Darwin’s Influence on DeweyJune 27, 2021
Dewey was strongly influenced by Darwin.
Darwin defined humans as living things that are part of the natural world. Like other animals, humans have evolved in response to their changing environments. According to Dewey, one of the implications of Darwin’s thought is that it requires us to see humans as natural beings, not as fixed essences created by God. We are not immaterial souls from another world, but evolved organisms trying their best to survive in a world of which we are inevitably a part.
Dewey also took from Darwin the idea that nature is a system in a state of constant change. This idea itself is a reflection of the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Dewey used this understanding as a starting point when he began to think about what philosophical problems are and how they arise. Dewey puts forward the idea that we only think when we are faced with problems in Kant and the Philosophical Method (1884). According to him, we are all organisms in a state of responding to a world that is in constant change. Existence is a risk or a gamble, and the world is fundamentally unstable. We rely on our environment to survive and thrive, but many environments in which we find ourselves are constantly changing. Moreover, these environments do not change in a predictable way. For example, a very good wheat crop may be obtained for a few years, but then the harvest may decline. A sailor may set sail in fine weather, but then a storm of unknown origin may erupt. Years of wellness, then diseases strike us when we least expect it. Dewey says there are two strategies we can adopt in the face of this uncertainty: We can either turn to supreme beings or occult forces in the universe for help, or we seek ways to understand the world and control our environment.
In 1909, Dewey gives a lecture entitled “The Influence of Darwinisim on Philosophy”. In this course, he highlights the effects of Darwin’s Origin of Species on philosophy rather than on the natural sciences. He argues that bringing together the terms “genre” and “origin” in the title of the work is an “intellectual revolution” in itself.
In order to understand the nature of this revolution, we need to say a few words about the understanding of being put forward in Ancient Greek thought. Parmenides, who gave color to ancient Greek thought and had a profound effect on two important figures of Western Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, identified existence with what is not subject to the conditions of the time, and in this respect with what is permanent. Being is essentially intellectual and permanent, as opposed to the temporality and volatility of the sensuous. This way of thinking continues with certain differences in Plato’s idea and Aristotle’s understanding of form (Greek eidos). Form is defined as the principle that makes something itself and gives that thing its unity. In the Middle Ages, scholastic thought met Aristotle’s term eidos with the word species. All the things we encounter in nature owe their individuation to the species to which they belong, and these species are fixed in a way that follows Ancient Greek thought.
The identification of existence with the permanent, fixed and intellectual determines the nature of philosophy in both epistemology and ethics. To know ultimately means to know the fixed and unchanging forms. morality, on the other hand, means to join or resemble the permanent and unchangeable. The highest form in Plato is the good form. This form makes knowledge and morality possible. God in Aristotle’s universe is defined as “self-thinking thought” and is free from all change. All other beings remain in motion, emulating his state of completeness. God, himself unchanging and purely actual, is the self-moving mover of all natural substances.
According to Parmenides, a thinker who determined the understanding of being in ancient Greek philosophy, being (Greek ten) is one and static. This understanding of being was also influential on Plato and Aristotle. According to Dewey, the theory of evolution led to the breaking of this effect that had continued for centuries.
Taking this historical background into account, Dewey argues that Darwin’s work radically changed this framework. In this case, the nature of philosophy must also change radically. The new philosophy should not seek absolute origins or absolute ends. It should turn to a method that enables concrete solutions to the concrete problems we face in this world. Dewey thinks that this method change will not happen all at once. Just like Peirce, Dewey thinks that the concepts we have are not limited to abstract logical forms or categories, but include some habits, dispositions and attitudes (“The Influence of Darwinisim on Philosophy”, p.14). However, it is inevitable that old approaches will change. Dewey’s approach to this change process