Of all late-19th and early-20th-century philosophers, John Dewey is most likely to be known outside academic circles, primarily for his theories of education. Even over a half-century after his death and over a century after he first developed them, his ideas about education are still the subject of heated debate. But he was more than just a theorist of education. His philosophic tenets, commonly referred to as pragmatism, took him into diverse subjects of inquiry. He wrote on logic, on art and aesthetics, and on political theory, and he was a fully engaged man of the type that later would be called a public intellectual. His reputation as a philosopher has in recent years been revived after a period following his death in which his ideas were disparaged and considered out of step with modern philosophy.
Dewey was born on the eve of the American Civil War in small-town Vermont to Archibald Dewey, a merchant, and his wife Lucina Artemisia Rich. He died in New York City 93 years later, at the height of the international Cold War, his life thus spanning periods of profound change in American life that encompassed industrial expansion; the growth of the urban environment; the transformation of the population through mass immigration; the development of multiple technologies of communication and transportation; the expansion of the United States as a world power; two world wars and several minor engagements; and several economic depressions and recoveries. Dewey’s ideas developed in parallel with the history of his times as he sought a philosophic system that engaged the changing world around him. His early philosophic studies, at the University of Vermont, were rooted in 19th-century idealism, romanticism, and religion; his professional training at the recently opened Johns Hopkins University, the first university in the United States devoted largely to graduate education, brought him into touch with newer strains in philosophic thought, especially those influenced by the scientific method and Darwinian evolutionary theory. As he entered into his academic career (first at the University of Michigan, then at the University of Chicago), he was attracted to the study of psychology as a complement to the study of philosophy, and he published a textbook on psychology that brought him recognition. When he left Michigan for Chicago, he was engaged in the study of pedagogy, and his new position at the university involved not only his teaching philosophy but also developing a laboratory school to test his ideas about education. Although Dewey’s philosophical approach is most familiarly known as pragmatism, Dewey preferred other terms such as “instrumentalism” or “experimentalism.”
Pragmatism as a philosophic school or approach is most associated with William James, a professor at Harvard at the end of the 19th century (and brother of novelist Henry James), who named it. James in turn attributed the founding of pragmatism to Charles Sanders Peirce, an eccentric genius who also laid the groundwork for the science of semiotics. Although, as specialists in the field note, there is no single defining characteristic of pragmatism, for Peirce and James it was a method of inquiry, an attempt to clear the ground for thought. As Louis Menand puts it, “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think—the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs, and reach decisions.” It was also, as Christopher Hookway states, a mediating philosophy, negotiating the seeming gap between empirically based modes of inquiry and idealistic modes of thought—the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded” in James’s formulation. Both Peirce and James were concerned to overcome the dualisms and metaphysical presuppositions that had been at the center of Western philosophy since Plato, and certainly since Descartes. Their approach to knowledge is not to separate the mind from external experience but to see a dialectic-like process of the mind engaging the world and modifying its concepts as it develops.
Although Dewey studied logic with Peirce at Johns Hopkins (he did not care for his highly mathematical approach), and he credited James with influencing his thought, he developed his ideas in conjunction with his colleagues and associates at Michigan and Chicago. His focus at this time was on the nature of thinking and its relation to action, and as Menand and others suggest, his ideas developed out of his work in the laboratory school he founded in Chicago, which in turn was founded to test the principles of inquiry he was developing (the ultimate pragmatist’s conundrum may be “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?”). The laboratory school and the resulting theories of education, which Dewey summarized in his 1900 volume School and Society and later in The Child and the Curriculum (1903) and Democracy and Education (1938), focused on the way in which a child acquires knowledge. Dewey, who reputedly was not a particularly gifted teacher and whose school-teaching experience was limited to a two-year stint before he went to graduate school, believed that the child’s instinct was toward inquiry and that the pursuit of knowledge was a social activity. “There is an image of a school growing in my mind all the time,” he wrote to his wife in 1894, “a school where some actual & literal constructive activity shall be the centre & source of the whole thing & from which the work should be always growing out in two directions—one the social bearings of that constructive industry, the other the contact with nature that supplies it with its materials.” A third principle was that education had to be tied to life as it was lived. Education, he noted in a famous formulation, was not preparation for life; it was “the full meaning of life.” His curriculum was built around projects that engaged students in what has come to be called “active learning”—growing wheat, grinding it into flour, building an oven, baking bread, cooking lunch, and so on (and thereby learning chemistry, mathematics, and biology). Later educational theorists would take Dewey’s ideas and transform them into “child-centered” approaches to learning, but for Dewey, education of this type was crucial in developing an educated citizenry, the essential element in a democratic society, because it involved cooperative activity in which each child played a role.
Dewey’s writings on education are a small portion of his prolific output (he published 40 books and more than 700 articles during his nearly 70-year career) and reflect his work during the 10 years he taught at the University of Chicago (1894–1904). Dewey left Chicago after a dispute with the university’s president over the administration of the Laboratory school and he was appointed to a professorship at Columbia University, where he spent the rest of his career (he officially retired in 1930 but continued as an active professor emeritus until his death). At Columbia, Dewey focused on teaching philosophy and had an informal relationship with Teachers College, where his ideas influenced many professors and administrators. Many Dewey scholars argue that the forms of progressive education that have become well known and often the object of criticism from across the political spectrum (according to one conservative Web site, progressive education has had “a toxic influence” on American life) bear little resemblance to true Deweyite principles. As Alan Ryan puts it: “He said endlessly that he believed that his emphasis on the need to take the child’s interests and abilities seriously had been taken by some people as a license to abandon teaching, that ‘child-centered’ had come to mean that it was unimportant what the teacher thought, and for any such view he had complete contempt.” Dewey’s pedagogy bridged the gap between child-centered and curriculum-centered approaches, as in many other facets of his philosophy, mediating between extremes.
As a corollary to his interest in education, Dewey was an advocate for teachers and helped found the American Federation of Teachers and later the American Association of University Professors (both of which he served as president). During the 1920s, he traveled abroad extensively to Japan, China, Turkey, and Mexico, lecturing on education as well as other topics and reviewing educational policies. In addition to his writings on educational philosophy, Dewey also wrote on art and aesthetics (Experience and Nature, 1924, and Art and Experience, 1934), a subject he took up as a result of his friendship with art collector and philanthropist Albert Barnes, and religion (A Common Faith, 1934), a return to his roots in traditional religion that he had abandoned early in his career. In addition to these public roles and his other philosophical work, Dewey became a frequent commentator on public affairs in leading opinion periodicals like the Nation and especially the New Republic. In the 1920s, he published several books on political philosophy (including The Public and Its Problems) in response to critiques of democracy by prominent columnist Walter Lippmann.
His political views were generally what were considered progressive in his day and liberal in a contemporary sense, although they are not easily pigeonholed. He took much inspiration in his early career from Jane Addams and her settlement house work in Chicago. He critiqued the tenets of classical liberalism for its emphasis on the individual as an autonomous entity and as overlooking the social dimensions of society. “The slogans of liberalism in one period,” he wrote, “can become the bulwarks of reaction” in another age. He argued that freedom in classical liberalism was defined in negative terms as the absence of external constraint. In contrast, he believed in freedom as a more activist and experimental process, and he was a staunch advocate for what can be called “participatory democracy.” He was an antielitist and antiauthoritarian, according to Matthew Festenstein, and believed that people coming together in debate would define their own needs and goals. In the realm of practical politics, he was a passionate advocate for American involvement in World War I, and an equally passionate advocate for noninvolvement in the years leading up to World War II (after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor he changed his position). He helped found the People’s Lobby and the League for Independent Political Action in the 1930s (Dewey was a critic of the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal). In the late 1930s, when he was nearing 80, he undertook to head an independent commission of inquiry into the charges leveled against communist leader Leon Trotsky by Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR.
Despite his frequent appearances on the public platform, Dewey was a diffident and shy man. He was also a dedicated family man. He married Harriet Alice Chipman (called Alice), a student at Michigan, in 1886. They were married for more than 40 years and had seven children. Two children died at young ages (under startlingly similar circumstances a decade apart when Dewey and his family were traveling in Europe), and he and Alice adopted a child in Italy. Alice shared Dewey’s interests in education (she may have influenced his interest, according to biographer Jay Martin) and served as principal of the Lab school starting in 1901; it was over the extension of her contract beyond its initial one-year term that Dewey came into conflict with the university administration. In her later years, Alice was beset by various mental and physical health problems; she died in 1927. Twenty years later, when he was nearing 90, Dewey married Roberta Lowitz, a woman less than half his age whom he had known for years as the daughter of old family friends; they adopted two children (Roberta claimed that they were Belgian war orphans). The second marriage scandalized Dewey’s adult children and caused a rift in the family. Dewey’s other relationship with a woman was a brief, but apparently nonsexual, affair with writer Anzia Yezierska in 1918, when they worked together on an investigation of the Polish community in Philadelphia (Dewey was almost 60; Yezierska was in her late thirties; she based one of her novels on the affair).
From early in his career, Dewey was well known in philosophical circles; in his later years, he was lionized by the academic community and beyond. His reputation went into something of a decline after his death as new methods in philosophy emphasized analytic approaches and more specialized topics, making Dewey’s wide interests seem quaint and obsolete. The contemporary revival of pragmatism by philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein, and Cornel West has brought Dewey’s ideas back into a prominent place. The continuing debate over the value of progressive education keeps his name in the forefront. His recent biographer, Jay Martin, sees Dewey’s centrality for the contemporary world in his grappling with the modern conditions of “uncertainty, indeterminacy, and ambiguity.” “John Dewey speaks profoundly to this condition,” Martin writes, “for he counsels us constantly to live without the comfort of preconceptions, but instead to investigate and examine our world as it daily presents its surprising alarms to us.... His vision insists on ever-new revision, then new and better visions.”
Hickman, Larry. “Dewey, John.” American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press, 2000. http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-00289.html .
Martin, Jay. The Education of John Dewey: A Biography. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001.
Ryan, Alan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1995.