Ideas and Education

Now back to John Dewey who felt that his instrumental view of reality did away with the philosophical problem of mind and matter.  Prior to communication reality is an unending stream of events that are embedded in the circumstances that gave rise to them. With language these events can be named and they become objects, which Dewey defined as events with meaning. The meaning attributed to the objects generally had to do with the possible consequences of that event. As an example let’s go back to the sound of rushing water from my last post. That sound when you name it “water” becomes a symbol for a something that now means the substance which will have the consequence of quenching my thirst if I drink it.

Empiricists and Idealists had been disagreeing for centuries over which was more real thought or the physical world. Empiricists defined reality by sensible characteristics – the fact that you can see, hear, touch and measure things. Idealists tended to define what was most real by some notion of an ideal essence of a thing that existed beyond the sensible character in the mind. In both cases the problem of mind and matter existed. Which was real? To empiricists matter was real and mind gave us a representation of that reality. To idealists the essence was real and matter was an inferior manifestation of the essence in time and space. Dewey felt that Instrumentalism catapulted beyond this duality.  Something is real if its being has consequence, in other words if circumstances or other people have to somehow accommodate and adjust to its existence. If something is supposed to exist and yet nothing happens as a result of its existence then in what sense is it real?

In this way Dewey said both mind and matter are real, both ideas and physical objects are real because both lead to consequences. If you put a large rock in the middle of the road it is not real because you can see it, you can feel it or you can measure its weight. It is real because cars have to drive around it. It is real because it leads to consequences. An idea is real because ideas force us to adjust to them. If I am rushing to the airport and I hear that the airport has closed due to bad weather, my actions will have to adjust to accommodate this idea.

In his book “Experience and Nature” Dewey illustrates this point with the example of the founding of America. We commonly think of America as a place that was discovered, but what was discovered? A continent was discovered upon which America would be developed, but what is America? America to Dewey was an idea, an idea of a place that leads to consequences in terms of human activity. America was not limited to the North American continent. During the centuries it has existed America as an idea has lived as an idea in the mind of Europeans as well as Americans. People make choice and base behavior on this idea and therefore the idea is real. America is an idea that leads to consequences in the action of people. In the river of activity and affairs that is life an idea, like the idea of America, is a metaphorical rock in the road and the further flow of life will be influenced by this idea in many different ways.

Dewey, reminiscent of Martin Heidegger, recognized that naming an experience gave meaning to that experience and create an object that would have the meaning as an inherent part of it for anyone who could understand the language. Using language the meaning could then be communicated and shared to others. Ideas were the tool or vehicle for guiding the relentless rush of nature forward into the future. Nature as he saw it was an “affair of affairs,” a string of events that begin and end. The ending of every event is the beginning of the next. All of the events have consequences that affect future events. Reality is a connected stream of being that is constantly being guided by what has already happened. And the beginnings and endings became the world of the future.

Dewey saw that the ability to see instrumentally, to see not only things as they currently are and where they have come from, but also where they could go, would allow humanity to control the development of the future. The creation and communication of ideas create new objects that future human activity has to adapt to. These mental objects are the rocks in the paths of mental highways and can be used to direct the traffic of human activity that will build the future. Dewey saw the world as interconnected consequential events and was compelled to learn how to guide the further development of events through generating new ideas and spreading them as shared experience in the field of mind.  This was his version of conscious evolution and he elected to devote his efforts largely to developing educational systems because that is where he felt he could make the biggest impact on the development of the future.