Dewey and the Democratic Way of Life | Issue 43 (2024)

Dewey and the Democratic Way of Life | Issue 43 (1)

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American Pragmatism

Kevin S. Decker on John Dewey’s unique political contribution.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was hailed in his lifetime as “America’s philosopher of democracy”.His work on educational theory and social psychology at the Universities of Michigan – Ann Arborand Chicago was one of the foundations of early 20th century progressive social work. He worked alongsidesuch eminent figures as Jane Addams of Hull House and Ella Flagg Young, the educational reformer. A tirelesscritic of economic injustice and oligarchy, Dewey was sympathetic to American socialism but nonethelesshelped form the non-socialist League for Independent Political Action to support left-wing third parties;additionally, he was a founding member of the pro-academic freedom American Association of UniversityProfessors in 1915, the New School for Social Research in 1919, and the American Civil Liberties Unionin 1920.

Despite these involvements, placing John Dewey’s political thought into a niche in politicaltheory today is a problem. American philosophers had largely abandoned the problems and prospects ofDewey’s approach to philosophy by the time of his death. As Robert Westbrook, the author of JohnDewey and American Democracy, points out, the narrower focus of logical positivism, symbolic logicand rigorous language analysis, along with the increasing specialization of academic philosophy sooneclipsed Dewey’s synoptic and experienceoriented views. It is now the case, however, that Deweyanscholarship is moving out of the exclusive realm of the history of philosophy, and into the current debatesabout the fate of liberalism, global capital, rights and justice. Important modern authors who acknowledgea debt to Dewey include Richard Rorty, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, James Bohman, Jack Knightand James Johnson, and Charles F. Sabel.

Dewey and Political Theory

Dewey’s interest in political philosophy reached back to his study of Hegel at the Universityof Vermont and at Johns Hopkins, as well as his early enthusiasm for the social progressivism of theneo-Hegelian English idealist T.H. Green. However, to understand the unique contribution of Dewey’smature political thought, it is useful to put him in the context of an older tradition, one which TerryHoy recently called ‘political naturalism’. Prominent members of this school of thought wouldbe Aristotle and David Hume, and its central tenet would be, in the words of Alan Gibbard, that “politicsis a part of human life, and biology is the study of life.” Like sociobiology, political naturalismstarts from the argument that ideas in the natural sciences can contribute to a philosophical view ofpolitics and society. The naturalist, in stressing the points of continuity between human capacitiesand natural phenomena, asserts that the fact of humans as living, embodied ‘political animals’ iscrucial in understanding the processes of justification and criticism in political theory.

One way of showing this is to look at a specifically human concept such as meaning, which is centralto Dewey’s thinking about what social interactions do for individuals: they preserve and furthershared meanings. As Dewey scholar Thomas Alexander writes, “Meaning, after all, is something thatoccurs under specific organic conditions. Dewey is therefore careful, on the basis of his principle ofcontinuity, to see meaning as emerging out of our biological activity.” Yet, Alexander cautions, “Deweytreats meaning as emergent, as a new manner of existence which cannot be reduced to its component unitsof biological acts.” The coupling of meaningfulness and the organism-environment relationship isa distinctive pragmatist contribution to all areas of philosophy.

Dewey also holds a distinctive view about how the basic objects of political life, like rights, justice,individual liberty, and the like, are to be justified when challenged. In doing so, he rejects variouswell-known approaches, such as those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, that attempt to provide a justificationfor the state or natural rights as demands of reason or of self-interest. He does think, however, thatthere are certain basic facts about the nature of humans as a certain kind of evolved organism interactingwith both an unpredictable and constantly changing physical environment and a complex and highly articulatedsocial environment. From this perspective, he was interested in not only the early forms of human associationstudied by cultural anthropologists, but also the contemporary status of non-state entities – likefamilies and community institutions – within a political unit such as the state. Dewey’spolitical works often read like narrative histories of cultures and concepts because he sees the propermethod of philosophical criticism as that of genetic analysis – which has nothing to dowith genes, but is to do with tracing the histories of ideas and institutions in order to compare theiractual causes and consequences to those they were originally intended to produce. This view is highlyconsonant with Dewey’s instrumentalist view that, because all human action can be analyzedin terms of means and ends, concepts and theories are properly conceived of as tools to more abstractor complicated ends. Genetic analysis along these lines allows Dewey to criticize a variety of positionswidely held even today in philosophy. For example, in his magnum opus Experience and Nature (1925),Dewey criticizes the ‘myth’ of the social contract in Hobbes and others for fundamentallydisguising the actual historical genesis of political institutions. In any real political transformation,he counters, “Social conditions were altered so that there were both need and opportunity for inventiveand planning activities, initiated by innovating thought, and carried to conclusion only as the initiatingmind secured the sympathetic assent of other individuals. I say individual minds, not just individualswith minds. The difference between the two ideas is radical. There is an easy way by which thinkers avoidthe necessity of facing a genuine problem. It starts with a self, whether bodily or spiritual being immaterialfor present purposes, and then endows or identifies that self with mind, a formal capacity of apprehension,devising and belief. On the basis of this assumption, any mind is open to entertain any thought or beliefwhatever. There is here no problem involved of breaking loose from the way of tradition and custom, ofinitiating observations and reflections, forming desires and plans, undertaking experiments on the basisof hypotheses, diverging from accepted doctrines and traditions.” This passage also illuminatesDewey’s devotion to empiricism, which in his view implied the consistent demand that all our ideasand theories be not only generated from, but ultimately tested against experience. His view of experienceas the ultimate arbiter led him to shift his attention from those ‘wholesale’ metaphysicaland epistemological questions traditional to philosophy up until his time, to the empirically specific, ‘retail’ problemsof specific individuals and groups.

The Quest for Certainty

Empiricism, instrumentalism, and genetic analysis all characterize Dewey’s form of politicalthought. However, these three philosophical ideas are of little use in comparing his way of looking atpolitics with the state of the field today. Theories about the means and ends of political institutions(instrumentalities) are now quite popular, and all good political theorists try to be ‘empiricists’ inthe sense of analyzing economic and sociological data, plus opinion polls and election results. Also,Dewey’s employment of genetic analysis is unpopular today, mainly because of the continuing importanceplaced by many philosophers on the so-called ‘is/ought gap’ – the idea that we can’tinfer any statement about what ‘ought’ to be from any given descriptive (‘is’)statement. No historical analysis of the origins of concepts can tell us whether they ought to have anymorally binding force on us today, these thinkers say. Nonetheless, all three of these elements are crucialto understanding Dewey’s view that political ideas and institutions don’t need some kindof ‘ultimate’ justification in reason or human nature. In this we find fruitful ground forcomparing him to other thinkers. In philosophy, skepticism about the reliability of our ideas often leadsto a perceived need for a ‘firm foundation’ for our knowledge. This is called foundationalism,and the opposite, obviously, would be anti-foundationalism, which is the position characteristicof those skeptical about the possibility of indubitable, or even reliable knowledge. René Descartesis an example of a typical philosophical foundationalist; he started from a skeptical position of doubt:he then found that his idea, “I think, therefore I am” was a statement of an indubitablefact, from which he could proceed to deduce the existence of God, his body and the rest of the universeas revealed by his senses. But genuine skepticism, the belief that experience is not a reliable or certainsource for our beliefs, is often allied to anti-foundationalism.

Dewey rejected both foundationalism and anti-foundationalism; although these terms weren’t insuch common use in his day. He diagnosed this split as another philosophical ‘dualism,’ afalse dichotomy generated by various ‘pseudo-problems.’ The pseudo-problem at the heart ofthe debate over foundationalism was identified by Dewey as ‘the quest for certainty’ in a1929 series of lectures published under the same name. This ‘quest’ is for a body of propositionaltruths which, like a deductively valid argument, allows us to infer with certainty other truths. ButDewey conceived of knowledge in a wholly instrumental way – it is, before all other things, a meansto an end. But what end? “The thing which concerns all of us as human beings is precisely the greatestattainable security of values in concrete existence,” he answers, “[and] the chief considerationin achieving concrete security of values lies in the perfecting of methods of action,” Dewey repliesin The Quest for Certainty. “The common essence of all these [foundational] theories...,” hecontinues, “is that what is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry, andis totally unaffected by these acts; otherwise it would not be fixed and unchangeable. This negativecondition, that the processes of search, investigation, reflection, involved in knowledge relate to somethinghaving prior being, fixes once for all the main characters attributed to mind, and to the organs of knowing.They must be outside what is known, so as not to interact in any way with the object to be known.” Deweyis saying two things here: (1) thought can never produce certainty in the broadest sense unless it isempirically validated in experimental testing; (2) theories which have no conceivable practical consequences,or those which are too unwieldy or perhaps even impossible to test (for example, theories which relyon unverifiable information rooted in human or divine history) are little more than trivia. Politicaltheories which rest on ultimate truths about God or human nature, or which couch our political institutionsin terms of an immutable human reason, rely heavily on such untestable bits of knowledge. In rejectingthem, are we not simply becoming skeptics, as alluded to earlier?

In answering “no,” Dewey asks us to step outside the normal terms of the debate, not inorder to establish some God’s-eye view of justified political knowledge, but to exercise our criticalcapacities in questioning and reconstructing the terms themselves. In doing so, Dewey’s overallthrust is clear: rather than entirely dismiss the possibility of such knowledge, he proposes extendinga particularly important piece of scientific self-discovery. This is that in the study of our world,humans make as much as, if not more than, we find. Attempts to discover either truths whichrationally persuade despite the great diversity of personal experience in the world, or bindingprinciples which take their coercive power from too narrow a vision of human self-interest, are at besthalf-measures. And both these traditional tactics of political philosophy miss the point: because politicsitself originates from the problems of individuals living in communities, the role of political thinkingis none other than the solving of small, clearly-defined problem situations. In short, political philosophyis less about theory and more about method: it is a messy, retail business of clarification, criticism,and adjudication.

Dewey’s criticism of the political philosophy of his time is just as relevant today. In particular,still resonant is his concern to understand why philosophers have traditionally seen political and social theory asbeing more fundamental than political or social action. In broader terms, this is a criticismof the split between theory and practice that many modern philosophers have begun to examine intently:why has theoretical reason long been elevated above practical reason when it comes to ascertaining ‘theway the world really is’? Why has the world of action consistently been denigrated, especiallywhen pragmatic thinkers going back to William of Ockham have come up with clear, consistent descriptionsof theorizing as a mode of action? Politics and society are constantly changing, yet, as Dewey lamentsin The Quest for Certainty, the emphasis by most thinkers of the past on abstract theorizing, “...glorified the invariant at the expense of change, it being evident that all practical activity fallswithin the realm of change.” The aim of philosophers was narrowly conceived of as to “uncoverthe antecedently real,” whether this made a difference to practical living or not.

At this point, it is worth briefly mentioning Richard Rorty, a self-described ‘neopragmatist’ andcommentator on Dewey. Many people previously unaware of Dewey’s own ideas have come to him throughRorty’s extension of Deweyan themes. In his pathbreaking work, Philosophy and the Mirror ofNature (1979), for example, Rorty makes various arguments against foundationalist tendencies incontemporary philosophy of mind and language. This distrust of ultimate grounds of knowledge extends,for Rorty, into the political realm as well. In the absence of certain knowledge about correct coursesof action or invariably true information about a given polity, Rorty says, the tyranny of the majorityor rule by an elite often leads to cruelty against the defenseless. In the face of this dilemma, a structureof political liberalism, a system which would allow individuals to be as free as possible from interferencein order to pursue their own personal projects of edification and self development, is the best conceivableoption. Dewey, however, treated as suspect the ‘individualism’ at the heart of liberal thinking,because he consistently rejected the idea that there is an inherent opposition between the individualand ‘the social.’ As an example, he explains that social values have no inherent meaningoutside their being held and acted upon by individuals; on the other hand, the individual as a uniqueidentity is mainly an effect of the complex interplay of their social interactions. This difference inopinion between Dewey and Rorty is fundamental for understanding their separate views of the functionof liberal democracy. However, Rorty is correct that both he and Dewey question whether liberal democracyneeds philosophical justification at all. “Those who share Dewey’s pragmatism will say thatalthough it may need philosophical articulation, it does not need philosophical backup... He or she isputting politics first and tailoring a philosophy to suit,” Rorty claims.

Dewey in Eclipse?

So, why does the intelligent person interested in Dewey’s political thought find “thephilosopher of American democracy” so little engaged in the literature today? This is neither becauseof the unusefulness of Dewey’s ideas, nor because they are particularly outdated. Indeed, I mentionedthat good work is being done in the development and criticism of Dewey’s politics today but thisis mainly occurring among scholars outside the field of philosophy, and there are at least threemajor movements in contemporary political theory that help explain the relative lack of interest in Dewey’spolitical thought today. They are, in no particular order: (1) The analytic tradition extending itselfto political theory. The analytic focus on political language, on the role of rationality in politicallife, and on a certain kind of conceptual analysis sharply distinguishes the dominant school of post-WWIIpolitical theory from that of before the war. (2) Increasing reliance on contractarian and neo-Kantianpolitical models, in particular those inspired by John Rawls’ watershed book, A Theory of Justice (1971).Rawlsians and non-Rawlsians alike have vigorously borrowed, debated, and modified much from this centraltext, as can be demonstrated by the domination of the field of political theory by concepts such as competingmodels of rational self-interested agents and the overlapping consensus, by the use of ‘regulativeideals’ to guide political reform, and by the current debate about the nature and limits of publicreason. All these are central to Rawls’ thinking. (3) Finally, there is a strong orientation towardlegal norms in political theory, again derived from Kant’s ethics and his highly influential politicalworks. The law-centered theorist, or ‘nomologist’, attempts to directly graft concepts oflaw and legality onto ethics – such as universality of application, objectivity of implementation,and bivalence (the idea that an act is either against the law, or permitted, but not both, and that thereis nothing in between).

Why Dewey Matters

What in Dewey may be of interest today, and, more importantly, what is of use? As I see it, Dewey’sgreat innovation is that he privileges method over theory, and shows the benefits ofdoing so in general. In other words, he wasn’t so interested in producing normative theories ofrights, justice, or other political concepts that could be used as ideal standards against which we couldjudge our admittedly defective political institutions. He was more interested in extending the reachof democracy from the political to other areas of associated life, such as education and industry, andrecommending a method by which all concerned with our defective institutions could criticize and reconstructthem intelligently. Dewey didn’t offer a formal, procedural, or structural model of justice asother thinkers have done. But he was crucially occupied, perhaps better to say preoccupied bymatters of justice. As an empiricist, however, Dewey rejected the possibility of some unchanging idealstandard of justice, or even that such an ideal could be universally useful. He started, as did Socratesbefore him, with the notion that all we know of justice is by way of comparing acts we call just withthose we call unjust; thus, the most correct meaning of ‘justice’ comes from concrete, participativedaily life, and, inevitably becomes highly diluted in any abstract ideal or principle of justice.

Furthermore, there is no idea that the critic or philosopher concerned with social justice must beable to represent multiple standpoints – participant, critic, observer, willing learner – inthe debate over political principles and projects. This variance of standpoint allows Dewey a greaterflexibility – some might say fuzziness – about what is and is not distinctively social versuspolitical, public versus private, of grassroots concern versus what is delegable. Just as we can accuratelydescribe our sensory experience of the table we see in the window of the furniture store, a carpentercould describe the table in terms of how it was made, or chemists or engineers could describe it in termsof its physico-chemical structures or the forces it supports. The point is not only that the table remainsthe same object despite the differing descriptions, but more importantly that the ways in which we areable to describe, and the ways in which we choose to describe the table are highly important to how weuse the table. Criticism as well as the attempt to reform political systems, just like the observationand usage of more mundane objects such as tables, can come from a variety of sources and can be directedtoward a multitude of different goals.

Third and finally, we can see Dewey as putting forth for our consideration an aesthetic element tojustice and politics. Although we typically think of politics quite technocratically (if indeed we thinkabout it at all), we can also make useful judgements about how public projects and their outcomes eitherdegrade or enhance the quality of experience for us all. This becomes particularly importantwhen we recall that Dewey recommends a wider democracy and more public political involvement than wecurrently enjoy.

In all these areas, Dewey urges openness of vision, an openness justified (as against the politicalrealist, for example) by the political naturalist’s thought that there is no distinct ‘realmof the political’ or domain of ‘political objects.’ The potential for public criticismand involvement that is opened up by Dewey’s views promises tell us more about our nature as politicalanimals than we ever thought possible.


Kevin S. Decker teaches at St Louis University.

Dewey and the Democratic Way of Life | Issue 43 (2024)
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