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