Dewey 3: Common Sense, the Examined Life, and the Tao

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

Last week, I noted that John Dewey believed that all human logic has both a natural and a cultural foundation. As a pragmatist, Dewey is committed to the notion of community and its importance in human relations, including its importance to logical and scientific thinking. Thus, he says:

THE ENVIRONMENT in which human beings live, act and inquire, is not simply physical. It is cultural as well. Problems which induce inquiry grow out of the relations of fellow beings to one another, and the organs for dealing with these relations are not only the eye and ear, but the meanings which have developed in the course of living, together with the ways of forming and transmitting culture with all its constituents of tools, arts, institutions, traditions and customary beliefs. [1]

In this concise paragraph, Dewey masterfully introduces the intricacies of decision-making in the political sphere. He underscores the challenges politicians face navigating their decisions within a specific cultural environment. This environment is a complex tapestry of societal artifacts, traditions, customs, beliefs, and attitudes towards governance and each other. Altering this inherited cultural milieu is a Herculean task, one that often spans generations. In the brief tenure of any policymaker, this is a reality that must be acknowledged.

Dewey agrees with Aristotle that human beings are by nature, social animals. As social animals, humans create situations and social environments that emerge from, but on a distinct level of reality from, the natural world. The human capacity for thought, logic, creativity, moral decision-making, and like make of human beings, a distinct and unique entity and human culture different thing from the natural environment.[2] Sitting at the root of human uniqueness is the fact of human languages. Human beings are capable of developing science systems and communicating information through those sign systems. [3]

Language occupies a peculiarly significant place and exercises a peculiarly significant function in the complex that forms the cultural environment. It is itself a cultural institution, and, from one point of view, is but one among many such institutions. But it is (1) the agency by which other institutions and acquired habits are transmitted, and (2) it permeates both the forms and the contents of all other cultural activities. [4]

Human language is the basis of human culture and every human, cultural institution, including the political and legal institutions of any society. Language is the agency by which these institutions can be created and maintained.

Common Sense vs Examined Language

Human languages have multiple uses, two of which are the special significance in politics:

  1. Sitting at the base of all specialized languages is what might be called the common-sense language of a people. The common-sense language of a people refers to those largely unexamined fundamental concepts that a group holds tacitly and which inform its judgments. For example, in America, it’s taken for granted that individuals should be free, and this freedom involves the ability to say and do what we please. This is a tacitly held fundamental, common-sense idea of almost all Americans.
  2. The second kind of language that we must deal with is what we would call scientific language. This is the language we use that is subject to experimentation testing as to its validity and limits. Contrary to common sense language, what Dewey calls “scientific language” is what we might call “examined language”. Examined Language is a language that has been examined to see just how far common sense is correct and can be applied. For example, in the law, the fundamental common-sense notion of freedom finds a restriction when I use my freedom to scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

Upon examination, there are limitations found inherent in our common-sense ideas, and some of them are even shown to be false. These limitations are relevant to political discourse. Dewey analyzes the difference as follows:

The resulting difference in the two types of language meanings fundamentally fixes the difference between what is called common sense and what is called science. In the former cases, the customs, the ethos, and spirit of a group are the decisive factors in determining the system of meanings in use. The system is one in a practical and institutional sense rather than in an intellectual sense. Meanings that are formed on this basis are sure to contain much that is irrelevant and to exclude much that is required for intelligent control of activity. [5]

In addition to the limits of common sense, human beings are not merely rational, sign-producing, and sign-using biological computers. In the human person, there is a special role for ire, emotion, and (I would) say the full range of moral and spiritual constituents of the human personality. Dewey put it this way:

Another phase of the problem is brought out by the part played in human judgments by emotion and desire. These personal traits cook the evidence and determine the result that is reached. That is, upon the level of organic factors (which are the actively determining forces in the type of cases just mentioned), the individual with his individual peculiarities, whether native or acquired, is an active participant in producing ideas and beliefs, and yet the latter are logically grounded only when such peculiarities are deliberately precluded from taking effect. [6]

In other words, human decision-making is inevitably impacted by organic factors, and by the entire emotional makeup of human beings. In my judgment, Dewey makes an error when thinking that logic must preclude these factors from taking into effect what logic should do and do seek to be certain that the emotional and spiritual components are in fact, rational. As everyone knows, not every emotional or spiritual or moral conclusion of human individuals is rational. This does not mean that they should be excluded from the realm of logical inquiry or, in the case of political inquiry, from public debate.

Common Sense and Political Deliberation

I’ve already distinguished between common-sense language and what I’ve called examined language, which includes language that we would call scientific, that is, language that has been subject to the kind of inquiry and verification that we associate with science. I’ve also mentioned that our common-sense view of many situations almost amounts to a presupposition to see certain things in certain ways. But the phenomena of common sense are more complex and more important than that mirror summary.

Dewey talks about common sense as follows:

The use of the term common sense is somewhat arbitrary from a linguistic point of view. But the existence of the kinds of situations referred to and of the kind of inquiries that deal with the difficulties and predicaments they present cannot be doubted. They are those which continuously arise in the conduct of life and the ordering of day-by-day behavior. They are such as constantly arise in the development of the young as they learn to make their way in the physical and social environments in which they live; they occur and recur in the life-activity of every adult, whether farmer, artisan, professional man, law-maker or administrator; citizen of a state, husband, wife, or parent. On their very face they need to be discriminated from inquiries that are distinctively scientific, or that aim at attaining confirmed facts, “laws” and theories. [7]

Human common life would be impossible without common sense. In fact, where common sense begins to deteriorate, there’s almost always a kind of social chaos that ins. Lawmakers, for example, have to rely upon common sense or what might be called traditional interpretations of the Constitution and nearly all of their deliberations. There are times when changes need to be made, and those fundamental assumptions, those common-sense ways of looking at things, need to be questioned. But most of the time they do not.

This particular insight cast great doubt upon the postmodern project or what is sometimes called the deconstructionist project of deconstructing all common sense, true as mere bids for power. Social institutions and legal principles simply reflect the common experience in common understanding of the human race from its inception. This is fundamental to what I have called a socio-agapic view of politics. That is to say, the idea that the family is important, that children should take care of parents, and that parents should take care of children, that people should work hard for a living, and a vast number of important social ideals and institutions reflect the common sense of the human race over millennia.

Just to give one example, the prohibition against murder was not simply a prejudice and plot and acted into law by a group of people to subordinate the views of another group of people who happened to believe in murder. Murder is prohibited because it has been the universal human experience that murder causes social instability and violence. In order to control violence, murder needs to be controlled. This is a simple and obvious example, but there are many other examples that are not so simple, nor are they so obvious.

Dewey properly recognizes that there are limits to common sense, and being a modern post-enlightenment thinker, he is not inclined to grant common sense its full range of applicability. Partially, this is due to a recognition of the cultural variability of many common sense ideas. Dewey recognizes that common sense varies from culture to culture in some ways. The virtues of nomadic tribesmen in seventh-century Arabia are not necessarily the common-sense virtues of a person living in Los Angeles, California, in the early 21st century. His point is as follows:

One has only to note the enormous differences in the contents and methods of common sense in modes of life that are respectively dominantly nomadic, agricultural and industrial. Much that was once taken without question as a matter of common sense is forgotten or actively condemned. Other old conceptions and convictions continue to receive theoretical assent and strong emotional attachment because of their prestige. But they have little hold and application in the ordinary affairs of life. [8]

Obviously, Dewey has a point here. However, my caution would be that his point can be, and often is massively overstated in our society. For example, there’s no question that many of the proverbs of the Old Testament were created in a culture far different from ours. Nevertheless, in almost every matter of daily existence, they continue to provide great guidance. The same could be said of Oriental wisdom literature, the wisdom literature of the ancient world, generally, and the wisdom literature of other world religions today. Fundamental notions like the importance of honesty, sobriety, hard work, faithfulness, harmonic human relations, and other aspects of common sense may not have a hold on ordinary life, but they should have.

C. S. Lewis, the Tao and Dewey

In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis used the Chinese philosophical term “Tao” to encompass what he considers to be the broadly accepted, traditional moralities of both Eastern and Western cultures—including Platonic, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, and others. [9]  The Tao involves a ground to objective value in which certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things human beings are. [10]

This Tao or “Way” is described by Lewis as follows:

It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, the Way, and the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every human being should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”[11]

Lewis argues that this Tao, or Way, is the basis for all objective principles and, therefore, of human virtue. In short, the Tao refers to the belief “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” [12] Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that modern abandonment of the Tao endangers society by producing Men Without Chests. That is to say that items of wisdom and morality are not entirely matters of convention; they are embedded in the way things are, and the fact that different societies construct certain moral and practical matters differently does not in any way eliminate the reality of common sense solutions to human problems developed over centuries.


I am afraid that this week’s blog may imply a wholesale rejection of Dewey. It does not. It simply indicates a limitation in his work and a flow. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, issues a needed corrective. Dewey is a materialist. According to this view, “the world of facts is without any inherent trace of value, and the world of moral judgments and much traditional wisdom is without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.” [13]  

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis defends the legitimacy of the Tao or “Way, and outlines the moral and intellectual confusion that derives from a radical subjectification of moral judgments and the irrational nihilism that results from pressing the materialistic argument too far. In other words, Lewis argues, and I would agree, that the modern world is in constant danger of irrational and illogical behavior resulting from the complete privatization and relativization of moral judgments. If one wishes to see the end result of the contemporary view, one might look at the moral condition of much of American politics and education, perhaps especially the current violence on American campuses and the irrationality of much of our political discourse.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), 42.

[2] Id, at 43.

[3] Id, at 44-45.

[4] Id, at 45.

[5] Id, at 50.

[6] Id. Dewey would not agree with my insertion of the importance of spiritual, moral, and emotional factors into the action of human decision-making. He is a determined material list. The limitations of what he is saying here is precisely that rather than seeing the human person as a radical unity of all levels physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, he reduces everything to the material level.

[7] Id, at 61.

[8] Id, at 64.

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Collier Books, a division of Macmillan, 1955): 28. For a Christian interpretation of the Chinese Tao, see G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Shiloh Publishing, 2016),

[10] See Lit Charts, “The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis at (downloaded May 7, 2024).

[11] Abolition of Man, at 28.

[12] Litcharts, at footnote 10 above.

[13] Abolition of Man, at 32-33.