Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America

The “progressive” label is back in vogue; politicians of the Left routinely use it to describe themselves, hoping to avoid the radical connotations associated with being “liberal” in the post-Reagan era. The irony in this is manifold, especially because the aim of the movement to which the name refers, the late-19th- and early-20th-century progressive movement, was anything but moderate. 

If the progressive label seems less radical today, it is only because progressivism is less well known than its liberal progeny. It was initially an academic phenomenon far removed from American politics. Particularly in the post–Civil War American university, professors — many of whom had obtained their graduate training in German universities, and whose thought reflected the “intoxicating effect of the undiluted Hegelian philosophy upon the American mind,” as progressive Charles Merriam once put it — articulated a critique of America that was as deep as it was wide. It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or “social reorganization” on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, “positive” role for the state. As the progressives’ influence in the academy increased, and growing numbers of their students sallied forth into all aspects of endeavor, this intellectual transformation gradually began to reshape the broader American mind, and, in time, American political practice. “A new regime in thought,” as Eldon Eisenach writes, “began to become a new regime in power.”

While many progressive academics helped effect this philosophical transformation, few, if any, were as influential as Dewey. Through an immense and wide-ranging body of work, vigorous activism, and his many students, Dewey’s mark was deep and enduring. Part of the reason for this was that he enjoyed an unusually long and prolific academic career. In 1884, Dewey received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, that seedbed of progressive academia where — as Jonah Goldberg explains elsewhere in this issue — Richard T. Ely taught economics and helped cultivate future reformers like Woodrow Wilson, John R. Commons, and Frederic Howe. Over the course of his subsequent half-century career, Dewey taught mainly at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, where he held appointments in both philosophy and education, and published over 40 books and several hundred articles. In 1914, moreover, Dewey became a regular contributor to Herbert Croly’s New Republic, the flagship journal of progressivism; he also played a more or less important role in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Federation of Teachers. During the New Deal, Dewey and his students helped shape the character of various programs, including the fine-arts program of the Works Progress Administration and the flagrantly socialist community-building program undertaken by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Dewey’s social theory continued to influence major political events even after his death in 1952. President Johnson not only delivered many speeches (including his signature Great Society address) that read, as James Ceaser has aptly noted, like “a grammar school version of some of John Dewey’s writings,” but professed his admiration for “Dr. Johnny.” 

Finally, Dewey arguably did more than any other reformer to repackage progressive social theory in a way that obscured just how radically its principles departed from those of the American founding. Like Ely and many of his fellow progressive academics, Dewey initially embraced the term “socialism” to describe his social theory. Only after realizing how damaging the name was to the socialist cause did he, like other progressives, begin to avoid it. In the early 1930s, accordingly, Dewey begged the Socialist party, of which he was a longtime member, to change its name. “The greatest handicap from which special measures favored by the Socialists suffer,” Dewey declared, “is that they are advanced by the Socialist party as Socialism. The prejudice against the name may be a regrettable prejudice but its influence is so powerful that it is much more reasonable to imagine all but the most dogmatic Socialists joining a new party than to imagine any considerable part of the American people going over to them.” 

Dewey’s influential 1935 tract, Liberalism and Social Action, should be read in 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 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 residual. 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, proceeds — 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 on 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 his 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. 

In the founders’ view, by contrast, the natural rights of the individual correspond to a series of natural duties, the scope of which vary with the social relationship in question. Thus, while parents are obliged to promote the comprehensive good or welfare of their children, and to sacrifice their personal concerns accordingly, the obligations they owe unrelated adults are far more minimal — e.g. to refrain from interfering with their freedom, to honor contracts with them, and, at the outside, to promote their (mere) preservation. Beyond these duties, individuals are entitled to pursue their own concerns, a right that government, in turn, is obliged to respect. While individuals are free to assume a more robust obligation to unrelated others, as through a church, government itself is not the agent for advancing it. 

From Dewey’s (and the progressives’) standpoint, so minimal an understanding of obligation allows men to pursue a degree of selfishness that is developmentally primitive and hence morally disgusting. The progressives’ view on this matter is particularly obvious in the scorn they heap upon the free market, an economic system animated by the selfish, and hence base, profit motive, but they viewed virtually every aspect of life in America — e.g. the prevailing interpretation of Christian Scripture and worship of God, the aim and methods of education, the physical layout and architecture of our cities and towns, the pattern of rural settlement and the character of life within it, the use of our natural resources, etc. — in the same light. The way of living inherited from the American founding was, in short, a cesspool of selfishness. 

When freedom is redefined in terms of spiritual fulfillment, the “problem of achieving freedom” radically changes. Freedom is no longer secured by constraining government interference with “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action,” as Dewey notes, but rather by “establishing an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.” The problem with limited government — with a government dedicated to securing the natural rights of man — is that it does not perform the more positive role of “nurtur[ing] and direct[ing]” the spiritual lives of the governed. Rather, it secures mere “negative freedom.” “Negative freedom,” Dewey clarifies, is “freedom from subjection to the will and control of others . . . capacity to act without being exposed to direct obstructions or interferences from others.” In practice, freedom understood as natural rights is “negative” because government puts individuals in the enjoyment of their rights (e.g. the right to acquire and use one’s property, to speak, to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, etc.), primarily by restraining others — and, importantly, itself — from interfering with the individual’s right to make such decisions. While interference with individual decision-making is certainly not altogether illegitimate in a limited government, freedom is the normal case and restraint the exception. 

At best, Dewey argues, such a government secures to every individual the mere legal right to realize his spiritual potential, a right that for many is essentially worthless. “The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty,” for unless he possesses every resource needed to take advantage of this broad legal opening, he will remain unable to exercise his freedom and thereby actualize his spiritual potential. While the law would “exempt [him] from interference in travel, in reading, in hearing music, in pursuing scientific research[,] . . . if he has neither material means nor mental cultivation to enjoy these legal possibilities, mere exemption means little or nothing.” In view of this situation, the perpetuation of limited government would consign many, perhaps most, Americans to a condition of spiritual retardation. 

If mere negative freedom is to be transformed into what Dewey calls “effective” freedom, accordingly, negative government must give way to positive government. That is, the legislative power of government must expand in whatever ways are needed — and hence however far proves necessary — to effect a wider and deeper distribution of the resources essential to the actualization of every American’s spiritual potential. As Dewey presents it, and as subsequent political practice confirmed, this process is basically synonymous with the implementation of the positive conception of individual rights. In this new order, individuals are entitled to whatever resources they need to attain spiritual fulfillment. Because Dewey, like the progressives generally, regarded poverty as among the greatest constraints on spiritual development, a host of the new rights purported to enhance the material security of poorer Americans — e.g. the right to a job, a minimum wage, a maximum work day and week, a decent home (public housing), and insurance against accident (workers’ compensation), illness (public health care), and old age (Social Security). Most of these rights were enshrined in federal law during the New Deal. Because access to education at all levels and to fine art are no less essential to spiritual fulfillment, Dewey also advocated generous public provision of these resources — and indeed the provision of both was a hallmark of LBJ’s Great Society. Because all such resources are secured for those who lack them through the creation of new redistributive programs (which increase the burden on those who pay taxes) and the imposition of new regulations such as the minimum wage (which foreclose choices previously reserved to the individual), a politics of rights-as-resources inevitably erodes freedom in the founders’ sense. 

In sum, the core of Dewey’s progressivism, socialism, or what subsequently became known (thanks in no small part to his efforts) as liberalism, is freedom understood as spiritual fulfillment. Because the embrace of this ideal necessitated a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the American way of living, primarily by means of the positive state, it revolutionized not only the founders’ theory of limited government, but also their constitutionalism: for, as Dewey and Tufts candidly note, progressive judges have “smuggled in” many valuable reforms by devising “‘legal fictions’ and by interpretations which have stretched the original text to uses undreamed of.” Dewey was hardly alone in encouraging this transformation, but few would deny the preeminent role he played in it.

– Tiffany Jones Miller is an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.

 

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