John Dewey: Philosopher of Technology

By Hickman, Larry A. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

John Dewey: Philosopher of Technology


Hickman, Larry A., Free Inquiry


John Dewey (1859-1952) was widely known among the reading public of his time for his humanism, his progressive educational theory, and his commitment to social reform. Near the end of his life, his work had become so influential that the New York Times dubbed him "America's Philosopher."

Among his fellow academics, Dewey was also known as heir to the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce and William James and as an energetic opponent of dualistic metaphysical systems. He was especially critical of the ones that advanced supernatural or transcendent outlooks. He argued that their separation of facts from values and the mental from the physical had stifled human progress.

With the exception of his closest colleagues, however, few during Dewey's lifetime seemed to notice that he was also the first philosopher in America to develop a systematic critique of technology.

Three factors may have contributed to this oversight. First, there was during Dewey's lifetime no academic discipline, nor even a clearly defined set of issues, known as the philosophy of technology. Some philosophers, to be sure, were interested in the theoretical aspects of science. But technology just seemed to most of them too mundane--too practical--to be worthy of serious consideration.

Second, although Dewey wrote books that were devoted to established sub-fields within philosophy, such as ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of art, he never consolidated his philosophy of technology within a single volume. His critique of technology is diffused throughout dozens of books and essays.

Third, Dewey's work was so far ahead of its time that few of his contemporaries were able to grasp its significance. Only now are philosophers beginning to appreciate the extent to which he undercut the assumptions that have dominated Western metaphysics since Plato. His understanding of the place of technology in human life played a crucial role in his radical critique of philosophical business-as-usual.

Dewey's interest in tools and instruments, already apparent in works he published before the turn of the century, continued throughout his career. His essay "Moral Theory and Practice" (1891) argued that ethics involves the same type of intelligence that is required in the selling of wheat or the invention of the telephone. Later, in Essays in Experimental Logic (1916), Experience and Nature (1925), and Art as Experience (1934), Dewey presented rich analyses of the interaction of human beings with their tools. Among these tools was language, which he called "the tool of tools." Given Dewey's early and extensive philosophical critique of technology, it is ironic that Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, published in 1927, is still widely accepted as the first major philosophical work to take up these matters.

Dewey's interest in technology was an integral part of his broader philosophical outlook. He tirelessly argued that philosophy ought to be relevant to everyday life and that all philosophers worth their salt have the obligation to provide a critique of their environing social conditions.

The formative factors within Dewey's society were so patently technological that one is left wondering why his philosophical contemporaries were so slow to take them into account. At the time of Dewey's birth, America was just beginning its transformation from pre-industrial technologies of wind, water, and wood. As Dewey matured, America increasingly turned to technologies of steel, coal, and iron. Synthetics, television, and nuclear power had become realities before he died. One of Dewey's last published essays contained a discussion of the atomic bomb.

At the heart of Dewey's philosophy of technology is his theory of inquiry, or deliberation. Breaking with the long tradition of Western epistemology, Dewey argued that inquiry is neither primarily theoretical nor primarily practical. It is instead a kind of production. He thought that inquiry starts with raw materials and then reworks them with specialized tools. …

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