A System of Values Through Science? - Experience and Nature Ch. 10 - John Dewey

Experience and Nature Ch. 10 (Part I of II) from John Dewey

This chapter is John Dewey's attempt at reconciling his idea that science has replace the discipline of philosophy with its empirical methods and the problem of human moral values not easily fitting within this framework. He dances around in this chapter trying to some fit these two things together. Here is part I. 

Outdated Systems of Moral Teleology

Dewey begins chapter 10 of Experience and Nature by criticizing the philosophical tradition of ethics or value. He says that the Classical tradition is that of thinking about the world as made up of metaphysical essences which have objective "ends" which bring about the perfection of their existence. He claims that science has shown that this situation is untenable. Rather, reality is not guided by these essences, but is evolving, in flux, and always changing. Therefore, there is not one proper end, rather things come to all types of ends as their terminus. 

"Yet if we are to recur to the Greek conceptions, the return must be a return with a difference. It must surrender the identification of natural ends with good and perfection; recognizing that a natural end, a part from endeavor expressing choice, has no intrinsic eulogistic quality, but is the boundary which writes “Finis” to a chapter of history inscribed by a moving system of energies. Failure by exhaustion as well as by triumph may constitute an end; death, ignorance, as well as life, are finalities." 1

This means that systems and theories of philosophical value are confused. They think they are talking about intrinsic nature of value in things, while in reality they are only talking about the order of causation of how things interact, as there is not inherent nature in things that is the source of its moral value or worth. While they think they are speaking objectively about value, Dewey says they are only "criticisms" of value, abstracted systems of value. 

Rather, all that we can really say is what is empirical, what we experience of a value. We can only point to the fact that this experience was either positive or negative, good or bad for us. Whether it was a "means" or "end" doesn't really matter, there's only experience. It's not as though there is a metaphysical subordinated of things regarding their value. We should recognized that these systems are unnecessary and all we can really speak about is experience of value. 

Immediate Versus Rational Determinations of Value

Dewey then turns the conversation to regarding the nature of values. He says that not all criticism is bad. Philosophy for him, is a "criticism of criticism," meaning that it is an unnecessary and unnatural abstraction taken too far. In a natural sense, criticism happens all day long in everything that we do. He mentions that since there's not an endless supply of novel pleasures, that the pleasures that manifest themselves as immediately evident can get worn out, they can disappear, or we can just get tired of them. Therefore, we are led into a type of natural criticism or discrimination of the values in front of us in order to avoid the cessation of value. Here a refined sense of taste may come into begin to appreciate the value of something that's more hidden or takes longer to extract. This is not the same thing as saying that there's some philosophical conclusion which we reach about the nature of reality, only a practical sense of refinement of the conditions in order to experience positive value. 

Traditionally in philosophy there is a negativity associated with short term gratification or value as opposed to a long term value or end. He says that this distinction is present within all different disciplines, but that when we do this we are not acting in some deep philosophical manner. Rather, this is just the everyday modicum of reason that we apply in order to experience positive value. 

"...formally emphatic instances are of exactly the same nature as the rhythmic alternation between slight agreeable acceptances, annoyed rejections and passing questionings and estimates, which make up the entire course of our waking experience, whether in revery, in controlled inquiry or in deliberate management of affairs." ...

"Criticism is reasonable and to the point, in the degree in which it extends and deepens these factors of intelligence found in immediate taste and enjoyment." 

To view the world in some other manner is to open up a whole slew of philosophical questions which proceed from the experience of value, but in Dewey's mind, cannot be answered in any meaningful sense. Essentially, what says what the right experience of value is in any given situation? The objects present in that situation? Some external formula? Some transcendent law? He doesn't see anywhere where these realities could be objectively anchored. For Dewey, there's no real reason to say that immediate gratification is worse than delayed gratification. 

The Danger of Beliefs, and the Role of a Scientific Philosophy

The only possibility could be that in rationalized goods there is something unique that's not present in immediate pleasure. Or it could be just that philosophy and long term values are just the crystallization of the criticism that takes places each moment as we choose between values for the best. To make better sense of the possible role that philosophy plays or could play, Dewey points out that the value of the object in front of us in an given situation is experienced as a value within a larger framework of values represented in our fundamental beliefs about the world. These beliefs themselves, whether religious or philosophical, are values themselves that we experience, and are temptations in the sense that we could be drawn to embody bad ideas which are not justified but provide a whole set of interpretations and conclusions about the world. So Dewey places all religious beliefs. The only fundamental and intrinsic value for Dewey is reasoning itself because it is only in reasoning that we can see to validate these fundamental beliefs. 

While traditionally Classicalists would say that values like pleasure aren't rational, and beliefs aren't values, Dewey lumps everything together in the same category of "experienced values." He is saying that beliefs, ideas, pleasures, values, science are all the same types of things. They all are values experienced, chosen in simple circumstances, and can be reflected upon for others versions of value. 
They all are subjects of value in which we have to take them and make them good for us in the right way. "Hence the primary function of philosophy at present is to make it clear that there is no such difference as this division assumes between science, morals, and esthetic appreciation." [This, of course, all makes sense in his reductionistic and materialist framework]. 

What, in the end, is the role of philosophy in values? Dewey doesn't think that philosophy has a unique mode of knowing proper to itself. Science has replaced philosophy. Rather, philosophy's job is to just help bring out the implications that science brings to bear on society by "... taking cognizance of their causes and consequences..." upon moral value and and becoming a type of system or criticism of these connections in life. Is this really necessary? Well, Dewey says, no it's not but can be helpful in the modern world where life is so jumbled and hard to keep up with. We tend towards the separation of types of knowledge and disciplines, philosophy should be the bridge between them all and a universal critic, translating their specific languages. 

Rejecting a Teleological View in Society

Dewey then turns his focus to society as a whole. He mentions Catholics bastardization of philosophy as a discipline which searches after ultimate truth, one that open to the absolute. He thinks that philosophy has no such mode of knowing, it is, again, the servant of science. The best that metaphysics can really do is point out common dualities in human experience, like the one Dewey has focused on regarding values -the immediate and the rational value-. Thus, all philosophy is good for practically is helping us make critical decisions. 

If this is the case and philosophy has lost its power of teleology and ultimate claims, then it should putting forth ideas that limit man's conception of himself and his actions in society. Rather, he should widen his breadth of experience and what is he is allowed to experience. No more single track of meaning for human life. We should break down traditional laws and barriers. Dewey thinks though that there are three obvious values, science, art, and social companionship. But any ideas that exclude others, cause confusion and strife should be eliminated. The attempt to input metaphysical essences into society as far as regulating actions is absurd, as Dewey only considers that which is natural and empirical as real.