Was President Hutchins Serious?
John Dewey makes a further examination of Mr. Hutchins' position

The Higher Learning in America

John Dewey

Published in The Social Frontier, March, 1937, Vol. III, No. 24, pp. 167-169.
President Hutchins' book, The Higher Learning in America, seems to me to be a work of great significance. I thought it such because, in addition to vigorous exposition of the present confused state of education in this country, it raised, as I supposed, a basic issue -- one not often explicitly brought forward and one which is so basic in the philosophy of education that it needs to be stated and discussed. I heartily welcomed the book because I thought that in raising that issue it would clarify educational discussion. This issue as I read the book, was the inherent nature of knowledge and intelligence in relation to the locus of authority in matters intellectual. I understand President Hutchins to hold that there is a power or faculty of Reason or Intellect (in the sense in which these words have been understood by great figures in the history of philosophy) which is capable of grasping first and ultimate truths that are the measure and criterion of all inferior forms of knowledge, namely, those which have to do with empirical matters, in which knowledge of both the physical world and practical affairs is included. I understood him to hold that only on the basis of a hierarchical order determined on the basis of these truths could order be brought out of present disorder -- "a hierarchy of truths" which "shows us which are fundamental and which subsidiary."


That this view is, to put it mildly, a highly respecte one is sufficiently proved by the great names in the history of thought that have supported it. It is still held, I imagine, in theory, by many educators who do not act upon it in their educational practices. In accepting and expounding it clearly and vigorously, as I supposed, President Hutchins' book focussed upon the issue of the place of experience, practical matters, and experimental scientific method in the constitution of authentic knowledge, abd consequently in the organization of the subject matter of higher education. His discussion clarified, I thought, this issue, by making it encumbent upon those who did not accept the classic traditional theory to state an alternative conception upon which their ideas regarding the way out of present educational confusion are founded. I say an alternative, but I believe that there is but one ultimate alternative; namely, the primary place of experience, experimental method, and integral connection with practice in determination of knowledge and the auxiliary role of what is termed Reason and Intellect in the classic tradition. In that spirit I wrote my two articles to which President Hutchins has kindly replied.

Unfortunately, however, I do not find that President Hutchins has discussed what I thought to be the main issue, and while it is clear that he regards my articles as irrelevant to his position, I cannot find in his reply any indication that he either repudiates the position I attributed to him or is willing to defend it. His reply seems to me rather to adopt the method of legal forensics. There are many quotations from his own book, from the writings of others and from my articles. But for reasons which I shall attempt to state, they do not touch the issue.


(1) I begin with an instance of what is meant by the latter sentences. Mr. Hutchins quotes from me the statement that he "looks to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas." He replies by naming eleven other authors from whom he quotes with approval. It is quite true that he quotes in his book from the eleven authors mentioned. But most of the passages he cites are irrelevant to the issue regarding the problem of knowledge, and it was with reference to this that I said Mr. Hutchins looked to the three authorities mentioned. I certainly was not reflecting in any way upon the breadth of Mr. Hutchins' reading or his ability to support his views upon incidental matters (with many of which I am in agreement) by appropriate citations.1 What bearing, other than a purely rhetorical one, does the fact that they were cited upon incidental matters have to do with either my articles or with a relevant reply to them?

(2) Statements which I made regarding Mr. Hutchins' disparaging view of experience, natural science, and connection with practice, in relation to knowledge and higher education, are countered by quotation of passages from Aristotle, St. Thomas, and himself in which the necessity of sense and experience is recognized. Of course, the two philosophers mentioned recognized the necessity of sense and experience in the inferior grade of knowledge found in physical science and moral affairs. It is, however, precisely because both of the latter are connected with sense and experience that they are inferior in rank to pure rational knowledge of ultimate first principles and truths, which has nothing to do with sense and experience. Since the passages cited are strictly in accord with the position I attributed to Mr. Hutchins, in what way is their citation a factor in a relevant reply to what I said? The quotations Mr. Hutchins makes from his own book regarding his admiration for "accumulation of data, the collection of facts, and the advance of the empirical sciences," and about the importance of association of the natural sciences with the work of medical and engineering schools fall in the same category. Upon the ground of the doctrine as to knowledge I attributed to him, of course these things are necessary in their place. The question raised was the question of their subordinate and inferior place in comparison with pure rational and "metaphysical" knowledge.

President Hutchins quoted in his book2 (and I had supposed with endorsement) the system of intellectual virtues that correspond with the hierarchical rank of various grades of knowledge in Aristotle and Aquinas. These are the three speculative virtues: (a) of intuitive knowledge; (b) of scientific demonstration (and demonstration is always purely rational in a sense which excludes experience and reference to practice in Aristotle and St. Thomas); (c) and of intuitive reason of "things highest by nature, first principles and first causes" -- the metaphysical. The two virtues of the practical intellect, which are added, are, on the other hand, concerned with making and doing, and they belong in the lower order of things -- things which change and fall in the scope of "experience" instead of "reason." Unless I completely misunderstood the text in supposing that Mr. Hutchins was approving this view, the quotations he makes regarding the importance of sense, experience, and natural science in relation to the inferior kind of knowledge support the correctness of the view I attributed to him, instead of militating against what I said.


(3) Mr. Hutchins quotes from me a passage in which I attributed to him the conception that ultimate and first truths are "fixed and eternal." He replies that he did not apply these terms to principles or truths in his book. This statement is correct. But Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas regarded them as such. Unless Mr. Hutchins follows them in this respect, his quotations from them regarding knowledge and first truths have no point. Moreover, their fixed and eternal character is quite consistent with the passage Mr. Hutchins quotes from his own book in which he speaks of the need for research and of empirical materials in "development, elaboration, and refinement of principles." Of course, neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas held that rational intuition of eternal and fixed first truths takes place, in the case of human beings, as distinct from divine, without prior experience and reflection. But once they are thus led up to, the scaffolding of experience and reflection falls away, and they are known in their inherent purity as fixed and eternal. There is nothing in President Hutchins' reply to indicate that he does not accept that view -- nor yet to indicate that he accepts it. The issue as to respective places of experimental method and "rational intuition" in institution of truths is the issue I was raising, and I can only again express my regret that Mr. Hutchins did not regard it as fit to touch upon. This issue is certainly fundamental with respect to the final ground for regarding the natural sciences important in education. The passage he quotes from his book to the effect that our country must pin its hope for progress upon education "which involves scientific and technological advance" does not decide his view upon this issue. For he adds "under the direction of reason." If he means that the advance must be conducted intelligently, no one can disagree. But the phrase "under the direction of reason" in view of other passages in his text is open most naturally to the interpretation by which reason in independence from experience and the method of the natural sciences is given superior status and the latter are given subordinate rank.


(4) President Hutchins asks whether I am saying "that there should not be a faculty of metaphysics" and whether "a university which had a faculty of philosophy" would "be more or less authoritaritarian than one which had not?" My answer depends in part upon what is meant by a faculty of metaphisics and philosophy, and in part upon whether philosophy is identified with metaphysics in the sense of a search for ultimate first principles known by Reason which transcends experience, and which when found afford the criterion for ordering other truths, assigning to them their proper subordinate grade in the hierarchy. Having been for forty-five years a member of departments of philosophy, I naturally believe that every university should have one. I do not, indeed, know any university of any standing that does not have one. But it is difficult to believe that Mr. Hutchins attaches the primary importance which he does attach to the place and role of a "faculty of metaphyics" in the reform of higher education to something which already exists as a matter of course. If, then, as is already clearly implied, a faculty of metaphysics means one that exists in splendid isolation from other departments as a separate faculty, and which attempts to discover ultimate first truths that are to be adopted by other faculties as a condition of their own proper intellectual organization, I do not believe in such a faculty. I do believe that a university which was organized on this basis could not help being more authoritarian than others not so constituted.3 Mr. Hutchins' conception of metaphysics was represent, I supposed by the following passages:

It is in the light of metaphysics that the social sciences, dealing with man and man, and the physical sciences dealing with man and nature, take shape and illuminate one another. In metaphysics we are seeking the causes of the things that are. It is the highest science, the first science, and as first, universal. It considers being as being, both what it is and the attributes which belong to it as being. The aim of higher education is wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of principles and causes. Metaphysics deals with the highest principles and causes. Therefore metaphysics is the highest wisdom.4

If this statement does not imply a hierarchy in the order of truths and the subordination of physical and social knowledge to first truths which are attained and guaranteed by a method which is unlike and superior to the methods of the natural and social sciences, I am unable to read the English language. It is with respect to the entertainment of such a doctrine that I said that President Hutchins "looked to" Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas; and, unless these first and highest truths are in themes fixed and eternal, however temporal may be the processes by which we come into possession of them, common logic indicates that they cannot perform the authoritative regulative function ascribed to them. For otherwise they are of the same experimental and hypothetical order as that which they are supposed to control.

The tone and substance of President Hutchins' reply would lead one to suppose that after all he was not raising or meaning to raise any fundamental issue. I must ask his forgiveness if I took his book too seriously.


1 Quotations from Newman and Whewell are, however, definitely in the Aristotelian tradition and in so far support what was meant when I said that Mr. Hutchins "looked to" the philosophers named. The quotation from Kant, moreover, is given as an endorsement of the necessity of a priori principles as the foundation of morals. [Back]

2 The Higher Learning in America, p. 63. [Back]

3 This statement does not mean that it might not be advantageous to have some institution so conducted, just as the School of Higher Studies is almost exclusively a faculty of physics and mathematics. I am speaking, as President Hutchins is speaking of the general plan of university re-organization. [Back]

4 The Higher Learning in America, pp. 97-8. [Back]