Below is a passage from my book manuscript that explains Dewey’s Hegelian empiricism and phenomenology. Reading Dewey as a Lockean (or Kantian) has lead to generations of misinterpretation, and outside of pragmatist scholars this mistake and its implications are virtually unknown. Rorty knowingly severed this aspect of Dewey in his reading, as he willfully ignored Dewey’s metaphysics, but at least he was explicit and honest about it. Regular readers of this blog know that I work in “realist process phenomenology,” and this section should crystallize many previous posts. The metaphysics grounding my view is neo-Aristotelian (“neo” to the Nth power), which is crucial for the presuppositions about temporality, and includes dialectical thinking. Of course, there is much more to the metaphysics, but I mention these two points since they are departures from the Peircean elements that I frequently mention.
In “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism,” Dewey attempted to define immediate empiricism as “a presupposition as to what experience is and means” (MW 3:158; 74). Thomas Alexander calls this a “presupposition” or “attitude” that is the “postulate and criterion of immediate empiricism.” He is alluding to the natural versus phenomenological “attitude” of Husserl that is a methodological presupposition for a phenomenological analysis of experience. The postulate is “immediate empiricism postulates that things—anything, everything in the ordinary or non-technical use of the term ‘thing’—are what they are experienced as” (MW 4:158; 74). This is neither a naive realism nor subjectivism. Alexander explains the postulate in terms of the history of empiricism and idealism.
Consider the term “immediate.” It refers to something in direct contact that is not separated by a medium. With Descartes and then Locke, what are immediate to mind are ideas, which represent the external world. This leads to Humean skepticism, because the representation of the external world is a postulate that cannot be proven. The tradition of Kant and Hegel offered an alternative: the mind must mediate what is presented to it. There must be something immediate before the mind to inform its content, but in mind it is a “mediated immediacy.” According to the tradition of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, this revealed mind to be a self-transcending process that thereby grasps itself. Knowledge as self-knowledge is therefore possible as the result of a historic and temporal process that culminates in the Absolute’s knowing itself. Because such knowledge is internally related, as opposed to the external relations of the British empiricists, the Absolute grasps itself as an organic whole. Hence, immediacy then refers to the “immanent organic wholeness of the temporal process instead of a static relation of a mind to an idea.”
Dewey's initial phenomenological method was misunderstood, Alexander explains, because his contemporaries worked in the tradition of Locke rather than Hegel. For Dewey there would be no problem with experience being immediate, organic, temporal, internally mediated; he offered a naturalized Hegelian view. The postulate was not that “‘subjective appearances are reality,’ but that the present moment of experience is a dynamic orientation to a whole process; it is the attempt to organize that process [experience] into a unity. Alexander emphasizes the “temporal teleological structure of such a process; the attitude taken [towards the world] will reflect a certain perspective on the past as past and the future as future.” An act in the process is also an act of interpretation since it must select some plan of action to reconfigure ongoing activity. The intelligent articulation of experience is not a matter of overcoming immediacy to get mediated experience as knowledge. It is a matter of “investigating the possibilities inherent in the present to reconstruct itself,” which as knowledge “arises from the way we are in the world.”
The postulate of immediate empiricism entails that experience is a process that reconstructs the immediately given experience into a mediated experience. The reconstruction is internal to the process in which the present moment is dynamically oriented to the remembered past and anticipated future. The orientation reflects an attitude taken towards the world that selects a certain temporal perspective and the potentialities so afforded. Each act is also an interpretation as it is a selection of potentialities and thereby funds experience with new meaning. This process will be discussed later in detail.
An implication of this, writes Alexander, is that there are “other attitudes toward the world than those of trying to ‘know’ it,” which is a departure from both Hegelian idealisms and Lockean empiricisms. This leads to the distinction between reality as known and as encountered in other types of experience.
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