Dewey’s claim that science is not about truth

Dewey argues that the goal of science is not to figure out what things are, but rather to give an account of things where they have maximum convertibility with one another- i.e. the goal is to see all objects of thought as one thing or manifestations of one thing (we would say “where they are maximally reducible”). And so claims like “Heat is the average molecular motion” or “Jones is a swarm of electrical charges” are just like saying “That house is $140,000” or “Plastics are a good investment”. The goal in statements like these is not to say what things are (which can, in fact, be a real goal) but rather set up a standard which allows for a maximum amount of homogeneity among objects. You can’t use dollars to define a house, but you can use them to bring the house into a domain where it is convertible with an indefinite ocean of other things, i.e. a place where everything is a larger or smaller manifestation of the same thing.

The claim goes too far if it is taken as meaning that science never gets to anything essential or intrinsic to things: electrical charges are essential to Jones in a way that dollars are not essential to a two-story Colonial. But even where science hits on the essential, it still only allows a part of it to filter through, and Dewey was right to recognize it as the part having maximum convertibility. We only look for aspects of phenomena that allow for maximal reduction. We were looking for electrons because they were all the same; we looked for the motion of molecules when we studied heat because it would allow us to unify heat and motion. We may have found them because they were there to find, but this was not the only reason we found them. Pure objectivity in the sense of simply saying what the thing is was never the only goal.

Notice that all of these distinctions are taking place within the context of the true. We might not be able to define a house by dollars, but it is nevertheless true that some house is $140,000. Just because one is not looking to define things or say what they are does not mean that they are not after truth. But we have to separate truth as the search for “what a thing is” from truth as the desire to achieve maximal analytical reduction. Science is a mixture of these two sorts of truth, and so far as we are scientists, we have no ability to distinguish them.


  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    July 31, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Is it not a problem, then, when most thinkers conflate maximum analytical reduction with “what a thing is?” In other words, yes, when a scientist or materialist hears a Thomist describe what it would take to really know the essence of something, he will respond by saying that he is not in that business. But, on his own, the popular perception is that he is indeed finding the true nature of things by reducing them to some one universally convertible account.

    This is not to disagree with you post, I do agree with it, its just that I am not sure if modernity would be comfortable with such an account of what our knowledge is really knowledge of (analytic reduction instead of something that is more fundamental) even if you have established that both pursuits are true in some way, which I take to be you argument. In fact, part of what it is to be modern, in a philosophical sense, is to deny this very accommodation.

  2. July 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    If you want to treat of modern thinkers generally, then a response has to chop up the various different senses in which someone might identify “what is analytically reductive” with “what is”

    1.) If the claim is taken as phrased above, it’s a simple category mistake: the reductive is a logical category and essence (or “what is”) is an ontological one.

    2.) If we identify the reductive with the defined (i.e. if we stop talking about essence and switch to “the articulation/ ratio of essence”), then we avoid the category mistake (they are both logical categories) but we fall into a much more serious problem, since we are now claiming the a definition aims to reduce all things to some one thing. But obviously definitions aim at exactly the opposite: the whole point of defining is to divide things from all other things.

    3.) If we want to define both ontologically and not logically, the first problem is how in the world we are to define “the reductive” – which is a sort of analysis – as an ontological category. It’s just silly to insist that analysis is a feature of reality – as though nature was a process of reducing or of somehow starting with a man and a hog and the idea of last Tuesday and moving to some one thing. Nature is just there, it doesn’t reduce anything.

    Or is the point simply to make some sort of subjective/objective divide between what we first know and what we come to know by analysis? Is the claim that the real is only what can be present after a reductive analysis? But now we just run into all the absurdities run into above – are we saying that when we define something, it is not real? (cf. 2) Are we saying that our thought is a criterion for the real? Are we saying that “the real” is a logical category? (cf. 1 and 3)

  3. July 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    This touches on one of the more interesting crazy slogans that bounces around out there: “science is the best means we have devised to discover the real” or “the best means we have for understanding reality”. As if there was nothing to the real except to be discovered! What about the reality that’s just there and doesn’t need to be discovered? The idea you suggest requires either that there is no such thing (which is nuts) or that we can only verify that there is such a thing ex post facto. But in order to do this, we would have to prove something after taking nothing as given.

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