world would make even more hopelessly out-dated.

The fundamental problem in philosophy, in Dewey's view, is the attempt (whether conscious or unconscious) to restore the security of absolutism that is a regular trait of all antiquated mythic tradition. Mythic traditions were modernized and carried forward in the major religious systems. As religious skepticism and reformation occurred, moral, social, and political content had to be defined and defended in new ways and metaphysical systems were created to carry that burden. These systems simply installed new kinds of absolute concepts and essences; the security of moral sentiments seemed in tact. The modern reconstruction of philosophy begins in Kant's attack against metaphysics but Kant's work continues the absolutist past through its heavy emphasis on "pure reason" and his concepts of a priori synthetic knowledge, that is, necessary knowledge about the world. Alas, in the end, Dewey believes, we must give up all of these devices of absolutism, certainty, and security. The issue for humans is the exercise of intelligence and not the need to be wired into any system of absolute reality or truth. Human experience is in process. Thought and action are constants within that process. How do we make the most intelligent use of these?

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