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John Dewey’s Epistemological Naturalism and the Prospects for a Normative Scientific Epistemology

In this thesis, I inquire into the prospects for a normative and scientific epistemology arising from the version of naturalism that dominates Dewey’s later work. I focus on questions such as: Are there peculiar features of Dewey’s naturalism that address important concerns of traditional epistemology, such as setting up normative criteria for justifying our claims to knowledge? Does his naturalism engender merging epistemology with science? How relevant are Dewey’s original views to contemporary debates in epistemology? In setting up Dewey’s position, which I call epistemological naturalism, I explore how the conceptions of reality and human experience in his naturalist metaphysics serve as a road-map for his epistemology. I explore how his arguments that the world is a mixture of interchanging stable and precarious events and his description of human experience as transaction within nature set the stage for defining all forms of inquiry as problem-driven. I also explore how this conception of inquiry leads to the conception of knowledge as ultimately practical and instrumental. I argue that Dewey’s instrumentalist and practical conception of knowledge is ideal for the traditional goal of epistemology identified as attainment of truth and avoidance of error. However, I also explore how his position challenges traditional epistemology by replacing the traditional theoretical or conceptual approach to knowledge with a practical and experimental approach, encouraging practical or empirical methodologies. I discuss how this approach to knowledge makes paradigms of knowledge in technological science more relevant to epistemology than those of the natural sciences. I then focus on the continuity of Dewey’s original ideas in two ways: how they are preserved in Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism and how they are relevant to debates about knowledge in contemporary philosophy. On the connection between Dewey’s philosophy and Rorty’s neo-pragmatism, I explore how the similarities in Dewey and Rorty’s critique of traditional epistemology qualify the latter as a Deweyan. However, I argue that Rorty’s popular position, that Philosophy must transcend itself to cultural criticism has no basis in Dewey’s philosophy. I turn to consider how Dewey’s analysis of human experience, human-nature symbiotic relations and the social nature of knowledge can resolve some of the disagreements among contemporary social epistemologists on the nature and subject-matter of their inquiry. I also consider how Dewey’s instrumentalist conception of knowledge can contribute to contemporary debates on whether knowledge is a natural kind. The thesis is in two parts. The first part is a critical exposition of Dewey’s metaphysics and epistemology. Part Two relates Dewey’s views to contemporary philosophy. In Chapter One I articulate how most versions of naturalism are concerned with rendering philosophical views on knowledge and existence more tenable by appealing to science. Two main approaches are identified: radical naturalists suggest the adoption of the ontology or methodologies of science, and moderate naturalists admit the usefulness of some of the methods and paradigms of science in some specific areas in philosophy. I argue that both positions involve controversial conceptions of how philosophy and science relate to each another. For instance, I explore how some radical naturalists ambiguously use the word “science”. I also discuss the objection that the radical position reduces philosophy to science. In Chapter Two I discuss Dewey’s naturalist conception of experience and reality, and in Chapter Three his theory of knowledge. These are the metaphysical and epistemological components of his naturalism. I explore how the empirical nature of Dewey’s metaphysics and the practical-experimental emphasis of his epistemology challenge traditional metaphysics and epistemology. The second part has three chapters. In Chapter Four I discuss similarities in Dewey and Rorty’s rejection of traditional theories such as foundationalism, representationalism and essentialism, and other related views which the duo described as absolutist conceptions of knowledge and truth, such as the Spectator Theory of Knowledge and the conception of the human mind as a mirror of nature. I disagree with Rorty’s conclusion that Dewey totally dismissed the preoccupations of traditional epistemology and metaphysics, a position Rorty described as therapeutic. I argue that Dewey replaces all theories he rejected with alternative naturalistic views. I conclude that this suggests continuity with traditional philosophy rather than envisaging a post-Philosophy culture as suggested by Rorty. In Chapter Five I consider how Dewey’s conceptions of the cause, nature, and goal of inquiry as ultimately a social affair resolve some disagreements between radical social epistemologists (such as Fuller) and moderate social epistemologists (such as Goldman and Kornblith) on the nature and subject-matter of social epistemology. From Dewey’s identification of problematic human transactions with nature as the common factor in all forms of inquiry, I consider the possibility of establishing what could be regarded as the basis for all human knowledge. The importance of this position is explored in terms of preventing relativism. In Chapter Six I compare Kornblith’s contention that knowledge is a natural kind with Dewey’s contention that knowledge is a natural transaction, and argue that the latter offers more tenable prospects for a normative scientific epistemology. My overall conclusion is that taking a Deweyan approach to knowledge engenders an inter-disciplinary approach which makes resources in sociology, anthropology, biology, and technological science relevant to epistemology. By defining normativity in terms of how knowledge is managed to facilitate successful human transaction within nature, epistemic claims are opened to empirical evaluation.
Type of thesis
Odebunmi, J. A. (2017). John Dewey’s Epistemological Naturalism and the Prospects for a Normative Scientific Epistemology (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11518
The University of Waikato
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