Dewey's Democracy

Thursday, September 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others….The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  -Winston Churchill

Churchill wasn’t always as unenthusiastic about democracy as these quotes suggest.  But I doubt that he was ever as positive about it as the subject of this week’s show, John Dewey.

In terms of impact on society, Dewey was probably the most important American philosopher of the twentieth century.  He died in 1952, in his nineties.  He influenced not only abstract philosophical issues – he was a pragmatist – but psychology and education and political philosophy.  He was a public intellectual, but also a practical intellectual, who worked tirelessly, especially to transform education.

Call the view Churchill’s words suggest the “Settle” view of democracy.  Democracy is basically majority rule, perhaps diluted a bit through division of powers and representative government.  It’s what we ought to settle for, because the alternative always is, or soon leads to, despotic tyrrany.  Ideally, rulers should be just, fair, wise and so on.  But let’s settle for a system in which we can avoid tyrants, or at least get rid of them fairly quickly without undue violence.

Dewey’s vision is much more positive.  Some form a majority rule may be essential to democracy, but there is a lot more to it, having to do with the processes that lead up to voting.  Democracy is about intelligent and civic minded participation; it’s about understanding the wants and needs of others as well as one’s own; it is about cooperation, collaboration, and compromise. 

This whole process brings out the best in people.  It evokes what’s best in human nature.  It’s not just something to settle for, but something to aspire to.

Admittedly, neither the democracy we have now, nor the one we had when Dewey was alive and writing is much like that.  But there is a route to making it so, education.  Thus Dewey devoted a large part of his mind and energy to improving education, as the way to produce the conditions where a more ideal democracy could arise. Whatever else our education prepares us for, it should prepare us to be active, intelligent, involved citizens.

Still one might wonder if Dewey’s vision a fine ideal for decision-making in a family, or a small town – basically homogeneous communities.  But for heterogeneous nation, with all kinds of religious views, economic views, with racial and ethnic groups with different histories and different concerns, with rich and poor --- it seems sort hopeless.  Like watching a rugby game and thinking we could transform it into ballet through education.  But then, I’m just a gloomy philosopher.  

 

Comments (14)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, September 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Imagine a judicial system in

Imagine a judicial system in which opposing litigants are required to chose one lawyer between them to represent both sides in the case? Could that be called justice? If not, then winner-take-all elections cannot be called "representative".
Most politcal "discussions", in my experience, begin with a shot across the bow and end with an awkward silence or an insincere attempt to "agree". And the topics of most "discussions" orbit around frustration at the inability to influence public affairs and attitudes. The "change" everyone is clamoring for is always meant to happen in others.
In direct democracy there is a striking difference. Not only does everyone get their turn to speak, everyone not speaking makes an active effort to listen. But ever since the invention of the secret ballot it seems we have taken that secrecy, not as a right, but as a duty not to discuss our real opinions, and a fear that revealing them will lead to intimidation or rancor.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, September 24, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I'd like to know whether we

I'd like to know whether we're assuming both democracy and some limitation of it via respect for some set of individual and equal rights.   For example,  in the absence io the right to vote and to obtain redress through the courts, blacks in the Jim Crow South were oppressed by majority rule, and the feedback loop which is one of the better features of democracy was broken because white legislators and jurists made laws they knew would never apply to them. 
In connexion to that last, I would like to hear a discussion of Rawls' 'veil of ignorance', of which I think whenever I hear someone propose draconian action toward groups to which he* believes he will never belong.  What would Dewey have thought of the notion; is anything like it viable as a fairness mechanism?are there any other such worth consideration?
 
*(it's almost always an 'he') 

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, September 24, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

How can you discuss the

How can you discuss the merits of democracy without  questioning our intelligence?
Of course, though, I mean literally doing so,  not the insult meant by the figurative use of the phrase. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, September 25, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Others have a different view,

Others have a different view, but my take on A Theory is that Rawls intended to show that social justice is formally rational. He, rather obtusely, got caught up in a debate with his enemies about the practicalities of this idea. But the practicality of it, though different from its rationality, is conclusively supported by the experiences of any number of states that have tried some degree of it. The rest is just perverse and rancorous disregard for the facts in the vein of global warming deniers, or of the toxic effects of leaded gasoline or cigarette tar. What gets missed in this mis-characterization of the rationality of social justice is that neither its supporters, as a rational principle, nor its deniers, as a practical fact, have made any effort at all to describe what justice actually is. Justice is not wealth at all, for the right of possession, so often called "liberty", is really just the power to deprive liberty to others regarding one's possessions. It is incoherent to define freedom in terms of deprivation. Nor is it coherent to define a private right in terms of a need of public institutions supporting it. Freedom is not liberty in this sense. It is a far more fundamental principle, for it is fundamentally impossible to reason with others unless its most intimate motive is a need that those others be free to recognize the rationality of it. It is one of those perpetual fallacies that so many suppose reason and truth is something we must see and believe. It is nothing of the sort. But it is established in unbiased economics that limiting wealth to a level that supports the highest possible wages and best possible material well-being for the poorest maximizes the health of the economy as a whole. The thrift the rich command in the poor should just as readily apply to them. That is, efficiency demands we get only the least wealth required for the maintenance of a well-run economy, and anything more is waste and corruption of the very motivation of our economic system. That is, it is fair to say, as Rawls does, that justice is fairness.
There can be no more cogent issue in philosophy than that of our capacity to reason with each other. The ability to speak is greater evidence of intelligence than all our scholarship or scholarly testing of it. It is therefore not at all impertinent to make the issue of intelligence, and what it is, a central theme of our discussions of democracy.
For the third time this week I have heard former moderators of presidential debates claim it is not for the moderator to correct the candidates on factual errors, but this folly collapses the event to a brawl relative to the views of the participants. It literally denies there is any objective truth at all. The candidates should be freed from questions of objective fact so they can concentrate on policy. Otherwise the liar has the advantage, by ensnaring his opponent in unraveling facts, he can center the whole event on his own views. The moderator is the shill.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

If anyone had told me thirty

If anyone had told me thirty years ago that Donald Trump (or someone like him) could actually be a serious contender for the presidency of these United States, I would have labeled that person crazy. Or foolish. Or both.  I have followed Mr. Trump's antics for many years and am continually amazed by his ability to sell himself, while indulging in all sorts of egomanic buffoonery. Most folks within my small circle of associates (ages 35 to 70+) are in like manner unimpressed with The Donald. And yet, there he is. And while Hillary Clinton seems to be weathering his storm well enough, her own problems notwithstanding, the third party candidate appears to have done little or nothing to educate himself and at least LOOK like he might be worth someone's vote. We do get pretty much what we deserve in the areas of life where we have clear choices. The problem with this election cycle is that there is no clear choice. What would Mr. Dewey think about election 2016? Well, what did we think about people like P.T. Barnum? Billy Graham? Charles Manson? It's The Greatest Show on Earth, with the best yet to come. Bring it on!
Neuman.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, September 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I didn't believe anyone could

I didn't believe anyone could vote for Nixon, or Reagan, or either Bush. Defying reason seems an easy trick in this electorate. Presto! A sow's ear becomes a silk purse. Reading the public at face-value is a futile gesture. And instrumental reason applied to public affairs is toxic to the public good. More to the point, if we can't win the little battles we have little chance in the big one. All the hoopla is about a tiny fraction of little more than half the eligible voters. What gets them enthusiastic is not likely to be well-reasoned. That word, by the way, featured powerfully in the debates among the "Founders", as a kind of public madness toxic to democracy. It can only be answered by close reasoning with each individual, a perspective we've lost to mass media and to the myriad individual but impersonal exchanges that occur on the internet.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, September 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Government?

Government?
Does mankind need to be governed?
?Do you?
If you were not governed would you go crazy?
Would you have no self-control?
And when we delegate our control to others do we not give up our own self-control?
Is that the problem?
Is that our weakness, we've given our power to others?
Why in this age of instant information and communication do we need representation?
Why do we need legislators or rule-makers?
How many rules are there, can they even be counted, and what do they all mean?
What was the Declaration of Independence all about?
Freedom wasn't it? Freedom of government, independence, self-rule?
Why was independence replaced by government again?
Does Democracy truly represent you and me?
Are our taxes being spent wisely?
Do you think bombing people to death is morally correct?
Don't you love a Socratic Dialog? 
Has government reformed our healthcare?
And what about the dollar, the Fed?
Is higher education affordable?
Should I leave education for another post?
Do questions lead to answers?
What about truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,
So help me God?
In God we trust?
In myself I trust,
=  
 
 
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, September 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Do you have a 'post'? Were

Do you have a 'post'? Were you posted there? Do you know the difference between active and passive voice? Or the difference between what is and what is made it so (cause and effect)? Can you do philosophy without the difference?
We need government to prevent the spontaneous lawfulness of most people from being used as a weapon against them. Those who do this claim the law is needed to make people lawful. That claim is the beginning of lawlessness. We call it a "Republic". Any government is torn between its responsibilities to recognize and honor the intrinsic lawfulness of ordinary people and the intrinsic lawlessness of those who put that lawfulness to their own uses, for gain and for power. But it is only democracy that has any real chance of coming close to the spirit of the law. But if you do not differ with yourself you are never really the one you think you are or as one as you think. Time is the middle term excluded from all our systems of reasoning it. The differing it is is its evidence. It is not that the differing time is is rationally inexplicable, but that the inexplicably differing is the final, and most rigorous term of reason, and the engine of all its interim terms. If you do not differ with yourself you cannot be the one you think you are nor as one as you think.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, September 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Well God save the queen! =  

Well God save the queen! =
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, September 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The qauntifier again! Always

The qauntifier again! Always the damn quantifier! That's what the queen is. The thesis of the monad, the one. The qualifier is what person is, and even what time is, that the quantifier, the one, is excluded from our reasoning. The queen, whichever queen you mean (I have no queen), is no more the one we are than you are as one as you repeatedly proclaim. Also, when I refer to the mythic deity I use the lower case, and I suspect those who capitolize it of being true believers, or at least of undue respect for the tradition of faith.

MJA's picture

MJA

Saturday, October 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Philosophy without difference

Philosophy without difference is One. And the ultimate Democracy is self-control. Faith is for those who lack certainty, and One is the single absolute. Be One,  =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, October 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Self-control? By what

Self-control? By what standard? If its own, is this control at all? if not its own, how is it one?

MJA's picture

MJA

Saturday, October 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

 

 
 
The standard is equality, Martin Luther King's Promised Land, what mankind fights and dies for. Equality is freedom, independence, democracy defined. Philosophies' truth. Einstien's unified equation. Descartes' I, Lincoln's Civil War, Gandhi's mission, Justice. black equals white, yin is yang, One is One.
And how is One One? The flaw in mankind is measure. Nature is truly immeasurable and science has proven it so. Science lives in a world of uncertainty these days called quantum mechanics, searching for a solution or certainty.. The solution is the light at the end of the tunnel, the absolute. It can be grasped by examining measure itself. Have you ever measured the speed of light? When you are done let me know, I'll wait for you here. Patience is self-control. Equality is free at last. =

I've got a lot of great company throughout history all marching for the same thing, and I am proud to be with them. 
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, October 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

At every fork in the road

At every fork in the road imagine you've taken both and call it all one! It's unlikely you know where you are at all!

 

Listen:

 
 
 

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