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Essays in Experimental Logic

Essays in Experimental Logic

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by John Dewey

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Essays in Experimental Logic By John Dewey. Published by THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. CHICAGO, ILLINOIS in 1916. Second Impression May 1918. Third Impression October 1920. Composed and Printed By The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.


Essays in Experimental Logic By John Dewey. Published by THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. CHICAGO, ILLINOIS in 1916. Second Impression May 1918. Third Impression October 1920. Composed and Printed By The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

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Essays in Experimental Logic

By John Dewey

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14574-7



THE key to understanding the doctrine of the essays which are herewith reprinted lies in the passages regarding the temporal development of experience. Setting out from a conviction (more current at the time when the essays were written than it now is) that knowledge implies judgment (and hence, thinking) the essays try to show (1) that such terms as "thinking," "reflection," "judgment" denote inquiries or the results of inquiry, and (2) that inquiry occupies an intermediate and mediating place in the development of an experience. If this be granted, it follows at once that a philosophical discussion of the distinctions and relations which figure most largely in logical theories depends upon a proper placing of them in their temporal context; and that in default of such placing we are prone to transfer the traits of the subject-matter of one phase to that of another—with a confusing outcome.


1. An intermediary stage for knowledge (that is, for knowledge comprising reflection and having a distinctively intellectual quality) implies a prior stage of a different kind, a kind variously characterized in the essays as social, affectional, technological, aesthetic, etc. It may most easily be described from a negative point of view: it is a type of experience which cannot be called a knowledge experience without doing violence to the term "knowledge" and to experience. It may contain knowledge resulting from prior inquiries; it may include thinking within itself; but not so that they dominate the situation and give it its peculiar flavor. Positively, anyone recognizes the difference between an experience of quenching thirst where the perception of water is a mere incident, and an experience of water where knowledge of what water is, is the controlling interest; or between the enjoyment of social converse among friends and a study deliberately made of the character of one of the participants; between aesthetic appreciation of a picture and an examination of it by a connoisseur to establish the artist, or by a dealer who has a commercial interest in determining its probable selling value. The distinction between the two types of experience is evident to anyone who will take the trouble to recall what he does most of the time when not engaged in meditation or inquiry.

But since one does not think about knowledge except when he is thinking, except, that is, when the intellectual or cognitional interest is dominant, the professional philosopher is only too prone to think of all experiences as if they were of the type he is specially engaged in, and hence unconsciously or intentionally to project its traits into experiences to which they are alien. Unless he takes the simple precaution of holding before his mind contrasting experiences like those just mentioned, he generally forms a habit of supposing that no qualities or things at all are present in experience except as objects of some kind of apprehension or awareness. Overlooking, and afterward denying, that things and qualities are present to most men most of the time as things and qualities in situations of prizing and aversion, of seeking and finding, of converse, enjoyment and suffering, of production and employment, of manipulation and destruction, he thinks of things as either totally absent from experience or else there as objects of "consciousness" or knowing. This habit is a tribute to the importance of reflection and of the knowledge which accrues from it. But a discussion of knowledge perverted at the outset by such a misconception is not likely to proceed prosperously.

All this is not to deny that some element of reflection or inference may be required in any situation to which the term "experience" is applicable in any way which contrasts with, say, the "experience" of an oyster or a growing bean vine. Men experience illness. What they experience is certainly something very different from an object of apprehension, yet it is quite possible that what makes an illness into a conscious experience is precisely the intellectual elements which intervene—a certain taking of some things as representative of other things. My thesis about the primary character of non-reflectional experience is not intended to preclude this hypothesis—which appears to me a highly plausible one. But it is indispensable to note that, even in such cases, the intellectual element is set in a context which is noncognitive and which holds within it in suspense a vast complex of other qualities and things that in the experience itself are objects of esteem or aversion, of decision, of use, of suffering, of endeavor and revolt, not of knowledge. When, in a subsequent reflective experience, we look back and find these things and qualities (quales would be a better word or values, if the latter word were not so open to misconstruction), we are only too prone to suppose that they were then what they are now—objects of a cognitive regard, themes of an intellectual gesture. Hence, the erroneous conclusion that things are either just out of experience, or else are (more or less badly) known objects.

In any case the best way to study the character of those cognitional factors which are merely incidental in so many of our experiences is to study them in the type of experience where they are most prominent, where they dominate; where knowing, in short, is the prime concern. Such study will also, by a reflex reference, throw into greater relief the contrasted characteristic traits of the non-reflectional types of experience. In such contrast the significant traits of the latter are seen to be internal organization: (1) the factors and qualities hang together; there is a great variety of them but they are saturated with a pervasive quality. Being ill with the grippe is an experience which includes an immense diversity of factors, but none the less is the one qualitatively unique experience which it is. Philosophers in their exclusively intellectual preoccupation with analytic knowing are only too much given to overlooking the primary import of the term "thing": namely, res, an affair, an occupation, a "cause"; something which is similar to having the grippe, or conducting a political campaign, or getting rid of an overstock of canned tomatoes, or going to school, or paying attention to a young woman:—in short, just what is meant in non-philosophic discourse by "an experience." Noting things only as if they were objects—that is, objects of knowledge—continuity is rendered a mystery; qualitative, pervasive unity is too often regarded as a subjective state injected into an object which does not possess it, as a mental "construct," or else as a trait of being to be attained to only by recourse to some curious organ of knowledge termed intuition. In like fashion, organization is thought of as the achieved outcome of a highly scientific knowledge, or as the result of transcendental rational synthesis, or as a fiction superinduced by association, upon elements each of which in its own right "is a separate existence." One advantage of an excursion by one who philosophizes upon knowledge into primary non-reflectional experience is that the excursion serves to remind him that every empirical situation has its own organization of a direct, non-logical character.

(2) Another trait of every res is that it has focus and context: brilliancy and obscurity, conspicuousness or apparency, and concealment or reserve, with a constant movement of redistribution. Movement about an axis persists, but what is in focus constantly changes. "Consciousness," in other words, is only a very small and shifting portion of experience. The scope and content of the focused apparency have immediate dynamic connections with portions of experience not at the time obvious. The word which I have just written is momentarily focal; around it there shade off into vagueness my typewriter, the desk, the room, the building, the campus, the town, and so on. In the experience, and in it in such a way as to qualify even what is shiningly apparent, are all the physical features of the environment extending out into space no one can say how far, and all the habits and interests extending backward and forward in time, of the organism which uses the typewriter and which notes the written form of the word only as temporary focus in a vast and changing scene. I shall not dwell upon the import of this fact in its critical bearings upon theories of experience which have been current. I shall only point out that when the word "experience" is employed in the text it means just such an immense and operative world of diverse and interacting elements.

It might seem wiser, in view of the fact that the term "experience" is so frequently used by philosophers to denote something very different from such a world, to use an acknowledgedly objective term: to talk about the typewriter, for example. But experience in ordinary usage (as distinct from its technical use in psychology and philosophy) expressly denotes something which a specific term like "typewriter" does not designate: namely, the indefinite range of context in which the typewriter is actually set, its spatial and temporal environment, including the habitudes, plans, and activities of its operator. And if we are asked why not then use a general objective term like "world," or "environment," the answer is that the word "experience" suggests something indispensable which these terms omit: namely, an actual focusing of the world at one point in a focus of immediate shining apparency. In other words, in its ordinary human usage, the term "experience" was invented and employed previously because of the necessity of having some way to refer peremptorily to what is indicated in only a roundabout and divided way by such terms as "organism" and "environment," "subject" and "object," "persons" and "things," "mind" and "nature," and so on.


Had this background of the essays been more explicitly depicted, I do not know whether they would have met with more acceptance, but it is likely that they would not have met with so many misunderstandings. But the essays, save for slight incidental references, took this background for granted in the allusions to the universe of nonreflectional experience of our doings, sufferings, enjoyments of the world and of one another. It was their purpose to point out that reflection ( and, hence, knowledge having logical properties) arises because of the appearance of incompatible factors within the empirical situation just pointed at: incompatible not in a mere structural or static sense, but in an active and progressive sense. Then opposed responses are provoked which cannot be taken simultaneously in overt action, and which accordingly can be dealt with, whether simultaneously or successively, only after they have been brought into a plan of organized action by means of analytic resolution and synthetic imaginative conspectus; in short, by means of being taken cognizance of. In other words, reflection appears as the dominant trait of a situation when there is something seriously the matter, some trouble, due to active discordance, dissentiency, conflict among the factors of a prior non-intellectual experience; when, in the phraseology of the essays, a situation becomes tensional.

Given such a situation, it is obvious that the meaning of the situation as a whole is uncertain. Through calling out two opposed modes of behavior, it presents itself as meaning two incompatible things. The only way out is through careful inspection of the situation, involving resolution into elements, and a going out beyond what is found upon such inspection to be given, to something else to get a leverage for understanding it. That is, we have (a) to locate the difficulty, and (b) to devise a method of coping with it. Any such way of looking at thinking demands moreover that the difficulty be located in the situation in question (very literally in question). Knowing always has a particular purpose, and its solution must be a function of its conditions in connection with additional ones which are brought to bear. Every reflective knowledge, in other words, has a specific task which is set by a concrete and empirical situation, so that it can perform that task only by detecting and remaining faithful to the conditions in the situation in which the difficulty arises, while its purpose is a reorganization of its factors in order to get unity.

So far, however, there is no accomplished knowledge, but only knowledge coming to be—learning, in the classic Greek conception. Thinking gets no farther, as thinking, than a statement of elements constituting the difficulty at hand and a statement—a propounding, a proposition—of a method for resolving them. In fixing the framework of every reflective situation, this state of affairs also determines the further step which is needed if there is to be knowledge—knowledge in the eulogistic sense, as distinct from opinion, dogma, and guesswork, or from what casually passes current as knowledge. Overt action is demanded if the worth or validity of the reflective considerations is to be determined. Otherwise, we have, at most, only a hypothesis that the conditions of the difficulty are such and such, and that the way to go at them so as to get over or through them is thus and so. This way must be tried in action; it must be applied, physically, in the situation. By finding out what then happens, we test our intellectual findings—our logical terms or projected metes and bounds. If the required reorganization is effected, they are confirmed, and reflection (on that topic) ceases; if not, there is frustration, and inquiry continues. That all knowledge, as issuing from reflection, is experimental (in the literal physical sense of experimental) is then a constituent proposition of this doctrine.

Upon this view, thinking, or knowledge-getting, is far from being the armchair thing it is often supposed to be. The reason it is not an armchair thing is that it is not an event going on exclusively within the cortex or the cortex and vocal organs. It involves the explorations by which relevant data are procured and the physical analyses by which they are refined and made precise; it comprises the readings by which information is got hold of, the words which are experimented with, and the calculations by which the significance of entertained conceptions or hypotheses is elaborated. Hands and feet, apparatus and appliances of all kinds are as much a part of it as changes in the brain. Since these physical operations (including the cerebral events) and equipments are a part of thinking, thinking is mental, not because of a peculiar stuff which enters into it or of peculiar non-natural activities which constitute it, but because of what physical acts and appliances do: the distinctive purpose for which they are employed and the distinctive results which they accomplish.

That reflection terminates, through a definitive overt act, in another non-reflectional situation, within which incompatible responses may again in time be aroused, and so another problem in reflection be set, goes without saying. Certain things about this situation, however, do not at the present time speak for themselves and need to be set forth. Let me in the first place call attention to an ambiguity in the term "knowledge." The statement that all knowledge involves reflection—or, more concretely, that it denotes an inference from evidence—gives offense to many; it seems a departure from fact as well as a wilful limitation of the word "knowledge." I have in this Introduction endeavored to mitigate the obnoxiousness of the doctrine by referring to "knowledge which is intellectual or logical in character." Lest this expression be regarded as a futile evasion of a real issue, I shall now be more explicit. (1) It may well be admitted that there is a real sense in which knowledge (as distinct from thinking or inquiring with a guess attached) does not come into existence till thinking has terminated in the experimental act which fulfils the specifications set forth in thinking. But what is also true is that the object thus determined is an object of knowledge only because of the thinking which has preceded it and to which it sets a happy term. To run against a hard and painful stone is not of itself, I should say, an act of knowing; but if running into a hard and painful thing is an outcome predicted after inspection of data and elaboration of a hypothesis, then the hardness and the painful bruise which define the thing as a stone also constitute it emphatically an object of knowledge. In short, the object of knowledge in the strict sense is its objective; and this objective is not constituted till it is reached. Now this conclusion—as the word denotes—is thinking brought to a close, done with. If the reader does not find this statement satisfactory, he may, pending further discussion, at least recognize that the doctrine set forth has no difficulty in connecting knowledge with inference, and at the same time admitting that knowledge in the emphatic sense does not exist till inference has ceased. Seen from this point of view, so-called immediate knowledge or simple apprehension or acquaintance-knowledge represents a critical skill, a certainty of response which has accrued in consequence of reflection. A like sureness of footing apart from prior investigations and testings is found in instinct and habit. I do not deny that these may be better than knowing, but I see no reason for complicating an already too confused situation by giving them the name "knowledge" with its usual intellectual implications. From this point of view, the subject-matter of knowledge is precisely that which we do not think of, or mentally refer to in any way, being that which is taken as a matter of course, but it is nevertheless knowledge in virtue of the inquiry which has led up to it.


Excerpted from Essays in Experimental Logic by John Dewey. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author

D. Micah Hester, an assistant professor of medical humanities at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is the coauthor of On James and the author of Community as Healing: Pragmatist Ethics in Medical Encounters.

Robert B. Talisse, an assistant professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, is the coauthor of On James and the author of Democracy after Liberalism.

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