Highlights from Dewey’s “How We Think”

Published on June 24, 2017 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

Another part of the series, here are some highlights from John Dewey’s How We Think (1910).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (Everything the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.

The cover of “How We Think.”

Everything that comes to mind, that “goes through our heads,” is called a thought. To think of a thing is just to be conscious of it […]. […] we think (or think of) only such things as we do not directly see, hear, smell, or taste.

Some beliefs are accepted when their grounds have not themselves been considered, others are accepted because their grounds have been examined.

Men thought the world was flat until Columbus thought it to be round. The earlier thought was a belief held because men had not the energy or the courage to question what those about them accepted and taught, especially as it was suggested and seemingly confirmed by obvious sensible facts.

Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought.

The seen thing is regarded as in some way the ground or basis of belief in the suggested thing; it possesses the quality of evidence.

Thinking, for the purposes of this inquiry, is defined accordingly as that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce belief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former.

Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection.

The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value […]. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry […]. […] the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion […].

A being without capacity for thought is moved only by instincts and appetites […]. A being thus moved is, as it were, pushed from behind.

To a being who thinks, things are records of their past […].

The very essence of civilized culture is that we deliberately erect monuments and memorials, lest we forget; and deliberately institute, in advance of the happening of various contingencies and emergencies of life, devices for detecting their approach and registering their nature, for warding off what is unfavorable, or at least for protecting ourselves from its full impact and for making more secure and extensive what is favorable. All forms of artificial apparatus are intentionally designed modifications of natural things in order that they may serve better than in their natural estate to indicate the hidden, the absent, and the remote.

If upon thought hang all deliberate activities and the uses we make of all our other powers, Locke’s assertion that it is of the highest concernment that care should be taken of its conduct is a moderate statement.

It is the result of regulation of the conditions under which observation and inference take place.

[…] the main sources of error in reaching beliefs.

[…] the (a) tribe, (b) the marketplace, (c) the cave or den, and (d) the theater; or, less metaphorically, (a) standing erroneous methods (or at least temptations to error) that have their roots in human nature generally; (b) those that come from intercourse and language; (c) those that are due to causes peculiar to a specific individual; and finally, (d) those that have their sources in the fashion or general current of a period.

[There is a] universal tendency to notice instances that corroborate a favorite belief more readily than those that contradict it.

[…] different ways in which thought goes wrong[:]

  1. dependence on others […]
  2. self-interest […]
  3. circumscribed experience […]

The very importance of thought for life makes necessary its control by education because of its natural tendency to go astray, and because social influences exist that tend to form habits of thought leading to inadequate and erroneous beliefs.

The search [questions from a child] is not for a law or principle, but only for a bigger fact.

To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.

The dimensions of suggestion:

  1. ease […]
  2. range […] There is such a thing as too much thinking, as when action is paralyzed by the multiplicity of views suggested by a situation. […]
  3. profundity […]

Holding the mind to a subject is like holding a ship to its course; it implies constant change of place combined with unity of direction.

All people at the outset, and the majority of people probably all their lives, attain ordering of thought through ordering of action. Adults normally carry on some occupation, profession, pursuit; and this furnishes the continuous axis about which their knowledge, their beliefs, and their habits of reaching and testing conclusions are organized.

We may group the conditioning influences of the school environment under three heads:

  1. the mental attitudes and habits of the persons with whom the child is in contact;
  2. the subjects studied;
  3. current educational aims and ideals.

Most persons are quite unaware of the distinguishing peculiarities of their own mental habit. They take their own mental operations for granted, and unconsciously make them the standard for judging the mental processes of others. Hence there is a tendency to encourage everything in the pupil which agrees with this attitude, and to neglect or fail to understand whatever is incongruous with it.

The operation of the teacher’s own mental habit tends, unless carefully watched and guided, to make the child a student of the teacher’s peculiarities rather than of the subjects that he is supposed to study. […] “Is this right?” comes to mean “Will this answer or this process satisfy the teacher?” instead of meaning, “Does it satisfy the inherent conditions of the problem?”

In some educational dogmas and practices, the very idea of training mind seems to be hopelessly confused with that of a drill which hardly touches mind at all […].

Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life. Information, merely as information, implies no special training of intellectual capacity; wisdom is the finest fruit of that training.

In instruction, the external standard manifests itself in the importance attached to the “correct answer.”

[…] the deepest plane of the mental attitude of every one is fixed by the way in which problems of behavior are treated.

[…] the word logical is synonymous with wide-awake, thorough, and careful reflection—thought in its best sense[.]

The adoption by teachers of this misconception of logical method has probably done more than anything else to bring pedagogy into disrepute; for to many persons “pedagogy” means precisely a set of mechanical, self-conscious devices for replacing by some cast-iron external scheme the personal mental movement of the individual.

[…] the psychological and the logical represent the two ends of the same movement[.]

[…] the real problem of intellectual education is the transformation of natural powers into expert, tested powers: the transformation of more or less casual curiosity and sporadic suggestion into attitudes of alert, cautious, and thorough inquiry.

Discipline of mind is thus, in truth, a result rather than a cause. Any mind is disciplined in a subject in which independent intellectual initiative and control have been achieved. […] Discipline is positive and constructive.

There is no ground for assuming that “thinking” is a special, isolated natural tendency that will bloom inevitably in due season […].

Genuine freedom, in short, is intellectual; it rests in the trained power of thought […].

[…] each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.

[…] if [a patient] permits the suggestion of this special disease to take possession prematurely of his mind, to become an accepted conclusion, his scientific thinking is by that much cut short.

The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment; and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution.

The suggested conclusion so far as it is not accepted but only tentatively entertained constitutes an idea.

(1) The premises are called grounds, foundations, bases, and are said to underlie, uphold, support the conclusion. (2) We “descend” from the premises to the conclusion, and “ascend” or “mount” in the opposite direction […].

[…] the movement toward building up the idea is known as inductive discovery (induction, for short); the movement toward developing, applying, and testing, as deductive proof (deduction, for short).

The inductive movement is toward discovery of a binding principle; the deductive toward its testing—confirming, refuting, modifying it on the basis of its capacity to interpret isolated details into a unified experience. So far as we conduct each of these processes in the light of the other, we get valid discovery or verified critical thinking.

[…] because all discovery, all apprehension involving thought of the new, goes from the known, the present, to the unknown and absent, no rules can be stated that will guarantee correct inference.

A suggestion simply does or does not occur; this or that suggestion just happens, occurs, springs up. If, however, prior experience and training have developed an attitude of patience in a condition of doubt, a capacity for suspended judgment, and a liking for inquiry, indirect control of the course of suggestions is possible.

It is a common saying that one must learn to discriminate between observed facts and judgments based upon them.

Darwin remarked that so easy is it to pass over cases that oppose a favorite generalization, that he had made it a habit not merely to hunt for contrary instances, but also to write down any exception he noted or thought of […].

A question well put is half answered […].

Thinking, in short, must end as well as begin in the domain of concrete observations, if it is to be complete thinking.

From the scientific side, it is demonstrated that effective and integral thinking is possible only where the experimental method in some form is used.

[…] the conditions for complete mental activity will not be obtained till adequate provision is made for the carrying on of activities that actually modify physical conditions[.]

To be a good judge is to have a sense of the relative indicative or signifying values of the various features of the perplexing situation; to know what to let go as of no account; what to eliminate as irrelevant; what to retain as conducive to outcome; what to emphasize as a clue to the difficulty.

[…] learning is not wisdom; information does not guarantee good judgment.

An idea is a method of evading, circumventing, or surmounting through reflection obstacles that otherwise would have to be attacked by brute force. But ideas may lose their intellectual quality as they are habitually used.

As nobody can possibly tell what breaking a whole into its parts in the mind means, this conception leads to the further notion that logical analysis is a mere enumeration and listing of all conceivable qualities and relations.

The Greeks used to discuss: “How is learning (or inquiry) possible? For either we know already what we are after, and then we do not learn or inquire; or we do not know, and then we cannot inquire, for we do not know what to look for.”

To find out what facts, just as they stand, mean, is the object of all discovery; to find out what facts will carry out, substantiate, support a given meaning, is the object of all testing.

[…] we presume the existence of meaning, and its absence is an anomaly.

[…] our power to think effectively depends upon possession of a capital fund of meanings which may be applied when desired.

Our intellectual progress consists, as has been said, in a rhythm of direct understanding—technically called apprehension—with indirect, mediated understanding—technically called comprehension.

Thought can more easily traverse an unexplored region than it can undo what has been so thoroughly done as to be ingrained in unconscious habit.

The problem of the acquisition of meaning by things, or (stated in another way) of forming habits of simple apprehension, is thus the problem of introducing (i) definiteness and distinction and (ii) consistency or stability of meaning into what is otherwise vague and wavering.

“[…] science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.”—Charles Darwin

A being that cannot understand at all is at least protected from mis-understandings. […] Through vagueness of meaning we misunderstand other people, things, and ourselves; through its ambiguity we distort and pervert. […] vague meanings are too gelatinous to offer matter for analysis, and too pulpy to afford support to other beliefs. They evade testing and responsibility. […] to reduce it in extent and in force requires sincerity and vigor.

Definitions are of three types, denotative, expository, scientific.

Truly practical men give their minds free play about a subject without asking too closely at every point for the advantage to be gained; exclusive preoccupation with matters of use and application so narrows the horizon as in the long run to defeat itself. It does not pay to tether one’s thoughts to the post of use with too short a rope. […] Men must at least have enough interest in thinking for the sake of thinking to escape the limits of routine and custom.

The conception that we have only to put before the senses particular physical objects in order to impress certain ideas upon the mind amounts almost to a superstition.

[…] the abstract to which education is to proceed, is an interest in intellectual matters for their own sake, a delight in thinking for the sake of thinking.

Abstract thinking, it should be noted, represents an end, not the end. […] Nor is theoretical thinking a higher type of thinking than practical. A person who has at command both types of thinking is of a higher order than he who possesses only one.

The aim of education should be to secure a balanced interaction of the two types of mental attitude, having sufficient regard to the disposition of the individual not to hamper and cripple whatever powers are naturally strong in him.

[…] one of the commonest fallacies is post hoc, ergo propter hoc; the belief that because one thing comes after another, it comes because of the other.

[…] dogmatism[:] Certain men or classes of men come to be the accepted guardians and transmitters—instructors—of established doctrines. To question the beliefs is to question their authority; to accept the beliefs is evidence of loyalty to the powers that be […].

Experiment is the chief resource in scientific reasoning because it facilitates the picking out of significant elements in a gross, vague whole.

“Think of heat as motion and whatever is true of motion will be true of heat […].”—[William?] James

The empirical method says, “Wait till there is a sufficient number of cases;” the experimental method says, “Produce the cases.”

The prime necessity for scientific thought is that the thinker be freed from the tyranny of sense stimuli and habit, and this emancipation is also the necessary condition of progress.

[…] the term experience may be interpreted either with reference to the empirical or the experimental attitude of mind. Experience is not a rigid and closed thing; it is vital, and hence growing. When dominated by the past, by custom and routine, it is often opposed to the reasonable, the thoughtful.

[…] operations of conscious selection and arrangement constitute thinking, though of a rudimentary type.

Mastery of the body is an intellectual problem[.]

[…] play is the chief, almost the only, mode of education for the child in the years of later infancy.

Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude. When things are treated simply as vehicles of suggestion, what is suggested overrides the thing. Hence the playful attitude is one of freedom.

In play activity, it is said, the interest is in the activity for its own sake; in work, it is in the product or result in which the activity terminates. Hence the former is purely free, while the latter is tied down by the end to be achieved.

The adult is acquainted with responsible labor upon which serious financial results depend. Consequently he seeks relief, relaxation, amusement. Unless children have prematurely worked for hire, unless they have come under the blight of child labor, no such division exists for them. Whatever appeals to them at all, appeals directly on its own account. There is no contrast between doing things for utility and for fun. Their life is more united and more wholesome.

Not the thing done but the quality of mind that goes into the doing settles what is utilitarian and what is unconstrained and educative.

Three typical views have been maintained regarding the relation of thought and language: first, that they are identical; second, that words are the garb or clothing of thought, necessary not for thought but only for conveying it; and third (the view we shall here maintain) that while language is not thought it is necessary for thinking as well as for its communication.

To name anything is to give it a title; to dignify and honor it by raising it from a mere physical occurrence to a meaning that is distinct and permanent.

Since intellectual life depends on possession of a store of meanings, the importance of language as a tool of preserving meanings cannot be overstated.

The ideas of others as embodied in language become substitutes for one’s own ideas.

“A word is an instrument for thinking about the meaning which it expresses; a substitute sign is a means of not thinking about the meaning which it symbolizes.”

The primary motive for language is to influence (through the expression of desire, emotion, and thought) the activity of others; its secondary use is to enter into more intimate sociable relations with them; its employment as a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge is a tertiary, and relatively late, formation. The contrast is well brought out by the statement of John Locke that words have a double use, “civil” and “philosophical.”

It is usual to distinguish between one’s active and one’s passive vocabulary, the latter being composed of the words that are understood when they are heard or seen, the former of words that are used intelligently.

Failure to use meanings that are nevertheless understood reveals dependence upon external stimulus, and lack of intellectual initiative.

[…] the energy that should go into constructive thinking is [sometimes] diverted into anxiety not to make mistakes, and even, in extreme cases, into passive quiescence as the best method of minimizing error.

While the interest is especially keen in children (because their actual experience is so small and their possible experience so large) […].

In the training of observation the question of end and motive is all-important.

Recognition refers to the already mastered; observation is concerned with mastering the unknown.

It is a commonplace that what is moving attracts notice when that which is at rest escapes it.

When pupils get the notion that any field of study has been definitely surveyed, that knowledge about it is exhaustive and final, they may continue docile pupils, but they cease to be students.

[…] the phrase “Think for yourself” is tautological; any thinking is thinking for one’s self.

[…] students of psychology are familiar with the principle of apperception—that we assimilate new material with what we have digested and retained from prior experiences.

Pupils are taught to live in two separate worlds, one the world of out-of-school experience, the other the world of books and lessons.

[…] effective attack upon any subject[:] the first step is preparation, the second presentation, followed in turn by comparison and generalization, ending in the application of the generalizations to specific and new instances.

What one already knows supplies the means with which one apprehends the unknown.

[…] reduce the steps to three: first, the apprehension of specific or particular facts; second, rational generalization; third, application and verification.

The step of preparation must not be too long continued or too exhaustive, or it defeats its own end. The pupil loses interest and is bored, when a plunge in medias res might have braced him to his work.

The practical problem of the teacher is to preserve a balance between so little showing and telling as to fail to stimulate reflection and so much as to choke thought.

Meditation, withdrawal or abstraction from clamorous assailants of the senses and from demands for overt action, is as necessary at the reasoning stage, as are observation and experiment at other periods.

Generalization means capacity for application to the new[.]

[…] without recognition of a principle, without generalization, the power gained cannot be transferred to new and dissimilar matters. The inherent significance of generalization is that it frees a meaning from local restrictions […]. The essence of the general is application.

Truly general principles tend to apply themselves.

[…] one meaning of the term understood is something so thoroughly mastered, so completely agreed upon, as to be assumed; that is to say, taken as a matter of course without explicit statement. […] If two persons can converse intelligently with each other, it is because a common experience supplies a background of mutual understanding […].

If, however, the two persons find themselves at cross-purposes, it is necessary to dig up and compare the presuppositions, the implied context, on the basis of which each is speaking. The implicit is made explicit; what was unconsciously assumed is exposed to the light of conscious day.

Unconsciousness gives spontaneity and freshness; consciousness, conviction and control.

Exclusive interest in the result alters work to drudgery. […] Whenever a piece of work becomes drudgery, the process of doing loses all value for the doer; he cares solely for what is to be had at the end of it.

To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition. Absence of dogmatism and prejudice, presence of intellectual curiosity and flexibility, are manifest in the free play of the mind upon a topic.

[…] only the novel demands attention[.]

[…] the best thinking occurs when the easy and the difficult are duly proportioned to each other. The easy and the familiar are equivalents, as are the strange and the difficult. Too much that is easy gives no ground for inquiry; too much of the hard renders inquiry hopeless.

The proper function of imagination is vision of realities that cannot be exhibited under existing conditions of sense-perception.

Genuine communication involves contagion […].

Read the whole book: How We Think.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!