Code: TP-23

Dewey’s Denotative-Empirical Method: A Thread Through the Labyrinth

            In teaching Experience and Nature last spring, I had my students do a one page writing assignment after having read both versions of Dewey’s first chapter, "Experience and Philosophic Method." The question was "What is Dewey’s Denotative-Empirical Method?" They were forewarned—did not Dewey himself feel compelled to rewrite the whole first chapter for the second edition?[1] But in reviewing their responses I was reminded of the old story from Rumi’s Masnavi of the blind men and the elephant: the elephant is like a tree trunk, like a snake, a rope, like a large flat leaf, like a smooth piece of wood, a wall.[2] The exercise achieved my immediate purpose, which was of course to shake the assurance of anyone who approached this book with the false confidence that the terms "experience," "method," or "denote" (or any of the other key terms) were easily understood. We found that Dewey, instead of "clarifying" the method to be used in the rest of the undertaking, made it a question that haunted us throughout the reading of the book.  It only seems fair I should make the attempt as well.

I will present what I consider to be the central features of  Dewey’s "denotative-empirical method"—which he presents as philosophical method—and to expand somewhat upon them. The result is not merely to have a more complete articulation of Dewey’s "method," but to imagine where the ultimate goals of the rich "way" of experience that Dewey opened up can led us.[3] This also permits going beyond merely seeing Dewey as an "instrumentalist"  and to contextualize "instrumentalism" within a broader and deeper philosophical methodology. Instrumentalism is Dewey’s theory of inquiry, i.e., his theory of knowing. The "denotative method" on the other hand is philosophical method, i.e, a way of preventing philosophy from succumbing to "intellectualism"; it is a way of putting "knowing" in context and making "experience" serviceable for the real philosophical project: wisdom. Here I find aesthetics a particularly significant, though neglected, aspect of Deweyan philosophy. I will give a careful synopsis of what Dewey himself says about the denotative-empirical method in both versions of the introductory chapter, focusing on the less well-known (but more successful) draft of 1925. Both take up the "problem of philosophy" and present "the denotative empirical method" as a corrective. I believe that so few of Dewey’s interpreters have understood the real nature of this method and its implications for how we do philosophy that it holds some revealing lessons for us, which many, including those who profess to be "pragmatists," may find surprising and even troubling.

Dewey’s asks the reader to discern between "experience" as a philosophical concept and experience as it is lived, as "had" or "undergone" and as "done." This is accomplished within the context of a highly refined philosophical work that presents its own "theory" about experience. Dewey wants to theorize about experience, but not in a way that allows the theory to hide experience on its pretheoretical level. The "denotative empirical method" is given as a method of "disclosing" experience without transforming it into a mere theoretical object. A good deal of Dewey’s so-called murkiness comes from this difficult endeavor.

The concern for a "thick" view of experience is evident even in Dewey’s Psychology (1887) and was the reason he was susceptible to the influence of James’s Principles of Psychology. By 1903 Dewey had made a revolutionary move with his "Postulate of Immediate Empiricism" to reject the equation of "Reality" with "the Known." Reality was not primarily encountered in moments of knowing. This break with 2,500 years of western philosophy governs the subsequent development of Dewey’s thought, achieving its first coherent statement in the 1917 Introduction to the Essays in Experimental Logic and then in Experience and Nature. It is this turn that makes, I believe, Art as Experience more of a key in understanding Dewey’s philosophy than has been generally recognized.

Philosophy, Dewey says, has been highly successful in substituting its own secondary, refined, theorized concepts of experience for experience "in the raw," and so has generated its history of dualisms. The initial problem, then, is to get highly theoretically oriented and conceptually clever thinkers to remember what it is to be alive. This cannot be accomplished by substituting yet another concept. Nor can it be done by setting forth some highly schematized "method" that claims to offer a content-free procedure, like Descartes’ Regulae or even Locke’s "plain historical method." The method cannot be formal, not even like the six stages of the "pattern of inquiry."[4] It must be intuitive, circumspect, involved with its content, humble, and receptive and thereby "open" to surprises and recognize it comes from the lived world. It must be crafty in discerning its own "selective emphasis" and prejudices. Beyond that, it must be "wise" rather than clever: it must "know itself" without making itself an object of knowledge. (The Greek injunction Gnothi Seauton meant more "Remember who you are.") Humility is needed more than cleverness to accomplish this.

The 1925 version begins by noting that "experience" is "a weasel word" that can mean a repudiation of the a priori or a concern with what is, ultimately, "subjective," the former alluding to the "empirical" methodology of science, the latter to introspective psychological theories of the 19th century. Dewey rejects the latter view completely. We begin then with either the "experience in gross…in its primary and crude forms" and note features of the world in which it arises while also bearing in mind the refined objects in which it may terminate, or we may begin with "refined selective products and work from them back to the primary facts of life." (LW 1: 366)[5] The danger with the latter approach is that philosophy builds on what it considers to be scientific "facts" that are but historical objects capable of undergoing further transformation. A more serious danger is that the "immediate facts of gross experience" are discounted, in which case, Dewey says, "philosophy itself commits suicide." (LW 1: 367) The method that begins with those gross objects, however, "requires unusual candor and patience" because "coarse experience in Protean, a thing of moods and tenses." The artist gives us reports of it as much as the "informed technician." Too often have empiricists substituted "dialectical notions" for "experience as humanly lived." (LW 1: 367) "Not safely can an ‘ism’ be made out of experience." A philosopher like Bertrand Russell "sees" a chair as a theoretical object of color and shape that is the subject of true and false propositions. But, for Dewey, the one who sits in the chair experiences it more fully, especially if the chair has contextual and historical meanings. Getting caught up in theoretical objects may "convince many a student that the nearer he gets to the reality of experience, the further away he gets from all the experience he ever had." (LW 1: 368). Better to take the "behavior of Odysseus’ dog upon his master’s return," says Dewey.[6] To begin with gross or "macroscopic" experience does not discount science; it simply rejects its privilege. Science (or knowledge) is a "phase of human experience" like magic, myth, or poetry: "imagination is to be noted as much as refined observation." (LW 1: 369) As Dewey puts it in 1929, "the very meaning and purport of empirical method is that things are to be studied on their own account, so as to find out what is revealed when they are experienced." (LW 1: 13-14) This method goes beyond secondary objects of knowing to objects of "gross" experience to "study" its subject-matters to see what they "reveal" in experience. How it goes about "showing" what is "revealed" is not clear. How does one approach primary experience without making it secondary experience? We have only been given a negative directive: don’t begin with knowing or its objects.[7]

Dewey’s next major point is that "experience" is not limited to consciousness, much less "knowledge." Ignorance, skillful habits, and "fatal implication in the remote"—the very stuff of tragedy—are aspects of experience as well. The clear and distinct may exist in special circumstances, but "twilight, the vague, dark and mysterious flourish." (LW 1: 369; compare 27) The subconscious has been almost as much presented as a refined, theoretical object as "experience," but such "crimes" should not prevent us from "refusing to admit that what is not explicitly present makes up a vastly greater part of experience than does the conscious field to which thinkers have so devoted themselves." (LW 1: 369-70) Knowledge is one type of experience, but so is "disease or religion or love" and in all of these there are "forces and potential consequences" that are in the experience whether they are objects of consciousness or rational inference or not.[8] Death itself, says Dewey is one of the great "matters of experience" that is surely in experience. "Experience" as Dewey uses the term, means something "at least as wide and deep and full as all history on this earth." (LW 1: 370) It includes the "whole wide universe" of fact and dream, actuality and possibility, truth and falsehood, consistency and inconsistency. This is quite a claim, and I wonder how many of us "instrumentalists" have come to terms with it.

Here Dewey believes that the "value of experience as method in philosophy" stands revealed: "denotation comes first and last, so that to settle any discussion, to still any doubt, to answer any question, we must go to some thing pointed to, denoted, and find our answer in that thing." (LW 1: 372). This statement may be one of the most frustrating and obscure Dewey uttered. Experience means the universe, and to solve any problem we just "denote" some "thing" and "find our answer" there! Dewey tries to illuminate this dark saying by contrasting the "denotative method," as the method of "showing," with rationalism. The value of the idea of "experience" for philosophy is none other than "the finality and comprehensiveness of the method of pointing, finding, showing." (LW 1: 372) "Were the denotative method universally followed by philosophers, then the word and the notion of experience might be discarded…" (LW 1: 372).[9] But it is necessary as long as philosophers seek to define reality "according to esthetic, moral or logical canons," i.e., defining reality in terms of some selected features and not in terms of everything found in experience.  "Experience" pragmatically functions as a "cautionary and directive word ... to remind us that the world which is lived, suffered and enjoyed as well as logically thought of, has the last word in all human inquiries and surmises." (LW 1: 372) "This is a doctrine of humility," Dewey adds, "but it is also a doctrine of direction. For it tells us to open the eyes and ears of the mind, to be sensitive to all the varied phases of life and history." Above all, Dewey stresses, it acts to prevent philosophy from identifying the "real" with "the known."

This is a remarkable aspect of the method that is obscured in the 1929 version. Here the method takes on a moral and aesthetic character: we are cautioned to remember experience in its non-cognitive richness and variety—we are asked to think about what it is like to have or live-through various experiences like love, grief, bravery, or fear of death. The doctrine "makes us humble." But it also "opens the eyes and ears" of the mind. It makes us sensitive, aware, and receptive to what the world has to tell us. We do not merely remember superficially, but we engage the world with "mindfulness."[10] We are also open to learning from experience, hearing what it has to say, not interposing the ego and its presuppositions. The denotative method is a method for aesthetic receptivity and openness. In 1929, Dewey used of the scientific method as an example of how experience and nature "get along," making him bypass this richer description. His concern there is how science, beginning with the gross objects of primary experience, refines them and then returns to the primary world so that its objects are now understood and seen as continuous with other phenomena.[11] The term "denotative method" as meaning "empirical method" is introduced at this point. (LW 1: 16)

The implication is also different: now we understand and control events. In both cases, he stresses that "denotation" comes "first and last." It not only goes back to the roots of reflective experience, but returns reflection to the lifeworld. But his use of scientific examples in 1929 make him sound as if the denotative method is the same as the "theory of inquiry." Whole interpretations of Dewey have been based on this confusion. The scientific method reveals something about the denotative method: that it begins and ends with primary experience. The scientific method is not identical with the denotative method, but is rather something illuminated by it. The denotative method attempts to make us fully aware of the world beyond our "ideas" of it.[12] This method "is the only method which can do justice to this inclusive integrity of experience." (LW 1: 19)

The denotative method is meant to contextualize the cognitive interests of philosophy within the noncogntive scope of life. It is a method for philosophy that aims at reminding it of its origins in a prereflective world as well as of its obligations to make life more meaningful and value-rich.[13] This does not mean rejection of cognitive objects or rational methods, but it does involve understanding them as developments out of a precognitive, prerational world. The "tangled and complex" aspects of the world, its vagueness, mystery, and obscurity are not "appearances" beyond which a rational structure exists that is made manifest in the moment of knowing the truth. Rational truth exists because of this primary world. (LW 1: 374) The world is not primarily an object of knowledge nor is the mind essentially an amalgam of "beliefs," and the fact that philosophers have made it so is why Dewey sets forth this "method" as a corrective for philosophy. The denotative method asks philosophical reflection to remember the world in humility and with attentiveness and then to direct its thought back toward that world. "Denotation" is not any specific "pointing" but an art of remembering the world.[14]

This is not to claim that the prereflective world has no structure—that it is merely pure apeiron (a criticism often made of Dewey). Lifeexists because the world does have structure; life is a response to some of those structures. But they exist in a general and flexible way, and these features are expressed language by the various adjectives used to describe experience: as religious, political, esthetic, intellectual etc. (LW 1: 375) In other words, Dewey limits the role of knowledge to make room for the ontological significance of meaning. The world is such that it gives rise to joy, grief, love, hate, dreams and clear headed judgments. These are not "in us" but are "in the world." They are events: "being and having things in ways other than knowing them…exist and are conditions for reflection and knowledge." (LW 1: 377) The having of experience, in fact, is ultimately "indescribable." That is why it must ultimately be "pointed to" or "shown." Ultimately, the qualitative aspect of experience is ultimate. "All cognitive experience must start from and terminate in being and having things in just such unique, irreparable, and compelling ways. And until this fact is a commonplace in philosophy, the notion of experience will not be a truism for philosophers." (LW 1:378)

Dewey illuminates "denotation" with two subsequent points. First "experience" denotes "the world" in a "double-barreled" way: "the field, the sun and clouds, and rain, seeds and harvest, and the man who labors, who plans, invents, uses, suffers, enjoys." (LW 1: 384; compare 18-19) "Denotation" means understanding how "Nature" is in human existence and human existence in Nature.[15] We can call this the "denotation of events within situations and of situations within events." The double movement is important: we go from something of focal interest, like human existence, to understanding how it is implicated in the world and also from the world to the ways it is embedded in and transmuted by human existence.

The second point is that "the denotations that constitute experience point to history, to temporal process." (LW 1: 384). Our inquiries have erroneously focused on trying to make things "wholly or completely present" and so "exclude movement and change." Thus to grasp "things" as "phases" of events makes us comprehend anything present in terms of its histories and possibilities. The denotative method breaks down the "isolated individual" fact in terms of putting it in its situation; it also follows it back through time as well as projecting it against its immanent future potentialities and more indefinite possibilities. "Experience is history," states Dewey, even when we are caught up in the immediacy of the present. (LW 1: 385) Denotation includes the grasping the temporality in even apparently "timeless" objects. "But in fact anything denoted is found to have temporal quality and reference." (LW 1: 385)[16]

Dewey describes the denotative empirical method largely in negative terms, warnings for philosophers: it warns us against making experience a "stuff"; it prevents us from accepting traditional distinctions, like mind and body, as ultimate; it tells us that intellectual distinctions are the result of selection and that the distinctions of reason are embedded in a prerational world. It seeks to "relive" the processes whereby various interpretations come about "with eyes constantly upon the things to which they refer." (LW 1: 386) It reflects on the "groupings" objects fall into by way of general adjectival or qualitative marks, not privileging those that are "cognitive." It teaches us to "experience" knowledge as it is undergone or had rather than simply to "know" it. It asks us to begin with the world in its complexity rather than with simplifications of it.

A final aspect of the denotative method emerges: although it warns philosophers not to privilege any one quality of experience over another as more "real," this does not change the fact that philosophy for Dewey is the "pursuit of wisdom," which is to say "a branch of morals." (LW 1: 387) Wisdom means living wisely, not knowing a lot of "facts." And so the denotative method is appealed to because it is part of the "art of experience" that philosophy aims toward, that is, wisdom.

What then is the "denotative empirical method"? Negatively it says: Do not begin to philosophize thinking upon the objects of secondary, cognitive experience. Do not equate the Real with the Known—even inquiry instrumentally conceived is not all there is in life. Do not cut off an individual event of being from its context or environment. Positively it enjoins: Begin and end the reflections with an awareness of the world that transcends thought. Approach that world with humility and with an open mind: have a receptive awe of and curiosity in the world. Strive to see the world in the individual and the individual in the world. This is a double process: to see how the world is transmuted by an individual event is different from discerning how that event affects the world. It  discerns the structures of the world in the varied responses human beings have—responses symbolized and expressed in religion, myth, art, and culture. It teaches us to see "events" rather than fixed identitites or essences. Events are not bare happenings, but the outcomes of natural histories. The method teaches us think in terms of evolutionary histories. Nor do we not cut off the horizon of the creative future from the being of an event, but remain mindful of the open-ended future possibilities that anything carries within it here and now. The nature of process is transformation and individuality is the mark of a history not substantial identity. The goal of our attentive receptivity and awareness of the world is the enrichment of human existence. It asks that philosophy be a love of wisdom, not a love of knowledge.

I think we have evidence for the peculiar importance Dewey came to attach to art and aesthetic experience, for art engages just such these abilities to deal with "experience" in the primary sense of the word and to exhibit or show the presence of the world, temporally as well as situationally, in the consummatory objects it creates. The aesthetic consciousness aligns itself so closely to the "denotative method" that I am willing to say that the latter is really Dewey’s effort to get philosophers to start thinking like artists. We cannot "prove," only "disclose."[17] (LW 1: 10) Of course, at its best, science does this as well and art, at its worst, does not.

But how might an actual use of the "denotative method" work in philosophy? It is somewhat bizarre that a now venerable pragmatic tradition has hardly addressed this topic. One clear reason is that it might involve a transformation of philosophy to the extent that those of us engaged in the new way might not even "look" like philosophers to our colleagues. It would direct us toward teaching students to see ideas in context and to see why ideas from various times and places were ways in which human beings struggled with their existential conditions: the earth and heavens, birth, life, sex, death, hunger, fear, love and so on. It would require us to put the critical mind in abeyance in order to hear what ancient myths and rituals have to say. We would have to have an insatiable curiosity about the sheer diversity of culture and life, and so we would have to know a lot more about other cultures and the histories of our own. The texts that we turn to might have to be those of religion or literature more than "philosophy" which, as Dewey says, more often than not reflects the lack of the denotative method. Finally we might have to think about what wisdom for the 21st century might actually mean.


[1] See Dewey’s own admission of "failure" in the Preface added in the 1929 edition, LW 1:3 f.

[2] See A.J. Arberry, trans., Tales from the Masnavi, p. 208.

[3] I say "way" to avoid the false dichotomies introduced by the terms "theory" or "method."

[4] See Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (LW 12), Ch. 6.

[5] In the 1929 version Dewey begins by appealing to the scientific method as evidence that "experience" and "nature" can get along (digressing into the paradox of how a late, "small" part of nature can "reach down into it)—with the result that it seems that the method he himself employs is the scientific method rather than a much broader "method of experience." The 1929 version begins with an attack on dualism while the 1925 version labors to present the reader at the outset with the difference between primary and secondary experience. Dewey only gets to the primary-secondary experience distinction much later (LW 1: 15 f.). In

[6] See Odyssey Book VII, l. 290 ff. The old dog recognizes Odysseus after 20 years and dies.

[7] Dewey concerns over "intellectualism," or equating the real with the known, come relatively late in the 1929 version (LW 1: 28 f) making it easier to assume "science" as a paradigm. His interest in science is that it gives others a "map" of its conclusions and "points back" to primary experience (LW 1:16-17)

[8] In the 1929 version Dewey says, "If experience actually presents esthetic and moral traits, then these traits may also be supposed to reach down into nature, and to testify to something that belongs to nature as truly as does the mechanical structure attributed to it in physical science." (LW 1: 13)

[9] Compare 1929: "If the empirical method were universally or even generally adopted in philosophizing, there would be no need of referring to experience." (LW 1: 14 f.) Again in this version Dewey confuses matters by using science as an example, thereby seemingly giving it the privilege he is at pains to discount.

[10] I believe that the Buddhist term Sati is quite appropriate here. It is attentive but non-grasping awareness so that the true nature (Dharma) of experience can be realized without distortions of the ego. Dewey’s notion also involves the kind of careful listening attention that opens us outward toward something or someone.

[11] "That the subject-matter of primary experience sets the problems and furnishes the first data of the reflection which constructs the secondary objects is evident; it is also obvious that test and verification of the latter is secured by return to things of crude, macroscopic experience—the sun, earth, plants, and animals of common, every-day life. But just what role do the objects attained in reflection play? Where do they dome in? They explain the primary objects, they enable us to grasp them with understanding instead of just having sense-contact with them." (LW 1: 16) The whole stress on the role of knowing undercuts much of what Dewey has tried to say about limiting the usually privileged status of knowledge and makes him sound as though his is just another sort of cognitivist project, which it is not.

[12] Dewey has only one previous discussion of "denotation," a comment from the "syllabus" (or synopsis) of a course taught in 1922-23 called Types of Philosophic Thought. (MW 13)—fairly close to the time he gave the Carus Lectures which became Experience and Nature. He contrasts signs as denotative with those that are "signifying –connotative": "To point, indicate, is ambiguous; may mean a direct act or the function of evidence. Denotation, is the former; is non-logical. With reference to connotation, pointing means selecting the things which determine the meaning-content, ‘intension’ and the things to which meanings apply—extension. Denotation as direction of inquiry and experiment, search, is the essence of the empirical method. When search stops without detecting connecting links of things found, it is traditional empiricism. To follow up the search till connections are found is scientific, experimental empiricism." (MW 13: 389) Denotation here means "search," the creative side of science, not the "identification" of predetermined and recognizable objects or settled definitions. Compare this with the discussion from Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (LW 12: 352 f.)

[13] "Thus there is here supplied, I think, a first-rate test of the value of any philosophy which is offered us: Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful?" (LW 1: 18)

[14] For Dewey’s rather insightful discussion on ostension (anticipating the later Wittgenstein), see Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (LW 12: 59 f.).

[15] "Life" and "History" are terms that are equally "double-barrelled" says Dewey. (LW 1: 19)

[16] Temporal quality presents a particularly difficult concept in Dewey’s account of experience, one deserving its own extended treatment. Suffice it to say that "temporal quality" is not the same as the phenomenon of temporal succession, but refers to the structure of "doing and undergoing," the transformation of potential into actual, and the way in which a "history" is "consummated" at any given moment. The fullest account of the nature of temporal quality is in the third chapter of Art as Experience. But see Dewey’s astute account at LW 1: 387.

[17] For example, Dewey does not "refute" subjectivism, but shows how it results from the rise of individualism and the value of "property" in the 17th century. (LW1: 23 f. and 367 f.)