Main Content

Southern Illinois University bike rack

Dewey's pragmatic philosophy is herein proposed as a yardstick for future philosophical development and society building.  Dewey's vision of the future of philosophy continues to be relevant.

This address was delivered to the Graduate Department of Philosophy, Columbia University, New York, N.Y., 13 November 1947.  Stenographic report in the John Dewey Papers, Box 55, folder 5, Special Collections, Morris Library Research Center, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The Future of Philosophy by John Dewey

Professor Edman is responsible for the title of my talk.  The title is more vivid than any I would have thought of.  He tells me that he heard me talk on this subject five years ago.  Fortunately, I have forgotten what I said at that time.  I had more hopes five years ago than I have now.  My fears have increased within the last five years, and my fears have more to do with what I have to say than my hopes.

I shall begin by stating briefly the standpoint from which I see philosophy--the business of philosophy, that with which philosophy is concerned.  I think that from my standpoint, the poorest idea about philosophy is that it is a theory about "being," as the Greeks called it, or about "reality," as so much of modern philosophy has assumed that philosophy was.  As I may suggest later, one of the incidental positive advantages of the present retreat of philosophy is that it's becoming recently clear that philosophy hasn't made any great success in dealing with "reality."  And there is hope that it may take some more human standpoint to deal with.

My standpoint is that philosophy deals with cultural problems, using culture in the broad sense which the anthropologists have made clear to us--dealing with the patterns of human relationships.  It includes such subjects as language, religion, industry, politics, fine arts, in so far as there is a common pattern running through them, rather than as so many separate and independent things.  The principal task of philosophy is to get below the turmoil that is particularly conspicuous in times of rapid cultural change, to get behind what appears on the surface, to get to the soil in which a given culture has its roots.  The business of philosophy is the relation that man has to the world in which he lives, as far as both man and the world are affected by culture, which is very much more than is usually thought.

There wasn't any "physical world" for a very long time, or anything called "physics" as a subject matter as at present.  It was only when human culture had developed to a certain point that physics became a distinctive subject matter.  A lot of things had to be stripped off--animistic things.  The world was previously seen through human eyes in terms of human customs, desires, and fears.  It wasn't til the beginning of modern science (the sixteenth century) that a world distinctively physical came into recognized acknowledged existence. This is merely an illustration of the transforming power of culture, in this broad sense of raw material.

Because the business of philosophy is with the relations that exist between man and his world, as both are affected by culture, the problems of philosophy change as the world in which man lives changes.  An example is the increased knowledge in our time of machines, technology, etc. The problems of philosophy, therefore, are simply bound to change, although there may be some underlying structures that remain throughout the changes. Therefore, the history of philosophy still has to be written.  It needs to be seen and reported in terms of the distinctive features of culture. There is a sort of formalistic recognition of this fact in present histories--they are divided into sections on ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, western and oriental philosophy.  These serve as certain headings for the material. But they are not carried out in the details of philosophical systems.

I come now to my hopes and fears.  The hope for philosophy is that those who engage in philosophy professionally will recognize that we are at the end of one historical epoch and at the beginning of another.  The teacher and student should attempt to tell what sort of change is taking place.  In all events, this recognition of changes, of ages, of epochs in the world's history isn't an invention of mine.  Every history formally recognizes division into ages.  We are approaching a change from one period to another; we are undergoing the same kind of change, as a change, that happened when the medieval period lost its hold on the people's beliefs and activities.  We recognize this now as the beginning of a new epoch.  This new epoch is largely the consequence of the new natural science, which began about the sixteenth century with Galileo and Newton, as the applications of that science revolutionized men's ways of living and their relations to each other.  These have created the characteristics of modern culture and its essential problems.

The more destructive features are more prominent than the more constructive phases.  For a while, no survey of the world was presented without some reference to the fission of the atom. We see now that this is significant because it is a symbol of the changes that have been going on in science.

There's no secret in the fact that physical aspects of scientific inquiry and their applications have very far outrun inquiry into human subject matter--economics, politics, and morality.  This over-weighting on one side gives the clue to what should be hoped for in a further development of Philosophy.  The philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have thought they were dealing with the theory of reality, but they were actually forwarding the new natural science.  They were engaged in criticizing science as it had come down in the Middle Ages from Aristotle.  They were presenting the necessity for a different kind of cosmology.  In the eighteenth century, especially in France during the Enlightenment, and to some extent in England, philosophers attempted to do something of the same kind in human and social subjects, but the materials and tools were lacking.  They got rid of many things, but their constructive activities never amounted to so much.  I think that now we have potentially the intellectual resources that would enable philosophy to do something of the same kind for the forwarding of human and social subjects.  The older physical science, after stripping away the animistic survivals, had no concern with human problems.  This science was about little lumps of matter which were separated from one another, existing in external space and time, which were themselves separated from each other and from everything that happened.  Physical science has nearly demolished that point of view.  The material of the physical world is such that, through the increasing applications in physiology and biology, it isn't so fixedly set over against human concerns as it used to be.  Science itself has got rid of matter, in the old sense.  But this does not mean that matter has become a background to be related to human concerns, which could not happen as long as the Newtonian view prevailed.

There are many obstacles in realizing the hope I speak of.  One very serious obstacle is the state of the world now, which is so fearful, so frightful, in the literal sense of the word, that it's very hard to face.  The tendency is to look to some unreal solution to its problems which is essentially reactionary--going back to the ideas of Greek or medieval times, or in philosophy to adopt a method of escape because we don't seem to be able to handle the actual problems, which, if we are at the beginning of a new epoch, would probably take centuries to work out effectively.

The most discouraging thing in philosophy is neo-scholastic formalism, which also happened in the Middle Ages.  It is form today for its own sake, in so many cases.  A form of forms, not forms of subject matter.  But the subject matter is so chaotic and confused today in the world that it is difficult to handle.  This is how I would explain this retreat from work in the facts of human life into purely formal issues--I hesitate to call them issues because nothing ever issues except more form!  It's harmless for everyone except philosophers.  This retreat accounts for the growing disinterest of the general public in the problems of philosophy.

Totalitarianism, the attempt to find a complete set of blueprints that will settle every question, is another form of reaction, and a much more dangerous form.  We have seen this in fascism and now today, in my opinion, in bolshevism.

It takes considerable courage to see into the present situation. To see it through will be the work of a long period.  But the hope for philosophy will be that it will take part in the initiation of movements that will be carried through by human activity.

The first step is to see as frankly as possible the kind of world that we are living in and that which is likely to come.  We should at least turn our eyes toward it and face it even if we can't do much with our hands and muscles about it.  But what we should not do is to spin a lot of webs to operate as screens to keep us from seeing the reality of the situation.  In this respect, formalism may be a hopeful sign. It may be the beginning of a general recognition that philosophers weren't getting anywhere dealing with matter at large, as with some ultimate entity. This reaction might be the opening of a more serious attempt to face the cultural problems of today.  Science has done away with so many of the dualisms of the last few centuries, mind and matter, the individual and society, etc.  These are simply echoes that once had a vitality because of cultural conditions.  We are growing out of these.  We need to have an idea of a systematic kind of what we might grow into.

Philosophy can't settle these issues any better than seventeenth century philosophy could settle problems of physics, but today philosophers can analyze problems and present hypotheses that might gain enough currency and influence to serve so that they could be tested by the only final method of testing, which is practical activity. (Applause.)

One thing more, and that is--you who are students really have as great an opportunity as any students of any subject ever had at any time, but it will take a lot of patience, a lot of courage, and, if I may say so, considerable guts!