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John Dewey on Perception and Conception

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I wrote this paper in 1999. Lately at Objectivism Online, I’ve been remarking on Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, with a zoom-in on his treatment of logic, proof, and validation in that work. The concept corresponding in Dewey to the Objectivist concept validation of assertion or conviction is Dewey’s concept warranted assertability, which he introduced into the philosophical vocabulary in his 1938 and which continues among some  American philosophers to this day. The two concepts differ; the two philosophies differ. There are, however, markedly distinctive commonalities between these two concepts in these philosophies. Some of the overlaps of the two philosophies will be seen in the paper below.

Dewey 1938 was learned by Leonard Peikoff in writing his 1964 Ph.D. dissertation, which pertained to fundamental questions in the philosophy of logic over its history from the Greeks to mid-twentieth century. As is well-known, I’ve written much on Peikoff’s dissertation in my “Books to Mind” sector here at OO. Peikoff’s dissertation-learning is a contributor to his OPAR and his 1967 “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy.”

At the time I wrote this paper below, I’d not yet studied late works of Dewey, including his 1938. For the topic of this paper that is just fine, and this paper is good background for his 1938. Dewey 1938 is Logic: A Theory of Inquiry That is Volume 12 of Later Works of John Dewey. One will see at the link some blurbs from back in the day praising Dewey as making significant contribution to logic. To our own generation, that is a peculiar way of putting it. When we think of logic, we think of what are in the logic texts (supposing one has studied some logic text—without which one is greatly handicapped in philosophy studies). Neither Dewey nor Kant nor Rand made contributions to what is in those texts. Their efforts were towards what today we would call philosophy of logic, although, to be sure, each of these philosophers integrated what is in such texts with a wider philosophy, particularly with their epistemology, and promoted a conception of logic as necessarily intertwined with the wider view.

The editor of the Collected Works of John Dewey and long-time principal of the Center for Dewey Studies was Jo Ann Boydston. The variant of the spelling of that last name with mine is common and does not indicate that common ancestry is terribly far back. However, that was her husband’s name. I had learned a good while ago that Jo Ann (nee) Harrison was Choctaw and had been born in Oklahoma, some things in common with my own heritage. With a little research online, through a 1940 census together with a 1916 history book on Oklahoma, I’ve today learned a little more of her heritage. Understand that Oklahoma became a State in 1907 and formerly had been Indian Territory. The southeastern part of that territory was the Choctaw Nation. My folks grew up in that area. It was a great grandmother of mine who was the Choctaw (on the Boydstun side). In the 1830’s, by three different processions (Trail of Tears), the tribe had been removed from the Southeastern United States. Jo Ann’s father was Choctaw (portion unknown to me—I should look at the Dawes Rolls) born in the Choctaw Nation in 1888. He obtained higher education and became a member of the Oklahoma bar. His grandfather had been on the Trail of Tears and had proceeded to become one of the wealthiest men in Choctaw Nation.

I sometimes acquire a favorite quotation from a given philosopher I’ve studied. In Dewey’s case, it is: “In perception we live reality itself.” (1912)

Edited by Boydstun
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John Dewey on Perception and Conception


In the nineteenth century, Dewey held with absolute idealism. His turn to pragmatic realism entailed a significant change in his theory of perception, a change to be called out below. Across the shift in Dewey's framework, there are nevertheless considerable continuities.

"Knowledge is nothing but sensations related to each other" (1886, 125; cf. 1929, 213). But sensations are elements of knowledge and have their sole existence as known. They have no existence prior to nor apart from knowledge. They cannot be what accounts for the origin of knowledge. If knowledge or experience comes from sensations, then sensations "are never known and never can be. If experience originates from them, they never were and never can be elements in experience. Sensations as known or experienced are always related, classified sensations" (ibid., 124–25). Having existence only in experience, "which has existence only as an element of knowledge," a sensation "cannot be the same when transported out of knowledge, and made its origin" (ibid., 125; cf. 1911a, 106–8).

Dewey grants that sensations exist in us, in our infancies, before we have knowledge, "and that knowledge comes about by their organic registration and integration" (ibid., 127). But to account for the origin of knowledge by ontogeny, we have to use our experience. The infant is a known object in the world of our experience, likewise "his nervous organism and the objects which affect it" (ibid., 128). "It is the known baby and a known world in definite action and reaction upon each other, and this definite relation is precisely a sensation" (ibid.). In this account, we are accounting for consciousness by known things, things "which exist only for and within consciousness" (1886, 129). Our account, then, is only of the origin of an individual consciousness (each baby's), "or a specific group of known facts, by reference to the larger group of known fact or universal consciousness" (ibid.). That is not an account of "the origin of consciousness or knowledge as such at all" (ibid.). In truth, "the becoming of consciousness exists for consciousness only, and . . . consciousness can never have become at all" (ibid.).

Empirical psychology can only show how consciousness or knowledge differentiates itself into various forms (1886, 130). One deep differentiation is that of subject from object. "The relation of subject and object is one which exists within consciousness. . . . The duty of the psychologist is to show how it arises for consciousness, . . . how consciousness differentiates itself so as to give rise to the existence within, that is for, itself of subject and object" (ibid., 131).

Dewey undertakes to reconcile "the undoubted relativity of all existence as known, to consciousness, and the undoubted dependence of our own consciousness" (ibid., 132). His general postulate is that consciousness is the unity of subject and object. Psychology needs to discover whereby consciousness is divided for itself into the individual and the external world, that is, how happens that stage of consciousness we call perception (ibid., 137; cf. 1929b, 232).

"Perception or knowledge of particular things is not a passive operation of impression, but involves the active integration of various experiences. It is a process of reaching out after the fullest and richest experience possible" (1887a, 138). Dewey takes experimental scientific observation as the articulate exemplar of all perception. The working scientist searches out new perceptions by changing conditions of observations and by conducting experiments. Scientific observation requires imagination and thinking, not mechanically working upon percepts, but transforming and enriching them so as to amplify their unified meaning (ibid. & 1890, 86–89; 1917, 931–32; 1929b, 69–73, 99, 101, 116).

Perception is knowledge of actually present particular things or events, known as not ourselves and known as existing in space. Perception contrasts with intelligent thinking (1887a, 139–40). "The presence to the mind of the world as perceived must be explained from the process of knowing. It is due to the activity of the mind, which not only has sensations, but which takes them and projects them. It relates itself actively to them by associating and attending to them" (ibid., 141). The flux of sensations are assimilated and consolidated, then by attentional activity, we interpret, discriminate, and unify them into a definite recognizable percept (ibid. & 1928a, 336). That the perceived object is a particular and definite object is due to the unifying and discriminating activities of intelligence.

Perception may be defined as the act in which the presented sensuous data are made symbols or signs of all other sensations which might be experienced from the same object, and thus are given meaning" (ibid.). Tactile sensations become symbolized through visual, and visual sensations "become simultaneously symbolic of each other, and thus become the signs of spatial relations" (1887a, 144).

"The separation of objects in space from self is the fundamental form in which the universal activity of mind, as a distinguishing activity, manifests itself. In perception this discriminating factor predominates over the unifying (ibid., 150). The constancies in our visual field as we move our eyes, we take as objective. "It is by an active process of experimentation, directed by the will, that the infant comes to distinguish between self and not-self" (ibid., 151).

"Perception, as a whole, is that stage or phase of knowledge in which the function of discrimination or differentiation predominates over that of identification or unification. Since the end of knowledge is the complete unity of perfectly discriminated or definite elements, it follows that perception is not a final stage of knowledge. There are relations of identity which connect objects with each other, and with the self, which are enveloped or absorbed in perception, and which must be developed or brought into consciousness" (ibid., 151–52).

The perceptual order and conceptual order are analytically distinct, but are aspects "of the one existing reality—conscious experience" (1887b, 172; cf. 1911a, 391). The distinction between individual agent and his world of experience is not ready-made. The distinction is built up from contemporaneous reciprocal processes. We, "as individuals, are made up out of our experiences of the world, and vice versa" (ibid., 173). Every perception is "made what it is by conceptual elements within it" (ibid.). Perceptions are not given to us prior to attention. Attention does not supervene on ready-made percepts. Attention is "the active connection between the mind and a given psychical complex" and is necessary in order to interpret that complex, in order "to make it a percept" (ibid.). Formation of a percept is a work of generalization; there will be a universal element present in the resulting percept.

Logical processes enter into the structure of perceptions. The discipline of logic should not be confined to norms for comparisons of perceptions only with perceptions and conceptions only with conceptions. "There is but one world of knowledge, whether in the form of perceptions or of ideas, and . . . this world is logical all the way through" (1890, 83). But if perceptions and conceptions are of the same fabric of knowledge, how can we verify conceptions or ideas by perceptions or facts? Dewey replies: There are contradictions among our ideas; not all can be projected as facts. Some ideas for the while will be held onto only as possible facts. "It is this tentative holding of an idea which constitutes the logical distinction of idea and fact. The fact is the idea which nothing contradicts. . . . The idea is at first the fact about which difficulties are felt" (ibid., 86; also, 1917, 837–39; 1929b, 178–79; 1933, 851–55). Ideas are the more tentative facts, over against the less tentative facts. The former are tested against the latter, moreover "if the theory gets its verification through the facts, the facts get a transformed and enlarged meaning through the theory" (1890, 87). Verification is a mutual adjustment, an organic interaction, of idea and fact (ibid. & 1917, 937–41).

Concepts are general, as a machine whose functions can be executed repeatedly. A concept is an intellectual function arising from our realization of fuller meanings implicit in percepts. Concepts are grasped only in and through the activity that is their constitution. We know them by constructing them (1891, 142–45).


Now comes Dewey, thoroughly pragmatic realist, his old framework of absolute idealism expressly dismissed. Now is introduced between concept and conception, a distinction (similar to James'): conception is the act of grasping the general, and a concept is the resulting mental product (Dewey 1911a, 390). Universals are only in things; things bearing resemblances, common properties, and relations among themselves; so bearing apart from our subjectivity (ibid.). The concrete and abstract are correlative, a couple, each an intellectual achievement. We begin thought with a vague particular. One's mind working in the direction of "definitely marked out individuality" is the movement to concreteness. "Precise recognition of the characteristic quality and relation which makes the individual object what it is" is the movement to abstractness (ibid., 391; 388–89).

As we have seen, Dewey had characterized the formation of a percept as a sort of generalization made possible by attention (1887a, 141; 1887b, 173). Later he seemed to realize more definitely that the attention at work in abstraction is more deliberately selective than that at work in perception (1911a, 387; 1929b, 143).

As we have also seen, early in his career, Dewey had maintained that perception is a case of knowledge, that anything present to the mind in perception must be explained as a process of knowing, and that all existence is only relative to knowing. Now (1911b) he rejects the idea that perception is knowledge and, more generally, that the knowledge relation is ubiquitous, homogeneous, and fundamental. By those rejections, he bars idealism.

The object of a perception is not a psychical content. Perception has no inherent cognitive status. Perceptions are not themselves cases of knowledge, but "natural events having, in themselves (apart from a use that may be made of them), no more knowledge status or worth than say, a shower or a fever" (1911b, 105). One's relation to objects in one's perceptions as objects requires their not being in relation to one as a knowing mind (ibid., 108). Insofar as one is in conscious perception of an object, there is nothing more than the presence of the object (1912, 209).

We and things-not-us stand in organism-environment relations other than the knower-known relation. We are things other than knowers, and objects are, in relation to we who know them, other than objects known. Besides knowers, we are agents, patients, sufferers, and enjoyers; besides objects known, they are food, threats, shade, and tools. Knowledge evidently has emerged in the course of organic evolution from organisms in which there was no mind, and what knowledge now there is evidently is dependent on the brain (1911b, 115; 1929a, 271, 276, 285). The knowledge relation has evidently grown out of more primitive organic relations (1911b, 119–21; 1929a, 252–63, 267–71, 276–86; 1929b, 179–87). "Every thought and meaning has its substratum in some organic act of absorption or elimination, of seeking or turning away from, of destroying or caring for, of signaling or responding" (1929a, 290).

Perceptions are natural events, and though not cases of knowledge, perceptions are of fundamental importance for genuine, inferential knowledge.

"They are the sole ultimate data, the sole media, of inference to all natural objects and processes. While we do not, in any intelligible or verifiable sense, know them, we know all things that we do know with or by them. They furnish the only ultimate evidence of the existence and nature of the objects which we infer, and they are the sole ultimate checks and tests of the inferences" (1911b, 109). 

Not only in science, but in daily life, we use perceptions as signs of other perceptions (ibid., 109–10; 1925, 194–95; 1929a, 322–24; 1929b, 140). Perception is a factor in organic action (1912, 206). Perceived objects designate our possible actions upon the environment (ibid., 213, 221; 1929b, 189–91).

In perception we discriminate qualities, the so-called sensations (such as Red) being the simple and isolated limits of perceptual discrimination by means of a given sense organ (1925, 196–97; 1929a, 258–63, 336). In perception, too, we integrate various perceptual objects into such larger perceptual wholes (such as a sunset) as are present (1925, 195–96).

Perceptual illusions, such as a stick partly in water appearing bent, do not show that percepts are anything more than natural, physical, organic formations. But if that is all there is to percepts, exactly where are they? Dewey thinks of them as distributed in a physical perceptual-motor field. In the case of vision, the location of the distal stimulus is one locus of the field, and the locations of the retinas are other loci of the same physical field. The illusion of the straight stick appearing bent in water occurs because from a "practical standpoint 'where' signifies the point at which action should be taken to control the occurrence of the phenomenon" (1925, 199). The location of a stick in the air is related to our skill of reaching and handling developed in and adapted to the air-only volumetric medium. Naturally, that skill is less efficient and less effective in other refractive media (1925, 195–200; see also 1922, 734–36, 751–54; 1929a, 281–82).

No knowledge is perfectly immediate in the sense of being perfectly noninferential. Knowledge by acquaintance? Knowing by acquaintance is rightly distinguished from knowing about a thing or knowing that it is such-and-such a thing. But the distinctive aspect of knowing by acquaintance is immediacy of one's readiness to make appropriate responses to whatever the known object may do. In contrast responses attendant upon knowing about are more reserved (1929a, 329–30).

Sensory qualities have cognitive status because "they are the consequences of definite and intentionally performed operations. Only in connection with the intent or idea of these operations do they amount to anything, either as disclosing any fact or giving test and proof of any theory" (1929b, 91). Conversely, ideas, or conceptions, have cognitive (as opposed to esthetic) merit only insofar as they specify, for some context of inquiry, operations to be performed and consequences anticipated to ensue therefrom (ibid., 69–70, 92, 116–17, 142–44, 157–58, 183, 240–41).

Dewey proposes that conceptions in pure mathematics and in formal logic also amount to articulations of consequences of operations. Conceptions in those disciplines articulate the possible operations among certain second intentions, executed symbolically (ibid., 119–34). But second intentions arise from and may return to first intentions, our physical conceptions, so from and to sense experience.


Dewey, J. 1886. The Psychological Standpoint. In volume 1 of Dewey 1969.

——. 1887a. Psychology. In volume 2 of Dewey 1969.

——. 1887b. Illusory Psychology. In volume 1 of Dewey 1969.

——. 1890. The Logic of Verification. In volume 3 of Dewey 1969.

——. 1891. How Do Concepts Arise from Percepts? In volume 3 of Dewey 1969.

——. 1911a. Contributions to Cyclopedia of Education. In Dewey 1978.

——. 1911b. Brief Studies in Realism. In Dewey 1978.

——. 1912. Perception and Organic Action. In Dewey 1931.

——. 1917. Essays in Experimental Logic. Portions in Dewey 1939.

——. 1922. Human Nature and Conduct. Portions in Dewey 1939.

——. 1925. A Naturalistic Theory of Sense Perception. In Dewey 1931.

——. 1929a [1925]. Experience and Nature. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

——. 1929b. The Quest for Certainty. Volume 4 of John Dewey: The Later Works. 1984. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

——. 1931. Philosophy and Civilization. New York: Minton, Balch.

——. 1933 [1911]. How We Think. 2nd ed. Portion in Dewey 1939.

——. 1939. Intelligence in the Modern World. J. Ratner, editor. New York: Random House.

——. 1969. John Dewey: The Early Works. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

——. 1978. John Dewey: The Middle Works. Vol. 6. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.


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Superb, by Cheryl Misak: The American Pragmatists (2013)

From the publisher:

"Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition."

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Another great work pertinent to this thread and to my thread on Peikoff's OPAR is Steven Levine’s Pragmatism, Objectivity, and Experience (2019).

From the publisher:

"In this book Steven Levine explores the relation between objectivity and experience from a pragmatic point of view. Like many new pragmatists he aims to rehabilitate objectivity in the wake of Richard Rorty's rejection of the concept. But he challenges the idea, put forward by pragmatists like Robert Brandom, that objectivity is best rehabilitated in communicative-theoretic terms - namely, in terms that can be cashed out by capacities that agents gain through linguistic communication. Levine proposes instead that objectivity is best understood in experiential-theoretic terms. He explains how, in order to meet the aims of the new pragmatists, we need to do more than see objectivity as a norm of rationality embedded in our social-linguistic practices; we also need to see it as emergent from our experiential interaction with the world. Innovative and carefully argued, this book redeems and re-actualizes for contemporary philosophy a key insight developed by the classical pragmatists."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Rand wrote:

“Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

“A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. When we speak of ‘direct perception’ or ‘direct awareness’, we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later: it is a scientific, conceptual discovery.” (ITOE 35)

In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), near its beginning, Rand quotes a contemporary work by way of setting out the alternative: Do concepts correspond to anything found in reality? That work is American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey (1961) by Edward C. Moore. This book had been correctly criticized by Richard J. Bernstein in a 1962 review in The Journal of Philosophy. Not everything in this work of Moore’s is entirely mistaken, of course. Such is his treatment of the conception of percept in classical American Pragmatism; Moore’s treatment of percept is partly true and partly false to the conception and work of it for Peirce, James, and Dewey.

My 1976 edition of American Heritage Dictionary has for PERCEPT: “1. The object of perception. 2. An impression in the mind of something perceived by the senses, viewed as the basic component in the formation of concepts.” Those meanings were sufficiently general to cover the more restricted meanings for which the Pragmatists or Rand employed the term. (For an example of employment of percept in the discipline of psychology today, see the paper of Steven Pashko in Psychology and Neuroscience.)

The origination of the term percept is unsettled in my research. I find William Hamilton, in the mid-nineteenth century, suggesting that a term percept be sensible to introduce to mean the object of a perception, parallel the way in which he determined to use concept as the object of a conception. He was reserving conception for process of yielding a mental product to be called concept. Then percept would be a product of perception as a process. This is in Volume III, Lecture III, of his Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic.* I find him also simply using the term percept in Volume I, Lecture XIX, in connection with a minimal perceptual detectible; divide that minimal into two halves, and they are not detectible; but the whole, which is detectible, he calls a percept, with no notice just there whether he is making a novel usage, or for that matter, whether percept, under any meaning whatever, is a term he himself had originated.

In The Nation, the issue of 18 March 1869, Charles Saunders Peirce reviewed* a book published in the preceding year. That book was The Human Intellect; with an Introduction upon Psychology and the Soul by Noah Porter of Yale.* Though it does not come up in Peirce’s deep and critical review of the book, the book puts to work the term percept, and it’s not likely Peirce would have missed what the book was doing on that score. Peirce himself would not begin using the term in his own writings until the turn into the next century.  Edward John Hamilton, writes in 1883, 434-35, of Porter’s percept, which was taking as percepts the elements going into making the very whole that is denominated percept from Peirce to us.

Not long before Peirce’s review of Porter’s book, Peirce had penned his pair of essays “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” and “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” In the latter essay, Peirce had maintained that in perception we know a thing as existing. Peirce was realist concerning perception and conception, in contradistinction to idealist or nominalist. Early in the twentieth century, Peirce nabbed percept for an important role in his epistemology.

A percept "is immediately known as external, . . . in the sense of being present regardless of the perceiver's will or wish" (1905). Also, a percept "is not inside our skulls, either, but out in the open. It is the external world that we directly observe" (1901). To be sure, percepts are formed of sensations arising through sense impressions, but Peirce stresses that sense impressions are not first in our knowledge. We are not shut out from the external world, "informed only by sense impressions. Not at all! Few things are more completely hidden from observation than those hypothetical elements of thought which the psychologist finds reason to pronounce "immediate," in his sense. But the starting point of all our reasoning is not in those sense impressions, but in our percepts. When we first wake up to the fact that we are thinking beings and can exercise some control over our reasonings, we have to set out upon our intellectual travels from home where we already find ourselves. Now, this home is the parish of percepts." (1901)

(To be continued.)

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