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American Pragmatism

Dewey and the Democratic Way of Life

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 Arbor and Chicago was one of the foundations of early 20th century progressive social work. He worked alongside such eminent figures as Jane Addams of Hull House and Ella Flagg Young, the educational reformer. A tireless critic of economic injustice and oligarchy, Dewey was sympathetic to American socialism but nonetheless helped 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 University Professors in 1915, the New School for Social Research in 1919, and the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.

Despite these involvements, placing John Dewey’s political thought into a niche in political theory today is a problem. American philosophers had largely abandoned the problems and prospects of Dewey’s approach to philosophy by the time of his death. As Robert Westbrook, the author of John Dewey and American Democracy, points out, the narrower focus of logical positivism, symbolic logic and rigorous language analysis, along with the increasing specialization of academic philosophy soon eclipsed Dewey’s synoptic and experienceoriented views. It is now the case, however, that Deweyan scholarship is moving out of the exclusive realm of the history of philosophy, and into the current debates about the fate of liberalism, global capital, rights and justice. Important modern authors who acknowledge a debt to Dewey include Richard Rorty, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, James Bohman, Jack Knight and 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 University of Vermont and at Johns Hopkins, as well as his early enthusiasm for the social progressivism of the neo-Hegelian English idealist T.H. Green. However, to understand the unique contribution of Dewey’s mature political thought, it is useful to put him in the context of an older tradition, one which Terry Hoy recently called ‘political naturalism’. Prominent members of this school of thought would be Aristotle and David Hume, and its central tenet would be, in the words of Alan Gibbard, that “politics is a part of human life, and biology is the study of life.” Like sociobiology, political naturalism starts from the argument that ideas in the natural sciences can contribute to a philosophical view of politics and society. The naturalist, in stressing the points of continuity between human capacities and natural phenomena, asserts that the fact of humans as living, embodied ‘political animals’ is crucial 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 central to Dewey’s thinking about what social interactions do for individuals: they preserve and further shared meanings. As Dewey scholar Thomas Alexander writes, “Meaning, after all, is something that occurs under specific organic conditions. Dewey is therefore careful, on the basis of his principle of continuity, to see meaning as emerging out of our biological activity.” Yet, Alexander cautions, “Dewey treats meaning as emergent, as a new manner of existence which cannot be reduced to its component units of biological acts.” The coupling of meaningfulness and the organism-environment relationship is a 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 various well-known approaches, such as those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, that attempt to provide a justification for the state or natural rights as demands of reason or of self-interest. He does think, however, that there are certain basic facts about the nature of humans as a certain kind of evolved organism interacting with both an unpredictable and constantly changing physical environment and a complex and highly articulated social environment. From this perspective, he was interested in not only the early forms of human association studied by cultural anthropologists, but also the contemporary status of non-state entities – like families and community institutions – within a political unit such as the state. Dewey’s political works often read like narrative histories of cultures and concepts because he sees the proper method of philosophical criticism as that of genetic analysis – which has nothing to do with genes, but is to do with tracing the histories of ideas and institutions in order to compare their actual causes and consequences to those they were originally intended to produce. This view is highly consonant with Dewey’s instrumentalist view that, because all human action can be analyzed in terms of means and ends, concepts and theories are properly conceived of as tools to more abstract or complicated ends. Genetic analysis along these lines allows Dewey to criticize a variety of positions widely 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 fundamentally disguising 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 inventive and planning activities, initiated by innovating thought, and carried to conclusion only as the initiating mind secured the sympathetic assent of other individuals. I say individual minds, not just individuals with minds. The difference between the two ideas is radical. There is an easy way by which thinkers avoid the necessity of facing a genuine problem. It starts with a self, whether bodily or spiritual being immaterial for 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 belief whatever. There is here no problem involved of breaking loose from the way of tradition and custom, of initiating observations and reflections, forming desires and plans, undertaking experiments on the basis of hypotheses, diverging from accepted doctrines and traditions.” This passage also illuminates Dewey’s devotion to empiricism, which in his view implied the consistent demand that all our ideas and theories be not only generated from, but ultimately tested against experience. His view of experience as the ultimate arbiter led him to shift his attention from those ‘wholesale’ metaphysical and epistemological questions traditional to philosophy up until his time, to the empirically specific, ‘retail’ problems of specific individuals and groups.

The Quest for Certainty

Empiricism, instrumentalism, and genetic analysis all characterize Dewey’s form of political thought. However, these three philosophical ideas are of little use in comparing his way of looking at politics 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’ in the 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 importance placed by many philosophers on the so-called ‘is/ought gap’ – the idea that we can’t infer 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 any morally binding force on us today, these thinkers say. Nonetheless, all three of these elements are crucial to understanding Dewey’s view that political ideas and institutions don’t need some kind of ‘ultimate’ justification in reason or human nature. In this we find fruitful ground for comparing him to other thinkers. In philosophy, skepticism about the reliability of our ideas often leads to 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 characteristic of those skeptical about the possibility of indubitable, or even reliable knowledge. René Descartes is 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 indubitable fact, from which he could proceed to deduce the existence of God, his body and the rest of the universe as revealed by his senses. But genuine skepticism, the belief that experience is not a reliable or certain source for our beliefs, is often allied to anti-foundationalism.

Dewey rejected both foundationalism and anti-foundationalism; although these terms weren’t in such common use in his day. He diagnosed this split as another philosophical ‘dualism,’ a false dichotomy generated by various ‘pseudo-problems.’ The pseudo-problem at the heart of the debate over foundationalism was identified by Dewey as ‘the quest for certainty’ in a 1929 series of lectures published under the same name. This ‘quest’ is for a body of propositional truths which, like a deductively valid argument, allows us to infer with certainty other truths. But Dewey conceived of knowledge in a wholly instrumental way – it is, before all other things, a means to an end. But what end? “The thing which concerns all of us as human beings is precisely the greatest attainable security of values in concrete existence,” he answers, “[and] the chief consideration in achieving concrete security of values lies in the perfecting of methods of action,” Dewey replies in The Quest for Certainty. “The common essence of all these [foundational] theories...,” he continues, “is that what is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry, and is totally unaffected by these acts; otherwise it would not be fixed and unchangeable. This negative condition, that the processes of search, investigation, reflection, involved in knowledge relate to something having 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.” Dewey is saying two things here: (1) thought can never produce certainty in the broadest sense unless it is empirically 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 rely on unverifiable information rooted in human or divine history) are little more than trivia. Political theories which rest on ultimate truths about God or human nature, or which couch our political institutions in terms of an immutable human reason, rely heavily on such untestable bits of knowledge. In rejecting them, 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 in order to establish some God’s-eye view of justified political knowledge, but to exercise our critical capacities in questioning and reconstructing the terms themselves. In doing so, Dewey’s overall thrust is clear: rather than entirely dismiss the possibility of such knowledge, he proposes extending a 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 which rationally persuade despite the great diversity of personal experience in the world, or binding principles which take their coercive power from too narrow a vision of human self-interest, are at best half-measures. And both these traditional tactics of political philosophy miss the point: because politics itself originates from the problems of individuals living in communities, the role of political thinking is none other than the solving of small, clearly-defined problem situations. In short, political philosophy is 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 as being more fundamental than political or social action. In broader terms, this is a criticism of 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 ‘the way the world really is’? Why has the world of action consistently been denigrated, especially when pragmatic thinkers going back to William of Ockham have come up with clear, consistent descriptions of theorizing as a mode of action? Politics and society are constantly changing, yet, as Dewey laments in 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 falls within the realm of change.” The aim of philosophers was narrowly conceived of as to “uncover the 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’ and commentator on Dewey. Many people previously unaware of Dewey’s own ideas have come to him through Rorty’s extension of Deweyan themes. In his pathbreaking work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), for example, Rorty makes various arguments against foundationalist tendencies in contemporary 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 courses of action or invariably true information about a given polity, Rorty says, the tyranny of the majority or rule by an elite often leads to cruelty against the defenseless. In the face of this dilemma, a structure of political liberalism, a system which would allow individuals to be as free as possible from interference in order to pursue their own personal projects of edification and self development, is the best conceivable option. 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 individual and ‘the social.’ As an example, he explains that social values have no inherent meaning outside their being held and acted upon by individuals; on the other hand, the individual as a unique identity is mainly an effect of the complex interplay of their social interactions. This difference in opinion between Dewey and Rorty is fundamental for understanding their separate views of the function of liberal democracy. However, Rorty is correct that both he and Dewey question whether liberal democracy needs philosophical justification at all. “Those who share Dewey’s pragmatism will say that although it may need philosophical articulation, it does not need philosophical backup... He or she is putting 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 “the philosopher of American democracy” so little engaged in the literature today? This is neither because of the unusefulness of Dewey’s ideas, nor because they are particularly outdated. Indeed, I mentioned that good work is being done in the development and criticism of Dewey’s politics today but this is mainly occurring among scholars outside the field of philosophy, and there are at least three major movements in contemporary political theory that help explain the relative lack of interest in Dewey’s political thought today. They are, in no particular order: (1) The analytic tradition extending itself to political theory. The analytic focus on political language, on the role of rationality in political life, and on a certain kind of conceptual analysis sharply distinguishes the dominant school of post-WWII political theory from that of before the war. (2) Increasing reliance on contractarian and neo-Kantian political 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 central text, as can be demonstrated by the domination of the field of political theory by concepts such as competing models of rational self-interested agents and the overlapping consensus, by the use of ‘regulative ideals’ to guide political reform, and by the current debate about the nature and limits of public reason. All these are central to Rawls’ thinking. (3) Finally, there is a strong orientation toward legal norms in political theory, again derived from Kant’s ethics and his highly influential political works. The law-centered theorist, or ‘nomologist’, attempts to directly graft concepts of law 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 there is 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’s great innovation is that he privileges method over theory, and shows the benefits of doing so in general. In other words, he wasn’t so interested in producing normative theories of rights, justice, or other political concepts that could be used as ideal standards against which we could judge our admittedly defective political institutions. He was more interested in extending the reach of democracy from the political to other areas of associated life, such as education and industry, and recommending a method by which all concerned with our defective institutions could criticize and reconstruct them intelligently. Dewey didn’t offer a formal, procedural, or structural model of justice as other thinkers have done. But he was crucially occupied, perhaps better to say preoccupied by matters of justice. As an empiricist, however, Dewey rejected the possibility of some unchanging ideal standard of justice, or even that such an ideal could be universally useful. He started, as did Socrates before him, with the notion that all we know of justice is by way of comparing acts we call just with those we call unjust; thus, the most correct meaning of ‘justice’ comes from concrete, participative daily 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 be able to represent multiple standpoints – participant, critic, observer, willing learner – in the debate over political principles and projects. This variance of standpoint allows Dewey a greater flexibility – some might say fuzziness – about what is and is not distinctively social versus political, public versus private, of grassroots concern versus what is delegable. Just as we can accurately describe our sensory experience of the table we see in the window of the furniture store, a carpenter could describe the table in terms of how it was made, or chemists or engineers could describe it in terms of its physico-chemical structures or the forces it supports. The point is not only that the table remains the same object despite the differing descriptions, but more importantly that the ways in which we are able to describe, and the ways in which we choose to describe the table are highly important to how we use the table. Criticism as well as the attempt to reform political systems, just like the observation and usage of more mundane objects such as tables, can come from a variety of sources and can be directed toward a multitude of different goals.

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

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


Kevin S. Decker teaches at St Louis University.

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