John Dewey was born on 20 October 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, and died on 1 June 1952 in New York City. The son of a grocer, Archibald, who served as a quartermaster in the Union Army during the civil war, Dewey spent his youth and college years in Burlington. His mother, Lucina, was an evangelical Christian who encouraged her sons to have a personal relationship with Jesus, but she also insisted that they be educated. Dewey was increasingly uneasy with the first expectation but readily embraced the second. While at the University of Vermont Dewey was introduced to a traditional form of philosophy, but he also read widely on his own in intellectual and literary journals. Upon graduation with his BA in 1879, he taught high school in Pennsylvania and Vermont for three years, and continued his philosophical reading with his college teacher, H. A. P. Torrey , upon his return to Vermont. He then entered the newly established Johns Hopkins University in 1882 to pursue graduate work in philosophy. There he encountered Charles S. Peirce , who was teaching logic, and G. Stanley Hall , the experimental psychologist. Peirce was inventing pragmatism, and Hall had been a student of William James , who publicly introduced the term “pragmatism” and developed an alternative version to Peirce’s. But the philosopher who influenced Dewey the most during his graduate study was the historically oriented neo-Hegelian George S. Morris . Upon completing the PhD in philosophy in 1884, Dewey joined Morris as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. In 1888 Dewey accepted the position of head of the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota.
In 1889 Morris suddenly died, and Dewey returned to Michigan as the chair of the philosophy department. In 1894 he moved to the recently founded University of Chicago as the head of the department of philosophy, psychology and pedagogy. It was during these years that Dewey was drifting away from Hegelianism, as he later described it, and began to formulate his instrumentalist version of pragmatism. The process was mostly complete by the time he resigned from Chicago in 1904. In later reminiscences Dewey said that a “Hegelian deposit” remained with him throughout his career, but thought that he had contributed to the development of a pragmatism, or instrumentalism, as he came to regard his version of pragmatism, that had moved beyond Hegelian idealism. The years at Chicago were productive, and two of his colleagues, George H. Mead and James H. Tufts , who had also been at Michigan, became lifelong friends and collaborators. Unfortunately, Dewey and Chicago’s President, William Rainey Harper, had an unpleasant disagreement over Harper’s handling of an institutional restructuring of the experimental “Dewey” school which Dewey had founded, that had dismissed Dewey’s wife, Alice, as its Principal.
Dewey was invited by Columbia University to be a central member of their philosophical department, and he began teaching there as professor of philosophy in 1905. This began a long association that saw him become a world-renowned figure and America’s best-known philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century. It was during the almost fifty years that he lived in New York City that he published his major books and was in heavy demand as a teacher, lecturer, writer, and public figure.
Dewey had long been involved in public affairs – he was on the first board of Jane Addams ’s Hull House in Chicago – and was an advocate for various liberal causes, writing for the New Republic and other intellectual journals. In 1909 he played a minor role in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was more involved in the founding of the American Association of University Professors, serving as its first President in 1915. Dewey was initially opposed to American involvement in World War I, but finally decided on pragmatic grounds to support Woodrow Wilson’s war policy. This strained his relationship with Jane Addams and other pacifists, notably the passionate and articulate young writer, Randolph Bourne . Dewey was disappointed in his support of Wilson but later said he would have made the same decision again, given what he knew at the time. Nevertheless, he became the principal intellectual supporter of the Outlawry of War movement in the 1920s, and did not support entering World War II, fearful of the harm to American civil liberties. Dewey was convinced that social intelligence was possible even with regard to the momentous and emotionally charged issues of war and peace.
In the 1930s Dewey became even more involved in public affairs. He was active in the League for Independent Political Action’s efforts to form a third political party. This placed him in opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party and the New Deal, which he considered too much of a blind trial-and-error effort. He favored a more explicitly experimental and socialist approach. He also chaired the commission that examined the charges brought against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. In the highly charged ideological battles of the time, this was no small or casually assumed task. Still another fray, which he entered with a calm but passionate commitment to cooperative intelligence, was one involving the grievances of the Communist Party insurgents within the New York City Teachers Union. Dewey patiently chaired the grievance committee, providing a working example of his faith in democracy and inquiry. Any understanding of Dewey as a philosopher must take into account this devotion to intelligent inquiry and practice.
Dewey retired from Columbia in 1929, shortly after the death of Alice, but remained at the university until 1939 as an emeritus professor and an advisor to doctoral students. Dewey remarried in 1946, and continued to publish on philosophy and social issues until his death in 1952.
Dewey was a prolific writer. The critical edition published by Southern Illinois University Press contains thirty-seven volumes. One major early and very influential article is “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” (1896), in which Dewey provided an integrated understanding of psycho-physical action that overcomes mind–body dualism. Dewey moved easily between philosophy, psychology, and education. Philosophy and psychology were just separating into distinct disciplines at the end of the nineteenth century, so it was not unusual for one to be engaged in what are now considered distinct fields. What distinguished Dewey, particularly in the Chicago years, was his interest in education and his intellectual leadership of the “Dewey School.” This experience provided the basis for his School and Society (1899), bringing him to the attention not only of philosophers but also the educated public. Dewey was also interested in epistemology and logic, publishing with his colleagues at Chicago a volume of essays, Studies in Logical Theory (1903). Dewey’s four essays were revised and joined with more on knowledge and truth for Essays in Experimental Logic (1916).
Another collaborative volume was the widely used Ethics textbook, jointly authored by Dewey and Tufts (1908). A book concerned with both logic and education, reflecting Dewey’s interest in promoting a critical and experimental intelligence, was How We Think (1910). But the book that Dewey himself thought for many years best captured his whole thought was Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey understood the desired form of schooling (and education generally) to be a democratic practice. It was not just that education reflected society, but a democratic society was enhanced by schools (and other educational activities) that were democratic in character. This continuity of means and ends, as we shall see below, is one of the most distinctive features of Dewey’s thinking.
Perhaps the book that best serves as a programmatic statement for his later work is Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920). Originally delivered as lectures at the Imperial University in Tokyo in 1919, Reconstruction anticipates many of his major books of the 1920s and 30s. The first of these is Human Nature and Conduct (1922), which develops a social psychology. Through his naturalistic approach to ethics, it provides the intellectual understanding of human conduct that makes his ethical proposals feasible, working out his understanding of the social individual who engages in the moral life.
The one book that many point to as Dewey’s major work is Experience and Nature (1925). A comprehensive treatment of the way in which we interact with one another and with and within nature, Experience and Nature is read by many as being Dewey’s metaphysics, despite the fact that he was often sharply critical of metaphysics. At best it is a new sort of metaphysics, a naturalistic one, one that describes the “generic features” of our existence without any recourse to the supernatural or a reality behind the appearances. A book review by George Santayana accused Dewey of a “half-hearted naturalism” because it allowed the foreground of human experience to dominate the rest of existence. Hence it was no true naturalism, for “in nature there is no foreground or background, no here, no now, no moral cathedra, no centre so really central as to reduce all other things to mere margins and mere perspectives” (1925). Dewey denied that he had compromised his naturalism by privileging human experience, instead giving an accurate account of the place of experience within nature.
Experience and Nature was followed by The Quest for Certainty (1929), which deals with another core concern of philosophy: epistemology or the theory of knowledge. He subtitled the book, A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, thus connecting it to his ongoing concern with intelligent action, and much of the book is an attack on traditional essentialist and foundationalist theories of knowledge. Some have quipped that a better title would be The Quest Against Certainty; it is an account of how we can live (and know) without certainty because it is a profound mistake to seek security in certainty. Security is to be found in a fallibilist, probabilistic way of knowing–acting.
The Public and Its Problems (1927) reacted to Walter Lippmann , the well-regarded public intellectual and Dewey’s fellow contributor to the New Republic, who had published two books that called into question the feasibility of democracy. In Lippmann’s view the public was not competent to govern; at best it can choose between competing groups of insiders to serve as their elected representatives. Dewey took up the challenge in The Public and Its Problems, describing how a mass society could be a democratic one. This book is not his entire political philosophy, only taking up the task of showing how the changing society of the 1920s could be a richly democratic one by becoming more adept at exercising social intelligence.
Dewey continued to speak to political, educational, and ethical issues in the 1930s in Individualism, Old and New (1930), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), Freedom and Culture (1939), Experience and Education (1938), and Theory of Valuation (1939). But the more remarkable books, in terms of the reaction they received, were A Common Faith (1934), Art as Experience (1934), and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938).
A Common Faith is interesting because Dewey was perceived as a secular humanist with little or no interest in religion, but here he recast his pragmatic naturalism as a religious way of life. Making a distinction between “religion” and “the religious,” he proposed that one could, without reference to or dependence upon the supernatural, develop a meaningful life of passionate intelligence. Also catching some by surprise were his Harvard University William James Lectures on art and aesthetic experience. Building on what he had written in Experience and Nature, Dewey put forward an original contribution to the philosophy of art. He was concerned to show that a work of art originates in experience – hence the title, Art as Experience – but also that experience, the interaction of an organism with its environment, can be something other than routine or desultory. It can be artfully done. Dewey showed how we can intelligently transform our lives, making them more satisfactory than they would otherwise be.
Less well received was Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, the culmination of his efforts to devise intellectual tools for dealing with human problems. However, mainstream philosophy was not interested in this approach, finding promise instead in the developments in formal logic and its promise of an ideal language that could accurately represent reality. The reception of Dewey’s Logic was not helped by Bertrand Russell’s highly negative reaction (reprinted in Schilpp 1939) and Dewey’s efforts to reply (see Burke 1994).
Most interpreters of Dewey have chosen to understand his work from a particular vantage point, such as politics, art, ethics, or religion. It is difficult to hold together all of his philosophical goals over his long career, but some pervasive themes can be identified. One way to start is with a story he told in The School and Society, about his search for appropriate desks for the University of Chicago Elementary School. Dewey recalled his troubles “trying to find desks and chairs … suitable … to the needs of the children.” One dealer, whom Dewey significantly describes as being “more intelligent than the rest,” finally put his finger on the problem: “I am afraid we have not what you want. You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening” (1899). In traditional education, students were regarded as passive absorbers of information from a teacher or a textbook. In Dewey’s school, students were to be active learners, pursuing their interests within the limits established by the teacher and curriculum. As he observed a few years later, in traditional education “the tendency is to reduce the activity of mind to a docile or passive taking in of the material presented – in short to memorizing, with simply incidental use of judgment and of active research. As is frequently stated, acquiring takes the place of inquiring” (Democracy and Education, 1916). As children developed into adults, he hoped that they would become active learners and inquirers, intelligently capable of modern experimental science.
Intelligence for Dewey is the use of indirect action (or means) to accomplish that (an end) which cannot be seized directly. Science, or directed experimental inquiry, is an intensification of the natural process of experimental learning. He wrote: “The organism is a part of the natural world; its interactions with it are genuine additive phenomena. When, with the development of symbols, also a natural occurrence, these interactions are directed towards anticipated consequences, they gain the quality of intelligence … ” (1929). Dewey was not just a pragmatist; he was a pragmatic naturalist. His instrumentalism was set within a naturalistic (as opposed to supernaturalistic) context. He valued science not only for what it could teach us about inquiry but also for its results. The world described by science, both physical and social, was world enough for the secular Dewey, where “secular” means “having to do with this world” and not “anti-religious.”
This understanding of learning and orientation toward science led Dewey not only into conflicts with traditionalists generally but with philosophy as traditionally understood. It was no longer philosophy’s task to describe reality and to access that reality by reason. Philosophy should become “a method, cultivated by philosophers for dealing with” human problems. The story that best captures this shift is the one told by Charles Frankel , who as a graduate student at Columbia attended the 1939 American Philosophical Association dinner that honored Dewey’s eightieth birthday:
When Dewey was eighty, he engaged in a debate, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, with his old friend and Columbia colleague, William Pepperell Montague , in the course of which Montague complimented him for his life-long effort to practicalize intelligence. Dewey replied quietly but firmly that Montague was taking a narrow, inbred view – a philosopher’s trade-union view, he implied – of what he, Dewey had tried to accomplish. His effort had not been to practicalize intelligence but to intellectualize practice. (quoted in Eldridge 1998, p. 5)
To understand intelligent practice, begin with our engagement in practices, our ongoing activities. These activities, what Dewey elsewhere terms “habits,” came about to meet some need, but over time they cease to be appropriate to our changing needs. Thus we need to rethink what we are doing, to make sure that there is a match between means and ends. The method whereby we make our practices more intelligent is inquiry. The philosopher’s task is not to take reason and try to figure out how to apply it – the practicalizing intelligence approach rejected by Dewey. Rather, the philosopher’s job is to identify the significant disjunctions between our needs, habits, and objectives and to help us rethink what we are doing. She can assist in the intellectualizing of practice.
This is no easy task, for the cultural deposits in our thinking are deeply buried and not easily recovered, examined, or changed. Often they are firmly embedded in our moralities and religions and imbued with an absoluteness and sacredness that elicits a do-not-touch attitude. But Dewey thought that nothing was beyond a possibly transforming investigation. The task of philosophy is to identify these tensions in society where a no longer fully effective practice needs a transformation. Such tensions exemplify the tension between ideal and actual that Dewey took to be central to philosophy. But “ideal” did not mean for Dewey something that was perfect or timeless. Rather, something was ideal if it was a “generalized end-in-view.” It arises naturally and is cultivated by us. It is our making-desirable that which naturally occurs.
A third Deweyan ideal, in addition to science and intelligence, is democracy. He sought the sort of social structure that enables individuals to flourish, not just for the sake of the individuals but for the group as well. He was willing to consider many different procedures as “democratic,” provided they were inclusive of people’s interests and they enabled the group and its members to flourish. He did think that open and free communication was important, as was the explicit embrace of the method of experimental inquiry that he championed. Democracy for Dewey was a social instantiation of intelligence, for an ideally democratic group would be engaged in resolving its tensions through the deliberate reconstruction of its experience.
Although Dewey’s ideas have enjoyed interest in recent decades, thanks in no small part to Richard Rorty , they continue to be questioned, not least of all by Rorty. What Rorty finds valuable is Dewey’s anti-essentialism, anti-foundationalism, and frank constructivism. Dewey’s “pragmatism,” writes Rorty, “was, as Hilary Putnam [another prominent neo-pragmatist] has said, an ‘insistence on the supremacy of the agent point of view’” (Rorty 1999, p. 88). Rorty also has said that pragmatism is “a doctrine of the relativity of normative judgments to purposes served,” standing with Dewey against the traditionalist critics. But Rorty thinks that Dewey’s idea of method is “vacuous,” and that the linking of naturalism with pragmatism makes the mistake of doing metaphysics by trying to describe reality as such. In “Dewey’s Metaphysics” Rorty concludes, “Dewey’s mistake … was the notion that criticism of culture had to take the form of a redescription of ‘nature’ or ‘experience’ or both” (Rorty 1982, p. 85). For Rorty, such descriptions are attempts to speak from a neutral vantage point about what is, whereas pragmatism requires that one speak from a particular perspective.
More damaging to Dewey’s effort to transform experience is the charge that a Deweyan democracy requires citizens who are more capable of critical thinking than Dewey’s critics think is possible. One does not have to subscribe to the doctrine of original sin or be cynical about human potential to be skeptical about the possibilities of social intelligence, for we have much evidence of people every day not matching up ends and means and suffering as a result. But Dewey was not the optimist that he is sometimes portrayed to be. It is true that he was hopeful that we could improve our practices, as his continuing attention to education and science suggests. But his hope was one that recognized the stupidity of which we are capable.
To conclude his 1930 autobiographical essay, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Dewey said, “I do not expect to see in my day a genuine, as distinct from a forced and artificial, integration of thought. But a mind that is not too egotistically impatient can have faith that this unification will issue in its season. Meantime a chief task of those who call themselves philosophers is to help get rid of the useless lumber that blocks our highways of thought, and strive to make straight and open the paths that lead to the future. Forty years spent in wandering in a wilderness like that of the present is not a sad fate – unless one attempts to make himself believe that the wilderness is after all itself the promised land.” (1930, pp. 26–7) Dewey found life full of possibilities as well as perils. He chose to overcome some difficulties and exploit the possibilities, and recommended that we do the same.
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