Dewey’s notion of experience


John Dewey

One important contributor to the development of pragmatism was John Dewey (1859–1952), whose philosophical interests spanned many areas, including psychology, education, ethics, logic and politics (…) Dewey’s pragmatism examines how the use of different ideas and hypotheses, concepts and theories affects the result of inquiry (…) One common misunderstanding is when educationalists associate pragmatism with ‘learning by doing’ or as mere ‘trial and error’ as this view separates action from thinking in turn preventing learning in an informed way (…) Dewey worked all his life on refining his notion of experience and defined it first as interactional and later as a transactional concept (…) Experience is the concept Dewey used to denote the relation between subject and worlds as well as between action and thinking, between human existence and becoming knowledgeable about selves and the worlds of which they are a part (…) This is why Dewey prefers the term ‘organic circle’ rather than ‘reflex arc’ as a metaphor for the relation between being and knowing (…) experience is a series of connected organic circles, it is transaction, and it is the continuous relation between subject and worlds. Experience is an understanding of the subject as being in the world, not outside and looking into the world, as a spectator theory of knowledge would imply

Five differences between a commonplace interpretation of experience and his own views:

  • experience is usually used as an epistemological concept (purpose is production) while for Dewey is an ontological one and it is based on the transactional relation between subject and worlds. (remember difference of enjoying a painting because of its aesthetic value or studying it as an art reviewer) There are no experiences without some form of knowing but it does not solely depend on conscious thinking.
  • experience is traditionally understood as an inner mental and subjective relation and thus trapped in in the privacy of subjects’ action and thinking. There is no experience without a subject experiencing it but it does not mean that experiencing is solely subjective and private.
  • Third, experience is traditionally viewed in the past tense, the given rather
    than the experimental and future oriented. Dewey’s concept of experience,
    on the contrary, is characterized by reaching forward towards the unknown.
  • experience is traditionally viewed as isolated and specific rather than as continuous and connected. For Dewey, however, experience is a series of connected situations (organic circles) and even if all situations are connected to other situations, every situation has its own unique character.
  • Finally, experience has traditionally been viewed as beyond logical reasoning.
    Dewey argued, however, that there is no conscious experience without this
    kind of reasoning. Anticipatory thinking and reflection is always present in
    conscious experience by way of theories and concepts, ideas and hypotheses

By on the one hand stressing that experience is not primarily an epistemological matter, and on the other hand claiming that the systematic process of knowledge is one form of experience, Dewey wanted to show how inquiry is the only method for having an experience. Inquiry is triggered by difficult situations, and inquiry is the means through which it is possible to transform these situations through the mediation of thinking and action.Further, experience and inquiry are not limited to what is mental and private. (Elkjaer, 2009)

Traditional concept of experience v Dewey’s concept of experience
Experience as knowledge/Knowledge as a subset of experience
Experience as subjective/ Experience as both subjective and objective
Experience as oriented to the past/ Experience as future oriented (consequence)
Experience as isolated experiences/Experience as united experiences
Experience as action/ Experience as encompassing theories and concepts and as such a foundation for knowledge


Elkjaer, B., 2009. Pragmatism: A learning theory for the future. In Contemporary Theories of Learning Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris (ed.), London & New York: Routledge, pp. 74-89

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