Monday, June 25, 2012

Dewey on Whitehead

This is from John Dewey's "The Philosophy of Whitehead" as cited from the Critical and Collected Edition of his works. This displays Dewey's robust realist, emergentist view of nature.

"If I had a right to assume on the part of the reader acquaintance with my own writings on the topic of the reciprocal connections of nature and experience, and the bearing of these connections upon the problems and task of philosophy, I would add that it will also be obvious why I cite this particular passage. For what I have called the background and point of departure seems to be the same for both of us, no matter what deviations may occur later. And such a community of backgrounds is so rare that I make no apology for dwelling upon it at the outset. In any case, the reader is entitled to the warning that my belief in the fundamental significance of the ideas set forth in the passage quoted controls what I have to say about the tenor of Whitehead's philosophy. If I am wrong in attributing central importance to the ideas that experience is a manifestation of the energies of the organism; that these energies are in such intimate continuity with the rest of nature that the traits of experience provide clews for forming "generalized descriptions" of nature— the especial business of philosophy according to Whitehead— and that what is discovered about the rest of nature (constituting the conclusions of the natural sciences) provides the organs for analyzing and understanding what is otherwise obscure and ambiguous in experiences directly had—if, I say, I am wrong in this view, then there will be no particular point to what I have further to say." (LW 14:125)

"This doctrine that all actual existences are to be treated as "occasions of experience" carries and elaborates, it seems to me, the significance contained in the propositions I quoted earlier about the depth and width of scope of experience. The idea that the immediate traits of distinctively human experience are highly specialized cases of what actually goes on in every actualized event of nature does infinitely more than merely deny the existence of an impassable gulf between physical and psychological subject-matter. It authorizes us, as philosophers engaged in forming highly generalized descriptions of nature, to use the traits of immediate experience as clews for interpreting our observations of non-human and non-animate nature. It also authorizes us to carry over the main conclusions of physical science into explanation and description of mysterious and inexplicable traits of experience marked by "consciousness." It enables us to do so without engaging in the dogmatic mechanistic materialism that inevitably resulted when Newtonian physics was used to account for what is distinctive in human experience. That which on the negative side is simply an elimination of the grounds of the metaphysical dualism of physical and mental, material and ideal, object and subject, opens the road to free observation of whatever experience of any kind discloses and points toward:—free, that is, from a rigid frame of preconceptions." (LW 14:127)

"For the generalization of "experience" which is involved in calling every actual existence by the name "occasion of experience" has a two-fold consequence, each aspect of this dual consequence being complementary to the other. The traits of human experience can be used to direct observation of the generalized traits of all nature. For they are intensified manifestations, specialized developments, of conditions and factors found everywhere in nature. On the other hand, all the generalizations to which physical science leads are resources available for analysis and descriptive interpretation of all the phenomena of human life, personal and "social." It is my impression that in his earlier writings Whitehead started preferably from the physical side, and then moved on to a doctrine of nature "in general" without much explicit attention to what may be called experience from the psychological point of view, while in his later writings he supplements and extends the conclusions thus reached by adoption of a reverse movement:—that from specialized human experience through physical experience to a comprehensive doctrine of Nature. The "events" of his earlier treatises thus become the "occasions of experience" of later writings. But whether or not this impression is well-founded is of slight importance compared with the fact that Whitehead proceeds systematically upon the ground indicated in the following passage: "The world within experience is identical with the world beyond experience, the occasion of experience is within the world and the world is within the occasion. The categories have to elucidate this paradox of the connectedness of things:—the many things, the one world without and within." (LW 14:128)


  1. I am still having formatting problems with Blogger....

  2. Thanks for this. Whitehead's desire to mend the bifurcation of nature between inner experience and extended matter certainly seems to overlap with Dewey's take on the role of experience in nature and the place of nature in experience. The analogous relationship between the general characteristics of human psychology and the general characteristics of cosmic reality is something I will zero in on in my dissertation. As Dewey mentions, the analogy works both ways, from the human nature to cosmic nature, and from cosmic nature to human nature, re-working our conception of each. This leads to a kind of anthrodecentrism, but not the kind those in favor of a "flat" ontology might prefer.

    If it turns out that the process folks are right, then experience is hardly as "inner" as we thought, and matter is hardly as "external" as we thought. Human consciousness then becomes a specific and highly complex form of a far more widespread natural phenomenon. "Ex-per-ience," in all its forms, is characterized by the passage into, through, and out of the past, present, and future dimensions of time.

  3. That comment was Matt, by the way.

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm going to nitpick: remember that the relationship is more than "analogous." I know that you know, but an unforgiving reader might misunderstand.

    You're right; it is an "anthrodecentrism" without a reduction of the real to a single unit. In fact, in Dewey, its radically plural and open. You get an "anthrodecentrism" without a presumption to speak for the cosmos, while still acknowledging that anything we say is "centered" on us.

    I do particularly like your mentions of time, but hey, that's no surprise. I think that what is special about sentient beings (not just humans) is how they exist in time.

  5. Jason,

    I should have been more clear. When I spoke of "analogy," I was referring to the Hermetic principle of analogy, which is cosmological in orientation (rather than simply linguistic).

  6. Pardon, Matt.

    Can you link a post where you discuss this or give me a quick definition?

  7. I'll provide a few links relevant to the idea of Hermetic analogy. It's an idea I've encountered in thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, Valentin Tomberg, and Teilhard de Chardin.


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