William Gavin (University of Southern Maine)



Although John Dewey wrote a book or an article on an unbelievably large number of topics, he wrote little or nothing on the subject of death and dying.  This might surprise many readers, given the massive popularity of the topic in our present day and age, as well as the urgent need to deal with it. The Collected Works of John Dewey contains just 7 references to the topic of "death and dying," although it does contain 415 references to the topic "death or dying.[1]

Dewey’s overall philosophy is one, which stresses the importance of context. He tells the reader: "I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context."[2]  Indeed, on several occasions Dewey has gone out of his way to indicate that we must pay attention to and acknowledge when the conTENT of a particular context has changed. Excessive attention to the content of a past situation can result in mere antiquarianism--where we hold on to the past tenaciously, come what may.  In  "An Empirical Survey of Empiricisms," for example, Dewey argues that there are three different historic conceptions of  "experience": the Greek view, as found in Plato; the "modern" view, associated with John Locke, and the most recent one, still being formed, and associated with Darwin and James.[3] The term "experience" then, does not have "meaning invariance." Cultures undergo their experience differently; and the philosopher must not hold onto the past for its own sake—must not unduly preserve the content when the context has changed. Dewey’s essay, "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy," makes a similar point.[4] These examples are evidence of a clear recognition on Dewey’s part of the need to recognize when the content of a context has changed. What we must do, by way of acknowledging Dewey’s importance as a seminal thinker, is to extend his insights and apply them in new areas, e.g., death and dying. Furthermore, while there is not extant in Dewey’s writing a detailed work on the topic of death, there are resources within his work, which would encourage one to believe that he might be quite capable of dealing with this "new" situation..

            The present paper will confine itself to a  three-part approach to the topic of death and dying. First we shall review briefly Dewey’s overall approach to a "problematic" situation, as found in "The Pattern of Inquiry." Second, we shall look at a specific instance in Dewey’s work where he deals with the issue of death. Finally, we shall take up the thorny issue of whether death and/or dying should be dealt with as a "problem" at all.


In "The Pattern of Inquiry" Dewey is at pains to show how things go wrong in our experience, and how concepts, once formed through transactions, themselves become formative, as they do, for example, in law and art.[5]  An indeterminate situation becomes a problematic one through the process of inquiry. The fact/theory dichotomy is rejected. One has, instead, the facts according to this theory or hypothesis vis a vis the facts involved under hypothesis #2, etc., with the "real" facts only emerging at the outcome of the situation at hand. One invents the problem rather abductively[6] by turning an indeterminate situation into a problematic one. Like Peirce, Dewey realized that how an issue is given voice or allowed to arise linguistically or symbolically is itself partly constitutive of the outcome. "It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved."[7] The sub-text of this presentation would seem to indicate that a problem can be put badly, or perhaps not "put" at all, i.e., not able to be expressed. It is these two alternatives that I wish to explore here regarding Dewey’s approach to the topic of death and dying.

            In the process of outlining his position Dewey refers to the image of an assembly hall to explain how things go wrong in our experience. He tells the reader, "When an alarm of fire is sounded in a crowded assembly hall, there is much that is indeterminate . . . ."[8]  But, he continues, "[t]he fire is characterized . . .by some settled traits. It is, for example, located somewhere. Then the isles and exits are at fixed places. Since they are settled or determinate in existence, the first step in institution of a problem is to settle them in observation."[9]  Dewey’s point is that, even in circumstances of extreme anxiety, one knows some aspects about his or her situation. That situation is indeterminate, but it is "uniquely qualified." He tells us that  "[u]nless a situation is uniquely qualified in its very indeterminateness, there is a condition of complete panic. . . ."[10] And again, "no situation which is completely indeterminate can possibly be converted into a problem having definite constituents."[11]  Dewey then seems to be saying that this doesn’t happen, or at least it shouldn't happen, but that if it does, we have a situation of complete chaos. Once again, the context is important; we don't have "doubt in general; but rather "this-here-particular-doubt."

Just as we don't have doubt in general, i.e., just as this is a problem badly put, so too we don't have "life in general." As John McDermott has put it, "[t]he term 'life' can only be used retrospectively as in my life, or, if you knew of my life, or, what a life I have had, or, I have no life, or, plaintively, this is a life? The term 'living', on the other hand, is a process word, a present participle, a happening, and a witness to the 'specious present." Following John Dewey, we live only at this time and at no other time and so life is an abstraction, perched above our living as a desperate effort to identify ourselves, to become existentially instantiated. Yet, the only part of our past, which exists, is the past that is present to us. And the future is but a gossamer wing,' vapid, elusive, and most always, by far, doomed to be different from the futured intentions of our present."[12]   In sum then, both doubt in general and life in general are misconstruals of the problematic situation. So much might be expected from Dewey. What is less known, however, is that Dewey came up with the same critique of "death in general."


In an early essay entitled "The Superstition of Necessity" Dewey is at pains to show that this term is teleological in nature, i.e., that "necessity" really means "needed," though oftentimes masquerading as something essential. "Necessity is a device by which we both conceal from ourselves the unreal character of what we have called real, and also get rid of the practical evil consequences of hypostatizing a fragment into an independent whole."[13]  As a way of illustrating his point Dewey takes up a seemingly acontextual and indubitable "fact," the death of an enemy for a savage or a practical man. "The ‘general result,’ the death of the hated enemy, is at first the fact; all else is mere accidental circumstance.  Indeed, the other circumstances at first are hardly that; they do not attract attention, having no importance. Not only the savage, but also the common-sense man of today, I conceive, would say that any attempt to extend the definition of the ‘fact’ beyond the mere occurrence of death is metaphysical refinement; that the fact is the killing, the death, and that that ‘fact’ remains quite the same, however it is brought about."[14] In other words, death is death, period, end of report. Dewey strongly objects to this reification of the situation. "What has been done, in other words, is to abstract part of the real fact, part of this death, and set up the trait or universal thus abstracted as itself fact, and not only as fact, but as the fact, par excellence, with reference to which all the factors which constitute the reality, the concrete fact, of this death, are circumstantial and ‘accidental’."[15] Important for our purposes is Dewey’s strong refusal to essentialize or platonize the concept of death.  "These deaths in general to not occur," he says. [16] And again, "all actual deaths have a certain amount of detail in them."[17]  Dewey then attempts to "recover" a fat or thick context within which the death in in question has occurred. The savage has to hit his enemy with a club or spear, or perform a magic incantation, before he can attain that all-important end of getting rid of him. Moreover, a man with a coat of armor will not die just the same way as the man who is defenseless. These circumstances have to be taken into account . . . . In other words, the real fact would be under constant process of identification, of ‘production’."[18] Here Dewey develops a position parallel to that found in "The Pattern of Inquiry," one wherein there are no facts which are not "theory-laden." The "original" death is, in reality, "a highly complex affair, involving a synthesis of a very large number of different factors."[19] Analogously, any discussion of killing (and here we might keep in mind physician-assisted suicide) must include reference to concrete specifics. One doesn’t, in short, just kill in general. "[H]aving, after all, to kill a man of certain characteristics and surroundings in life, having to choose time and place, etc., it becomes necessary, if I am to succeed, that I kill him in a certain way, say, with poison, or a dynamite bomb. Thus we get our concrete individual fact again."[20] For Dewey then, the decision required to turn some aspect of a rich, concrete fact into a supposed necessity is a masked one. What pretends to be a necessity  is really teleological in nature, though refusing to own up to any responsibility for a decision taken.  If we remember that we are talking about death here, the issue is indeed enlightening. Dewey tells us: "The practical value, the fruit from the tree, we pick out and set up for the entire fact insofar as our past action is concerned. But so far as our future action is concerned , this value is a result to be reached; it is an end to be attained. Other factors, in reality all the time bound up in the one concrete fact or individual whole, have now to be brought in as means to get to this end. Although after our desire has been met they have been eliminated as accidental, as irrelevant, yet when the experience is again desired their integral membership in the real fact has to be recognized,"[21]

            Here Dewey has clearly argued for the full fact rather than a reductionist account. Furthermore, the full fact includes both the "what" and the "how"—both the instance and the process via which the culmination occurred. The act of death in general here is taken as a necessity by those who need a form of certainty in their lives. Dewey seems to be arguing, almost prenascently, that how one dies is at least partly constitutive of what death is, or, in more contemporary parlance, that the process of dying is more important, more "real," than the abstract concept of death. Death is the last moment in the process, the last note in the melody, etc. Going further, his identification of the necessity of death with teleology finds its contemporary iteration in our seeming need to have an objective definition of death for purposes of organ transplants. There are, as is well known, at least three biological definitions of death itself, leaving aside the whole notion of when the soul, if such an entity exists at all, leaves the body. These definitions are: a) respiratory/circulatory failure; b) so-called ‘whole- brain’ death, i.e., cessation of the entire brain, including the brain stem; and c) neo-cortical failure, i.e., cessation of the upper or outer part of the brain. The debate over the definition to be employed, as Hans Jonas has pointed out, is by no means a merely theoretical one, but consists rather in defining death as having taken place earlier in the spectrum or the continuum, so as to be able to take organs while they are more viable.[22] The attempt by the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee in 1968 to re-define death so as to, among other things, facilitate organ transplants, constitutes for him an "intrusion into the theoretical attempt to define death which makes the attempt impure."[23] For Dewey too, one element of the process, viz. the definition of death in general, has been set up as necessary, other factors being marginalized as merely contingent.  As he says, "Contingent and necessary are. . .the correlative aspects of one and the same fact; conditions are accidental so far as we have abstracted a fragment and set it up as the whole; they are necessary the moment it is required to pass from this abstraction back to the concrete fact."[24]

     In sum, Dewey contextualizes the problem of death, indicating initially that alternative characterizations have been inadequate, and then offering a version of the problematic, which seems to say that the real issue is the process of dying. Dying, i.e., the process, is much more vague and ambiguous than the last moment of the process, the last note of the melody, namely, death. Yet we tend to concentrate upon the later, to talk of its "necessity," perhaps because we believe we can come up with a certain definition of it, removed from the anthropological remnants of contextualism, and then preserve this nugget of certainty via legislative fiat. Dewey, in short, seems to say, the problem is not death, the problem is dying.


The analysis thus far has taken place within the boundaries of Dewey's characterizations of all uniquely qualified situations as at least potentially "problematic" in character.  But should death, or dying, be so characterized? Dewey's writings elsewhere suggest that he tended to think in this direction. That is,

Dewey's enormous faith in the scientific method sometimes tempts him into viewing even death as a potential problem to be solved. In Individualism Old and New for example, Dewey argues, as is well know, that the "lost individual" can be recovered.  Any essentialist account of individualism must be rejected as too static; and  "[a] new individualism can be achieved only through the controlled use of all the resources of the science and technology that have mastered the physical forces of nature."[25] This language of  "control" is incautious at best, and potentially runs the risk of turning an account stressing interaction or transactions with the environment into ones of mastery or domination. In an interesting choice of an example, Dewey says: "Since we must in any case approach nature in some fashion and by some path--if only that of death--I confess my total inability to understand those who object to an intelligently controlled approach--for that is what science is."[26]Dewey's faith in science here results in his presenting the reader with an either-or. "The opposite of intelligent method is no method at all or blind and stupid method."[27] One is tempted to reply here, a la James, that the butter and the pancakes and the syrup of the universe do not come so neatly parceled out, and that, indeed, we would view them with scientific suspicion if they did.[28]

     Further evidence of Dewey's tendency to view death as a problem  occurs in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Here, specifically discussing the "problem" of whether a particular death that had occurred was natural or an act of murder Dewey says: "Deaths, as gross qualitative events, have many antecedents or 'causes.' But no given death in the concrete can have a plurality of possible causes."[29] Here Dewey is clearly adopting a view of science wherein initial explanatory hypotheses eventually are reduced to a final explanation. In other words, multiple explanatory paradigms unable to exclude one another in a manner advocated by, say, Paul Feyerabend,[30] is unacceptable.  Dewey continues "The conjunct traits which have been used to describe death. . . have changed historically; as science advances they may be expected to change in the future. But the change is made for the sake of obtaining a set of characters that will be applicable without change. The same statement holds of death in the abstract."[31]  For Dewey to hold otherwise here would bring him dangerously close to admitting that the "situation" was not uniquely qualified.  By way of contrast, consider H. Tristram Engelhardt's characterization of  "disease." Engelhardt tells us: "The multiple factors in such well-established diseases as coronary artery disease suggest that the disease could be alternatively construed as a generic, metabolic, anatomic, psychological, or sociological disease, depending one whether one was a geneticist, an internist, a surgeon, a psychiatrist, or a public health official. The construal would depend upon the particular scientist's appraisal of which etiological variables were most amenable to his manipulations."[32]   Elsewhere Dewey is at pains to draw a distinction between human pain and the pain of other members of the animal kingdom. He tells the reader: "The parson who is ill not merely suffers pain but is rendered unfit to meet his ordinary social responsibilities; he is incapacitated for service to those about him, some of whom may be directly dependent upon him. Moreover, his removal from the moral sphere of social relations does not merely leave a blank where he was; it involves a wrench upon the sympathies and affections of others. The moral suffering thus caused is something that has no counterpart anywhere in the life of animals, whose joys and sufferings remain upon a physical plane."[33]  This distinction many would today find to be overdrawn at best. But more important for the present topic is Dewey's next statement. He says: "To cure disease, to prevent needless death, is thus a totally different matter, occupying an infinitely higher plane, from the mere palliation of physical pain. To cure disease and prevent death is to promote the fundamental conditions of social welfare…."[34]  Note the incautious slippage here from preventing  needless death (clearly a moral issue),  to preventing  death  itself.   This distinction is far more than a semantic on for our contemporary social context. As Daniel Callahan has noted, "medicine has come, in its working research, and often clinical agenda, to look upon death as a correctable biological deficiency. This stance has thus introduced into the practice of medicine and public attitudes a profound and often destructive self-contradiction. We have been left fundamentally uncertain whether death is to be accepted as a part of life or rejected as a repairable accident."[35]  Applying Deweyean terminology to Dewey himself here, we might say that we are dangerously close to going from interacting with a context wherein one has some flexibility to interacting with extensions/projections of our own ego.[36]

     Turning an intrinsically non-problematic situation into a problematic one constitutes a mis-construal of the "problematic" just because the situation at hand is NOT problematic. or at least not just problematic; hence it cannot be "put" adequately. John J. McDermott notes that, "[I]n Irish family parlance, a distinction is made between problem and trouble. The former can be managed, by patching, punting, or the steadfast waiting it out as time erodes the difficulty in question. Trouble, however, is a very different matter. It is the name given to the century-long intransigence within the embattled factions of Northern Ireland. The meaning of trouble is that one is at wit's end. Trying is possible and spiritually helpful but seemingly nothing can be done for alleviation."[37]   Cast in these terms, dying is better viewed as trouble than as a  problem.  Such a stance does not constitute a new formulation of the problematic situation but rather a rejection of it


In  sum, Dewey does see that death has been taken too abstractly; in opposition, he concretizes and contextualizes death by reinventing the problematic-which  turns out to be the process of dying. But Dewey never really confronts head on the possibility that death &/or dying might not be a problem, that it might be better conceived as a "mystery," a la Gabriel Marcel,[38] or as "trouble" in the sense presented above by John McDermott.

[1]  The Collected Works of John Dewey,  1882-1953: The Electronic Version, edited by Larry Hickman (Charlottsville, Va: IntelLex Corporation, 1996).

[2] John Dewey, "Context and Thought," in  LW 6: 5. All references to Dewey's work are to the critical edition, The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-91, and published as The Early Works: 1881-1898 (EW); The Middle Works, 1899-1924 (MW); and the Later Works, 1925-1953 (LW) These designations are followed by volume and page number.

[3]  See John Dewey, "An Empirical Survey of Empiricisms,"  LW 11: 70-82

[4] See John Dewey, "The Influence of Darwin ism on Philosophy," MW 4: 14.

[5] See John Dewey, "The Pattern of Inquiry," LW 12: 105.

[6] For the concept of "abduction," see Charles Sanders Peirce, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), Vol. 6.522-28.

[7] Dewey, "The Pattern of Inquiry," in LW, Vol. 12, p. 112.

[8] Ibid., p.112.

[9] Ibid., pp. 112-13.

[10] Ibid., p. 109.

[11] Ibid., p. 112.

[12] John J. McDermott, "Why Bother: Is Life Worth Living?" The Journal of Philosophy, vol.  lxxxvii, # 11, November 1991, pp. 678-79.

[13]  John Dewey,  "The Superstition of Necessity," EW 4: 29.

[14] Ibid., p. 27

[15] Ibid., p. 27.

[16] Ibid., p. 27

[17] Ibid., p. 27

[18] Ibid., p. 28

[19] Ibid., p. 28

[20] Ibid., p. 28

[21] Ibid., p. 29

[22] See Hans Jonas, "Against the Stream:  Comments on the Definition and Redefinition of Death, Ethical Issues in Death and Dying, edited by Tom Beauchamp and Seymour Perlin (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. :  Prentice Hall, 1978)

[23] Ibid., p. 52

[24] Dewey, EW 4:  29

[25]  LW 5:86

[26]  Ibid., LW 5:88

[27] Ibid., LW 5:88

[28] See William James, "The Will to Believe," in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1896), p.22. Ray Boisvert has made a similar point concerning Dewey's inability to deal with tragedy: "Dewey speaks regularly as if there were only two choices. His formulation of these leaves no room for the tragic."  ("The Nemesis of Necessity,"  in Dewey Reconfigured: Essays on Deweyan Pragmatism, edited by Casy Haskins and David I. Seiple, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 162

[29] Dewey, LW 12:451

[30] See Paul Feyerabend,  "How To Be a Good Empiricist--A Plea For Tolerance in Matters Epistemological," in Readings in the Philosophy of Science,  edited by Baruch Brody, (Englewood Cliff: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970) pp. 319-42.

[31] Ibid., LW 12: 451.

[32] H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., "The Concepts of Health and Disease," in Evaluation and Explanation in the Biomedical Sciences, edited by H. Tristram Engelhardt,  Jr. and  S.F. Spicker  (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1975), p. 133.

[33] Dewey, LW 2:99

[34] Ibid., LW 2:99

[35] Daniel Callahan, The Troubled Dream of Life: Living With Mortality (NewYork: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 58.

[36]  However, elsewhere Dewey says: "The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable. . . .Plague, famine, failure of crops, disease, death, defeat in battle, are always just around the corner, and so are abundance, strength, victory, festival and song." (LW 1:43)

[37] William and Henry James, Selected Letters, edited by Ignas Skrupskelis and Elizabeth Berkeley, with an Introduction by John J. McDermott, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) p.xxii.

[38]  See Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having, an Existentialist Diary, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965) pp. 116-24.