John Dewey and the Ideal of Democracy

Sunday, May 26, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Is It

John Dewey is regarded by some as the American philosopher. In the first half of the 20th century, he stood as the most prominent public intellectual whose influence reached into intellectual movements in China, Japan, and India. Although we hear less of Dewey nowadays, his pragmatic political philosophy has influenced the likes of Richard Rorty and other political thinkers. What were the basic ideas in his philosophy of democracy? Does America have a public sphere? If not, how might we recreate a public necessary for democracy? And does the rise of the internet and social media fit into Dewey’s ideal democracy? John and Ken idealize a conversation with Melvin Rogers from UCLA, author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy.

Listening Notes

John and Ken recognize that Dewey was the single most influential American philosopher in his lifetime. His influence in education was also transformational. Dewey thought of democracy as the ideal form of human social life. But talk of the ideal of anything implies perfection. Democracy is fine, but John doesn’t see how it’s perfect. John says no form of government was ideal. Ken mentions that Dewey believed the individual realized himself in social democratic activity.

Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:40): JD began his career as a high school teacher, and by the end of his life he had an impressive list of accomplishments under his belt. He was an early endorser of female suffrage and the NAACP. He was the president of APA (both of them). Dewey was a pragmatist who believed philosophers should have a real impact in the world. Dewey’s anti-capitalism did not help his reputation right after he died, during the Cold War.

John and Ken invite Melvin Rogers, Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at UCLA and author of The Undiscovered Dewey. Rogers felt a lot of joy when he read Dewey, and he found both his religion and his church in Dewey’s philosophy. Dewey was excited about democracy because it provided the best means for people to avoid being dominated and a system through which they could experience the full flowering of their capacities and abilities. Dewey thought that how we actually become distinctly ourselves depends on our interactions with communities to which we belong, because they provide the resources we rely on to become who we are.

The individual cannot be atomistic, because the individual is always social in communities, even when individuals are pursuing individual interests. Democracy as an institution is different from democracy as an ethical ideal. If a minority is constantly a minority, then you don’t really live in a democracy. The international appeal of Dewey’s philosophy is evident in India and China.

Institutional democracy might not be the best institutional structure for Deweyan democracy. Dewey would see black lives matter as the vibrancy of democracy. What counts as real conversation and dialogue? Democracy requires a willingness to bear discomfort in conversation. Are new means of communication good for democratic communication? With all technologies the goodness or badness of them depends on the preexisting habits of those deploying the technologies.

60 Second Philosopher (Seek to 47:00): Ian Shoales looks at how the Hull House was started and John Dewey was friends with Jane Addams. They discussed the Pullman Strike, and Addams felt that people were unproductively antagonistic.

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, May 5, 2019 -- 12:39 PM

Glad to see you are doing

Glad to see you are doing something more on Dewey. I had not read him in 2016, and my overall exposure to American philosophers was limited. I hope to read more of his work, time and energy permitting. In reading his How We Think, I was surprised that his efforts as an educator were probably as important to him as philosophy. That was, to me, significant. It seemed to cement his memory as great American. Was he the impetus for the eventual term, public intellectual? Or was that designation prominent, before his time? Public intellectuals may or may not be philosophers, seems to me, but in the broadest sense of the word (or even the narrowest?), all philosophers are.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 -- 12:12 PM

I do not know if Dewey was

I do not know if Dewey was THE American philosopher, even though some may think so. I have several others whom I will not name---all of them fit into a schema; most of them are now deceased and some who are yet living are either revered, despised; summarily dismissed or all of the above. I'd rather 'joots it' and keep an open mind generally. I have found the pragmatists most interesting because they have a practical way of looking at how 'things' and 'hanging together' make up the foundation of the study of philosophy, in the broadest possible sense of the term. Some revered philosophers of the past are given more credit than they deserve, while some others, more-or-less forgotten, had important things to say and/or supported views not shared by their contemporaries. There is, I have claimed, a totality of circumstances to be considered when praising or condemning philosophical thought of one sort or another. Try Jumping Outside Of The Space. You need not tell anyone of your intentions---that way you may experiment, at-will, without feeling the need to explain yourself, to associates or anyone else for that matter. Have some fun, along the way---you only get to do this once.