A Responsive Philosophy

Conversation 18 from Living As Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century

By Jim Garrison, Larry Hickman, and Daisaku Ikeda

IKEDA: Dewey was pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of his audiences in Japan. In March 1919, he wrote from Japan to his children in the United States describing the lectures he was delivering at Tokyo Imperial University with his typical self-deprecating humor and wit:

I have now given three lectures. They are a patient race; there is still a good-sized audience, probably five hundred. We are gradually getting a superficial acquaintance with a good many people. (1)

Consisting of eight talks, the series was published in 1920 under the title Reconstruction in Philosophy. As the preface reveals, his lectures aimed to “exhibit the general contrasts between older and newer types of philosophic problems,” (2) casting traditional philosophy in a new light and attempting to reconstruct it.

HICKMAN: In Reconstruction in Philosophy, the famously mild-mannered Dewey vigorously criticized the long tradition of Western philosophy for its failure to address real human problems. He and his colleagues William James and F. C. S. Schiller were attempting a revolution in philosophy, and their efforts were being met with stubborn opposition by philosophers who wanted their discipline to remain in an ivory tower.

IKEDA: He was trying to revive the wisdom of an insular world and make it widely available. In Reconstruction in Philosophy, he rebuked the long-held misperception that intelligence has a static nature:

Intelligence is not something possessed once for all. It is in constant process of forming, and its retention requires constant alertness in observing consequences, an open-minded will to learn and courage in re-adjustment. In contrast with this experimental and re-adjusting intelligence, it must be said that Reason as employed by historic rationalism has tended to carelessness, conceit, irresponsibility, and rigidity—in short absolutism. (3)

This is a splendid insight into the essence of the learning process. To me, it is a starting point to which all engaged in intellectual pursuits should return.

He went on to say, “The modern world has suffered because in so many matters philosophy has offered it only an arbitrary choice between hard and fast opposites: Disintegrating analysis or rigid synthesis.” (4)

Dewey considered freeing philosophy from this dualistic reasoning extremely important to a philosophical reconstruction.

GARRISON: Dewey much preferred the word intelligence to rationality precisely because it expressed the creative character of the human mind that has to carry out constant reconstruction to adapt to an ever-changing world. Unlike the static concept of rationality with its fixed concepts and categories, individual and collective intelligence itself also undergoes continuous reconstruction within the world it strives to shape.

The Latin word intellectus, from which we derive words like intellect and intelligent, translates as “chosen among” or “understood.” It derives from the compound inter (among) and legere (to choose). Intelligence involves many things rationality not only ignores but also denigrates. For Dewey, all inquiry begins with the intuition of a qualitative situation that presents an obstacle to proper functioning.

In his essay “Qualitative Thought,” he shared Henri Bergson’s view that “intuition precedes conception and goes deeper.” (5) Further, we must intelligently choose from among the many different things present in any given situation if we are to determine the correct data for eventually defining a situation as a cognitive problem.

When we attend to a situation, we always rely on selective attention driven by our needs, interests, desires, concepts, and values. If we are a corrupt person, we will almost never intuit the situation properly or make the correct selections, so we will almost never be able to overcome the situation properly, however correct our thought.

IKEDA: Though we speak of intelligence, it is essential to cultivate the qualities that form our foundation as human beings—our system of values and ethics, and our creativity and sensibility.

GARRISON: For Dewey, imagination and emotions are also important parts of intelligence. In Art as Experience, he wrote:

No “reasoning” as reasoning, that is, as excluding imagination . . . can reach truth. . . . He [the inquirer] selects and puts aside as his imaginative sentiments move. “Reason” at its height cannot attain complete grasp and a self-contained assurance. It must fall back upon imagination—upon the embodiment of ideas in emotionally charged sense. (6)

Elsewhere, he goes so far as to insist that rationality is a “working harmony among diverse desires.” (7) Hence, rationality, or rather intelligence, is never a fixed thing; it is an evolving life function.

The Poisoned Arrow

IKEDA: Dewey issued a stern warning against the folly of being led astray by abstract concepts and ideologies, and losing sight of the realities of life and society. His cautionary attitude calls to mind the Buddhist parable of the poisoned arrow:

One of Shakyamuni’s disciples had a penchant for posing abstract philosophical questions, such as “Is the world infinite or finite?” or “Are the spirit and the physical body one or separate?” Shakyamuni would not heed such questions, knowing only too well that life’s problems could not be solved by abstract philosophical speculation divorced from the realities of living. This attitude irritated the disciple, who was fond of such intellectual discussion. One day, he rose and voiced his dissatisfaction, saying, “World Honored One, if you persist in refusing to answer my questions, I shall leave the order.” At this, Shakyamuni said reprovingly: “There once was a man who was hit by a poisoned arrow and lay writhing in agony. His friends and loved ones rushed to his side and tried to remove the arrow and treat his wound. But the man wouldn’t let them. Who was it that had fired the arrow? What was his name and what did he look like, he wanted to know. He insisted that no one remove the arrow and administer medicine until these questions had been answered. He then proceeded to ask what kind of arrow it was, what it was made of and so on, until finally, he died. “You, too, will no doubt die without attaining anything, still exclaiming until your last breath that you will not persevere in your practice unless you know whether the world is infinite or finite.” (8)

With this parable, Shakyamuni teaches that absorption in empty speculation solves none of the problems encountered in life. What matters is tapping the wisdom to achieve happiness and to take concrete action for others’ welfare.

This is the purpose of philosophy. I believe that Dewey’s philosophy resonates with what Shakyamuni teaches here.

HICKMAN: That is a wonderful story and an eloquent reminder of the importance of engaging real world problems with all of the intelligence we can muster.

Dewey was particularly critical of idle speculation or what he termed pure intellectualism because he thought that it tended to separate thinking from doing. I believe that Dewey would have been pleased to hear of the contributions that philosophers are now making to disciplines that address difficult questions that affect us all—disciplines such as environmental sciences, food bio-technology, medical research and practice, and especially education. Pure intellectualism doesn’t get one very far in addressing the problems faced by twenty-first-century men and women.

Procrustes’ Bed

IKEDA: What happens when human beings become imprisoned in ideologies and fixed conceptual frameworks?

In lectures in China, Dewey spoke of how William James abhorred the concept of the universe as a closed system, which James compared to Procrustes’ bed in Greek mythology. As you know, Procrustes had a bed on which he forced all the travelers he encountered to lay. If they were too tall to fit it, he lopped off their legs. If they were too short, he stretched them. Employing this parable, James sharply criticized dogmatic philosophies for judging things by pre-existing criteria.

All things are in state of continual flux, and our value criteria and actions must respond in a flexible fashion to these changes. Dewey expressed it this way: “Since changes are going on anyway, the great thing is to learn enough about them so that we be able to lay hold of them and turn them in the direction of our desires.” (9)

HICKMAN: Once again, you go to the heart of Dewey’s philosophy. He continually argued against basing inquiry on what is outside of what has been developed in the course of human experience. That would include ideologies and authoritarian systems of all types.

Dewey even criticized the logic of Aristotle as being Procrustean, to use your example. He thought that, whereas Aristotle had attempted to make experience fit his logical forms, real productive inquiry should develop logical forms as tools to generate further experience. (10) In this regard, he was not against abstractions, but he was against treating them as absolutes. In his view, abstractions are tools that are properly understood as tools of inquiry.

There are many ways to avoid disciplined inquiry. One is to acquiesce to ready-made ideology, to repeat slogans and prepackaged claims that have not been examined and tested. This is a type of intellectual laziness. In this regard, given the current explosion of information, I think it is important to teach our students to use the Internet critically.

GARRISON: Using authoritarian, Procrustean, preset standards preserves feudal beliefs and values, even after the emergence of modern science and democratic institutions. Such unreflective rules, norms, and laws hold the old order in place and make it easy to reduce science to scientism before placing it in the service of the military-industrial-academic complex.

In the essay “Construction and Criticism,” which we may read as a coda to Individualism, Old and New, Dewey wrote:

We do not know what we really want and we make no great effort to find out. We, too, allow our purposes and desires to be foisted upon us from without. We, too, are bored by doing what we want to do, because the want has no deep roots in our own judgment of values. (11)

Mindless, unreflective, and unintelligent living is not only morally corrupt, it is aesthetically dull, boring, and repetitive. As an educator, I am sadly aware of how the tendency to judge others (politicians, media, the mavens of industry, and such) greatly affects education. Most forms of education are little more than subtle indoctrination into the established political, economic, and social order.

In the United States, standards of learning, standardized curricula, and standardized tests that emphasize quantitative measurement and statistical averages dominate and control the field of public education and increasingly higher education, as well. Dewey despised such standardization as destructive of the very idea of qualitative democratic individualism. He thought it the task of democratic educators and educational institutions to educate for the individual’s potential that each may make his or her own unique contribution.

James and Darwin

IKEDA: You bring up an important theme and perspective that educators must always address. I believe that, in addition to educators, our politicians, religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists must all work together to create an educational environment that promotes such human development.

Do you agree that the influence of William James is a vital key to understanding Dewey’s thought?

GARRISON: Dewey was immensely impressed by James’s biological concept of the mind and greatly admired his profound sense for life and the wisdom of thinking of life in terms of action. Dewey pointed out how important this emphasis on life was for the appreciation of novelty, freedom, and individuality in James’s philosophy. Dewey added that James’s biological approach to psychology helped him see the “importance of distinctive social categories, especially communication and participation.” (12)

IKEDA: What is the nature of life? Dewey wrote: “Wherever there is life, there is behavior, activity. In order that life may persist, this activity has to be both continuous and adapted to the environment.” (13)

In addition to the word activity, Dewey uses the term adapted but most definitely not in a passive sense. He means not simply adapting to the environment but interacting and communicating with it.

Living beings constantly grow and change through a give-and-take of energy and matter with the surrounding world. They take in oxygen and nourishment from the outside world to build their bodies, then act on the outside world, expending energy.

In other words, change and communication are major characteristics of life. Dewey devoted considerable attention to this point.

GARRISON: The things he appreciated in Charles Darwin, as well as James, help us understand Dewey’s own thoughts. In his essay “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” Dewey declared:

The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final. . . . In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency . . . the Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that . . . was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics and religion. (14)

IKEDA: Darwin famously employed the phrase “the struggle for existence” in articulating his theory of evolution, but he was referring primarily not to a struggle to dominate other living beings so much as the struggle to survive—in other words, the energetic actions of each individual being necessary to live.

Darwin was critical of the traditional philosophical approach that comprehended life based on assumptions of fixed and final essences. He constructed a “logic of knowledge” that sought to view the actuality of life in its ever-changing mutability. This is why, as Dewey perceived it, Darwin’s “logic of knowledge” transcended the field of biology and transformed our ways of thinking about society, history, and politics as well.

GARRISON: Dewey realized that Darwinism would have a dramatic impact on Western philosophy. First, he understood that the rejection of fixed and final essences (i.e., substance) had deep implications for the essence of humankind or an individual human being. Second, he comprehended that we could no longer speak of absolute origins or absolute ends in an ever-evolving universe. Further, there are no absolute foundations, only relatively stable structures. Even mountains someday fall into the sea. And one of the things Darwinism was sure to affect was the very idea of good and evil.

Good and Evil

IKEDA: Regarding the issue of good and evil, a major theme for traditional philosophy and theology, Dewey rejected a rigid dualism in favor of a pragmatic approach. He wrote:

No individual or group will be judged by whether they come up to or fall short of some fixed result, but by the direction in which they are moving. The bad man is the man who no matter how good he has been is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who no matter how morally unworthy he has been is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others. (15)

Even the worst person is not unconnected to good, nor is the best person unconnected to evil. Accepting this as a premise makes it impossible to claim that one side is always good, and everything opposed to it is always bad.

This approach corresponds closely to Mahayana Buddhist thought. Nichiren wrote:

The opposite of good we call bad, the opposite of bad we call good. Hence we know that outside of the mind there is no good and there is no bad. What is apart from this good and this bad is called the unlabeled. The good, the bad, and the unlabeled—outside of these there is no mind, and outside of the mind there are no concepts. (16)

The “unlabeled” is that which can be designated as neither good nor bad.

Anger, for instance, works for good if directed against whatever threatens human worth and dignity. If it is purely ego-driven, however, it works for evil. Thus good and evil are not fixed substances but are constantly changing and manifesting themselves in relation to the environment and one’s mental attitude.

In my 2010 peace proposal, I discussed the danger of reification manifest in the simplistic categorization of people and things into good or bad, ally or enemy. The Buddhist philosophy of the contingent nature—or good, evil, and the unlabeled—enables us to avoid the trap of reification, clearly see the phenomena before us, and confront reality in its ceaseless process of growth and flux. (17)

HICKMAN: The more I read of the central works of Buddhism, the more impressed I am by their similarities to the work of Dewey. He was above all a proponent of the idea that context must always be taken into account if we are to understand a situation. This did not mean, however, that he was a relativist, in the sense that everything is as good as everything else.

I should note that Dewey did think that there are many ethical ideals that are warranted and assertible in ways that are highly unlikely ever to require reconstruction. It is inconceivable, for example, that there will ever be a time when slavery will again be considered good by educated people, as it was in the South until the Civil War. Dewey called this type of ethical judgment a platform; it is a relatively stable basis from which we can engage in further ethical inquiry.

It is important to note that a platform is not the same as a foundation. Philosophers such as Descartes who have sought the certainty of a foundation for their ideas have invariably failed. Dewey’s idea was quite different. He thought that the quest for foundational certainty is doomed.

Nevertheless, we can operate from platforms—operating areas that we stand on to build the next level of understanding and knowledge. It makes little sense to ask where the original platform is, since it is shrouded in the misty past of our pre-human ancestors. So Dewey took his cue from Darwin instead of Descartes.

IKEDA: The platforms you speak of are the ethical views and morality—the “Golden Rules,” as it were—that humanity has learned and acquired from long history and experience.

Shakyamuni said: “‘Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I.’ He should neither kill nor cause others to kill.” (18) This passage contains two important perspectives: First, the statement “just as I am so are they” tells us that moral laws are derived from inner reflection motivated by looking at others in the same way we look at ourselves, as fellow beings, not from externally imposed rules. Second, “nor cause others to kill” asserts that we should apply the philosophy of the worth and dignity of life not only to our own actions, preventing us from killing, but to others as well.

The reciprocal dynamic that is both inner and outer, self and other directed, calls upon us to continually reflect on ourselves, believe in and reinforce the goodness of others, and aim for the mutual elevation of both self and others.

GARRISON: I have read your Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra: A Discussion several times. It was while reading this dialogue that I first fully realized how much self-awareness and moral growth depend on finding the means for surmounting obstacles and overcoming evil.

The following passage made an especially lasting impression:

Good and evil in themselves have no substance. In other words, they are not in themselves absolute but reflective distinctions. It is important, therefore, to ceaselessly direct one’s heart, and take action, toward good. (19)

As soon as I read this comment, my understanding of good and evil was profoundly and permanently transformed. I then began to reread Dewey on the topic and found a passage where he insists that there exists a mixture of good and evil, and that reconstruction in the direction of the good which is indicated by ideal ends, must take place, if at all, through continued cooperative efforts. (20)

Amazing! Allow me to thank you for this insight, even as I acknowledge my understanding of it remains incomplete.

IKEDA: Thank you for your generous words. I am grateful for the many things I have learned from this dialogue with you both.

The widely practiced Buddhist discipline known as the four right efforts sets forth what we must do to attain enlightenment: 1) to put an end to existing evil; 2) to prevent evil from arising; 3) to bring good into existence; and 4) to encourage existing good.

Good is the force leading both self and others in the direction of happiness. Evil is what works to plunge the self and the other into unhappiness and destruction. Therefore, while explaining this method of practice, Shakyamuni told his disciples that all compounded things are impermanent, exhorting them to strive earnestly.

Existing in a world of ceaselessly changing phenomena, we must choose the best path to build happiness for self and others alike and, constantly renewing ourselves, take courageous action and keep pressing ahead. Through such ceaseless effort, we can realize the full, unlimited potential of our lives, grow, and follow the path of value creation—in other words, bring a life of great value creation into full bloom.


1. John Dewey and Alice Chipman Dewey, “March 5” in Letters from China and Japan, Evelyn Dewey, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1920), p. 52.

2. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924; vol. 12, 1920, Jo Ann Boydston, ed., Ralph Ross, intro. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 79.
3. Ibid., p. 135.
4. Ibid., pp. 136–37.
5. Dewey, “Qualitative Thought” in The Later Works, vol. 5, p. 249.
6. Dewey, Art as Experience in The Later Works, vol. 10, p. 40.
7. John Dewey, Human Conduct and Nature in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924; vol. 14, 1922, Jo Ann Boydston, ed., Murray G. Murphy, intro. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), p. 136.
8. Daisaku Ikeda, The New Human Revolution, vol. 3 (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 1996), pp. 169–70.
9. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy in The Middle Works, vol. 12, p. 146.
10. See John Dewey, “Logical Method and Law” in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924; vol. 15, 1923–1924, Jo Ann Boydston, ed., Carl Cohen, intro. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), pp. 70–71. See also “Some Stages of Logical Thought” in The Middle Works, vol. 1, p. 164.
11. Dewey, Construction and Criticism in The Later Works, vol. 5, p. 134.
12. Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism” in The Later Works, vol. 5, p. 159.
13. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy in The Middle Works, vol. 12, p. 128.  
14. John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” in The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924; vol. 4, 1907–1909, Jo Ann Boydston, ed., Lewis E. Hahn, intro. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), p. 3.
15. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy in The Middle Works, vol. 12, pp. 180–81.
16. Nichiren, The Writings, vol. II, p. 843.
17. Daisaku Ikeda, “Toward a New Era of Value Creation,” 2010 peace proposal, http://www.sgi.org/assets/pdf/peace2010(2).pdf (accessed February 4, 2014).
18. Sutta-NipÐta, Hammalawa Saddhatissa, trans. (London: Curzon Press, 1994), pp. 81–82.
19. Daisaku Ikeda, Katsuji Saito, Takanori Endo, Haruo Suda, The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra: A Discussion, vol. III (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 2001), p. 81.
20. Dewey, A Common Faith in The Later Works, vol. 9, p. 32.

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