Dewey's political philosophy has not only benefited as a by-product of serious philosophical (and, it should be said, historical) attention to his work as a whole. Some have read him as a precursor of recent concerns about the relationship between liberal individualism and the social setting in which the individual is embedded. Indeed, Dewey sometimes reads like a forerunner not of Rorty but of a writer such as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who is keen to marry a doctrine of a socially embedded self with a historically and culturally self-conscious form of liberalism. Dewey has also been seen as a source of inspiration for notions of participatory or deliberative democracy – and sometimes he reads like a forerunner of the German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who views autonomy and a particular talk-centred conception of democracy as mutually sustaining ideals for modern societies.
Situating Dewey's Political Philosophy
Two sorts of intellectual background are important to understanding Dewey's political philosophy. The first is an important formative condition of his ethical and political thinking, the Idealist and New Liberal assault on the misguided individualism of the classical liberal tradition. From a very early point of his intellectual development, Dewey, like the British Idealist T. H. Green (on whom he wrote several essays) and the New Liberal L. T. Hobhouse, accepted that traditional liberalism in part rested on a false conception of the individual, which was ethically pernicious in its effect on liberal thought. Accordingly, many of the themes that characterised Dewey's thinking about social and political theory after his turn to ‘experimentalism’ were present in his earlier, overtly Idealist political philosophy. In texts such as ‘The Ethics of Democracy’ (EW1) and ‘Christianity and Democracy’ (EW4), Dewey elaborates a version of the Idealist criticisms of classical liberal individualism. For this line of criticism, classical liberalism envisages the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals, and takes social and political life as a sphere in which this competitive pursuit of self-interest is coordinated. By contrast, the Idealists and New Liberals rejected this view of social and political life as the aggregation of inherently conflicting private interests. Instead, they sought to view individuals relationally: individuality could be sustained only where social life was understood as an organism in which the well-being of each part was tied to the well-being of the whole. Freedom in a ‘positive’ sense consisted not merely in the absence of external constraints but the positive fact of participation in such an ethically desirable social order. As Dewey puts it, ‘men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations’ to one another, and the state in turn only represents them ‘so far as they have become organically related to one another, or are possessed of unity of purpose and interest’ (‘The Ethics of Democracy’, EW1, 231-2).
Other important themes also appear in these early statements. Dewey is anti-elitist, and argues that the capacity of the wise few to discern the public interest tends to be distorted by their position. Democratic participation is not only viewed as a bulwark against government by elites, but also as an aspect of individual freedom – humanity cannot rest content with a good ‘procured from without.’ Furthermore, democracy is not ‘simply and solely a form of government’, but a social and personal ideal; in other words, it is not only a property of political institutions but of a wide range of social relationships. This ideal is common to a range of social spheres, and should take ‘industrial, as well as civil and political’ forms (‘The Ethics of Democracy’, EW1, 246). For this ideal to be effective requires a democratically educated citizenry. A distinctive emphasis of these early works is that it is through democracy in this extended and ideal sense that, Dewey believes, ‘the incarnation of God in man … becomes a living, present thing … The truth is brought down to life, its segregation removed; it is made a common trust enacted in all departments of action, not in one isolated sphere called religious’ (‘Christianity and Democracy’, EW4, 9). While the Christian conception of democracy recedes (but does not entirely disappear) in Dewey's later work, the idea that democracy should be viewed as a form of relationship that cuts across different spheres of social life and unifies them remains important. These crucial features of his early political philosophy survived, then, the jettisoning of Idealism: holism about the individual; anti-elitism; democratic participation as an aspect of individual freedom; and the unconventional view of democracy as a form of relationship inherent not merely in political institutions but in a wide range of social spheres.
While the Idealist and New Liberal assault on individualism is one important element of the intellectual background to Dewey's political philosophy, this should also be located against the background of his own mature conception of inquiry. A distinctive and central theme in Dewey's epistemology was the rejection of a ‘spectator theory’ of knowledge, which he thought dominated western philosophy. For this kind of theory, knowledge was understood on the model of the observation of a fixed and independent object on the part of a subject. The spectator account of knowledge was accompanied by a ‘quest for certainty’ in epistemology; that is, a search for a fixed and certain foundation for knowledge claims, for example in a priori truths or in the incorrigible data of our senses. Dewey aimed to displace this conception of knowledge with a notion of inquiry, understood as the struggle of human intelligence to solve problems. The goal of such inquiry was not to arrive at a certain picture of the nature of things, but at an inevitably provisional solution to the practical and intellectual problem that sparked inquiry.
Three features of this conception can be usefully underlined here: inquiry as problem-solving, as historical and progressive, and as communal. We engage in inquiry, Dewey thought, as part of a struggle with an objectively precarious but improvable environment. Inquiry is demanded by what he calls an ‘incomplete’ or ‘problematic’ situation, that is, one in which something must be done. The goal of inquiry is not simply a change in the beliefs of the inquirers but the resolution of the problematic situation, in what he calls a ‘consummatory’ course of action or state of affairs. The modern natural sciences, he argues, have been progressive and cumulative, giving us greater and greater control of the natural world. This has above all been the result of their experimental character, in which no intellectual element is taken to be beyond rational scrutiny. Theories and hypotheses are invented, used, tested, revised, and so on. At the same time, new methods for the invention, use, testing and revision of theories and hypotheses are developed and refined, and so are new standards for evaluating theories and hypotheses. What counts as success in inquiry is some practice's meeting these standards, but these standards themselves may be judged in the light of how they square with ongoing practices of inquiry. In this way, the methods used by science are not fixed but themselves have a history and develop progressively and sometimes in unexpected ways. What counts as knowledge is defined as ‘the product of competent inquiries’; beyond this, the meaning of the term ‘is so empty that any content or filling may be arbitrarily poured in’ (Logic, LW12, 16). Third, inquiry is social or communal, in the sense that its findings must be subject to scrutiny and testing by other inquirers: ‘an inquirer in a given special field appeals to the experiences of the community of his fellow workers for confirmation and correction of results’ (Logic, LW12, 484).
Dewey's conception of inquiry is intended as a general model of reflective intelligence, and he argues against drawing an a priori distinction between, for example, inquiry in ethics and politics and in the natural sciences. Indeed, he argues that values are constructed in order to resolve problematic situations, and valuation is conceived as reflective thought that responds to such situations, with the aim of providing means for what Dewey calls the ‘directed resolution’ of the situation. Strikingly, for example, in Art as Experience, he analyses the work of the French painters Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse in terms of problem-solving, with the goal of ‘consummatory’ experience.
It is of course crude to see Dewey's political philosophy as the marriage of the Idealist and New Liberal view of liberalism with his pragmatist or experimentalist conception of inquiry. Many other influences were significant over a long working life. But to view matters in this way does capture a great deal of what is distinctive about Dewey's political thinking.
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