The contributions of John Dewey were very relevant for different fields related to the human sciences. Although trained as a philosopher, Dewey was also influential in psychology, pedagogy, logic and even in American politics, since he openly defended very progressive positions.
In this article we will review the life and work of John Dewey. We will place special emphasis on his contributions to philosophy and psychology within the frameworks of pragmatism and functionalism, respectively.
Biography of John Dewey
The American John Dewey was born in 1859 in Burlington, in the state of Vermont. There he went to the university to study Philosophy. Evolutionary theories had a key influence on the development of his thought; throughout his career he would focus on the interaction between the human being and his environment, inspired by the idea of Darwin’s natural selection.
After graduating in 1879 Dewey worked for two years as a primary and secondary school teacher, but eventually chose to devote himself to philosophy. He received his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; the next 10 years he was professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and in 1894 he joined the one in Chicago, which had just been founded.
By then Dewey had already written his first two books: Psychology (1887) and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding (1888). In these works he synthesized Hegelian idealism and experimental science applied to human behavior and thought.
Later evolution of his thought
Subsequently Dewey’s philosophy evolved to approach the American pragmatism, which began to develop at that time. He applied his theses to the educational context through the publication of the book School and Society (1899) and the founding of a pedagogical laboratory, although he ended up renouncing his position as director.
For the rest of his life Dewey worked as a professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, in New York City. There he became involved with many philosophers and his thinking was enriched thanks to contributions from very different perspectives.
His focus of interest continued to be pedagogy, always linked to philosophy, logic and politics; In fact, he was an activist committed to causes such as the defense of immigrant rights, the unionization of teachers, women’s suffrage and participatory democracy in general. John Dewey died in 1952, at 92 years old.
Philosophical proposal: pragmatism
Pragmatism is a philosophical current that emerged in the United States in the 1870s. This tradition defends that thought does not have as its main function the representation of reality but its prediction and action on it.
It is considered that Charles Sanders Peirce was the founder of pragmatism. Other relevant philosophers who followed him were William James, Chauncey Wright, George Herbert Mead and John Dewey himself. However, this author described himself as instrumentalist and consequentialist as well as pragmatist.
Dewey believed that philosophers took as true constructs that had been created only to help conceptualize reality, while ignoring the mental functions that constitute thought in itself. For him, as for the rest of functionalists, this should be the focus of attention of philosophy.
From this perspective, thought is understood as an active construction that takes place from the human interaction with the environment, so it is constantly updated. This is opposed to the classical view of ideas as passive results of the observation of the world.
Thus, according to pragmatism, human concepts are not a reflection of reality nor is there an absolute truth, as claimed by the rationalist and formalist philosophers. The practical utility of a “truth” or the consequences of an act are what gives them meaning, and therefore philosophy must focus on the objective and not the concepts.
Functionalism is a theoretical orientation of psychology that analyzes behavior and cognition from the point of view of active adaptation to the environment. Logically there is a strong relationship between functionalist psychology and pragmatism in philosophy.
At a more general level, functionalism was a philosophy that also influenced sociology and anthropology.
William James founded functionalism, although he did not consider himself part of this current nor he agreed with the division of scientists into schools of thought. Other authors who made relevant contributions in this framework, in addition to Dewey, were George Herbert Mead, James McKeen Cattell and Edward Thorndike.
Functionalism emerged as a reaction to Edward Tichtener’s structuralism; James or Dewey rejected their introspective methodology, but they continued to emphasize conscious experience. Subsequently, behaviorism criticized functionalist positions because they were not based on controlled experiments and therefore had no predictive capacity.
Functionalist psychology was inspired by the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and his followers. Nowadays functionalism continues to live above all in evolutionary psychology, which analyzes the development of the human mind from a phylogenetic point of view.