"Could Experience Be More Than a Method? Dewey’s Practical Starting Point." In R. Frega (ed.), Pragmatist Epistemologies, Lexington Publishing, Lanham, 2011.
In "The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism" John Dewey's offered a brief admonition to philosophers seeking terminological clarity: "go to experience." Despite its apparent directness, his advice provokes painfully simple questions: Go how? Go where?
Dewey’s argument was for philosophers to think of experience more as a method than as a stuff. For immediate empiricism (later coined as the denotative/empirical method) was intended to redirect generations of philosophers away from the bad habit of philosophizing-from-theoretical-starting-points. Dewey sought to convince philosophers that such a starting point not only ignored actual, lived experience—and, so, was bad empiricism—but that by ignoring actual experience, whatever good philosophy could do was diverted into trivial questions, false puzzles, and endless iterations of feckless theory.
So, as mentioned, this aspect of Dewey’s view is clear enough. But what remains less clear is where one should go when they "go to experience." In what sense is it a destination for those following Dewey’s denotative method? Where—or better, what—is this "starting point for philosophic thought"? What is experience?
Section One examines how Dewey’s attempt to reform empiricism by advancing the radical ambition of denotation. In multiple ways I show how denotation depends upon its correlative stuff, primary experience; I also show that despite his claim that such experience is "ineffable" and "indefinable" Dewey is in fact forced to advance beyond denoting to characterizing (in some detail) traits exhibited by primary experience. Section Two looks briefly at Dewey’s characterizations of the stuff of primary experience as tangled, complex, acculturated, value-laden, and related (to secondary or reflective experience). I conclude by drawing back to what seems to me as the larger conundrum of any discussion of the starting point.