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Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy

Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy

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John Dewey, Edited and with an Introduction by Phillip Deen, Foreword by Larry A. Hickman


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In 1947 America’s premier philosopher, educator, and public intellectual John Dewey purportedly lost his last manuscript on modern philosophy in the back of a taxicab. Now, sixty-five years later, Dewey’s fresh and unpretentious take on the history and theory of knowledge is finally available. Editor Phillip Deen has taken on the task of editing Dewey’s unfinished work, carefully compiling the fragments and multiple drafts of each chapter that he discovered in the folders of the Dewey Papers at the Special Collections Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has used Dewey’s last known outline for the manuscript, aiming to create a finished product that faithfully represents Dewey’s original intent. An introduction and editor’s notes by Deen and a foreword by Larry A. Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies, frame this previously lost work.

In Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy, Dewey argues that modern philosophy is anything but; instead, it retains the baggage of outdated and misguided philosophical traditions and dualisms carried forward from Greek and medieval traditions. Drawing on cultural anthropology, Dewey moves past the philosophical themes of the past, instead proposing a functional model of humanity as emotional, inquiring, purposive organisms embedded in a natural and cultural environment.

Dewey begins by tracing the problematic history of philosophy, demonstrating how, from the time of the Greeks to the Empiricists and Rationalists, the subject has been mired in the search for immutable absolutes outside human experience and has relied on dualisms between mind and body, theory and practice, and the material and the ideal, ultimately dividing humanity from nature. The result, he posits, is the epistemological problem of how it is possible to have knowledge at all. In the second half of the volume, Dewey roots philosophy in the conflicting beliefs and cultural tensions of the human condition, maintaining that these issues are much more pertinent to philosophy and knowledge than the sharp dichotomies of the past and abstract questions of the body and mind. Ultimately, Dewey argues that the mind is not separate from the world, criticizes the denigration of practice in the name of theory, addresses the dualism between matter and ideals, and questions why the human and the natural were ever separated in philosophy. The result is a deeper understanding of the relationship among the scientific, the moral, and the aesthetic.

More than just historically significant in its rediscovery, Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy provides an intriguing critique of the history of modern thought and a positive account of John Dewey’s naturalized theory of knowing. This volume marks a significant contribution to the history of American thought and finally resolves one of the mysteries of pragmatic philosophy.



John Dewey (1859–1952) is widely regarded as the father of progressive education and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. The thirty-seven volumes of his Collected Works comprise books and essays on education, social and political philosophy, aesthetics, logic, religion, and much more. On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday the New York Times hailed him as “America’s Philosopher.”

Phillip Deen is a visiting lecturer at Wellesley College and the author of essays published in Contemporary Pragmatism and Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.



“Imagine how exciting it would be to discover an unpublished and presumed lost text of Aristotle’s. The discovery that Dewey’s late book, Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy,was not irretrievably lost (as had been believed) is like that. This is a major work by a great philosopher, and Phillip Deen has done philosophy a great service by editing and introducing it.”—Hilary Putnam, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Harvard University

“I offer gratitude to Philip Deen for unearthing this manuscript, editorially rendering its many parts into a coherent whole, and writing a thorough and helpful introduction to its sprawling contents. It will take several generations of forthcoming Dewey scholarship to knit this very late work (1940s) back into the vast corpus of Dewey’s published writings. One upshot is clear: the interpretive lens through which to read Dewey is what he holds herein, namely, that the lathe for understanding the history of philosophy is that of a ‘cultural naturalism.’ Only by so doing, contends John Dewey, will we be able to overcome the detritus of our philosophical past and avoid its ‘eulogistic predicates.’ Then we can sort out and revivify its still rich deposits and reconstruct philosophy as a diagnosis of the ‘precarious and stable generic traits’ that are always present in the affairs of human living. For students of John Dewey’s thought, there is new work to be done.”—John J. McDermott, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Texas A&M University