John Dewey

John Dewey books and biography

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Democracy And Education


Logic The Theory Of Inquiry

Logic The Theory Of Inquiry

By John Dewey
Essays , Commentary

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Outlines Of A Critical Theory Of Ethics


John Dewey

John Dewey
Name: John Dewey
Birth: October 20, 1859
School/tradition: Pragmatism
Main interests: Education, Epistemology
Notable ideas: Educational progressivism
Influenced: Richard Rorty

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, whose thoughts and ideas have been greatly influential in the United States and around the world. He, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophical school of Pragmatism. He also is known as the father of functional psychology; he was a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. education during the first half of the 20th century.

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. He received his PhD from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1884. From 1904, he was professor of philosophy at both Columbia University and Teachers College, Columbia University.

Along with the historian Charles Beard, economists Thorstein Veblen and James Harvey Robinson, Dewey is one of the founders of The New School for Social Research. Dewey's most significant writings were "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896), a critique of a standard psychological concept and the basis of all his further work; Human Nature and Conduct (1922), a study of the role of habit in human behavior; The Public and its Problems (1927), a defense of democracy written in response to Walter Lippmann's The Phantom Public (1925); Experience and Nature (1929), Dewey's most "metaphysical" statement; Art as Experience (1934), Dewey's major work on aesthetics; A Common Faith (1934), a humanistic study of religion; Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), an examination of Dewey's unusual conception of logic; and Freedom and Culture (1939), a political work examining the roots of fascism. While each of these works focuses upon one particular philosophical theme, Dewey wove in all of his major themes into everything he wrote.

In 1937, Dewey chaired a Commission of Enquiry which cleared Trotsky of the charges brought against him by Stalin.


Educational philosophy

As can be seen in his Democracy and Education Dewey sought to at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic or proto-democratic educational philosophies of

Dewey and historical progressive education

The central concept of John Dewey's view of education was that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, rather than simply on the memorization of lessons[citation needed]. This is because Dewey saw the school's relation to society was much like a repair organ to the organism of society[citation needed]. The school's function was to perpetuate the culture of the society while at the same time creating new members of the society with tools to correct its problems[citation needed]. In this way, society would continue to improve itself and heal any societal growing pangs along the way. While Dewey's educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity [citation needed] during his lifetime and after, they have a troubled history of implementation[citation needed]. Dewey's writings can be difficult to read [citation needed], and his tendency to reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding. So while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals [citation needed], his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried[citation needed], on occasion, to correct such misguided enthusiasm, but with little success[citation needed]. Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend numerous contradictory theories and practices, as documented by historians like Herbert Kliebard.

It is often thought that progressive education "failed", though whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions of "progressive" and "failure". Several versions of progressive education succeeded in transforming the educational landscape: the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name but one example, springs from the progressive period. However, radical variations of educational progressivism were hardly ever tried, and often were troubled and short-lived.

Deweyan pragmatism

Dewey is one of the three central figures in American pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term, and William James, who popularized it—though Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist per se, and instead referred to his philosophy as "instrumentalism". Dewey worked from strongly Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian influences, unlike James, whose lineage was primarily British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian thought. Dewey was also not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality situated in events ("nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience and Nature)).

He also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, etc. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. Of the idea of God, Dewey said, "it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions."[1]

As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also reemerged with the reassessment of pragmatism, beginning in the late 1970s, by thinkers like Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein and Hans Jonas.

Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Dewey's non-foundational approach pre-dates postmodernism by more than half a century. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, though this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy— for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism". He has been called an instrumentalist, and experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term "transactional" may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.

The terminology problem in the fields of epistemology and logic is partially due, according to Dewey and Bentley[2], to, inefficient, and imprecise use of words, and concepts that reflect three historic levels of organization and presentation[3]. In the order of chronological appearance, these are :

  • Self-Action: Prescientific concepts regarded humans, animals, and things as possessing powers of their own which initiated or caused their actions.
  • Interaction: as described by Newton, where things, living and inorganic, are balanced against thing in a system of interaction, for example, the third law of motion that action and reaction are equal and opposite.
  • Transaction: where modern systems of descriptions and naming are employed to deal with multiple aspects and phases of action without any attribution to ultimate, final, or independent entities, essences, or realities.

A series of characterizations of Transactions indicate the wide range of considerations involved.[4]

  • Transaction is inquiry in which existing descriptions of events are accepted only as tentative and preliminary. New descriptions of the aspects and phases of events based on inquiry may be made at any time.
  • Transaction is inquiry characterized by primary observation that may range across all subject matters that present themselves, and may proceed with freedom to re-determine and re-name the objects comprised in the system.
  • Transaction is Fact such that no one of the constituents can be adequately specified as apart from the specification of all the other constituents of the full subject matter.
  • Transaction develops and widens the phases of knowledge, and broadens the system within the limits of observation and report.
  • Transaction regards the extension in time to be comparable to the extension in space, so that “thing” is in action, and “action” is observable in things.
  • Transaction assumes no pre-knowledge of either organism or environment alone as adequate, but requires their primary acceptance in a common system.
  • Transaction is the procedure which observes men talking and writing, using language and other representational activities to present their perceptions and manipulations. This permits a full treatment, descriptive and functional, of the whole process inclusive of all its contents, and with the newer techiques of inquiry required.
  • Transactional Observation insists on the right to freely proceed to investigate any subject matter in whatever way seems appropriate, under reasonable hypothesis.

Illustration of differences between self-action, interaction, and transaction, as well as the different facets of transactional inquiry are provided by statements of positions that Dewey and Bentley definitely did not hold and which never should be read into their work. [5]

  1. They do not use any basic differentiation of subject vs. object; of soul vs. body; of mind vs. matter; or self vs. nonself.
  2. They do not support the introduction of any ultimate knower from a different or superior realm to account for what is known.
  3. Similarly, they do not tolerate "entities" or "realities" of any kind intruding as if from behind or beyond the knowing-known events, with power to interfere.
  4. They exclude the introduction of "faculties" or other "operators" of an organism’s behaviors, and require for all investigations the direct observation and contemporaneous report of findings and results.
  5. Especially, they recognize no names that are offered as expressions of “inner” thoughts, nor of names that reflect compulsions by outer objects.
  6. They reject imaginary words and terms said to lie between the organism and its environmental objects, and require the direct location and source for all observations relevant to the investigation.
  7. They tolerate no meanings offered as "ultimate" truth or "absolute" knowledge.
  8. Since they are concerned with what is inquired into, and the process of knowings, they have no interest in any underpinning. Any statement that is or can be made about a knower, self, mind, or subject, or about a known thing, an object, or a cosmos must be made on the basis of, and in the language applicable to the specific investigation.

In summary, all of human knowledge consists of actions and products of acts in which men and women participate with other human beings, with animals and plants, as well as objects of all types, in any environment. Men and women have, are, and will present their acts of knowing and known in language. Generic man, and specific men and women are known to be vulnerable to error. Consequently, all knowledge (knowing and known) whether commonsensical or scientific; past, present, or future; is subject to further inquiry, examination, review, and revision.

Dewey and journalism

Since the mid-1990s, Deweyan ideas have experienced revival as they are a major source of inspiration for the public journalism movement. His definition of "public," as described in The Public and Its Problems, has profound implications for the significance of journalism in society. As suggested by the title of the book, Dewey's concern was of the transactional relationship between publics and problems. Also implicit in its name, public journalism seeks to orient communication away from elite, corporate hegemony toward a civic public sphere. "The 'public' of public journalists is Dewey's public."[6]

Dewey gives a concrete definition to the formation of a public. Publics are spontaneous groups of citizens who share the indirect effects of a particular action. Anyone affected by the indirect consequences of a specific action will automatically share a common interest in controlling those consequences, i.e., solving a common problem.[7]
Since every action generates unintended consequences, publics continuously emerge, overlap, and disintegrate.

But in the era of mass media, Dewey exposes two conundrums:

  1. The modern dispersal of information is so rapid and universal as to grossly amplify the extent of the indirect consequences. Modern publics increasingly form in response to mass-mediated information about very distant, impersonal actions, as opposed to familiar community-based issues. How can such vast, loosely-bonded publics agree to make a coherent response to the very problems that define them?
  2. For Dewey, public knowledge, a prerequisite for democracy, can only come from direct participation in action. But the mass-mediated public is too large and scattered to coordinate a mass-response. Since such a public is unable to interact and identify problems as local phenomena, they instead react as a mass to second-hand news. Can a mass-mediated public engage in social progress?

These are the central themes of public journalism. It is no coincidence that public journalism's resistance to the mass-mediation of information borrows heavily from The Public and Its Problems, as that was likewise written in response to the views of Walter Lippmann (see below). Indeed, Walter Lippmann played a central role in both the corporatization of journalism and the mass-mediation of the government as a very prominent journalist and as an advisor to the President of the United States. Dewey saw his views as incompatible with democratic ideals.

In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey presents a rebuttal to Walter Lippmann’s treatise on the role of journalism in democracy. Lippmann’s model was a basic transmission model in which journalists took information given them by experts and elites, repackaged that information in simple terms, and transmitted the information to the public, whose role was to react emotionally to the news. In his model, Lippmann supposed that the public was incapable of thought or action, and that all thought and action should be left to the experts and elites.

Dewey refutes this model by assuming that politics is the work and duty of each individual in the course of his daily routine. The knowledge needed to be involved in politics, in this model, was to be generated by the interaction of citizens, elites, experts, through the mediation and facilitation of journalism. In this model, not just the government is held accountable, but the citizens, experts, other actors as well.

Dewey also revisioned journalism to fit this model by taking the focus from actions or happenings and changing the structure to focus on choices, consequences, and conditions, in order to foster conversation and improve the generation of knowledge in the community. Journalism would not just produce a static product that told of what had already happened, but the news would be in a constant state of evolution as the community added value by generating knowledge. The audience would disappear, to be replaced by citizens and collaborators who would essentially be users, doing more with the news than simply reading it.

Dewey’s journalism was revolutionary because it changed the structure from choosing a winner of a given situation to posing alternatives and exploring consequences. His effort to change journalism, involve citizens, stimulation, was all under the auspices of creating the Great Community he wrote of in The Public and Its Problems: “Till the Great Society is converted in to a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community” (Dewey, pg. 144).

Dewey believed that communication creates a great community, and citizens who actively participate in public life contribute to that community. "The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy (The Public and its Problems, p. 149)." This Great Community can only occur with "free and full intercommunication (p. 211)." Communication can be understood as journalism - the traditional forum in which people communicate.

Through participating in public life, people find each other and create the Public. When the public interacts with officials and government, then an effective State is formed. Dewey believed people should experiment with their actions. Therefore, since action, knowledge and inquiry were always changing, the State must always be redefined. In this way, the public and officials constantly work to create and define the state.


  1. ^ A Common Faith, p. 42 (LW 9:29).
  2. ^ John Dewey, Arthur Bentley, (1949). Knowing and the Known. Beacon Press, Boston.
  3. ^ ibid. p107-109
  4. ^ ibid. p121-139
  5. ^ ibid. p119-121
  6. ^ Heikkilä, H. and Kunelius, R. 2002. Public Journalism and Its Problems: A Theoretical Perspective,
  7. ^ Dewey, J. 1927. The Public and Its Problems. Henry Holt & Co., New York. pp 126.

Major works

  • "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896)
  • "My Pedagogic Creed" (1897)
  • "The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism" (1905)
  • Dewey, J.(1884). The new psychology. Andover Review,2,278-289[1]
  • Dewey, J.(1894). The ego as cause. Philosophical Review,3,337-341. [2]
  • "Democracy and Education" (1916)
  • How We Think (1910)
  • Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
  • Human Nature and Conduct (1922)
  • The Public and its Problems (1927)
  • The Quest for Certainty (1929)
  • Experience and Nature (1929)
  • Individualism Old and New (1930)
  • Art as Experience (1934)
  • A Common Faith (1934)
  • Liberalism and Social Action (1935)
  • Experience and Education (1938)
  • Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938)
  • Freedom and Culture (1939)
  • Knowing and the Known (1949) (With Arthur Bentley)

For longer bibliography

2 major anthologies of Dewey's works are available:

The Essential Dewey: Volumes 1 and 2. Edited by Larry Hickman and Thomas Alexander. (1998). Indiana University Press.

The Philosophy of John Dewey. Edited by John J. McDermott. (1981). University of Chicago Press.

Dewey's Complete Writings is available in 3 multi-volume sets (37 volumes in all) from Southern Illinois University Press:

The Early Works: 1892-1898 (5 volumes)

The Middle Works: 1899-1924 (15 volumes)

The Later Works: 1925-1953 (17 volumes)

The Correspondence of John Dewey is available on CD-ROM in 3 volumes.

Works about Dewey

  • Boisvert, Raymond. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. (1997). SUNY Press.
  • Crosser, Paul K. The nihilism of John Dewey. (1955). Philosophical Library.
  • Martin, Jay. The Education of John Dewey. (2003). Columbia University Press.
  • Rockefeller, Stephen. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism. (1994). Columbia University Press
  • Roth, Robert J. John Dewey and Self-Realization. (1962). Prentice Hall.
  • Ryan, Alan. John Dewey and the High Time of American Liberalism. (1995). W.W. Norton.
  • Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. (1991). Cornell University Press.
  • Morton White. The Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism. (1943). Columbia University Press.

See also

  • Dewey Commission
  • Laboratory school
  • Academy at Charlemont

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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