Matthew Stevens Research

The Concept of ‘Knowledge’ in Pragmatism

Sat, September 26, 2015 in

According to Neuropragmatist John Shook,

Knowledge is the result of experimental problem solving. The epistemic criteria for knowledge is the technological test of practicality. Scientific knowledge is continuous with technology and ordinary practical skill. Much of human experience, most of morality, and all of knowledge are emergent features of social epistemic practices. (Shook, 2013, p. 3)

The concept of ‘knowledge’ in pragmatism, like ‘experience’, has a different meaning and function than in traditional western philosophy. For the classical pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859 – 1952), knowledge is the outcome of a process of action and reflection (inquiry) that emerges from experience (as the subject-world transaction) and is concerned primarily with consequences and relations that are tested in action. This contrasts with the mind-world dualism of traditional western philosophy in which knowledge is viewed as an internal (mental) representation of an external objective reality. In the Deweyan view, knowledge is a fluid, dynamic, situated and temporal ‘knowing’ rather than a fixed representation in the mind of a static objective reality (Biesta & Burbules, 2003).

According to Baert (2011), although pragmatism (including neo-pragmatism) has various branches, they all share common underpinning positions in relation to reality and knowledge. Specifically, they all have humanist tendencies, are anti-foundationalist and reject the mirror (or spectator) theory of knowledge. In humanism, knowledge (including ethical and aesthetic knowing) is considered a human creation as opposed the foundationalist assertion that it is somehow possible to establish universal foundations to knowledge through philosophic reflection. For pragmatism, because knowing is the outcome of a process of action and reflection, it is always a human activity and as such is always social, situated, and temporal. This does not mean, however, that knowledge in the pragmatist view is necessarily subjective or relative, in fact Dewey saw his “instrumentalism” as a way of dissolving the contradiction between objective and subjective views.

Is matter an appearance of mind as true reality? Or is the mental only an appearance of the physical as the final reality? Or are both of them appearances of some still more ultimate reality? … [Such questions] vanish if the proper objects of science are nature and its instrumental characters. Any immediate object then becomes for inquiry, as something to be known, an appearance. (Dewey, 1929, p. 137)

For pragmatists, knowledge is fallible (in a practical sense) and fluid, always open to reassessment and improvement in the light of new evidence and in different situations (spatial, temporal and social) (Baert, 2011).

Pragmatists also reject the mirror view of knowledge (also known as the spectator theory of knowledge or ‘representationalism’) that conceives knowledge as a passive mirror or internal representation of a ‘real’ external world. This position, with its dualisms between knowledge and action, theory and practice, and mind and world, is rejected by pragmatists in favor of a more holistic view based on the notion of experience as the subject-world transaction (Baert, 2011). In the pragmatist view, knowing is seen as an activity, theory as a form of practice, and the organism as part of the world. For this reason, Biesta & Burbules (2003) suggest that rather than describing Dewey’s theory of knowledge as an epistemology, it might be more accurate to describe it an ‘anti-epistemology’ as the “question of how a disconnected mind can ever get in touch with reality‚Ķ simply disappears” (p 13). Furthermore, they contend that this false dichotomy between theory and practice has resulted in western philosophy devaluing practice (in favor of theory) and ignoring the practical difference knowledge can make to improving the world. In this regard pragmatism shares something in common with Karl Marx who believed that the point of philosophy is to not only interpret the world but to change it (Nicolini, 2012).

From Experience to Knowledge

To understand how knowing emerges from experience we firstly need to revisit Dewey’s underlying concept of experience and how reflection arises. For Dewey, experience is not something that is located solely in the mind as an impression of the external world, rather it is the transaction that exists in nature between an organism and its environment, which is both material and social. The organism and the environment, together, form the situation. The situation, however, is not static, but in a constant state of flux, adding a temporal dimension to it. The situation is therefore spatial, temporal and social. The transaction (within the situation) is bi-directional and continuous, with the organism acting on the environment (doing) and the environment acting on the organism (undergoing) in a continuous flow of action (Biesta & Burbules, 2003).

In this practical mode, experience is pre/non-reflexive. When the organism ‘knows’ how to respond within a situation there exists an integrated interaction with the environment. However, this type of (how to) knowing is not necessarily conscious, as knowing can be stored in the body (which includes the muscles, nervous system and brain) as habits. For Dewey, habits are defined as a predisposition to act or respond in a particular way in particular situations based on past experiences in similar situations (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). Examples of this are things like walking or riding a bike but can equally to apply to any activity or practice.

Reflection (thinking) arises when there is a disruption or disturbance in the situation and it becomes uncertain. The flow of habitual action is ruptured as the organism becomes conflicted and does not know how to respond. In order to resolve the uncertain situation and restore an integrated transaction with the environment, the organism moves from the practical mode of experience to the cognitive (reflective) mode (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). However, this does not constitute a break in the organism’s continuous action but rather a movement from one type of doing to another. Reflection is still regarded as an experience but one in which the things of the material and social environment become the objects of reflective thought (Miettinen, 2000).

Through thinking, the conditions of the problematic situation are considered in order to ascertain its nature. From this, a possible hypothesis is formulated and then refined by way of thought experiments. However, to become knowledge thinking alone is not sufficient, the proposed hypothesis still needs to be tested in action to see if it works. It is only by being put into practice that a hypothesis can be shown to be true and be considered to be knowledge (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). However, this knowledge is still only ever contingent on a particular situation. All that can really be said is that it worked in that situation.

The Meaning of Knowledge

For Dewey, knowledge is not seen as the grasping of an external reality (as a truth proposition) but rather is concerned with the worth or meaning of experienced things. As such, knowledge imbues situations and things with meaning through creating possibilities for intervening knowingly in the situation. It is concerned with the conditions and consequences both in terms of the history of the thing, and its use for implementing change. It is in this way that knowledge becomes a means of control where objects of the world (as well as conditions of a situation) come to stand in for the consequences that they afford . In other words, objects and things become tools or ‘instruments’ where their meaning or value is in their practical use in action to achieve a particular consequence (Biesta & Burbules, 2007, Dewey, 1929).

When things are defined as instruments, their value and validity reside in what proceeds from them; consequences not antecedents supply meaning and verity (Dewey, 1929, p. 154).

For example, “a chair specifies a particular way in which the transaction with the environment has become meaningful” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p. 49).

As mentioned previously, for Dewey, it is meaningless to ask how we can come to know reality because reality is what is experienced. The things of the world are necessarily what they are experienced as, and even though different people will have their own experience of particular things, everyone’s experience is just as real. In a similar way, it also makes no sense to talk about the truth or falsity of our immediate experience because experience is always just “what it is” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003 p.50). Truth and falsity, rather than referring to an object (within experience) is concerned with the relationship between the object and our possible actions and responses. In this way, truth is about the correspondence between proposed meaning and the meaning in practice (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). In other words, we can say that a proposition is true if it works in practice to produce the desired consequences.

Relevance to My Research

The pragmatist theory of knowledge, as a fallible, dynamic, and organic knowing that is tested in practice, has particular relevance for my research, as it is fundamentally concerned with the practical learning to become a domain practitioner, as well as continually develop. This view of knowing, as dynamically evolving through the interaction between the human organism and the environment, offers a way of understanding both the developing knowing of individual practitioners as well as the dynamic change of the practices themselves (miettinen, paavola & pohjola, 2012). It also has relevance to my own deepening and developing knowing as a teaching and research practitioner through ongoing experimental inquiry.


Baert, P. (2011). Neo-Pragmatism and Phenomenology: A Proposal. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 3(2), 24-40.

Biesta, G. J. J. & Burbules, N. C. (2003). Pragmatism and educational research. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dewey, J. (1929). Experience & nature. London, UK: George Allen & Unwin.

Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72.

Miettinen, R., Paavola, S., & Pohjola, P. (2012). From habituality to change: Contribution of activity theory and pragmatism to practice theories. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 42(3), 345-360.

Nicolini, D. (2013). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford university press.

Shook, J. R. (2013). Neuropragmatism, knowledge, and pragmatic naturalism. Human Affairs, 23(4), 576-593.

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