The aim of this study is not to give a systematic or historical exposition of pragmatism in comparison to other philosophies, but to focus on a central theme, which it has developed and of which has been the prime philosophical representative. This theme will show its revolutionary impact in the field of ethics, and the difficulty in placing pragmatism among the `isms'. The revolution of pragmatism entered as a burst of fresh air into a musty library; it stirred up and fought with other philosophical movements; and in a meta-philosophical fashion it tried to see itself as a culminating lesson of the fuller growth of human knowledge. Such pretensions are of course an old story in philosophy. Yet, almost a hundred years after Charles Peirce's early essays on "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear,"1 the entire impact of the revolution is not yet fully appreciated.

The theme I shall deal with is the pragmatic treatment of ideas as human constructions developed in response to human problems and tested in the flux of human experience. Though no attempt will be made at a broader coverage, nor at a historical search of the succeeding generations of pragmatic thought, the impact of this approach in ethics will be set in a brief historical perspective and in particular relation to the contributions of James and Dewey. It will be presented through reflections on Dewey's moral theory, in part because Dewey made ethics central in his work and, more to our point, his elaboration of morality and its components is thoroughly explicit.


The pragmatic treatment of ideas arose in the context of a revised conception of what the world and what human beings and their functions are like. In the ancient and medieval philosophies mind was conceived of as pure act or energy in which, after the appropriate sensory stimulation, the structure of the real was grasped directly. The real world itself was conceived either, as in Aristotle, as eternally the same or as the fixed order of creation. In Cartesian dualism the separation of mind from body became hardened; ideas being a direct expression of spirit, the world of mind was removed from that of nature. In the main empirical tradition from Locke onward, the source of ideas lay in the building blocks of sensations or in the impressions minds received passively from the actions of the physical world. Sensations themselves gravitated together to form our ideas of objects and relations according to laws of the mind modelled on the Newtonian image. The contextual picture of the world was the Newtonian world system, no matter to what extent empiricism was driven by its inner problems to become a self-enclosed phenomenalism.

The Kantian and idealist philosophies reinstated the active character of the mind in relation to knowledge, and the Hegelian idealisms restored the unity of the world on idealist terms. It was the evolutionary view of world development and the place of man in nature however, that naturalized knowledge and its processes. The pragmatic treatment of ideas reflected the changed conception of mind and the intellect as human powers, which had developed in the evolutionary process and functioned to maintain and extend human life and to resolve its practical problems. What is often overlooked is that, with the restoration of mind to nature, the conception of the practical itself became a much richer notion. This is most evident in the treatment of ideas in Peirce (1839-1914), James (1842-1910), and Dewey (1859-1952).

Pragmatism presents an activist-instrumental theory of ideas: conceptions are assessed by what they enable us to accomplish regarding those problems to which they are addressed. Peirce's early papers show a kind of laboratory empiricism in which the meaning of an idea is equated with the habits of action and the practical experimental consequences implied by the use of that idea. This aspect became central in what was later called "operationalism." Sometimes this has been exaggerated into an equation of an idea with the operations by which we apply it; more reasonably, however, it is limited to the recognition that operations constitute necessary, though not always sufficient, conditions of meaning. Peirce developed his pragmatism into a well-rounded understanding of the method of science, which included a basic empiricism, its inherent limitations of imprecision, fallibility, probability as against certainty, and the instrumental rather than self-evident character of axioms.

James reached his pragmatic approach through his psychological investigation.2 The basic stuff of experience is the stream of consciousness, a constant flux in which directional movements give expression to human purposes. Out of this, meanings emerge as perching-points, which appear as the differences the presence of an idea makes in experience and acting. Classification and ideational orderings reflect human interests and processes, and there is a constant feedback in experience. Meanings are altered by refinement and reinforcement at every point in the flow of experience, so that ideas are always at work and being worked on. The meaning of an idea is, as in Peirce, its practical effects; the truth of an idea lies in its working out satisfactorily. In contrast to Peirce, James broadened the terms `practical effects' and `working out satisfactorily'. Though he gave them a scientific interpretation where evidence was available, in relation to morality and religion the wider meanings of `practical', such as effects on our life and its problems, and yielding a satisfactory life, came to the fore.3 This broadening was mediated by James' view that science itself rested on the human emotional need for finding and making order, and for ensuring stability and reliability. In general, too, James was an opponent of the tight system, and intertwined the themes of individualism, pluralism, novelty, creativity, and responsible choice, with the Heraclitean sense of the change, practical orientation, and the constantly constructive and reconstructive character of experience.

Dewey's treatment of ideas is most explicitly instrumental; it is consciously set against regarding ideas as portrayals of antecedently existing reality.4 Dewey constantly opposed dualism in all its forms. Ideas are constructions which humans have developed for their purposes out of experience. They are context-bound and purpose-oriented, addressed to problem-situations which provoke inquiry and furnish it with implicit criteria for success. Ideas are generalized only in order to try them out in future experience and its problems are what has proved helpful in resolving those of the present. Their evaluation rests on what is--and how it is--successfully accomplished. Wholesale antecedent criteria are inadequate in judging ideas since different criteria arise in different kinds of problems. Generalized principles or lessons can guide inquiry in the specific situations, not as rigid dictates, but as leads or as methods. Nothing, however, is a substitute for the imaginative and sensitive treatment of the present by an insight which proposes clues, develops alternatives, and refines ideas. The character of that insight itself reflects the depth and consolidation of accumulated experience.

There is an explicit psychological grounding in Dewey's work for this entire treatment of knowledge and method. For all that Peirce and James talked about practice, they--especially James--seemed held back by the Cartesian problem and did not carry through what was implicit in their own program. James, for example, saw clearly the problem of the organization of perception, but stopped short at the problem of the organization of response. Dewey, however, set forth the scope of the whole task quite early in his work, especially in the paper on "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology"5 which served as a model for much of his later development, including The Theory of Valuation. He integrated his treatment of the function of consciousness with that of the organization of perception, suggesting how perception was in part motor and the motor itself was unavoidably perceptual.

Several features of this whole pragmatic approach should be noted.

(1) The approach is genetically and functionally oriented. The genetic context and functional roles are drawn up on the basis of past experience and insight coupled with present needs and purposes that underlie the problem situation. These roles are conceived, not as irrelevant to inquiry into truth, but as the matrix in which specific inquiry gets its structure and criteria of judgment.

(2) The problem-situation, which is Dewey's way of characterizing the starting-point of an inquiry, is understood initially in bio-psychological terms. "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" shows the way in which a stimulus, far from being separately identifiable, acquires its meaning from past experience, and how a problem arises from the conflict of direction of action prompted by different meanings. The structure of the problem-situation is thus seen as a whole, with discrepant elements requiring reconstruction in order to allow liberated energy in determinate unified action. His later Human Nature and Conduct,6 describes the problem situation in terms of impulse serving as a pivot of reconstruction when there is a conflict of established habits through which the self is constituted. Intelligence is the habits of reconstruction which operate to bring about a smooth reconstruction.

Nevertheless, the characterization of the problem-situation need not be always in terms of its underlying psychological structure. It can be set by reference to whatever discipline in the terms of which the problem arises. For example, in his Liberalism and Social Action,7 Dewey describes socio-historical problems in terms of the specific social forces producing changes and causing friction by their entrenched ways. In these terms, the social outlook of liberalism has the office of intelligent transition so as to mediate change without violence. In purely theoretical issues arising in the growth of science, the problems may themselves be cast in terms of conflict within the specific inquiry, with the method of science being the organized mode of intelligence working toward problem-resolution.

(3) Finding the meaning of ideas in possible consequences and practical differences implies for pragmatism a future-orientation. This forward element is fairly new in the dominant theoretical place it gives to prediction, guidance, and control. Whereas scientific success requires theory, experience, and prediction, the ancient emphasis on the theoretical-contemplative side reflected not merely enthusiasm for mathematics but the lack of a well-developed empirical science. In spite of Francis Bacon's demand for experiments that yield both fruit and light, the empirical tradition in its Humean cast stressed more the conservative role of custom as past accumulation in the understanding of beliefs. As pragmatism includes not only the continuing character of experience but the forward-looking attitude, the analysis of theory as the predictive element becomes constitutive in the theory of meaning rather than simply consequential.

(4) Since the meaning of ideas is thus to be found in their forward reference to reconstructions in experience, and any structures that arise are interpreted in terms of the experiential continuum, there is no room within the approach for wholly transcendent reference. This entails a treatment of discourse of the transcendent as the symbolic representation of the experiential, the practical, and human activity rather than as pointing to a separate reality. It is not surprising that James generally deals with religion as beliefs that service human needs and strivings, and that in A Common Faith, Dewey's humanistic naturalism in religion sees it as a quality of experience in which men expand their selves to embrace more permanent social aims.8

(5) None of these aspects of the pragmatic approach need be taken as anti-intellectual in the sense of denying a concept of truth, though of course in particular writers they may take such a turn. The approach is rather concerned with treating the concept of truth itself in a pragmatic way, by showing how it functions in human life. For James, truth is what is verified, corroborated, and assimilated into the body of beliefs. For Dewey, it is warranted belief. Peirce had conceived of truth as an ideal approached asymptotically; but this ideal is itself in part a function of the character of the method through which it is approached. In effect, for pragmatism, truth is a concept humans elaborate to distinguish what is stable and dependable from what is unreliable within the flux of experience.

(6) Reality in the sense of a world with some definite features, though construed as a lesson of experience, is presupposed rather than conjured away in pragmatism. A fixed stereotype, to which pragmatists often themselves succumb, contrasts the instrumentalism of ideas in the pragmatic approach with the "realism" of other philosophies. This realism treats ideas as reflections or representations of reality, while the pragmatist treats ideas as tools for practical purposes. Other philosophies then dismiss pragmatism as turning away from reality to ephemeral utility and expediency, while the pragmatist convicts the others of unverifiable claims. Such stereotypes are not prone to advance philosophical thought, and sharp contrast itself crumbles when each side is examined seriously. The notions of reflection and representation embody a large measure of human construction, and there is a strong enough force of reality in the pragmatic idea of constructions turning out to work well or of the instrumental being, in fact, useful. A clear enough distinction between what represents and what is instrumental can be found within experience and between parts of experience, without making the issue a transcendent or metaphysical one. The idea of reality in this sense is itself a hard-working and useful one.

Of course, the pragmatic characterization of reality has its own distinctive features. It has a basically temporal character, recognizes the constant presence of alternative possibilities, and focuses upon constant emergence of novel elements. For James, the emphasis falls on the plastic, unfinished nature of reality, with man's will at the frontier. For Dewey, too, the sense of creative possibilities is strong.

(7) The pragmatic treatment of ideas, if well-grounded, should have sufficient reflexive application to make clear its own superiority to the ideas it is trying to supplant. As we have seen earlier, its own view is built on an account of a world that is undergoing constant change; on a human race that evolving and is continually engaged in the tasks of surviving and of maintaining a home upon the globe; and on a specific account of psychological processes of sense, thought, and feeling. It would be folly for the pragmatic conception of ideas to seek a status antecedent to these hard-earned lessons of human knowledge. The pragmatic treatment of ideas must claim to be those lessons put to work, while at the same time growing into a critique by which the accumulation of these lessons itself may become more effective. In its treatment of older conceptions, such as the Aristotelian or the Cartesian, it must do more than disagree, supplant, or condemn; it also must show how they attempted responses to problems in the state of the then current accounts of the world and of the specific processes and functioning of man. Thus Aristotle's view of thought as the mind's assimilation to the structure of reality is not just metaphysical postulation, for his culmination of accounts of the way in which nutrition and sensing take place. Descartes' sharp cleavage of mind and matter itself expresses an attempt at reckoning with the state of physiological explanation in his day, and the kind of ordering that could be achieved in physics and in mathematics at that stage of interpretation. Both Aristotle and Descartes were attempting refashionings which would provide a more adequate conceptual framework for grappling with problems in all areas of human life and thought. In the manner of philosophy, they were creative constructions putting together on a total scale what is available at the time. As hard choices had to be made at every point, it is not surprising that some conceptual experiments worked out less well than others. Philip Frank once remarked, concerning the controversy over the Copernican theory as against the Ptolemaic, that the total choice was not a simple matter of simplicity in physics, but whether to have a simple (traditional) theology and a complex physics, or a simple physics and a complicated theology.

In general, then, the pragmatic conception of philosophy itself is congruent with its whole approach to ideas. Philosophy is the critique of the conceptual framework with which men approach their world in order to refine and revise it in the light of the growth of their knowledge and experience, and to make it a more effective instrument for coping with further experience. While in practice Dewey sometimes substituted a tirade against dualism for a more complete pragmatic analysis of the older outlook, and at times he concentrated too exclusively on the social function of a view which he was contrasting with his own, on the whole the pragmatic attitude to historical philosophies involves a much more responsible reckoning than is found in either blanket dismissal or passionate revival.

How does all this apply to ethical theory and ethical insight?


The impact of the pragmatic approach in ethical theory will emerge from a consideration of five major themes: 1. naturalism and the bases of human morality; 2. the permeating sense of change; 3. the functional treatment of moral ideas and categories; 4. the reinterpretation of major dichotomies: the cognitive and the practical, the descriptive and the prescriptive, the social and the individual, the causal and the creative; and 5. the nature and scope of ethical insight. These themes will be dealt with chiefly in relation to Dewey's presentation of ethics.9

Naturalism and the Bases of Morality

Dewey's approach to ethics is basically that of a philosophical naturalism which considers man to be a material organism or part of the natural world, whose special psychological and cultural qualities are understandable in terms of complex interrelations and a history of creative adaptations to environment and to the human milieu. Thus, the bases of morality are to be sought in the wider domain of human life and activity, rather than in some special external force or in some isolated distinctive faculty.

Dewey calls attention to three roots of morality, that is, to parts of the human phenomena which are worked up into the construct of ethics.10 The first is the whole domain of human desire, goal-seeking, and purpose-formation. This is crystallized in the concept of the good and in those theories of teleological ethics which direct themselves toward the good. The second looks to phenomena that arise in the interrelation of humans whenever they live in groups. These are phenomena of the regulation of claims or demands which people make upon one another in virtue of the situations in which they find themselves. The concepts of moral law, right, and obligation give expression to this domain. The third is the field of mutual reactions of people to one another in virtue of their mutual actions and relations. It consists of approbation or condemnation, mutual appraisal or criticism, and encouragement or resentment. This is conceptualized in the notions of virtue and vice.

Dewey seems to find his fields partly from phenomena divided in a particular way and partly from the conceptual reflection of phenomena in the great historical schools of western ethics, with some of the variations falling along cultural or national lines. Perhaps the division could be carried out in other ways. Think, for example, of the areas of immediacy, that is, of pleasures and pains, satisfactions and dissatisfactions, which produced the hedonistic theories; of the break-up of human relations along the line of roles as a favorite recent sociological concept; or of the alignment of virtue and vice with the specific perennial task of raising children. Perhaps the significant domains of phenomena for morality change and are more culturally defined than, as it were, a set of great natural divides. The significant point in Dewey's pragmatic naturalism, however, is not so much the particular detail as the kind of enterprise in which he is engaged. Morality does not have a special separate subject-matter, but is based in the whole set of human phenomena that arise out of the makeup of man as a biological being in a socio-cultural milieu. In the long run, the advance of moral theory will best discover the joints for theoretical division, whether they shift or are constant, and given their degree of constancy. Instead of antecedently setting a rigidly fixed domain, this discovery will result from an interplay of the concepts and the phenomena.

The Permeating Sense of Change

Reinforced by the recent experience of both secular ethical systems and religious ethical systems, there is definitely a kind of Heraclitean basis in Dewey's ethics, in the sense that no matter what ethics one holds the problems of stability and of change impinge upon its very core. In a pragmatic ethics, and for that matter in a naturalist or in a materialist ethics, this is recognized as being a constitutive element rather than an external property of disintegration or corruption. This being the case, the historical element must be put right into the definition of a moral situation. Moreover, the pragmatic epistemology of ideas as undergoing constant revision in the feedback of experience, points in the same direction. The moral experience, the solution of a moral problem, and the definition of a moral situation, all are characterized by a historical-critical-decisional center. Dewey makes this point in so simple a fashion that its significance may escape us. He says that there are two kinds of situations: one in which we know what is right and are tempted not to do it, and the other in which we are in doubt about what is right because of some conflict in the analysis of the situation. Relevantly enough, he gives the example of a man who is torn by patriotism on the one hand and by the belief that his country is waging an unjust war on the other hand.11 Though the former type of situation is usually taken to be the prototype of a moral situation, this should not be done, because there the agent knows what is right. The situation that demands decision about what is right is the genuinely moral one. In this claim, Dewey parts company with the tradition in which morality is an eternal system that can be grasped and needs only to be actualized in conduct. He parts company with the Kantian type of theory in which what is moral can be readily determined by invoking the categorical imperative, and the central phenomenon of obligation is a struggle between the rational, guided by that imperative, and subjective inclinations that tempt to deviation.

In the contemporary world the rate of change has accelerated and the expectation of change, continual even within a single generation, has itself become one of the fixed points of a realistic outlook. The centrality of moral decision in Dewey's sense has broken through all traditional systems; the most dogmatic and the rationalistic have found that the elements of variety, conflict, and need for creativity have only been disguised in the past by focusing upon the eternal and the systematic. It is not that the world has changed from the stable to the changing, but that the increased tempo has revealed the inner historicity that was always present.

The consequence of this emphasis on change in Dewey is methodological reorientation of ethical theory. He does not expect fixed results or answers. Instead, he aims at methods or modes of analysis. Perhaps he overdoes this, and gives us moral methodology where men want moral answers. In part he would say, as the existentialists do later, that the individual has to work out answers for himself in the full detail of the situation; this individualism is in Dewey as it is in James. Apart from this, the question of the extent to which one can get definite answers in a given domain is not an a priori one, but depends on the rate of change and the degree of complexity. It is to be learned in the progress of the inquiry, and is not determined by the character of the concepts of ethics as such. Thus, we are brought to the third theme: the recognition that our moral categories are doing jobs, and that their understanding must be in terms of these offices.

The Functional Treatment of Moral Ideas and Categories

A functional treatment of moral judgment itself is dictated by the basic view of consciousness and thought that pervades Dewey's treatment of all experience. A moral judgment has a mediating role, coming between the problem situation, whose understanding grows in reflection, and the envisaged and proposed good that guides the resolution in decision and action. A moral judgment is thus futuristic in its reference, both with respect of prediction and with respect of its moral quality.

The reorientation of ethical theory in terms of a critical-decision function carries implications for all the major ethical concepts. Their specific jobs or functions have to be recanvassed with reference to their specific material and the kinds of goings-on in their area of competence. Looked at in this way, Dewey's discussions of good and value, right and obligation, and virtue and vice constitute remarkable lessons in the application of the basic pragmatic treatment of ideas.

In the case of good, tradition has stressed a catalogue of ends as goals in human life. The common philosophical conception of the good as the object of desire or of striving embodied this view, sometimes in a teleological and sometimes in a naturalistic setting. In this domain the job of ethics would be to identify the ends in sufficient isolation and fixity to serve as permanent and perennial objects for striving, and to separate and put in their ancillary place the means to attain those ends. Dewey's objection, very simply, is that this is the wrong job, and on several counts. For it asks one to find a fixity of ends which is neither in fact present, nor possible to achieve. Ends are in flux. They are complex rather than simple. Their very meaning is to be found in their consequences in human experience, and the attempt to catch them in a concept of happiness or pleasure or some specific inventory is hopeless. Moreover, to attempt to do so would be to isolate ends from means and ends from consequences, which separation rests basically upon an incorrect human psychology.

Here Dewey elaborates his idea of end-in-view as a pivot of reorganization in a complex problem-situation, rather than as an ultimate and separable goal. He uses the striking analogy of the end as a target set up to organize shooting and to render it more effective.12 As an application of his whole analysis of the problem-situation, an end-in-view is taken to be an hypothesis proposed in reconstruction. The adequacy of aiming at the end is tested in terms of the consequences of the activity in liberating energies, resolving the initial problem, and thus rendering experience more meaningful. In effect, Dewey challenged the traditional means-ends hierarchical relation, which has dominated both ethics and social science, and wished to substitute quite different categories grounded upon a different psychological theory. This is why we find him constantly attacking the dualism of means and end, the sharp separation of fact and value, and the dichotomy of scientifically ascertainable means and empirically untestable end. Dewey regards these as simply modern versions of the old dualism between the realms of nature and of spirit, with value being placed in the latter and shut off from responsible scientific reckoning.

The job which he sets up, instead, for the concept of good is the constant critical function of organizing interests in human life, selecting among them, capturing them in a set of hypotheses to be continually tested by their consequences in experience--both in the immediate quality and meaningful character of experience and in the longer-range consequences of acting on those hypotheses--constantly guiding choice in a critical way, and discriminating the better from the worse. At one point, Dewey had toyed with the idea of recognizing "better" rather than "good" as the fundamental ethical term, on the ground that preference was the basic ethical act.13 In his Theory of Valuation14 this critical function takes the form of construing value as basically appraisal, rather than as the apparently more simple and isolated act of prizing, for value does not lie in some simple fact of liking, or some set feeling or attitude possessed. In truth, prizings and attitudes are psychologically set in a framework of care or concern, so that the value judgment lies in an appraisal of means and consequences in the having of the liking or attitude. Valuation thus involves the continual emergence, organization, and testing of criteria in appraisal.

On the question of right and obligation, Dewey faces the traditional notion of the moral law as a set of general commands from which our duties are derived. Here again, he is concerned with the fixity of the moral law and its separation from consequences. There is also the opposite tradition, as in Utilitarianism, of those who sought to reduce right and wrong to a purely administrative status in carrying out the good. Against the first, are the obvious historical difficulties which arise from the variety in rules, problems of interpretation and application. Here, his task is to show that the pragmatic treatment of ideas, by finding their meaning in practical consequences, fits more closely what really goes on than the attempted regulation of life by a system of rules. Against those who would dispense with distinctive notions of right and wrong, however, Dewey invokes the functional approach of asking what job is done by the category of right. Since it is that of giving expression to an ordered regulation of the field of human claims that arise in every group, he does not think the category can be dispensed with. One can insist, however, upon evaluating the content put into a scheme of rights in terms of its consequences with respect to the good. Thus, if men draw up a list of basic human rights, the justification of including among them the right to a job or the right to education, for example, is the role of a job in the modern economy in providing the necessary conditions and opportunities for the good life, and the necessity of education for furnishing both the skills and the development of spirit which makes possible valuable activity.

It is worth noting that the familiar complaint against pragmatism, that it does not admit of absolutes, is misleading. It is the concept of absolute itself which undergoes pragmatic treatment. Insofar as it means unquestioning acceptance, it has, of course, no place in the critical functioning of ethical concepts. However, if it refers to strict injunctions that reject exceptions in a given range, then pragmatic absolutes are possible where they are justified by the decision that some areas, for good reason, require absolute rules. Thus, the rule against smoking when your plane takes off is a reasonable absolute, justified in terms of our knowledge of the nature of planes and fuel and the risks involved. Principles like not interfering with freedom of thought and expression, or the even more basic principle of every person being treated with dignity, quite readily fit in an absolute way into a pragmatic or naturalist ethics. They do require a justification which involves a fuller understanding of the nature of humans and their possibilities, the desirable form of human relations, and so on, but these may be such as to support the principles perennially rather than for just a brief period. In general, in considering the stability of right, Dewey is prone to emphasize principles for analyzing situations as against rules to be directly followed. But this again is a question of the degree of complexity and change found in given areas of human life, and hence involves empirical judgments.

In the third set of major ethical concepts, virtue and vicey, Dewey seems to try an experiment in generalization. Again, this is required by the historical variety and complexity, and the pragmatic appreciation that the meaning of a virtue always lies in the consequences of specific conduct and feeling rather than in some "essence." The virtue of thrift in one economy becomes the vice of hoarding in another. The meaning of chastity changes in many details as the regulation of human marriage and of human relations takes on varied institutional forms or undergoes change. Though it might be possible to find phenomenological constancies, these might be related in turn to presumed psychological invariants, thus requiring empirical evidence. Dewey tries instead to generalize, or almost to "methodologize" the theory of virtue. He interprets the constant element in virtue as being the stress on such perennial traits required in any genuine human interest as sincerity, whole-heartedness, persistence, impartiality, and conscientiousness--all taken not as isolable traits but as aspects of a rounded character. The detail of the experiment does not especially concern us here. Whether one will accept this path, or insist upon some highly general character-traits more oriented to specific content in human relations, may very well rest on what psychological theory proves acceptable in the long run about the nature of character and personality development. What is significant about Dewey's approach here is its pragmatic effort to assign a role to the virtue concept in terms of the way it can function.


Contemporary ethics has been much exercised by the contrasts of the cognitive and the practical, the descriptive and the prescriptive, the individual and the social, and the causal and the creative. A pragmatic ethics finds here ample scope for employing its treatment of ideas.

The question whether ethics is a cognitive or a practical discipline is, in one form or another, a very old issue. It seems to carry with it the controversy concerning whether moral judgments can be established as true or false, or whether they are arbitrary fiats of one sort or another. In medieval philosophy, some such dichotomy found expression in the controversy over whether morality issued from reason or will (in theological inquiry, from God's reason or God's will). In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was the controversy between Cambridge Platonists and sentiment theorists as to whether morality expressed intellectual truths or affective paths of sentiment. In the 20th century, there was first emotive theory which made a sharp separation between cognitive belief and emotive attitude, and assigned moral utterances to the attitude column as characterized by persuasive force rather than rational ground. This was followed by the continuing attempt to reorient moral discourse as somehow prescriptive rather than descriptive, as a kind of doing or performing rather than a kind of knowing. When ancient writers, like Aristotle, distinguished practice from theory, theory was the very narrow field of that which could not be otherwise, and practice the wide field in which transformation and control might arise. Thus to call something practical did not disparage its cognitive character. Medicine, engineering and ethics stand together as far as practicality and cognitivity are involved.

The pragmatic treatment of such dichotomies is to regard them as experimental constructs for the understanding of human functioning. If the dichotomies get us into trouble in psychology or ethics they reveal their own bankruptcy, not the irrationality of the phenomena. Thus, if we give or acknowledge reasons for doing something, a dichotomy according to which we could have good reasons for believing but not for doing is somehow wrong and must be either refined or replaced. Dewey is, in fact, much more positive in his rejection of some of these dichotomies, especially those between cognition and will, between cognition and feeling, and between thinking and doing, as representing the old and incorrect faculty psychology. We need not follow here his line of argumentation, nor the way in which he attempts an integrated account. It is central to his psychology from the very early treatments of effort and emotion to the later criticisms of the means-end dichotomy as also representing a cultural dualism--separating drab means from vivid enjoyment in the character of our work and pleasure institutions. It continues into his very late critique of emotivism as simply reading the irrationality of our social ways of resolving disputes by violence into the nature of human psychology.15 In his more analytical treatment of detailed points in the psychology of ethics, Dewey constantly rejects the falling apart of intention and consequences, motive and action, willing and thinking, and habit and intelligence. The pragmatic key to dilemmas resting on such dichotomies is never to argue them, but to undercut them by revealing the incorrect presuppositions which enter into the construction of the concepts so dichotomized.

The same pragmatic attitude finds itself wholly out of sympathy with the tremendously imposing dichotomy of fact and value or is and ought, which has so dominated 20th century thought. It is true that if you succeed in making the gulf unbridgeable, then bridging it will be impossible, and no logical derivation of such a value, or ought, from such a fact, or is, will be possible. Most of the arguments are therefore beside the point. The pragmatic question concerns the presuppositions and purposes that were built into such constructed notions of fact and value to begin with. Are they correct presuppositions and worthwhile purposes, and are the resultant notions viable? If the presupposition is that having a value or asserting an ought is somehow not a natural human phenomenon, then it is questionable to begin with. If the purpose is to prevent the smuggling of aims and criteria into an argument without rendering them explicit, that is laudable, but if it is to render value judgments arbitrary and immune from rational criticism, then it is far from laudable. If the resultant notion is workable, then we should be able to set apart the value terms of our language from the fact terms, or the value uses from the fact uses; we should be able to distinguish pure describing in such a way as to be without values and pure valuing, hence being without factual judgment. All of these separation processes seem to be dubious unless we beg the issue by some presupposition of pure sensation and pure feeling, or of pure thinking and pure doing.

We cannot here even begin the reassessment of the fact-value issue and its alleged consequence of the value-free character of science and the science-free character of value. But it is clear enough that a pragmatic treatment goes back into the construction of the dichotomy and assesses its uses rather than argues from it as an unanalyzed set of categorial terms. In pragmatic ethics the emphasis should fall, by-passing the general issue, on analyzing specifically how judgments of desirability are related to judgments of desire--which is precisely the task of constructing the notion of good to carry out its assigned functions--and how judgments of right and obligation are related to specific accounts of the good life.

Nowhere is the insight which stems from the pragmatic treatment of ideas more apparent than in the treatment of the dichotomy of the social and the individual. We live in a world of thought in which the individual and the social are constantly contrasted; in which self-love or egoism is taken for granted; in which in fact a dominant problem of ethical theory for several centuries has been to prove that each of us will achieve his own well-being by setting as the ethical goal the general welfare--or, perhaps more often, to ease our conscience about pursuing our own welfare by demonstrating that in so doing we will bring about the general welfare.

In this intellectual atmosphere it is refreshing to see the pragmatic treatment of categories at work. When Dewey writes about egoism we are reminded of the simplicity with which Aristotle, in writing about friendship, faced the question whether a man should love himself. It all depends, says Aristotle, on whether he is a good man. If he is, then he has something to love, if he is not then there is nothing there to love. So, too, Dewey turns his discussion to the content of the self and the kind of self. As a self grows up in a cultural milieu, the kind of self that results is a social-institutional product. Acquisitive and predatory institutions develop a being whose orientation is directed to what he can get out of others; cooperative institutions are better able to produce satisfying interpersonal relations. Thus, the question is never really whether to favor oneself or others, but what kind of a self to cultivate. This is a normative issue of social practice. The sharp opposition of self and other in recent centuries is a construct of a special kind of individualistic society in which men were turned into competitive-predatory atoms. Such a concept, and such a self, is not required by nature or the human makeup, nor is it any longer required by material scarcity. The positive practical direction for ethics is to construct a concept of individuality in which the antithesis of social and atomic individual will not be of the essence.

An important consequence of such an approach is that the sharp division of social ethics and individual ethics is considerably weakened. We see this in practice all about us today. Many traditional social issues, such as war and patriotism or conformity and obedience, come increasingly to demand decisions in terms of individual conscience; and many traditional issues of individual concern, such as care for one's fellow-man, come increasingly to require social formulations in terms of institutions of distributive justice and social security.

Let us look briefly at the final dichotomy of the causal and the creative. Traditional philosophy has accentuated the dichotomy of determinism and freedom. It has asked, for example, whether man is to be regarded as a machine, and insisted that any deterministic account of man renders ethics impossible. Once again, the pragmatic treatment of ideas would tackle the formulation of the question rather than plunge into the argument on one side or the other. Historically, this is not wholly accurate, for James took sides against determinism as making the ethical concepts of regret and remorse meaningless.16 He was fighting against a concept of determinism that he took to allow no room for novelty and creativity. Today, even the question whether man is a machine would have to face up to the fact that the notion of a machine itself undergoes change. It has moved from the cruder notion of the old mechanical contraption to the notion of a subtle electrical system. If a man is to be regarded as a machine, the concept of a machine will itself have to be transformed to render possible the kind of machinations that characterize a human being. The complete robot will have to make decisions, write poetry, philosophize, and exercise freedoms.

Dewey's analysis of the freedom issue in ethics takes as its point of departure the functions exercised by a category of responsibility.17 Why do we need such a concept? Because it is part of the process of human regulation and human guidance, it presupposes human plasticity--the human ability to become sensitive to finer discriminations, to plan and make strategies, to engage in problem-solving by use of the intellect--in brief, to learn in a uniquely human way. As Dewey puts it strikingly in one context, we do not praise a saint or blame an idiot, for the one is fixed in his virtue, while it is useless to blame the other. Praise and blame, the assignment of responsibility and the finding of fault are in place where human beings are sufficiently plastic to be able to learn, where pointing things out and mutual accountability will make them different. Responsibility is not necessarily retrospective; even in looking back its purpose is the prospective one of developing a certain kind of individuality. Thus, Dewey's whole attempt to develop a theory of responsibility and of freedom in this empirical sense is not bound at all to the dilemmas of the traditional controversy over determinism. Some measure of determinism is implied in the dependability of the world that all learning entails, but the specific concept of determinism arises in the context of scientific investigation and its outcome should be settled there. The precise extent of such determinism that is possible would no doubt be of interest to ethics in its practical concerns, but it would not alter the functions of the concept of responsibility.

Dewey's treatment of responsibility should not be regarded as primarily manipulative. Its core is the possibility of human beings learning. How much of the engendering of learning requires manipulation of situation and attitude, and how much is rather stimulation, direction of attention, and awakening of insight, is not an a priori determination of pragmatism as such but an empirical issue of educational theory. The pragmatic analysis of responsibility thus does not belittle the dignity of the individual. It may instead underscore that sensitivity and insight which lies close to the heart of human dignity, and which makes possible human creativity.


In conclusion, we may ask what would be the interpretation of ethical insight on a Deweyan type of naturalistic ethics, especially in the light of his social instrumentalism.

Ethical insight carries a great burden in moral processes. Even with a well-developed conceptual framework, it is invoked in the major tasks of application. Insight is needed in grasping the structure of the problem situation and thus in formulating the very questions to which the moral deliberation is addressed. It is needed in selecting among moral principles those which are to be deemed relevant to the analysis of the situation and which will point out the direction of solution. It is involved in selecting from the factual picture the elements which are relevant to the issues, and in interpreting the principles so as to apply them to these facts. As it plays a part in envisaging the consequences of proposed policies of action on those concerned in the outcome, it involves an ability to see the situation from the perspective of differing agents and differing interests. Finally, it is bound up with the act of decision in the unified grasp of all the factors held together as constituting the answer to the problem.

In general, then, insight has many faces. It is always selective in spirit; sometimes it is analytic in breaking up a field, sometimes structural in proposing a design, sometimes imaginative in envisaging alternatives and in sympathetically looking at them from different perspectives, and sometimes determinative in its synthetic formulation of the adopted solution. Possibly several different human abilities are involved. The traditional treatments of the concept in psychological literature have been far from definitive, and it is not always distinguished from intelligence in general. While its dominant character is that of directly finding the novel, it shades at some points into the creative and at others into the decisional.

Attempts to reduce the role of insight in ethical processes are rarely successful. Any particular insight can, of course, be made the subject of special inquiry; if we wish to pursue its judgment of relevance or importance, we can render criteria explicit and look for evidence that they are satisfied in the given verdict. But insight will be involved in this process too, and we cannot pursue all insights all the time. Instead, at such points traditional schools begin to talk of the need for good moral habits as a presupposed background, or to assert that moral judgment presupposes moral upbringing, or that Aristotle invokes the man of practical wisdom as a model, that Hume and Adam Smith take for granted the verdicts of a sympathetic impartial spectator, and so on. All in all, it sometimes looks as if ethical judgment concerns the one-tenth of the iceberg that is above the surface, and ethical insight deals with the submerged nine-tenths.

Dewey does not give a systematic analysis of ethical insight as such, but there is ample material in his treatment of moral processes from which to draw an outline of its character. In his methodological works there is also much concerning such notions as suggestion, imagination, apprehension, understanding, or, occasionally, intuition.18 Certainly insight could not be a mysterious faculty operating with epistemic power, as in rationalistic concepts of intuition. Dewey speaks rather of the growth of understanding, in which there is an increased definiteness, coherence, and the grasp of new uses or applications. Intellectual progress involves a rhythm of direct understanding or apprehension with indirect or mediated understanding or comprehension. In short, the psychological immediacy is recognized, but its epistemic role lies not in certifying truth but in suggesting lines of reflection and extension of inquiry.

In ethics, on the individual side, we touch the nature of insight best in Dewey's account of moral deliberation as a dramatic, active, imaginative rehearsal of various paths of conduct, in which impulses and sensitive reactions get the opportunity to show themselves. This enhanced awareness of the agent regarding outcomes within himself, in others, and in the surrounding context, acts in turn upon the present process of decision. On the social side, insight is best understood as the sensitive use of a systematically organized social equipment which furnishes a refined power of discrimination. We may draw here on Dewey's treatment of intelligence itself as a set of habits of reconstruction rather than as an unanalyzed power, and on his recognition of the social basis of such habits. Thus in his writings on social philosophy, he speaks of intelligence as embodied in technology, understood as a growing segment of human activity in which the methods of intelligence become established as standing operative procedures. He appeals for the extension of such social intelligence to social and political issues and institutions.

We can think of insight in a quite comparable way. It need not be limited to the sagacity and imagination of individuals facing novel situations, important though that is. Insight is the cutting edge of social and cultural experience, expressed in its developed methods of dealing with problems. The use of a rich language in a cultivated people is perhaps the clearest case, though it is usually taken for granted. The insight is constant even in ordinary speech, as new formulations are made in every act of speech. Similarly, a legal system shows sensitive insight to the extent that it has and applies established complex modes of analyzing legal problems. These manifest in lines of inquiry and evidence and the types of safeguards required in expressing a comprehensive ideal of justice. So, too, an educational system prepares a culture with insight insofar as it cultivates a deliberative, thoughtful, and sensitive outlook instead of a deadening conformity in stereotyped reactions and blunted sensitivity. Thus, the appeal in a Deweyan kind of pragmatism is less to exceptional moral individuals as models--though these play an important part--than to the growth of institutional instrumentalities and intellectual and cultural techniques for dealing with the kind of problems that are likely to be central for moral decision. Included in this framework is the conception of individuality which frees the individual for his share in moral decision.

Such an approach to insight is not simply a social bias, for experience, as Dewey came increasingly to recognize, is a socio-cultural process. The main motif of pragmatism in its futuristic orientation is the consolidation of experience not simply into habits of action as traditions weighted with the past, but into lessons to be tested in the present as guides for the future. In this sense, insight is the present application of collective past experience, focused, organized, and projected in new ways into critical standards, with new and possibly varying uses.

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA


References to John Dewey are to volumes of the Collected Works. These are divided into The Early Works (up to 1898), The Middle Works (1899-1924), The Later Works (1925 on). They are edited by Jo Ann Boydston and published by the Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville.

1. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931-35), V, 358-410.

2. William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890). A useful account of the leading ideas is to be found in James: Talks to Teachers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958). For James' exposition of pragmatism as a philosophy, see his Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York: Longmans, Green, 1943). This edition includes several essays from his The Meaning of Truth (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909). For a study of James that relates his theory of method to his psychology, see Elizabeth Flower's chapter on James in Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of Philosophy in America (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979), vol. 2, ch. 11.

3. See James' "The Will to Believe" and "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality (New York: Dover Publications, 1956). For a sketch of James' moral theory, see Abraham Edel, "Notes on the Search for a Moral Philosophy in William James in The Philosophy of William James, ed. Walter Robert Corti (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1976), pp. 245-60.

4. See John Dewey, Experience and Nature, 1925. (The Later Works, vol. I).

5. John Dewey, The Early Works 5: 96-109. First published in Psychological Review, 1896.

6. Human Nature and Conduct, 1922. (John Dewey, The Middle Works 14).

7. John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1935).

8. For James, in addition to "The Will to Believe", op. cit., see Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911). For Dewey, see A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934).

9. Dewey's most systematic treatment of moral theory is to be found in Part II of John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, revised edition, 1932 (John Dewey, The Later Works 7.) About two-thirds of the first edition (1908) was newly rewritten. Part II is by Dewey. The Introduction to volume 7 (vii-xxxv), by Abraham Edel and Elizabeth Flower compares the 1908 and 1932 editions and traces the way in which the growth of the social sciences and specific historical events influenced the theory in the revised edition.

10. A significant treatment of this structure, which underlies the 1932 Ethics, is to be found in an earlier paper Dewey presented before the French Philosophical Society in 1930. (The Later Works 5: 279-88, translated from the French by Jo Ann Boydston.)

11. Ethics. John Dewey, The Later Works 7: 164-65.

12. Human Nature and Conduct. John Dewey, The Middle Works 14:155-56.

13. "Valuation and Experimental Knowledge," 1922. John Dewey. The Middle Works 13: 11-12, note 9.

14. John Dewey, Theory of Valuation, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. II, No. 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939).

15. John Dewey, "Some Questions about Value", Journal of Philosophy, LI (1944), 455.

16. William James, "The Dilemma of Determinism", in The Will to Believe and Other Essays.

17. See, for example, Human Nature and Conduct, John Dewey, The Middle Works 14: 216-27.

18. See, for example, John Dewey, How We Think, 1933; Later Works 8: Part I. ch. III; Part II, chs. IX-X.