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Love & Logic

After he fell in love, John Dewey became one of the greatest of American thinkers. Nancy Bunge describes Alice Chipman’s impact on Dewey’s Psychology.

“To-night, my own darling, brought me your sweet letter from that heaven which your presence is and makes and brought with it...all your own love and peace and sweetness of life and also such a longing by me for you, my darling. I want you, sweet love; I want your heart against my heart; I want your sweet lips and your sweet arms and your sweet hands; I want you, my own love, for, dearest one, I am yours: to be yours, is my being, and without being yours I am not.”
Letter from John Dewey to Alice Chipman March 29?, 1886.

Since John Dewey’s intelligence and insight attracted his biographers to him, they understandably prefer to step around his many love letters to his wife. Alan Ryan, a Dewey scholar brave enough to express his opinion of the letters, writes: “He seems to have found that being in love deprived him of the power of articulate speech to about the same degree that being struck by a freight train might have done.” (Ryan p.80). Indeed, to the disinterested observer, they seem like the repetitive ramblings of a lovesick young man as reluctant to bring the discussion to a close as a teenage girl who must do her homework as soon as she hangs up the phone. But Dewey began these letters in 1885, while a twenty-six year old philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, writing them to a twenty-six year old undergraduate student there. And when examined carefully, the ostensibly adolescent love notes document the revolution Dewey’s relationship with Alice Chipman precipitated in his intellectual development as well as in his personal life.

Alice Chipman’s surviving letters indicate that she had to struggle against familial indifference in order to cultivate her talents. In 1882, Alice’s sister, Maria proclaims that Alice could write as well as George Eliot, but since she and Alice can expect no encouragement from their family to implement career plans, they need to pursue their aspirations independently. Maria does not anticipate that their relatives will actively try to obstruct them because “experience has shown them how utterly futile it is”; so, she urges Alice to join her in taking on the world: “We will both have to fight and meet with discouragements … but twill be all the more glory when we get up.” (January 29, 1882).

Later, Alice turns to Professor Dewey for courage. She describes the atmosphere at her home as “fatal” to her scholarly efforts and looks to him for the support she needs to keep working (April 3, 1886). While Alice must struggle to persuade her relatives that her mind matters, the highly educated and intelligent Professor Dewey signals that he respects her abilities by taking her suggestions. During their time apart, he plans to read the literature she prefers to philosophy (June 25, 1885). Understandably, the professor who values Alice Chipman’s insights provides a more comfortable home for her than a family blind to her capabilities.

No evidence suggests that Dewey’s family resisted his intellectual ambitions. Moreover, his father, Archibald Sprague Dewey, seems pleased to learn that John Dewey has fallen in love with Alice Chipman, assuring him that “If I could write a letter that would not shame you I would gladly introduce myself to the chosen girl of your manhood.” (January 6, 1886). But when John Dewey’s mother, Lucina Rich Dewey, first learns that her son may marry, three months after her husband, she points out that such a move seems inappropriate before he has repaid his aunt the money she loaned him for his education. And Mrs Dewey’s letter only gets to the topic of her son’s marriage after complaining about her own bad health and weak finances. She seems determined to drown her son’s joy in guilt: “I do not want to be w[e]ighted down by debt, as last summer & I want to warn you my dear son, for I am sometimes afraid that none of you are as forecasting or as sensitive to the thought of debt as you will one day wish you have been.” Mrs Dewey consoles herself with the possibility that her son might marry a frugal woman: “A prudent wife is however the main point in this matter.” (April 1886). Despite the energy his mother brings to the subject of finances, John’s letters to Alice urge her to trust that they will find the money they need (April 1, 1886). Alice, perhaps mindful of Mrs Dewey’s reservations, persistently urges caution on the passionate John Dewey: “You are so very hopeful, Johnnie but I – I don’t know.” (April 2, 1886). In response, he urges her to have faith. They marry July 26, 1886 in Michigan; John Dewey informs his parents afterwards.

His father takes the news calmly, declaring: “No more … than I expected.” His astonished mother assures her son that she has managed to cope: “Well, it … almost took my breath away, but twenty four hours since the news came have passed, and I am still in the possession of my normal strength and faculties, and for aught I see, nature is keeping on her old way, the world is not off its axis, the sun did not forget to rise, the breakfast bell to ring.” (August 1886). She does condescend to admit that she is “deeply and tenderly moved on your account, dear son,” but goes on to announce that she’s not entirely certain whom he has married: “Now the first thing to be done to relieve one natural anxiety on my part is to know whether Miss Chipman be Miss Hitchcock or not, & how I shall distinguish in the future ‘which is which’ any better than I have in the past, is quite a problem in my mind – and I can think of no way to solve it but for you to send me Miss C photograph – You surely do not need it now, and it would be a vast comfort to me – for beside showing me it was not Miss H–, I should learn better who she is.” (August 1886).

Mrs Dewey’s surprise and confusion seem disingenuous when compared to the reaction of Professor Morris, Dewey’s mentor, to news of the engagement months earlier, in late March. As John reports to Alice, “He inquired if Mrs Morrises [sic] surmises in the matter were correct,” so apparently Mrs Morris had noted the bond developing between John Dewey and Alice Chipman. Once Dewey confirms this suspicion, George Morris expresses great joy: “I really never saw Mr Morris so enthusiastic in my life. He gripped my hand and shook it – really shook it – said that was good, was splendid … He was so genuinely and heartily pleased that I was very glad I told him…. He wanted to know if he could tell Mrs M and of course I said yes; he was so pleased he wanted to drag me right in with him to tell her.” When Dewey comments, “If everybody was as ‘nice’ and decent as George is, life would be simpler, as well as more agreeable” (March 31, 1886), he may well have his mother in mind.

His relationship with Alice Chipman had immediate impact on John Dewey’s work. For instance, he wrote an article examining the adjustment of female students to the University of Michigan, concluding that the older woman students, like his intended, adapted more readily to university life. And Dewey grows impatient with a colleague who resists the notion that women can achieve competence in physics: “Very neat with their hands, but so anxious to see something ‘go off,’ that they can never finish an experiment. This of course is pure libel.” (March 29, 1886). He also finds himself reading political science and wishing that it, not philosophy, were his discipline because “it is so thoroughly human.” (April 1, 1886)

But, most important, his relationship with Alice seems to have improved John Dewey’s philosophy. Even though he is the professor and she, the student, while John Dewey praises the literature Alice Chipman recommends to him, she responds negatively to the philosophic readings he presumably suggested to her. The first summer they write to each other, she comments only that she read a few pieces in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (July 3, 1885), where Dewey’s first four publications appeared. When Alice Chipman reads his article on the social organism, she sees the influence of John Dewey’s mentor, George Morris: “It isn’t much new after what ‘George’ has given us.” But she does concede that John “brings out some points more clearly than anything else.” (December 22, 1885). She reacts to Spinoza, the subject of Dewey’s second published article, with pity verging on contempt for a man willing to put aside human relationships to complete his philosophic work: “Poor old Spinoza, I read today, let the woman he was in love with marry some other man …and then went placidly on writing Philosophy. How I should hate to be in his place – and write Philosophy, at least such Phil as that must have been.” (March 28, 1886).

The next month, Dewey starts to write his Psychology (April 5, 1886), a book that William James read with great anticipation because “I thought, on first turning over the leaves, that here was something altogether fresh & original.” (January 12, 1887). The book disappoints James, not because it seems hackneyed, but because it aspires to achieve a union of the abstract and the particular that James declares impossible: “It’s no use trying to mediate between the bare miraculous self and the concrete particulars of individual mental lives.” (December 27, 1886). At the center of the book rests the notion that feeling and thought inevitably influence each other, so any sharp distinction between them violates reality: “Speaking from the standpoint of psychology, consciousness is always both subjective and objective, both individual and universal.” (p.25). William James perhaps dismissed the book because, even though James thought he liked the idea of reading something original, Dewey had gone too far for him. For instance, in J. Clark Murray’s A Handbook of Psychology, the last text Dewey used in his classes before writing his own, the only feeling explicitly connected to knowledge is curiosity because “generally … the emotional factor of intellectual work is subordinate, the consciousness being absorbed in the primal end of the work, the object to be known.” (p.398). Certainly in traditional philosophy and in psychology, logic, reason and objectivity dominate.

Dewey’s insistence that subjectivity always persists presumably grows from his understanding that his love for Alice has had such deep impact on him that no aspect of his being, including his thinking, remains untouched by her; or, as he wrote her: “Darling your love is such inexhaustible knowledge.” (April 5, 1886). The objections of William James notwithstanding, Dewey would continue trying to fuse specifics and abstractions throughout his career because he remained convinced that theory and experience must nurture each other, a faith undoubtedly reinforced in him by the way his life and work flowered after he allowed himself to feel as deeply as he thought.

Psychology delivers the message that John Dewey learned from his relationship with Alice: one cannot think well or truly without love: “Love is not an ill-regulated gush or sentiment, not a personal indulgence, but is the universal and natural manifestation of personality.” (p.295). Feelings provide the foundation for all thinking and action; as a result, someone with a distorted emotional core cannot reason well. When he concludes his first draft of the book, John Dewey tells Alice it would have required far fewer than 994 pages if he could have assumed that more of his readers knew her: “I have only written just a few things of what you have told me, and it took so many pages because so many people don’t know you, love, and they have to have things explained so.” He claims that in writing this psychology text, he actually conversed with her: “And then sweetheart I talked to you so much yesterday. You heard me didn’t you loveliest? I [didn’t] do anything but finish my psychology yesterday.” If he could have gone directly to the point, he would have simply written that he loves her: “I didn’t say in it at all what really is, that I love you, because darling no one but myself really knows you, and they wouldn’t know at all what it is, and it never could be explained to them.” (April 11, 1886).

In Psychology, Dewey puts emotion at life’s core when he asserts that all intelligent life seeks meaning and that the mind begins this search with the outside world and moves inward as it grows in sophistication: “We may say that intelligence begins with the external and least representative state, and advances to the internal and most symbolic.” (p.137). So, when Dewey writes passionate letters to Alice Chipman, he deals with a more important aspect of reality than he does when he produces abstract philosophic argument.

Dewey’s letters sometimes get particular on this point, indicating specific insights he had gained through of his relationship to Alice, like a new sense of memory’s significance: “Sweet one, I know what remembering is so much better than I did before you taught me. I used to think remembering was calling back something that happened once, and isn’t any more. Now I know that remembering is… just having your being that is come to me and fill me fuller and fuller and lose me more and more in you.” (April 11, 1886). Memory does not just collect external information as a result of a detached survey of the past; memory makes the past present. Dewey puts this idea into Psychology: “Memory consequently removes one limitation from knowledge as it exists in the stage of perception: the limitation to the present.” (p.154).

Professor Dewey explains that the ability to see reality symbolically, rather than literally, results from having more and deeper relationships: “The growth of knowledge is measured by the extent of relations concerned. Each advancing stage is characterized by the development of a new and widerreaching sphere of relations.” (Psychology pp.137-138). Similarly Dewey maintains that his love for Alice added multiple dimensions to his life and, as a result, given him a stronger foundation for realizing the significance of his world and the events taking place in it: “What an idiot I was sweetest Chippy to think I couldn’t write you every day because I wouldn’t have enough to say – Darling, … you make me know something every day.” (April 1, 1886).

In his Psychology, Dewey declares creative imagination, not reason, the most important capacity for understanding the world: “The highest form of imagination however, is precisely an organ of penetration into the hidden meaning of things ... It may be defined as the direct perception of meaning – of ideal worth in sensuous forms; or as the spontaneous discovery of the sensuous forms which are most significant, more ideal, and which, therefore, reveal most to the intellect and appeal most to the emotions.” (p.171). Dewey continues to point out that Aristotle declared poetry truer than history, a judgment Dewey sees as valid because history “only tells us that certain things happened; poetry presents to us the permanent passions, aspirations, and deeds of men which are behind all history, and which make it.” (p.172). But perhaps most important for Dewey, the imagination creates artistic objects that embody feeling and evoke it in others: “The function of the creative imagination everywhere is to seize upon the permanent meanings of facts, and embody them in such congruous, sensuous forms as shall enkindle feeling, and awaken a like organ of penetration in whomever may come upon the embodiment.” (pp.172-173).

Dewey’s repeated declarations that the love he shares with Alice Chipman has saved, expanded and illuminated his awareness makes it easy to understand his enthusiasm for art that evokes emotion, but his correspondence with Alice indicates that she may have had an even more direct influence, for she turned Dewey’s attention to literature. As a result, he reads Robert Browning Alice’s favorite poet, as a ‘sauce’ after he completes his philosophic labors for the day (December 22, 1885). Thus, John Dewey, the philosopher, argues in Psychology that the joy art produces justifies it; “Imagination has no external end, but its end is the free play of the various activities of the self, so as to satisfy its interests.” (p.173).

Professor Dewey explains the tie between imagination and feeling and links both to the exercise of human freedom: “Imagination, in short, takes its rise in feeling, and is directed by feeling much more explicitly than either perception or memory. Imagination represents the subjective side of self acting in its freedom.” (Dewey, Psychology p.173). And so writing letters to one’s beloved instead of, say, preparing a philosophy class or writing a philosophy article, becomes not a waste of time or an evasion of responsibility, but a method of self discovery and, as such, lays the groundwork for exercising one’s true freedom.

Dewey writes Alice repeatedly that she has given him his real life. Her relationship with him, has taught him about love, knowledge that has redeemed him. And by saving him, she has enlivened his world: “Darling this world is so different from what it was before you came into it. My darling, it is such a beautiful sunshiny world now.” (April 3, 1886). Since Dewey’s relationship with Alice brings him joy, it makes him a fuller person. The more pleasure the self feels, the more completely it realizes itself. As Dewey puts it in his Psychology: “Feeling is an accompaniment of activity. It is the self finding its own nature in every activity of the soul … All adjustment that accomplishes itself gives rise to pleasure; all failure to adjust, or misadjustment, to pain…The right combination of unity and variety calls for the best energy and the most successful adjustment, and hence the greatest pleasure.” (p.238).

The more self-realization an individual achieves, the more happiness he or she will enjoy, no matter what the events of his or her life. “Happiness is active satisfaction, or interest … A man who has lost money will feel pain, for he has been deprived of one mode of action; but he may continue to be happy. He may not feel the loss as a loss of himself.” (Dewey, Psychology p.254). Dewey knows what he speaks of here, for he discovers that his relationship with Alice makes him less sensitive to disappointment. He writes that he has not yet learned whether or not he will get the raise he probably needs to marry her the following summer, but such difficulties no longer trouble him: “A few years ago I presume I should have worried to death…and should have attributed the fact that I do not to the development of an ominous happy go lucky trait in my nature.” His new stoicism comes from the peace he has found in his relationship with her: “I cannot be separated from you, because you and I are not two to be separated. What is, is, my own sweet darling.” (March 31, 1886).

Although pleasure may indicate the satisfaction of only a limited dimension of oneself, “happiness, on the other hand…is realization of one’s true, permanent nature brought home to him as an individual.” (Dewey, Psychology p.254). And the man who penned these words is very happy. As he explains to his intended, “I used to think happiness was something you had. I know now that it is what you are, and it is so happy just to be that it really makes all things be.” (April 16, 1886).

Dewey the philosopher argues that human beings realize this ideal nature only through relationships with others: “A person developing his personality in isolation from other persons, through contact with intellectual or aesthetic material, is impossible.” (Dewey, Psychology p.281). So, selfrealization finally depends upon cultivating the capacity for sympathy. “It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of sympathy in the emotional life…for it takes us beyond what constitutes our immediate personality, out private interests and concerns, into what universally constitutes personality.” (Dewey, Psychology pp.285-6). Or as John Dewey, the lover, writes to his intended: “Darling my own do you know that I have been doing this long time? Just learning how I love you darling. I knew it before but I have been learning what that knowledge is & means & it has grown so in depth … & in height that it is taken the whole universe into itself.” (April 16, 1886).

The similarity between the feelings set out in the letters and the intellectual system Dewey develops in Psychology validates Professor Dewey’s claim that “Logic, in short, only generalizes and crystallizes what was originally existing in the form of feeling.” (Dewey, Psychology p.265).

After Dewey’s mentor G.S. Morris died in 1889, Dewey’s memorial stressed the link between Morris’ personal life and his philosophy: “He was preeminently a man in whom those internal divisions, which eat the heart of so much of contemporary spiritual life, and which rob the intellect of its faith in truth, and the will of its belief in the value of life, had been overcome.” (Dewey, ‘Professor Morris’ p.9). Dewey explains that the variety and number of Morris’ relationships to others played a central role in this integrity. So, the example of G.S. Morris and the love of Alice Chipman persuaded John Dewey that intellect functions best with the aid of feelings shaped by deep ties to others. In his Psychology, Dewey offers a rational analysis of social interaction’s role in education, a central principle of his philosophic system, while his letters to Alice Chipman reveal how he learned it and why he found it so compelling.


Nancy Bunge teaches in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Divinity School.


• Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from letters come from The Correspondence of John Dewey ed. Larry Hickman. (CD-ROM, Interlex) and are identified by date.
• Other writings by Dewey mentioned in this article are Psychology and ‘The Late Professor Morris’, both reprinted in The Early Works 1882-1898 ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967.
• J. Clark Murray, A Handbook of Psychology. Boston: DeWolfe, Fiske & Company, 1890.
• Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: Norton, 1995.


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