John Dewey

During the first half of the 20th century, John Dewey (1859-1952) was America's most famous exponent of a pragmatic philosophy that celebrated the traditional values of democracy and the efficacy of reason and universal education.

Born on Oct. 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vt., John Dewey came of old New England stock. His father was a local merchant who loved literature. His mother, swayed by revivals to convert to Congregationalism, possessed a stern moral sense. The community, situated at the economic crossroads of the state, was the home of the state university and possessed a cosmopolitan atmosphere unusual for northern New England. Nearby Irish and French-Canadian settlements acquainted John with other cultures. Boyhood jobs delivering newspapers and working at a lumberyard further extended his knowledge. In 1864, on a visit to see his father in the Union Army in Virginia, he viewed firsthand the devastating effects of the Civil War.

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Educational Career

Dewey's career in Vermont public schools was unremarkable. At the age of 15 he entered the University of Vermont. He found little of interest in academic work; his best grades were in science, and later he would regard science as the highest manifestation of human intellect. Dewey himself attributed his "intellectual awakening" to T. H. Huxley's college textbook on physiology, which shaped his vision of man as entirely the product of natural evolutionary processes.

Dewey later remembered coming in touch with the world of ideas during his senior year. Courses on psychology, religion, ethics, logic, and economics supplanted his earlier training in languages and science. His teacher, H. A. P. Torrey, introduced him to Immanuel Kant, but Dewey found it difficult to accept the Kantian idea that there was a realm of knowledge transcending empirical demonstration. Dewey also absorbed Auguste Comte's emphasis on the disintegrative effects of extreme individualism. The quality of his academic work improved and, at the age of 19, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and second in his class of 18.

Dewey hoped to teach high school. After a frustrating summer of job hunting, his cousin, principal of a seminary in Pennsylvania, came to his rescue. For 2 years Dewey taught the classics, algebra, and science, meanwhile reading philosophy. When his cousin resigned, however, Dewey's employment ended. He returned to Vermont to become the sole teacher in a private school in Charlotte, near his alma mater. He renewed acquaintance with Torrey, and the two discussed the fruits of Dewey's reading in ancient and modern philosophy.

Intellectual Development

At this time most American teachers of philosophy were ordained clergymen who tended to subordinate philosophical speculation to theological orthodoxy. Philosophy was in the hands of laymen in only a few schools. One such school was in St. Louis, where William T. Harris established the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Here Dewey published his first scholarly effort. Finally, Dewey decided to pursue a career in philosophy and applied for admission to the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, another haven for lay philosophers.

At Johns Hopkins in 1882 Dewey studied with George S. Morris, who was on leave as chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. Under Morris's direction Dewey studied Hegel, whose all-encompassing philosophical system temporarily satisfied Dewey's longing to escape from the dualisms of traditional philosophy. In 1884 Dewey completed his doctorate and, at Morris's invitation, went to teach at Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, Dewey met and married Alice Chipman. His interests turned toward problems of education as he traveled about the state to evaluate college preparatory courses. His concern for social problems deepened, and he adopted a vague brand of socialism, although he was unacquainted with Marxism. He still taught Sunday school, but he was drifting away from religious orthodoxy. In 1888 he accepted an appointment at the University of Minnesota, only to return to Michigan a year later to the post left vacant by Morris's death.

The next stage in Dewey's intellectual development came with his reading of William James's Principles of Psychology. Dewey rapidly shed Hegelianism in favor of "instrumentalism," a position that holds that thinking is an activity which, at its best, is directed toward resolving problems rather than creating abstract metaphysical systems.

In 1894 Dewey moved to the University of Chicago as head of a new department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. Outside the academic world he became friends with the social reformers at Hull House. He also admired Henry George's analysis of the problems of poverty. To test his educational theories, he started an experimental school, with his wife as principal. The "Dewey school," however, caused a struggle between its founder and the university's president, William R. Harper. In 1904, when Harper tried to remove his wife, he resigned in protest. An old friend of Dewey's engineered an offer from Columbia University, where Dewey spent the rest of his teaching years. His colleagues, some of the most fertile minds in modern America, included Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson.

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Peak of His Influence

Living in New York City placed the Deweys at the center of America's cultural and political life. Dewey pursued his scholarship, actively supported the Progressive party, and, in 1929, helped organize the League for Independent Political Action to further the cause of a new party. He also served as a contributing editor of the New Republic magazine and helped found both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors. After World War I, reaching the peak of his influence, he became a worldwide traveler, lecturing in Japan at the Imperial Institute and spending 2 years teaching at the Chinese universities of Peking and Nanking. In 1924 he went to study the schools in Turkey and 2 years later visited the University of Mexico. His praise for the Russian educational system he inspected on a 1928 trip to the Soviet Union earned him much criticism.

As a teacher, Dewey exhibited the distracted air of a man who had learned to concentrate in a home inhabited by five young children. Careless about his appearance, shy and quiet in manner, he sometimes put his students to sleep, but those who managed to focus their attention could watch a man fascinated with ideas actually creating a philosophy in his classroom.

In 1930 Dewey retired from teaching. A year earlier, national luminaries had used the occasion of his seventieth birthday to hail his accomplishments; such celebrations would be repeated on his eightieth and ninetieth birthdays. He continued to publish works clarifying his philosophy. In public affairs he was one of the first to warn of the dangers from Hitler's Germany and of the Japanese threat in the Far East. In 1937 he traveled to Mexico as chairman of the commission to determine the validity of Soviet charges against Trotsky. His first wife having died in 1927, Dewey, at the ripe age of 87, married a widow, Roberta Grant. In the early years of the cold war Dewey's support of American intervention in Korea earned him criticism from the U.S.S.R. newspaper Pravda. He died on June 1, 1952.

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Dewey's Philosophy

In his philosophy Dewey sought to transcend what he considered the misleading distinctions made by other philosophers. By focusing on experience, he bridged the gulf between the organism and its environment to emphasize their interaction. He rejected the dualism of spirit versus matter, insisting that the mind was a product of evolution, not some infusion from a superior being. Yet he avoided the materialist conclusion which made thought seem accidental and irrelevant. While he saw most of man's behavior as shaped by habit, he believed that the unceasing processes of change often produced conditions which customary mental activity could not explain. The resulting tension led to creative thinking in which man tried to reestablish control of the unstable environment. Thought was never, for Dewey, merely introspection; rather, it was part of a process whereby man related to his surroundings. Dewey believed that universal education could train men to break through habit into creative thought.

Dewey was convinced that democracy was the best form of government. He saw contemporary American democracy challenged by the effects of the industrial revolution, which had produced an over concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men. This threat, he believed, could be met by the right kind of education.

The "progressive education" movement of the 1920s was an effort to implement Dewey's pedagogical ideas. Because his educational theory emphasized the classroom as a place for students to encounter the "present," his interpreters tended to play down traditional curricular concerns with the "irrelevant" past or occupational future. His influence on American schools was so pervasive that many critics (then and later) assailed his ideas as the cause of all that they found wrong with American education.

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Philosophical Works

To the year of his death Dewey remained a prolific writer. Couched in a difficult prose style, his published works number over 300. Some of the most important works include Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891), The Study of Ethics (1894), The School and Society (1899), Studies in Logical Theory (1903), How We Think (1910), The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (1910), German Philosophy and Politics (1915), Democracy and Education (1916), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Experience and Nature (1925), The Public and Its Problems (1927), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Individualism Old and New (1930), Philosophy and Civilization (1931), Art as Experience (1934), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Freedom and Culture (1939), Problems of Men (1946), and Knowing and the Known (1949).

Further Reading on John Dewey

For more information see Dewey's autobiographical fragment,"From Absolutism to Experimentalism," in George P. Adams and William Pepperell Montague, eds., Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements (1930). His daughters compiled an authoritative sketch of his life in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey (1939), which also contains valuable summaries of aspects of his philosophy.

Indispensable for any examination of Dewey's thought is Sidney Hook, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (1939). John E. Smith presents an excellent chapter on Dewey in The Spirit of American Philosophy (1963). Paul K. Conkin in Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers (1968) attempts an evaluation of Dewey's place in the context of American ideas. Morton G. White, Social Thought in America (1949), considers assumptions common to Dewey and his colleagues in other disciplines. Longer, more challenging treatments of Dewey's ideas are in George R. Geiger, John Dewey in Perspective (1958); Robert J. Roth, John Dewey and Self Realization (1962); and Richard J. Bernstein, John Dewey (1966). See also Jerome Nathanson, John Dewey: The Reconstruction of the Democratic Life (1951).

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Additional Biography Sources

Campbell, James, Understanding John Dewey: nature and cooperative intelligence, Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 1995.

Ryan, Alan, John Dewey and the high tide of American liberalism, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.