(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.