Biography as Philosophy:
American Pragmatism and the Social Context of Ideas

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This essay considers how the details of a philosopher's life might help contribute to a better understanding of their philosophy.  Drawing on resources from the American Pragmatist tradition, it argues that evaluating the worth of intellectual biographies requires noting the dangers of both the genetic fallacy and the 'acontextual' fallacy, which claims that the social context of ideas is irrelevant to the assessment of a philosopher's view.  Avoiding these fallacies requires appreciating the importance of isolating those social factors that clearly have philosophical relevance.  Dalton's recent intellectual biography illustrates this point by indicating how Dewey's social relationships help clarify the scientific underpinnings of his philosophical projects.  This social context helps us recognize that Dewey not only appeals to empirical science for resources that support his claims, but he further adopts scientific terms as tools for the elaboration and characterization of philosophical problems and their proper solutions.

There never was a philosopher who has merited the name for the simple reason that he glorified the tendencies and characteristics of his social environment; just as it is true that there never has been a philosopher who has not seized upon certain aspects of the life of his time and idealized them.
John Dewey

1. Introduction

In assessing the legacy of 20th century philosophy in its various forms, many philosophers and historians have stressed the importance of appreciating the wider social and intellectual context underlying a commitment to complex philosophical ideas.[1]  This claim is based on the recognition that both the structure and significance of philosophical thought cannot be fully understood solely in terms of evidential and logical standards of correctness, since the very cogency of a philosophical viewpoint is importantly tied to those varying historical, social, and personal factors that influence it.  Now, if correct, this general claim has important repercussions for our understanding of a respective philosophical position, but it might also help remind us of a more fundamental point about the nature of philosophy.  By situating a philosophical position within its larger social and historical context, we can further recognize why it is that this project is understood as a philosophical one.  We would then become more aware of the reasons philosophical work is deemed philosophical by its own practitioners, and this in turn might prompt us to reflect further on our own philosophical motives and intentions.  This is simply another way of making the familiar but often forgotten point that philosophical issues, concerns and claims cannot be separated from an account of what philosophy itself is.  When this metaphilosophical claim is tied to a contextual, historicist approach to philosophical ideas, we can see the significance of such an approach going beyond the detailed construction of a better historical narrative, and view it as telling us something about the importance of philosophy for the historical actors in question and potentially for ourselves as well.

It is in the spirit of such general remarks that I would like to examine the contextual work known as the intellectual biography in order to consider how the details of a philosopher's life might help contribute to a better understanding of their respective philosophy.  By addressing this question we can begin to clarify the general claims made above concerning the importance of social factors in the development of a philosophical position.  As in so many other cases, American pragmatism offers us some useful resources for further reflection on this issue.  I will highlight some remarks from both James and Dewey that suggest the importance of finding a balance between an emphasis on the social context of their ideas and the further significance of the ideas themselves.  Their remarks highlight the need to carefully navigate between the infamous genetic fallacy and what I will call the 'acontextual' fallacy, the claim that the social context of ideas is irrelevant to the assessment and larger significance of a philosopher's view. 

To do so requires that we begin with an obvious but important point.  We must carefully distinguish between those personal and social factors that have philosophical relevance and those that do not.  With this simple beginning comes the much harder task of offering a detailed, historical and biographical account that lives up to this goal.  In order to provide an example of the type of account needed I appeal to some of the resources found in Dalton's recent intellectual biography Becoming John Dewey.  Dalton's book is singled out because of its emphasis on how Dewey's intellectual and personal relationships with the scientific community of his time greatly influenced his own philosophical work.  This influence is even more pervasive then we might think since it extends to the very philosophical terms Dewey introduces in his attempt to naturalize mind, meaning and experience.  By looking at some of the details of this social context, we can make explicit the scientific underpinnings of Dewey's general project in his Experience and Nature and how this influenced his understanding of certain philosophical terms, including his use of the term 'generic traits'.  It helps us appreciate how Dewey's philosophical work utilizes scientific terms as tools for the elaboration and characterization of philosophical problems and their proper solutions and thus demonstrates how this social context can be fruitfully used to illuminate a philosopher's position.

2. Between the Genetic and Acontextual Fallacies

Philosophers have often been suspicious of the value of intellectual biographies, claiming that arguments and their conclusions have a life of their own independent of the social forces that gave rise to them.  From this perspective intellectual biographies are viewed as simply descriptive life histories, offering little normative advice concerning the understanding, assessment and evaluation of the views found in philosophy.[2]  While it has become increasingly difficult to accept this general attitude it does point to the potential pitfalls associated with the genetic fallacy, where one mistakeningly takes the social factors that gave rise to a set of ideas as a sufficient explanation of their import.  It is not difficult to recognize how this charge might be made against the details often found in intellectual biographies.  Such works present certain episodes in a thinker's life as contributing to their intellectual development, attempting to provide a more well-rounded picture of how their personal life impacted their intellectual life.  However, one might reasonably wonder how such life experiences lead to distinctive intellectual contributions, and if intellectual biographies make the mistake of simply assuming that social environment should be viewed as vital to the life of reason.  James and Dewey both emphasized the potential dangers of this kind of assumption.  Bruce Wilshire has recently quoted James on this issue noting how he claimed we "Look from roots to fruits" (2003, 23), in order to avoid the dangers of emphasizing the social circumstances of ideas without also acknowledging the consequences, and larger significance such ideas have once they emerge.  Dewey also points to the dangers of this fallacy, when he mentions "the confusion of the history of belief with the nature of that believed" (LW 3, 41).

It is then important for these pragmatists that any attempt to make sense of their ideas based solely on their social context and origins, would result in a great distortion of what they think is the real significance of their respective philosophical claims.  This is perhaps most clearly seen with those critics who view American pragmatism as "subordinat[ing] thought and rational activity to particular ends of interest and profit" (Dewey 1925, 15).  Dewey is emphatic in his response to this interpretation denying that pragmatism attempts to worship the exaggerated love of action present in America.  He continues by explaining that American philosophy more generally does not "reflect the excessive mercantilism of American life", since this fails to see that "action and opportunity justify themselves only to the degree in which they render life more reasonable and increase its value" (32-33).  Pragmatism for Dewey is expressive of the American emphasis on ends and actions, but this is badly misconstrued if taken to mean the pursuit of action solely for its own sake.  This misses pragmatism's emphasis on intelligent action as the sole route to social and moral progress.[3] 

But, as Dewey also admits, this formation of a 'faith' in intelligence, might itself be better understood if we clarify the social climate from which it was born.  Indeed, we might be tempted to conclude that in pressing this point against those who overemphasize the social context of their ideas, Dewey and James proceed to underestimate the value that such details have for understanding their respective philosophical positions.  However, other remarks suggest otherwise.  Jay Martin quotes the following passage from Dewey's unpublished lectures on precisely this point: "In attempting a critical interpretation of historic philosophies we have to pay attention to biography and temperament and the experience of the philosopher...We must also take the cognizance of the particular social environment of the philosopher" (2002, 501).  James is famous for making similar remarks where he emphasizes the role temperament and vision play in shaping a philosopher's outlook: "Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions.  Intellect, will, taste and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs..." (1897, 92).  While not explicitly citing the social circumstances that contribute to such passions, tastes and temperaments, James would, I think, readily admit their contribution to one's intellectual claims.  A last example can be taken from Dewey's own autobiographical remarks where he notes "upon the whole, the forces that have influenced me have come from persons and from situations more than from books"(1998, 19) .[4]

It is then important for these pragmatists that the evaluation of their views be informed by recognition of who they are, and of the environment that gave shape to them and their ideas.  We may go badly wrong if we merely take the sources of James' or Dewey's ideas as sufficient for fully understanding their ideas, but we may also fail to understand them if we ignore the way their ideas are themselves shaped by a specific social context.  A lesson that we can distill from these comments is that in assessing the value of a philosopher's life for understanding his philosophy, we must find a third way between these two errors.  More specifically, their remarks suggest that we avoid both the genetic fallacy, and also heed what I will call the 'acontextual' fallacy, which claims that social and historical factors be ignored when attempting to understand the import of a philosophical viewpoint.  We then need to seek a proper balance between the social context of ideas and their content or significance, and not make the mistake of emphasizing one at the expense of the other.[5]  In assessing the role intellectual biographies can play in helping us understand a thinker's philosophy this point should be our main guide.  Achieving this balance requires further distinguishing between those social factors that have philosophical relevance and those that do not. With the appreciation of this simple point, comes the additional recognition of something more difficult, the need to provide a much more historically accurate picture of the institutions, personal contacts, friendships, and other relationships that make up this social climate of ideas.  Philosophers can play a vital role in such a project by helping to locate those social factors that have philosophical significance, something that is perhaps not always clearly indicated within intellectual biographies.  This further requires mining through these details in order to establish the connections between a philosopher's thought and social life that, once made explicit, improve our philosophical understanding of the work under scrutiny.  It is here that I suggest we find an important role for the intellectual biography.  By providing a detailed narrative of a philosopher's life, such biographies can provide us with the details needed to appreciate the way philosophical ideas are conditioned by their social environment.  When used to clearly articulate such connections, intellectual biographies become extremely important for our further appreciation, understanding and critical evaluation of a philosopher's work.

3. Dalton's Becoming John Dewey

In order to further clarify and defend these general remarks, I would like to briefly consider some of resources found in Thomas Dalton's recent intellectual biography of John Dewey.[6]  Dalton charts the development of Dewey's career by highlighting the close personal ties he established with scholars and scientists in order to make explicit how these interactions contributed to Dewey's philosophical work.  We learn that Dewey worked with many scientists in the emerging life sciences both at the University of Chicago and later when he moved to Columbia University: "Dewey knew personally several prominent leaders in the so-call 'American School" of neurology, that included the psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, naturalists and neurologist C. L. Herrick and his brother C.J Herrick.  Other colleagues included physiologist C. M. Child, experimental biologist Jacques Loeb, neurologist Henry Donaldson, neuroanatomist George Coghill, and paleoneurologist Frederick Tilney" (2002, 11).[7] The question that we need to briefly consider here is in what way these affiliations and acquaintances impacted Dewey's philosophical work.

The importance of these social relationships emerge once we note their philosophical relevance for Dewey's general project in his Experience and Nature.[8]  A central aim of that work is to defend an emergent theory of the mind, and the further claim that consciousness is the basic tool that humans use to develop the ability to form judgments (2002, 128).  Dalton briefly describes how Dewey attempted to locate mind within nature: "The human soul or spirit emerged through the conversion of the resources of nature and biological growth into a structured series of functionally specific and adaptive behaviors that could be continuously changed and modified through experience" (2002, 127).  In carrying out such aims, Dewey sought scientific research that could support this naturalistic theory of the mind by establishing how the nervous system and brain evolved to support human intelligence.  He thought this would demonstrate how the nervous system evolved a functional capacity to convert perceptions involving qualitative and quantitative judgments into ideas and behaviours that had moral value (2002, 135). Dewey found the scientific support required for these claims through the work of several colleagues, including Child and Herrick, colleagues who he had known since his days at the University of Chicago, but also George Parker, a Harvard zoologist, and Tilney. 

Child's and Herrick's work brought together all available information on the evolution of the brain, allowing for a well supported body of data and the introduction of hypotheses that were capable of empirical study (2002, 136).  Their work cited two essential attributes that any organism requires in order to have a fully developed nervous system, namely, sentience and reflex action.  They argued that nervous systems evolved in order to respond to the increasing need to coordinate feeling and movement thought a mechanism that enabled the coupling of perception and behaviour (2002, 136).  In addition, Parker provided further analysis concerning how the human nervous developed from primitive precursors.  Herrick and Tilney then built on Parker's insights, by describing how the nervous system developed further through reciprocal changes between brain, body and behaviour.  Dalton thus concludes: "These scientists drew from an impressive body of research that indicated that the brain developed primarily in response to demands for motor coordination rather than by the need for increased sensitivity to somatic needs" (2002, 137).  Lastly, Tilney further described how the demands of increased coordination of physiologically complex organisms resulted in neuroanatonomical structures to deal with changes in posture.  The gradual enlargening of the brain led to further incorporation of tactile and kinesthetic senses into a system cable of responding to and anticipating distant objects (2002, 137).

These theories about the development of the brain, nervous system and behaviour had a marked influence on Dewey's naturalistic theory of the mind.  He took the sequence through which the nervous system evolved to deal with new forms of locomotion as consisting in a revolutionary advance of mind and judgment (2002, 138).  When an organism becomes equipped with new forms of movement, it " is vitally connected with the remote as well as with the nearby; when locomotor organs are accompanied by distance receptors, response to the distant in space becomes increasingly prepotent and equivalent in effect to response to the future in time.  A response toward what is in the future is in effect a prediction of a later contact" (LW 1, 197).[9]  Dewey is here gradually making his way to the claim that when there is a need to convert sentient reactions of an organism into a capacity for recognition and choice, this indicates the presence of a mind (2002, 139).  On the basis of these claims Dalton concludes that, "Perhaps then the most important generic difference Dewey found between non-humans and humans is that animals just have feelings while human know they have them and use them to their advantage" (2002, 139).

By situating Dewey's project within the scientific community of which he was a part, and further highlighting not only the relationships between his scientific colleagues and others, but also the details of their respective scientific theories, Dalton makes explicit the scientific underpinnings of Dewey's project in Experience and Nature.  These facts about Dewey's social environment indicate the way scientific resources made available to him an understanding of how the brain and nervous system evolved that he could proceed to incorporate into his work.  We can then begin to appreciate the way Dewey's general philosophical motives receive a scientific expression and elaboration though the very resources offered to him by his scientific colleagues.

Noting the philosophical relevance of these social factors in the development of Dewey's project enables us to better understand how empirical work informed that project, and why Dewey's philosophical conclusions take the specific form that they do, that is, as evolutionary claims about the emergence and development of the mind.

However, the importance of the social context sketched here goes deeper since Dewey's "lack of explicitness regarding the scientific resources of his ideas about the development of the brain and behavior" has prevented commentators from realizing how his very introduction and use of philosophical terms is informed by his appropriation of these scientific developments (2002, 200).  We have already seen Dalton's comment on the 'generic' difference Dewey finds between humans and non-humans.  Here we are confronted with Dewey's introduction of the term 'generic traits', which he uses to refer to the universal characteristics of nature shared by all life forms that are governed by processes of growth and development (LW 1, 308).  A central claim of Dewey's Experience and Nature is that these generic traits, when coupled with the interaction of human minds and behaviour, leads to the production of values that can then shape and reshape human neurobiological structures (Dalton 2002, 13).  Of these generic traits, Dalton cites the following examples: "physical phenomena (e.g., force, gravity, energy, motion, space, and time); bodies (e.g., sentience, gesture, and behavior); and mind (e.g., communication, meaning, memory, and significance)" (2002, 13).

Dalton notes that Dewey's conception of generic traits is one of the most poorly understood elements of his naturalistic metaphysics.  Even Dewey's most sympathetic critics have had trouble interpreting this central metaphysical term, taken it to refer to changeless, irreducible traits of nature.[10]  Once we note Dewey's scientific interest in the development of the nervous system and brain, we can see his use of 'generic' as referring to the evolution of ontogenetic processes.  On this reading, generic traits cannot be ultimate, changeless traits of nature, since they undergo transformation to create new general traits: "The capacity to walk, to communicate, or to express emotions emerges only when the underlying natural, biological, and behavioral forces involving gravity, movement, sentience, and gesture are fully integrated" (2002, 219).  This understanding of generic traits becomes available once we note the scientific accounts of development offered by Dewey's scientific colleagues, and which he utilized in his own philosophical projects.  Correctly interpreting Dewey's use of this term then requires that we note the scientific context of which it is part, precisely because Dewey's own understanding of the term has a scientific connotation stemming from his interest in the developmental sciences of the brain and nervous system.  This provides us with a better understanding of Dewey's project, since it indicates that his emergent theory of the human mind is not only informed by relevant empirical facts, but involves the introduction of terms that carry with them the scientific connotations provided by these scientific theories.  Evolutionary accounts of the brain and nervous system did not simply provide Dewey with resources to think with, but technical terms through which to reformulate the basic philosophical problems at issue. This, I suggest, provides us with a deeper appreciation for the nature of Dewey's own philosophical work and precisely what it means for him to fully naturalize mind, meaning and experience.  Dewey's philosophical work involves not simply looking to empirical science for resources that support his philosophical claims, but the further use of scientific terms as tools for the elaboration and characterization of problems and their proper solutions.[11]  I submit that this claim about Dewey's project would be difficult to recognize without the help of the social context provided by Dalton's intellectual biography.  This then brings out the potential value intellectual biographies can have for deepening our understanding of a philosopher's work, and how this can be achieved without succumbing to the genetic fallacy or simply accepting the acontextual fallacy. 

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Dalton, Thomas C. 2002. Becoming John Dewey: Dilemmas of a Philosopher and Naturalist. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Dewey, John. The Later Works, 1925-1953. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 17 vols. [LW]

______. 1920. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Beacon Press.

______. 1963 [1925]. The Development of American Pragmatism. In Philosophy and Civilization. New York: Capricorn Books.

______. 1998 [1930]. From Absolutism to Experimentalism. In The Essential Dewey. Larry Hickman and Thomas Alexander, (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Friedman, Michael. 1999. Reconsidering Logical Positivism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hook, Sidney. 1991. The Quest for Being. Prometheus Books.

James, William. 1897 [1956]. The Sentiment of Rationality. In The Will to Believe and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications.

______. 1907. [1981] Pragmatism. Hackett Publishing.

Martin, Jay. 2002. The Education of John Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press.

Richardson, Alan. 2003. The Geometry of Knowledge: Becker, Carnap, and Lewis and the Formalization of Philosophy in the 1920s. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34: 165-182.

Richardson, Alan and Gary Hardcastle. 2003. Logical Empiricism in North American. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume 18.  University of Minnesota Press.

Wilshire, Bruce. 2003. But where are the metaphysics? Louis Menaud's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. SAAP Newsletter 95: 23-32.

[1]  For some examples, see Richardson and Hardcastle 2003, Dalton 2002, Friedman 1999.  Dalton's work will be discussed further below.

[2]   This should not be taken as a description of someone's considered opinion, but as indicating a tacit viewpoint of many philosophers.  Since Kuhn this has, of course, been challenged by many.

[3]  This view is perhaps most clearly expressed in Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920).

[4]  This quote motivates Dalton's intellectual biography of Dewey (2002, 1).

[5]  This is precisely what Dewey implies with his rebuttal to those who interpret pragmatism as the philosophical expression of American commercialism. 

[6]  Only some of these details are discussed here.  Much more useful material can be found in Dalton's book.

[7]  Dalton discusses the details of these relationships in chapter three 'Experimentalist in the Making' (62-82), and chapter six 'The Evolution of Mind in Nature' (125-146).

[8]  My discussion follows Dalton and is confined to Experience and Nature (LW 1, 191-225).

[9]  The importance of this and related passages was first brought to my attention through Dalton's discussion (137-139).

[10]  See Hook (1991,169).

[11]  For more on this point, see Richardson 2003.