Interview with John Quay about his new book

From “Down Under,” John Quay has authored Education, Experience and Existence: Engaging Dewey, Peirce and Heidegger. His book is published under the Philosophy of Education series with Routledge.

John Quay's new book

Professor Quay is a research professor in the Melbourne Graduate Education Department at the University of Melbourne. We talked a little bit about his new book, and as everybody knows I am fascinated with philosophical work where pragmatism and phenomenology converge.

EH: What is the problem you are addressing in this book?

JQ: A great question to start with Ed, as Dewey once wrote (one of my favorite Dewey quotes): ‘to see the problem another sees, in the same perspective and at the same angle – that amounts to something. Agreement in solutions is in comparison perfunctory’.

Let me say in beginning, then, that I consider all educational positions/theories/practices to be embedded in some existential understanding – so it could be argued that, as a human concern, the problems of education have their roots in philosophical issues.

We can see this existential understanding in two very general ‘forms’ of education – (1) the focus on knowledge acquisition in a core academic curriculum such as mathematics, sciences, languages, etc. (the Cartesian ‘thinking thing’), and (2) the focus on activity in those aspects of education which are normally considered co-curricular or extra-curricular such as sports, music performance, drama productions, etc. Yet these two forms of education usually exist in parallel in the true sense of that word – lines that will never meet. They are two different ‘educations’ that sit side by side in schools (and universities) thereby giving the sense that education is somehow offering a complete ‘package’, but one that is fraught with tensions and contradictions.

These tensions can also be seen when we try to address the purpose(s) of education. Debate over the purpose of education has raged, off and on, for many years (centuries). In his account of the history of schooling in the USA, set around the struggle for control over the curriculum, Herbert Kliebard identified four interest groups that broadly define different educational purposes: (1) humanist (traditional liberal education for liberal ideals), (2) developmentalist (child centered education to meet the needs of the young person), (3) social reconstructionist (education for social/societal change), (4) social efficiency (vocational education, usually for pre-existing jobs). In these four we have an expansion of the two sided conundrum expressed in the core curricular and co-curricular distinction.

This confusion, then, is a problem in education, but its roots are philosophical; so we have a philosophical problem – one that has also been with us for many centuries. For me, these two problems go hand in hand.

EH: And I take it these problems go hand in hand with the thinkers you chose. So, let me ask: Why these thinkers (Dewey, Peirce, Heidegger)? What is the theoretical upshot of using them?

I’ll approach this question by describing how I actually employ the work of these thinkers, so that the upshot of using them in the particular way that I do hopefully becomes more apparent. Upfront may I acknowledge that what I do is to build a coherent theoretical framework using all three – so this isn’t simply grabbing bits and pieces of each theorist to say the same thing. This is not an attempt to make Heidegger a pragmatist, or Dewey a phenomenologist.

The problem area I expressed above is explicitly identified by Dewey, and he referred to it as ‘educational confusion’. He also saw that philosophy and education are intimately entwined, proffering that philosophy may ‘be defined as the general theory of education’. So Dewey is a fellow traveller for me in having given expression to the questions and issues of concern to me. And furthermore, Dewey believed the way through this confusion lay in describing ‘a sound philosophy of experience’ – a position I also agree with and have taken on as my challenge, for it is not clear that Dewey was able to articulate a coherent response that addressed all of the main issues. In the book I discuss where I perceive Dewey’s main difficulties to sit – at the ‘fold’ between pragmatism and phenomenology.

Dewey’s main contribution to this challenge was via his instrumentalism, which he described as ‘the logical version of pragmatism’. This descriptor, logical, is important, as it signals that his pragmatism was specifically concerned with his sense of reflective experience/thinking, which he expressed in various publications over the course of his career. Yet Dewey is also renowned for his work on aesthetic experience (qualitative thinking), which he acknowledged did not involve ‘application of my pragmatism’. But then, how do reflective experience and aesthetic experience differ and yet connect? (where ‘connect’ is probably not the best word). This is, I argue, the major challenge for a sound philosophy of experience.

So, how do we approach this now more focused philosophical issue? Peirce provides a way forward here, specifically in his phenomenological work and his concepts: firstness, secondness and thirdness (I will assume here that the reader has a basic understanding of these concepts). It is particularly in secondness that this issue lies – and two understandings that embrace secondness (the brute fact of existence) that Peirce acknowledges. One of these is the ‘firstness of secondness’, the other is the ‘secondness of thirdness’. Each of these understandings is of critical import, for each is a different way of conceiving existence – but let me say that these are different ways of comprehending the same existence; perhaps expressible as two sides of the same coin.

One of these ways supports thirdness (thought, mediation – key to Dewey’s logical version of pragmatism) – in this sense secondness is action-reaction between two things, or interaction, transaction. Existence as interaction underpins reflective thought (science), as it is the beginning point for considering the cause-effect relations between things (this is what secondness of thirdness is alluding to). For Dewey this is the very basic description of any situation as an interaction (where thirdness is situation as continuity)

EH: I understand the Pierce angle but how do you tie these back to Dewey. What about Dewey’s aesthetic experience?

JQ: The other of these ways aligns with Dewey’s aesthetic experience, where secondness is understood as ‘individual’. But here there is a significant point of possible misunderstanding. When considered from the standpoint of existence as interaction, individual means one amongst many. Yet there is another way of understanding this term that Peirce identifies through his work on unity. Peirce defines unity in three ways (corresponding with firstness, secondness and thirdness). In its thirdness, unity is understood as a complex whole, a totality made up of many things; this is the way we usually understand unity. In its firstness, unity is the sense of no distinctions at all, not even to the degree of being able to call it ‘one’. If we do use the number one, then we have the unity of secondness, which Peirce calls ‘individuality’. But this individuality is not in reference to an individual person. Rather this is the experience of existence, of actuality, as simple whole (note that the etymology of individuality is connected with the root term indivisibility).

This sense of individuality as simple whole is not easy to convey. However, when we align it with Dewey’s aesthetic experience, we begin to gain a better sense. But the key to understanding existence as simple whole, as aesthetic experience, is to experience it, not just think about it reflectively. This is where Heidegger comes in. Heidegger’s notion of factical life, Dasein, is aesthetic experience. This is a key alignment I am arguing for. Importantly, Heidegger argues that one cannot comprehend this way of experiencing/thinking unless one is actually engaged in it, and he uses the learning of swimming as an example, for you cannot learn swimming by merely talking about it – you have to get wet!

EH: What are some of the major differences that informed the book by drawing from such a pluralistic group of philosophers? Maybe, it’s better to ask was there one difference in particular that stands out.

JQ: A major difference is that Dewey believed aesthetic experience to be naïve (because only reflective experience could be analytical), whereas Heidegger perceived that there was another way of thinking which could offer analysis of this simple whole, but always as a simple whole. In this sense Heidegger’s concepts are not about cause-effect relations; instead they are analogous, analogies of the simple whole. In this way these phenomenological concepts are saying the same – the simple whole. Another major difference is in terminology. Heidegger does not often refer to experience as aesthetic (although he does, at least once that I am aware of). This is because he is concerned that the practice of aesthetics, as art criticism, aligned with beauty, clouds the notion of Dasein.

So, to end my answer there (at least for now) and summarize, Heidegger’s phenomenology heads off from one comprehension of existence – as simple whole – in the direction of firstness. Dewey’s logical version of pragmatism heads off in the other direction and thirdness. Both articulate within secondness, comprehended in two different ways. The fold around which they articulate was not identified by Dewey. Heidegger refers to it as the ontological difference.

I hope this has gone some way to responding to the question you asked Ed. It leaves a lot out as it is only a brief presentation.

EH: However brief, it’s been a blast. I’m happy to have had this short talk.

JQ: So very happy to continue the conversation.


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