All GRE Verbal Resources
Example Question #12 : Main Idea
Passage adapted from John Dewey's "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy" (1915)
Intellectual advance occurs in two ways. At times increase of knowledge is organized about old conceptions, while these are expanded, elaborated and refined, but not seriously revised, much less abandoned. At other times, the increase of knowledge demands qualitative rather than quantitative change; alteration, not addition. Men's minds grow cold to their former intellectual concerns; ideas that were burning fade; interests that were urgent seem remote. Men face in another direction; their older perplexities are unreal; considerations passed over as negligible loom up. Former problems may not have been solved, but they no longer press for solutions.
Philosophy is no exception to the rule. But it is unusually conservative--not, necessarily, in proffering solutions, but in clinging to problems. It has been so allied with theology and theological morals as representatives of men's chief interests, that radical alteration has been shocking. Men's activities took a decidedly new turn, for example, in the seventeenth century, and it seems as if philosophy, under the lead of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes, was to execute an about-face. But, in spite of the ferment, it turned out that many of the older problems were but translated from Latin into the vernacular or into the new terminology furnished by science.
The association of philosophy with academic teaching has reinforced this intrinsic conservatism. Scholastic philosophy persisted in universities after men's thoughts outside of the walls of colleges had moved in other directions. In the last hundred years intellectual advances of science and politics have in like fashion been crystallized into material of instruction and now resist further change. I would not say that the spirit of teaching is hostile to that of liberal inquiry, but a philosophy which exists largely as something to be taught rather than wholly as something to be reflected upon is conducive to discussion of views held by others rather than to immediate response. Philosophy when taught inevitably magnifies the history of past thought, and leads professional philosophers to approach their subject-matter through its formulation in received systems. It tends, also, to emphasize points upon which men have divided into schools, for these lend themselves to retrospective definition and elaboration. Consequently, philosophical discussion is likely to be a dressing out of antithetical traditions, where criticism of one view is thought to afford proof of the truth of its opposite (as if formulation of views guaranteed logical exclusives). Direct preoccupation with contemporary difficulties is left to literature and politics.
Which of the following express Dewey's overall contention adequately?
A. Theology has exerted too much influence on the development of philosophy.
B. At certain rare moments in history, philosophy nearly made a radical break with its past forms of expression.
C. Philosophy is susceptible to its own particular impediments to development.
A, B, and C
B and C
In a way, almost all of these answers are correct; however, you must answer exactly what is asked, namely, what is Dewey's overall contention. Therefore, you cannot provide any answer that might just be a detail. On the whole, this selection shows Dewey arguing that philosophy has its own particular way of being conservative—especially as regards its manner of being taught. This is the general contention. The other two options are indeed in the essay; however, they are merely supporting details, part of his overall argument.