Dewey’s Zen: The ‘Oh’ of Wonder


Abstract: Many philosophers would cite Dewey’s notion of a pervasive unifying quality of a situation as proof positive of why pragmatism is mushy-minded and mired in hopeless relativism. Yet, Dewey insisted that this notion is the key to grasping the fullness of human experience and thought, and that the failure to appreciate this has resulted in the irrelevance and impotence of much philosophy. I think that Dewey was right. Therefore, I defend his contention by reminding us of the primordial inter-connectedness and emotional valence of all experience. I then describe some recent cognitive neuroscience on the core-shell architecture of the brain that would explain why we initially encounter a situation globally and then via more differentiated modes of processing that lead to discrimination and conceptualization. We must learn to be “present to experience” if our thought is to be grounded and transformative.


            I have good and highly intelligent friends and colleagues who think that pragmatism is just one big mushy mess. They regard it as a philosophy that lacks analytic rigor and ends up destroying the possibility of objective truth. They think it leaves us mired in epistemological, ontological, and moral relativism. Now, were you to ask these people about Dewey’s key notion of the pervasive unifying quality of a situation, they would regard this as one of the wackiest ideas anyone could ever imagine--sure proof for their negative assessment of pragmatism. Yet, Dewey insisted that the idea of pervasive qualities was the basis for all experience and thought! I think he was right, and I want to try to make sense of this difficult notion.

            Our world is a world of qualities--qualities of things, people, situations, and relationships. Before and beneath reflective thinking and inquiry, our world stands forth qualitatively. I know my world by the distinctive light, warmth, and fragrant breeze of a spring day, just as much as I know it by the driving rain, cold winds, and pervading darkness of a stormy winter afternoon. I know you by the qualities of your distinctive eyes, your mouth, your voice, your smell, the character of your walk, and how you hold yourself. All of my thinking emerges within this qualitative world, to which it must return if it is to have any connection with my life.

            The first stanza of William Stafford's poem "You Reading This, Be Ready" calls us to an awareness of the qualities that constitute our world:

Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

Sound from outside fills the air?[i]


Can you smell the scent of old wood or see (and feel) the sunlight creeping along the floor? Qualities like these make up the fabric of our everyday experience. Unfortunately, most of us are notoriously bad at thinking about and with these qualities. We have hundreds of words for them, such as "blue," "warm," "silky," "abrupt," "tense," "fearful," "flowing," and "bright," and we have many metaphorical extensions of these terms, such as "sharp" cheese, a "high" note, and a "murky" argument. But if you asked us what such terms really mean, we probably couldn't tell you in any clear manner. How is a "sharp" note sharp? What makes a "bright" trumpet blare sound bright? Most of us don't have a clue about how to answer such a question, and yet we more or less successfully manage to communicate with others and to interact cooperatively with them using a vast vocabulary of such quality terms.

The problem with qualities is that they are about how something shows itself to us, about how something feels to us, and they seem to involve more than can be structurally discriminated by concepts. Qualities are not reducible to the abstractions by which we try to distinguish them. Consequently, to the extent that philosophies of mind and language focus only on conceptual and propositional structures and the inferences supported by those structures, they lack an adequate way to investigate the role of qualities in meaning and thought.

According to the view I am developing, meaning is grounded in bodily experience, arising from our feeling of qualities, sensory patterns, movements, changes, and emotional contours. Meaning is not limited only to those bodily engagements, but it always starts with and leads back to them. Meaning depends on our experiencing and assessing the qualities of situations.

            Two of the greatest monuments to a philosophical appreciation of felt qualities are William James's Principles of Psychology and John Dewey's several treatments in various books and articles of what he called the "pervasive" or "tertiary" qualities of situations. Dewey opens his profound 1930 article "Qualitative Thought" with the bold thesis that quality lies at the heart of human experience.


 The world in which we immediately live, that in which we strive, succeed, and are defeated is preeminently a qualitative world. What we act for, suffer, and enjoy are things in their qualitative determinations. The world forms the field of characteristic modes of thinking, characteristic in that thought is definitely regulated by qualitative considerations. (Dewey, 1930/1988, p. 242)


The truth of this thesis is so obvious that, were it not for the fact that philosophers have notoriously overlooked and even denied it, it would hardly seem necessary to elaborate and defend it. But you would be extremely hard put to cite any treatment of mind, thought, logic or reasoning that is founded on an account of qualities. Traditional logic treats of concepts (i.e., concepts of objects, properties, and relations), propositions, and formal relations. Qualities, if they are mentioned at all, are represented by symbolic placeholders, such as F(x)--as fixed characteristics "possessed" by objects, independent of thought.

            Dewey took great pains to remind us that the primary locus of human experience is not atomistic sense impressions, but rather what he called a "situation," by which he meant, not just our physical setting, but the whole complex of physical, biological, social, and cultural conditions that constitute any given experience—experience taken in its fullest, deepest, richest, broadest sense.


By the term situation in this connection is signified the fact that the subject-matter ultimately referred to in existential propositions is a complex existence that is held together in spite of its internal complexity by the fact that it is dominated and characterized throughout by a single quality. (Dewey, 1930/1988, p. 246)


            When I look out my office window, I have the gift of experiencing a massive oak tree (massive almost beyond imagination) whose branches overwhelm my entire visual expanse. In spring and summer I see virtually nothing but literally hundreds of branches covered in an explosion of leaves, through which I occasionally glimpse a campus sidewalk surrounded by grass, with students hustling along to classes or strolling hand-in-hand. In this moment there is only the situation, not as a mere visual scene, but as an experience with a pervasive unifying quality that is at once visual, auditory, tactile, social, and cultural. The pervasive quality changes as the day passes and changes from day to day, season to season.

            Dewey emphasizes that pervasive qualities are not properties of objects. Instead, entire situations are characterized by pervasive qualities, and we subsequently select out particular qualities for discrimination within this unified situational whole. Dewey often used artworks as a way of elaborating his conception of a pervasive quality. Artworks are physical objects, in one sense of that term, but when Dewey speaks about their unifying qualities, he is not treating them as objects, but rather as experiences that define the whole situation of our being absorbed in the world of the painting. Consider, for example, the difference in pervasive quality of a painting by Picasso (say, his Guernica) as contrasted with the pervasive quality of a sunset by Emil Nolde or a Vermeer interior scene. Nobody could mistake a Nolde for a Picasso or a Vermeer. There is no single "property" or set of "properties" that makes something a Picasso, but rather "the quality of the whole (that) permeates, affects, and controls every detail" (Dewey, 1930/1988, LW 5:247). One of the things that first alerts an art expert to the possibility that some painting publicized as a newly discovered Vermeer might be a forgery is her dim awareness that the painting lacks the pervasive “Vermeer” quality that she has encountered in his other authenticated works.

            The idea of a pervasive quality of a situation is not a commonplace in our ordinary understanding of experience. We learn to understand and to experience our world as consisting of pre-given, mind-independent objects that have discrete properties and that stand in various external relations to each other. Or, even worse, if we have been infected by an associationist philosophical virus, we think that our world is given to us as a massive set of discrete perceptual inputs (sensations or percepts), that we then have to put together or synthesize into the objects that populate our perceptual world.

            Dewey showed why this was all wrong. If you pay attention to how your world shows itself, you will indeed see that the flow of experience comes to us as unified wholes (gestalts) that are pervaded by an all-encompassing quality that makes the present situation what and how it is. My wife, an artist, was recently remarking about how much she loves a certain kind of April light that pervades the forest that surrounds our house. Toward sunset on what has typically been an overcast spring day, perhaps one punctuated by rain showers, it often happens that the late-day sun breaks through the low clouds and bathes the valley beyond our home with an indescribable light. Before you perceive this or that tree, bush, rock, pond, stream, tree trunk, or deerpath, you are caught up in the pervading spring-light-bathing-the-valley quality of the entire situation. Before you take note of those unique colors of green for new spring leaves (as opposed to the hard greens of summer or the tired-greens-progressing-into-yellows-and-browns of early fall), you encounter the whole felt expanse of April-greens together. It is out of this pervasive quality of the early evening situation here and now that we then begin to discriminate the compressed, intense “green” of the newly leafed oak as compared with the translucent pale green of the vine maple or the recently rain-rejuvenated shiny-tough green of the rhododendron.

            In  Art As Experience (1934), Dewey describes the qualitative unity that marks off "an experience" from encounters that are disjointed, slack, undirected, or overly restricted:


An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of a friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts. This unity is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual, for these terms name distinctions that reflection can make within it. (Dewey, 1934/1988:37)


An identifiable, meaningful experience is neither merely emotional, nor merely practical, nor merely intellectual. Rather, it is all of these at once and together. We call it emotional, after the fact, when we wish to stress the felt quality of its emotional valence. We call it practical when we wish to profile its outcome and the interests it might serve. We call it intellectual when we are interested primarily in the distinctions, associations, and connections of thoughts that arise through the course of the experience.

            Our tendency to separate experiences and judgments into kinds--scientific, technical, moral, aesthetic--has its roots deep in Enlightenment views of mind and knowledge. For example, we have learned to think of art as the basis for an "aesthetic" experience, and theorists from Immanuel Kant through Edward Bullough and Clive Bell have insisted that in experiencing and judging art one must always abstract from any practical engagement the work has with our everyday lives. They believed that only this kind of “disinterested” apprehension of an object would permit that object to shine forth with its distinctive character and beauty. 

            However, as Dewey argued, such an abstractive, disengaging move is entirely artificial from the point of view of the qualitative situation we encounter. The fact that we can try to suspend our practical concerns just means that we will only grasp part of the meaning of the artwork--indeed, the part that may be least connected to what matters in our lives. This is a disfavor to art, for it impoverishes art’s potential to transform our experience and understanding. It is one thing to try to forget that the Van Gogh you are seeing is worth $24 million, but quite another to think that the aesthetic value of the painting shows itself only if the painting is divorced from the human concerns of our everyday lives. The former idea--distancing ourselves from the objectification of the artwork as a commodity--actually lets the work reveal its depth and significance, but the latter idea--that in order to fully experience the artwork we should suspend our practical concerns--is just nonsense. The extent to which we do suspend those practical engagements is directly proportional to the extent to which the artwork will cease to speak to our human situation—to who we are, how our world shows itself, and how we might grow and be transformed.

            The point I am making is that experiences come whole, pervaded by unifying qualities that demarcate them within the flux of our lives. If we want to find meaning, or the basis for meaning, we must therefore start with the qualitative unity that Dewey describes. The demarcating pervasive quality is, at first, unanalyzed, but it is the basis for subsequent analysis, thought, and development. Thought starts from this experienced whole, and only then does it introduce distinctions that carry it forward as inquiry: "All thought in every subject begins with just such an unanalyzed whole. When the subject-matter is reasonably familiar, relevant distinctions speedily offer themselves, and sheer qualitativeness may not remain long enough to be readily recalled" (Dewey, 1934/1988, p. 249).

            It is not wrong to say that we experience objects, properties, and relations, but it is wrong to say that these are primary in experience. What are primary are pervasive qualities of situations, within which we subsequently discriminate objects, properties, and relations.


The total overwhelming impression comes first, perhaps in a seizure by a sudden glory of the landscape, or by the effect upon us of entrance into a cathedral when dim light, incense, stained glass and majestic proportions fuse in one indistinguishable whole. We say with truth that a painting strikes us. There is an impact that precedes all definite recognition of what it is about. (Dewey, 1934/1988, p. 150).


            Once we are stricken, caught up, seized, only then can we discriminate elements within our present situation--the oak leaves in contrast with the vine maples in contrast with the rhododendrons. At this point, we may not always understand these greens as the greens of spring oaks vs. vine maples vs. rhododendrons, though we understand that they are green leaves. Rather, we are simply able to differentiate colors, forms, structures. When we see the oak-leaf-green, as distinguished from the vine-maple-green, we are not engaging in synthesizing acts of combining atomic sense impressions into complex sensations, or even objects. No! We are discriminating within a situation that was given to us whole. All of those qualities were potentially available in the situation together, and we selectively grasp some of them as salient, focal, differentiated. We are not making our world of objects, but we are instead taking up these objects in experience. In other words, objects are not so much givens as they are takings.

            Dewey claims that objects emerge in an experience out of the background of a pervasive qualitative whole. Objects emerge because of our perceptual and motor capacities, our interests, our history, and our values. Those objects are saturated with the meaning present in the whole situation. Dewey explains that an "object" is


some element in the complex whole that is defined in abstraction from the whole of which it is a distinction. The special point made is that the selective determination and relation of objects in thought is controlled by reference to a situation--to that which is constituted by a pervasive and internally integrating quality . . . (Dewey, 1930/1988, Later Works, vol. 5, p. 246).


So, yes, I do see trees, but I see them as focal objects within the horizon of my current situation. It is by virtue of everything my situation "affords" me, emerging out of its pervasive unity, that I encounter objects, people, and events:


Things, objects, are only focal points of a here and now in a whole that stretches out indefinitely. This is the qualitative 'background' which is defined and made definitely conscious in particular objects and specified properties and qualities. (Dewey, 1934/1988, p. 197)


            Now, the problem for this kind of naturalistic, holistic account is how to avoid having to postulate a homunculus or a disembodied ego that does the "selecting" or "discriminating" of objects, properties, and relations. There is no single mental entity or agent that somehow picks and chooses what it wants from experience, any more than it synthesizes experience into unified wholes. Objects simply stand forth in our experience--are disclosed-- because creatures like us are able to perceive certain light-wave frequencies, can move our bodies and hands within a range of motions, and need certain things to survive and flourish. Our brains and bodies have specific neural networks whose function is edge detection. Other neural assemblies compute orientation, such as whether a particular edge is oriented vertically, horizontally, or at a 45-degree angle. Other assemblies detect motion, and still others play a role in color detection. These various functional neural assemblies determine what stands out, for us, from a situation or scene. Therefore, how we "take" objects would change, if our bodies, brains, or environments changed in some radical way. So, saying that "we" select objects is just shorthand for the focal emergence of objects within a horizon of possible experience. Mind, on this view, is neither a willful creator of experience, nor is it a mere window to objective mind-independent reality. Mind is a functional aspect of experience that emerges when it becomes possible for us to share meanings, to inquire into the meaning of a situation, and to initiate action that transforms, or remakes, that situation.

            Robert Innis has highlighted Dewey's emphasis on the aesthetic dimensions of human meaning-making as being the key to an adequate understanding of experience, which is neither merely given nor merely made:


Integral experience, in Dewey's sense of the term, obtains form through dynamic organization (1934:62) in as much as the perceiver is caught up in and solicited by the emerging experiential whole. Even while experiencing the perceptual whole as an outcome over which it has no explicit control, the perceiver is creating its own experience through continuous participation (1934:60).  .  .  .

     The philosophical pivot of Dewey's pragmatist aesthetic is likewise, as in his epistemology as a whole, the picture of the organism as a force rather than a transparency (1934:246). This is certainly a counterpole to all 'mirror' epistemologies with their attendant desire to become a pure 'reflection' of the world already in existence. With a Deweyan perspective we are neither mirror, nor carbon paper, nor Kodak fixation. We are systems of mediations of immediacy, fusions of actions, feeling, and meaning (1934: 22). (Innis, 1994, pp. 61-62.)


            In sum, Dewey is trying to remind us that experienced situations are the soil from which the objects, properties, and relations of our world grow. Moreover, the properties or definite qualities that we experience in objects are richly cross-modal. The red of a ripe bing cherry is not just the result of visual processing. It is not a single-channel visual percept. Rather, our various sensory and motor modalities interfuse, via cross-domain neural connections, to produce the qualities that objects manifest for us. Dewey describes this inter-fusing of perceptions:


When we perceive, by means of the eyes as causal aids, the liquidity of water, the coldness of ice, the solidity of rocks, the bareness of trees in winter, it is certain that other qualities than those of the eye are conspicuous and controlling in perception. And it is as certain as anything can be that optical qualities do not stand out by themselves with tactual and emotive qualities clinging to their skirts. (Dewey, 1934/1988, p. 129).


            The pervasive quality of a situation is not limited merely to sensible perception or motor interactions. Thinking is action, and so "acts of thought" also constitute situations that must have pervasive qualities. Even our best scientific thinking stems from the grasp of qualities. It arises from the feeling that a situation is problematic or that it calls out for interpretation and explanation. This initiates a process of intellectual inquiry in search of generalizations that help us understand the phenomena, phenomena that are identified and known only in the context of the inquiry itself, which introduces distinctions, carves out objects and their properties, and seeks a way to explain their behavior. About scientific investigations, Dewey says

These open with the 'Oh' of wonder and terminate with the 'Good' of a rounded-out and organized situation. Neither the 'Oh' nor the 'Good' expresses a mere state of personal feeling. Each characterizes a subject-matter. (Dewey, 1930/1988, LW 5:250)

 The "Oh" and the "Good" are not subjective feelings, nor are they mere properties of things. Rather, they are qualities that characterize the situation as it moves from the start of scientific investigation to its temporary completion in some theory, explanation, or experiment. The "Good" is merely our way of recognizing that something has been more or less satisfactorily resolved through our inquiry, at least for the time being.

            The crux of Dewey's entire argument is that what we call thinking, or reasoning, or logical inference could not even exist without the felt qualities of situations: "The underlying unity of qualitativeness regulates pertinence or relevancy and force of every distinction and relation; it guides selection and rejection and the manner of utilization of all explicit terms." (Dewey, 1934, 247-48). This is a startling claim: Insofar as logic pertains to real human inquiry, logic can't do ANYTHING without feeling. Logic alone--pure formal logic--cannot circumscribe the phenomena under discussion. Logic alone cannot define the problem you are trying to solve by inquiry. Logic cannot tell you what should count as relevant to your argument. Logic can only work because we take for granted the prior working of qualities in experienced situations.

            I shall end with a bit of brain science that gives us a deeper understanding of why we experience pervasive qualities. In Mind From Body: Neural Structures of Experience, Don Tucker focuses on the basic architecture of the brain as the key to the nature of our cognitive abilities, and he is especially interested in the role of feelings and emotions in all aspects of cognition. He explores the parallel processing that results from three general architectural features of the brain: front-back orientation, hemispheric laterality (right/left organization), and core-shell relationships. I want to focus only on core-shell structure, because it suggests that James and Dewey were correct when they argued that concepts arise from a global grasp of a situation that leads to processes of discrimination and differentiation.

            Tucker argues that we have not fully appreciated the value of 19th century studies of the evolutionary and ontogenetic development of the brain. With contemporary neuro-imaging technology, we can now get a much more detailed understanding of the complex relations and interactions of these various brain architectures. To vastly oversimplify, our brain developed through evolution by adding new structures and layers on top of more primitive parts shared with some other animals. The present day result is a brain with core limbic structures (mostly responsible for body-monitoring, motivation, emotions, and feelings) that are connected to “higher” cortical layers that have ever more differentiated functions, such as perception, body movement, action planning, and reasoning. One striking feature of this core-shell organization is that structures in the core regions are massively interconnected, whereas structures in the shell are more sparsely interconnected. An important consequence of this is that there is more functional differentiation and more modularity of brain areas in the cortical shell than in the limbic core. Tucker summarizes:

            First, connections stay at their own level. With the exception of “adjacent” connections (paralimbic connects to higher-order association, higher association connects to primary association, etc.), connections from one level go primarily to other brain areas of that same level.  .  .  .

            Second, the greatest density of connectivity within a level is found at the limbic core. There is then a progressive decrease in connectivity as you go out toward the primary sensory and motor modules.  .  .  . In fact, the primary sensory and motor cortices can be accurately described as “modules” because each is an isolated island, connected with the diencephalic thalamus but with no other cortical areas except the adjacent unimodal association cortex of that sensory modality or motor area.

            The exception is that the primary motor cortex does have point-to-point connections with the primary somatosensory cortex,  .  .  . (Tucker, 2007, p. 78)


            The structures and functions Tucker is describing here would make sense of Dewey’s claim that our experience always begins with a pervasive unifying quality of a whole situation, within which we then discriminate objects, with their properties and relations to one another. The limbic core, with is dense interconnections and emotional valences, would present us with a holistic, feeling-rich, emotionally nuanced grasp of a situation. The more modular and highly differentiated sensory and motor regions of the shell (cortical) structure would permit the discrimination and differentiation that we call conceptualization. Just as James and Dewey argued, the meaning of a situation grows as we mark more differences, similarities, changes, and relations, that is, as we make finer discriminations within the ongoing flow of experience: “The meaning, or semantic function, of a network may be allowed greater complexity as its architecture becomes more differentiated” (Tucker, 2007, p. 97).

            Cognitive processing does not occur merely in a linear direction from core to shell structures. There are reentrant connections, so that what occurs at “higher” or more differentiated levels can influence what happens in the limbic areas, which then affect shell regions, in a never-ending dance of changing experience. But the core-to-shell movement of cognition helps explain why (and how) there can be pervasive qualities which then issue in acts of discrimination and conceptualization. Tucker summarizes the structural basis for this growing arc of experience that was described by Dewey as the movement from a holistic pervasive qualitative situation to conceptual meaning:

            At the core must be the most integrative concepts, formed through the fusion of many elements through the dense web of interconnection. This fusion of highly processed sensory and motor information .  .  . together with direct motivational influences from the hypothalamus, would create a syncretic form of experience. Meaning is rich, deep, with elements fused in a holistic matrix of information, a matrix charged with visceral significance. Emanating outward—from this core neuropsychological lattice—are the progressive articulations of neocortical networks. Finally, at the shell, we find the most differentiated networks,  .  .  . The most differentiated networks of the hierarchy are the most constrained by the sensory data, forming close matches with the environmental information that is in turn mirrored by the sense receptors. (Tucker, 2007, p. 169)


            Conceptual meaning arises from our visceral, purposive engagement with our world. Our conceptualization recruits structures of sensorimotor processing and it operates within a motivational framework that evolved to help us function successfully within our complex environments. But, as Dewey and James showed us, our very ability to conceptualize our experience is grounded in the pervasive qualities of experiences. Contrary to what some of my pragmatist-despising friends think, this isn’t such a wacky idea.

            And, finally, what about Dewey’s Zen? Well, Dewey’s Zen is my way of saying that Dewey is urging us to be, as some Buddhists say, “present to our experience.” That’s all, but that is quite a challenge to each of us.






[i] William Stafford, "You Reading This, Be Ready." In The Way It Is: New  & Selected Poems. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998. I am indebted to Vincent Colapietro for bringing this beautiful poem to my attention.