Curt Ducasse, Philosophy as a Science, 1941


Philosophy as Light on Social Problems

IN AN address before an audience of philosophers a few years ago,{1} Otto urged attention to the fact that today vast numbers of men and women are in complete bewilderment as to what, if anything, the many activities in which they find themselves so strenuously engaged are ultimately about. The beliefs upon which were based the old rules of the art of living, he points out, are no longer widely and deeply held; and no new conception of the meaning of life, which would give one a sense of the relative importance of things, has been offered by philosophers to replace the old ideology. Instead, philosophers busy themselves with minute epistemological problems or with grandiose conceptions of reality equally devoid of bearing on the questions that the times ask, and properly ask, of philosophy.

I. The Present Need for a "Philosophy of Life." -- What philosophy should be, Otto believes, is "philosophy of life." Its proper task is to seek fresh visions of the meaning of life wherewith to replace those that are gone, and to translate the new insights it obtains into rules for the art of living. Moreover, the philosopher cannot gain these new insights by working "in superior isolation from other thinkers," but rather by becoming "literally a colaborer with those whose contributions are relevant to the task, so that together they may devise a philosophy not of contemplation but of practice."

2. The Instrumentalist Theory of Knowledge. -- The outstanding protagonist of this view of philosophy, of course, has been Dewey, from whom Otto quotes the admonition that philosophy should change from "a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers" to "a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men."{2}

Dewey's conception of philosophy, its task, and its method, has its bases on the one hand in the instrumentalist theory of knowledge, and on the other in a profound interest in social improvement. The instrumentalist theory of knowledge appeals in the first place to the biological fact that man is an animal living in an environment, and that his self-preservation depends nor only on adapting himself to that environment, but still more, and typically, on his attacking it in such manner as to cause, in the phenomena occurring naturally in it advantageous changes that would not occur apart from his interference.{3} Dewey puts it thus:

The organism acts in accordance with its own structure . . . . upon its surroundings. As a consequence the changes produced in the environment react upon the organism and its activities. The living creature undergoes, suffers, the consequences of its own behavior. This close connection between doing and suffering or undergoing forms what we call experience.{4}

Experience in this sense is the condition of foresight; and "knowing is the act, stimulated by this foresight, of securing and averting consequences."{5} A knower, then, is not a spectator as an agent; knowledge is not passive, disinterested contemplation, but is essentially active and directive:

[It] is nor something separate and self-sufficing, but is involved in the process by which life is sustained and evolved. The senses lose their place as gateways of knowing to take their rightful place as stimuli to action. To an animal an affection of the eye or ear is nor an idle piece of information about something indifferently going on in the world. It is an invitation and inducement to act in a needed way. It is a clue in behavior, a directive factor in adaptation of life in its surroundings. It is urgent, not cognitive, in quality.{6}

Thus knowledge "is always a matter of the use that is made of experienced natural events, a use in which given things are treated as indications of what will be experienced under different conditions."{7} Knowing is "the directive presence of future possibilities in dealing with existent conditions"; it is "a way of employing empirical occurrences with respect to increasing power to direct the consequences which follow from things."{8} It is essentially for the sake of doing; it is an instrument -- a directive instrument -- for altering the environment in a beneficial manner.

Yet instrumentalism does not mean "the use of thought to accomplish purposes already given either in the mechanism of the body or in that of the existent state of society," for "action restricted to given and fixed ends . . . . is mechanical (or becomes so)." The pragmatic, or instrumentalist, theory of intelligence is on the contrary that

Intelligence develops within the sphere of action for the sake of possibilities nor yet given. . . . . Intelligence as intelligence is inherently forward-looking. A pragmatic intelligence is a creative intelligence, not a routine mechanic. . . . . Intelligence is . . . . instrumental through action to the determination of the qualities of future experience. But the very fact that the concern of intelligence is with the future, with the as-yet-unrealized . . . . makes the action in which it takes effect generous and liberal; free of spirit.{9}

3. The Instrumentalist Conception of Philosophy and Its Method. -- Philosophy, however, "claims to be one form or mode of knowing," and what is true of knowing in general and of the method by which knowing in general is achieved must therefore be true also of philosophy itself and of the method for philosophical knowing. The method must be the empirical, functional, genetic method of the natural sciences, which deals with denoted existences, seeks functional relations between them, and throws conclusions open to verification by setting forth the existential situations in which the conclusions offered had their genesis.{10} When, as a result of insight into the essentially instrumental nature of knowledge, philosophy is "released from vain metaphysics and idle epistemology,"{11} it, too, becomes "not a contemplative survey of existence nor an analysis of what is past and done with, but an outlook upon future possibilities with reference to attaining the better and averting the worse." Philosophic thinking is

caught up in the actual course of events, having the office of guiding them towards a prosperous issue. . . . .Philosophy is vision, imagination, reflection . . . . and these functions, apart from action, modify nothing and hence resolve nothing. But in a complicated and perverse world, action which is not informed with vision, imagination, and reflection, is more likely to increase confusion and conflict than to straighten things out.

Philosophy thus "recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers; for dealing with the problems of men."{12}

If we ask what problems Dewey means by the latter, the answer is that they are social and moral problems. Philosophy should

face the great social and moral defects and troubles from which humanity suffers . . . . concentrate its attention upon clearing up the causes and exact nature of these evils and upon developing a clear idea of better social possibilities; in short, upon projecting an idea or ideal which, instead of expressing the notion of another world or some far-away unrealizable goal, would be used as a method of understanding and rectifying specific social ills.

4. Does Philosophy Consist of Prospective Thinking in General? -- Now, there can be no doubt of the need of fundamental improvement in social institutions and relations, nor of the fact that vision, imagination, reflection (and, one may add, humane feeling) are of the first importance in "defining difficulties and suggesting methods for dealing with them."{13} But it is far from evident that either the exercise of these faculties in general, or their employment specifically in the task of diagnosing and prescribing for social ills, is what constitutes philosophy.

Let us consider each of these two suppositions. Dewey at one point draws a contrast, which elsewhere he does not usually stress, between knowledge and thinking, science and philosophy. It is of assistance, he says,

to connect philosophy with thinking in its distinction from knowledge. Knowledge, grounded knowledge, is science; it represents objects which have been settled, ordered, disposed of rationally. Thinking, on the other hand, is prospective in reference. . . . . Philosophy is thinking what the known demands of us -- what responsive attitude it exacts. Hence it is hypothetical, like all thinking. . . . . Its value lies nor in furnishing solutions (which can be achieved only in action) but in defining difficulties and suggesting methods for dealing with them.{14}

As to this I would remark that "thinking what the known demands of us," i.e., making hypotheses, is an intrinsic part, not indeed of already acquired knowledge, but of all knowing, of the acquiring of knowledge, no matter of what. The chemist, physicist, physiologist, etc., in their attempts to explain the known, are every day called upon to perform that prospective, forward-looking activity; but they do not in the least eo ipso become philosophers. On the other hand, knowledge on a question admittedly philosophical, e.g., knowledge that metaphysics is vain and epistemology idle -- which, if Dewey's arguments are valid, is then "grounded knowledge" -- would none the less on that account be philosophy; although after it is attained it would of course no longer be philosophizing. The fact is, then, that "thinking," i.e., the making of hypotheses, and the vision, imagination, and reflection it involves, are intrinsic elements of the process of acquiring new knowledge equally about such nonphilosophical questions as that of the origin of cosmic rays or the validity of Fermat's last theorem, and about such philosophical questions as whether it is true (as Dewey asserts) that "no theory of Reality in general, überhaupt, is possible or needed,"{15} or whether the instrumentalist account of the nature of experience is correct. Prospective thinking thus has no special connection with philosophy or philosophizing, and therefore cannot possibly be regarded as differentiating philosophy from other forms of knowledge or knowing.

5. Does Philosophy Consist of Prospective Thinking Specifically to the End of Social Improvement? -- On the other hand, the application of prospective thinking -- the exercise of vision, imagination, reflection -- specifically to the task of diagnosing social ills and formulating possible solutions for them is not any more than the preceding instance describable as philosophy. For what truly corresponds to the employment of these faculties specifically to such ends is not philosophy in general; indeed, it would hardly even be social ethics or social philosophy in general, but rather socio-ethical casuistics.{16}

Indeed, that, in spite of unqualified statements such as some of those already quoted, it is not really the nature of philosophy and philosophizing that Dewey is attempting to describe, but rather the nature of a worthy task which he believes persons trained in philosophy could perform well, is suggested by a number of his own statements. His account of the nature of recovery in philosophy, for instance, is introduced as a "conception of the present scope and office of philosophy"{17} and towards the end of the same section he writes:

I believe that philosophy in America will be lost between chewing a historic cud long since reduced to woody fiber, or an apologetics for lost causes (lost to natural science), or a scholastic, schematic formalism, unless it can somehow bring to consciousness America's own needs and its own implicit principle of successful action. This need and principle . . . . is necessity of a deliberate control of policies by the method of intelligence.

This, however, is virtually to say that what comes before in that essay, or at a number of other places in Dewey's writings, in relation to philosophy, is not really a characterization of the species of knowledge called philosophical, of the species of thinking called philosophizing, but is rather the description of a task now important in America which persons who in some (as it now appears) unstated sense are "philosophers," and more specifically American philosophers, would be well-fitted to perform.

6. Knowing Originally but Not Essentially a Guide to Adaptive Behavior. -- Some remarks on the relations of knowledge to the lives of men will furnish a useful perspective on the instrumentalist account of knowledge and on the inferences that instrumentalism draws as to the nature, the method, and the functions of philosophy.

That knowledge is capable of serving as guide to action performed towards the preservation or improvement of life was long ago emphasized by Schopenhauer, who, it will be recalled, somewhere describes the intellect as a light which the will-to-live kindles for its own use. It may well be granted that the emergence, i.e., the origin of imagination, thought, and knowledge -- and indeed most of their development also -- must be traced to their enormous utility as guides to prosperous action. But Schopenhauer perceived and emphasized also the fact that, in man at least, knowledge and sensation do on countless occasions become for the time emancipated from the service of action, whether adaptive of self to environment or of environment to self. It is precisely at such times that man discovers himself to be different in kind and not only in degree from the other animals. The latter for the most part relapse into sleep when their faculties are not being exercised in the service of their needs; but man lives most truly as man only in the free exercise of his faculties, which begins when his needs are satisfied, or indeed sometimes even before they are satisfied. Whenever a man's attention is wholly absorbed by a beautiful color, a sweet odor, a delicious taste, or the like, the assertion that sensation is "an inducement to act in a needed way . . . . a clue in behavior" patently fails to describe what sensation is then to him. For in every such case sensation is on the contrary something self-sufficing, something free from the service of adaptive behavior.

For man, thought also -- imagination, reflection, cognition -- can and often does become divorced from behavior-guiding function. It is then a form of activity engaged in for its own sake, in complete freedom from preoccupation as to any utility either biological or social that it may or may not have. It is at just such times that man truly emerges from the animal level; for when he exercises his intelligence to plan and direct the construction of even a Hoover Dam or an Empire State Building, he is after all only an educated and exceptionally intelligent beaver. Thought distinctively human is typified much rather by the case of the astronomer who, absorbed in the study of the stars, forgets at the moment that his mind lives in an animal, and falls into a well; or by the case of the poet who, as the "intelligent beaver" sees it, hasn't sense enough to use his faculties to make a living, and starves in his garret.

It is just because the intelligence of man is thus not essentially or always "planning thought," because his reason does not by its very nature have to be "used in the creation of social arts," and does not necessarily have "something to do,"{18} but is on the contrary capable of genuine freedom from the task of "increasing power to direct the consequences which follow from things," that Dewey's contrast between the "problems of philosophers" and the "problems of men" is question-begging and wholly inadmissible. For philosophers too are men, and even the most abstract or technical of the problems of philosophers are some of the problems of men. Thinking and knowing, whether they be for man efficient or inefficient means to living, are, for the intellectually developed man, themselves in considerable measure self-justifying modes of living. They have, that is to say, a greater or less measure of intrinsic value to him, not only in addition to any functional value they may have, but in spite of at times total lack of functional value, or even in spite of functional disvalue. How far at a given time a man can afford to think solely for the joy of thinking is of course a matter of how far the fruits of his own earlier utilitarian thinking have won for him freedom from the practical need. But whatever the amount of such freedom possessed by a man, the instrumental relationship of thought to life gives way for him to its converse in the measure to which thinking no longer depends on the goad of need: for him, in that very measure, life is for thought, not thought for life.

Moreover, such "aesthetic consecration" -- to use Santayana's phrase -- of an activity which originally had only functional value is not here an evil as it is when that which has become loved for itself is a special instrument rendered by changed circumstances now harmful instead of useful. On the contrary, the free exercise of thought -- the exercise of inventiveness, curiosity, imagination, reflection, not because of any pressure of need but just because they itch for exercise -- is a good both because man finds in it one of his keenest satisfactions, and because its very freedom from preoccupations with social betterment makes possible discoveries that often turn out to have most important applications for social betterment, but which never would have been made had such betterment been the aim.

Such reflections move one to wonder whether a certain easy confusion is not perhaps at the basis of the instrumentalist contention that knowing or inquiry is essentially a means or guide to adaptive behavior -- the confusion, namely, of the truth that thinking of the inquisitive sort is essentially a means to problem-solving, with the error that the problems to be solved themselves always concern the means to an end. The fact is that some do and some do not. If the problem I seek to solve is "How could I remove this spot from my coat," thinking or inquiry is a means to discovery of the solution, i.e., it is a means to discovery of the means of removing the spot. In this case the problem does concern the means to an end. On the other hand, if the problem I seek to solve is "How many satellites has Jupiter," thinking or inquiry is again a means to discovery of the solution; but in this case the problem to the solution of which thinking is a means is not itself a problem as to means. In my own case at least, there is no ulterior end for the sake of which I seek as means a knowledge of the number of these satellites. My curiosity as to their number is disinterested, free. It is idle, not working, curiosity. It has doubtless a cause, but no purpose. And cases of such free curiosity are innumerable not only among scientists but also among laymen. The discovery of fossilized dinosaur eggs or of a new outlying planet, for instance, is so interesting to the general public -- although it can do nothing with it -- that the discovery is front-page news.

7. The Instrumentalist Conception of Freedom in Thinking. -- It may be said, however, that the instrumentalist himself distinguishes between free and "servile" thought, and therefore that the facts above instanced must be compatible with the instrumentalist view. But I shall now attempt to show that the manner in which he proposes to distinguish between free and servile thought simply does not work and therefore does not reconcile the instrumentalist account of thought and knowledge with those facts.

A passage earlier quoted makes clear that Dewey regards thought as servile when it is "a mere means for an end already given," even if the end "is labeled moral, religious, or aesthetic"; i.e., it is servile when it is employed to direct the accomplishment of "purposes already given either in the mechanism of the body or in that of the existent state of society." An example of servile thought thus would be, we may assume, thought devoted by a man to increasing the yield of the farm which is the means to the satisfaction of his hunger and to other ends which, like the satisfaction of hunger, are ends "given in the mechanism of the body." Another example would be, presumably, thinking devoted to increasing the efficiency of means for transportation or long-distance communication, or for other such "purposes already given. . . . in the mechanism . . . . of the existent state of society. "

On the other hand, thought is free according to Dewey when it is used "to project new and more complex ends"; when it is engaged in planning "action for the sake of possibilities not yet given . . . . action directed to ends to which the agent has not previously been attached."{19} Examples of free thought would then presumably be the imagining and planning of some new form of government, the defining of some new theory of education, etc.

Let us see, now, whether the distinction proposed will serve. An example of the employment of thought in planning "action directed to ends to which the agent has not previously been attached" would clearly seem to be the thought used in the invention of the airplane, for flying was a "possibility not yet given" to man, and for the sake of which the inventor's creative thought and action were being employed. Such thought was therefore free according to the definition proposed. But that inventor's same creative thought and action could just as truly be described as having been devoted to the devising of a more efficient means to a purpose "already given . . . . in the mechanism . . . . of the existent state of society," viz., the purpose of transportation. That inventor's same thought must therefore be also described as servile. The distinction proposed between free and servile thought thus will not work.

Again, government, education, etc., are ends already given from ancient times by the mechanism of society. The devising of new forms of government or education would then be a devising of more efficient means to already given ends; and such devising would according to the distinction proposed then be a servile employment of thought. But that very same employment of thought is also free according to the distinction proposed; for if we describe what it attempts to devise by a specific name -- e.g., fascism, communism, or the project method in education -- instead of in terms of its relation to government or education in general, then what is being devised is automatically also describable as "possibilities not yet given . . . . ends to which the agent has nor previously been attached." The distinction proposed between free and servile thought thus has no objective basis.

The truth of the matter would seem to be that all thinking which is not simply repetitious and merely habitual (i.e., not any longer properly thinking at all, since often a machine can better accomplish the same tasks) is genuinely creative, and this quite irrespective of whether what it creates is the conception of a new means to an end already given, or the conception of a new end to which to turn means already available. Thus, the distinction between ends already given and ends not yet given has nothing to do with the creative, forward-looking character which belongs to all genuine thinking. And therefore that distinction has nothing to do with the difference between free and servile thinking, which it purported to define. The two kinds of thinking are equally creative, heuristic.

The true distinction between free and servile thinking is, I submit, that between thinking because one likes to, and thinking because one needs to. And since the two are not necessarily exclusive, the test in any given case is: Would the thinking be carried on even if one knew that what it creates or discovers can be of no possible use in guiding action to the improvement of life for one's self or others? If it would not then be carried on, it is essentially servile, or, as I should prefer to phrase it, essentially in the service of needed control over the conditions of life, even if the performance of the thinking also happens to be enjoyed. If on the other hand the mere satisfaction of curiosity, the mere intellectual adventure of exploring possibilities, the mere joy of creating or inventing, would be sufficient to motivate the thinking, then it is essentially free, even if one also happens to hope that the knowledge it achieves will turn out to be of some use in directing action for social betterment.

From Dewey's conception, which would identify philosophy with thought devoted to social improvement, let us now turn to Bertrand Russell's, which would identify it with logic.

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{1} Otto, "Meditations on a Hill."[Back]

{2} Dewey et al., Creative Intelligence (1917), p. 65. [Back]

{3} Creative Intelligence, p. 9. [Back]

{4} Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 86. [Back]

{5} Creative Intelligence, p. 61. [Back]

{6} Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 87. [Back]

{7} Creative Intelligence, p. 47. [Back]

{8} Creative Intelligence, pp. 53, 59. [Back]

{9} Creative Intelligence, p. 63 f. [Back]

{10} Dewey, Experience and Nature, chap. i. [Back]

{11} Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 124. [Back]

{12} Creative Intelligence, p. 65. [Back]

{13} Democracy and Education, p. 381. [Back]

{14} Democracy and Education, p. 381. [Back]

{15} Creative Intelligence, p. 55. [Back]

{16} I use "casuistrics" rather than the more orthodox term "casuistry," because the latter has acquired a derogatory connotation, and I wish to avoid any suggestion that the employment I refer to is in any way to be looked down upon. On the contrary, I regard it as of great importance. But this is no reason for applying to it a description, viz. "Philosophy," which belongs to something else. [Back]

{17} Creative Intelligence, p. 53. [Back]

{18} Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 96. [Back]

{19} Creative Intelligence, p. 63 f. [Back]

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