John Dewey and American Democracy
Along with Charles Peirce and William James, John Dewey (1859-1952) advanced the philosophical movement known as American pragmatism. To distinguish his version from those of Peirce and James, Dewey called his philosophy “instrumentalism.” The name appealed to him because he liked to think of human intelligence as a probing instrument people must use to solve life’s personal and social problems. Frequently, habitual responses are sufficient, but Dewey was especially impressed by the ways in which life challenges custom and tradition. Fresh inquiry is often called for, he stressed, and his philosophy sought to organize human intelligence to meet such challenges, particularly as they appeared in public life. These concerns made Dewey a staunch advocate of democracy, which he regarded as a moral ideal.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, Dewey taught in high schools before completing his doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University. Peirce was one of his teachers, but Dewey’s dissertation focused on a critique of the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. After ten years of teaching at the University of Michigan, Dewey went to the University of Chicago in 1894. There, he helped to found a famous laboratory school and also became much involved in social issues provoked by urbanization, technological advances, and the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants to the United States. In 1904, Dewey left Chicago for New York City and Columbia University, where he taught until his retirement. A prolific author, in works such as Democracy and Education (1916), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Individualism Old and New (1929-1930), and A Common Faith (1934), he argued that human existence is fundamentally an ongoing social process that enjoins people to use critical methods of inquiry that are essential for and conducive to democracy.
In this worthwhile intellectual biography, Robert B. Westbrook, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, shows that few American minds have been as penetrating and brilliant as John Dewey’s. It is even possible that none has taken democracy with greater seriousness. Thus, Westbrook’s book begins aptly with an epigraph by Charles Frankel. “To know where we stand toward Dewey’s ideas,” Frankel once contended, “is to find out, at least in part, where we stand with ourselves.”
Frankel’s point, which Westbrook’s book explains and elaborates, rings true, for John Dewey was a philosopher whose thought covered virtually every major philosophical issue. His work on those questions, moreover, was not done in cultural isolation. On the contrary, Dewey’s thought repeatedly stressed the importance of social and historical context. Thus, he took his American setting, including the relation of the United States to the rest of the world, very seriously.
Westbrook acknowledges that his book is not the complete biographical treatment that Dewey’s life deserves. Yet the author has little need for modesty, to say nothing of apology. For one thing, Westbrook himself points out that Dewey, unfortunately, left little behind in the way of a record of his own interior life. There is abundant correspondence, but much about the man, he concludes, “remains opaque” nevertheless. At least from a psychological point of view, Westbrook is less than entirely confident that he can explain why Dewey’s thought developed as it did. As for what Dewey thought, however, Westbrook believes that he does understand Dewey—indeed, he believes, and with considerable justification, that he understands him far better than interpreters who, in Westbrook’s ironic judgment, have explored “the origins and impact of ideas that never existed” in Dewey’s mind. Westbrook’s success in this regard, and the insight that his readers gain, is exacted at a price. For even though he finds Dewey’s prose no more difficult than that of many modern philosophers, he cites sympathetically Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s quip that Dewey wrote as “God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.”
Nevertheless, Westbrook’s study, which concentrates on Dewey’s social thought and on his understanding of democracy as “a way of life,” is full of insights that corroborate the claim made by Frankel in the book’s epigraph. For American readers especially, to meet Dewey is to encounter a thinker who can help them know who they are and where they stand. That said, it must be underscored that the epigraph to Westbrook’s book does not imply...
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