H. Social Epistemology, Pragmatism & Virtue Theory > Dewey on Philosophical Progress as overcoming old dichotomies

Can you relate this classic Dewey quote to the overcoming of any particular dichotomy in contemporary epistemology, or in philosophy more generally? What are the 'old' questions? What are the "new ones" we should be asking instead?
"[T]he conviction persists - though history has shown it to be a hallucination - that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume - an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them. Old questions are solved by disappearing, evaporating, while new questions corresponding to the changed attitude of endeavor and preference take their place."
June 14, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
I won't comment directly, but may I say this? Dewey's writings span an era of great (American) intellectual self-confidence. That's why I find Dewey somewhat annoying -- especially on questions of religion -- but James, by contrast, extremely relevant. As a thesis concerning intellectual history, Dewey is surely right, I just have a difficulty with the word "progress"which I see as mainly limited to the natural sciences but which Dewey saw in areas like philosophy and even educational theory! If anything indicates the cyclical tendencies of everything but natural science, it very well could be the latter.
July 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjames montmarquet
I don’t think Dewey saw progress (in any field of inquiry, including science) as linear—certainly not in the way that, say, Peirce understood progress as linear. Nor do I think that Dewey was quite as optimistic as Professor Montmarquet suggests. Dewey believed that his conception of intelligent inquiry—if employed in the service of achieving humane ends—could improve the quality of human life; but he did not presume to know that it would (see, for example, the concluding paragraph of Experience and Nature).

As for questions “old” and “new,” let me first say that the asking of “new” questions does not require the “sheer abandonment” of “old” questions and “old” ideas. (I think Dewey overstates the point.) Old questions and ideas may lose vitality for a time, but that is surely not to say that they cannot once again become of “urgent interest,” and so regain a new vitality. (It seems wrong to think that we can ever entirely “get over” our history.) Old ideas may be used to address new questions, and old ideas in new contexts might give rise to new questions (as is apparent in the case of contemporary virtue theory).

There is a particular case of “old” and “new” questions in which I am, at present, deeply interested. Much of the philosophical literature devoted to elucidating the concept of rationality focuses on questions regarding the minimal (i.e., necessary and sufficient) conditions for rationality. But the focus on the minimal conditions for rationality leads to the neglect of a number of questions that have immense practical concern for us, namely: How can rationality be made more effective in the world? That is to say, how can its influence on human thought and action be deepened and expanded? How can rationality, and the goods that it makes available to us, be made more secure in human experience? To respond to these questions is not to seek to understand what it takes to be a marginally rational person, but rather to identify those standards the satisfaction of which maximizes the good that rationality can do in human life. These questions are of course not “new” in the sense of never having been raised before. I hope, however, that in this forum old and new ideas alike can be brought to bear on these questions, thereby infusing them with renewed vitality.

Given virtue theorists’ long-standing interest in the concept of human flourishing, I wonder whether (and how) virtue theorists in both ethics and epistemology can work together to provide an account of flourishing rationality. What resources might virtue theorists find in the work of classical and contemporary American pragmatists? Please share your thoughts and I’ll return in kind.
August 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Olson