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Dewey's Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality. (Book reviews: summaries and comments).

SHOOK, John R. Dewey's Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. ix + 310 pp. Cloth, $46.00; paper, $22.95--This book presents detailed support for a thesis that is both novel and interesting. Its argument runs squarely against the grain of mainstream Dewey scholarship, which holds generally that Dewey's early work exhibits a fairly sharp break with the idealism of his mentor G. S. Morris and that his functionalism and instrumentalism were developed as a response to the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce and William James and the evolutionary naturalism of Charles Darwin.

The author's counterproposal is presented cogently, in considerable detail, and with superb command of the secondary literature. By means of a meticulous examination of Dewey's essays from the 1880s and 1890s, he demonstrates how Dewey's instrumentalism grew seamlessly out of an idealism that was already more sophisticated than has been supposed. Of particular note is the author's painstaking narrative of the developments that led up to Dewey's famous essay "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," which was published in 1896 and is now regarded as one of the great documents in the history of psychology. Dewey's instrumentalism was thus present in embryonic form much earlier than has generally been thought, and was under construction even before he had read and taught William James's Principles of Psychology.

The author presents an analysis of the relation of Dewey's work to that of Wilhelm Wundt (through his teacher, G. S. Morris). The chapter on Wundt's voluntarism is of particular importance: it explains how it was possible for Dewey to be one of the leaders of the "new" experimental psychology even though he was one of the few major psychologists of his day who had not studied in Germany. Also in this chapter is a startling recovery of Dewey's neglected 1886 essay "Soul and Body," which, according to the author, both exhibits a heavy debt to Wundt and anticipates by a decade the central thesis of the "Reflex Arc" essay.

This is the most detailed account to date of Dewey's early intellectual development. Perhaps even more important, however, it demonstrates the relevance of that development to many of the debates that have been spawned by Dewey's mature work. To take just one example, the author cheerfully joins the controversy, as he puts it, regarding whether Dewey's mature work constituted a metaphysics of existence, thus leaving a gap between his epistemology and his naturalism, or a metaphysics of experience, according to which Dewey's instrumentalist epistemology holds that known objects are created by the process of knowing. He comes down on the side of the latter view.

This book is well written and well organized, and its author has taken considerable pains to guide the reader through his complex arguments by means of ample overviews, summaries, lists, and transitional materials. On pages 266-9, for example, he provides a helpful eighteen-point list of what he regards as the principles of instrumentalism. The bibliography is well done and endnotes are extensive. This work is sure to catch the interest of any reader who wants to learn more about the formative period of psychology or to understand why Dewey's work remains relevant even now, almost 50 years after his death.--Larry A. Hickman, Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
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Author:Hickman, Larry A.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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