John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism Summary

Alan Ryan


In John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, Alan Ryan has produced a beautifully written and intellectually stimulating study of a great American thinker. That Ryan’s book is engaging is a tribute to his authorial art, for John Dewey would not normally be considered a promising subject for a work aimed at a wide public. Though an important philosopher who made signal contributions to American public discourse, Dewey lived what most would consider a singularly uneventful life, devoid of the drama that sells modern biographies. A model university professor who died in his bed in his nineties, Dewey remained to the end a faithful husband, a devoted father, a careful and candid thinker, and a prolific, if graceless, writer. Ryan surmounts the hurdle of Dewey’s admirable domesticity by transcending the biographical genre. He covers the important turns in Dewey’s life in adequate detail, but the real drift of his work is an elegant explication of the ongoing relevance of Dewey’s thought for America at the close of the twentieth century. Ryan’s book is better described as an extended essay than as a formal biography—and it is the stronger for that. In the end, Ryan is writing as much about himself as about John Dewey.

This is not to say that Ryan’s subject is merely the pretense for a sermon. John Dewey in his day was the most distinguished apostle of American liberalism. He championed the liberal cause at a time when charismatic leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and social movements such as Progressivism and the New Deal gave American institutions an enduringly liberal cast. So far-ranging were Dewey’s interests and so respected were his opinions, even by his conservative opponents, that he was widely acknowledged as the living exponent of the American mind. The historian Henry Steele Commager wrote even before Dewey’s death, “So faithfully did Dewey live up to his own philosophical creed that he became the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”

Times, however, have changed. The once proud banners of American liberalism are in tatters. A direction and a renewed sense of purpose are difficult to discern in the era of Bill Clinton. Ryan is acutely conscious of this fact. He acknowledges that he is writing at the end of a century and at a time when the liberalism that flourished in earlier decades has come under systematic attack. Nevertheless, he vigorously maintains that if Americans are to think seriously about their current state, they must understand better the intellectual milieu that produced modern liberalism. This is an especially urgent undertaking for Ryan, who is far from believing that liberalism is a lost cause. Indeed, he resolutely refuses to give up on liberalism. He values its contribution to public felicity in America too much to let it go. As he points out, while the liberal project clearly has tarnished in recent years, no obviously superior or more attractive alternative has appeared. The Reagan revolution of the 1980’s was curiously halfhearted, and the resurgent conservatism of the 1990’s has yet to demonstrate its internal coherence and staying power. A return to the roots of modern liberalism may simultaneously offer insights into what went wrong with the dream and clues as to how to revive its once compelling vision.

Hence the compulsion to return to John Dewey. Not surprisingly, Ryan notes, there has been a recent revival of interest in his subject. Unfortunately, hitherto the renaissance in Dewey studies has largely been confined to the tomes of professional philosophers. Ryan performs a valuable public service by making the insights of this scholarship readily accessible. One of the great strengths of his book is the concluding chapter, in which he summarizes this literature and relates it to his own concerns about the future of liberalism.

As Ryan is well aware, rescuing Dewey from the academics and making his thought a living influence on contemporary thought is a quintessentially Deweyan enterprise. Ryan’s approach is doubly fortunate because he shares not only Dewey’s methods but also his concerns. From first to last, over the course of an unusually extended career, Dewey always wrote his books to reach a mainstream as well as a scholarly audience. He went out of his way to publish pieces in popular journals so his ideas would spread outside of university libraries. In this Dewey was in part his own man and in part a child of his times. It is important to bear in mind that although his period of greatest reputation coincided with the first half of the twentieth century, John Dewey was born in 1859. He remained to the end of his life in many ways what he had been at the start—a nineteenth century man. This was nowhere more evident than in his approach to philosophy. While Dewey earned a Ph.D. and held a succession of university chairs, he always maintained a commitment to the nineteenth century ideal of the public philosopher. Dewey believed that philosophy must break free from the cloistered realm of an “ivory tower” and engage with the travails of everyday life.

Ryan identifies three themes in the recent literature on Dewey that help explain his relevance to contemporary social theorists....

(The entire section is 2188 words.)