John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher who taught at many universities, including Michigan, Minnesota, Chicago, and Columbia. He wrote extensively on the philosophy of education and on epistemology. He also wrote on logic, ethics, and aesthetics, and he was recognized as a founder (with C.S. Peirce and William James) of the philosophy of pragmatism. His books included The School and Society (1899), Democracy and Education (1916), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), The Public and its Problems (1927), Experience and NatureThe Quest for Certainty (1929), Ethics (1932), Art as Experience (1934), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Freedom and Culture (1939), and Knowing and the Known (1949, with Arthur F. Bentley).
The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (1929) is based on the Gifford Lectures (1929) that Dewey delivered at the University of Edinburgh. The lectures are concerned with the difference between knowledge and belief, and they consider the question of how knowledge and belief can contribute to practical action.
The text is divided into eleven chapters: 1) ”Escape from Peril,” 2) “Philosophy’s Search for the Immutable,” 3) “Conflict of Authorities,” 4) “The Art of Acceptance and the Art of Control,” 5) “Ideas at Work,” 6) “The Play of Ideas,” 7) “The Seat of Intellectual Authority,” 8) “The Naturalization of Intelligence,” 9) “The Supremacy of Method,” 10) “The Construction of Good,” and 11) “The Copernican Revolution.”
Philosophers have frequently been misled, says Dewey, by the assumption that the difference between knowledge and belief is the same as the difference between certainty and uncertainty. Knowledge has often been assumed to be a state of certainty, while belief has been assumed to be a state of uncertainty. Permanent and logically necessary truths have been assumed to be possible objects of knowledge, while conditional or empirical truths have been assumed to be objects of belief.
Certainty is more easily attainable in theory than in practice, and the truth of some judgments about what actions should be performed in a given situation may appear to be certain in theory but may only be probable in actual practice. The quest for certainty may thus be an attempt to separate theory from practice, and it may be an attempt to separate knowledge from action.
The quest for certainty may also be a quest for knowledge, and theoretical knowledge may often be assumed to be knowledge of a realm of ultimate reality. Belief, on the other hand, may often be assumed to be a mode of thinking about a realm of uncertainty or probability.
An important question that has been considered by many philosophers is whether knowledge can be attained only of things that are unchanging or whether it can also be attained of things that are changing. If knowledge can be attained only of things that are unchanging, then our actions in a changing world must be guided by our beliefs about the nature of that world.
The quest for certainty may be an attempt to transcend belief, but beliefs are important for any mode of empirical inquiry because they may be plans for practical action. Thus, the quest for certainty arises from a need for perfecting the methods and results of practical action.
Theoretical knowledge has often been regarded as a "higher" knowledge of ultimate reality, while practical knowledge has often been regarded as a "lower" knowledge of the empirical world. However, the procedures of knowledge do not justify the separation of theory from practice or of knowledge from action. Knowledge of ultimate reality cannot be separated from knowledge of the empirical world. According to Dewey, knowledge is how we act on, and how we interact with, the empirical world. Knowledge is defined by practical action.
Instead of trying to discover what is permanent and unchanging in the realm of ultimate reality, experimental inquiry may try to discover how change occurs in the empirical world. The quest for certainty may thus seek methods for regulating the conditions of change that affect the outcome of events. If experimental inquiry does not find that the universe consists of unchangeable substances which have fixed or mmutable properties, however, then certainty about empirical phenomena cannot be attained by knowledge of a supposedly permanent and unchanging realm of ultimate reality. Theoretical certainty must then be assimilated by practical certainty, which can only be attained if we learn how to engage in prctical modes of thinking.
Knowledge may not be attained merely by trying to escape from conditions of doubt or uncertainty. Knowledge may depend on uncertainty, however, in order to discover the possible outcomes of empirical phenomena. It may thus be attained by a mode of active inquiry and may be instrumental for practical actionsevents in the empirical world. Knowledge is thus instrumental for practical action.
Thought is not merely a property of intellect, says Dewey. It is an activity leading to practical action.1 Practical action depends on belief, because beliefs are rules for action. The validity of beliefs depends on their consequences for action.
Some schools of philosophic and religious thought have claimed that rules for practical action can be found in the moral perfection that is inherent in absolute being. However, knowledge of the empirical world can only be attained through practical action, and reality is not independent of the consequences of practical action.
"Idealistic" theories of knowledge may affirm that the real world consists of ideas, but "realistic" theories of knowledge may affirm that the real world exists independently of our ideas or perceptions. True idealism may be not merely the theory that the world consists of ideas, but the recognition that ideas are important for action. Ideas may enable us to reconstruct the world, and they may enable us to formulate plans for action.
If what is known about an object is not independent of the act of knowing the nature of its reality, then knowing becomes an act of participation. Thus, the true and valid object of knowledge is that which has consequences for practical action.
Furthermore, knowing cannot be separated from doing. Knowing is a mode of doing, because knowledge enables us to interact with the world.2 Knowledge and practical action provide the resolution of whatever is doubtful or uncertain.
The quest for certainty, says Dewey, is an attempt to separate theory from practice, and it is an attempt to separate knowledge from action. It may also be an attempt to unify the ideal and the real. However, these are the only explanations for the quest for certainty that are provided by Dewey. He does not describe other modes of being (such as religious faith) by which it may be possible to respond to the need for certanty. Although he admits that dogmatic opinion or fixed belief may be a response to the need for certainty, he does not says whether passive acceptance of prevailing opinion (or passive acceptance of public authority) may be another response to this need.
The investigation of the quest for certainty also reveals that certainty may not necessarily be the aim of philosophical inquiry, because philosophical inquiry may end if certainty is attained.
Thus, uncertainty may be a source of philosophical inquiry because it may lead to active questioning about the nature of reality.
1John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1930), p. 160.
2Ibid., p. 220.
Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1930.