Study Guide

John Dewey

John Dewey Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111200186-Dewey.jpgJohn Dewey Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The United States’ best known and most influential twentieth century philosopher, John Dewey (DEW-ee) reconstructed a number of inherited philosophical perspectives. They include traditional philosophers’ frequent separation of the world of ideas from the world of practical reality; their separation of subject and object, soul and body, God and nature; and their acceptance of the mind as passive instrument that garners knowledge only from the imprint of external events. Dewey formulated a fresh theory of knowledge designed to liberate individuals from social environments he believed were ripe for reform and improvement through the application of reflective intelligence, scientific analysis, and an understanding of the potential for change that could be derived from individual experiences. He reevaluated the social functions of idealism, religion, psychology, logic, and ethics; reinterpreted and helped revitalize liberal democratic thought; and encouraged sweeping educational reform. He was, in addition, an immensely productive scholar throughout his working lifetime of fifty years, publishing twenty-one books—most translated into foreign languages—and scores of significant articles. His collected works fill thirty-seven substantial volumes. Before he died in 1952, Dewey had explored nearly the entire range of philosophical inquiry even though, as some have noted, he never developed a systematic metaphysics. In the estimate of other leaders of the early twentieth century Progressive movement, in which Dewey played an important role, he was regarded as the preeminent philosophical champion of social democracy. Among academic philosophers, he was recognized as a pragmatist of a kind who elaborated and expanded upon experimentalist ideas identified in part with Thomas Hill Green, Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, and William James. Liberals widely acclaimed him the conscience of the American people, while many conservatives, fearing the undeniable radicalism of his ideas, denounced him.

Burlington, Vermont, where Dewey was born in 1859, was a rapidly industrializing town of ten thousand, with traditional, if rapidly changing, values that were reflected by the prominence of its churches and by the buildings of the highly respected University of Vermont. What Dewey perceived of the town, however, was the growing social and economic division of its classes, accompanied by distinctions of morality and taste. Dewey was the second son of a middle-aged grocer, later the owner of a cigar store. Dewey’s mother was devoutly religious and raised her children alone during the nearly six years that her husband served in the army during and after the Civil War. Thus, while Dewey rejected the sentimental and moralistic piety then characteristic of much of New England religion, he retained a lifelong interest in religion, particularly in Christianity’s relevance to people’s everyday lives.

Throughout his life, Dewey outwardly appeared the quintessential academic philosopher. He was shy and self-effacing. He lacked the personal vividness that excites biographers and showed no signs of precociousness or even great imagination during his youth and early manhood. Even his most admiring students judged him a boring lecturer, and his abundant writings are undistinguished either by the excellence of their style...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

John Dewey Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: In his intellectual concerns and educational interests, Dewey significantly shaped the roles of philosophy and reform in the United States.

Early Life

John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. His mother, née Lucina Artemisia Rich, was twenty years younger than his father, Archibald Dewey, who owned a grocery business in the community. John was the third child in a family of four. Although the Civil War separated the family for six years when Archibald enlisted in the army, by 1866 they had returned to Burlington, where Archibald entered the cigar and tobacco business.

In the years that followed, John Dewey grew up in a middle-class world where the native-born Americans and Irish and French Canadians shaped his early social experiences. John Dewey’s parents encouraged his wide-ranging reading and his outdoor activities. His mother’s evangelical piety, however, influenced Dewey’s values well into adulthood. On the whole, his childhood was a pleasant one, and his parents were warm and supportive, although his mother’s pietistic worrying about Dewey’s behavior upset him.

After a good high school education in the classics, Dewey entered the University of Vermont. In addition to the classical curriculum, he took biology courses and read widely in the literature of the emerging Darwinian controversies. His interests were moving him toward the study of philosophy. What he read and what he had experienced in his young life contributed to the philosophical issues of dualisms such as body/soul, flesh/spirit, and nature/mind, but Dewey wanted a unity of knowledge that overcame such divisions. In the meantime, Dewey was graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. For the next two years, he taught high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, a community much in flux from the rapid growth of the oil business.

At Oil City, two events greatly shaped Dewey’s life. First, Dewey’s religious doubts (or fears) came to seem foolish to him. He felt a oneness with the universe, and although he continued attending church for the next dozen years, he had left the religious faith and practice of his parents. Over the course of his long and productive life, after his abandonment of evangelical Christianity, Dewey embraced the absolute idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), with its emphasis on the unity of existence. Later, Dewey accepted humanistic naturalism, with its continuity of nature and man drawn from the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910).

In 1882, Dewey entered The Johns Hopkins University for graduate study in philosophy. A serious but sly student, Dewey was quietly exploring the relationship between religion and morals in late nineteenth century American life. At Johns Hopkins, Dewey accepted neo-Hegelianism. Dewey and his whole intellectual generation were seeking something new, something to explain life, a transformation of values. Dewey’s fully developed naturalism was, however, in the future. He had begun the transformation of his religious beliefs by ruling out the supernatural but placing its values into the natural. In time, as a philosopher, Dewey placed in the natural world a faith that had previously been assigned to a coming Kingdom of God.

In 1884, he joined the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan. During the next four years, he broadened his interests in social affairs and educational matters, and he wrote and published. He also married, in 1886, Harriet Alice Chipman, a bright and capable woman who encouraged Dewey in pursuing his ideas. Wife, mother, and critic, she was a source of encouragement until her death in 1927. Psychology, Dewey’s first book, was published in 1887; it combined empirical psychology with German metaphysical idealism. After a year at the University of Minnesota, he returned to Michigan as chairman of the department of philosophy. Until 1894, when he went to the University of Chicago, Dewey built up the department’s faculty and cut his final ties to organized religion. His interests became increasingly secular. He accepted an appointment at the University of Chicago as chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy.

Within two years, he established...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)

John Dewey Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111200186-Dewey.jpgJohn Dewey (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Dewey’s instrumentalism, his version of William James’s pragmatism, applied directly to the industrial problems of the United States and made pragmatism an operative concept in American politics. His contributions to the concept of functionalism earned for him a permanent place in the development of American psychology.

Early Life

John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. His mother, née Lucina Artemisia Rich, was twenty years younger than his father, Archibald Dewey, who owned a grocery business in the community. John was the third child in a family of four. Although the Civil War separated the family for six years when Archibald enlisted in...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)

John Dewey Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. A thoughtful consideration of John Dewey’s understanding of experience and the role of aesthetics and the arts within it.

Bernstein, Richard J. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966. A brief, clear, and reliable overview of Dewey’s philosophy.

Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Tracking the implications of Dewey’s thought, this study shows Dewey’s significance...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

John Dewey Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

0111200186-Dewey.jpgJohn Dewey (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Author Profile

Dewey attacked traditional ethical theories. His objection to these theories (absolute idealism’s categorical imperative and “will of the absolute,” Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism) was that they posited the existence of an absolute moral code independent from and knowable in advance of human interaction with an ever-changing environment. Dewey’s ethical theory, “instrumentalism,” was grounded in a progressivist prescription for participatory democratic decision making. His views on the normative and prescriptive requirements of ethical theory remain strongly influential.

The Reflex Arc Concept

Dewey came to...

(The entire section is 1438 words.)