The Refounding of America
From the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of NR


Dewey’s influential 1935 tract, Liberalism and Social Action, should be read in the light of this conclusion. In this essay, Dewey purportedly recounts the “history of liberalism.” “Liberalism,” he suggests, is a social theory defined by a commitment to certain “enduring,” fundamental principles, such as liberty and individualism. After defining these principles in the progressives’ terms — e.g., liberty means the “claim of every individual to the full development of his capacities” — Dewey claims that the American founders, no less than the progressives, were committed to them. By seemingly establishing the agreement of the two groups, Dewey is able to dismiss their disagreement over the proper scope of government as a mere disagreement over the best “means” of securing their common “ends.” That is, although limited government may once have been the best means of securing individual liberty, its perpetuation in the changed social and economic circumstances of the 20th century would simply ensure liberty’s denial. If contemporary defenders of limited government only realized this, he concludes, they would drop their commitment to limited government and enthusiastically join their fellow “liberals” in expanding the power of the state. Dewey’s argument has enjoyed a potent legacy in subsequent scholarship, blinding many to what he and his fellow progressives plainly understood: However superficially similar, the founders’ conception of freedom, and the way of living to which it gave rise, differs markedly from the progressive conception of freedom and the more wholly “social” way of living that follows from it.

Commentators tend to underplay Dewey’s connection to the philosophical taproot of the wider progressive movement. Much attention is given to his role, along with that of William James, in founding pragmatism, a philosophical school frequently described as uniquely American. Dewey’s turn to pragmatism is admittedly important, as it helped induce the development of the increasingly relativistic outlook so characteristic of contemporary liberalism. Nevertheless, such an account of his thought is both incomplete and overstated. Indeed, when he was a graduate student at Hopkins and in the early years of his career, Dewey’s thought, like that of his fellow progressives generally, was decidedly Hegelian. Even after turning away from Hegelian metaphysics, Dewey retained a significant Hegelian residue. In 1945, less than a decade before his death, he declared: “I jumped through Hegel, I should say, not just out of him. I took some of the hoop . . . with me, and also carried away considerable of the paper the hoop was filled with.” Dewey’s break with Hegel was thus only partial, and did not essentially alter the content of the social theory he had developed while under Hegel’s spell. 

The cornerstone of this theory — the principle from which “Dr. Johnny’s” diagnosis of America’s shortcomings, and his prescription for its reform, proceed — is a new, “positive” conception of human freedom. Like Hegel, Dewey distinguishes between the “material” and “spiritual” aspects of human nature, and ranks the latter higher than the former. “The appetites and instincts may be ‘natural,’ in the sense that they are the beginning,” he explains in a 1908 text co-authored with James Tufts, but “the mental and spiritual life is ‘natural,’ as Aristotle puts it, in the sense that man’s full nature is developed only in such a life.” Although man’s instincts are natural in the sense of being spontaneous, man’s “mental and spiritual life is ‘natural’” in a different and higher sense — a teleological one. Like his instincts, man’s spiritual faculties exist in him from the beginning; unlike his instincts, however, they exist only in potential, in an inactive or undeveloped way. Man thus “cannot be all that he may be,” cannot realize his “full nature” and thereby achieve his “best life,” until he is able to develop his higher faculties properly and subordinate his lower nature to their rule — to the resulting “world of ideal interests.” A man so developed, the early Dewey declares, would be “perfect.” In short, for Dewey, as for Hegel, because individuals can become free only to the extent that they actualize their spiritual potential, true freedom is “something to be achieved.”

In the early years of his career, accordingly, Dewey’s socialism was grounded in a conception of human freedom synonymous with the realization or fulfillment of spiritual potential. (Even after his turn to pragmatism, interestingly, he continued to use this teleological nomenclature, however vigorously he denied the metaphysics from which it was derived.) Man’s spiritual potential, while encompassing a host of faculties or talents that vary among individuals, also, and more essentially, consists in “capacities” common to all men, especially the social, intellectual, and aesthetic ones. Of these, man’s social capacity is particularly significant. For Dewey, its development involves a process through which the individual’s will becomes decreasingly determined by his particular interests and increasingly concerned with the “interests of others.” Not only are these interests defined ultimately in terms of comprehensive good (or spiritual welfare), but these “others” ultimately include all human beings. As the individual grows more social, he will increasingly choose to promote the “fullest life” for every other human being in every sphere of life, e.g., in business and government (domestically and internationally) no less than in family and church. 


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