John Dewey and the Ideal of Democracy

Sunday, October 17, 2021
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.



Ken Taylor
Coming up on Philosophy Talk…

John Perry
The life and thought of John Dewey

Ken Taylor
Quintessentially American philosopher.

John Perry
One of the founding fathers of American pragmatism.

Comments (6)

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.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, September 29, 2021 -- 6:58 PM

In 1841, Charles Mackay wrote

In 1841, Charles Mackay wrote his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which inspired the most recent Armand Gamache mystery by Louise Penny, published in 2021.

In 1907 Francis Galton published a short article entitled Vox Populi in Nature used by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book The Wisdom of the Crowds.

In between these publications, John Dewey was born.

Dewey’s ideas of the crowd and Democracy, of god and nature, of any dualistic concept, changed in his early works to a holistic vision. I’m totally making this up, but it seems I detect a note of change when he reviews Francis Galton’s book Natural Inheritance in 1889. Maybe it started earlier. There Dewey makes a simple error (that no one seems to catch) reading a table pulled from Galton’s work. That error is excusable as modern statistics was in its first wave – there were three total in Dewey’s lifetime. Dewey spends most of the review talking about what now seem simple concepts of mean and distribution. But he makes a keen insight into the idea that statistics can determine natural kinds.

Galton took this insight into a eugenic social Darwinism that persists. On the other hand, Dewey would transform American politics and economy from a mainly capitalist program to a social democratic view culminating after his death in the civil rights movement.

The basic ideas of Dewey’s philosophy of Democracy were popular in his time. He came down on the wrong side of very few progressive movements in his lifetime. He championed or cheered on every liberal cause that eventually won the day based on the idea that Democracy creates an opportunity for broadspread flourishing.

Dewey’s democratic vision is a holistic and transactional experience (not the Trumpian transactional deal-making or Hobbesian social contract.) Democracy was a fundamental way of living for Dewey. Government is, at best, a tool to this view of everyday engagement.

That people don’t have public spheres today is not a loss because they rarely had them in Dewey’s day. Online social media allows one-to-many and many-to-many forums for Dewey’s ideal Democracy to materialize if we can get this right. Google has already shown the ability to predict flu outbreaks in internet traffic. Terrorist actions are monitored online. Crime can be caught early. The wisdom of the crowds is real.

But there is a flip side to Dewey’s idea of Democracy of equal importance to his vision, and that is freedom. That is a severe stumbling block, as not all action and many thoughts are harmful to others even as ones freedom to think and act are assured. Facebook’s incredulity points to actual harm as enacted by social media. Popular wars like the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan can be democratic nightmares, significantly when propaganda and false intelligence squander public goodwill.

The most promising solutions I see are the radical market strategies put forth by economic philosophers like Eric Posner and Glen Weyl in the PT show of that name. Ranked voting, engaged focus teams empowered to take action, and multiple publics engaged in deciding issue specifics that today are all but intractable to our current democratic systems.

The wisdom of the crowds is seemingly unharnessable when the public will is multimodal, and the winner takes all politics rule the day. Perhaps in a future setting, this will change. The issues at hand can’t wait for incremental solutions.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, October 7, 2021 -- 7:14 AM

I have admired Dewey's work

I have admired Dewey's work for some time. And your blog posts on all things government. I live in the ubiquitous area where the term 'world view' is all but ignored. Over the years, I have written to the local newspaper on various matters. It is a major daily, with statewide distribution. My submissions have been respectful and, occasionally, critical. Sometimes, I hope, thoughtful. But, after a time several years ago, we stopped our subscription. That did not go over well. They tried to offer us discounted rates. We declined because their news had too much spin for our taste. We live here for several reasons. Reading skewed news is not on the list.
Anyway, I still write them, time to time. Just to stir the kettle. They do not respond. I wonder if it is thus everywhere in the heartland. I suspect as much. The paper is aimed at a majority. Non-members need not expect recognition. Particularly those who have a broader 'world view'. We are here. They would 'rather 'not notice.. Doubly so if one does not buy their paper. Or their ideology.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, October 13, 2021 -- 8:00 AM



I feel you here. I read the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and our local daily (online only) and weekly papers.

I think what you are referring to is Dewey’s idea of multiple publics. Melvin Rogers is well-spoken on that point (I am very impressed with this guy.) We don’t have public spaces for Democracy or Philosophy, for that matter.

You speak to a need for these publics and falsely to the idea that we ever had them. We all need to budget our media diet. I don’t know what is best.

For years I would also write into the paper of my day, and still do to the ones above, but I find it unrewarding. The back and forth – which is what Philosophy and Democracy are all about, does not happen there. It is highly moderated and timed.

Social media, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Teams, Texts, and email are equally brain-numbing.

I have taken to writing to myself. That guy listens for the most part. If someone else chimes in, I dispatch them forthwith, but only on their terms. Our terms are too few and meaningless to fret about too much.

This space is one place for that kind of writing. It comes with the benefits of thought and quietude. Few people want to share their philosophy and reading honestly. It is enough.

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JoseFinch's picture


Monday, November 20, 2023 -- 6:50 PM

You make reference to the

You make reference to the necessity of these publics while making a misleading claim about their existence. Everybody needs to set aside money for their media intake. I'm not sure either is ideal.

I used to write in the newspaper of my day for years, and I still do, but I don't think it's that fulfilling. That is not where the back and forth takes place, which is the essence of democracy and philosophy. It is really timed and controlled.

Email, texts, Slack, Teams, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and social media are all equally mind-numbing doodle jump

I've started writing letters to myself. Most the time, that guy listens. If anyone else adds something, I immediately cut them off, but only under their conditions. We use much too few terms.

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