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What is the nature of genuine thinking? According to John Dewey and the Experimentalists…

Updated: Feb 7

Dewey and the experimentalists assert that all genuine thinking that produces knowledge is characterized in some measure by the following steps, which represent a basic scientific pattern of inquiry:

  1. An indeterminate situation—problem, difficulty, felt-need—arises. This situation is unsettling because it disrupts the flow of experience and habit, and typical forms of behavior are inadequate in dealing with it. It is the onrush of this situation that stimulates inquiry and critical, reflective thought. In short, it activates thinking. Such situations are unexpected and contextual; and it is only from such situations, argues the experimentalist, that the first step in minding is generated. That isn't to suggest that thinking is merely a mechanism of stimulus-organism response. There is activity inherent in the individual, but it is non-rational, an activity of impulsive action, blind, and seeking no end, for no end is possible for blind impulse. Thinking, which is a response to impulse, clarifies and directs these impulses. In this way, the individual comes to be in control of he confusing push of passions. In restoring balance, in coming to control the situation, the individual is moved to a second step in the thinking process.

  2. The person or persons experiencing this situation recognize it as a problem and proceed to define and delimit its character. In short, this step is characterized by an attempt to locate the problem and arrive at a description or definition of it.

  3. Past experience is reflected upon to determine if anything in that experience can contribute to the comprehension of the difficulty and suggest ways out of it.

  4. Hypotheses are developed about courses of action that, if acted upon, would hopefully change the situation and remove the problem. The hypotheses developed are examined through a process of logical elaboration, which in essence is the effort to determine the outcomes of each course of action, given present resources and difficulties. As a result of this process a particular hypothesis is chosen to be acted upon. Deductive logic is most obviously involved with this step, but it also occurs in steps three (3) and five (5).

  5. A hypothesis is acted upon, and it changes the situation, if it produces he anticipated consequences, then the hypothesis is validated and knowledge is gained.

These steps describe what experimentalists in general, and Dewey in particular consider to be the nature of genuine thinking. Dewey described and analyzed them in what he called he "complete act of thought." It should not be inferred, however, that the process of genuine thinking occurs as neatly as it is described here. Dewey himself pointed out that these steps or functions do not necessarily follow one another in a set, inviolate order. Indeed, as he observed, hypotheses may appear at any time, even before one has defined the problem or situation at hand. Nevertheless, these steps do characterize not only thinking, or thinking as process, but the basis of the scientific method.

The experimentalist claims that what he offers here is not a prescription of how an intellectual, minding, or scientific activity ought to take place, based upon some preconceived, a priori tenet; rather, he claims to be interpreting a process of flow of events, a transaction that characterizes the relationship between humans and their environment…. Hence, he believes that the main purpose of education is to develop critically minded individuals who are capable of seeking and finding (at least tentatively) creative answers to the problems they face in society…. The school, then, is conceived as a form of community in which a concentrated effort should be made in developing habits of critical inquiry in the solution of personal and social problems. Education must be conceived, we are told, as a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”


Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, (1916).

Tesconi, Charles. Schooling in America: A Social Philosophical Perspective, (1975).

Whitehead, A.N. Aims of Education, (1929).



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