Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Science and Science Education

  • Christine L. McCarthy
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_42


The term “science,” for Dewey, can refer either: (a) to the particular inquiry process by which one can achieve genuine knowledge of nature or (b) to the body of genuine knowledge produced by that inquiry process. I will disambiguate the term by referring always to “scientific inquiry” or to “scientific knowledge.”

Dewey holds that the method of inquiry is the only means of coming to have knowledge about real thing/events and that scientific inquiry is the most highly developed form of inquiry. Dewey conceives knowledge to be a set of beliefs well warranted to be true about the dynamic interactive events that constitute the natural world. Knowledge with respect to any subject matter can be developed through the process of inquiry.

Scientific inquiry is a natural investigative activity that developed as an elaboration of practical common-sense inquiry, the process by which certain complex organisms act in response to their environment. The aim of practical inquiry is the survival and well-being of the organism; the aim of scientific inquiry is the same, via intellectual action to develop a body of knowledge. Dewey uses the general term “inquiry” to refer to scientific inquiry and to ordinary practical inquiry.


Dewey sets out his position on the relation of ideas, facts, and knowledge, first, in 1902, in Studies in Logical Theory, then in 1907, in “The Control of Ideas by Facts,” in 1916, in Essays in Experimental Logic, in 1925, Experience and Nature, and, most thoroughly, in “Logic: the Theory of Inquiry” (1938). In both 1939, in “Experience, Knowledge and Value: A Rejoinder,” and in 1941, in “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth,” Dewey responds at length to his critics, who often misinterpret his position, rather than engage in criticism of it.

Dewey explains inquiry in this way: inquiry “begins in doubt, [and] terminates in the institution of conditions which remove need for doubt.” (1938, p. 15). The conditions of doubt that call forth inquiry occur when one finds oneself in a situation in which one intends to act to achieve a desired end but finds that one’s existing knowledge and habits of action are inadequate to the current situation, that is, they have proven unable to effectively guide one’s actions in pursuit of the desired end.

Having noticed that one’s actions have become ineffectual, or counterproductive, one should temporarily stop action in pursuit of the desired end, and act instead to determine the nature of the situation, to understand the dynamic interrelationships that constitute it. Only by acquiring such knowledge will one be enabled to act effectively in the situation.

The current situation is indeterminate, in that one does not know what actions to take in that situation to effectively pursue the desired end. Dewey uses the term “indeterminate” to refer to a situation that is “disturbed, troubled, ambiguous, confused, full of conflicting tendencies, obscure, etc.” (1938, p. 109). It is the situation itself that is indeterminate, and thus, full of doubt, or “doubtful.” The indeterminacy of the situation is an objective state of affairs, inhering in the situation; the subjective state of “doubt” of the person in the situation is only secondary, in response to the indeterminateness of the situation. Dewey further explains: “Even were the existential conditions unqualifiedly determinate in and of themselves, they are indeterminate in significance: that is, in what they import and portend in their interaction with the organism” (1938, p. 110).

Having recognized the current situation as doubtful, one begins the inquiry process. Dewey gives a formal definition of inquiry: “Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (1938, p. 108). Inquiry is competent to the extent that the initial indeterminate situation actually becomes, at the end of inquiry, determinate, a situation which is well understood.

In the inquiry process the person is required to act in the situation, in his or her current environment. It is only by physical action, by becoming a factor in the set of dynamic interactions that is the situation, that the objective environing conditions can be transformed. Inquiry is not an “inner mental” process; it is an overt activity. Dewey writes “[t]he organic responses [of the person] that enter into the production of the state of affairs that is temporally later and sequential are just as existential as are the environing conditions” (1938, p. 110). As the person acts in the indeterminate situation and observes the results of his or her actions, the situation gradually becomes more determinate.

Dewey refers to the temporally developing indeterminate situation as a “problem situation”; the “first result of the evocation of inquiry is that the situation is taken, adjudged, to be problematic”(1938, p. 111). Making this judgment is the preliminary step in inquiry. Subsequent steps must then be taken. “The first step…is to search out the constituents of a given situation which, as constituents, are settled” (1938, p. 112). The active process of observation of the existential conditions is begun. The observed conditions “taken together constitute ‘the facts of the case’…they are conditions that must be reckoned with or taken account of in any relevant solution that is proposed” (1938, p. 113). These conditions, as they are observed, suggest possible solutions to the problem, plans of action that if taken might resolve the situation, and effect the desired determinate and nonproblematic situation.

Ideas, in Dewey's sense, are plans of potential action. “Ideas are anticipated consequences (forecasts) of what will happen when certain operations are executed under and with respect to observed conditions” (1938, p. 113). With continued observation of the situation’s features and the corresponding suggestion of ideas about the dynamics of the situation, the ideas entertained become better grounded and more precise. The best of the entertained ideas is then used to direct one’s active intervention in the problem situation, and the newly resulting existential conditions are again observed. Action, and observation of the results of action, constitutes the test of the idea.

It is through the use of the ideas that the meanings of the ideas begin to be understood. A reasoning process is undertaken, to clarify more fully the meanings and to discover their conceptual relations to other meanings in one’s existing knowledge. For this examination, the new meanings must be formulated in propositions and compared to other formulated meanings. The goal is to discover the logical relationships of the various meanings. Without this examination of meanings and their interrelationships, the inquiry process is not properly completed.

Scientific inquiry takes exactly this form. Dewey writes: “An hypothesis, once suggested and entertained, is developed in relation to other conceptual structures until it receives a form in which it can instigate and direct an experiment that will disclose precisely those conditions which have the maximum possible force in determining whether the hypothesis should be accepted or rejected” (1938, pp. 115–116).

How are the observed facts of the situation, which are existential, to be related to the ideational content, the meanings, which are nonexistential? Dewey’s response is that both the existential facts and the nonexistential meanings are operative factors in the developing situation. “Ideas are operational in that they instigate and direct further operations of observation” (1938, p. 116). Facts are also operational. The relevant facts are selected for their capacity to serve as evidence: “their evidential quality is judged on the basis of their capacity to form an ordered whole…” (1938, p. 117).

Observed facts suggest ideas; the ideas when used to direct action generate new observations of fact; these new facts suggest other ideas, leading to new observations, and so on. The inquirer, throughout, attempts to find the ordered whole that would link together the facts and the suggested meanings. The provisional facts are tested, just as the provisional ideas are tested.


Adherence to this general process of active experimental inquiry, leading to highly tested meanings and determinations of facts, is the definitive criterion for science, in Dewey’s philosophy. In scientific inquiry, as opposed to common-sense practical inquiry, the intellectual focus is on the development of an always growing and continuously tested body of interrelated meanings. “In science, since meanings are determined on the ground of their relation as meanings to one another, relations become the objects of inquiry…scientific objects are strictly relational” (1938, p. 119).

In the system of relations that constitute scientific knowledge, the relations discovered to obtain are generalized and are highly abstract; given this, the propositions that set out symbolically the patterns of interrelations that constitute nature are widely applicable to many different qualitative contexts. “The generality of all scientific subject-matter as such means that it is freed from restriction to conditions which present themselves at particular times and places” (1938, p. 120).

The method of science, in Dewey’s words, “is but the systematic, extensive and carefully controlled use of alert and unprejudiced observation and experimentation in collecting, arranging and testing facts to serve as evidence…” (1938, p. 57).


Dewey calls his theory of knowledge “instrumentalism.” This name is intended to direct attention to the instrumental nature of propositions in the process of inquiry. In Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938) and in 1941, in “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility and Truth,” Dewey draws a conceptual distinction between “propositions” and “judgments.” The term “judgment” refers to the thoroughly tested belief that emerges as the conclusion of inquiry. A judgment is asserted to be true, and that assertion is warranted by the inquiry process.

Propositions, in contrast, are among the tools of inquiry; propositions are affirmed, but they are not asserted to be true. Propositions are used to advance the inquiry, but it is acknowledged explicitly that those propositions may turn out to be less than useful, perhaps completely irrelevant to the problem situation at hand. Some propositions will likely need revision or replacement with other propositions that do advance the inquiry. This is what it means to say that propositions are instrumental in the process of inquiry. The propositions that are affirmed, provisionally, are the results, the judgments, of prior inquiry processes or of observation of the features of the problem situation. In scientific inquiry, detailed and quantified observations about the problem situation may be set out in propositions. Dewey writes: “Propositions, then, on this view, are what are affirmed but not asserted. They are means, instrumentalities, since they are the operational agencies by which beliefs that have adequate grounds for acceptance are reached as the end of inquiry” (1941, p. 175).

Scientific knowledge is the product of the operations of experimental inquiry. “The very conception of cognitive meaning, intellectual significance, is that things in their immediacy are subordinated to what they portend and give evidence of… the character of intellectual meaning is instrumental” (1925, p. 105).

Meanings and the Objects of Science

Dewey uses the term “objects” in a distinctive way. Objects are “events with meanings” (1925, p. 240, emphasis in original). Objects, in this sense, “are precisely what we are aware of” (Ibid) whenever we are conscious of something. We are conscious of thing/events only when the meanings of the thing/event, the meanings currently accepted as true meanings, have become doubtful, and one is in the process of revising one’s beliefs about those meanings. It is not events themselves that occur in consciousness. It is the meanings of events that are in consciousness. Dewey specifies that his thesis is “the common-sense belief that universals, relations, meanings, are of and about existences, not their exhaustive ingredients” (1925, p. 241). It is the human being that actively seeks for the meanings of events, and, in an attenuated sense, can be said to “construct,” i.e., to form, beliefs about meanings. But in no way, except through physical interaction, does the human being “construct” the existences that he or she thinks about. The actual meanings of thing/events are objective; they are determined by the interactivities of the existent thing/event in question with other thing/events (including human thing/events). Because of this, the beliefs that humans might have about the dynamic relations obtaining, or potentially obtaining, among existences, beliefs about the meanings of thing/events, can be false, incorrect, or untrue. “The ownership of meanings or mind thus vests in nature; meanings are meanings of. The existence of error is proof, not disproof, of the fact that all meanings intrinsically have reference to natural events…. Error involves a possibility of detection and corrections because it refers to things, but the possibility has an eventual, not a backward reference” (1925, p. 219).

Knowledge as Warranted Assertibility, Truth as Correspondence

In 1941, in “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth,” Dewey states his conceptions of knowledge and truth very clearly. Dewey is responding to misinterpretations of his position set out by Bertrand Russell. He begins by stating: “my analysis of “warranted assertibility” is offered as a definition of the nature of knowledge in the honorific sense according to which only true beliefs are knowledge” (1941, p. 169). For Dewey, the warrant for any assertion made about the world comes from the process of inquiry. Since inquiry is most highly developed in scientific inquiry, the strongest warrants for the judgments about the world result from scientific inquiry. The “warrant” in question is the epistemic right to accept the judgment as true.

There is no guarantee possible, and so no complete certainty, about the truth of the scientific judgment. But a judgment is well warranted to be true by the quality of the inquiry process that led to the judgment. Persons asserting that judgment to be true are well warranted in their assertion. To “know” is to have a body of belief that is well warranted by the inquiry leading to the body of belief. And knowledge in the abstract is, by definition, warranted assertibility, in Dewey’s view. Dewey’s view of the inquiry process requires both thought and activity, which are intimately linked. Dewey states that his position “holds that the presence of an idea – defined as a possible significance of an existent something – is required for any assertion entitled to rank as knowledge or as true” (1941, p. 170). The required idea is present in the form of a hypothesis, which is used to direct the existential activities by which the hypothesis is tested.

The question remaining is what is Dewey’s conception of truth? Dewey, again in response to Russell’s misinterpretation of the position of “instrumentalists,” is very clear.

In a footnote, Dewey sets out a categorical statement of his conception of truth: Instrumentalists “do not believe the test of truth is coherence; in the operational sense, stated later in this paper, they hold a correspondence view” (1941, p. 172, fn 7; emphasis in original). This key point is often misunderstood in the secondary literature on Dewey’s conception of knowledge. Dewey’s position is that the assertions warranted at the end of inquiry are to be accepted as true, in the correspondence sense of truth. “…the pragmatist holds that the relation in question is one of correspondence between existence and thought; but he holds that correspondence instead of being an ultimate and unanalyzable mystery, to be defined by iteration, is precisely a matter of cor-respondence in its plain, familiar sense …”. The agreement, or correspondence, between thought and existence is like that of agreement “between purpose, plan, and its own execution, fulfillment; between a map of a course constructed for the sake of guiding behavior and the result attained in acting upon the indications of the map” (1907, p. 84).

How does one test for this correspondence? Dewey holds that there is only one way. “What kind of comparison is possible or desirable then, save to treat the mental layout of the whole situation as a working hypothesis, as a plan of action, and proceed to act upon it, to use it as a director and controller of one’s divagations…one uses the idea – that is to say, the present facts projected into a whole in the light of absent facts – as a guide of action”. If the anticipated interactions do in fact occur, and the new situation is as it was predicted to be, then “one may say, my idea was right, it was in accord with facts; it agrees with reality. That is, acted upon sincerely, it has led to the desired conclusion; it has, through action, worked out the state of things which it contemplated or intended” (1907, p. 84).

The Social Need for Scientific Knowledge

All living organisms, humans no less than others, must act in the context of their environing conditions, to maintain life and to secure a desired quality of life. The interactions of organism-in-environment are determined by the objective nature of reality, the world. Error in belief and in action, a mistaking of the nature of the dynamic interactions of oneself and others in the environment, is eminently possible and is regularly found to occur. In order to act effectively in the world, in the short term and in the long run, the organism that can acquire knowledge of the interactive dynamics constituting nature, can organically embed that knowledge and use it to guide its actions, will be far better off, more successful, in dealing with the problem situations that regularly arise. But, human beings collectively have acquired a great deal of scientific knowledge that is not put into use to guide social action. To teach persons to understand, value, add to, and use scientific knowledge in problem-solving is the proper aim of science education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of IowaIowa CityUSA