John Dewey (1859–1952)

1. Brief Vita

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20, 1859. At the age of fifteen, he graduated from high school and entered the University of Vermont. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1879, and for several years he taught Latin and algebra at public high schools in Vermont and Pennsylvania. While still teaching high school (1882), Dewey began his extraordinarily prolific philosophical writing career, publishing two articles in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Having caught the philosophy bug, he entered the just-founded Johns Hopkins Graduate School. During his tenure there, Dewey took courses with Charles Peirce and Charles Morris, among others. In 1884 he received his Ph.D. with a thesis titled “The Psychology of Kant.” Upon graduation, Dewey accompanied Morris to the University of Michigan where he taught for ten years, with the exception of a one-year hiatus at the University of Minnesota (1890). Dewey left Michigan in 1894 when he accepted the position as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the recently founded University of Chicago where he taught for ten years. It was during this period that Dewey’s international reputation and fame as a philosopher of education was established. In 1904, over disputes regarding the management of his Laboratory School, Dewey resigned his position and became Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, where he remained until his retirement from teaching in 1929. Though he was no longer in the classroom, Dewey remained in residence as professor emeritus for nine more years.

Though Dewey is often thought of as the quintessential American thinker, he was without doubt one of the most widely traveled philosophers. Dewey took sabbatical leave for the 1918-1919 academic year. The first half of that leave was spent lecturing at the University of California. From there he went to Tokyo Imperial University and delivered the lectures that were to become Reconstruction in Philosophy. While lecturing in Japan, he was visited by some former students from China, who subsequently arranged for Dewey to lecture in China for a year. After securing a leave of absence from Columbia, Dewey sailed to China where his one-year engagement ended up being extended to two. Subsequent trips took him to Turkey (1924), Mexico (1926), and Russia (1928), each of which involved educational lectures and consultations. In 1929, he delivered the Gifford Lectures (The Quest for Certainty) in Edinburgh. In 1937, he returned to Mexico where he chaired the commission that inquired into charges made against Leon Trotsky.

Dewey’s philosophical growth can be divided into three phases. His work with Charles Morris at Johns Hopkins left a distinctive Hegelian mark on his thinking, which at first was dominated by Hegelian and neo-Kantian idealism. Dewey’s work during this time period is perhaps most accurately viewed as a slow extrication from his idealistic training. By the time Studies in Logical Theory came out in 1903, Dewey had left his idealism behind and began a period of thought largely devoted to the development of his instrumentalist methodology. During this middle period, Dewey turned his back on most of the concerns of traditional philosophy, especially metaphysics and epistemology, though was still writing extensively on ethics. His primary concern during this period was to work out a method of intelligence. In 1925, Dewey returned to a more traditional mode of philosophy with the publication of Experience and Nature, his great work in process metaphysics. This book marks the beginning of Dewey’s third phase, during which, in addition to his book on metaphysics, he wrote extensively on, among other things, epistemology (The Quest for Certainty), aesthetics (Art as Experience), logic (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry), philosophy of religion (A Common Faith), value theory (Ethics), and political and social philosophy (The Public and Its Problems). Dewey’s last phase was by far his most productive, seeing the publication of all of his great books. He continued writing right up until his death in 1952.

2. Dewey’s Process Metaphysics

Experience and Nature, Dewey’s major work in metaphysics, is notoriously unsystematic. Unlike Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Experience and Nature does not begin with a complete listing of his categories, or, as Dewey calls them, generic traits; rather, he uncovers them through a series of long dialectical arguments. This can make identification of exactly what Dewey takes to be generic difficult and sometimes even controversial. There are, however, a number of traits that stand out and are readily identifiable. Before embarking on a discussion of Dewey’s generic traits, though, a few preliminary remarks are in order.

John Dewey, like all the classical pragmatists, is a process philosopher. That is, in his metaphysics, events are basic, while objects are characters of events. In the preface to Experience and Nature, Dewey writes, “the foundation for value and the striving to realize it is found in nature, because when nature is viewed as consisting of events rather than substances, it is characterized by histories, that is by continuity of change from beginnings to endings” (LW1, 6, italics in original). In addition to being continuous and connected, however, events are also individual. That is to say, events are both organic and plural. Thus, one plausible way of characterizing Dewey’s metaphysics is “organic-pluralism.” As such, the categories (generic traits) can be grouped in such a way that they point either to an event’s organicism or to its pluralism. When organized in this fashion, a basic list of generic traits is thus:

The Pluralistic Traits:

1. The Precarious
2. Immediacy
3. Quality
4. Temporal Quality
5. Novelty
6. Selective Interest

The Organic Traits:

1. The Stable
2. Sociality
3. Transitivity
4. Transaction
5. Potentiality
6. Tendency (need)

2.1. The Precarious and the Stable

The first two generic traits Dewey discusses are the precarious and the stable. Regarding the former, Dewey writes:

[Our] existence involves, to put it baldly, a gamble. The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable. Its dangers are irregular, inconstant, not to be counted upon as to their times and seasons. Although persistent, they are sporadic, episodic (LW1, 43).

When Dewey says that the world is precarious, he means that precariousness is a fact about the world revealed through experience. When one experiences the world as precarious, the world is precarious. Philosophers and theologians have spent a great deal of time trying to safeguard us against the unsafe character of the world. The typical way this is done is to deny the existence of chance and, as Dewey says, “to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe” (LW1, 45). When one resorts to this, the world is not seriously modified. Denying precariousness does not make it go away.

But, precariousness cannot be all there is. The stable is just as fundamental as the precarious. Just as precariousness is essential for novelty and change, stability is essential for knowledge. Regarding the stable, Dewey writes:

Events change; one individual gives place to another. But individually qualified things have some qualities which are pervasive, common, stable. They are out of time in the sense that a particular quality is irrelevant to them. If anybody feels relieved by calling them eternal, let them be called eternal. But let not “eternal” be then conceived as a kind of absolute perduring existence or Being (LW1, 119).

The stable requires less comment than the precarious since it is stability that philosophy has spent so much time trying to account for. We recognize stability. It is what allows prediction and control; it allows science to be; it provides the basis for the formation of our habits. Yet again, it is only half the story.

The fact that the world exhibits both of the traits is what allows for philosophy, for science, and indeed, for inquiry in general. Regarding the union of the precarious and the stable, Dewey writes:

The union of the hazardous and the stable, of the incomplete and the recurrent, is the condition of all experienced satisfaction as truly as of our predicaments and problems […]. A purely stable world permits of no illusions, but neither is it clothed with ideals. It just exists. To be good is to be better than; and there can be no better except where there is shock and discord combined with enough assured order to make attainment of harmony possible (LW1, 57‑58).

Like Whitehead, Dewey recognizes that the world is a place of both permanence and change. As Dewey says “change gives meaning to permanence and recurrence makes novelty possible. A world that was wholly risky would be a world in which adventure is impossible and only a living world can include death” (LW1, 47). So any metaphysics must include an account of both permanence and change, and the categories of the stable and precarious are the beginning of that accounting.

2.2. Immediacy

Dewey’s well-known instrumentalism might lend one to think that Dewey believes that things are only valuable for something else. But things are not merely passageways to other things. Things have an immediate quality about them that shows them to be something more than mere passing instruments. Things have what Dewey calls “immediacy.” Dewey recognizes that in every event there is a certain self‑sufficiency and immediacy that is “terminal and exclusive.” Dewey goes on:

Immediacy of existence is ineffable. But there is nothing mystical about such ineffability; it expresses the fact that of direct existence it is futile to say anything to one’s self and impossible to say anything to another […].Things in their immediacy are unknown and unknowable, not because they are remote or behind some impenetrable veil of sensation or ideas, but because knowledge has no concern with them (LW1, 74).

There are a number of important ideas illustrated in this rich quotation. First, immediacy is indicative of the uniqueness of an event. That is, an event in its immediacy is “self‑sufficient,” “ineffable,” “terminal and exclusive.” In its immediacy, an event simply is what it is, so that the immediacy of experienced events is had, not known. Immediacy recognizes that brute experience is not knowledge. And immediacy, Dewey notes, is what allows for consciousness. He says, “It is a reasonable belief that there would be no such thing as ‘consciousness’ if events did not have a phase of brute and unconditioned ‘isness,’ of being what they irreducibly are” (LW1, 75). Thus, he notes, consciousness is a special case of immediacy.

So, an event in its immediacy is not objective. That is, an immediate event cannot be an object of inquiry or reflection. It simply is what it is and cannot serve as an object for another. But, it also must be noted, immediacy is transient. The immediate event passes into the past, and, as that occurs, it becomes possible for the event to be objectified in another.

2.3. Quality

One of the more striking features of Dewey’s metaphysics is his resurrection of the ancients’ belief in objective qualities. Dewey writes:

Empirically, the existence of objects of direct grasp, possession, use and enjoyment cannot be denied. Empirically, things are poignant, tragic, beautiful, humorous, settled, disturbed, comfortable, annoying, barren, harsh, consoling, splendid, fearful; are such immediately and in their own right and behalf (LW1, 82).

Empirically, things have quality. Like immediacy, quality is had; it is not an object of discourse. Dewey describes qualities as “final,” “initial and terminal,” and as being “just what it is as it exists” (LW1, 82). Quality is immediate, so that events have immediately felt quality. It is not an object of knowledge. Quality pervades a situation such that it binds together the events which are a given context or situation. Thus, it is the basis of unity. Quality is novel and it is what renders a situation relevant.

2.4. Temporal Quality

Dewey conceives of events as having temporal duration, which he calls temporal quality. In order to describe temporal quality, some contrasts and comparisons are necessary. First, temporal quality must be distinguished from temporal order. The latter, Dewey notes, “is a matter of relation, of definition, dating, placing and describing. It is discovered in reflection, not directly had” (LW1, 92). The former, on the other hand, being an immediate quality, has the same general characteristics of both quality and immediacy. That is, temporal quality is individual, novel, and, in experience, it is had and not known. Further, it is direct and indefinable. To put the contrast between temporal quality and temporal order another way, temporal order is measured time, while temporal quality is lived time.

But it is more than that. Dewey notes that “existence consists of events [… and] is possessed of temporal quality, characterized by beginning, process and ending” (LW1, 92, emphasis added). This characterization of temporal quality indicates that temporal quality is growth, and it is growth that involves the phases of beginning, process, and ending (cf. LW1, 92). This growth is a qualitative growth, not a temporal sequence. To see it as the latter is to confuse temporal quality with temporal order. And, notice that not all endings are nice and neat (existence is, after all, precarious); that is, not all endings are consummations: many endings result in failure, frustration or even death. But this does not mean that such ends are not still ends. A frustrated end is as much an end as a consummation.

2.5. Novelty

According to Dewey, every event has a qualitative uniqueness that separates it from every other event. Thus, novelty is seen in relation to quality and temporal quality. Each event, being uniquely situated in its context, is qualitatively unique. No experience is repeatable. Moreover, the precarious is indicative of novelty. Any situation is just as liable to be precarious as it is to be stable. This unpredictability insures novelty (cf. LW1, 97)

2.6. Selective Interest

Selective interest is the basis for individuality. Dewey notes that human individuals are a mixture of “bias and preference conjoined with plasticity and permeability of needs and likings” (LW1, 186). The former is indicative of the human as a creature of habit. Without selective interest or bias, the lives of human beings would be chaotic. The formation of habits is what lends stability to the individual and allows for self‑maintenance. Being a generic trait, selective interest is not unique to human experience—all things exhibit selective interest to a degree. In human beings, it is the basis of human choice and the formation of habits. In nature, it is descriptive of the tendency of things to maintain themselves within their context.

But, again, like quality, selective interest plays a greater role than simply indicating the individual bias of a given event. It also serves as a basis for interaction. In “Context and Thought,” Dewey writes: “But in any event that which I have designated selective interest is a unique manner of entering into interaction with other things” (LW6, 15). So selective interest not only points to the individual but also the manner in which that individual enters into an interaction.

2.7. Sociality

Sociality is a general category of all events. It indicates that each event is a member of a broader context which furnishes the event’s environment. Sociality also indicates that each event both helps to determine its context and is partially determined by that context, so that the event is intimately connected to its context. That is, sociality explicitly points to the contextual nature of events. Its membership in that society might be one of conformation, in which case the event aids in the growth of the context, or of disjunction, indicating that the event is at odds with the context. The former indicates that an event is in part formed by the context; the latter indicates that the event is also formative of that context. The event’s role depends upon the selective bias of the event in question (cf. LW1, 187-188; also, “The Inclusive Philosophic Idea,” LW3, 41-54).

Sociality, then, indicates the very general contextual nature of events. But, sociality, being a general category, does not go very far in describing the relationship of one event to another or the relationship of the event to the broader context. This relationship is delineated in more detail by the traits “transitivity,” “transaction,” and, to a lesser degree, “tendency.”

2.8. Transitivity

Events are both transitive and static. The static side of events has already been delineated in the discussion of Dewey’s pluralistic traits, and these are indicative of an event’s individuality. The transitive nature of events is, literally, the fact of transition from one event to the next. Thus, like sociality, transitivity is indicative of the social-contextual nature of events, though its scope is more specific. Transitivity refers specifically to the fact of transition from one event to another, so it is the basis of continuity from one moment to the next. To put this another way, transitivity is descriptive of the transition of the present moving into the past and of that past becoming an object for the present. As an event ceases to be immediate, it becomes possible for that event to be objectified in another. This process of moving from being immediate to being an object for another is what is meant by “transitivity.” It is also the basis for transaction (cf. LW1, 85-86).

2.8. Transaction

Transaction indicates the depth of the process nature of Dewey’s metaphysics. An event is what it is due to the transaction that occurs between where the event comes from and where it moves to. Notice the importance of transitivity here. However, the event is not reducible to that interaction. As we saw in the discussion of selective interest, the event has a particular bias which affects how the event acts, given the event’s particular context. So, an emerging event is a transaction in which the event moves “from which” (its given past) “to which” (what it becomes) given the selective interest of the event. Notice the use of the phrase “emerging event.” The process of transaction indicates that every event is an emergent. Transaction, however, does not specify exactly what is involved in emergence. In transaction, a transition occurs. That is, there is an integration of the past into the present, as the event becomes an object for subsequent events. This process is one which, given temporal quality, takes time.

It is through transaction that an event’s immediate qualities emerge and that an event’s potentialities are realized. As we will see in the discussion of potentiality, any given event’s potentialities are infinite. Given this, it is only when an event is specified in a particular context that the qualities of that event emerge and a particular potential is actualized (cf. LW1, 138, 145, 207-8; LW5, 220-221).

2.9. Potentiality

Given that possible interactions among events are infinite, any event’s given potentialities are infinite as well. Thus, all relations are real, but no relation can exhaust a given event’s potentialities. The reason for this is that any interaction with a particular event is an interaction with that event from a particular perspective. Given the infinitude of potentialities, potentiality is unpredictable and precarious. Because potentialities are not immediate qualities but hidden determinates, potentiality is revealed only in transaction. But such a revelation is only partial, given that potential interactions are infinite (cf. LW1, 27-24, 143, 241).

2.10. Tendency (Need)

Tendency points to the fact that in nature there is a natural tendency or need in things to move towards some end‑in‑view. Initially, this might sound like selective interest, but there is a distinct difference. Selective interest is indicative of the bias of a particular event for self‑maintenance; that is, it is indicative of the uniqueness of the individual. It tends to remain what it is. Tendency, unlike selective interest, is not stubborn but rather is a movement towards an end‑in‑view which is determined in the course of the development of the given event. Tendency does not point to a specific and fixed end‑in‑view, but rather points to the fact of the “movement towards.” Yet, unlike the precarious, tendency is not sheer incompleteness. It merely points to the general tendency of things to move towards completeness.

It is important to recognize that Dewey is not being wholeheartedly Aristotelian here. Dewey does revive both the notions of potentiality and of natural ends, but with significant alterations. For Dewey, neither potentialities nor ends are fixed. So, when we say that tendency points to the general tendency of things to move towards completeness, such completeness should not be construed as some pre‑set end. Rather, tendency points to the fact that events move in a particular direction, the completion of which is unfixed and unknowable until the event comes together (cf. LW1, 58, 279).

3. Whitehead and Dewey

The significant similarities between Whitehead and Dewey should already be apparent from this brief discussion of Dewey’s categories. However, the commonalities between the two go beyond just a few coincidental categories. Whitehead, of course, begins with the category of the ultimate, which he calls “creativity.” While Dewey does not start with such a fundamental notion, the work that creativity does for Whitehead is easily explainable in terms of the Deweyan categories. Briefly consider some of Whitehead’s thoughts concerning creativity: it is “presupposed in all of the more special categories” (PR 21); it refers to the most fundamental character of all actuality; it is “the principle of novelty” (PR 21). Furthermore,

[t]he ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction. The novel entity is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one. In their natures, entities are disjunctively ‘many’ in process of passage into conjunctive unity. This Category of the Ultimate replaces Aristotle’s category of ‘primary substance’ (PR 21).

It is certainly true that Whitehead’s language here does not sound very Deweyan. But notice how the category of the ultimate functions. It points to the fact that events are one among many (sociality); that, in spite of this, each is unique (novelty and immediacy); that they are connected (transaction and transitivity); and that they move towards completion (tendency). Each of these notions are explicitly put forth as categories in Dewey’s metaphysics.

Following the category of the ultimate, Whitehead introduces actual entities, “the final real things of which the world is made up.” According to the ontological principle, actual entities are ontologically basic: there is nothing more real than these events. Dewey is not quite as adamant or as clear as Whitehead in making such a claim. However, there is a version of an ontological principle that can be extrapolated from Dewey’s writings. In Experience and Nature Dewey puts forth an ontological principle with his straightforward claim “Every existence is an event” (LW1, 63), and “all structure is structure of something; anything defined as structure is a character of events, not something intrinsic and per se” (LW1, 64).

Whitehead and Dewey both take events as being ontologically basic. The question remains, however, how similar in structure are their respective accounts of an event? Whitehead describes actual entities in great detail. While Dewey does not give a detailed account of events per se, an appeal to the generic traits is revelatory of their basic structure. For both Whitehead and Dewey, each event emerges out of a past that is relative to that event. It takes that past into account by making aspects of the past event ingredient in the present. Both philosophers use the notion of objectification to describe this process. Whitehead uses the technical term “prehension” while Dewey simply talks of objectification. The Whiteheadian prehension is captured in Dewey’s notion of transaction. So the beginning of every event is the immediate past. While the event is coming to be, Whitehead notes that it is a duration, and it is subjective. Dewey accounts for this by describing the event as possessing temporal quality and immediacy. Whitehead describes the completion of an event as its “satisfaction.” Dewey describes this simply as an end, noting that every end is also a beginning, indicating that the completed event is given over to subsequent events as data. In Deweyan language, this is transitivity.

While this initial description shows that Whitehead and Dewey’s conception of events is quite similar, the resemblance is still only on a fairly general level. If the similarities stopped here, they might not be all that remarkable. The comparison, though, does not have to stop here, as there is another quite remarkable similarity between the two systems. In Process and Reality, Whitehead describes the phases of concrescence in his nine Categoreal Obligations. In Art as Experience, Dewey describes the phases of an experience, and the descriptions are strikingly alike.

In considering Dewey’s notion of an experience, it is important to begin with the distinction that Dewey makes between experience per se and an experience. The former is often inchoate. Things occur continuously, without much demarcation. Sometimes, though, we have an experience that culminates in such a consummation that we want to say, “Ah, now that was an experience.” What marks an experience off from others is this consummation. The entire experience is remembered as a complete unit. These experiences are set off from the rest of experience in such a way “that its close is a consummation and not a cessation. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self‑sufficiency. It is an experience” (LW10, 41).

Like Whitehead’s notion of genetic division, an experience is divisible into phases. But, once again, one should not conceive of these phases as distinct, temporal parts. Regarding the wholeness of such experiences, Dewey writes:

In such experiences, every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues. At the same time there is no sacrifice of the self‑identity of the parts. A river, as distinct from a pond, flows. But its flow gives a definiteness and interest to its successive portions greater than exist in the homogenous portions of a pond. In an experience, flow is from something to something. As one part leads to another and as one part carries on what went before, each gains distinctness in itself. The enduring whole is diversified by successive phases that are emphases of its various colors. Because of continuous merging, there are no holes, mechanical junctures, dead centres when we have an experience. There are pauses, places of rest, but they punctuate and define quality of movement. They sum up what has been undergone and prevent its dissipation and idle evaporation. Continued acceleration is breathless and prevents parts from gaining distinction. In a work of art, different acts, episodes, occurrences melt and fuse into unity, and yet do not disappear and lose their own character as they do so—just as in a genial conversation there is a continuous interchange and blending, and yet each speaker not only retains his own character but manifests it more clearly than is his wont (LW10, 43‑4).

So just like the actual occasion, an experience is a unified whole that is nonetheless divisible into phases. Further, an experience has a unity that is “constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts” (LW10, 44). In Whiteheadian terms, there is a unifying aim that is realized in a complete satisfaction. And, like the Whiteheadian anticipation of satisfaction, the Deweyan anticipation of consummation is present throughout the experience (LW10, 61). Further, Dewey notes, an experience is divisible into parts only on reflection. It occurs as a unified whole. “Yet,” Dewey goes on, “the experience [is] not the sum of these different characters; they [are] lost in it as distinctive traits” (LW10, 44).

In his discussion of the phases of an experience, Dewey, unlike Whitehead, does not offer a systematic, detailed account of these phases, though he does offer a general account and some elaborations. In talking generally about the phases, Dewey writes:

A generalized illustration may be had if we imagine a stone, which is rolling down hill, to have an experience. The activity is surely sufficiently “practical.” The stone starts from somewhere, and moves, as consistently as conditions permit, toward a place and state where it will be at rest—toward an end. Let us add, by imagination, to these external facts, the ideas that it looks forward with desire to the final outcome; that it is interested in the things it meets on the way, conditions that accelerate and retard its movement with respect to their bearing on the end; that it acts and feels toward them according to the hindering or helping function it attributes to them; and that the final coming to rest is related to all that went before as the culmination of a continuous movement. Then the stone would have an experience, and one with esthetic quality (LW10, 46).

Already, in this most general description, there are some remarkable similarities to Whitehead’s account of the actual occasion. Notice that there is a kind of subjective aim: the stone has a goal and it looks forward to getting there. It is “interested” in what it encounters on the way, and it “acts and feels toward them” as they hinder or help the goal. That is, it prehends things positively or negatively as these things help or hinder the reaching of that goal. And in the end, everything is tied together in a final satisfaction or culmination.

Dewey’s elaboration on these phases further highlights his similarities with Whitehead. In a subsequent passage, Dewey remarks that the first phase of an experience is constituted by an undergoing. That is, it begins receptively; as Dewey says, “It involves surrender” (LW10, 59). As the experience proceeds, that which is encountered is constantly integrated to fit with the final goal. In his explication of this, Dewey makes a distinction between doing and undergoing. As noted, an experience begins with an undergoing, but it quickly moves to a doing. Yet that does not finish the story: “An experience has pattern and structure, because it is not just doing and undergoing in alternation, but consists of them in relationship” (LW10, 50‑51). That is, like Whitehead, Dewey recognizes that the process of interaction is not simply one in which we flip‑flop between taking and making, but rather there is a genuine integration going on in such a way that a novel unity emerges out of each interaction.

Dewey’s notion of doing and undergoing plays the same role as Whitehead’s ideas of harmony and intensity. For Whitehead, the ideal is to have a maximal balance of harmony and intensity: too much harmony leads to anesthesia and too much intensity to chaos. Regarding this balance, Dewey writes that an “environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions would set a term to growth as surely as one always hostile would irritate and destroy” (LW10, 65). Resistance is Dewey’s term for the balance of the two. Dewey goes on:

Nor without resistance from surroundings would the self become aware of itself; it would have neither feeling nor interest, neither fear nor hope, neither disappointment nor elation. Mere opposition that completely thwarts, creates irritation and rage. But resistance that calls out thought generates curiosity and solicitous care, and, when it is overcome and utilized, eventuates in elation (LW10, 65‑6).


That which distinguishes an experience as esthetic is conversion of resistance and tensions, of excitations that in themselves are temptations to diversion, into a movement toward an inclusive and fulfilling close (LW10, 62).

For any experience to reach consummation, then, it must be characterized by resistance, which results in a balance of doing and undergoing. Again, this ideal is much the same as Whitehead’s.

Dewey’s account of the phases of an experience can be summarized as follows: The experience begins with a receptive phase which is an undergoing. Following this, there begins a process of doing and undergoing in which the subject integrates the experience. As the experience comes to a close, assuming that resistance has been operative throughout, the integration is completed, and the result is a consummation. Throughout the experience there is an anticipation of this consummation, and the entire experience is bound by a pervasive quality.

When the generic traits are brought into this discussion, all of what Whitehead accomplishes in genetic division can be accounted for: every event begins with and must take into account its past (transitivity and transaction). As the event emerges, it will encounter—or prehend—things which will either help or hinder its goal (the precarious and stable) that it will reach given its own interest (selective interest). The event, qua subject, is unknowable (immediacy) and is a durational moment (temporal quality) that strives for completion (need) and is characterized by a unifying aim (selective interest). The satisfaction of the occasion is a novel togetherness (novelty) and the occasion is then given over to the next occasion as data (transitivity).

While the two analyses (viz., genetic division and an experience) are similar, they are different in scope. For Whitehead, genetic division is applicable to any and every actual occasion; they all have the same basic structure but differ in complexity. Dewey’s analysis of an experience, on the other hand, applies to the relatively rare occurrence of a consummatory experience. When it comes to talking about events per se, Dewey simply does not delve into details with the same depth as Whitehead. Indeed, he would likely find such an enterprise both unnecessary and overly speculative.

But there are other significant differences, as well. One of their primary disagreements is methodological. In his 1937 essay “Whitehead’s Philosophy” (LW11, 146-54), Dewey notes that while Whitehead clearly designates an empirical starting point, his method nonetheless is primarily one of quasi-mathematical analysis. Dewey sees Whitehead as trying to co-ordinate two methods simultaneously. He puts the dilemma like this: “Is it [metaphysics] to be developed and applied with fundamental emphasis upon experimental observation (the method of the natural sciences)? Or does it point to the primacy of mathematical method, in accord with historic rationalism?” (LW11, 150). Dewey, of course, accepts only the former, while Whitehead sees the two methods as coordinate (cf. “Remarks”).

The two also disagree over the nature and status of eternal objects. For Whitehead, eternal objects are “forms of definiteness” that are envisaged in the Primordial Nature of God. Regarding color, for example, Whitehead writes: “A colour is eternal. It haunts time like a spirit. It comes and goes. But where it comes, it is the same colour. It neither survives, nor does it live. It appears when it is wanted” (SMW, 87). Dewey finds this account problematic, arguing that Whitehead’s constant use of the word “ingression” indicates that eternal objects have “an independent and ready-made subsistence,” so that Whitehead has to invoke God as the eternal principle by which eternal objects are selected for ingression into a given actual occasion. “The difficulties seem to […] arise from the intermediary apparatus required in the interweaving of elements; the interweaving being required only because of the assumption of original independence and not being required if [eternal objects] emerge to serve functionally ends which experience itself institutes” (LW11, 153). Thus, Dewey hints here at his own preferred view, that eternal objects emerge from the contours of experience itself, and are not non-temporal actualities.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Books by John Dewey

Experience and Nature. The Later Works, Volume 1: 1925. 1988.(Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press). Abbreviated as LW1.

The Quest for Certainty. The Later Works, Volume 4: 1929. 1988. (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press). Abbreviated as LW4.

Art as Experience. The Later Works, Volume 10: 1934. 1989 (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press). Abbreviated as LW10.

Selected Article and Chapters

“The Changing Intellectual Climate. Review of Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World,” in The Later Works, Volume 2: 1925-1927 (LW2) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 221-25.

“An Organic Universe. A Review of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality,”in The Later Works, Volume 5: 1929-1930 (LW5) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 375-81.

“The Adventure of Persuasion. A Review of Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas,”in The Later Works, Volume 8: 1933 (LW8) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 355-59.

“Whitehead’s Philosophy,” in The Later Works, Volume 11: 1935-1937 (LW11) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 146-54.

“The Philosophy of Whitehead,” in The Later Works, Volume 14: 1939-1941 (LW14) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 123-40.

“Nature in Experience,” in The Later Works, Volume 14:1939-1941 (LW14) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 141-54.

“The Objectivism-Subjectivism of Modern Philosophy,” in The Later Works, Volume 14: 1939-1941 (LW14) (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press), 189-200.

Readings by Whitehead on Dewey

1937. “Remarks,” The Philosophical Review, XLVI, 2, March, 178-86.

Readings on Whitehead and Dewey

Frisina, Warren G. 1991. “Knowledge as Active, Aesthetic, and Hypothetical: A Pragmatic Interpretation of Whitehead’s Cosmology,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 42-64.

Sherburne, Donald W. 1992. “Whitehead and Dewey on Experience and System,” in Frontiers in American Philosophy, Volume I, edited by Robert W. Burch (College Station, Texas A&M Press), 95-101.

Jones, Judith A. 1994. “The Rhythm of Experience in Whitehead and Dewey,” Listening, 29, 1, 20-39.

Myers, William T. 2001. “Dewey and Whitehead on the Starting Point and Method,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 37, 2, 243-55.

Author Information

William T. Myers
Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Birmingham-Southern College
Birmingham, AL 35254

How to Cite this Article

Myers, William T., “John Dewey (1859–1952)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.