Introducing my chapter about John Dewey

I’m almost ready to submit a book proposal to Purdue University Press. Here is a 140-word abstract: Philosophy for a Multimedia World analyzes 13 philosophers’ ideas concerning multimedia communication. It shows how their ideas can help scholars develop new theories and how media workers can improve multimedia messages. Most important theories explaining communication and mass media were created before people were using the Internet daily. We need new theories and we can develop these theories by studying philosophy. My book differs in three ways from other books: a) it considers more modes of messages, including photographs, films, paintings, and music; b) it emphasizes aesthetics and ethics; and c) it looks forward to the future of multimedia communication as much as it looks back to past philosophers’ writings. The philosophers include: John Dewey, Martin Buber, Suzanne Langer, Gregory Bateson, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Marshall McLuhan, Gilles Deleuze, Nelson Goodman, Jean Baudrillard, Vilem Flusser, Mark Johnson, Richard Shusterman, and Colin McGinn.

Here is the first part of the chapter about John Dewey: How do we discover the truth? Before John Dewey (1859-1952), philosophers answered this question in two ways: rationalism and empiricism and rationalism. Rationalists, such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), believed that it was philosophers’ responsibility to discover genuine knowledge—which was unchanging, self-evident, and beyond doubt. For philosophers, acquiring such genuine knowledge was an end in itself not tied to any practical purpose. Philosophers discovered such knowledge by examining their minds, which were immaterial entities with a capacity to reason and think. Minds were innate and independent of their temporary housing, the physical body.

Empiricists, such as John Locke (1632-1704), argued that if science was to advance, it needed to divorce itself from speculation about unchanging self-evident knowledge and innate minds. Locke insisted that inherent qualities of the material world impinged themselves upon our sensory apparatus. Then this sensory information “was written” onto our passive minds. Our minds started out as receptive but blank slates, and over time, ideally, enough sensory information would pervade our minds that our minds would become a mirror of nature.

Both rationalists and empiricists agreed that our minds were fundamentally different and separate from the material world. Descartes defined mind as something nonmaterial and that does not follow the rules of nature. He contrasted mind with the body, which he believed worked as a machine and had material properties. The material world was “out there” and the nonmaterial mind was “in here.” Rationalists tried to directly discover the truth in their minds. Empiricists relied on perception and an aggregation of discrete perceptions in their minds in order to learn the truth about the material world “out there.”

Dewey turned the world of philosophy upside down. He said that we don’t need the concept of mind. Minds are not separate from the material world. There is only the material world.

Dewey replaced empiricism and rationalism with pragmatism. Pragmatism integrates the basic insights of empirical (experience-based) and rational (concept-based) thinking. We use concepts/theories and then conduct inquiries in order to test how well our concepts/theories predict or explain phenomena. Our concepts/theories are true if they have practical results.

Dewey defined truth by using an analogy; he wrote that “truth” is like the fit between a key and a lock (Hickman, 2009: 14). There is no absolute truth (key) that fits all locks. Nor will any arbitrary truth open a particular lock. We must either make or find a particular truth to fit a particular lock. In other words, truth is a label characterizing what inquiry has come up with—in that situation, for those purposes. Since new problems (locks) appear all of the time, we should not be confident about the certainty of any belief.

Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy is based upon his belief that we interact with a dynamic material world and then we talk with other people in order to make sense of our experiences. Meaning, knowledge, and truth, therefore, are based upon experience and communication.

Dewey turned the world upside down not only because he denied the existence of minds, but also because he reversed the cause-effect relationship between ideas and communication. Instead of believing that we have minds with ideas, which we then communicate to others, Dewey believed that we communicate with others, and based upon those conversations we have ideas. For hundreds of years, the concept of “mind” or “consciousness” had been extremely important; now the concept of “communication” became the key to understanding everything else. R. W. Sleeper summed up the point of Dewey’s book, Experience and Nature when he wrote: “For it is communication that makes all things possible that are possible of human achievement. It is not merely the central problem in the subject-matter of philosophy, but its means and method as well. If anything is foundational about philosophy, it is communication, since everything else depends on it” (Sleeper, 1986: 117).

Dewey also had a lot to say about multimedia communications even though his key articles and books appeared in the 1890s, 1920s and 1930s, before the mass media took the forms and ubiquitous presence they have today. In Art as Experience (LW10), Dewey argues that art is a form of communication; moreover, he believed that art is the best way to share our experiences with others. When he wrote about art, he was referring to non-discursive symbol systems, such as music and painting, but his ideas also apply to photographs and films.

This chapter begins with a brief explanation of pragmatism, a branch of philosophy that Dewey helped create and that provides the context for understanding all of his other ideas. The next three sections explain Dewey’s concept of experience. Section 2 discusses experience at a physical level; it explains how “live creatures” interacted with their physical environment and with each other, which led to the development of gestures with meaning. Section 3 discusses experience at a social level; it explains how we talk about our physical experiences, and this talk enables us to jointly make sense of our experiences. We create a common understanding, and as commonalities increase within larger and larger groups of people, society constructs a meaningful reality. Section 4 discusses experience at an aesthetic level. We have an aesthetic experience when a series of events congeal into a deeply meaningful unity or whole, one whose character is so unique and self-sufficient that we can clearly recognize it as separate and special. In other words, we are “in the zone.” Art, or non-discursive symbols, is particularly useful for sharing aesthetic experiences. This chapter ends with an explanation of Dewey’s concepts of journalism and participatory democracy. Dewey believed that journalists should stimulate discussion amongst citizens; then journalists should help citizens use the methods of scientists to test various hypotheses in order to find solutions to society’s problems; finally journalists should use artistic means to motivate citizens both to become involved and to enact the results of their social inquiries. The results of such efforts would be true participatory democracy.



About keithrkenney
Keith Kenney is a professor of visual communication at the University of South Carolina. He is living in Tbilisi, Georgia, for a year. This blog is about several topics. "CSJMM-Journalism" is about the students, faculty and staff members of the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management in Tbilisi, Georgia. "USC-Journalism" is about the students, faculty and staff members of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications (SJMC) at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. CSJMM and SJMC are recipients of a "Journalism School Partnership" program grant from the US Department of State. The purpose of this $750,000 grant is to improve CSJMM and ensure its sustainability. "Tbilisi, Georgia" is about Susanna Melo and my experiences in Tbilisi. "Columbia, SC" will be about our experiences in our home town--Columbia--when we return home. "Georgia" is about Susanna and my experiences when we travel in Georgia outside of Tbilisi. "United States" is about our experiences traveling in the US. "Films and Photography" is about two documentary films I'm working on in Georgia. One story follows how Adishi handles the rapid tourism that is being developed in Svaneti. The other story follows Tamaz Jalagania, who is a craftsman of swords and guns, an opera singer, and an extraordinary storyteller. "Scholarship" is about my current books, articles, reviews, and grants.

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