Study Guide

John Dewey

John Dewey Essay - Critical Essays

Dewey, John

Introduction

Dewey, John 1859-1952

American philosopher, psychologist, and educator.

Dewey is recognized as one of the twentieth century's leading proponents of pragmatism, education reform, and pacifism. His work in these three areas derives from his belief that humanity is essentially good, and that social deviancy can be curtailed by specific educational methods.

Biographical Information

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, the son of a grocer. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1875 and went on to teach high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, from 1879 to 1881. He returned to Burlington and cultivated his interest in philosophy with the assistance of his former teacher, H. A. P. Torrey. Shortly thereafter, Dewey published two articles in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and enrolled as a graduate philosophy student at the newly formed Johns Hopkins University, where he studied briefly with American logician and founder of pragmatism Charles S. Peirce, psychologist G. S. Hall, and G. S. Morris, who introduced Dewey to the philosophy of Hegel. He completed his doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant in 1884, and began a productive ten-year tenure at the University of Michigan. He strived to make philosophy applicable to all humans by becoming increasingly involved in public education and published several works on psychology. In 1894, Dewey accepted a post as chairman of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Chicago. During this period, Dewey worked closely with social reformer Jane Addams, published his Studies in Logical Theory, formed the laboratory school commonly known as the Dewey School, and published several works on pedagogy. In 1904, Dewey left Chicago to join the faculty of Columbia University, where he taught until his retirement in 1930, after which he continued to write, travel, and lecture extensively. In 1921, Dewey joined the American Committee for the Outlawry of War, and published the pamphlet Outlawry of War: What It Is and Is Not, in which he castigated the League of Nations as the "League of governments pure and simple." Advocating the concept of a World Court, Dewey believed that such an institution could be effective in the moral education of humanity. He also joined the Committee on Militarism in Education to protest ROTC programs and to promote pacifism. He also opposed America's military draft as involuntary servitude and as an example of "totalitarianism." In 1937, Dewey was selected to head the international tribunal in Mexico City formed to investigate charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, resulting in the report Not Guilty. Dewey died in 1952 in New York City.

Major Works

Although Dewey's philosophy evolved throughout his life, it is thought by many philosophers and critics to be governed by his concept of experience, which he perceived as a unified albeit constantly changing force, rather than a collection of remembered facts. Differences for Dewey are but variables within a singular, consistent source, a philosophical approach that, along with his rejection of subjectivism and empiricism caused much of his earlier work to be labeled as Hegelian idealism. Dewey, however, eventually rejected the predisposition of idealists to relegate all human experience to knowledge, which he perceived as distorting the initial experience. Humanity, argued Dewey, spends much of its time acting, suffering, and enjoying, not in reflection. Dewey's later work abandoned idealist concepts, instead embracing a theory that life is a sequence of lapidary and concurrent experiences. Borrowing from twentieth-century advancements in the biological and anthropological sciences, Dewey developed a complex and naturalistic theory that an individual's experience is the organic premise of all life. From this concept, Dewey elaborated that there are three levels or plateaus of human interaction with the environment: physiochemical, psychophysical, and human experience. By observing and interacting with the world, humanity's experience grows in knowledge and understanding. This approach directly refutes the scientific theories of Aristotle, which promulgated that science relies on a passive witnessing and contemplation rather than Dewey's view that knowledge relies on active testing and consideration. This theory is consistent with Dewey's writings on logic and education. The objective of inquiry, according to Dewey, is knowledge, but inquiry is a process that continuously alters its original questions and desired conclusions. As for education, Dewey rejected both poles of educational philosophy prevalent during the first half of the twentieth-century. Children were neither passive receptacles of knowledge nor were they mature enough to determine what education they required. Dewey advocated "learning by doing" as a method of active educational inquiry that cultivated a child's inherent curiosity.

Principal Works

Psychology (nonfiction) 1887

Applied Psychology [with J. A. McLellan] (nonfiction) 1889

Outlines in Ethics [with James Tufts] (philosophy) 1891

School and Society (nonfiction) 1899

Studies in Logical Theory (philosophy) 1903

Child and Curriculum (nonfiction) 1906

Ethics (philosophy) 1908

How We Think (philosophy) 1910

Interest and Effort (philosophy) 1913

Democracy and Education (nonfiction) 1916

Essays in Experimental Logic (philosophy) 1916

Creative Intelligence (nonfiction) 1917

Reconstruction in Philosophy (philosophy) 1920

Human Nature and Conduct (philosophy) 1922

Experience and Nature (philosophy) 1925

The Public and Its Problems (nonfiction) 1927

The Quest for Certainty (philosophy) 1929

Characters and Events (nonfiction) 1929

Philosophy and Civilization (nonfiction) 1931

Art as Experience (philosophy) 1934

Liberalism and Social Action (nonfiction) 1935

Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (philosophy) 1938

Freedom and Culture (nonfiction) 1939

Problems of Man (nonfiction) 1946

Knowing and the Known [with Arthur Bently] (philosophy) 1949

Criticism

Irving King (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: A review of Democracy and Education, in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXII, No. 5, March, 1917, pp. 674-76.

[In the following review of Dewey's Democracy and Education, King attempts to elucidate Dewey's theories in order to support his thesis that the work is a worthwhile study of sociology, education, and philosophy.]

All students of philosophy and sociology, as well as of education, welcome this comprehensive and fundamental statement of Professor Dewey's educational philosophy. [Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education]. It will undoubtedly take its place among the world's enduring classics in these three fields of thought. The educator, to whom it is primarily written, will find here a clarifying account of the principles and the practice which must of necessity characterize all sound educational development that is really an expression of democratic ideals. Such a conception of education cannot be stated in any narrow, isolated fashion, and not the least valuable aspect of its exposition, therefore, lies in the accompanying searching and critical examination of the evolution of philosophical thought and the correlated evolution of the ideals of social democracy.

The method of the work is to be found in a series of statements and expositions of various dualisms of thought and practice which have been at various times more or less dominant in both philosophy and education since the time of the Greeks. The historical analysis which accompanies each discussion presents a viewpoint that is absolutely essential to the adequate understanding of the problems of current educational theory and practice, and on the basis of which alone we can arrive at solutions consistent with our democratic ideals.

The first dualism is the general one between education and life. While a social necessity, education has tended in all times to become more or less isolated from the social order which evolved it, through an inadequate conception of the social function of instruction. This imperfect view of the nature of education has found expression at various...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

M. C. Otto (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: A review of Democracy and Education, in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1920, pp. 64-5.

[In the following review of Dewey's Democracy and Education, Otto focuses on the sociological aspects of the work, which Otto expresses as the need for education to reflect common experiences.]

The present educational situation presents an interesting paradox. We were never so convinced of the social necessity for public education and never more uncertain what public education should be. We insist that our children must have it even though we do not know what it is they must have. Which is very natural, of course, under the...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

W. H. Werkmeister (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: A review of Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, in Ethics, Vol. L, No. 1, October, 1939, pp. 98-102.

[In the following review of Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Werkmeister declares Dewey's work as a philosophical landmark.]

The publication of [Logic: The Theory of Inquiry] is most welcome and for at least two reasons. In the first place, it represents the final formulation of basic ideas which Dewey first stated some forty years ago in his Studies in Logical Theory and which he subsequently developed and modified somewhat in his Essays in Experimental Logic and the more recent little book on How We Think....

(The entire section is 1438 words.)

Joseph Ratner (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Dewey's Conception of Philosophy," in The Philosophy of John Dewey, Northwestern University, 1939, pp. 49-73.

[In the following essay, Ratner examines Dewey 's personal definition and objectives for his philosophy, concluding that Dewey believed philosophy to be an integral element of all human life. ]

In his opening contribution to Studies in Logical Theory, Dewey outlined a conception of philosophy which, from the vantage point of the present time, we can see he has been working on and working out ever since. It has not, however, been a development proceeding on a smooth and unbroken line. It has not been an unperturbed and undeviating unfoldment of...

(The entire section is 9123 words.)

Arthur E. Murphy (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Dewey's Epistemology and Metaphysics," in The Philosophy of John Dewey, Northwestern University, 1939, pp. 195-225.

[In the following essay, Murphy declares that Dewey's philosophical methods are unsound because they do not adopt scientific or practical methodology.]

In harmony with Spinoza's observation that Peter's idea of Paul is likely to give us a better notion of Peter than of Paul, it will doubtless be observed that the essays in this volume reflect the preconceptions and interpretative limitations of their authors at least as much as the actual content and implications of Mr. Dewey's philosophy. The danger in such cases is that what is presented as a...

(The entire section is 11866 words.)

Stephen C. Pepper (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Some Questions on Dewey's Esthetics," in The Philosophy of John Dewey, Northwestern University, 1939, pp. 371-89.

[In the following excerpt, Pepper examines Dewey's writings on esthetics, which he finds are often contrary to Dewey's purported allegiance to Pragmatist tenets. ]

A personal item may more quickly reveal the grounds of certain issues I sense in Dewey's esthetic writings than anything else I could offer to the same end, and will also perhaps furnish him with a more direct focus for reply than the customary impersonal and more distant modes of statement. About 1932 I came to the point in a manuscript, which I was preparing on types of esthetic...

(The entire section is 6961 words.)

Charles E. Merriam (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: A review of Freedom and Culture, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, April, 1940, pp. 339-42.

[In the following review of Dewey's Freedom and Culture, Merriam concludes that Dewey has a firm grasp on the theories of political science.]

[Freedom and Culture] by the Nestor of American philosophy, writing at the age of eighty, is one of the most penetrating and stimulating contributions yet made to modern political science. The theory of government is already deeply indebted to Dr. Dewey's previous contributions—Democracy and Education (1916), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), The Public and Its Problems...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)

Herbert W. Schneider (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Dewey's Psychology," in Guide to the Works of John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Schneider presents an overview of Dewey's writings on the various aspects of human psychology.]

During his years as a student under George Sylvester Morris, from 1882 to 1886, John Dewey thought of psychology not as a science but as a philosophical method and "standpoint." In part, his studies in Vermont, the influence of Coleridge and the writings of the romantic idealists, and in part, the systematic version of this standpoint as it took shape in the mind of Morris led Dewey to believe that for a...

(The entire section is 4900 words.)

William W. Brickman (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Dewey's Social and Political Commentary," in Guide to the Works of John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 218-56.

[In the following essay, Brickman—a professor of Educational History and Comparative Education—defends his conclusion that Dewey's commentaries on politics and society form a cohesive and consistent whole.]

A milestone in Dewey's intellectual development was his lecture, "The Ethics of Democracy," delivered in 1888 to the Philosophical Union of the University of Michigan. To Merle Curti, this paper was evidence that Dewey possessed "a thoroughly democratic and even radical social point of view as...

(The entire section is 14816 words.)

Christopher Lyle Johnstone (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Dewey, Ethics, and Rhetoric: Toward a Contemporary Conception of Practical Wisdom," in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1983, pp. 185-207.

[In the following essay, Johnstone finds similarities between the interrelation of ethics and rhetoric in the writings of Aristotle and Dewey.]

Rhetoric and wisdom are often linked in discussions of the practical functions of speech. For Plato, a genuine art of rhetoric is rooted in wisdom—in knowledge of the true Forms of things—and serves to communicate this knowledge to others.1 Aristotle views rhetoric both as an exercise of practical intelligence and as generative of practical wisdom.2...

(The entire section is 9675 words.)

Michael Buxton (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Influence of William James on John Dewey's Early Work," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLV, No. 3, July-September, 1984, pp. 451-463.

[In the following excerpt, Buxton examines the movement of Dewey's thought from idealism to pragmatism, and identifies William James as a singular influence on the evolution of Dewey's beliefs.]

William James has generally been regarded as the source of John Dewey's rejection of neo-Hegelian absolute idealism in favor of a naturalist position. The intellectual relationship between the two men during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is an important aspect of the history of American philosophy and...

(The entire section is 5820 words.)

Brian Patrick Hendley (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "John Dewey and the Laboratory School," in Dewey, Russell, Whitehead: Philosophers as Educators, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986, pp. 14-42.

[In the following essay, Hendley presents a history of Dewey's Laboratory School, and focuses on Dewey's philosophical and educational goals for the school. ]

I went to the Dewey School one day,
And saw the children all at play.
But when the tardy bell had rung,
All the classes had begun.
Some to Science, some to French,
Some to shop to work at the bench.

L.o.t.D.o.E., Dewey, Dewey, Dew-ee-ee.
...

(The entire section is 17115 words.)

Steven C. Rockefeller (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "John Dewey, Spiritual Democracy, and the Human Future," in Crass Currents, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 300-21.

[In the following essay, Rockefellerwriting from the perspective of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as the student revolts in Chinaenumerates several concepts from Dewey's social agenda as a desirable antidote to spiritual and social oppression.]

The human race faces the urgent challenge of creating a global community marked by economic opportunity, equal justice, freedom and respect for nature, or its survival as a species is in doubt. The obstacles to achieving community locally as...

(The entire section is 10385 words.)

Louis Menand (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: 'The Real John Dewey," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 12, June 25, 1992, pp. 50-55.

[In the following review of Robert B. Westbrook's John Dewey and American Democracy, Menand gives an overview of Dewey's life and work, and touches briefly on the influence Jane Addams and Dewey's wife, Alice Chapman, had on his social consciousness.]

1

In the minds of most people born after the Second World War, John Dewey is an exceedingly dim presence, a figure apparently left stranded on the far side of the Sixties. He has seemed the spokesman for a world view whose day has passed. His ideas have not been thought worth...

(The entire section is 7607 words.)

Bob Pepperman Taylor (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "John Dewey in Vermont: A Reconsideration," in Soundings, Vol. LXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 175-98.

[In the following essay, Taylor discusses the contradictory nature of Dewey's attitude toward his birth-state Vermont.]

John Dewey was always somewhat ambivalent about his Vermont background. At times he praised the "democratic" character of his Vermont heritage and even drew close parallels between the development of his own ideas and the ideas of his teachers at the University of Vermont. At other times, perhaps more frequently, he distanced himself as much as he could from these political and intellectual roots.

For example, in 1929 Dewey...

(The entire section is 8889 words.)

Frank X. Ryan (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Primary Experience as Settled Meaning: Dewey's Conception of Experience," in Philosophy Today, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 29-42.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan examines Dewey's views on personal experience, concluding that he never was able to reconcile his seemingly contradictory views.]

This essay will examine and attempt to clarify Dewey's conception of immediate or primary experience. In particular, my aim is to extricate Dewey's actual view from an interpretation still popular among pragmatists consisting of: 1) the phenomenology of "blooming, buzzing, confusion" and 2) its ontological correlate designating a "brute" encounter with "primal,...

(The entire section is 8288 words.)

Randolph Feezell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Sport, the Aesthetic, and Narrative," in Philosophy Today, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 93-104.

[In the following essay, Feezell humorously examines competitive collegiate sports in light of Dewey's Art as Experience.]

From Paul Weiss's relatively early and legitimating reflections in Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry, to more recent ruminations in books and scholarly publications, numerous philosophers have been fascinated by the fascination of sport. For example, in his recent book, Philosophy of Sport, Drew Hyland again wonders about the "significant and apparently transcultural appeal" of play and sport.1 I won't attempt to...

(The entire section is 6695 words.)

P. Eddy Wilson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Emerson and Dewey on Natural Piety," in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 75, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 329-46.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson examines the differences and similarities between the naturalism espoused by Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

Today many find themselves to be alienated from a religion with a strong textual tradition and in rebellion against the idea of a transcendent deity. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche said, "it is in one particular interpretation [of distress], the Christian moral one, that nihilism is rooted."1 Rather than simply abandoning religion, some, convinced by Nietzsche's analysis, have sought to...

(The entire section is 7798 words.)

Morton White (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Desire and Desirability: A Rejoinder to a Posthumous Reply by John Dewey," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XCIII, No. 5, May, 1996, pp. 229-42.

[In the following article, White recounts Dewey's response to White's book Social Thought in America, and White's answer to Dewey's charges.]

Shortly after his ninetieth birthday, John Dewey1 acknowledged receiving from me two publications in which I had criticized some of his views in ethics: my Social Thought in America, and my "Value and Obligation in Dewey and Lewis," both published in 1949.2 Since I never heard anything more from Dewey about them, I surmised that he had...

(The entire section is 6378 words.)

Alan B. Spitzer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "John Dewey, the 'Trial' of Leon Trotsky, and the Search for Historical Truth," in Historical Truth and Lies about the Past, The University of North Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 13-34.

[In the following essay, Spitzer examines Dewey's role as commissioner of the committee to defend Leon Trotsky, its eventual finding that Trotsky was not guilty of the Moscow purges or of corroborating with Nazi Germany, Dewey's rejection of historical objectivity, and Dewey's conclusion that Trotsky was right although Dewey abhorred his political views.]

For truth, instead of being a bourgeois virtue, is the mainspring of all human progress.—John Dewey...

(The entire section is 10481 words.)

Shannon Sullivan (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Democracy and the Individual: To What Extent is Dewey's Reconstruction Nietzsche's Self-Overcoming?" in Philosophy Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 299-312.

[In the following essay, Sullivan finds similarities between Dewey's esthetics and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.]

The mere combination of the names of John Dewey and Friedrich Nietzsche in the title of an essay might offend some readers. Many of the scholars of American pragmatism I have met view Nietzsche as just one more of those Continental, postmodern philosophers whose work, while perhaps stylish and currently en vogue, contributes little of value to philosophy because the issues...

(The entire section is 9625 words.)