Experiencing Nature, Naturally Experienced
by E. John Winner
John Dewey was one of America’s most important philosophers. He’ll be better remembered in the future than he is today. With philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic fascinated with the ambiguities of language and otherwise unsure of what they are expected to explain – is that science or ethics or good taste? – Dewey’s idea of what makes philosophy valuable to either the individual or society has largely been relegated to history’s filing cabinet. If we can find our way out of the current relativistic soup, however, I think that many will begin to see that Dewey was able to clear out a lot of the smoke and cobwebs that have kept philosophy’s usefulness obscure.
I’ve always had a difficulty writing about Dewey, not because his texts are unclear or laden with technical terms and minutia, but because, despite the late 19th century prose style, he says pretty much what he means. There’s not too much to extrapolate or elucidate; I always find myself writing an introduction and then quoting heavily from Dewey’s own text.
I really would like for more people to read Dewey. A lot of the fog that surrounds philosophy disappears in the light that Dewey shines on issues that philosopher’s often present as insoluble riddles or as matters best reformulated according to rules of logic. As Dewey entered his mature productive phase, in the 1930’s, it was becoming clear to him that the manner in which laypeople thought and spoke about certain issues was really not so different from that of philosophers, except that many of them (the philosophers) would simply get hung up on vain bids to achieve absolute and final certainty, preferably organized into “systems of knowledge.” With respect to those things about which certainty could never be obtained, philosophers too often simply disregarded them, even though they involve issues of great importance to us in our daily lives. Neither the over-rich but unfulfilling feast of totalistic systems nor the thin gruel of over-cooked truth tables could be what really brought people to philosophy.
For Dewey, philosophy could be a useful preparation for action. Only professional philosophers study ethics, because they want to determine whether, say, utilitarianism or deontology is the better moral system. For the rest of us, ethics is important, because we are concerned with what is expected of us, by our families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.
What philosophy can do – whether in ethics, the arts, the sciences, etc. – is provide a space in which to practice reflection and pursue understanding, without which we fly blind. I should note here that Dewey understands reflection as a complex process, involving summation of previous experiences and of inherited understandings, analysis, and criticism, both positive and negative. It should never take place in a vacuum, but within a socially rich environment of discourse, history, shared interest and values. For Dewey, one of the worst mistakes of the Modern turn in philosophy was the development of the attitude that knowledge was or even could be an achievement and possession of the isolated individual. The acquisition of knowledge could only be accomplished through cooperative effort.
This notion, that to be fully realized, knowledge must be available for use in action, is an inheritance from the Pragmatism that had developed in the 19th Century, primarily that of William James and Charles S. Pierce. Pierce always complained that James never fully understood him. James certainly never grasped the studies in logic and semiotics that comprised the foundation of Pierce’s thought, and Pierce never was as insistent as James on the need for judgment despite contingencies, followed through by action. But Dewey understood them both quite well, as also ancillary thinkers like Josiah Royce and George Santayana.
I mention this, not only to provide further background, but because it should be noted that Dewey was one of the few readers of Pierce who fully understood the implications of his studies in logic. The text I will be discussing here, Experience and Nature (1929) (1) (and only the first chapter of it) includes a prolonged discussion concerning the nature of language that is clearly drawn from readings in Pierce. On another occasion, I would like to investigate Dewey’s (and Pierce’s) understanding of logic more closely. (2) Pierce’s work contributed to the development of symbolic logic, but Dewey’s interpretation demonstrates the major doctrinal differences between Pragmatism and Positivism, which ultimately led to a withering away of Pragmatist studies in American philosophy departments, once Positivism came to dominance. Quine’s “web of belief” has a great deal in common with certain notions of Dewey’s, but lacks Dewey’s concern for the possibility of – even a need for – inquiry that could change the web; something that might require political action (which Quine had little interest in). At some point I’d also like to address Dewey’s belief that a strong democracy, involving a well- educated electorate, would provide the greatest opportunity for innovation and advancement of human aspiration in all fields, which made his work anathema to many conservative thinkers. Of course, this means social experimentation, and social experimentation opens the door to potential failure. But failures have their educational value as well. That is in the nature of experience, which is not only the greatest instrument we have for our learning to live, but the only one.
Why is experience such a problem for philosophers? If we consider this from a common sense perspective, it would seem an embarrassment that something so basic to human being should be problematized, tortured, and mistrusted. I was going to write “something so basic to human experience,” but ‘human being’ is a reasonable alternative for rhetorical purposes and seems to avoid begging the question. After all, human experience is human being. One breathes, for example, and in doing so experiences air being drawn through the nostrils and into the lungs. Of course, we may not notice this; we may not be aware of the experience, until we pay attention to it, in which case we cannot avoid experiencing it. And the greater attention we pay to it, the richer the experience of it. In writing this, I am reflecting on the experience of breathing, and through that reflection calling to mind a host of previous experiences and reflections – from meditational exercises and the Buddhism informing them; to anatomy and physiology; to works of art, where some character’s audible breathing becomes an important identifier (“Luke” – breath – “I am your father!”); to memories of having suffered pneumonia (twice) and the pain of breathing during those times. And many of these memories are perforce of social experiences: the breathing of my infant niece, my mother’s caution not to breathe on her if I suspected I had a cold, the masks we wore when I worked as a nurse…
After discussing the way geologists begin with observable phenomena and then gather testable theories to develop an historical explanation of those phenomena, making possible a more complete understanding of the age of the earth and the processes that formed it, Dewey remarks:
These commonplaces prove that experience is of as well as in nature. It is not experience which is experienced, but nature stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on. Things interacting in certain ways are experience; they are what is experienced. Linked in certain other ways with another natural object the human organism they are how things are experienced as well. Experience thus reaches down into nature; it has depth. It also has breadth and to an indefinitely elastic extent. It stretches. That stretch constitutes inference.” (3)
One of the philosophical issues Dewey may be dealing with here (and going about it by going around it), is that of the possibility of a “mind-independent reality.” Dewey understood that this is a touchy issue in philosophy, having been thoroughly trained as a Hegelian, and then having rejected Hegel thanks in part to the impoverished explanation Hegelianism offered for the horrors of WWI, but largely and more importantly thanks to his encounters with the work of Pragmatists Pierce, James, and his colleague at the University of Chicago, George Herbert Mead. Unlike Bertrand Russell, who first trained in Hegel and then rejected him on the grounds of irrationality, Dewey rejected Hegel for being too rationalistic; for developing a system guaranteeing certainty, but only by relegating much of human experience to the margins.
For Dewey, questions like whether there is a “mind-independent reality” are largely residual, first from the Christian insistence on having an immortal soul embodied in an inadequate material body, which was then restructured by Descartes into a problem of a consciousness developing knowledge from the core of some supposed internal certainty, with the external experiences always held under doubt. Dewey rejects these kinds of dualisms, and in their absence any argument about “mind-dependent” or “mind-independent” reality evaporates. There just is reality, and experience properly tested and reflected upon, provides the warrant we have for trusting it.
It is sometimes contended, for example, that since experience is a late comer in the history of our solar system and planet, and since these occupy a trivial place in the wide areas of celestial space, experience is at most a slight and insignificant incident in nature. No one with an honest respect for scientific conclusions can deny that experience as an existence is something that occurs only under highly specialized conditions, such as are found in a highly organized creature which in turn requires a specialized environment. There is no evidence that experience occurs everywhere and everywhen. But candid regard for scientific inquiry also compels the recognition that when experience does occur, no matter at what limited portion of time and space, it enters into possession of some portion of nature and in such a manner as to render other of its precincts accessible. (4)
Dewey is making an assumption here that Heidegger argues for more eloquently, but also more obscurely. It doesn’t really matter whether there is a mind-independent reality, since the only reality we can ever know or discuss is reality for us. And this works, not because we are somehow hovering above or outside this reality, but because we are deeply embedded within it. We are of the nature that we experience. Unlike other animals, we can reflect on that experience and develop the signs and language with which to communicate those reflections. But this no more assures our independence from nature than it reduces that nature to inchoate buzzing and clatter. Although open to contingencies (what Pierce had insisted as “chance”), the processes of nature have an inherent regularity of function; reflection’s proper role is to review such regularity prefatory to developing appropriate responses to the contingencies inevitable in experience.
Dewey long insisted he was a realist, but we have to understand that he understood reality neither as some inner essence of the perceivable (a notion he repeatedly casts aspersions on), nor as dull collection of facts about the world. We don’t reach into a tree and pluck an apple to contemplate its “appleness.” We may need to dissect it, test its sugar content, or warm it in an oven to see how it browns, etc., but all of that is really only in preparation for eating it. The best use of an oven in testing the nature of an apple is baking it in a pie.
Taking the apple from the tree, slicing it up, spicing it, baking it, eating it – this is as much a part of the reality of the apple as any textbook description of it, and more so than any alleged essence of it. It was the reality of apples before there was any science or philosophy, and the first truly “scientific” thing we did that added to our understanding of apples was learning how to bake the pie.
And with the accessory technological innovations accompanying that learning – the building of the oven, the grinding of wheat into flour, testing the necessary heat of the fire, etc. – we humans did more than simply discover the reality of that apple, we changed it. The apple had been a raw fruit falling from the tree; we could eat it or not as we chose. Now it is part of a sweet, warm dessert for our table; especially prized at an event that is part of another social reality that we have we invented here, in America: Thanksgiving dinner.
Reality is not immutable. There are some things we cannot change; there are some processes we cannot stop. But reality is not one whole. It begins with experience which is always of events of the moment, that then through reflection we can test and try to redirect and redevelop into something more supportive of our own living processes. 120 years ago, the Antarctic was wholly unhospitable to our particular species of mammalian life. That was the reality: Explorers died discovering that. Now thanks to technology, humans live and study there year-round. This is the reality now.
Thus there is here supplied, I think, a first-rate test of the value of any philosophy which is offered us: Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering the things of ordinary experience more opaque than they were before, and in depriving them of having in “reality” even the significance they had previously seemed to have? Does it yield the enrichment and increase of power of ordinary things which the results of physical science afford when applied in every-day affairs? Or does it become a mystery that these ordinary things should be what they are; and are philosophic concepts left to dwell in separation in some technical realm of their own? It is the fact, I repeat, that so many philosophies terminate in conclusions that make it necessary to disparage and condemn primary experience, leading those who hold them to measure the sublimity of their “realities” as philosophically defined by remoteness from the concerns of daily life, which leads cultivated common-sense to look askance at philosophy. (5)
It may seem odd here to quote Dewey on philosophy after discussing the achievements of science and technology, including conquest of the South Pole. But this is all to the point: Philosophy, as a human endeavor, developed as a means of enriching human experience. For Dewey, we always experience; then reflect on our experience; then return those reflections to experience, preferably to enhance our living, but in any case, always in an attempt to find satisfaction in living through it. Not merely satisfaction of the senses or the will to pleasure – an abandonment of reflection wherein lies the risk of an absurd “experiencing of experience.” But just as absurd is the decision to stay the reflective process at the stage of analysis wherein all experience is lost. At one point, Dewey quotes a thinker unnamed (perhaps because Dewey’s criticism is so harsh):
‘When I look at a chair, I say I experience it. But what I actually experience is only a very few of the elements that go to make up a chair, namely the color that belongs to the chair under these particular conditions of light, the shape which the chair displays when viewed from this angle, etc.’ (6)
About which Dewey remarks:
Logically, the chair disappears and is replaced by certain qualities of sense attending the act of vision. There is no longer any other object, much less the chair which was bought, that is placed in a room and that is used to sit in, etc. If we ever get back to this total chair, it will not be the chair of direct experience, of use and enjoyment, a thing with its own independent origin, history and career; it will be only a complex of directly ‘given’ sense qualities as a core, plus a surrounding cluster of other qualities revived imaginatively as ‘ideas.’ (7)
If our world is not a world of apples that we can bake into pies, wood we can hammer into chairs, Thanksgivings we can share with family and friends, of what good is it? Did humans not breathe before there was a theological explanation for it? Before centuries of dialectics concerning first the soul and then the ego that might – hesitantly, ever skeptically – try a breath? Before all the science was in? Or should we wait some authoritative fiat, allowing us to do this?
Philosophy, thinking at large, allows itself to be diverted into absurd search for an intellectual philosopher’s stone of absolutely wholesale generalizations, thus isolating that which is permanent in a function and for a purpose, and converting it into the intrinsically eternal, conceived either (as Aristotle conceived it) as that which is the same at all times, or as that which is indifferent to time, out of time. (8)
The charm of Dewey, and I am much charmed by his thought, is that his best writings come as a breath of fresh air, after prolonged studies among stale tomes in dank libraries, or after endless lectures droning on about a cosmos we cannot really understand or take hold of. Dewey tells us that we don’t have to buy into any philosophy that suggests we are powerless or that our experiences are misleading or unimportant. We can throw ourselves into the world, just as it is, and discover and create it anew.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (9)
 In public domain; available at the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/experienceandnat029343mbp .
 The example of the baking of an apple pie I use later in this essay is drawn, not from Dewey, but from Pierce; but fits in well with the points I understand Dewey making here.
 Experience and Nature, page 4a.
 Ibid., page 3a.
 Ibid., page 8.
 Ibid., page 16.
 Ibid., page 17.
 Ibid., page 28.
 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 180: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.