John Dewey was an American philosopher, educator, psychologist, public intellectual, social critic, and political activist. He was a major figure in American intellectual history and one of the great minds, deserving, according to his biographer G. Dykhuizen, the title of the “spokesman of humanity.” Born in Burlington, Vermont (1859), he died in New York City (1952). His multivolume works comprise writings from all areas of philosophy and also from psychology, education, political science, and the arts. As a philosopher, he is recognized worldwide as one of the founding fathers of the distinctively American philosophical school of pragmatism, with his own version, titled “instrumentalism.” As an educator, he is renowned for his system of teaching through experimental observation (a progressive system in education focused on learning by doing), which in the 20th century has become internationally influential for decades in many countries, including Japan, China, Turkey, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As a psychologist, he was a pioneer in functional psychology. As a public intellectual, social critic, and political activist, he was involved in numerous cultural, social, and political actions and movements, including founding and presiding over the American Psychological Association, the American Philosophical Association, the New School for Social Research, and the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Against Leon Trotsky; issues of community and democracy; domestic and international political affairs, such as presidential elections and world peace; woman’s suffrage; school reform; and academic freedom. All of these activities were directed by Dewey’s reconstructed conception of philosophy as an intellectual enterprise, whose mission is to solve the problems of men and women, rather than the purely academic problems of philosophers themselves. Such a philosophy must be substantially practical in making human life and activity more creative and intelligent and serving the “construction of good,” by which he means the shared communicative experience. By understanding democracy as a creative “way of life” rather than simply the method of government, he has earned the title of true “philosopher of democracy.”
While from the start being interested in empirical psychology, Dewey’s thought has undertaken an early move, according to his own expression, “from absolutism to experimentalism,” after having dealt with German philosophers such as Leibniz, Kant, and particularly Hegel. The Hegelian flavor, stripped from idealism, has remained with Dewey for the whole subsequent career, in the sense of its unifying and organic character, and moreover its dialectics as a form of evolutionary paradigm. Dewey was an organic holist from the start. The idea of dynamic, open, evolving unity remained a guiding principle of his philosophy. His further move toward naturalistic experimentalism was substantially prompted by the revolutionary input of Darwinism. The theory of natural selection also continued to have a lifelong impact upon Dewey’s thought, while he explicitly rejected Social Darwinism with its self-serving and antidemocratic rhetoric about the survival of the fittest. Thus, both Hegel and Darwin had become the particular and lasting sources of Dewey’s antidualism, that is, the search for overcoming of all traditional philosophical dualisms, such as between culture and nature, subject and object, theory and practice, psychical and physical, mind and world, and individual and society. Dewey’s critical stance toward past efforts in this area was expressed by his conceptions of “experimental experience,” “experimental teaching,” and even “experimental logic” in the middle stage of his career, which had provided him with an empirically based theory of knowledge that was in line with the developing American school of thought known as “pragmatism.”
Darwinism had suggested the idea of interaction between the human organism and its environment when considering questions of psychology and the theory of knowledge. Dewey understood human thought naturalistically, as the product of the interaction between organism and environment, and knowledge as having practical instrumentality in the guidance and control of that interaction. Hence, he adopted “instrumentalism” as the original name for his own pragmatist philosophy. Instrumentalism consists of taking ideas as tools or instruments with which to cope with a given situation. Moreover, various modes and forms of human activity are also instruments developed by human beings to solve multiple individual and social problems. Since the problems are constantly changing, the instruments for dealing with them must also change. Even the educational philosophy of Dewey reflects Darwin’s theory of evolution. Education is also evolutionary. In a constantly evolving universe, it is an endless experiment wherein humans create ways of actively transforming themselves to secure the most complete and effective adaptation possible.
Dewey’s contention that human life as a part of nature follows the patterns of nature is the core tenet of his naturalistic outlook. There is a “natural” continuity between nature and human experience. Humans are not the spectators of nature but active participants in it. We live in the world that is both precarious and stable, and we must help to survive the former with the aid of the latter. It is how our intelligence, whose purpose is the creative adaptation to natural and human condition, works. The intelligence, reflecting creatively on past experience, adapts as a means to new experiments in order to test their value. The search for absolute and immutable world and values as separated this world of process and events is, however, a futile old-fashioned business of classical metaphysicians that has to be abandoned. There is no such thing as changeless being. Dewey is an antimetaphysicist for whom the only reality is nature in its serial process of events. Also, truth, evolutionary in nature, partakes of no transcendental or eternal reality and is based on experience that can be tested and shared by all inquirers.
Such a Deweyan pragmatic approach to human affairs, showing that knowledge is a product of an activity directed to the fulfillment of human purposes, has ample important anthropological consequences. In the place of an example, let us take, for instance, his four-phase theory of human inquiry, which also serves as the theory of human problem solving. To begin with, humans encounter the problematic situation as a practical and experiential situation that triggers all further cognitive development in order to fulfill human needs and desires. In the second phase, humans gather all kinds of data available for clarifying the situation. The third phase involves the reflection and imagination in order to create all possible variants of solutions, which are also entertained in the abstraction. Finally, a practical solution is achieved by implementing the preceding. However, this is not completely the final phase, either, since action means “transaction” (rather than merely “interaction”) between humans and their environment, meaning the transformation and change on both sides. Although this new situation contains elements implied in the former, it is richer because of its new meaning and greater complexity. Such human conduct, which enriches the life via transformation of natural condition and provides the growth of humanity, Dewey is not reluctant to call “art” in the broadest sense of a term.
Dewey applied the method of intelligence and an experimental approach to problems of practice also in the realm of human social existence. He insisted that the human individual is a social being from the start and that individual satisfaction and achievement can be realized only within the context of social habits and institutions that promote it. Even the human mind is a social rather than a purely biological phenomenon, according to Dewey. In one of his anthropologically most significant works, Human Nature and Conduct (1922), which provides a comprehensive statement of his conception of human nature, he focused on the key role of habits in forming the dispositions of action and the importance of reflective intelligence as a means of modifying them. Through creative intelligence, one of whose highest achievements is creative and evolutionary democracy, we can transform the world according to our desires. Dewey conceived of democracy as a primary ethical value, and he did much to formulate the working principles for such a democratic society.
Dewey’s philosophical influence has been changing over the decades. While during the first half of the 20th century, he was a prominent figure of American and even international philosophical scene, his work, not exempt from misunderstandings, has provoked many critics (notably B. Russell among them) to raise objections against his theory of inquiry and logic. Dewey himself was not reluctant to develop the key concepts further in the course of time; one of the most anthropologically significant corrections he intended to accomplish concerned the substitution of the term culture for the term experience in the title and content of his opus magnum, Experience and Nature (1925).
After the eclipse of the whole pragmatist philosophy around the middle of the 20th century, Dewey’s influence began so have a considerable renaissance. Recent developments have shown many of his ideas to continue to be rich and inspiring into the 21st century. During his lifetime, the very first volume of the spectacular Library of Living Philosophers was devoted to him (1939), and The John Dewey Society was established in 1935. The Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale was established in 1961, whereby a 37-volume set based on Dewey’s manuscripts was published from 1969 to 1991. Other resources for studies in Dewey’s philosophy are being stored and offered to many Deweyan scholars all over the world. In addition to figures of contemporary world philosophy such as Richard Rorty, Jürgen Habermas, Hilary Putman, and others, the growing school of “neo-Deweyans” in philosophy and social thought represent the enduring relevance of his innovative and seminal version of naturalistic pragmatism.
- Campbell, J. (1995). Understanding John Dewey. Chicago: Open Court.
- Dewey, J. (1969-1991). The collected works of John Dewey (J. A. Boydston, Ed.). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Hickman, L. (Ed.). (1998). Reading Dewey. Interpretations for a postmodern generation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Hickman, L., & Alexander T. M. (Eds.). (1998). The essential Dewey (2 vols.). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Rockefeller, S. (1991). John Dewey: Religious faith and democratic humanism. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Ryan, A. (1995). John Dewey and the high tide of American liberalism. New York: Norton. Westbrook, R. B. (1991). John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.