John Dewey
John Dewey; drawing by David Levine


In the first half of the twentieth century, John Dewey was America’s most celebrated philosopher. More than a philosopher, he was a public intellectual who wrote about politics and education, science and faith, for an audience beyond the academy. When Dewey died in 1952, at age ninety-three, Henry Commager described him as “the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”

In the decades following his death, however, Dewey’s work was largely ignored. Academic philosophy became increasingly technical and regarded Dewey’s broad speculations as fuzzy and old-fashioned. Even moral and political philosophers, embroiled in debates about utilitarian versus Kantian ethics, found little reason to turn to Dewey. Except in schools of education, where his influence persisted, few students read his books. Meanwhile, the central political debates of the day—about the scope of rights and entitlements, about the relation between government and the economy—had little to do, or so it seemed, with Dewey’s political teaching.

In recent years, Dewey has made a comeback. Why this is so, and whether the Dewey revival holds promise for contemporary philosophy and politics, are among the questions that Alan Ryan poses in John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. Ryan’s book is itself an expression of the Dewey revival it describes. It follows the publication a few years ago of Robert Westbrook’s excellent biography, John Dewey and American Democracy, and coincides with the appearance of other books and articles on aspects of Dewey’s thought. 1 Ryan, an English political theorist who teaches at Princeton and will soon return to Oxford, is a spirited and sympathetic guide to Dewey’s life and thought. He describes his book less as a full-fledged biography than as “a friendly but critical tour of the ideas that established Dewey’s astonishing hold over the educated American public of his day.” In this aim, Ryan admirably succeeds.

If the narrative occasionally flags, the fault lies less with the author than with his subject. Rarely has so eventful a life been led by so colorless a figure. Like few philosophers of his day or ours, Dewey lived a life of public engagement. A leading voice of Progressive reform, he founded an experimental school in Chicago, worked with the social reformer Jane Addams at Hull House, and supported women’s suffrage and Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. He became the nation’s foremost apostle of what came to be called progressive education and a hero to school teachers. He helped to establish the American Association of University Professors, the New School for Social Research, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He traveled to Japan, China, Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union to lecture and advise on educational reform, and chaired an unsuccessful attempt to form a new political party based on social democratic principles. At the age of seventy-eight, Dewey led a commission of inquiry that cleared Leon Trotsky of Stalin’s charge, made at the Moscow trials of 1936, that Trotsky had committed sabotage and treason against the Soviet regime. Notwithstanding this remarkable variety of activities, Dewey found time to write more than a thousand essays and books, many for a general audience, which have recently been gathered in thirty-seven volumes of collected works.2

But Dewey himself was scarcely as imposing a person as his activism and influence might suggest. He was a shy, impassive man, an awkward writer, and a poor public speaker. Even when writing for a general audience, he was not particularly adept at making complex ideas accessible. Sidney Hook, one of Dewey’s greatest admirers, acknowledged that America’s greatest philosopher of education was not impressive as a classroom teacher:

He made no attempt to motivate or arouse the interest of his auditors, to relate problems to their own experiences, to use graphic, concrete illustrations in order to give point to abstract and abstruse positions. He rarely provoked a lively participation and response from students…. Dewey spoke in a husky monotone…. His discourse was far from fluent. There were pauses and sometimes long lapses as he gazed out of the window or above the heads of his audience.

Dewey’s lack of presence as a writer, speaker, or personality makes his popular appeal something of a mystery. The mystery is compounded by the fact that the political positions he espoused were often at odds with conventional opinion. A non-Marxist critic of capitalism, he voted for Eugene Debs over Woodrow Wilson in 1912, opposed the New Deal as too tepid a response to the crisis of industrial capitalism, and always voted for Norman Thomas over Franklin Roosevelt. What was it, then, that won Dewey so broad an audience for half a century?


The answer, Ryan persuasively suggests, is that Dewey’s philosophy helped Americans make their peace with the modern world. It did so by easing the seemingly stark alternatives that confronted Americans in the early twentieth century—between science and faith, individualism and community, democracy and expertise. Dewey’s philosophy blurred these familiar distinctions. Science, he wrote, was not necessarily opposed to faith, but another way of making sense of the world as we experience it. Individualism, properly understood, was not the rampant pursuit of self-interest but the unfolding of a person’s distinctive capacities in a “common life” that calls them forth. Democracy was not simply a matter of counting up people’s preferences, however irrational, but a way of life that educates citizens to be capable of “intelligent action.”

Dewey argued, in short, that Americans could embrace the modern world without forsaking some of their most cherished allegiances. Raised in Vermont as a Congregationalist, a member of the first generation of university teachers of philosophy who were not clergymen, Dewey was not aggressively secular. He retained the vocabulary of faith, of moral and religious uplift, and applied it to democracy and education. This position, as Ryan argues, appealed to people who were seeking moral and religious ideals and ways to express them that were compatible with the assumptions of secular society. During a century of wars, vast social and economic changes, and widespread anxiety about them, Dewey offered a reassuring message, even a consoling one.

Dewey’s tendency to blur distinctions, the subject of much annoyance among his critics, did not spring simply from a desire to soothe the anxieties of his readers. It reflected the two central tenets of his philosophy; pragmatism and liberalism. Recent debates about Dewey’s work have concentrated on these two doctrines and on the relation between them. Since pragmatism and liberalism are often used in ways at odds with Dewey’s meaning, it is important to see how he understood them.

In common usage, pragmatism describes a merely expedient approach to things, ungoverned by moral principle. But this is not what Dewey meant by it. For him, pragmatism described a challenge to the way philosophers understood the search for truth. Since the time of the Greeks, philosophers had assumed that the quest for truth was a quest for knowledge of an ultimate reality, or metaphysical order, independent of our perceptions and beliefs. Philosophers disagreed among themselves about whether the meaning of this ultimate reality was something we supply or something we discover; they disagreed as well about the nature of relations between mind and body, subject and object, and between the ideal and the real. But they shared the assumption that the test of truth is the correspondence between our thoughts about the world and the world as it really is. Dewey rejected this assumption. At the heart of his pragmatism was the notion that the truth of a statement or belief depends on its usefulness in making sense of experience and guiding action, not on its correspondence to an ultimate reality that exists outside or beyond our experience. According to Dewey, philosophy should “surrender all pretension to be peculiarly concerned with ultimate reality” and accept the pragmatic notion that “no theory of Reality in general, Uberhaupt, is possible or needed.”3

If Dewey is right, important consequences follow for philosophers. If philosophy lacks a distinctive subject matter, if the validity of a belief can only be determined by testing it in experience, then conventional distinctions between thought and action, knowing and doing, must be reconsidered. The process of knowing does not consist in grasping something accurately from the outside; it involves taking part in events in a purposive, intelligent way. Philosophers should give up their search for conditions of knowledge in general and attend to the particular problems for thought and action that arise in everyday life. “Philosophy,” Dewey writes, “recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”4

The idea of philosophy as unavoidably practical and experimental suggests that the philosopher must respond to the events of his or her time not only as a concerned citizen but also as a philosopher. It therefore suggests a closer connection between philosophy and democracy than most philosophers would accept. As Ryan observes, “Dewey came to think that every aspect of philosophy was an aspect of understanding a modern democratic society.” So close a link between philosophy and democracy runs counter to the familiar contrast between philosophy, understood as the pursuit of truth, and democracy, understood as a way of representing opinions and interests. But Dewey viewed philosophy as less detached and democracy as more elevated than the familiar contrast assumes. More than a system of majority rule, democracy was, for Dewey, a way of life that fosters communication and deliberation among citizens, deliberation that issues in intelligent collective action.


Ardent democrat though he was, Dewey did not defend democracy as founded in consent or the general will. Instead, he viewed democracy as the political expression of an experimental, pragmatic attitude to the world. Dewey’s pragmatism led him to celebrate democracy for much the same reasons that he celebrated science. Ryan explains the parallel between democracy and science in Dewey’s thought as follows:

There is no truth legitimating the observations and experiments of scientists and no will legitimating democratic decision making…. [Dewey] eschewed any suggestion that “democracy” was uniquely legitimate either because it was government by the general will or because it was uniquely apt to uncover the truth. The nearest he got to a single account of democracy’s virtues was that they were like those of science: It excluded the fewest alternatives, allowed all ideas a fair shot at being tried out, encouraged progress, and did not rely on authority.

Dewey’s pragmatism gave his liberalism a distinctive, and in some ways unfamiliar, cast. Most versions of liberal political theory rest on moral and metaphysical assumptions at odds with Dewey’s pragmatism. John Locke held that legitimate government is limited by natural, inalienable rights; Immanuel Kant argued that no policy, however popular or conducive to utility, may violate principles of justice and right that are not derived from experience but are prior to it; even John Stuart Mill, who based justice and rights on “utility,” broadly conceived, relied on a strong distinction between public and private spheres of action.

Dewey rejected all of these versions of liberalism, for they rested on moral or metaphysical foundations that were held to be prior to politics and prior to experience. Unlike these classical liberals and many contemporary ones, Dewey did not base his political theory on the existence of fundamental rights or a social contract. Although he favored civil liberties, he was not primarily concerned with defining the rights that limit majority rule; nor did he try to derive principles of justice that would govern the basic structure of society, or to identify a realm of privacy free from government intrusion.

Central to Dewey’s liberalism was the idea that freedom consists in participating in a common life that enables individuals to realize their distinctive capacities. The problem of freedom is not how to balance individual rights against the claims of community, but how, as he put it, to establish “an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.”5 Civil liberties are vital for such a society, not because they enable individuals to pursue their own ends but because they make possible the social communication, the free inquiry and debate, that democratic life requires.

The overriding importance of democracy for Dewey is not that it provides a mechanism for weighing everyone’s preferences equally, but that it provides a “form of social organization, extending to all the areas and ways of living,” in which the full powers of individuals can be “fed, sustained and directed.”6 For Dewey, the “first object of a renascent liberalism” was not justice or rights but education, the task of “producing the habits of mind and character, the intellectual and moral patterns,” that suited citizens to the mutual responsibilities of a shared public life.7 Democratic education of this kind, he stressed, was not only a matter of schooling but the essential task of liberal social and political institutions as well. Schools would be small communities that would prepare children to engage in a democratic public life, which would in turn educate citizens to advance the common good.


Ryan’s observation that Dewey’s life and thought represent the “high tide of American liberalism” raises the question of Dewey’s relevance today. Does the marked difference, in argument and emphasis, between Dewey’s liberalism and ours reflect the obsolescence of his liberalism or the inadequacy of our own? Ryan himself seems divided about this question. On the one hand, he is wary of Dewey’s view that freedom is bound up with membership in a community, a view that reflects Dewey’s debt to Hegel. Dewey’s “urge to close the gap between what we desire for ourselves and what we want for other people,” Ryan writes, “contains more wishful thinking than is decent in a philosophical theory.” On the other hand, Ryan describes Dewey’s liberalism as a desirable corrective to the preoccupation with rights that characterizes much liberal political theory and practice today. “Rights-obsessed liberalism is only one liberalism,” Ryan writes, “and not the most persuasive.”

In the end, Ryan suggests, a liberalism grounded in rights and Dewey’s more communitarian version of liberalism may not differ as sharply in practice as they do in theory. Despite Dewey’s rejection of natural rights, for example, he endorsed traditional liberal rights on other grounds—as a necessary condition for a democratic community hospitable to communication, intelligent action, and the full realization of human capacities. “The traditional political liberties remain firmly in place” in Dewey’s liberalism, Ryan observes,

not because they are “natural rights”—there are no natural rights—or because there is a chronic problem of defending each individual in a democracy from the potential ill will of a majority. They remain in place as part of the machinery that allows a truly democratic public to form…. The diehard rights-obsessed liberal will not be persuaded by this, but Dewey would not be persuaded by him. Nor does this matter as much as it may seem. Dewey was quite ready to agree that the full battery of legal rights that the liberal traditionally demands are the indispensable way to institutionalize the ground rules of a democratic community.

While it is true that Dewey’s liberalism and the contemporary version of liberalism associated with such theorists as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin both affirm a familiar range of rights, the differences between the two are not without consequence for politics. This can be seen by considering the attempt by Richard Rorty to enlist Dewey’s pragmatism in the service of his own version of contemporary liberalism, which holds that political argument should be detached from moral and religious argument. In a number of influential works, Rorty has praised Dewey’s attempt to set epistemology aside and abandon the idea that philosophy can provide a foundation for knowledge.8

More recently, in an article entitled “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” Rorty has sought to show that Dewey’s pragmatism can provide support for the kind of liberalism he favors. Just as philosophy should set aside the search for knowledge of an ultimate reality beyond experience, Rorty argues, so politics should set aside competing visions of morality and religion. Politics should not aim at any particular conception of the good life, but should settle for a society in which people tolerate one another in public and pursue their moral and religious ideals in private. A liberal democracy should not only avoid legislating morality, Rorty maintains; it should also banish moral and religious argument from political discourse. “Such a society will become accustomed to the thought that social policy needs no more authority than successful accommodation among individuals.”

Rorty acknowledges that encouraging citizens to set aside their moral convictions for political purposes is likely to make them philosophically “light-minded” and lead to a spiritual “disenchantment” of public life. People will gradually give up the tendency to view politics as the appropriate vehicle for the expression of moral and spiritual ideals. But Rorty argues that such a result is precisely the wisdom of the pragmatic liberalism that he and, allegedly, Dewey endorse. “For Dewey, communal and public disenchantment is the price we pay for individual and private spiritual liberation.”9

It is a measure of Rorty’s philosophical ingenuity that he derives from Dewey’s pragmatism a political theory sharply at odds with the one that Dewey himself affirmed. Dewey rejected the notion that government should be neutral among conceptions of the good life. He lamented rather than celebrated the moral and spiritual disenchantment of public life. He rejected a sharp distinction between public and private life and defended the view, derived from Hegel and the British idealist philosopher T.H. Green, that individual freedom can only be realized as part of a social life that cultivates the moral and civic character of citizens and inspires a commitment to the common good.

Rorty sets aside the communal aspect of Dewey’s thought. Drawing instead on Dewey’s pragmatism, he constructs a liberalism that renounces moral or philosophical foundations. Rorty argues that pragmatism teaches us to abandon the idea that philosophy supplies the foundations of knowledge; similarly, liberalism teaches us to abandon the idea that moral and religious ideals supply the justifications for political arrangements. Rorty’s liberalism asserts that democracy takes precedence over philosophy in the sense that the case for democracy need not presuppose any particular vision of the good life. Rorty’s creative rewriting (some would say hijacking) of Dewey’s liberalism helps to clarify what is at stake in the contrast between Dewey’s communitarian liberalism and the rights-based liberalism more familiar in our time.

For Dewey, the primary problem with American democracy in his day was not an insufficient emphasis on justice and rights, but the impoverished character of public life. The source of this impoverishment was the discrepancy between the impersonal and organized character of modern economic life and the ways Americans conceived of themselves. Americans of the early twentieth century increasingly thought of themselves as freely choosing individuals, even as the huge scale of economic life dominated by large corporations undermined their capacity to direct their own lives. Paradoxically, Dewey observed, people clung to an individualistic philosophy “at just the time when the individual was counting for less in the direction of social affairs, at a time when mechanical forces and vast impersonal organizations were determining the frame of things.”10

Central among the mechanical forces were steam, electricity, and railroads. Their effect was to dissolve the local forms of community that had prevailed in American life through much of the nineteenth century without substituting a new form of political community. As Dewey wrote, “The machine age in developing the Great Society has invaded and partially disintegrated the small communities of former times without generating a Great Community.”11 The erosion of traditional forms of community and authority at the hands of commerce and industry seemed at first a source of individual liberation. But Americans soon discovered that the loss of community had very different effects. Although the new forms of communication and technology brought a new, more extensive interdependence, they did not bring a sense of engagement in common purposes and pursuits. “Vast currents are running which bring men together,” Dewey wrote, but these currents did nothing to build a new kind of political community. As Dewey stressed, “No amount of aggregated collective action of itself constitutes a community.” In spite of the increasing use of railroads, telegraph wires, and the increasingly complex division of labor, or perhaps because of them, “the Public seems to be lost.”12 The new national economy had “no political agencies worthy of it,” leaving the democratic public atomized, inchoate, and unorganized.13 According to Dewey, the revival of democracy awaited the recovery of a shared public life, which depended in turn on creating new communitarian institutions, especially schools, that could equip citizens to act effectively within the modern economy. “Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse.”14

Like many liberals of his day and since, Dewey assumed that the Great Community would take the form of a national community; American democracy would flourish insofar as it managed to inspire a sense of mutual responsibility and allegiance to the nation as a whole. Since the economy was now national in scale, political institutions had to become national as well, if only to keep up. National markets called forth big government, which required in turn a strong sense of national community to sustain it.

From the Progressive era to the New Deal to the Great Society, American liberalism sought to cultivate a deeper sense of national community and civic engagement, but with only mixed success. Except in extraordinary moments, such as war, the nation proved too vast for anything resembling a Great Community to be formed, too disparate to serve as a forum for the public deliberation Dewey rightly prized. Partly as a result, American liberals in the postwar years gradually turned their attention from the character of public life to the expansion of both rights against the government and entitlements backed by the government. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the liberalism of rights and entitlements was in retreat, having lost much of its moral energy and political appeal.

As in Dewey’s day, there is today a widespread fear that citizens are losing control of the forces that govern their lives, that people are turning away from public responsibilities, and that the politicians and parties lack the moral or civic imagination to respond. Once again there is reason to worry that the “Public,” as Dewey conceived it, is in eclipse, while the play of powerful interests and the din of strident voices leave little room for reasoned public discourse. Now as then it could be said, with Dewey, that “the political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side.”15 Now, however, it is conservatives, rather than liberals, who speak most explicitly of citizenship, community, and the moral prerequisites of a shared public life. Although the conservatives’ conception of community is often narrow and ungenerous, liberals often lack the moral resources to mount a convincing reply. What Ryan calls the “rights-obsessed liberalism” familiar in our time insists that government must be neutral on questions of the good life, that it must avoid taking sides on moral and religious controversies. The great service of Ryan’s book is to remind us that liberalism was not always reluctant to speak the language of morality, community, and religion. “Deweyan liberalism,” he writes,

is different. It is a genuine liberalism, unequivocally committed to progress and the expansion of human tastes, needs, and interests…. Nonetheless, it comes complete with a contentious world view and a contentious view of what constitutes a good life; it takes sides on questions of religion, and it is not obsessed with the defense of rights…. The individual it celebrates is someone who is thoroughly engaged with his or her work, family, local community and its politics, who has not been coerced, bullied, or dragged into these interests but sees them as fields for a self-expression quite consistent with losing himself or herself in the task at hand.

At a time when the liberalism of rights and entitlements finds itself at low ebb, we might do well to recall the more robust civic liberalism for which Dewey spoke.

This Issue

May 9, 1996