The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 27. John Dewey

The vital and arresting words in which James was able to put his thoughts were bound to attract large public attention. But it is doubtful whether he would have got a full hearing from American philosophers if it were not for the powerful support of John Dewey, the only American about whom has been formed a regular philosophic school. Dewey began his philosophic career under the influence of Harris, T. H. Green, and Bosanquet, and in his early writings, e.g., his Psychology, he showed himself a master of Hegelian dialectics. Reflection, however, led him to find an incurable incompatibility between the supernaturalism latent in idealism and the naturalistic account of the origin of human thought. He completely accepts James’s view of the biologic function of thought, and brings to its service such a thorough mastery of philosophic technique as to compel attention from philosophers who, like other professionals, find it hard to admit the existence of good music where there is no obvious virtuosity. Despite his large debt to James’s Principles of Psychology, Dewey is an independent ally rather than a disciple, and James was largely indebted in his later writings to Dewey’s doctrine of the instrumental character of our ideas. It appears that pragmatism, like other successful human movements, can appeal to men of most diverse temperaments. While James is keenly alive to the claims of the traditional supernaturalism and uses pragmatism as a way of justifying it, Dewey uses pragmatism as a means of eliminating all theologic problems. Philosophic concepts, like God, Freedom, and Immortality, he tells us bluntly, have outlived their usefulness as sanctions, and the business of philosophy henceforth is to be with those ideas which will help us to transform the empirical world. Despite the complexity of his sentences, which an austere regard for accuracy causes to be overloaded with qualifications, Dewey is essentially one of those philosophers who, like Spinoza, impress the world with their profound simplicity. He is entirely free from that human complexity which makes James banish the soul and even consciousness as psychologic entities and yet favour the subconscious mind, Fechner’s earth spirits, and the like.