Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
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 or by their readability. Moreover, he seemed oblivious to physical or cultural influences that might have marked him in the many places where he studied or held professorships: the University of Vermont from 1875 to 1879; Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he taught school from 1879 to 1881; Charlotte, Vermont, where he taught school in 1881; The Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1884; the universities of Minnesota and Michigan, where he held positions between 1884 and 1894; the University of Chicago, where he served from 1894 to 1904; and Columbia University, where he taught from 1904 until his retirement in 1930. The extent to which Dewey internalized and intellectualized his personality contrasts sharply with a central theme of his mature philosophy: His instrumentalism, or experimentalism, exhorted people to gain knowledge and to discover their values by vigorously exploring and learning from experience winnowed from participatory democracy and from active community life. Regardless of how he sublimated his personality, however, Dewey persistently worked to put his ideas into practice, especially—but not solely—in his attempts to effect educational change in the United States, China, and Japan.
Dewey scholars usually divide the evolution of his ideas into two periods. During his earlier years, he was greatly influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson and by teachers who were themselves influenced by the German idealism and Romanticism of Immanuel Kant and Georg W. F. Hegel, both of whom, in different ways, were seeking to break down the barriers in traditional philosophy by developing unified theories, which among other things sought to reconcile science and religion. Dewey’s maturation came when, moving away from the ideas of these thinkers—though they remained important influences—he drew more heavily on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the pragmatic ideas of Peirce, James, and Royce.
The result was Dewey’s instrumentalism, a reconstruction of philosophy. Dewey defined human beings as creatures within the natural order that, like other species, are obliged to adapt continuously to one another and to their environments in order to survive. In this context, as he explained in one of his seminal writings, Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey argued that previous philosophies had been too abstract and too concerned with constructing intellectual systems to serve people’s practical needs. Dewey believed that truth was what happened to an idea and therefore that truth changed over time. Life, for Dewey, began and ended in humans’ experiences; that is, humans using appropriate methods could successfully cope with life’s confusing, obscure, and indeterminate situations. The key to coping with such difficulties, Dewey insisted, was using insights to define problems, establishing a set of possible solutions, determining the likely consequences of each possibility, and then evaluating the best possibility through observation and experiment. These flexible steps, which he called “warranted assertibilities,” he believed to be as relevant to the purposes of social reformers as they were to laboratory scientists, for the objective of warranted assertibilities and the inquiries of which they were a part was to change specific situations. Truth was not an otherworldly abstraction, and ideas, in short, did not exist apart from human beings’ workaday worlds in which they were forged, as many previous philosophers had argued. On the contrary, truth and ideas were instruments of the interplay of experiences and the intelligence that continuously tested them so they could be better adapted to constant change. Humankind, like other species, had no fixed, predetermined natural end as far as Dewey was concerned, and as a consequence events could be shaped by open-ended inquiry and by the freeing thereby of human intelligence. The greater the number of human alternatives, the freer human beings would become.
As Dewey contended in Democracy and Education and in Liberalism and Social Action, he was an exponent of liberal democracy because it furnished an ethic that nurtured the social and political environment in which instrumentalism functioned best. Only in a democratic context could humans interact socially to share experiences and freely refine the relevance of their assessments of them. Dewey sharpened his views in this regard, for example, in his famous and influential proposals for education. He rejected traditional educational formats in which the young were treated as passive receivers of information, mere vessels into which teachers poured knowledge. Learning, in Dewey’s judgment, resulted from “hands-on” trial and error. Dewey not only established his own progressive school for youngsters at the University of Chicago but also became the personal evangel of his educational beliefs by helping to explain them firsthand and by putting them into practice throughout the world. In many other direct ways, Dewey likewise fought in the marketplace for the ideas in which he believed: woman suffrage, pacifism, antiauthoritarianism, social welfare, and a host of political reforms aimed at extending democracy. Amid these activities, he sought to avoid celebrity and the development of a “cult of personality” about himself. In an objective way, he thus insisted on the primacy of the instrumentalist ideas and held that they, not he, should be kept in the forefront. He stressed in all of his writings the conviction that traditional divisions in philosophy are false and that the human quest should be directed toward recognizing the unity of knowledge and experience.