Rand and Dewey

When a friend saw me using this photo of an elderly man on my Facebook page, he first thought the man was a typewriter repairman. It is actually John Dewey, near the end of his life. He lived from 1859 to 1952. He used the two-finger way of typing.

When Ayn Rand arrived in America in 1926, Dewey had been the dominant voice in American philosophy for about 15 years; he would continue to have that place for another 20 years. His writings ranged over all major areas of philosophy and more. He was a public intellectual and produced many books for the general educated public concerning philosophy (all areas), culture, and education. His works have been meticulously collected in chronological order into a 37-volume set, which required 20 years to accomplish (1967-87).

For several months, I’ve been developing a couple of essays comparing Rand and Dewey in epistemology and philosophy of logic. Those essays are serial ones I keep adding to—all at the posting site titled Objectivism Online. So far I’ve ended up acquiring 19 of those 37 Dewey volumes in my progress to comprehend his philosophy across its development.

Leonard Peikoff made remarks on Dewey in his taped lectures on the history of modern philosophy back in the early 1970’s, which I heard in those years in Chicago. Peikoff’s dissertation advisor at NYU was Sidney Hook, the preeminent champion of John Dewey’s thought. Peikoff used Dewey’s important work Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938) in his dissertation (1964). By 1960 or so Rand could learn a lot from Peikoff concerning Dewey.

I don’t know which, if any, of Dewey’s books Rand had read prior to or after her association with Peikoff while in his graduate studies. Prior to her Peikoff association, we have the following, however. On 26 July 1945, Rand wrote a letter to Isabelle Patterson, which included mention of Rand’s ambition to write a nonfiction book on the moral basis of individualism. Rand had come to realize that she needed to start farther back conceptually than her theme in THE FOUNTAINHEAD. She needed to start “with the first axioms of existence.” / “I am reading a long, detailed history of philosophy [by B. A. G. Fuller].” (Identification of the history of phi book is by Michael Berliner, who edited and compiled these letters.) 

Fuller 1945 has 3.5 pages on Dewey, and they are not bad. From those pages alone, Rand could learn of Dewey taking experience as leading idea where she would take existence and correspondingly of his sleight of metaphysics and his primacy of epistemology. I don’t know if she looked into any of the following well-known works of Dewey in her exposures to philosophy in the 1940’s and ’50’s, but perhaps.

How We Think (1910) / A Common Faith (1934) / Art as Experience (1934) / Human Nature and Conduct (1922) / Experience and Nature (1925) / The Quest for Certainty:  A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (1929) / Individualism, Old and New (1930) / Liberalism and Social Action (1935)

Also, edited by Joseph Ratner: Intelligence in the Modern World — John Dewey’s Philosophy (1939)

There is considerable concord between what Dewey and Rand had to say in philosophy and psychology. Over time, I’ll try to share those in posts under this one. I’ll also remark on the serious differences between Rand and Dewey, as well as the representations of Dewey by Rand and by Peikoff. Thoughts from anyone on any of this quite welcome.

There is a reference to Dewey in Rand’s marginalia in the first edition of Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action (1949). The editor of Rand’s marginalia did not state when her jottings in Human Action were made, and perhaps he did not know. Mises had written: “[Man] does not enter the world in general as such, but a definite environment . . . .” To which Rand wrote: “Is this Dewey and the anti-abstraction premise? Is it improper to conceive of his ‘entering the world’ and of conditions that would exist in ANY environment?” (I’d say Right, some likeness to Dewey here.)

By the time of Rand’s learned Peikoff association, Edward Moore’s American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey had issued from Columbia (1961). Rand had this book around, we may surmise from her Forward of “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” (1966).

28 thoughts on “Rand and Dewey

  1. I made a comment on the earlier version of this post, but the comment vanished when the earlier version vanished. Let me see if it’s preserved on the dashboard…..


  2. The complete text of Fuller’s history of philosophy, 1945 edition, can be read online here. It looks like you can even download it if you want. It’s over 1000 pages, not counting end matter (bibliography, glossary, chronology, etc.).


    • Thanks for spreading that availability, David. That book is one of several I acquired a few years ago when getting myself fuller up on what evidenced stuff, roughly contemporary with Rand, she and her early circle were looking at. As I recall, the part on Kant in Fuller was not too bad for Kant scholarship in English to 1945. But it is clear Rand took little to nothing of it to heart as representation of Kant’s theoretical philosophy, supposing she read that part of Fuller. My own first History of Philosophy to read was Copleston’s (well, Russell’s earlier), though I was moving slowly through it, and I probably heard what Peikoff had to relate concerning American Pragmatism (and Dewey’s Instrumentalism) before reaching that part of Copleston.


      • I remember Peikoff’s courses on history of philosophy! They were on tape. I studied them intensively. A fellow student was Robert Campbell, whom I’m sure some of you know. We would gather at my apartment in Austin, Texas.

        The first printed history of philosophy I read was W. T. Jones’s five volume work. (More influence of Peikoff.) But I learned most from Russell’s. Never read Copleston, though I’ve heard his praises sung since my undergrad days.


        • I’m not a fan of Russell’s History. With a handful of exceptions, every chapter is like “Well, here’s a quaint and amusing old theory that’s completely obsolete now, given that my friends and I have recently solved all the problems of philosophy, but let’s take a look and see if we can get a chuckle or two out of it.”

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          • I readily grant, of course, that Russell’s history is charmingly written. For entertainment value he takes the palm.
            But for actual history of philosophy, Copleston is much better, and is usually (not always!!) more willing than Russell to engage fairly with views he dislikes. Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche is particularly embarrassing, with its absurd concluding dialogue in which Nietzsche and the Buddha (both atheists of course) offer competing advice to God on what sort of world to create.

            Speaking of Copleston and of Nietzsche, in the 1940s Copleston wrote a standalone book on Nietzsche, with an aim to engage with him on his own terms, but (as he reports with annoyance and regret in the 2nd edition) he was pressured by Church authorities into including a polemic against Nietzsche that was entirely contrary to the scholarly aim of the book as he’d conceived it. (Even with the polemic, though, it’s still a fairer and more reliable treatment of Nietzsche than Russell’s was.)

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            • I never knew of that about Copleston. Thanks.
              In the 1970’s, a buddy at Loyola in Chicago told me of a debate he had attended between Copleston and Ayer. His verdict was that Ayer won the debate, but Copleston won accuracy.


            • Everyone in my class in grad school used Copleston for assistance in studying for our comprehensive exams on the history of philosophy, especially on the medievals. Nice and clear. Didn’t even bother looking at Russell.


  3. Included herein is some Peirce for setting, but I deliver a bit of Rand-Dewey concord in this post in the third section. I’ve left citations in place in this excerpt from my writings in OO Forum last year. I’ll put the References into a sub-post to this one, to be perhaps a little more out of the way.

    Rand wrote:

    “Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

    “A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. When we speak of ‘direct perception’ or ‘direct awareness’, we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later: it is a scientific, conceptual discovery.” (ITOE 35)

    In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), near its beginning, Rand quotes a contemporary work by way of setting out the alternative: Do concepts correspond to anything found in reality? That work is American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey (1961) by Edward C. Moore. This book had been correctly criticized by Richard J. Bernstein in a 1962 review in The Journal of Philosophy. Not everything in this work of Moore’s is entirely mistaken, of course. Such is his treatment of the conception of percept in classical American Pragmatism; Moore’s treatment of ‘percept’ is partly true and partly false to the conception and work of it for Peirce, James, and Dewey.

    My 1976 edition of American Heritage Dictionary has for PERCEPT: “1. The object of perception. 2. An impression in the mind of something perceived by the senses, viewed as the basic component in the formation of concepts.” Those meanings were sufficiently general to cover the more restricted meanings for which the Pragmatists or Rand employed the term. (For an example of employment of ‘percept’ in the discipline of psychology today, see the paper of Steven Pashko in Psychology and Neuroscience.)

    The origination of the term ‘percept’ is unsettled in my research. I find William Hamilton, in the mid-nineteenth century, suggesting that a term ‘percept’ be sensible to introduce to mean the object of a perception, parallel the way in which he determined to use ‘concept’ as the object of a conception. He was reserving ‘conception’ for process of yielding a mental product to be called ‘concept’. Then ‘percept’ would be a product of ‘perception’ as a process. This is in Volume III, Lecture III, of his Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic.* I find him also simply USING the term ‘percept’ in Volume I, Lecture XIX, in connection with a minimal perceptual detectible; divide that minimal into two halves, and they are not detectible; but the whole, which is detectible, he calls a percept, with no notice just there whether he is making a novel usage, or for that matter, whether ‘percept’, under any meaning whatever, is a term he himself had originated.

    In The Nation, the issue of 18 March 1869, Charles Sanders Peirce reviewed a book published in the preceding year. That book was The Human Intellect; with an Introduction upon Psychology and the Soul by Noah Porter of Yale. Though it does not come up in Peirce’s deep and critical review of the book, the book puts to work the term ‘percept’, and it’s not likely Peirce would have missed what the book was doing on that score. Peirce himself would not begin using the term in his own writings until the turn into the next century.  Edward John Hamilton, writes in 1883, 434-35, of Porter’s ‘percept’, which was taking as percepts the elements going into making the very whole that is denominated ‘percept’ from Peirce to us.

    Not long before Peirce’s review of Porter’s book, Peirce had penned his pair of essays “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” and “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” In the latter essay, Peirce had maintained that in perception we know a thing as existing. Peirce was realist concerning perception and conception, in contradistinction to idealist or nominalist. Early in the twentieth century, Peirce nabbed ‘percept’ for an important role in his epistemology.

    A percept “is immediately known as external, . . . in the sense of being present regardless of the perceiver’s will or wish” (1905). Also, a percept “is not inside our skulls, either, but out in the open. It is the external world that we directly observe” (1901). To be sure, percepts are formed of sensations arising through sense impressions, but Peirce stresses that sense impressions are not first in our knowledge. We are not shut out from the external world, “informed only by sense impressions. Not at all! Few things are more completely hidden from observation than those hypothetical elements of thought which the psychologist finds reason to pronounce “immediate,” in his sense. But the starting point of all our reasoning is not in those sense impressions, but in our percepts. When we first wake up to the fact that we are thinking beings and can exercise some control over our reasonings, we have to set out upon our intellectual travels from home where we already find ourselves. Now, this home is the parish of percepts.” (1901)

    <br />I said that Peirce was a realist concerning perception. He was a direct realist, not an indirect realist. A percept is the occasion of an object and the obligate act of the subject in which that object is presented, not represented. A percept is not a sign in the manner of a footprint indicating by resemblance a foot. Then too, a percept is not a symbolic representation of its object or of anything behind its object. Rather, a percept is a sign in the indexical manner: “Holding a dynamical connection to the perceived object, the percept directs us to that object” (Wilson 2016, 191).
    Edward Moore in the 1961 book on Pragmatism, from which Rand had quoted in ITOE, said that Peirce uses the term ‘percept’ “in a sense analogous to contemporary usage of sense-percept, sense-datum, or sense-image” (30). The latter two fog the window into what Peirce held in his mature view in full context. Mention of sense-datum in this connection is particularly misleading (Huemer; Firth). The concept of percept put forth by Rand was along the lines of the truly Peircean, contra sense-datum epistemological foundations.
    Wilson, Aaron Bruce 2016. Peirce’s Empiricism: Its Roots and Its Originality. Lexington Books.

    Rand’s conception of what is a percept did not end with her remarks on it at the beginning of ITOE. She wrote in her 1970 essay “The Comprachicos” the following:

    “A mind’s cognitive development involves a continual process of automatization. For example, you cannot perceive a table as an infant perceives it—as a mysterious object with four legs. You perceive it as a table, i.e, a man-made piece of furniture, serving a certain purpose belonging to a human habitation, etc.; you cannot separate these attributes from your sight of the table, you experience it as a single, indivisible percept—yet all you see is a four-legged object; the rest is an automatized integration of a vast amount of conceptual knowledge which, at one time, you had to learn bit by bit. The same is true of everything you perceive or experience; as an adult, you cannot perceive or experience in a vacuum, you do it in a certain automatized context . . . .” (193)

    I want to urge a certain interpretation of Rand’s term ‘percept’ in this paragraph. One does not need to overtly or silently say “table” in one’s perception of the table as a table, as a man-made thing providing a surface above the floor or ground on which to set things. Without language one can have formed  “certain reactions which have become habitual, i.e., automatized” (194). Furthermore, as an adult competent in a natural language, I do not need to produce the word ‘table’ or ‘function’ to add another book to the piles of them already here on the computer table.

    Dewey writes: “To say that to see a table is to get an indication of something to write on is in no way to say that the perception of a table is an inference from sensory data. To say that certain earlier perceived objects not having as perceived the character of a table have now ‘fused’ with the results of inferences drawn from them is not to say that the perception of the table is now an inference” (1916, 252).

    Dewey and Rand are in accord on that picture. In further agreement with Rand’s conception of perception, Dewey opposed the Peircean doctrine that perceptions are immediate outcomes of inferences going on in the subconscious. “There is a great difference between saying that the perception of shape affords an indication for an inference and saying that the perception of shape is itself an inference. That definite shapes would not be perceived, were it not for neural changes brought about in prior inferences, is a possibility; it may be, for aught I know, an ascertained fact. Such telescoping of a perceived object with the object inferred from it may be a constant function; but in any case the telescoping is not a matter of a present inference going on unconsciously, but is the result of an organic modification which has occurred in consequence of prior inferences.” (ibid.)

    Peirce had held that although perceptions are direct (1868a, 31; 1871, 84; 1878, 120; 1901, 62), they are interpretations (1871, 85; 1903, 229), a semi-automatic sort of inference (1868b, 42–51, 57, 62, 67–68, 70; 1871, 85; 1877, 96–98; 1891b, 207–11; 1905, 204–7) conditioned by previous cognitions (1868a, 36–38; 1878, 120). “In perception, the conclusion has the peculiarity of not being abstractly thought, but actually seen, so that it is not exactly a judgment, though it is tantamount to one. . . . Perception attains a virtual judgment, it subsumes something under a class, and not only so, but virtually attaches to the proposition the seal of assent” (1891b, 208–9; also, 1901a 62). Our subconscious abductive inferences in the process that is perception coalesce smoothly into articulate perceptual judgments which are forced upon our acceptance (1903a, 210–11, 227).

    I think Dewey and Rand are correct in replacing Peirce’s characterization of the process of percept-formation as subconscious inferences. More plausible, under the present knowledge of brain processing, is that the process of percept-formation is by brain integration of sensory and motor experience of things, and that this process can to some extent undergo organic adaptation under further experience of a thing and habituation. Rand thought of that enriching adaptation in humans as arising from injection of some of our conceptual grasps of a perceptual object and its wider contexts into subsequent percepts of the object. I think, however, we should not stop with only conceptual injections as instigating the perceptual adaptations.

    I sense that in my perceptions of our pear tree, I bring some conceptual knowledge that is alienable only in thought from my perception of the tree. Such would be that there is the fruit that are pears hanging from the tree, which can become ripe enough for human consumption, and that once upon a time some unknown humans planted this tree here next to the house to enjoy the blooms in spring and perhaps to get to eat the pears. There is additional conceptual knowledge about this tree, apparently not so run into my adult perception of this tree. Such would be my knowledge that soon I’ll be needing to trim the tree and that, as a matter of fact, the squirrels will eat all the pears before they are ripe enough for human consumption.

    Mature squirrels come and investigate the tree for edibility of the pears as the pears develop. When the time is right, the sufficiently mature squirrels are adept at harvest. The point I want to stress about this is that the immature squirrels must undergo organic enriching adaptation in their sensory and motor elements bound in percepts under more and more experience and habituation in order to perceive the pear tree as would an adult squirrel. I do not think squirrels are conceptual animals. What is that non-conceptual injection into percept-formation that results in enriched percepts of the pear tree as the squirrel matures into an adult? I suggest that that injection is attainment of action-schemata, which are an attainment we have in our own human development by the time of language onset and which continue to undergird our conceptual life.


    • References

      Dewey, J. 1916. Logic of Judgments of Practice. In Essays in Experimental Logic. University of Chicago Press.

      Hoopes, J. editor, 1991. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

      Houser, N., editor, 1998. The Essential Peirce. Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

      Peirce, C.S. 1868a. Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man. In Wiener (W) 1958.
      ——. 1868b. Some Consequences of Four Incapacities (W).
      ——. 1869. Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities. In Hoopes (H) 1991.
      ——. 1871. Critical Review of Berkeley’s Idealism (W:74–88) (H:116–40).
      ——. 1877. The Fixation of Belief (W).
      ——. 1878. How to Make Our Ideas Clear (W).
      ——. 1891a. The Architecture of Theories (W).
      ——. 1891b. Review of William James’ Principles of Psychology (H).
      ——. 1901. Pearson’s Grammar of Science. In Houser (EP) 1998.
      ——. 1903. Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism (EP).
      ——. 1905. Issues of Pragmaticism (W).

      Wiener, P.P., editor, 1958. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings. New York: Dover.


  4. Would love to hear why, politics aside, Rand hated Dewey so ardently. Unless “politics aside” is an unfair exclusion.

    Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.

    Really? Is “act first, think afterward” a fair description of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr or Daniel Ellsberg? Do truly mindless activists get their mindlessness from Dewey? Seems preposterous both ways around.


    • If I come across anything in Dewey by which Rand might have been drawn to this fantastically opposite of Dewey and thought it was Dewey, I’ll let you know. I do NOT think her hatred of Dewey was from THAT view she incorrectly attributed to him. Perhaps—though a far stretch—she really thought only that John Dewey was responsible for the educational system she had envisioned in “The Comprachicos” essay (and in the Wet Nurse death scene in ATLAS): therefore, mindless activists when grown up to college and beyond. She shared the rage of Rearden in that scene, no doubt. I would too, if I thought minds nurtured through the public schools were such putty as she sketched them to be. They are not. Because of Facebook, I’ve gotten to see what some of my high school classmates (mid-1960’s) are like in recent years. We are all-over-the-map different from each other in important ways as well as like each other in important ways. We had independent thinkers from top of the class to bottom. Her hatred of Dewey, I’d expect, was rooted in political differences and views on education she ascribed to him.

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  5. I haven’t read a great deal of Dewey, but in the early 2010s, I was slotted to teach Philosophy of Education at Felician, a course I hadn’t taught before, and wasn’t all that eager to teach. Dewey’s little book Democracy and Education was in the course description, hence something I was required to put on my syllabus.

    I resignedly put it there, but was pleasantly surprised by it. In fact, over time, it fundamentally changed my approach to teaching, and (in my view) improved my teaching itself. The semester after I read it, I radically overhauled all of my courses, but particularly my General Education ones (Critical Thinking and Ethics), and did the best teaching of my career. Were I ever to go back to teaching, I think I’d continue in the Deweyan direction I took about a decade ago–and read more of the Pragmatists than I have.

    The one teaching experience I had in an Objectivist milieu–the applied ethics seminar I did at The Atlas Society in 2013–was the single worst teaching experience I had in my entire career, in fact, the worst single week I had in 26 years in the teaching profession. The single biggest obstacle to pedagogical success there was the administrators’ insistence that classroom teaching be modeled on “business,” or at least the version of “business” they had confabulated by marrying Atlas Shrugged to the academic equivalent of Taylorism.

    If I had the time, I’d teach at any local high school or community college that gave me the freedom to follow my Deweyan pedagogical trajectory wherever it led. But no monetary inducement could convince me to repeat TAS 2013. Not that any such inducement is forthcoming.


    • I’d like to study Dewey’s philosophy of education, and your response to that one book is an encouragement to do so. Maybe I’ll be able to dip into that part of his writings at some point. (I wanted to mention to you, since as I recall, you had the fortune of being in company of this mind long ago [I’ve had a lot of good fortunes like that in physics and in philosophy; I’ve keep studying them from outside the ivy for my own intellectual passion and progress through the decades as they advanced in their profession], that one of the three sessions of APA Eastern I was able to attend virtually today was Author-Meets-Critic for Anja Jauernig’s THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KANT. The other sessions I’ve attended remotely so far this time around had seven or fewer attendees, which included the four presenters. Fortunately these are recorded sessions that can be accessed by other minds anon. The attendance at Jauering’s session was twenty-six. I lived in a fortunate time for advances in and great interest in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, which began for me in a grad seminar I took in senior year of college 1971 and have continued all this time, More light.


  6. In July 1966, Ayn Rand issued the first installment of her treatise Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. She opened the first section “Cognition and Measurement” with an idea that had not appeared in her previous writings: “Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is . . . an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.” Integration was an old key in her work. Differentiation was new.

    I’ve come across some thinkers who had previously given the pair differentiation/integration salience in their epistemology: Spencer (ht George Smith), Bergson, Piaget, and Dewey.

    From Dewey:
    “Were thought at once synthetic AND analytic, differentiating and integrating in its own nature, . . .” (167).
    “We have seen that the desired object is a theory of the Conceptions of Reason in an organic system, and that Reason is itself both integrating and differentiation” (173).
    —from “Kant and Philosophic Method” in THE JOURNAL OF SPECULATIVE PHILOSOPHY (April 1884)

    Two more concordances I hope to note, and dissect, in this thread eventually are [i] the particular prior dichotomies that Dewey and Rand tried to dissolve (some pertinence to an interest of Chris Sciabarra here) and [ii] the conceptions of logic by Dewey and by Rand.


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