Dewey and Hume

As stated in the school handbook, “The purpose of Michigan University is to make its students more valuable human beings and more useful members of society. Michigan seeks to help its students realize their fullest intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern. ” When my parents read this passage for the first time three years ago, my father’s comment was that “for $120,000 they better make you realize something there. ” When I read this passage as a prospective student, I was worried that it would be a very painful process.

My rationale at the time was that some people do not reach their fullest intellectual and personal potential their whole lives. I was going to do it in four years! Let’s just say, it seemed a little intimidating. Little did I know the first day I arrived at Michigan but the contemporary conception of knowledge which pervades the university is a mixture of Deweyan and Humean thought. This becomes increasingly clear to me when I look back on some of my classes and activities at Michigan.

For instance, the university prides itself on constantly trying to promote progress and improvement throughout society, which is very Deweyan. Michigan epitomizes the saying that “growth itself is the only moral end” (Dewey 177). Through Lang scholarships and other grants, Michigan regularly sponsors/funds students’ and professors’ efforts to try and benefit the community. The caring nature of the university community can be contagious. After speaking with a student or professor and hearing them speak so passionately about their work, one cannot help but feel inspired and eager to get involved.

This is exactly what happened to me after I spoke to a female friend of mine about her community service project. The project is very simplistic in its goal: to help Chester High School students achieve higher scores on the SAT. The project will not lower the crime rate in Chester nor will it solve the city’s other problems. However, the program has proven to work over the years and that is why we do it. Until now I did not know that this pragmatic view could be attributed to Dewey’s philosophy.

By going into Chester twice a week and working with the high school students on improving their math and verbal proficiencies, we hope to polish their skills in those subjects. We do not have “perfection as a final goal” but we are in the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, and refining what we can (Dewey 177). If Hume were alive today, he would probably sound a lot like a lawyer using disclaimers to protect Michigan University students from any possible legal trouble. Hume would no doubt send a notice home with every Chester high school student taking part in the SAT program.

In the notice Hume would remind parents that just because these techniques have worked to improve SAT scores in the past, there is no certainty that they will work in the future because they are based on observations and experience. While we may claim to know what causes these good results, in Hume’s mind there is no proof that the cause is responsible for the effect’s occurrence. My first university class ever was a Chemistry class early Monday morning. I did not know it at the time, but when Professor Smith spoke of the scientific method I was learning more than just simple chemistry.

I was learning a process which John Dewey applied to all areas of life. During his lifetime, Dewey adopted an “experimentalism” which stressed the continuity of human thought and natural conditions. He also emphasized the ways in which human intelligence could be applied through inquiry to solve real problems. Dewey’s ‘scientific method’ of inquiry could be described as the process of moving from an indeterminate situation that blocks action towards a determinate situation in which action may proceed. However, there were many parts of the Chemistry class that had more in common with Hume than anyone else.

Hume believed that all knowledge came from experience. He denied the existence of innate ideas because he believed the human mind invented nothing. Therefore, Hume probably would have appreciated the long Chemistry lab sessions in which we gained knowledge by making observations and performing experiments. Even though, Hume would have probably disagreed with certain parts of the Chemistry lab as well. The reason being that unlike Descartes who believed in the capacity of human reason/rationalization to achieve knowledge, Hume did not believe that certainty and knowledge through reason was possible.

Hume repudiated the possibility of certain knowledge, finding in the mind nothing but a series of sensations, and held that cause-and-effect in the natural world derives solely from the conjunction of two simple impressions. He would not have agreed that the knowledge we gained by doing the experiment resulted in any type of certainty. For instance, he would not have accepted the idea that adding the hydrochloric acid to the solution caused the precipitate. At least he would not do so claiming certainty. Plus, doing so would not be in accordance with his beliefs on necessary connection.

Hume claimed that the only necessary connections of which human beings have any knowledge are those found in mathematics. In all “matters of fact,” the only connection we can find is made in the imagination. After repeated exposure to a pattern of succession, we expect the customary pattern to repeat itself again and again. We call one object the ’cause’ and the other the ‘effect’. We suppose that there is some connection between them by which the power in one infallibly produces the other. This feeling of connection which arises is the origin of the idea of necessary connection.

Yet, as Hume argues, “after we have experience of the operations of cause and effect, our conclusions from that experience are not founded on reasoning or any process of the understanding” (Hume 21). To illustrate Hume’s point, let’s look at an experiment which exaggerates the logic of necessary connection. If an experiment calls for a person to toss a coin in the air fifty times and it comes up tails all fifty times, then using the logic of necessary connection a person could conclude with certainty that tossing a coin into the air causes the coin to come up tails. Sound ridiculous?

What Hume argues is that the logic of necessary connection results in human beings making these kinds of inferences everyday. Just because we observe something happen all our lives does not mean that we know with certainty that it is caused by something else. Mathematics, as stated earlier, was the one exception to Hume’s opinion on necessary connection. If one observes a three sided figure once, then every time from then on that a person views a three sided figure chances are they will associate that figure with a triangle. Hume felt that math was the one case where a person could be justified in doing such a thing.

On the other hand, mathematics also has many qualities that can be attributed to a Deweyan way of thinking. The whole idea of assigning word problems to students seems very Deweyan. I unfortunately did not have too many word problems in my math class at Michigan, and this probably would have concerned Dewey a great deal. No, my class dealt much more with mathematics in the abstract sense. Very rarely did we apply what we learned in an everyday example. There were many class periods where I sat and wondered how this would ever be useful to me in ‘real life’. Memorizing was a big part of the class.

On the exams I had to be able to look at a question and know what memorized formula to use in order to do well on the exams. This would not have pleased Dewey at all. In a Deweyan mathematics class several questions dealing with everyday problems would be assigned and done in groups. Together in these groups students would use the scientific method to tackle difficult questions. The students would learn by doing. They would exchange their ideas and thoughts and come up with the best possible solution they could come up with. Then each group would present its own answer to the class as a whole in order to ‘check everyone’s work’.

Dewey would invite the students to decide as a class which answer provided the best solution to the problem at hand. He would then encourage the students to believe in that solution without second guessing themselves. This would follow with Dewey’s pragmatic way of thinking. Economics, my major, also happens to represent the views of both Dewey and Hume. The influence of Hume on economics seems obvious. As Hume emphasizes, knowledge comes from observations and experience. A large part of economics deals with understanding theoretical models which are based on prior observations and experience.

Yet, Hume felt that any knowledge which came from observation and experience was purely individual. A person’s perceptions of objects were just that perceptions. No underlying reality could ever be proved because every individual’s perceptions are his alone even if they agree with someone else’s. Even the existence of the “someone else” is also only a perception of the senses. For instance, we study models and draw graphs about how low unemployment rates generally result in high inflation rates. Yet, like Hume states, this does not achieve certainty because it is based on experiences.

As we have seen for the last five years, the past does not always have to be like the future. For the last five years, the unemployment rate and the inflation rate have both been exceptionally low. The existing models and equations have not been able to explain why because they are based on previous experiences and data. Subsequently, new models based on the new data are being developed in order to better understand the situation and solve future problems. Having to constantly revise models and theories in light of new information would also be in accordance with Dewey’s philosophy.

Dewey did not believe that solutions to problems were permanent. Things change and expand, and new solutions are required for dealing with new problems. It was this mentality which made Dewey applicable to so many areas of life. For Dewey, all ideas were hypotheses or tentative solutions that were true if they satisfied the conditions of the problem. In Dewey’s opinion, if a current equation and/or economic model does not explain the current situation, then it is time to develop a better hypothesis that does solve the problem.

Moreover, by looking closely at political science one can see more of Dewey’s influence on the social sciences. Dewey saw past experiences as a method for transforming the world. Through group discussion and analysis in my political science class, we tried to look at the intrinsic connections that existed between these past experiences. We looked at policies and forms of government that are ‘working’ now and compared them to policies and forms of government that have failed. However, the American politics class I took was Deweyan only to a point. For several days, Dewey would have been pleased with the class.

We discussed democracy as a social good. We looked at ways of making the government more representative of the people. We examined methods for increasing voter turn out. Unfortunately, what was very frustrating was that I never felt like we made any real progress. Sure, we talked a lot. We even came up with hypotheses, but when it came time to actually go out and work for what we talked about very few people were up for it. By never testing our newly formed hypotheses, we never knew for sure if they were practical enough to work in the real world.

We never completed the testing part of Dewey’s ‘scientific method’. Nevertheless, in psychology one can see a considerable amount of both Deweyan and Humean influence present. The whole process of observing human behavior in order to gain knowledge is very Humean. Hume would be very interested in the data that was accumulated after observing several human beings. Yet, a large part of psychology also goes directly against Hume’s philosophy. In psychology one uses observations and experiences to make conclusions about human behavior, such as this behavior x indicates y.

When treating a patient, a psychologist will often act as if he has certain knowledge. Hume would not agree with this. In order to prove his point, Hume would simply give examples of ‘certain’ psychologists that treated their patients in a particular way and later learned that their techniques were in fact doing nothing for the patient and/or maybe even harming the patient. It appears, though I am not completely sure, that Dewey had an enormous influence on the field of psychology. It just seems that everything that a psychologist goes through has something Deweyan about it.

For instance, psychologists observe a problem and come up with the best possible solution to it. They do so by using Dewey’s method of inquiry. First, they define the problem by observation and analysis. Then, they construct a hypothesis to explain and resolve the problem. Later, they test and retest until they come up with best possible solution for the problem. Finally, being the pragmatists that they are, they implement the solution to the problem and share their findings with the rest of the psychology world.

They know that the absolute truth has not been proven but that is not their concern. When a new or better theory comes along then that theory will go through the same process and be adopted. Consequently, there is a constant feeling of innovation and progress. In summary, from Chemistry to Psychology, there is no doubt about it that Dewey and Hume’s philosophies are a part of every student’s life at Michigan in one way or another. The effects of Dewey and Hume on the conception of knowledge at Michigan should be obvious.


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