From the 1920s until his death in 1952, John Dewey was more influential than any American philosopher has been, either before or since. For the last half-century, however, Dewey’s major works, once read and studied by philosophers and the broader public alike, have had little impact on American philosophy or on American intellectual culture. Although he has had prominent champions, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam among them, Dewey is absent from the curricula of most American universities and colleges, and even when he appears it is most often as an inert fragment of intellectual history, as the expression of attitudes that belong to different times and that have no serious implications for the present.
This is a sad loss. During his long career, Dewey helped people of many nations (in Turkey and China as well as in the United States) think through major questions about democracy and education. His contributions to American social and political life were unparalleled. Our public discourse today would be enormously improved if he were available to make the case for universal health care, to advise on the reform of our educational system, or to correct the jejune view that democracy has been obtained once smiling people can wave their ink-stained fingers in the air. We could also use his calm wisdom in our impassioned debates about religion and its role in public life. Even those who neglect his philosophical writings often have a sense of his public achievements and may regret the fact that no American intellectual today can play a similar role.
Yet Dewey obtained his platform because he was a prominent philosopher. His contemporaries saw him as the first American philosopher to rank with the great thinkers of the Western tradition. They were right to hold him in such high regard. Dewey was the most important philosopher of the twentieth century.
My judgment will strike most professional philosophers as absurd. They find Dewey’s ideas about the “central topics in philosophy,” the “core issues” of metaphysics and epistemology, philosophy of language and mind, and logic and philosophy of logic muddy if not muddled. Even those of his defenders who struggle to show how his ideas in these areas offer serious alternatives to prevalent conceptions do him scant justice. For Dewey’s significance lies not in the technical contributions he made to questions that exercise a small number of professional philosophers but in his sense that the allegedly central parts of philosophy are only auxiliary subjects for pursuing the major questions that arise for contemporary societies and their citizens.
We should take his characterization of the field seriously*:
If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education. [p. 328]
Dewey’s proposal reminds us of his pioneering work in setting up the lab school at the University of Chicago and of his continual willingness to cross West 120th Street to join Columbia University to Teacher’s College. For today’s philosophical professionals, however, the suggestion is at best quaint.
Dewey wanted nothing less than thorough reform: reconstruction in philosophy. Following his account of philosophy as the general theory of education, he offers a contrast with rival visions:
Unless a philosophy is to remain symbolic—or verbal—or a sentimental indulgence for a few, or else mere arbitrary dogma, its auditing of past experience and its program of values must take effect in conduct. [p. 328]
The thought that philosophy should be confined to the few was anathema to Dewey, and he recognized the danger that it may do so. In the paragraph that precedes the definition, he drew attention to the pressures that create a gap between philosophy and the broader culture.
The fact that philosophical problems arise because of widespread and widely felt difficulties in social practice is disguised because philosophers become a specialized class which uses a technical language, unlike the vocabulary in which the direct difficulties are stated. [p. 328]
Using technical formulations is dangerous because continued usage of esoteric language may incline philosophy to concentrate on the allegedly timeless problems bequeathed by tradition without returning to the genuine source of philosophical reflection, the individual and social difficulties that arise in different forms in different times and places, thus divorcing the professional practice from the wider culture and rendering it irrelevant. Instead of contributing ideas about the reshaping of individual lives and social interactions, philosophy can easily lose its way as practitioners devote their attention to questions that no longer bear on human existence, playing ever-more intricate games with issues that descend to us from a past in which they were once urgent.
Dewey agreed with William James that philosophical questions need to be assessed for their significance and that the assessment turns on the differences that are made to human lives. Unlike James, however, he did not suppose there is a single vast philosophical problem, centered on something like the reconciliation of natural science and religion—that was one issue for him, but it had no monopoly or any special priority. It arose with special force in the late nineteenth-century world, but it was accompanied by many others: questions about the place of art in human lives, the continued credibility of political institutions, the search for community, the recurrent attempt to sort through conflicts of value, and the enterprise of preparing people for meaningful lives. All of this inspired, infused, and gave substance to his public activism.
Dewey’s philosophy takes as central the project of systematizing the incomplete and disorganized picture of the world that our various fields of inquiry deliver. Yet a synthesis that would be pertinent to the needs of the early twentieth century—or the early twenty-first—should take up specific issues, urgent questions that arise concerning what should be valued and what purposes should be pursued. These questions emerge from the actual conditions of democracy, from the fragmentation of large societies, from the inequalities and conflicts that divide people. In effect, Dewey turned philosophy inside out, focusing first on the problems that arise for individuals for whom literalist faith is no longer an option and for societies that aim to integrate clashing perspectives within a functional democracy. If the supposedly timeless questions framed by earlier thinkers continue to matter, it is because those questions need to be addressed if the most urgent problems are to be tackled. Sometimes we may have to take up issues about how human experience should be characterized or about the limits of human knowledge, but that is always and only directed to the important work, the work of making sense of our individual and collective lives.
Genuine philosophy, philosophy that is not “isolated from life,” must start by framing and reformulating its agenda. In a series of important and once widely read books, Dewey did just that. He explored the disintegration of political community, the human practices of valuing, the transformation of human lives by the creation and appreciation of art, and the requirements of a commitment to democracy that goes far beyond the thought that all has been achieved once you have universal adult franchise under conditions of more-or-less open discussion. His books are impressive for their ability to discuss concretely the contemporary contexts in which human problems—human philosophical problems&md
ash;emerge. Philosophy in this vein is not easy. The movement of Dewey’s thought was always synthetic. Rather than supposing that philosophy can be done from the armchair, in which a lonely “rigorous” analyst engages with the “timeless questions” unsullied by factual knowledge, Dewey required himself and his followers to learn from the various forms of inquiry available and to struggle to integrate them.
Great philosophers are often radical in changing the subject—as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, Marx, and Nietzsche all did. Dewey’s attempt to reconstruct the agenda of philosophy was as sweeping as any. Beyond that, however, he was radical in his own attempts to answer the questions he posed. The muted prose beguiles his readers. Oliver Wendell Holmes was right to compare Dewey’s voice to that of an especially earnest and somewhat inarticulate deity, but the call—as with Marx and Nietzsche before him and Foucault after—was not merely to interpret the world but to change it. Dewey’s social philosophy is marked by a profound scrutiny of the institutions we have inherited. He could bring wisdom to the policy discussions of his contemporaries because of the depth and breadth with which he had thought about the conditions of contemporary human life. His calls for revision have gone unheeded, first by professional philosophy and later by democratic societies, and philosophy and the world are worse for our lack of attention.
On the 150th anniversary of Dewey’s birth, it would be good to have him back.
* All quotations in this article are taken from John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press, 1916 and 1944).