Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dewey on On The Origin of Species

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, who was born, along with Abraham Lincoln, in 1809, making it also the bicentennial of their births.

And it was also 150 years ago that John Dewey, one of America's great public intellectuals and philosophers of democracy, was born. One hundred years ago Dewey reflected on the 50th anniversary of The Origin of Species about the book's impact on philosophy in his essay "The influence of Darwin on philosophy."

I suggest reading the essay for one's self first, but I would guess that many people will find Dewey's style of writing a bit difficult. In which case you can consult this article by Tim Madigan for Philosophy Now which parses the essay and Dewey's thinking on the matter.

What sort of bearing does Darwinist thinking have on philosophy, according to Dewey? “Philosophy” Dewey writes, “foreswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them” (p.43). In other words, it acknowledges intellectual change and the need for scientific (physical) data. Intelligence itself is not some absolute power, but rather our species’ survival tool. Our intelligence has evolved and adapted itself over time. It is not a god-like substance or supernatural gift: other animals have forms of consciousness too, and examining the similarities as well as the differences between us can have fruitful results. Throughout his many writings, Dewey called for an empirical study of humanity’s place in nature.
And for more on the subject of Darwin's impact on philosophy, particularly teleology, I recommend Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? by Michael Ruse.

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