Tuesday, July 30, 2019

His students remember John Dewey

John Dewey
Will Durant, Transition: A Sentimental Story of One Mind and One Era. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927, pp. 262-263—

Finally I came to Professor [John] Dewey. I smiled as I saw him cross the campus on a winter's day, hatless and overcoatless, collar turned up and hands in his pockets, hair unsubdued and neck-tie awry; none of us would have supposed, from his bearing or his appearance, that he was the leading figure in American philosophy. Nevertheless his lectures were almost the worst in his university. His voice was a monotone and his pace an even drawl,—except when he sought Flaubertianly for the fittest word, and stared out upon the lawn till it came. Some of us went to sleep; others of us copied his lecture in longhand word for word in order to remain awake. But he was slow because he did his own thinking, and ploughed virgin soil. Most lectures are compilations; and if they flow easily on it is because they follow a beaten path. But where Dewey thought there were no paths; he had to make them as he went; and like a frontiersman he had no time for ornamental delicacies. When, in the leisure of the evening, we read over what we had taken down during the day, we discovered gold in every second line. We found that without excitement, and without exaggeration, this man was laying a firm basis, in biological psychology, for the progress of his country and his race. Sometimes he spoke so radically that only the obscurity of his speech and the modesty of his manner saved him from the sensationalism of reporters or the hunters of heresy. And then at times, with a quiet sentence of irrefutable analysis, he annihilated a theory or a movement, and brought the eager ideals of youth within the circle of reality.


Earl K. Peckham, quoted in Robert Bruce Williams, ed., John Dewey, Recollections (Washington DC: University Press of America, 1970), p. 12—

[American philosopher John] Dewey was speaking slowly and very carefully [in an evening class in 1935 at Columbia University], also in simply constructed sentences, which was typical of his style. I was listening intently to a point. Many of the class seemed to have left the area of thought. Dewey himself seemed to have left, to have gone into his own world. I felt that I was with him regardless of the seeming absence of the other members of the class. He hesitated after his point was made, and he looked at me through his thick bifocals. I said to him in a too loud, nervous voice, “Doesn’t emotion play a part in this thought process?” His stare fixed on me. I was embarrassed. He was silent—then he walked slowly over to the window and looked into the night, for the better part of two minutes. Then he looked back and fixed his stare at me (at least that is how I felt) and he said in a very slow and almost inaudible voice—but he knew I heard and he seemed to me not to care if anyone else heard or not—“Knowledge is a small cup of water floating on a sea of emotion.”