How is John Dewey a dialectical thinker? I will not argue that Dewey is a dialectical thinker, as scholars such as Jim Good, John Shook, and Jim Garrison have already well established this. Rather, I ask how? It is a factual matter that Dewey was a Hegelian early in his career, and many attribute the dialectic of his thought to this, although John Shook argues that it originates earlier in his years studying physiological psychology. For those unaware, the idea that Dewey was a dialectical thinker beyond his early period is extremely controversial and appears to be a minority opinion. However, I would argue against critics that they describe the same dialectical mechanics that they disavow, and it appears that a distaste for connecting Dewey to Hegel or idealism has blinded some scholars to the connection. Dewey left Hegel behind, but not dialectical thinking.
The paradigm example of Dewey’s dialectical thought is in “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology.” It is widely taken as a turning point in his thought, since it synthesizes his Hegelian past, recent assimilation of William James, and becomes a foundation for all his later work. There he argues that we should not conceive of stimulus and response as discrete and separate, which leads to thinking of interaction as mechanical. Instead, something is a stimulus or response depending upon how it functions as part of overall activity. The fundamental unit of behavior is a “coordination,” i.e. a coordination of stimulus and response. Anything that suggests itself as stimulus is evaluated in terms of how we might respond to it, which is to say that the value of a stimulus is in terms of evoking responsiveness.
I will give Dewey’s example that he borrowed from James’ Psychology. The child who investigates the burning candle is not being stimulated by brightness, feeling pain, and then mechanically retracting a burnt finger. If the stimulation and result were truly disconnected, then their association remains a mystery; how does the child come to learn that candles lead to burning as opposed to any bright or flickering thing? Rather, the meaning of the situation gains its value from the series of coordinated sensory acts and resultant sensations. The dyad of act and sensation are guided by a third that holds them in tension, the value or meaning of the act, and any differentiation in either act or sensation leads to a different value. This overturns pre-existing theories that treat stimuli as having a fixed or discrete value. It also reveals Dewey’s core dialectical mechanic, which always comes in threes. Hegel, Peirce, and Dewey had an obsession with the number.
In most analyses, Dewey begins with a unity from which one makes a dyadic distinction: for example, stimulus and response from coordinated activity; environment and human organism from situation; disrupted activity and felt difficulty from problematic situation; etc. He follows James in conceiving conscious experience as a unity and a plenum. Unity is first from which comes plurality. However, Dewey’s movement of threes is not always one of diremption or differentiation. Unity can also be productive as in the case of feeling and quality forming meaning. In fact, Dewe
Dewey’s dialectic is always triadic and unfolds in one of two movements. The process is either a diremption of unity into multiplicity, or a production of multiplicity into unity. There is always an active transitory period in which the diremption or production takes place. This period is both an event and an energy that is not reducible to one part of the dyad, since it is a third that emerges or recedes depending on the movement. It crackles like the sparks of a Tesla coil vibrating between the contacts. These two movements may alternate or even nest within each other, as in the case of inquiry, wherein we imagine different possibilities of reconstructing the situation to rectify a problem.