Organic Democracy:
The Political Philosophy of John Dewey

By Scott London

John Dewey has been described as "a philosopher who combined the stubborn perseverance of a New England farmer with the zeal of a reckless liberal." He was a progressive and far-sighted thinker with a distinctly American sensibility, one who espoused the virtues of pragmatism and experience over absolute and metaphysical truths and who advanced a social and political philosophy perhaps more thoroughly democratic than any that has been formulated before — or since. Today, a half-century after his death, John Dewey remains if not America’s premier political philosopher, then at least its greatest spokesman for civil society, community values, grass-roots liberalism, and — some would argue — even democracy itself.

John Dewey was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, followed by a brief stint as a high school teacher, he earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He went on to teach at the University of Michigan for about ten years, the University of Chicago for another ten, and finally Columbia University where he chaired the philosophy department for over twenty years. After his retirement in 1930, he remained active and continued to write many articles and books not only on philosophy and logic but on art, education, science, and social and political reform. Among his many books are Democracy and Education, Reconstruction in Philosophy, The Public and Its Problems, and Freedom and Culture. In addition to his life as a philosopher and teacher, he was a tireless social activist and championed a wide range of humanitarian causes during his lifetime. He died in 1952.

A society was not an entity unto itself, Dewey said, but rather an aggregate of individuals who grow and evolve. By extension, only a society that could grow and evolve as its citizens did would be truly free.

The philosophy of John Dewey is often identified with Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and other thinkers loosely identified as "pragmatic." As a school of thought, pragmatism made its entrance into history under the banner of modernism, with its emphasis on scientific progress and its disdain of historical and metaphysical truths. The pragmatists rejected Hegel’s notion that "philosophy aims at knowing what is imperishable, eternal, and absolute." Since objective truth is not something that can be discovered through the faculty of reason, they argued, epistemology and its preoccupation with the "foundations" of knowledge must be abandoned altogether. They believed that ideas and propositions cannot be judged by objective criteria since it is impossible to establish such criteria; instead, they should be judged by the results they produce when put into practice. In Santayana’s memorable phrase, the pragmatists insisted that "it’s better to pursue truth than to possess it."

In John Dewey and American Democracy, Robert Westbrook chronicles the development of Dewey’s thinking from his initial disenchantment with idealist metaphysics in the late 1880s to his formulation of pragmatic naturalism which culminated in a volume, written in collaboration with some of his colleagues, entitled Studies in Logical Theory. The book was rescued from likely obscurity by noted Harvard philosopher William James who praised it as an example of the kind of thinking he had begun to call "pragmatism." As James saw it, Dewey had abandoned the belief in an "absolute behind or around the finite world" in favor of an empiricism in which "‘life’ or ‘experience’ is the fundamental conception."

Dewey welcomed the association with James enthusiastically. Studies in Logical Theory was dedicated to James, in fact, and he regarded James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) as one of his greatest inspirations. Robert Westbrook observes that James’s influence on Dewey has recently been called into question, but if one carefully specifies its character, this influence was as undeniable and important as Dewey claimed it to be. Dewey’s greatest debt to James was his pragmatic critique of epistemology. While epistemology sought to objectify knowledge as something separate from experience, Dewey clearly subordinated knowledge to action, according to Westbrook.

The link between Dewey and James is significant because pragmatism has often been criticized as overly identified with individualism, capitalism, and material success, when, in fact, Dewey often spoke out against these values. If anything, Dewey saw the necessity of going beyond James’s version of pragmatism to develop a philosophy that would bind Americans to a moral community, as he put it, and provide criteria for decisions that were socially important and politically useful.

It was this social dimension that informed most of Dewey’s philosophy during the second half of his life. Following his arrival at Columbia University in 1905, Dewey’s primary mission was to reconstruct philosophy and shift its attention from "the problems of philosophers" to "the problems of men." This demand for relevance grew out of his sense that social progress is the true end of philosophy, and that philosophy, if it is to have any meaning, must be firmly rooted in human experience — not in epistemological notions of an independent cogito, City of God, a priori category, or Transcendental Mind. According to Dewey, philosophers have mistakenly insisted on making a problem of the relation between the mind and the world when, in fact, "mind" and "reality" are meaningless epistemological abstractions drawn from a single indivisible process.

According to Westbrook, Dewey believed that philosophy had reached a "fatal turning point" and that the role of the philosopher needed to be radically transformed to meet the needs of a progressive society. "American philosophy," Dewey stated in 1904, "must be born out of and must respond to the demands of democracy." So long as knowledge is conceived as something external to experience, he said, human beings are deprived of the capacity to direct their societies and control the institutions that affect their lives. "Pragmatism was the logic of this new conception of intelligence," Westbrook writes, "deployed to close down an epistemology industry at odds with both science and democracy in order to erect a philosophy responsive to both. Democracy was the immanent, oppositional value that Dewey’s philosophy idealized."

While Dewey’s early career was deeply influenced by Hegel and other speculative philosophers, he began to turn away from the idealism of his youth in the late 1880s to explore the practical dimensions of consciousness and action. Having already defined an ethic of self-realization — the notion that each individual has a unique and normative purpose or "function" — his thinking now shifted to a systematic examination of the practical and environmental requirements of this idea. Out of this search grew a highly original and carefully worked out social philosophy that continues to influence American political thought to this day.

The ideal of self-realization, as Dewey conceived it, held that freedom was the opportunity to actualize oneself as a social being. Freedom was defined in the positive, in contrast with many of Dewey’s contemporaries who maintained that freedom could only be properly understood in the negative — as "freedom from" this or that constraint. The key to Dewey’s ideal was the notion of "function" which described the relationship between an individual and his or her environment. A person’s function was a normative concept that prescribed how a person might best fit into society in order to actualize his or her highest capacities. Dewey insisted that the relationship between the individual and his or her environment must be based on mutual adjustment. In fact, he said, fitting into society might well involve radically changing it. (He later used this argument as a justification for extensive social reforms.)

Formulated in this way, democracy could be seen as "organic," as synergistic and evolving, rather than "atomistic" — composed of individual parts held together by a social contract. A society was not an entity unto itself, Dewey said, but rather an aggregate of individuals who grow and evolve. By extension, only a society that could grow and evolve as its citizens did would be truly free. Dewey maintained that the ends of democratic politics were to secure the conditions for the self-realization of all the individuals in a society.

Democracy was not so much a political matter for Dewey as it was a quality inherent in each individual. While this idea did not go over well with Dewey’s contemporaries, he stood fast in his conviction that "humanity cannot be content with a good that is procured from without, however high and otherwise complete that good." The way for individuals to realize the democracy "in their own hearts" was through community. As Dewey wrote, "it is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through association that he exercises it. The theory which sets the individual over against society, of necessity contradicts itself."

Already, Dewey had firmly established himself as a political thinker in the tradition of Plato, Rousseau, and Marx — as one who believes in the inherent virtues of human beings and whose outlook is oriented toward what Glenn Tinder has called "the politics of redemption." For Dewey, the ends and means of democratic life were the fulfillment of human virtue and nobility, not the preservation of the political status quo or the securing of individual liberties. The democratic ideal represents "a demand to be realized," Dewey said. It holds that "each individual shall have the opportunity for release, expression, fulfillment, of his distinctive capacities, and that the outcome shall further the establishment of a fund of shared values. Like every true ideal, it signifies something to be done rather than something already given, something ready-made."

Dewey’s social and political theory figured prominently in his educational vision. In fact, in his 1916 book Democracy and Education — which remains the book for which he is best known — Dewey went so far as to say that it was the closest attempt he had made to summarize his "entire philosophical position." He saw "an intimate and vital relation between the need for philosophy and the necessity of education."

At the heart of Dewey’s educational philosophy was the importance of preparing students for democratic citizenship. He stressed that consciously guided education aimed at developing the "mental equipment" and moral character of students was essential to the development of civic character. He formulated a program for developing what he called "scientific thinking" — the mental habit of free inquiry, tolerance of alternative viewpoints, and free communication. He also believed in cultivating children’s capacity for the exercise of deliberative, practical reason in moral situations. He urged teachers to teach not "ready-made knowledge," as he called it, but a method that would enhance moral reasoning. The best way to do this, he said, was to introduce students at the outset to "a mode of associated living" characteristic of democracy. A school should be a community of full participation and "conjoint communicated experience" in which social sympathy and deliberative moral reason would develop.

Dewey’s ideas encountered considerable resistance during the first half of the twentieth century. For example, in a now-famous debate with Robert Maynard Hutchins, the legendary president of the University of Chicago, Dewey defended his idea that education should be about more than preparation for lives of personal fulfillment and professional accomplishment. As he saw it, the ultimate rationale for education was to make democracy work, and education for democracy was impossible in institutions sealed off from society. Hutchins responded with the persuasive and then-prevalent view that the purpose of education — particularly the liberal arts curriculum — was to cultivate the intellect through reading and reflecting on the great works of the Western canon, preferably in an academic environment free of worldly pressures and distractions.

According to educator Thomas Ehrlich, the Hutchins-Dewey debate continued well into the 1940s and helped define the terms of engagement in colleges and universities throughout the country. Today, however, there is little doubt who won the argument. Four major developments in higher education suggest that Dewey had the stronger viewpoint. First, many colleges and universities are today experimenting with community- or service-based learning. Second, discipline-based learning is giving way to problem-based learning. Third, there is a growing emphasis on collaborative learning, as opposed to individual learning. And fourth, new technologies are making teaching more individualized and interactive. What the future of American higher education will look like, Ehrlich says, depends to a large extent on how the issue that divided Dewey and Hutchins is finally resolved. Will education "continue to be shaped primarily by a small group of universities dedicated to training an elite cadre of intellectual leaders, using the model if not the substance urged by Hutchins? Or will undergraduate education be increasingly formed by the needs of its consumers and by institutions that view their primary mission as responding to those needs?"

This question hinges on an issue that is central to Dewey’s social and political philosophy — the role of the public in a democracy. Dewey formulated what remains one of the most wide-ranging and persuasive arguments for a strong public sphere. His theory was initially developed in response to the widespread effort following World War I to reconstruct democratic theory according to the norms of objective science. Largely a product of the new alliance between psychology (especially behaviorism) and political analysis, this movement emphasized the irrational motivation underlying human social life and raised serious questions about the capacity of ordinary citizens for the sort of rational deliberation and judgment that Dewey found essential to democratic politics.

Spearheaded by men such as Charles Merriam and Harold Laswell, the "democratic realists" argued that American democracy required a redefinition of its core principles that "considerably closed the gap between the ideal and reality," Westbrook writes. They felt that democracy "should be conceived less as a republic of active citizens than as a system of responsible elites, a system well within reach in the United States."

Walter Lippmann was by far the most influential of the democratic realists and his book Public Opinion, published in 1922, represented "perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned," according to Dewey. Lippmann advanced the idea that most people, no matter how well educated, were open to manipulation. "A Public which directs the course of events" was a practical impossibility, he claimed, and the idea of democracy was therefore a "mystical fallacy."

In The Public and Its Problems, published in 1927, Dewey strenuously disagreed with this view. While he conceded the empirical accuracy of Lippmann’s account of modern-day public opinion, and praised the democratic realists for exposing the shortcomings of democratic government and the bewilderment of the ordinary citizen, he rejected the elitist solutions offered in response. Subjugating civic self-determination in the name of efficient government could never be consistent with true democracy, he declared.

Dewey’s objection to the arguments of the democratic elitists took several forms. In the first place, if the masses were as "intellectually irredeemable" as the critics implied, they would in any case have too many desires and too much power to permit rule by experts. "It could be made to work," he said, "only if the intellectuals became the willing tools of big government interests. Otherwise they would have to ally themselves with the masses, and that implies, once more, a share in government by the latter." Another objection was that without the participation of the public in the formulation of policy it could not reflect the common needs and interests of the society at large since only the public can define the public interest. Dewey also argued that just as experts could not make policy that was truly public, so too policy makers need not be experts. This was essentially an argument against professionalism, for in his view the public must have the capacity to "judge the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns."

Unlike the democratic realists, Dewey believed that direct participation in a democracy would foster an unexpected talent for thoughtful deliberation in ordinary citizens. "We lie in the lap of an immense intelligence," he said. The difficulty was to unleash this intelligence, which remained "dormant" until "it possesses the local community as its medium." In The Public and its Problems — Dewey’s only work of formal political philosophy — he outlined an elaborate program of truly participatory democracy, one built around face-to-face interactions in "neighborly communities."

"Everything about Dewey’s analysis pointed to the need for a politics of knowledge that would end the bewilderment of the public," Westbrook observes, "but this politics remained, at best, an implicit, wholly undeveloped element of his argument. In laying out the ‘infinitely difficult’ conditions for the emergence of the Great Community and offering little guidance for overcoming them, he inadvertently and ironically made almost as good a case as Lippmann had that the phantom public would not materialize."

John Dewey embraced a wide range of public roles over the course of his long career — philosopher, educator, pragmatist, political activist, intellectual — but Westbrook interprets him first and foremost as a political thinker whose philosophy was always driven by a commitment to the values of community, public life, and shared experience. For Dewey, metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and ethical theory were all means toward the same end: securing the conditions of a viable participatory democracy.

Peter Gay has observed that there are two ways of being unpolitical — "to think that politics can do everything, and to think that politics can do nothing." The former leads to "utopianism and fanaticism," in his view, the latter to "Epicureanism and apathy." "Yet despite their opposite effects, both are symptoms of the same disease, a failure of realistic vision." Dewey may be justifiably described as unrealistic. Indeed, his faith in ordinary citizens, in "the public," was roundly criticized by the democratic realists for what they saw as its excessive idealism. Yet Dewey was not unpolitical. As he wrote in Ethics, democracy, rightly conceived, is not so much a goal as it is a process — and a highly political one at that.

It involves constant meeting and solving of problems — that is to say, the desired harmony is never brought about in a way which meets and forestalls all future developments. There is no shortcut to it, no single predestined road which can be found once for all and which, if human beings continue to walk in it without deviation, will surely conduct them to the goal.

Dewey insisted that most of his contemporaries had failed to properly distinguish between democracy as a way of life and democracy as a system of government. Though the two were closely related, the idea of democracy in the former sense was, in Dewey’s words, "a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. And even as far as political arrangements are concerned, governmental institutions are but a mechanism for securing to an ideal channels of effective operation." As such, democracy was an inherently participatory ideal and the "realist" proposal for democracy with a limited degree of self-government was for Dewey a contradiction in terms. "Whatever his weaknesses as a political theorist and strategist, Westbrook notes, "Dewey was never guilty of shortchanging democracy as a moral ideal."

While Dewey’s two major works of the late 1920s — Experience and Nature (widely regarded as one of the most important works of philosophy of its time when it appeared in 1929) and The Quest for Certainty (published later that same year) — were not directly about democracy, they were, in part, "an effort to establish that the world we have is one in which a faith in democracy is possible," according to Westbrook. In Experience and Nature, for instance, Dewey declared that "shared experience is the greatest of human goods." Since the ability to reason and communicate was what made human beings distinctive, men and women could realize their humanity only insofar as they were able to participate in the experiences that language made possible. "To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values."

Westbrook maintains that Dewey’s efforts to ground democracy in the culture and the psyche of contemporary America was, in fact, an answer for how to institutionalize democracy, but an answer that takes a radical and unfamiliar view of institutions. For this reason, Dewey was not only an exceedingly prescient thinker but also a path-breaking visionary, a philosopher who anticipated some of the most important political and social developments of the second half of the 20th century.

Westbrook is not alone in his praise of Dewey. A wide range of contemporary thinkers, from Louis Menand and James Kloppenberg to Bruce Kimball and William Sullivan, all write glowingly about Dewey’s contributions to American political thought. Richard Rorty, one of today’s most respected philosophers, describes his admiration for John Dewey as "almost unlimited." He ranks Dewey (along with Wittgenstein and Heidegger) as one of "the three most important philosophers of our century." Nevertheless, he acknowledges — and rightly so, in my opinion — that Dewey’s defense of participatory democracy is hard to defend on purely practical grounds. It might be best understood as an ideal to aspire to than a universally effective means of democratic decision-making, at least in today's troubled political climate.