Source: p 216, Philosophy: A Complete Introduction (2012) by Prof. Sharon Kaye MA PhD (in Philosophy, U. Toronto)

3 Which of the following is not a tool, according to Dewey?

a. Universities  
b. Computers
c. An apartment building
d. A beaver dam

pp 207-208 of this book explains briefly Dewey's opinions of Tools.

The answer key on p 220 states (d), but I do not understand how beaver dams are NOT Tools for beavers?

  • "pp 207-208 of this book explains briefly Dewey's opinions of Tools." Could you summarize? Is he saying only humans use tools therefore beavers don't use tools? Or is he making some other argument?
    – user4894
    Nov 2 '18 at 3:20

Although I do not have Sharon Kaye's text, hopefully the following texts may suggest why the fourth option is most likely not what Dewey would consider a tool to be.

Elizabeth Anderson writes the following about John Dewey's ethics:

Value judgments are tools for satisfactorily redirecting conduct when habits fail. As tools, they can be evaluated instrumentally. We test our value judgments by putting them into practice and seeing whether the results are satisfactory — whether they solve our problems with acceptable side-effects, whether they enable successful responses to novel problems, whether living in accordance with alternative value judgments yields more satisfactory results.

Although the above quote is about value judgments, the emphasis placed on them as "tools" for Dewey emphasizes his "instrumentalism" which Richard Field describes as follows.

Unlike traditional approaches in the theory of knowledge, which saw thought as a subjective primitive out of which knowledge was composed, Dewey's approach understood thought genetically, as the product of the interaction between organism and environment, and knowledge as having practical instrumentality in the guidance and control of that interaction. Thus Dewey adopted the term "instrumentalism" as a descriptive appellation for his new approach.

The question provides four options. One of them is least likely to be a tool for a pragmatist, instrumentalist such as Dewey. Only one of them would not likely be something we could use to "test our value judgments", to "solve our problems with acceptable side-effects" or to allow us "interaction between organism and environment".

The beaver dam may be a tool for beavers, but of the four it would seem to provide the least instrumental value for humans. The other three, universities, computers and apartment buildings, would provide more opportunity for interaction (at least from a human perspective) between organism and environment.


Anderson, Elizabeth, "Dewey's Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/dewey-moral/.

Field, Richard, "John Dewey (1859—1952)", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/dewey/

  • Hence, the proper question should ask which of them is not a human tool?
    – rus9384
    Nov 2 '18 at 5:39
  • @rus9384 If one were answering this question on an exam under time pressure that would be the criteria to use to quickly select (d) as the most likely answer unless one of the other three were not a human tool either. If I had Sharon Kaye's text, I would have used that to try to justify this answer. There should be something in that text that would confirm that (d) is the right answer. Nov 2 '18 at 14:15
  • @rus9384: For Dewey, a tool is a human artefact construed out of knowledge and designed to transform the precarious nature of our existence into something more uniform and calculable. Thus, there is nothing like "non-human tool" in his technical sense of the word. There are of course analogical senses of the word and the question that was not yet present when he wrote it is whether animals may also obtain "knowledge-that" which they use to build certain things (i.e. tools) as opposed to mere "knowledge-how", i.e. instinctive behaviour. I guess the question is ill-stated, but "correct".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 2 '18 at 16:32
  • To be more precise: It is not even really ill-stated since building dams is instinctive behaviour. It rather highlights an important difference between what Dewey calls "instrumentalism" and a blunt view of "instrumentalism" just being about any conceivable (i.e. conceivable for us) telos of objects. Also, it highlights a problematic anthropomorphism, i.e. our tendency to ascribe the same conscious actions and cognitions to animals just because we can clearly see how their behaviour "makes sense".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 2 '18 at 16:48
  • @PhilipKlöcking Then, the first three we can actually be certain being a tool, but about 4 we can't. We cannot prove it is not a tool. Because animals might have different kinds of knowledge that and it might differ from ours. That is "This thing created by a non-human X is not a tool" is not scientific.
    – rus9384
    Nov 2 '18 at 18:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.