The Humanism of John Dewey, Introduction

John Shook

Among twentieth-century humanists, none stands higher than the American John Dewey, professor of philosophy at Columbia University during the first half of the century. Dewey taught the world what a sound naturalism, humanism, secularism, and atheism should look like. In his pragmatist philosophy, these four isms not only cooperated but mutually supported each other. Subtract one or two and the rest are fatally weakened. Dewey’s vast influence over subsequent thought on these intellectual movements need not be recounted here. What deserves fresh examination is whether Dewey can help us further now, at this pressing hour of urgency. The world seems to be reaching a new tipping point of political and ecological instability. Can Dewey’s humanism help once again?

Religions have helped to get us to this dangerous stage, and now they clamor for the spotlight as the best hope for humanity. Rather than offer positive solutions, religion has gathered energy to attack its most serious competitors: those who bravely defend naturalism, humanism, secularism, and atheism. More alarming is how each of these four causes shows signs of abandoning some of the others in order to save itself. Humanists are tempted to abandon naturalism and atheism, calling themselves “religious humanists” in a pragmatic alliance with the faithful for advancing moral values. Secularists are tempted to distance themselves from humanism, wondering why they should weaken themselves with so many idealistic principles when the First Amendment is at stake in the practical world. Naturalists may wonder if being identified with the secular and atheist agendas will hurt science education when it is so much easier to reassure the faithful that astronomy, geology, and biology can’t disprove God. Atheists are divided over which, if any, positive worldview to prioritize: secularism’s political agenda, naturalism’s scientific agenda, or humanism’s progressive agenda. Religion’s time-honored strategy of “divide the heretics and conquer” may work yet again.

Dewey saw these same dangerous social forces at work in his day. Ultimately at stake is human freedom itself: the intellectual freedom of inquiry, the political freedom of freethought, and the moral freedom of idealism. Conservative religions tend to fear and detest all these freedoms. They don’t want inquiry into their dogmas, they don’t want obstacles to political power, and they don’t want people to decide ethics for themselves.

Dewey’s essay reprinted in this issue is simply titled “Freedom.” If this defense of human freedom doesn’t solidly ring out as a call to arms now as it did then, then our claim to be civilized is hollow indeed. The other essays about Dewey in this issue focus on one or another of Dewey’s core philosophical views. (All were presented at a November 2009 celebration of John Dewey’s 150th birthday anniversary at the Center for Inquiry/Transnational in Amherst, New York.) We can notice how each essay reflects concern for all five isms: pragmatism, naturalism, humanism, secularism, and atheism. In their own way, our authors search for that unification Dewey himself sought while clarifying the relationship between religion and Dewey’s pragmatism.

James Gouinlock’s essay on “Philosophy and the Conduct of Life: Dewey’s New Paradigm” starts from Dewey’s naturalism. This is not the crude “value-free” naturalism that religionists prefer to criticize. Since humans are naturally intelligent and socially organized, we rise above genetic instincts and private perspectives. Human conduct happens in communities, we work together for common goals, and we project an ideal future for which we strive. Values are as natural as anything; the only question is whether we will intelligently re-evaluate our ideals in light of circumstances or blindly chase dreams that poor nature cannot support. Sometimes, wisdom traditions, disappointed by fate, project ideals onto a transcendent mythological plane and worship figments of pure imagination. Gouinlock worries that Dewey, in his atheist rejection of the supernatural, did not encourage us to respect and remold values from past wisdom traditions. Dewey did teach us to bravely inquire into which values are worthy of future pursuit, so wouldn’t a pragmatic appropriation of valuable wisdom traditions make sense for humanists?

In her essay “Narrative Naturalism,” Judith Walker emphasizes Dewey’s appreciation for the way that humans construct and convey culture through our narratives, our stories of who we are and where we are going. Religions try to monopolize our narratives, but there are many new stories to tell that don’t require old gods. As people leave behind mythologies, they don’t stop creating beautiful meanings. Walker suggests that it is arbitrary whether we label our appreciation for such moving meanings as “religious” or not. When Dewey tried to nudge religious people over to naturalism, he called such moving experiences “religious,” but “a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.” Attending to the sweetness of our devotion to meaningful ideals, naturalists can live noble and joyous lives, truly human and humanistic lives.

Larry Hickman also attends to the substance of Dewey’s naturalism, rather than just the style of his language, in “John Dewey’s Spiritual Values.” Dewey had to use both substance and style to effectively answer critics from all sides. Defenders of supernaturalism accuse naturalism of nihilism—denying any reality or motivation for moral ideals—repeating the age-old charge that all atheists must be amoral hedonists enslaved to private desires. Militant atheists are portrayed as so driven to deny religion entirely that they adopt a stoic materialism instead, which can be a nihilistic trap. What needs to be “militant” in Dewey’s view is not atheism by itself but a fully naturalistic humanism. What do humanists believe in? Pragmatism finds that ordinary people who don’t need religion can still pursue high ideals and even willingly sacrifice themselves, committed to some higher vision and some greater good. If their commitments practically amount to living a “religious” and “spiritual” life—and it seems that way to many people—then Dewey replies that atheists can be idealists, and atheists should be humanists. Again, to translate Dewey accurately, Dewey means only moral idealism and not transcendent idealism (as Dewey is a naturalist, not a metaphysical idealist). Hickman then points out that Dewey’s appreciation for “spiritual” values simply amounts to a defense of liberal humanism as a noble way of life, far better than supernaturalism’s subservience to a dictatorial God. Dewey’s naturalistic humanism recognizes the creative power of, so to speak, the human spirit, while it denies any power to a divine spirit. Humanists can be confident that religion holds no monopoly over the substance or the style of defending the human freedom to be moral.

The power of humanist values in a natural world is also the theme of Paul Kurtz’s essay “Looking Ahead: Future Prospects for Dewey’s Philosophy.” Outdated caricatures of naturalism and evolution especially depict humans as instinctively selfish. These crude distortions again forget that humans have higher intelligence and organized culture. Morality functions well for a social species such as ours, and if we are smart, we can improve our moralities just as we improve any other tools. Changing social tools can be harder than modifying steel tools; ethics is difficult since some people can unyieldingly place themselves at the center of everythin
g. Yet naturalism, as Kurtz emphasizes, finds no center to the universe. Again, this could be viewed as an open invitation to embrace materialistic nihilism, but humanism is smarter than that. Precisely because humanity is trying to live in a fragile contingent world, we must think cooperatively—and harder than ever before. Only humanism is well-positioned for a global effort at a truly planetary ethics, the new ethics that Paul Kurtz calls for at this urgent hour. What else besides humanism can practically undertake this task? Not the Bronze Age mythologies expecting a magical god-rescuer. Not the escapist mysticisms sending souls into unconscious ecstasies. It is not a question of whether ideal ends will determine the destiny of humanity on this planet. Some ideals or another have brought us to this point, and they will take us forward, perhaps to tragedy. Only we can grab control of our ideals and bend them toward a better planetary destiny. Pragmatic humanism is a call to responsibility, a responsibility for the future of life itself. For Kurtz, the prospects of Dewey’s philosophy in the future amount to our prospects in the future. If humanists are instead left behind, it will be our own fault.

Editors note: A volume of selected papers from the celebration of John Dewey’s 150th Birthday at the Center for Inquiry will soon be available. Prometheus Books is publishing Dewey’s Enduring Impact: Essays on America’s Philosophy later this year.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.


Among twentieth-century humanists, none stands higher than the American John Dewey, professor of philosophy at Columbia University during the first half of the century. Dewey taught the world what a sound naturalism, humanism, secularism, and atheism should look like. In his pragmatist philosophy, these four isms not only cooperated but mutually supported each other. Subtract …

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