John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) is regarded as one of the most important philosophers in American history. His work in education, psychology, and social reform has been greatly influential in the United States and around the world. Dewey is also recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of pragmatism, the father of functional psychology, and a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. education during the first half of the twentieth century. He is known not only for his novel ideas but for his extremely hands-on approach to philosophy. Rather than simply spouting theories, Dewey always tried to put his ideas into action and test them out in the field. He sought to fundamentally change the way people viewed the world by promoting scientific analysis over traditional values and morals.
Throughout most of his 92 years, Dewey was an internationally renowned writer, teacher, political reformer, and social activist. He lectured to audiences around the world, he supported the Hull House project in the slums of Chicago, and he was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Dewey's extremely scientific and humanistic approach to tackling the issues of his era was radical for its time and remains highly influential today.
Life and Works
John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins. He was a mediocre student throughout his younger years, but managed to graduate second in his class at the University of Vermont. While studying at the university, Dewey was fascinated by the newly developed theories of psychology and Darwinian evolution that were being taught by his professors. The theory of natural selection would have an especially strong impact on his worldview. Throughout his life Dewey would attempt to apply the evolutionary model—focusing on an entity’s interaction with its environment—to the areas of human psychology and education.
After a brief stint as a high school teacher, Dewey continued his philosophical studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1884. He then began a distinguished teaching career at several universities including the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and most notably at Columbia University, where he taught from 1904 to 1930. As a strong proponent of progressive education, Dewey also founded schools in Chicago and New York City where he put his newly developed educational theories into practice.
It was during his years in New York City that Dewey gained recognition not only as a philosopher but as a political and social reformer. He was a frequent contributor for The New Republic and Nation magazines and spoke out on behalf of numerous political causes such as women’s suffrage and the creation of labor unions. Even after his retirement from Columbia in 1930, Dewey continued to lecture and champion various causes. He even assisted in an investigation of Josef Stalin’s charges against Leon Trotsky at the Moscow Trial.
A prolific writer, Dewey wrote books on numerous subjects and sought to implement his ideas into almost every aspect of life from politics to science to the arts. His most influential writings were The School and Society (1899), his treatise on education, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), a compilation of his lectures, and Logic: the Theory of Inquiry (1938), an examination of Dewey's unusual conception of logic. While each of these works focus upon one particular philosophical theme, Dewey wove in all of his major themes into everything he wrote.
Dewey, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, played a key role in American pragmatism, though Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist per se and instead referred to his philosophy as "instrumentalism."
Instrumentalism refers to the use of human knowledge and intelligence in one’s interaction with their environment. Dewey rejected any reliance on what he saw as outdated traditional or dogmatic ways of thinking, especially from religion. Rather, he saw the need to constantly test and alter one’s perception of the truth through “inquiry.” Rather than seeking an unchanging moral principle, Dewey believed that morals and ethics will always be constantly changing to suit the present circumstances. Like Darwin, who believed that species evolve naturally in order to adapt to their environment, Dewey believed that humans must constantly change in response to their current situation instead of adhering strictly to past norms. Thus, Dewey believed in the supremacy of scientific experimentation and human intelligence as a way to overcome any problem. In this way, his view differed greatly from that of William James.
For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, or whatever. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. For Dewey, God was the method of intelligence in human life: that is to say, rigorous inquiry, or, very broadly conceived, science.
John Dewey lived in a time of tremendous social unrest in the United States. He observed that traditional institutions and religions, although suitable to the time in which they were created, were unable to cope with the current crises taking place in America. Dewey was also outspoken in his disappointment with both political parties in their failure to properly address the problems of the Great Depression. He even called for the creation of a liberal party as a third party. He wrote a great deal about his social and political views in The New Republic magazine.
As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy have also reemerged with the reassessment of pragmatism, beginning in the late 1970s, by thinkers like Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein, and Hans Joas. Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Dewey's non-foundational approach pre-dates postmodernism by more than half a century. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, though this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy—for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.
Dewey applied most of his thought and energy in the area of education reform. In Democracy and Education, Dewey attempts to, at once, synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic or proto-democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. He saw Rousseau as overemphasizing the individual and Plato as overemphasizing the society in which the individual lived. For Dewey, this distinction was, by and large, a false one; like Lev Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process. Thus, the individual is only a meaningful concept when regarded as an inextricable part of his or her society, and the society has no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature, Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.
As a pragmatist, Dewey felt it was vitally important that education not be the teaching of mere dead fact but that the skills and knowledge that students learn be integrated fully into their lives as persons, citizens, and human beings. At the Laboratory Schools that Dewey and his wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes that went into cooking breakfast—an activity they did in their classes. Dewey firmly held that one does not learn solely through memorization of theories and facts, but through experience. Thus he coined the term “learning by doing.”
His ideas were quite popular but were never really integrated into the practices of American public schools, though some of his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military purposes. In the post-Cold War period, however, progressive education has reemerged in many school reform and education theory circles as a thriving field of inquiry.
Dewey and historical progressive education
Dewey's most basic idea with regard to education was that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, rather than simply the memorization of lessons. While Dewey's educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity during his lifetime and after, they have not been widely implemented. One reason for this is that Dewey's writings can be difficult to read, and his tendency to reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding. So, while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals, his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried, on occasion, to correct such misguided enthusiasm but with little success. Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend many, many contradictory theories and practices, as documented by historians like Herbert Kliebard.
It is often thought that progressive education "failed," though whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions of "progressive" and "failure." Several versions of progressive education succeeded in transforming the educational landscape: the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name but one example, springs from the progressive period. However, radical variations of educational progressivism were hardly ever tried, and often were troubled and short-lived.
Epistemology of transaction
Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism." He has been called an instrumentalist, an experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term "transactional" may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.
The terminology problem in the fields of epistemology and logic is partially due, according to Dewey and Bentley, to inefficient and imprecise use of words and concepts that reflect three historic levels of organization and presentation. In the order of chronological appearance, these are:
- Self-Action: Pre-scientific concepts regarded humans, animals, and things as possessing powers of their own which initiated or caused their actions.
- Interaction: As described by Newton, where things, living and inorganic, are balanced against things in a system of interaction, for example, the third law of motion that action and reaction are equal and opposite.
- Transaction: Where modern systems of descriptions and naming are employed to deal with multiple aspects and phases of action, without any attribution to ultimate, final, or independent entities, essences, or realities.
A series of characterizations of transactions indicate the wide range of considerations involved.
- Transaction is inquiry in which existing descriptions of events are accepted only as tentative and preliminary. New descriptions of the aspects and phases of events based on inquiry may be made at any time.
- Transaction is inquiry characterized by primary observation that may range across all subject matters that present themselves, and may proceed with freedom to re-determine and re-name the objects comprised in the system.
- Transaction is fact such that no one of the constituents can be adequately specified as apart from the specification of all the other constituents of the full subject matter.
- Transaction develops and widens the phases of knowledge, and broadens the system within the limits of observation and report.
- Transaction regards the extension in time to be comparable to the extension in space, so that “thing” is in action, and “action” is observable in things.
- Transaction assumes no pre-knowledge of either organism or environment alone as adequate, but requires their primary acceptance in a common system.
- Transaction is the procedure that observes men talking and writing, using language and other representational activities to present their perceptions and manipulations. This permits a full treatment, descriptive and functional, of the whole process inclusive of all its contents, and with the newer techniques of inquiry required.
- Transactional observation insists on the right to freely proceed to investigate any subject matter in whatever way seems appropriate, under reasonable hypothesis.
Illustration of differences between self-action, interaction, and transaction, as well as the different facets of transactional inquiry are provided by statements of positions that Dewey and Bentley definitely did not hold and which never should be read into in their work. 
- They do not use any basic differentiation of subject vs. object; of soul vs. body; of mind vs. matter; or self vs. non-self.
- They do not support the introduction of any ultimate knower from a different or superior realm to account for what is known.
- Similarly, they do not tolerate "entities" or "realities" of any kind intruding as if from behind or beyond the knowing-known events, with power to interfere.
- They exclude the introduction of "faculties" or other "operators" of an organism’s behaviors, and require for all investigations the direct observation and contemporaneous report of findings and results.
- Especially, they recognize no names that are offered as expressions of “inner” thoughts, nor of names that reflect compulsions by outer objects.
- They reject imaginary words and terms said to lie between the organism and its environmental objects, and require the direct location and source for all observations relevant to the investigation.
- They tolerate no meanings offered as "ultimate" truth or "absolute" knowledge.
- Since they are concerned with what is inquired into, and the process of knowings, they have no interest in any underpinning. Any statement that is or can be made about a knower, self, mind, or subject, or about a known thing, an object, or a cosmos must be made on the basis of, and in the language applicable to, the specific investigation.
In summary, all of human knowledge consists of actions and products of acts in which men and women participate with other human beings, with animals and plants, as well as objects of all types, in any environment. Men and women have, are, and will present their acts of knowing and known in language. Generic man and specific men and women are known to be vulnerable to error. Consequently, all knowledge (knowing and known) whether commonsensical or scientific; past, present, or future; is subject to further inquiry, examination, review, and revision.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology (1896)
- My Pedagogic Creed (1897)
- The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism (1905)
- "The new psychology." Andover Review 2:278–289 (1884)
- "The ego as cause." Philosophical Review 3:337–341 (1894)
- How We Think (1910)
- Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
- Human Nature and Conduct (1922)
- The Public and its Problems (1927)
- The Quest for Certainty (1929)
- Experience and Nature (1929)
- Individualism Old and New (1930)
- Art as Experience (1934)
- A Common Faith (1934)
- Liberalism and Social Action (1935)
- Experience and Education (1938)
- Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938)
- Freedom and Culture (1939)
- Knowing and the Known (1949) (with Arthur Bentley)
2 major anthologies of Dewey's works are available:
- Hickman, Larry, and Thomas Alexander, eds. 1998. The Essential Dewey: Volumes 1 and 2. Indiana University Press.
- McDermott, John J., ed. 1981. The Philosophy of John Dewey. University of Chicago Press.
Dewey's Complete Writings are available in 3 multi-volume sets (37 volumes in all) from Southern Illinois University Press:
- The Early Works: 1892-1898 (5 volumes)
- The Middle Works: 1899-1924 (15 volumes)
- The Later Works: 1925-1953 (17 volumes)
The Correspondence of John Dewey is available on CD-ROM in 3 volumes.
Works about Dewey
- Boisvert, Raymond. 1997. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. SUNY Press.
- Crosser, Paul K. 1955. The Nihilism of John Dewey. Philosophical Library.
- Martin, Jay. 2003. The Education of John Dewey. Columbia University Press.
- Rockefeller, Stephen. 1994. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism. Columbia University Press
- Roth, Robert J. 1962. John Dewey and Self-Realization. Prentice Hall.
- Ryan, Alan. 1995. John Dewey and the High Time of American Liberalism. W.W. Norton.
- Westbrook, Robert B. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. Cornell University Press.
- White, Morton. 1943. The Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism. Columbia University Press.
All links retrieved August 3, 2022.
- Democracy and Education - WikiSource
- John Dewey, Project Gutenberg
- Information about John Dewey and F. Mathias Alexander
- Dewey's Moral Philosophy - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- John Dewey - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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