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

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 28. Naturalism

Dewey is a thoroughgoing and consistent naturalist. He not only accepts the Darwinian account of the origin of the human faculty, but he also relies on the method of the Darwinian descriptive naturalist to build up the body of philosophic ideas. He makes no attempt to build up or deduce any part of the world on the basis of his fundamental assumption, but ideas are sought in their natural state and described just where, when, and how they function. This preference for naturalistic description rather than for systematic deduction as a philosophic method is not merely a matter of temperament; it also indicates the extent to which Darwin’s work has so affected men’s imagination as to cause natural history to replace mathematics and physics as the model of scientific method.

In the history of philosophy naturalism has been associated with the study of physics (generally atomic), with emphasis on the way our thoughts are controlled by our bodies or by the physical environment. Dewey has no physical theories. He is a psychologist, primarily interested in how and why men think and how their thoughts modify their experience. He is a professed realist in his belief that our thoughts alone do not constitute the nature of things but that there is a pre-existing world of which thought is an outgrowth and on which it reacts. But the continual emphasis on thought as efficient in transforming our world gives him the appearance of having remained an idealist inspite of his conversion. Like the Hegelian idealists, he distrusts abstractions and prefers the “organic” point of view to that which views things as composed of distinct elements. He differs from the Hegelians in this respect only in his contention that everything acquires its meaning by reference to a changing “situation” instead of by reference to an all inclusive totality. Like the ethical idealists, also, Dewey insists with Puritanic austerity on the serious responsibility of philosophy. It must not be a merely æsthetic contemplation of the world, nor a satisfaction of idle curiosity or wonder. It must be a means for reforming or improving. Just what constitutes an improvement of man’s estate we are not clearly told. In his theory of education which forms the chief impetus and application of his theoretic views the plasticity of human nature is fully recognized; and he argues that intelligence not only makes us more efficient in attaining given ends, but liberalizes our ends. In the main, however, he emphasizes improved control over external nature rather than improved control over our own passions and desires.