“How We Think” by John Dewey (1937)
This new edition of a work which appeared originally in l909 is described as a “restatement” of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. A certain amount of new material, chiefly of an illustrative character, has been introduced, and there has been some rearrangement of chapters; the new edition also contains an index and, in the table of contents, sub-headings for each chapter. The reviewer's impression is that the textual alterations are of slight importance and that, in the main, the attempt to correct baldness of exposition has resulted in a loss of vigour.
It is to be expected, indeed, that, if a position is itself confused, more detailed presentation will result iln diminished persuasiveness. Dewey's main shortcomings are to be found in his treatment of logic, but criticisms may also be passed on his general attitude to the “educative process”. When we discuss education, there are two things that we chiefly have in mind; (a) learning as an acquisition—the sort of thing we refer to when we speak of an “educated” man. The relation of “reflective thinking” (i.e., inquiry) to “being educated” in the former sense is that they are the same thing. We can, no doubt, usefully inquire how far a so-called educational institution does educate in this sense. But all the time the inquiry is subordinate to the question of Education in the broader sense, the question of absorption in a certain culture, participation in certain ways of living. Present day educators who attempt to deal with method, as distinct from subject-matter or curriculum, are simply beating the air; their exhortations are absolutely barren, they are in no case to develop the “open-mindedness”, “whole-heartedness” and “responsibility” of which Dewey speaks (pp. 3O–33), but rather subserve the narrowest practicalism, because they do not establish contact with the disinterested movements which constitute culture. If it is the case that “there are built up detached and independent systems of school knowledge that inertly overlay the ordinary systems of experience instead of reacting to enlarge and refine them” (p. 259), it is because the criticism of established interests that inevitably follows from “educated” thinking, is not wanted. This is not to say that educational institutions have no part in culture, but only that their cultural tendencies are continually obstructed, and that they will be advanced not by considerations of “method” but by concentration on subjects.
The opposition between Learning and Utilitarianism is obscured by Dewey in his discussion of “abstract” and “concrete” thinking (that which involves “delight in thinking for the sake of thinking” as against “adjustment of external means to ends”; (pp 226–7). “Methods that, in developing abstract intellectual abilities, weaken habits of practical or concrete thinking fall as much short of the educational ideal as do the methods that, in cultivating ability to plan, to invent, to arrange, to forecast, fail to secure some delight in thinking, irrespective of practical consequences…While education should strive to make men who, however prominent their professional interests and aims, partake of the spirit of the scholar, philosopher, and scientist, no good reason appears why education should esteem the one mental habit inherently superior to the other and deliberately try to transform the type from concrete to abstract. Have not our schools been one-sidedly devoted to the more abstract type of thinking, thus doing injustice to the majority of pupils”? (p. 228). It is interesting to note here that Dewey thinks of the schools as satisfying the requirements of particular pupils and not as a field of common activities and the development of a common culture. But the important point is that, whatever may lead up to and follow from it, it is only “abstract” thinking that is learning (or education). It is only by laying aside his preference of one “practical consequence” to another that a man will really think out a problelm—granted that, having done so, he may be able to produce a consequence which he prefers. And it is this thinking out of things that constitutes the education of anyone who can be educated at all. This is why we must discount the common objection to the training of all pupils in the same way as those who are going to the University.
Similar considerations apply to Dewey's brief remarks (p. 66) on moral training. “Indeed, the deepest plane of the mental attitude of everyone is fixed by the way in which problems of behaviour are treated. If the function of thought, of serious inquiry and reflection, is reduced to a minimum in dealing with them, it is not reasonable to expect habits of thought to exercise great influence in less important matters. On the other hand, habits of active inquiry and careful deliberation in the significant and vital problems of conduct afford the best guarantee that the general structure of mind will be reasonable” (italics in text). We may say, on the contrary, that it is only by developing habits of thought on “less important matters” that we come to be able to think disinterestedly on human affairs, and that what makes this particularly difficult is just our special concern in these affairs with “practical consequences”. The loose thinking that prevails on social (including educational) questions—the attempt, in particular, to exempt them from the operation of causality—is due, above all, to the lack of a foundation of scientific regour. It may be remarked, incidentally, that training in rigorous thinking is itself moral training, and that pupils so trained will have no need for training in “character”, either before or after they come to the strict consideration of “problems of conduct”.
The compromise between “abstract” and “concrete” which characterises Dewey's general views on education, is equally notable in his treatment of “Logical Considerations”, which occupies the central and longest part of the book (pp. 71–202).
Distinguishing between thought as logical form, or product, and as psychological process, he gives the following (p. 72) as one of the important differences between them; “The subject matter of formal logic is strictly impersonal, as much so as the formulae of algebra. The forms are thus independent of the attitude taken by the thinker, of his desire and intention. Thought carried on by anyone depends, on the other hand, as we have already seen, upon his habits. It is likely to be good when he has attitudes of carefulness, thoroughness, etc., and bad in the degree in which he is headlong, unobservant, lazy, moved by strong passion, tending to favor himself, etc.”. Other distinctions are that the forms of logic are constant, while actual thinking is a process, and that the forms pay no attention to context, while actual thinking always has reference to some context. (This material, it may be noted, does not appear in the first edition). Further, he says (p. 74): “Logical forms such as one finds in a logical treatise do not pretend to tell how we think or even how we should think. No one ever arrived at the idea that Socrates, or any other creature, was mortal by following the form of the syllogism. If, however, one who has arrived at that notion by gathering and interpreting evidence wishes to expound to another person the grounds of his belief, he might use the syllogistic form and would do so if he wished to state the proof in its most compact form…In short, these forms apply not to reaching conclusions, not to arriving at beliefs and knowledge, but to the most effective way to set forth what has already been concluded, so as to convince others (or oneself if one wishes to recall to mind its grounds) of the soundness of the result”.
It may be remarked, on the former passage, that it no doubt depends on a person's habits whether he thinks validly or fallaciously, but this would give no ground for distinguishing between what is validly thought and what is in logical form. It is not in the least apparent, in the second place, how what was never a method of arriving at conclusions could be taken as the most convincing way of setting them forth, or as having anything to do with them. What Dewey is again obscuring here is the question of subject-matter, the fact that we are concerned with the discovery of certain actual forms of relation, however that discovery may be made. And, throughout his subsequent discussion, he covers over, by the use of vague and question-begging expressions, the fact that the question is always of the assertion of propositions and the drawing of syllogistic inferences. Thus, in connection with “good judgment”, we are told (p. 124) that “there is a certain feeling after the way to be followed; a tentative picking out of certain qualities to see what emphasis upon them would lead to”; and, in regard to “analysis” (p. 157), that the “analysis that results in giving an idea the solidity and definiteness of a concept is simply emphasis upon that which gives a clew for dealing with some uncertainty”—where “emphasis” means the assertion of a proposition, and “leading to” or “giving a clew” means syllogism. So with the statement (p. 114), on a “conjectural idea” or hypothesis, that “Reasoning shows that if the idea be adopted, certain consequences follow”. The “processes of thinking” described in these ways are nothing if not formally syllogistic.
Dewey's departure from formal logic comes out in his distinction (p. 104) between “data (facts) and ideas (suggestions, possible solutions)” which are “the two indispensable and correlatative factors of all reflective activity”; his equating of the second factor with interference (instead of recognising that what is believed and what is supposed are alike propositions) is a sample of his logical looseness. It is not surprising that an instrumentalist logic should appear as a doctrine of “concepts”, and the two chapters on Understanding (IX, Ideas and Meanings; X, Conception and Definition) are continual evasions of the fact that what is in question is always propositional—that recognition of “meanings” is recognition of the fact that something has some relation to something else, that the “standardising” of our knowledge by conceptions is knowledge of universal propositions, that the “educational significance of concepts” amounts to the fact that in knowing at all we are knowing sorts of things and relations between sorts of things, that the “growth of conceptions” consists in finding connections and distinctions among the ways of working (qualities) of the things we know. And what appears as method in all this is still syllogism, whether it is used for the proof of conclusions or for the verifying or falsifying of hypotheses (the Socratic method, as in the Phaedo), the application of this to education lying simply in the fact that in any field of study there are such connections.
Thus the appeal to actual processes of thinking, as against formal logic, has no educational force, and the important matter remains that of the choice of subjects. An analysis of the social forces (including the influence of teachers) which inhibit absorption in culture might be of considerable value, but moralisings on the rousing of interest in unattractive subjects, on the “ideal mental condition” in which the attitudes of work and play are balanced, on the combining of largeness of vision with skill in execution, can hardly be so.