The irreducibility of experience: A Deweyan approach

Stephen Patrick O'Sullivan, Fordham University


A motivating question of this dissertation is: How does knowledge of the fine-grained structures and processes of the brain impact the interpretation we have of ourselves as human agents? As a variation on a theme: Is it reasonable to believe that at some point in time our knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the body will leave no room for talk of “mind”, or conscious, purposeful experience? John Dewey's pragmatist theories of experience and nature serve as a critique of and correction to three dominant traditions in contemporary philosophy of mind—eliminative materialism [EM], reductive materialism [RM], and cognitive functionalism [CF]. Whereas EM argues that neurobiological research threatens to displace the ordinary ways of describing and explaining human experience and conduct, RM and CF suggest that it is plausible to believe that the disclosures of science allow us to countenance such phenomena as beliefs, desires, goals, and consciousness. John Dewey's “empirical naturalism” shares with each of these positions a confidence in the power of empirical method to disclose the relations that natural existents have to one another, and it shares with RM and CF the conviction that the sorts of explanation of conduct employed in ordinary parlance are empirically warranted. From the Deweyan perspective presented here, RM, as a theory about “mind”, is ultimately indistinguishable from EM, and CF, construed in terms of supervenience, cannot vindicate the integrity and distinctiveness of psychological categories. Although Dewey would not say that “mind” is independent of ones' “body,” he would refuse to identify them. It is neither the case that they are one thing (as monistic materialists would have it), nor are they two things (as dualists would have it). Instead, the distinction philosophers commonly make between mind and body ought to be interpreted as a “functional” one. From Dewey's functionalist perspective, the solution to the mind/body problem involves a substantial rethinking of the very terms that frame the problem. I argue that an absolute distinction between a realm designated “physical” and one labeled “mental” is specious. Though the terms are often profitably used to mark significant distinctions, it is not the case that these distinctions can be employed in arguments which lead to the displacement or elimination of mentality. Dewey's reflections on the nature of human experience provide a helpful way to interpret the relationship between the various dimensions of experience to one another and to the conditions, both organic and social, that constitute the natural environment in which conscious, purposeful agency arises and has effect.

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Recommended Citation

O'Sullivan, Stephen Patrick, "The irreducibility of experience: A Deweyan approach" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9917506.