Dewey's theory of knowledge approached thought genetically, as the product of the interaction between organism and environment, and knowledge as having practical instrumentality in the guidance and control of that interaction. Dewey termed this approach "instrumentalism." Dewey provided a detailed genetic analysis of the process of inquiry is his Studies in Logical Theory, conceptualizing the process in three phases. The first phase is the problematic situation, which Dewey defines as a situation where instinctive or habitual responses of the human organism are inadequate for the continuation of ongoing activity in pursuit of need and desire fulfillment. The second phase comprises of isolation of data or subject matter, which defines the parameters within which the reconstruction of the problematic situation must take place. In the third or reflective phase of the process, cognitive elements of inquiry such as ideas, suppositions, theories etc. are entertained as hypothetical solutions. The final test of the adequacy of such solutions comes with employment in action. If a reconstruction of the antecedent situation conducive to fluid activity is achieved, then the solution becomes part of the existential circumstances of life (Field, 2001).
For Dewey, the construction of knowledge was an ongoing process in which conceptualization of the problem was first in importance (Baker, 1955, p. 109). Indeed, this view is reflected in the general tenor of Dewey's entire body of work.
The Theory of Truth
Following his theory of knowledge, Dewey maintained that an idea agrees with reality, and is therefore true, if and only if it is successfully employed in human action in pursuit of human goals and interests. This pragmatic theory of truth, as it came to be called, differed from traditional theories, which espoused that the true idea is one that corresponds with reality. Dewey rejected this notion on the grounds that such theories merely beg the question of what the "correspondence" of idea with reality is (Field, 2001). In fact, Dewey wrote that philosophy's chief function was "not to find out what difference ready-made formulae make, if true, but to arrive at and to clarify their meaning as programs of behavior for modifying the existent world." (Dewey, Harris, & Mccluskey, 1058, p. 193).
Dewey also applied the principles of instrumentalism to the traditional conceptions and formal apparatus of logical theory. Dewey achieved this by adopting what he called a process of intelligent inquiry to ascertain the functional value of the logical form through (a) managing factual evidence pertaining to the problematic situation that elicits inquiry, and (b) controlling the procedures involved in the conceptualized entertainment of hypothetical solutions. This approach led to the formulation of a new theory of propositions, where he replaced the accepted distinctions between universal, particular, and singular propositions based on syntactical meaning with a distinction between existential and ideational propositions (Field, 2001).
In keeping with his philosophy of instrumentalism, Dewey consistently rejected any approach to ethics that proceeded from an a priori determination of morality. Instead, he insisted that ethics be considered a complex of social relationships whose meaning is to be determined in actual experience (Dewey, Harris, & Mccluskey, 1958, p. 233-234). Thus, Dewey proposed that ideals and values must be evaluated with respect to their social consequences, either as inhibitors or valuable instruments for social progress (Field, 2001).
Philosophy of Education
As described earlier, Dewey's interest in the role of education in fostering social progress was a driving force behind virtually all his work. Dewey believed that life is a self-renewing process through action upon the environment. It followed, therefore, that continuity of life depended on the continual readaptation of the environment to the needs of living organisms. Further, human life entailed not just physiological survival but continuity of experience, which he defined as the re-creation of beliefs, ideals, hopes, and practices. Thus, Dewey concluded that education, in its broadest sense, is the principal means of assuring the social continuity of life, especially in an age where the gap between the original capacities of the immature and the standards and customs of the elders has increased (Dewey & Edman, 1995, p. 90-92).
For Dewey, adaptation of the environment to the needs of living organisms meant applying the principles of his instrumentalist philosophy to educational thinking. In other words, philosophy and psychology no longer had to do with speculations in the scholastic sense, but rather with the conflicts that were immanent in the human daily experience (Dewey, Harris, & Mccluskey, 1958, p. 195). These conflicts, according to Dewey, were best resolved through the creation of a learning environment and social condition that could facilitate flexible adaptation, which was crucial for human progress. Dewey believed that such a social condition was a democratic form of life, which should not be instituted merely by means of democratic governance but by the inculcation of democratic habits of co-operation. Such inculcation, Dewey advocated, should begin in the earliest years of a child's educational experience (Field, 2001).
Thus, for Dewey, it was vitally important that education move away from the teaching of mere dead fact to the development of skills and knowledge that students could integrate fully into their lives as citizens and human beings (Dewey & Edman, 1995, p. 98). Hence, Dewey conceptualized that the theory and practice of schooling must be based on a diagnosis of social conditions and interrelated theories of human behavior and experience (Baker, 1955, p. 158). This theory led Dewey to establish a Laboratory School at the University of Chicago where children learned much of their early physics, chemistry, and biology by investigating the natural processes that went into cooking breakfast (Wikipedia, 2004). Dewey's philosophy of education and efforts at reforming educational thinking and practices resulted in his being credited for his pioneering work in progressive education.
Dewey's work is more easily associated with informal education practice, and cannot be easily slotted into any one of the curriculum traditions that dominated North American and UK schooling traditions over the last century (Smith, 2001). However, as Kilpatrick observes:
wherever the community and the processes of society are matters of conscious study and concern, wherever education starts with present pupil or school or community problems and proceeds consciously to a wider and deeper social understanding of what is involved, wherever the aim is to start with present interests and deepen and extend these in their social implications, wherever the school is seen as a conscious agency to the intelligent improving of culture, wherever the aim is to extend democracy further...it seems fair to assert that in the degree they are done consciously...it is probable that the teachers so acting have directly or indirectly profited by what John Dewey has taught." (Dewey & Schilpp, 1939, p. 472).
Baker, M.C. (1955). Foundations of John Dewey's Educational Theory. New York: King's