Dewey, John

Short Entry

John Dewey (1859-1952), known as a prominent pragmatist in philosophy, was a prolific and influential writer not only in the narrow disciplines of philosophy but also in such areas as education, psychology, and social theory. His interest in semiotic, however, is not widely recognized. Although Dewey never wrote a book exclusively devoted to semiotic, his remarks on signs and symbols abound in his writings.

One central feature of Dewey’s semiotic view is that signs are not to be thought of as abstract self-standing entities isolated from existential situations. In his view, signs are aspects of ongoing sign-processes in the open environment, hence fluid and transactional in character, which view Dewey framed within his general theory of behavior. Since signs are interpreted functionally, natural and artificial signs do not form completely disjoint sets of signs.

If we take account of Dewey’s theory of behavior, together with its rejection of the stimulus-response model of human behavior, actions are regarded not as a broken or fragmented arc of mechanical reflex, but as part of an organic circuit that involves the agent and the entire environment. The concepts of habit and inquiry, which Dewey inherited from Charles. S. Peirce, the founder of semeiotic and pragmatism, thus become important in Dewey’s theory.

Not accidentally, the ‘Dewey-Morris Debate’ centered around the semiotic legacy of Peirce. Charles Morris tends to articulate and hence separate the content of experience from the experiencer, whereas Dewey’s emphasis falls upon the undivided holistic transaction that involves both the sign-user and its environment. Observing how Dewey’s semiotic insights offered resources for the behavioral semiotic of Charles Morris, we can show the abiding relevance of Dewey’s theory of signs.

Long Entry

1. Introduction

John Dewey (1859-1952), known as a prominent pragmatist in philosophy, was a prolific and influential writer not only in the narrow disciplines of philosophy but also in education, psychology, aesthetics, and social theory. His interest in semiotics, however, is not widely recognized. This is presumably due to the fact that Dewey never wrote a book or paper with a title explicitly involving the term semiotic, with the possible exception of a book chapter entitled “A Confused Semiotic” in Knowing and the Known (1949), which was, however, written by A. F. Bentley, who was the co-author of the book.

It is nevertheless possible to explore Dewey’s semiotic view based on many of his writings. In Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey writes that human being lives not, like the beasts of the field, in a world of merely physical things but in a world of “signs and symbols”(MW12: 80). A stone need not be regarded merely as a hard thing into which one bumps, for it can be an ancient monument. A flame is not merely something that burns, but can be seen as a symbol of the enduring life of the household. Such observations of Dewey suggest rich possibilities of semiotic inquiry.

A difficulty with Dewey’s semiotic, on the other hand, is that his remarks on signs and symbols tend to be rather sporadic. This makes it difficult to seek for a consistent semiotic theme in his voluminous writings. To facilitate exposition within limited space, the present article will outline the framework of Dewey’s semiotic by first seeing the distinction between natural and artificial signs. This will be followed by considerations of Dewey’s theory of behavior and how it relates to the semeiotic of C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). Finally, a comparison of Dewey’s insights with the behavioral semiotic of Charles Morris (1901-1979) will be presented in order to situate Dewey in the semiotic movement on a larger scale.

2. Natural and Artificial Signs

As noted above, human beings live in a world of signs and symbols. A sign or symbol is a representation of something, or a representation of the occurrence of something. The emphasis on occurrence is sometimes important for Dewey, since on his account objects can be seen as events with meaning in the actual course of experience. This is to say that signs are aspects of ongoing sign-processes in the organic environment, rather than static ‘things’ deprived of interaction, meaning, and value. Signs and symbols, accordingly, are not to be thought of as abstract self-standing entities isolated from existential situations. For this reason Dewey accentuates the instrumentality of signs and symbols, especially when they offer the instrument for actual conduct and conjoint activity. In short, signs are always interpreted in actual ongoing contexts and in terms of their functions and operations they perform.

Dewey draws a conventional distinction between two classes of signs: natural signs and artificial signs. For example, smoke is regarded as a natural sign of fire; heavy clouds are regarded as a natural sign of probable rain; and so forth. Dewey considers that natural signs bear significance, where significance refers to the evidential function of signs, such as smoke and heavy clouds evidentially pointing to fire and probable rain, respectively. Natural signs signify, or evidentially indicate, actual relationships that obtain among natural events.

Artificial signs, on the other hand, have meaning, in distinction from mere significance, such that they point beyond the actual existential situations, namely, beyond the actual physical relationships that obtain among natural events. Needless to say, artificial signs come in inexhaustible varieties and are used in all forms of communication, including scientific explanation, literary expression, works of art, and so on. Note that artificial signs are not confined to linguistic signs on Dewey’s account, although the most obvious system of artificial sign is language, or “tool of tools” as Dewey puts it (Experience and Nature, LW1:134, 146).

What is not to be overlooked is that in Dewey’s view language, which makes co-operative activity and socially developed conduct possible, should not be abstracted from strictly empirical grounds. Dewey stresses that language is made up of physical existence, sounds or marks on paper, or a temple, statue, or even a loom (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, LW12: 52). The actual experience of language is concrete and richly complicated. Hence what is primary for Dewey is our experience with language, not theoretical considerations of language. The latter presuppose experience and are derivative.

3. Language, Object, and Sign

It is useful at this point to take a quick look at a slightly long passage from Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, which will give the reader a sense of Dewey’s view regarding language, object, and sign:

It is by agreement in conjoint action of the kind already described, that the word “smoke” stands in the English language for an object of certain qualities. In some other language the same vocable and mark may stand for something different, and an entirely different sound stand for “smoke.” To such cases of representation the word “artificial signs” applies. When it is said that smoke as an actual existence points to, is evidence of, an existential fire, smoke is said to be a natural sign of fire. Similarly, heavy clouds of given qualities are a natural sign of probable rain, and so on. The representative capacity in question is attributed to things in their connection with one another, not to marks whose meaning depends upon agreement in social use. There is no doubt of the existence and the importance of the distinction designated by the words “natural” and “artificial” signs. But the fundamentally important difference is not brought out by these words. For reasons now to be given, I prefer to mark the difference by confining the application of sign to so-called “natural signs”—employing symbol to designate “artificial signs.” (LW12: 57)

Note in this passage how Dewey observes the difference between “smoke” as an English word and ‘smoke’ as a physical event—they are not the same—which corresponds to the difference between smoke as artificial sign and smoke as natural sign. “Smoke” as a word has meaning, based upon social agreement, whereas physical ‘smoke’ bears significance, for it functions as a natural signifier or indicator of other events, say, an actual fire near by. By the term ‘sign’ Dewey usually means ‘natural sign,’ while by the term ‘symbol’ he usually means ‘artificial sign,’ as he explains above.

The conventional as well as traditional classification of signs into the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ signs, however, does not mark absolute or ultimate distinction between the two kinds of signs in Dewey’s view. Artificial signs, or symbols, are clearly more important in our social life than natural signs, because they are used for conjoint or cooperative activities and for realizing social ends and values. There are also artificial signs used in such areas as mathematics and symbolic logic, which may appear completely different from natural signs. But such signs are, Dewey argues, not without their instrumentality in actual experience. Indeed even the most abstract and formal symbols cannot escape from the “cultural matrix in which they live, move and have their being”(LW12: 28). For this reason Dewey stresses that logical calculation and its symbols, such as the logical equivalence, ¬(p∧q) ≡ ¬p ∨ ¬q for example, were all born and used as an instrument through the relevant cultural matrix.

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that Dewey thinks: “Sign: This name applied transactionally to organic-environmental behavior. To be understood always as sign-process [ . . . ] never as if signs were of two kinds: the natural and the artificial”(LW16: 270; compare this with the second last sentence of the block citation above). What we can see from this is that in Dewey’s semiotic view signs should be interpreted instrumentally and functionally, such that any ultimate fixation of sign-classification is undesirable. Smoke can signify fire, but it also bears meaning which is inherently social. Its operation as a sign is always double-barreled.

4. Dewey’s Theory of Behavior

Language has reference to some other person or persons with whom it institutes communication, whereby something common is shared. To this extent its reference becomes general and objective. “The communication which insures participation in a common understanding,” Dewey writes, “is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual disposition—like ways of responding to expectations and requirements” (Democracy and Education, MW9: 7). But sign-processes are seen as part of the dynamic environment. This prompts us to consider Dewey’s view on human behavior informed by signs and symbols in transaction with the environment, and, conversely, the functions of signs and symbols informed by human behavior.

From a semiotic perspective, we may note that three characteristics of human behavior are highlighted in Dewey’s theory. The first is anti-behaviorism; the second is the concept of habit; and the third is what Dewey articulated as selection-rejection behavior. To avoid confusion, anti-behaviorism designates, not the refusal of behavior theory in general, but the dismissal of simplistic sense-stimulus models of human behavior, such as that adopted by J. B. Watson (1878-1958). It is instructive to take a glance at these three characteristics.

To begin with, there is a strong tendency toward behaviorism in Dewey’s early thought. What is characteristic of Dewey’s approach is that he refused to regard human behavior as an accumulation of stimulus-response mechanisms. On his view behavior in general consists in the interaction, or better the transaction, between organisms and their environment. In his 1896 paper “Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” therefore, Dewey rejected the stimulus-response dualism he detected in contemporary psychology and stressed that the co-ordination of functional phases of experience is primary, the stimulus-response mechanism derivative (EW5: 96-109).

The theory of reflex arc discussed by Dewey in this relatively early paper of 1896 was not original with his work. As Phillips (1971) explicates in some detail, forerunners of the theory included, among others, T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) and William James (1842-1910). However, what opens a new perspective is that human action is not regarded by Dewey as a broken or fragmented arc of reflex, but as a part of an organic and holistic circuit that involves the entire environment. Thus Dewey writes: “What we have is a circuit, not an arc or broken segment of a circle. This circuit is more truly termed organic than reflex” (EW5: 102; emphasis added). In this regard, his theory of behavior is anti-behavioristic, that is, contrasts itself to forms of behaviorism that attempt to reduce human behavior to simple stimulus-response mechanisms.

Second, the concept of habit was inherited from C. S. Peirce’s theory of scientific inquiry. Peirce’s methodology of science, outlined for example in his 1877 paper “Fixation of Belief,” was framed within semeiotic or logic broadly construed. Peirce insists that “habit” is the “essence of the logical interpretant” (Peirce 1931, Vol. 5: 334 [CP 5.486]). Inspired by Peirce’s theory of inquiry, Dewey’s Logic: Theory of inquiry, which we saw above, takes habit as a central characteristic of human behavior and sides with Peirce’s view that every inferential conclusion drawn in a given context must involve a habit. Life is impossible without habit or ways of action that are sufficiently general. Accordingly, how things are experienced can be seen as corresponding to Peirce’s semiosis (Deledalle 2000: 70).

One of the noticeable differences between Dewey and Peirce, on the other hand, is that Dewey interprets habit more in biological terms than in logical terms. This leads us to the third point. Organisms can adjust to their environments by their selection-rejection behavior, which is to choose their desirable or preferable objects or situations in their life-process. From the amoeba to the primate, all organisms have their ends and values, not in a metaphysical sense, but simply as exemplified in their life-processes marked with selection-rejection behavior (“The Field of ‘Value’,” LW16: 344). If an impulse induces human action, the behavior directs itself toward selecting or rejecting its end or object, so that human behavior always has a teleological character, where ‘teleological’ is taken as a strictly descriptive term.

Dewey’s theory of behavior grounded in his pragmatism not only identifies inquiry as a basic phenomenon of life but also offers a framework for his analysis of sign functions. In these matters the influence of Peirce, the founder of semeiotic and pragmatism, is hardly negligible. Readers who wish to catch a glimpse of Dewey’s interpretation of Peirce’s theory of signs will profit from Dewey’s 1946 article, “Peirce’s Theory of Linguistic Signs, Thought and Meaning”(LW15: 141-152). As we shall see in the next section, the article also designates an important link between Dewey’s work and the behavioral semiotic of Charles Morris (1901-1979).

5. Dewey and Charles Morris

In the article just mentioned, Dewey fervently accused Charles Morris of an “inverted report of Peirce”(LW15: 141) and contended that Morris misinterprets or at least misrepresents Peirce’s theory of signs with respect to the concept of interpretant, which, in Dewey’s eyes, Morris conflated with his own concept of interpreter. “The misrepresentation in question,” Dewey claims, “converting Interpretant, as used by Peirce, into a personal user or interpreter”(LW15: 143), to which he adds, “Morris’s translation of ‘interpretant’ into a personal user as its interpreter turns Peirce’s view upside down”(LW15: 145). Morris immediately responded that his semiotic analysis does not intend to represent Peirce’s theory of signs (Morris 1946a: 196). This polemical exchange of views is remembered as the ‘Dewey-Morris debate.’

In his work Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938)—to which Dewey’s criticism was actually directed—Morris had introduced his terms of behavioral semiotic as follows, which is worth looking at given Dewey’s criticism:

The process in which something functions as a sign may be called semiosis. This process, in a tradition which goes back to the Greeks, has commonly been regarded as involving three (or four) factors: that which acts as a sign, that which the sign refers to, and that effect on some interpreter in virtue of which the thing in question is a sign to that interpreter. These three components in semiosis may be called, respectively, the sign vehicle, the designatum, and the interpretant; the interpreter may be included as a fourth factor. These terms make explicit the factors left undesignated in the common statement that a sign refers to something for someone. (Morris 1938: 3)

In Morris’ mind it was not as important to consider how his reformulation of semiotic may or may not represent Peirce’s original theory of signs as the reform of semiotic itself so as to elevate its status to that of a foundational science. But the passage explains Dewey’s point that the terms interpretant and interpreter are not free of ambiguity, whatever Morris’ intentions were. Morris’ later elaboration of semiosis adds significatum as a fifth factor (Morris 1946b: 17), which was then inherited in his 1964 work Signification and Significance as the context in which a sign, as such, occurs (Morris 1964: 2). Thus semiosis in Morris’ mature view consists of a five-term relation, (v, w, x, y, z) where v is a sign, w an interpreter, x an interpretant, y the signification (the object of sign), and z the context of semiosis (ibid.).

To what extent Morris actually misinterpreted Peirce is a matter of scholarly debate, but commentators generally agree that some exaggeration was involved in Dewey’s critical voice. Liszka (2003: 227), for instance, points out that the mature account of the interpretant in Morris’s semiotic is concerned with the general disposition of a sign user rather than a single actual effect brought about by the sign, such that Morris’ view does not, contra Dewey’s accusation, fail to accord with the basic idea of interpretant introduced by Peirce. To take an example from Morris, bees in a hive are able to respond to the dance of a specific bee that informs them of a food source. In this case the bees affected by the dance are interpreters, while the “disposition to react in a certain kind of way by these bees, because of the dance, is the interpretant” (Morris 1964: 2). Clearly, there is no confusion between interpretant and interpreter.

Part of the debate receives a historical account. For one thing, the movement of the ‘Unity of Science’ advanced by Morris and a number of logical positivists, including R. Carnap and O. Neurath, had gained currency in the United States since the latter half of the 1930’s, which appeared radically derailing from what Dewey considered sound epistemology. The tendency of the positivists to presuppose a clear-cut correspondence between language and the world—for example terms standing in one-to-one correspondence with isolated existential objects—was overly simplistic in Dewey’s view.

Another issue Dewey sensed in Morris’ work was the danger of resurrecting dualism between the knower and the known, against which pragmatism had fought for decades. As Moreno observes, “Dewey saw immediately” that one result of Morris’ reform of Peirce’s theory of signs “would be Peirce’s enshrinement as a proponent of what Dewey called a spectator theory of knowledge”(Moreno 1983: 9). Indeed it is easy to perceive the sense of separation of the experiencer from the content of experience in Morris’ work when it was stated in Foundations of the Theory of Signs: “x is an experience if and only if there is some y (the experiencer) which stands in the experience relation to x” (Morris 1938: 45-46). As one would notice, the tendency to articulate and hence isolate elements in semiosis persists in the five-term relation, whereas Dewey’s stress falls upon the undivided holistic transaction involving the sign-user and its environment.

Yet what deservers special attention is the fact that the debate informed the two parties about each other’s work and made them reflect upon how exactly their own versions of semiotic or the theory of sign related to the semeiotic and pragmatism originally formulated by Peirce. Morris holds that Peirce’s “work is second to none in the history of semiotic”(Morris 1938: 31), while Dewey started to see through his considerations of Morris’ “falsification” of “Peirce’s theory of signs and meanings” just “how close Peirce’s theory is” to his own (CJD3: 1945.09.17). In this regard it is not too farfetched to think that the two thinkers moderately affected each other, although it was more of Morris’ side that was affected, since Dewey was already in his eighties when the debate took place.

6. Concluding Remarks

It is common knowledge that the greatest source of influence on Morris’ behavioral semiotic stems from the social behaviorism of G. H. Mead, who in fact served on Morris’ dissertation committee at the University of Chicago. In this sense one should not posit that Morris’ behavioral semiotic was modeled after Dewey’s behavior theory, although commonalities can be found in their works, such as Morris’ notion of preferential behavior aligning itself with Dewey’s idea of selection-rejection behavior (Morris 1964: 16).

Nevertheless it remains correct to say that Dewey’s various insights offered significant resources for Morris’ semiotic. The approach taken by behavioral semiotic, according to Morris, “owes much to the theories of behavior developed by George H. Mead, John Dewey, Edward C. Tolman, and Clark L. Hull”(Morris 1946b: v). Morris writes later: “My own work started from Mead and not from Peirce; the influence of Dewey, Lewis, Peirce (and Rudolf Carnap), came later, and in that order”(Morris 1970: 47). Note that, with the understandable exception of Mead, the last passage lists Dewey’s influence prior to that of Peirce. This would suggest that, from the outset, Morris’ reading of Peirce was mediated by Dewey’s work. Morris also acknowledges his indebtedness to Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, when he defined inquiry as “a reflective process involving signs and directed to solving a problem”(Morris 1964: 26).

In the development of modern semiotic, therefore, the role played by Dewey’s theory of sign, behavior, and inquiry, should not be underestimated. Besides, the matter extends beyond mere historical interest. This is aptly put by Moreno as follows: “Had Dewey and Morris seen each other’s goals more clearly the debate would have focused less upon discrepant interpretations of Peirce, for there was no substantial disagreement, and more upon their discrepant views as to where philosophy should go after Peirce”(Moreno 1983: 8).The lively interest of such debates would lie in the future of semiotic as well as philosophy.

In conclusion, the distinctive facet of Dewey’s semiotic is that signs characterize the dynamic transactional relationships between the sign-user and the entire environment. For this reason natural and artificial signs do not need to form completely disjoint sets of signs. We have also highlighted Dewey’s behavior theory in relation to his interpretation of the reflex arc concept. It is to be noted that humans extensively use non-linguistic signs, such as gesture and countenance, which will not be excluded from Dewey’s analysis of sign functions. Finally, the ‘Dewey-Morris Debate’ situates Dewey in the semiotic movement on a larger scale, which enables us to catch a glimpse of the abiding relevance of Dewey’s theory of signs.


Works by John Dewey

The following critical editions are used when references are made to Dewey’s works. The Early Works, The Middle Works, and The Later Works, are abbreviated as EW, MW, and LW, respectively, which will be followed by volume number, a colon, and page number (if necessary the title of the work will precede the page reference). The correspondence volumes are abbreviated as CJD, followed by volume number, a colon, and the date of correspondence.

Dewey, John (1967-1972). The Early Works, 1882-1898. 5 Vols. Ed. George E. Axtelle, et al [result of a cooperative research project at Southern Illinois University]. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John (1976-1983). The Middle Works, 1899-1924. 15 Vols. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John (1981-1990). The Later Works, 1925-1953. 17 Vols. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John (2001-2005). The Correspondence of John Dewey, 1871-1952. 2nd, electronic edition. 3 Vols. Ed. L. A. Hickman, et al. Charlottesville, VA: Intelex.

Other Works

Deledalle, Gérard (2000). Charles S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Signs: Essays in Comparative Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Liszka, James Jakób (2003). “Another look at Morris’s semiotic.” Semiotica, Vol. 145-1/4, pp. 217-233.

Moreno, Jonathan D. (1983). “The Dewey-Morris Debate in Retrospect.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 1-12.

Morris, Charles (1938). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Foundations of the Unity of Science: Toward an International Encyclopedia of United Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 2. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Morris, Charles (1946a). “To the Editors of The Journal of Philosophy.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 43, No.7, p. 196.

Morris, Charles (1946b). Signs, Language, and Behavior. New York: George Braziller. 0.25in1 Morris, Charles (1964). Signification and Significance. Cambridge, MA: The M. I. T.

Morris, Charles (1970). The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy. New York: George Braziller.

Peirce, Charles. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vols. 1-6, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Vols. 7-8, ed. A. W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [This edition is standardly abbreviated as CP, followed by volume number, a decimal point, and paragraph number.]

Phillips, D. C. (1971). “James, Dewey, and the Reflex Arc.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 555-568.


Kasamatsu, Kōichi, Professor of Philosophy, Nihon University, Tokyo. The author specializes in semiotic, behavior theory, and communication theory. His books include Pragmatism tó Kigōgaku [Pragmatism and Semiotic Studies] (2002), co-authored with Akira Egawa and published in Japanese.