Dewey, John (1859–1952)

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The American philosopher, educator, and social critic John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont. A shy youth, he enjoyed reading books and was a good but not a brilliant student. He entered the University of Vermont in 1875, and although his interest in philosophy and social thought was awakened during his last two years there, he was uncertain about his future career. He taught classics, science, and algebra at a high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, from 1879 to 1881 and then returned to Burlington, where he continued to teach. He also arranged for private tutorials in philosophy with his former teacher, H. A. P. Torrey. Encouraged by Torrey and W. T. Harris, the editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy who accepted Dewey's first two philosophical articles, Dewey applied for the graduate program at the newly organized Johns Hopkins University. He was twice refused fellowship aid, but he borrowed $500 from an aunt to begin his professional philosophical career.

The external events of Dewey's Vermont years were relatively unexciting, and there is very little to indicate that he would become America's most influential philosopher and educator as well as one of the most outspoken champions of social reform. Yet the New England way of life left a deep imprint on the man and his thought. His modesty, forthrightness, doggedness, deep faith in the workings of the democratic process, and respect for his fellow man are evidenced in almost everything that he did and wrote.

Under the imaginative guidance of Daniel Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins, the university had become one of the most exciting centers for intellectual and scholarly activity. Dewey studied with C. S. Peirce, who taught logic, and with G. S. Hall, one of the first experimental psychologists in America. The greatest initial influence on Dewey, however, was G. S. Morris, whose philosophical outlook had been shaped by G. W. F. Hegel and the idealism so much in vogue on the Continent and in England.

Dewey was an eager participant in the controversies stirred up by Hegelianism. He dated his earliest interest in philosophy to a course in physiology that he took during his junior year at the University of Vermont, where he read T. H. Huxley's text on physiology. Dewey discovered the concept of the organic and developed a sense of the interdependence and interrelated unity of all things. He tells us that subconsciously he desired a world and a life that would have the same properties as had the human organism that Huxley described. In Hegel and the idealists, Dewey discovered the most profound philosophical expression of this emotional and intellectual craving. From this organic perspective, which emphasized process and change, all distinctions are functional and relative to a developing unified whole. The organic perspective could be used to oppose the static and the fixed and to break down the hard and fast dichotomies and dualisms that had plagued philosophy.

Dewey's writings during his Hegelian period are infused with an evangelical spirit and are as enthusiastic as they are vague. Whatever issue Dewey considered, he was convinced that once viewed from the perspective of the organic, old problems would dissolve and new insights would emerge. Long after Dewey had drifted away from his early Hegelianism, his outlook was shaped by his intellectual bias for a philosophy based on change, process, and dynamic, organic interaction.

After completing his doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins with a dissertation on the psychology of Immanuel Kant, Dewey joined Morris at the University of Michigan in 1884. He remained there for the next ten years, with the exception of one year (1888) when he was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. At Michigan, Dewey worked with G. H. Mead, who later joined Dewey at Chicago. During his years at Michigan, Dewey became dissatisfied with pure speculation and sought ways to make philosophy directly relevant to the practical affairs of men. His political, economic, and social views became increasingly radical. He agreed to edit a new weekly with a socialist orientation, to be called Thought News, but it never reached publication. Dewey also became directly involved with public education in Michigan. His scientific interests, especially in the field of psychology, gradually overshadowed his interest in pure speculation. He published several books on theoretical and applied psychology, including Psychology (New York, 1887; 3rd rev. ed., 1891), Applied Psychology (Boston, 1889), and The Psychology of Number and Its Applications to Methods of Teaching Arithmetic (New York, 1895). The latter two books were written with J. A. McLellan.

Dewey's appointment in 1894 as chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Chicago provided an ideal opportunity for consolidating his diverse interests. In addition to his academic responsibilities, Dewey actively participated in the life of Hull House, founded by Jane Addams, where he had an opportunity to become directly acquainted with the social and economic problems brought about by urbanization, rapid technological advance, and the influx of immigrant populations. Dewey mixed with workers, union organizers, and political radicals of all sorts. At the university, Dewey assembled a group of sympathetic colleagues who worked closely together. Collectively they published the results of their research in a volume of the Decennial Publications of the University of Chicago titled Studies in Logical Theory (Chicago, 1903). William James, to whom the book was dedicated, rightly predicted that the ideas developed in the Studies would dominate the American philosophical scene for the next twenty-five years.

Shortly after Dewey arrived in Chicago, he helped found the famous laboratory school, commonly known as the Dewey School, which served as a laboratory for testing and developing his psychological and pedagogic hypotheses. Some of Dewey's earliest and most important books on education were based on lectures delivered at the school: The School and Society (Chicago, 1900) and The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago, 1902). When Dewey left Chicago for Columbia in 1904 because of increasing friction with the university administration concerning the laboratory school, he had already acquired a national reputation for his philosophical ideas and educational theories. The move to Columbia, where he remained until his retirement in 1930, provided a further opportunity for development, and Dewey soon gained international prominence. Through the Columbia Teachers College, which was a training center for teachers from many countries, Dewey's educational philosophy spread throughout the world.

At the time that Dewey joined the Columbia faculty, the Journal of Philosophy was founded by F. J. E. Woodbridge, and it became a forum for the discussion and defense of Dewey's ideas. There is scarcely a volume from the time of its founding until Dewey's death that does not contain an article either by Dewey or about his philosophy. As the journalistic center of the country, New York also provided Dewey with an opportunity to express himself on pressing political and social issues. He became a regular contributor to the New Republic. A selection of Dewey's popular essays is collected in Characters and Events, 2 vols. (New York, 1929).

Wherever Dewey lectured he had an enormous influence. From 1919 to 1921, he lectured at Tokyo, Beijing, and Nanjing, and his most popular book, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York, 1920), is based on his lectures at the Imperial University of Japan. He also conducted educational surveys of Turkey, Mexico, and Russia. Although he retired from Columbia in 1930, he remained active and wrote prolifically until his death. In 1937, when Dewey was seventy-eight, he traveled to Mexico to head the commission investigating the charges made against Leon Trotsky, during the Moscow trials. After a careful investigation, the commission published its report, Not Guilty (New York, 1937). In 1941 Dewey championed the cause of academic freedom when Bertrand Russellhis arch philosophical adversaryhad been denied permission to teach at the City College of New York, Dewey collaborated in editing a book of essays protesting the decision.

Although constantly concerned with social and political issues, Dewey continued to work on his more technical philosophical studies. M. H. Thomas's bibliography of his writings comprises more than 150 pages. Dewey's influence extended not only to his colleagues but to leaders in almost every field. The wide effects of his teaching did not depend upon the superficial aspects of its presentation, for Dewey was not a brilliant lecturer or essayist, although he could be extremely eloquent. His writings are frequently turgid, obscure, and lacking in stylistic brilliance. But more than any other American of his time, Dewey expressed the deepest hopes and aspirations of his fellow man. Whether dealing with a technical philosophical issue or with some concrete injustice, he displayed a rare combination of acuteness, good sense, imagination, and wit.

Experience and Nature

The key concept in Dewey's philosophy is experience. Although there is a development from an idealistic to a naturalistic analysis of experience and different emphases in his many discussions of the concept, a nevertheless coherent view of experience does emerge. In his early philosophy Dewey was sympathetic to the theory of experience developed by the Hegelians and the nineteenth-century idealists. He thought of experience as a single, dynamic, unified whole in which everything is ultimately interrelated. There are no rigid dichotomies or breaks in experience and nature. All distinctions are functional and play a role in a complex organic system. Dewey also shared the idealists' antipathy to the atomist and subjectivist tendencies in the concept of experience elaborated by the British empiricists. But as Dewey drifted away from his early Hegelian orientation he indicated three major respects in which he rejected the idealistic concept of experience.

First, he charged that the idealists, in their preoccupation with knowledge and knowing, distorted the character of experience. Idealists, Dewey claimed, neglected the noncognitive and nonreflective experiences of doing, suffering, and enjoying that set the context for all knowing and inquiry. Philosophy, especially modern philosophy, had been so concerned with epistemological issues that it mistook all experience as a form of knowing. Such bias inevitably distorts the character of both man's experience and his knowing. Man is primarily a being who acts, suffers, and enjoys. Most of his life consists of experiences that are not primarily reflective. If we are to understand the nature of thought, reflection, inquiry, and their role in human life, we must appreciate their emergence from, and conditioning by, the context of nonreflective experience. There is more to experience, Dewey believed, than is to be found in the writings of the idealists and, indeed, in the writings of most epistemologists.

The second major departure from his early idealism is to be found in Dewey's rejection of the idea of a single unified whole in which everything is ultimately interrelated. In this respect, he displayed an increasing sympathy with the pluralism of the British empiricists. He insisted that life consists of a series of overlapping and interpenetrating experiences, situations, or contexts, each of which has its internal qualitative integrity. The individual experience is the primary unit of life.

The third shift is reflected in Dewey's increasingly naturalistic bias. The Hegelians and the nineteenth-century idealists did have important insights into the organic nature of experience, but they had overgeneralized them into a false cosmic projection. Dewey discovered in the new developing human sciences, especially in what he called the anthropological-biological orientation, a more careful, detailed, scientific articulation of the organic character of experience.

Dewey thought of himself as part of a general movement that was developing a new empiricism based on a new concept of experience, one that combined the strong naturalistic bias of the Greek philosophers with a sensitive appreciation for experimental method as practiced by the sciences. He was sympathetic with what he took to be the Greek view of experience, which considers it as consisting of a fund of social knowledge and skills and as being the means by which man comes into direct contact with a qualitatively rich and variegated nature. But Dewey was just as forceful in pointing out that this view of experience had to be reconstructed in light of the experimental method of the sciences. One of his earliest and clearest discussions of the nature of experience as an organic coordination is to be found in "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (Psychological Review, Vol. 3, 1896).

Dewey's interest in developing a new theory of experience led many critics to question the exact status of experience within nature, and some objectors charged him with excessive anthropomorphism. Sensitive to this type of criticism, Dewey, particularly in Experience and Nature (Chicago, 1925; 2nd ed., New York, 1929), attempted to deal with this criticism and to sketch a metaphysics, "the descriptive study of the generic traits of existence."

Nature, according to Dewey, consists of a variety of transactions that can be grouped into three evolutionary plateaus, or levels. Transaction is the technical term that Dewey used to designate the type of action in which the components and elements involved in the action both condition and are conditioned by the entire coordination. The elements of a transaction play a functional role in the developing coordination. The three plateaus of natural transactions are the physicochemical, the psychophysical, and the level of human experience. There are no sharp breaks or discontinuities within nature. But there are distinctive characteristics of the different levels of natural transactions that are reflected in their patterns of behavior and in their consequences. From this perspective, human experience consists of one type of natural transaction, a type that has been the latest to evolve. The distinguishing characteristics of this level of natural transaction are to be located in the type of language, communication, and social living that humans have developed. Experience is all-inclusive in the sense that man is involved in continuous transactions with the whole of nature, and through systematic inquiry he can come to understand the essential characteristics of nature. Some of the more specific areas of Dewey's philosophy can be investigated against this panoramic view of experience and nature.

Art and Experience

The ideas contained in Dewey's Art as Experience (New York, 1934) provided a surprise for many readers. Popular versions of his philosophy had so exaggerated the role of the practical and the instrumental that art and aesthetic experience seemed to have no place in his philosophical outlook. More perceptive commentators realized that Dewey was making explicit a dimension of his view of experience that had always been implicit and essential to an understanding of his philosophy. The meaning and role of art and aesthetic quality are crucial for understanding Dewey's views on logic, education, democracy, ethics, social philosophy, and even technology.

Dewey had persistently claimed that knowing, or more specifically, inquiry, is an art requiring active experimental manipulation and testing. Knowing does not consist of the contemplation of eternal forms, essences, or universals. Dewey argued that the "spectator theory of knowledge," which had plagued philosophy from its beginnings, is mistaken. He also objected to the sharp division between the theoretical sciences and the practical arts that had its explicit source in Aristotle and had influenced so much later philosophy. Dewey maintained that Aristotle's analysis of the practical disciplines is more fruitful for developing an adequate theory of inquiry than is his description of the theoretical sciences of knowing. Not only is inquiry an art, but all life is, or can be, artistic. The so-called fine arts differ in degree, not in kind, from the rest of life.

Dewey also gave a prominent place to what he called immediacy, pervasive quality, or aesthetic quality. This immediacy is not restricted to a special type of experience but is a distinctive feature of anything that is properly called "an experience." The primary unit of life, we have mentioned, is an experience, a natural transaction of acting, suffering, enjoying, knowing. It has both temporal development and spatial dimension and can undergo internal change and reconstruction.

But what is it that enables us to speak of an individual experience? Or, by virtue of what does an experience, situation, or context have a unity that enables us to distinguish it from other experiences? Dewey's answer is that everything that is an experience has immediacy or pervasive quality that binds together the complex constituents of the experience. This immediacy or pervasive quality can be directly felt or had. But this qualitative dimension of experience is not to be confused with a subjective feeling that is somehow locked up in the mind of the experiencer. Nor is it to be thought of as something that exists independently of any experiencer. These qualities that pervade natural transactions are properly predicated of the experience or situation as a whole. Within an experiential transaction we can institute distinctions between what is subjective and what is objective. But such distinctions are relative to, and dependent on, the context in which they are made. An experience or a situation is a whole in virtue of its immediate pervasive qualities, and each occurrence of these qualities is unique. As examples of such pervasive qualities, Dewey mentions the qualities of distress or cheer that mark existent situations, qualities that are unique in their occurrence and inexpressible in words but capable of being directly experienced. Thus, when one directly experiences a frightening situation, it is the situation that is frightening and not merely the experience.

These pervasive, or "tertiary," qualities are what Dewey calls aesthetic qualities. Aesthetic quality is thus an essential characteristic of all experiences. Within an experience, the pervasive quality can guide the development of the experience, and it can also be transformed and enriched as the experience is reconstructed. Aesthetic quality can be funded with new meaning, ideas, and emotions. A situation that is originally indeterminate, slack, or inchoate can be transformed into one that is determinate, harmonious, and funded with meaning; this type of reconstructed experience Dewey called a consummation. Such experiences are reconstructed by the use of intelligence. For example, when one is confronted with a specific problematic situation that demands resolution, one can reconstruct the situation by locating its problematic features and initiating a course of action that will resolve the situation. Consummations are characteristic of the most mundane practical tasks as well as the most speculative inquiries. The enemies of the aesthetic, Dewey claimed, are not the practical or the intellectual but the diffuse and slack at one extreme and the excessively rigid and fixed at the other. The type of experience that philosophers normally single out as aesthetic is a heightened consummation in which aesthetic qualities dominate.

Dewey viewed human life as a rhythmic movement from experiences qualified by conflict, doubt, and indeterminateness toward experiences qualified by their integrity, harmony, and funded aesthetic quality. We are constantly confronted with problematic and indeterminate situations, and insofar as we use our intelligence to reconstruct these situations successfully we achieve consummations. He was concerned both with delineating the methods by which we could most intelligently resolve the conflicting situations in which we inevitably find ourselves and with advocating the social reforms required so that life for all men would become funded with enriched meaning and increased aesthetic quality.

Logic and Inquiry

Early in his career, Dewey started developing a new theory of inquiry, which he called instrumental or experimental logic. Dewey claimed that philosophers had lost touch with the actual methods of inquiry practiced by the experimental sciences. The function of instrumental logic is to study the methods by which we most successfully gain and warrant our knowledge. On the basis of this investigation, instrumental logic could specify regulative principles for the conduct of further inquiry.

The central themes of Dewey's conception of logic were outlined in Studies in Logical Theory (Chicago, 1903), applied to education in How We Think (Boston, 1910), and further refined in Essays in Experimental Logic (Chicago, 1916). Dewey also wrote numerous articles on various aspects of logic, but his most systematic and detailed presentation is in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, 1938), in which he defines inquiry as "the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole " (p. 104). By itself, this definition is not sufficient to grasp what Dewey intends. But his meaning can be understood when the definition is interpreted against the background of what we have said about the individual experience or situation and the way in which it is pervaded by a unifying quality.

We find ourselves in situations that are qualified by their indeterminateness or internal conflict. From the perspective of the experiencer or inquirer, we can say that he experiences a "felt difficulty." This is the antecedent condition of inquiry. Insofar as the situation demands some resolution, we must attempt to articulate the problem or problems that are to be solved. Formulating the problems may be a process of successive refinement in the course of the inquiry. The next logical stage is that of suggestion or hypothesis, in which we imaginatively formulate various relevant hypotheses for solving the problem. In some complex inquiries we may have to engage in hypothetico-deductive reasoning in order to refine our hypotheses and to ascertain the logical consequences of the hypothesis or set of hypotheses. Finally, there is the stage of experimental testing in which we seek to confirm or disconfirm the suggested hypotheses. If our inquiry is successful, the original indeterminate situation is transformed into a unified whole. Knowledge may be defined as the objective of inquiry. Knowledge is that which is warranted by the careful use of the norms and methods of inquiry. When "knowledge" is taken as an abstract term related to inquiry in the abstract, it means warranted assertibility. Furthermore, the knowledge gained in a specific inquiry is funded in our experience and serves as the background for further inquiry. By reflecting on this general pattern of inquiry, which can be exhibited in commonsense inquiry as well as the most advanced scientific inquiry, we can bring into focus the distinctive features of Dewey's logic.

First, this pattern of inquiry is intended to be a general schema for all inquiry. But the specific procedures, testing methods, type of evidence, and so on, will vary with different types of inquiry and different kinds of subject matter. Second, a specific inquiry cannot be completely isolated from the context of other inquiries. The rules, procedures, and evidence required for the conduct of any inquiry are derived from other successful inquiries. By studying the types of inquiry that have been most successful in achieving warranted conclusions, we can abstract norms, rules, and procedures for directing further inquiry. These norms may themselves be modified in the course of further inquiry. Third, all inquiry presupposes a social or public context that is the medium for funding the warranted conclusions and norms for further inquiry. In this respect, Dewey agrees with Peirce's emphasis on the community of inquirers. Inquiry both requires such a community and helps to further the development of this community. Dewey attempted to relate this idea of a community of inquirers to his view of democracy. The essential principle of democracy is that of community; an effective democracy requires the existence of a community of free, courageous, and open-minded inquirers. Fourth, inquiry is essentially a self-corrective process. To conduct a specific inquiry, some knowledge claims, norms, and rules must be taken as fixed, but no knowledge claim, norm, or rule is absolutely fixed; it may be criticized, revised, or abandoned in light of subsequent inquiry and experience.

Dewey's theory of inquiry as an ongoing self-corrective process and his view of knowledge as that which is warranted through inquiry both differ radically from many traditional theories of inquiry and knowledge. Dewey thought of this theory as an alternative to the views of those philosophers who have claimed that there is an epistemological given that is indubitable and known with certainty. According to this epistemological model, some truths are considered to be absolutely certain, indubitable, or incorrigible. They may be considered self-evident, known by rational insight, or directly grasped by the senses. On the basis of this foundation, we then construct the rest of our knowledge. From Dewey's perspective, this general model that has informed many classical theories of knowledge is confused and mistaken. There are no absolute first truths that are given or known with certainty. Furthermore, knowledge neither has nor requires such a foundation in order to be rational. Inquiry and its objective, knowledge, are rational because inquiry is a self-corrective process by which we gradually become clearer about the epistemological status of both our starting points and conclusions. We must continually submit our knowledge claims to the public test of a community of inquirers in order to clarify, refine, and justify them.

Democracy and Education

Dewey is probably best known for his philosophy of education. This is not a special branch of his philosophy, however, for he claimed that all philosophy can be conceived of as the philosophy of education. And it is certainly true that all the concepts we have discussed inform his thinking about education. He returned again and again to the subject of education, but the essential elements of his position can be found in My Pedagogic Creed (New York, 1897), The School and Society (Chicago, 1900), The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago, 1902), and especially in his comprehensive statement in Democracy and Education (New York, 1916).

It is essential to appreciate the dialectical context in which Dewey developed his educational ideas. He was critical of the excessively rigid and formal approach to education that dominated the practice of most American schools in the latter part of the nineteenth century. He argued that such an approach was based upon a faulty psychology in which the child was thought of as a passive creature upon whom information and knowledge had to be imposed. But Dewey was equally critical of the "new education," which was based on a sentimental idealization of the child. This child-oriented approach advocated that the child himself should pick and choose what he wanted to study. It also was based on a mistaken psychology, which neglected the immaturity of the child's experience. Education is, or ought to be, a continuous reconstruction of experience in which there is a development of immature experience toward experience funded with the skills and habits of intelligence. The slogan "Learn by Doing" was not intended as a credo for anti-intellectualism but, on the contrary, was meant to call attention to the fact that the child is naturally an active, curious, and exploring creature. A properly designed education must be sensitive to this active dimension of life and must guide the child, so that through his participation in different types of experience his creativity and autonomy will be cultivated rather than stifled.

The child is not completely malleable, nor is his natural endowment completely fixed and determinate. Like Aristotle, Dewey believed that the function of education is to encourage those habits and dispositions that constitute intelligence. Dewey placed great stress on creating the proper type of environmental conditions for eliciting and nurturing these habits. His conception of the educational process is therefore closely tied to the prominent role that he assigned to habit in human life. (For a detailed statement of the nature and function of habit, see Human Nature and Conduct, New York, 1922.) Education as the continuous reconstruction and growth of experience also develops the moral character of the child. Virtue is taught not by imposing values upon the child but by cultivating fair-mindedness, objectivity, imagination, openness to new experiences, and the courage to change one's mind in the light of further experience.

Dewey also thought of the school as a miniature society; it should not simply mirror the larger society but should be representative of the essential institutions of this society. The school as an ideal society is the chief means for social reform. In the controlled social environment of the school it is possible to encourage the development of creative individuals who will be able to work effectively to eliminate existing evils and institute reasonable goods. The school, therefore, is the medium for developing the set of habits required for systematic and open inquiry and for reconstructing experience that is funded with greater harmony and aesthetic quality.

Dewey perceived acutely the threat posed by unplanned technological, economic, and political development to the future of democracy. The natural direction of these forces is to increase human alienation and to undermine the shared experience that is so vital for the democratic community. For this reason, Dewey placed so much importance on the function of the school in the democratic community. The school is the most important medium for strengthening and developing a genuine democratic community, and the task of democracy is forever the creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and participate.

Ethics and Social Philosophy

In order to understand Dewey's moral philosophy, we must again focus on his concept of the situation. Man is a creature who by nature has values. There are things, states of affairs, and activities that he directly enjoys, prizes, or values. Moral choices and decisions arise only in those situations in which there are competing desires or a conflict of values. The problem that a man then confronts is to decide what he really wants and what course of action he ought to pursue. He cannot appeal to his immediate values to resolve the situation; he must evaluate or appraise the situation and the different courses of action open to him. This process of deliberation that culminates in a decision to act is what Dewey calls "valuation." But how do we engage in this process of valuation? We must analyze the situation as carefully as we can, imaginatively project possible courses of action, and scrutinize the consequences of these actions. Those ends or goods that we choose relative to a concrete situation after careful deliberation are reasonable or desirable goods. Our choices are reasonable to the extent that they reflect our developed habits of intelligence. Choices will be perverse or irrational if they are made on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. Dewey is fully aware that there are always practical limitations to our deliberations, but a person trained to deliberate intelligently will be prepared to act intelligently even in those situations that do not permit extended deliberation. When we confront new situations we must imagine and strive for new goals. As long as there is human life, there will always be situations in which there are internal conflicts that demand judgment, decision, and action. In this sense, the moral life of man is never completed, and the ends achieved become the means for attaining further ends. But lest we think that man is always striving for something that is to be achieved in the remote future, or never, Dewey emphasized that there are consummationsexperiences in which the ends that we strive for are concretely realized.

It should be clear that such a view of man's moral life places a great deal of emphasis on intelligence. Dewey readily admitted his "faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is a projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of its realization." It should also be clear that ethics conceived of in this manner blends into social philosophy. Valuation, like all inquiry, presupposes a community of shared experience in which there are common norms and procedures, and intelligent valuation is also a means for making such a community a concrete reality. Here, too, ends and norms are clarified, tested, and modified in light of the cumulative experience of the community. Furthermore, it is the objective of social philosophy to point the way to the development of those conditions that will foster the effective exercise of practical intelligence. The spirit that pervades Dewey's entire philosophy and finds its perfect expression in his social philosophy is that of the reformer or reconstructor, not the revolutionary. Dewey was always skeptical of panaceas and grand solutions for eliminating existing evils and injustices. But he firmly believed that with a realistic scientific knowledge of existing conditions and with a cultivated imagination, men could ameliorate the human condition. To allow ourselves to drift in the course of events or to fail to assume our responsibility for continuous reconstruction of experience inevitably leads to the dehumanization of man.

Philosophy and Civilization

Dewey presented a comprehensive and synoptic image of man and the universe. The entire universe consists of a multifarious variety of natural transactions. Man is at once continuous with the rest of nature and exhibits distinctive patterns of behavior that distinguish him from the rest of nature. His experience is also pervaded with qualities that are not reducible to less complex natural transactions. Thus, Dewey attempted to place man within the context of the whole of nature. In addition, Dewey was sensitive to the varieties of human experience. He sought to delineate the distinctive features of different aspects of experience, ranging from mundane practical experience to the religious dimension of experience. Within the tradition of philosophy Dewey may be characterized as a robust naturalist or a humanistic naturalist. His philosophy is both realistic and optimistic. There will always be conflicts, problems, and competing values within our experience, but with the continuous development of "creative intelligence" men can strive for and realize new ends and goals.

This synoptic view of man and the universe is closely related to Dewey's conception of the role of philosophy in civilization. Philosophy is dependent on, but should attempt to transcend, the specific culture from which it emerges. The function of philosophy is to effect a junction of the new and the old, to articulate the basic principles and values of a culture, and to reconstruct these into a more coherent and imaginative vision. Philosophy is therefore essentially critical and, as such, will always have work to do. For as the complex of traditions, values, accomplishments, and aspirations that constitute a culture changes, so must philosophy change. Indeed, in pointing the way to new ideals and in showing how these may be effectively realized, philosophy is one of the means for changing a culture. Philosophy is continually faced with the challenge of understanding the meaning of evolving cultures and civilizations and of articulating new projected ideals. The motif of reconstruction that runs throughout Dewey's investigations dominates his conception of the role of philosophy in civilization. He epitomized the spirit of his entire philosophical endeavor in his "plea for casting off of that intellectual timidity which hampers the wings of imagination, a plea for speculative audacity, for more faith in ideas, sloughing off a cowardly reliance upon those partial ideas to which we are wont to give the name facts." He fully realized that he was giving philosophy a more modest function than had been given by those who claimed that philosophy reveals an eternal reality. But such modesty is not incompatible with boldness in the maintenance of this function. As Dewey declared, "a combination of such modesty and courage affords the only way I know of in which the philosopher can look his fellow man in the face with frankness and humanity" (Philosophy and Civilization, p. 12).

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetic Qualities; Aristotle; Experience; Harris, William Torrey; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Idealism; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Mead, George Herbert; Naturalism; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Philosophy of Education, History of; Pragmatism; Value and Valuation; Woodbridge, Frederick James Eugene.


The most exhaustive bibliography of John Dewey's writings is M. H. Thomas's John Dewey: A Centennial Bibliography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). This excellent guide includes a comprehensive listing of Dewey's writings, translations and reviews of his works, and a bibliography of books, articles, and dissertations about Dewey.

A less comprehensive bibliography of Dewey's writings can also be found in The Philosophy of John Dewey, edited by P. A. Schilpp (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1939).

The following secondary sources are helpful as general introductions to Dewey's life and philosophy. Richard J. Bernstein, John Dewey (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966) focuses on the concept of experience and nature. George R. Geiger, John Dewey in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958) stresses the role of aesthetic experience as the key to Dewey's philosophy. Sidney Hook, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (New York: Day, 1939) captures both the spirit and letter of Dewey as a man, social reformer, and philosopher. Robert J. Roth, S.J., John Dewey and Self-Realization (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962) shows the importance and meaning of religious experience for Dewey.

Richard J. Bernstein (1967)

Dewey, John (1859–1952)

views updated May 29 2018

Dewey, John (18591952)

America's foremost philosopher of education, John Dewey grew up in rural Vermont, earned his doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University, and taught at Michigan, Chicago, and Columbia universities. Dewey was one of the founders and the leading philosopher of Progressive education, an important late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century movement for school reform that emphasized meeting the needs of the whole childphysical, social, emotional, and intellectual. In addition to his work in developing a new philosophy of education, Dewey, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, created a uniquely American approach to philosophyPragmatism.

Dewey developed his educational philosophy when he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1894 and added a department of pedagogy to his responsibilities. Aided by his wife, Alice, he founded the university's Laboratory School to test scientifically his ideas for improving schooling.

As a philosopher who was profoundly affected by the English naturalist Charles Darwin's thinking, Dewey believed that in a post-Darwinian world it was no longer possible to envision life as a progress toward fixed ends. His reading of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) convinced him that the only constant in life was change or growth (the term Dewey preferred). Therefore, Dewey held that the purpose of formal education was not to prepare children for any fixed goal, but rather that schools should be devoted to encouraging children to grow and to prepare them to continue to grow and develop as adults in the uncertain future that they would face. Childhood was not merely a prelude to adulthood; it was a stage of development that was important and valuable in its own right. Accordingly, schooling should be based on meeting the needs of children, as children, rather than only striving to prepare them for adulthood.

Dewey faulted contemporary schools for regarding children as empty vessels to be filled with intellectual content. Schools treated pupils as passive learners. Dewey argued that children were naturally curious and that outside of school they learned through activities. They came to school with many interests, which he classified in his 1899 publication The School and Society as "the interest in conversation, or communication; in inquiry, or finding out things; in making things, or construction; and in artistic expression." These, he maintained were "the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon which depends the active growth of the child" (1956, pp. 4748). The role of the teacher, Dewey argued, was not merely to give pupils the freedom to express these impulses, but rather to guide them toward the learning they needed. As he noted in his 1902 work The Child and the Curriculum, this would not ignore traditional learning. "It must be restored to the experience from which it has been abstracted. It needs to be psychologized ; translated into the immediate and individual experiencing within which it has its origin and significance" (1956, p. 22). Progressive teachers, therefore, should construct a curriculum based on both the interests of the pupils and knowledge of the subject matter that children should master.


Dewey was the most significant educational thinker of his time and he influenced educational discussion for a century. His followers took his ideas in many directions. Dewey's disciples, most notably William Heard Kilpatrick, emphasized one part of Dewey's philosophythe need to appeal to the natural interests of the childat the expense of consideration of the importance of the traditional fields of study. For Kilpatrick, subject matter was not important. Moreover, some of Dewey's followers extended the idea of relying on the natural curiosity and interests of children to define the curriculum in the upper grades and in secondary schools. This conflicted with Dewey's philosophy: "The new education is in danger of taking the idea of development in altogether too formal and empty a way. Development doesnot mean just getting something out of the mind. It is a development of experience into experience that is really wanted. What new experiences are needed, it is impossible to tell unless there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at adult knowledge" (1956a, p.19). Dewey maintained that the study of traditional subjects was important because "they represent the keys which will unlock the social capital which lies beyond the possible role of limited personal experience" (1956b, p. 111).

Dewey did agree with Kilpatrick that one of the ultimate goals of education must be social reform. For Dewey the ideal society was thoroughly democratic and the school should be organized as an "embryonic community. When the school introduces" children "into membership within such a little community, saturating [them] with the spirit of service, and providing [them] with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious" (1956b, p. 29).

During the Great Depression Progressivism's social reform impulse turned increasingly into a critique of the capitalist system that was blamed for the economic disaster. This, in turn, helped fuel a strong reaction against Progressive education during the anticommunism of the postWorld War II period. In addition, in the 1950s Progressive education was increasingly blamed for the academic shortcomings of American students. In this setting, Dewey's reputation waned. The movement toward establishing rigid standards that began with the Reagan administration's 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, regarded Dewey's ideas as not only wrong but harmful. The states joined in a movement to establish knowledge standards and a schedule of rigid testing to see if the children met those standards. Teachers increasingly taught to the testan educational program that neglected Dewey's ideas of relying on children's natural curiosity and interests.

While a distorted version of Dewey's educational philosophy had weakened the curriculum, especially in secondary schools, a proper understanding of the kinds of schools that Dewey wanted to establish is still regarded as relevant by a dissenting minority who believe that schools need to meet the broader needs and interests of children.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, United States.


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1962. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 18761957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1988. American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 18761890. New York: Harper and Row.

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 1954 [1910]. "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy." In American Thought: Civil War to World War I, ed. Perry Miller. New York: Rinehart.

Dewey, John. 1956a [1902]. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1956b [1899]. The School and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1966 [1916]. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, John. 19671972. The Early Works, 18821898, 5 vols. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John. 19761983. The Middle Works, 18991924, 15 vols., ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John. 19811990. The Later Works, 19251953, 17 vols., ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ravitch, Diane. 2000. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Westbrook, Robert B. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Zilversmit, Arthur. 1993. Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 19301960. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Arthur Zilversmit

Dewey, John (1859–1952)

views updated Jun 27 2018

DEWEY, JOHN (18591952)

Throughout the United States and the world at large, the name of John Dewey has become synonymous with the Progressive education movement. Dewey has been generally recognized as the most renowned and influential American philosopher of education.

He was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, and he died in New York City in 1952. During his lifetime the United States developed from a simple frontier-agricultural society to a complex urban-industrial nation, and Dewey developed his educational ideas largely in response to this rapid and wrenching period of cultural change. His father, whose ancestors came to America in 1630, was the proprietor of Burlington's general store, and his mother was the daughter of a local judge. John, the third of their four sons, was a shy boy and an average student. He delivered newspapers, did his chores, and enjoyed exploring the woodlands and waterways around Burlington. His father hoped that John might become a mechanic, and it is quite possible that John might not have gone to college if the University of Vermont had not been located just down the street. There, after two years of average work, he graduated first in a class of 18 in 1879.

There were few jobs for college graduates in Burlington, and Dewey spent three anxious months searching for work. Finally, a cousin who was the principal of a high school in South Oil City, Pennsylvania, offered him a teaching position which paid $40 a month. After two years of teaching high school Latin, algebra, and science, Dewey returned to Burlington to teach in a rural school closer to home.

With the encouragement of H. A. P. Torrey, his former philosophy professor at the University of Vermont, Dewey wrote three philosophical essays (1882a; 1882b; 1883) which were accepted for publication in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, whose editor, William Torrey Harris, hailed them as the products of a first-rate philosophical mind. With this taste of success and a $500 loan from his aunt, Dewey left teaching to do graduate work at Johns Hopkins University. There he studied philosophywhich at that time and place primarily meant Hegelian philosophy and German idealismand wrote his dissertation on the psychology of Kant.

After he received the doctorate in 1884, Dewey was offered a $900-a-year instructorship in philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. In his first year at Michigan, Dewey not only taught but also produced his first major book, Psychology (1887). In addition, he met, wooed, and married Alice Chipman, a student at Michigan who was herself a former schoolteacher. Fatherhood and ten years' teaching experience helped his interest in psychology and philosophy to merge with his growing interest in education.

In 1894 the University of Chicago offered Dewey the chairmanship of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. At Chicago he established the now-famous laboratory school (commonly known as the Dewey School), where he scientifically tested, modified, and developed his psychological and educational ideas.

An early statement of his philosophical position in education, My Pedagogic Creed (1897), appeared three years after his arrival at Chicago. Four other major educational writings came out of Dewey's Chicago experience. The first two, The School and Society (1956), which was first published in 1899, and The Child and the Curriculum (1902), were lectures which he delivered to raise money and gain support for the laboratory school. Although the books were brief, they were clear and direct statements of the basic elements of Dewey's educational philosophy and his psychology of learning. Both works stressed the functional relationship between classroom learning activities and real life experiences and analyzed the social and psychological nature of the learning process. Two later volumes, How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916), elaborated these themes in greater and more systematic detail.

Dewey's work at Chicago was cut short when, without consulting Dewey, Chicago's president, William Rainey Harper, arranged to merge the laboratory school with the university training school for teachers. The merger not only took control of the school from Dewey's hands but changed it from an experimental laboratory to an institution for teacher-training. Dewey felt that he had no recourse but to resign and wrote to William James at Harvard and to James M. Cattell at Columbia University, informing them of his decision. Dewey's reputation in philosophy had grown considerably by this time, and Cattell had little difficulty in persuading the department of philosophy and psychology at Columbia to offer him a position. Because the salary offer was quite low for a man with six children (three more had been born during his ten years at Chicago), arrangements were made for Dewey to teach an additional two hours a week at Columbia Teachers College for extra compensation. For the next twenty-six years at Columbia, Dewey continued his illustrious career as a philosopher and witnessed the dispersion of his educational ideas throughout the world by many of his disciples at Teachers College, not the least of whom was William Heard Kilpatrick.

Dewey retired in 1930 but was immediately appointed professor emeritus of philosophy in residence at Columbia and held that post until his eightieth birthday in 1939. The previous year he had published his last major educational work, Experience and Education (1938). In this series of lectures he clearly restated his basic philosophy of education and recognized and rebuked the many excesses he thought the Progressive education movement had committed. He chastised the Progressives for casting out traditional educational practices and content without offering something positive and worthwhile to take their place. He offered a reformulation of his views on the intimate connection between learning and experience and challenged those who would call themselves Progressives to work toward the realization of the educational program he had carefully outlined a generation before.

At the age of ninety he published his last large-scale original philosophical work, Knowing andthe Known (1949), in collaboration with Arthur F. Bentley.

Experience and Reflective Thinking

The starting place in Dewey's philosophy and educational theory is the world of everyday life. Unlike many philosophers, Dewey did not search beyond the realm of ordinary experience to find some more fundamental and enduring reality. For Dewey, the everyday world of common experience was all the reality that man had access to or needed. Dewey was greatly impressed with the success of the physical sciences in solving practical problems and in explaining, predicting, and controlling man's environment. He considered the scientific mode of inquiry and the scientific systematization of human experience the highest attainment in the evolution of the mind of man, and this way of thinking and approaching the world became a major feature of his philosophy. In fact, he defined the educational process as a "continual reorganization, reconstruction and transformation of experience" (1916, p. 50), for he believed that it is only through experience that man learns about the world and only by the use of his experience that man can maintain and better himself in the world.

Dewey was careful in his writings to make clear what kinds of experiences were most valuable and useful. Some experiences are merely passive affairs, pleasant or painful but not educative. An educative experience, according to Dewey, is an experience in which we make a connection between what we do to things and what happens to them or us in consequence; the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities among events. Thus, if a child reaches for a candle flame and burns his hand, he experiences pain, but this is not an educative experience unless he realizes that touching the flame resulted in a burn and, moreover, formulates the general expectation that flames will produce burns if touched. In just this way, before we are formally instructed, we learn much about the world, ourselves, and others. It is this natural form of learning from experience, by doing and then reflecting on what happened, which Dewey made central in his approach to schooling.

Reflective thinking and the perception of relationships arise only in problematical situations. As long as our interaction with our environment is a fairly smooth affair we may think of nothing or merely daydream, but when this untroubled state of affairs is disrupted we have a problem which must be solved before the untroubled state can be restored. For example, a man walking in a forest is suddenly stopped short by a stream which blocks his path, and his desire to continue walking in the same direction is thwarted. He considers possible solutions to his problemfinding or producing a set of stepping-stones, finding and jumping across a narrow part, using something to bridge the stream, and so forthand looks for materials or conditions to fit one of the proposed solutions. He finds an abundance of stones in the area and decides that the first suggestion is most worth testing. Then he places the stones in the water, steps across to the other side, and is off again on his hike. Such an example illustrates all the elements of Dewey's theoretical description of reflective thinking: A real problem arises out of present experiences, suggestions for a solution come to mind, relevant data are observed, and a hypothesis is formed, acted upon, and finally tested.


For Dewey, learning was primarily an activity which arises from the personal experience of grappling with a problem. This concept of learning implied a theory of education far different from the dominant school practice of his day, when students passively received information that had been packaged and predigested by teachers and textbooks. Thus, Dewey argued, the schools did not provide genuine learning experiences but only an endless amassing of facts, which were fed to the students, who gave them back and soon forgot them.

Dewey distinguished between the psychological and the logical organization of subject matter by comparing the learner to an explorer who maps an unknown territory. The explorer, like the learner, does not know what terrain and adventures his journey holds in store for him. He has yet to discover mountains, deserts, and water holes and to suffer fever, starvation, and other hardships. Finally, when the explorer returns from his journey, he will have a hard-won knowledge of the country he has traversed. Then, and only then, can he produce a map of the region. The map, like a textbook, is an abstraction which omits his thirst, his courage, his despairs and triumphsthe experiences which made his journey personally meaningful. The map records only the relationships between landmarks and terrain, the logic of the features without the psychological revelations of the journey itself.

To give the map to others (as a teacher might) is to give the results of an experience, not the experience by which the map was produced and became personally meaningful to the producer. Although the logical organization of subject matter is the proper goal of learning, the logic of the subject cannot be truly meaningful to the learner without his psychological and personal involvement in exploration. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at hand, "seeking and finding his own way out, does he think . If he cannot devise his own solution (not, of course, in isolation but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with one hundred percent accuracy" (Dewey 1916, p. 160).

Although learning experiences may be described in isolation, education for Dewey consisted in the cumulative and unending acquisition, combination, and reordering of such experiences. Just as a tree does not grow by having new branches and leaves wired to it each spring, so educational growth does not consist in mechanically adding information, skills, or even educative experiences to students in grade after grade. Rather, educational growth consists in combining past experiences with present experiences in order to receive and understand future experiences. To grow, the individual must continually reorganize and reformulate past experiences in the light of new experiences in a cohesive fashion.

School and Life

Ideas and experiences which are not woven into the fabric of growing experience and knowledge but remain isolated seemed to Dewey a waste of precious natural resources. The dichotomy of in-school and out-of-school experiences he considered especially wasteful, as he indicated as early as 1899 in The School and Society:

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the schoolits isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests and activities that predominate in his home and neighborhood. So the school being unable to utilize this everyday experience, sets painfully to work on another tack and by a variety of [artificial] means, to arouse in the child an interest in school studies . [Thus there remains a] gapexisting between the everyday experiences of the child and the isolated material supplied in such large measure in the school. (1956, pp. 7576)

To bridge this chasm between school and life, Dewey advocated a method of teaching which began with the everyday experience of the child. Dewey maintained that unless the initial connection was made between school activities and the life experiences of the child, genuine learning and growth would be impossible. Nevertheless, he was careful to point out that while the experiential familiar was the natural and meaningful place to begin learning, it was more importantly the "intellectual starting point for moving out into the unknown and not an end in itself" (1916, p. 212).

To further reduce the distance between school and life, Dewey urged that the school be made into an embryonic social community which simplified but resembled the social life of the community at large. A society, he reasoned, "is a number of people held together because they are working along common lines, in a common spirit, and with reference to common aims. The common needs and aims demand a growing interchange of thought and growing unity of sympathetic feeling." The tragic weakness of the schools of his time was that they were endeavoring "to prepare future members of the social order in a medium in which the conditions of the social spirit [were] eminently wanting" (1956, pp. 1415).

Thus Dewey affirmed his fundamental belief in the two-sidedness of the educational process. Neither the psychological nor the sociological purpose of education could be neglected if evil results were not to follow. To isolate the school from life was to cut students off from the psychological ties which make learning meaningful; not to provide a school environment which prepared students for life in society was to waste the resources of the school as a socializing institution.

Democracy and Education

Dewey recognized that the major instrument of human learning is language, which is itself a social product and is learned through social experiences. He saw that in providing a pool of common meanings for communication, the language of each society becomes the repository of the society's ideals, values, beliefs, and accumulated knowledge. To transmit the contents of the language to the young and to initiate the young in the ways of civilized life was for Dewey the primary function of the school as an institution of society. But, he argued, a way of life cannot be transmitted by words alone. Essential to acquiring the spirit of a way of life is immersion in ways of living.

More specifically, Dewey thought that in a democratic society the school should provide students with the opportunity to experience democracy in action. For Dewey, democracy was more than a form of government; it was a way of living which went beyond politics, votes, and laws to pervade all aspects of society. Dewey recognized that every social group, even a band of thieves, is held together by certain common interests, goals, values, and meanings, and he knew that every such group also comes into contact with other groups. He believed, however, that the extent to which democracy has been attained in any society can be measured by the extent to which differing groups share similar values, goals, and interests and interact freely and fruitfully with each other.

A democratic society, therefore, is one in which barriers of any kindclass, race, religion, color, politics, or nationalityamong groups are minimized, and numerous meanings, values, interests, and goals are held in common. In a democracy, according to Dewey, the schools must act to ensure that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, to come into contact with a broader environment, and to be freed from the effects of economic inequalities. The schools must also provide an environment in which individuals may share in determining and achieving their common purposes in learning so that in contact with each other the students may recognize their common humanity: "The emphasis must be put upon whatever binds people together in cooperative human pursuits and the fuller, freer, intercourse of all human beings with one another . [This] ideal may seem remote of execution, but the democratic ideal of education is a farcical yet tragic delusion except as the ideal more and more dominates our public system of education" (Dewey, 1916, p. 98).

Dewey's belief in democracy and in the schools' ability to provide a staging platform for social progress pervades all his work but is perhaps most clearly stated in his early Pedagogic Creed:

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. All reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile . By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulateand form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move . Educationthus conceived marks the most perfect and intimate union of science and art conceivable in human experience. (1964, pp. 437438)

Perhaps it was with these ideas in mind that Dewey was prompted to equate education with philosophy, for he felt that a deep knowledge of man and nature was not only the proper goal of education but the eternal quest of the philosopher: "If we are willing to conceive of education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education" (1916, p. 328).

See also: Progressive Education.


Archambault, Reginald D., ed. 1964. John Dewey on Education. New York: Modern Library.

Archambault, Reginald D., ed. 1966. Dewey on Education: Appraisals of Dewey's Influence on American Education. New York: Random House.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1961. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 18761957. New York: Knopf.

Dewey, John. 1882a. "The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16:208213.

Dewey, John. 1882b. "The Pantheism of Spinoza." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16:249257.

Dewey, John. 1883. "Knowledge and the Relativity of Feeling." Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17:5670.

Dewey, John. 1887. Psychology. New York: Harper. Dewey, John. 1902. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. 1929. My Pedagogic Creed (1897). Washington, DC: Progressive Education Association.

Dewey, John. 1933. How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process (1910), revised edition. Boston: Heath.

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 1961. Democracy and Education (1916). New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 1956. The Child and the Curriculum and The School and Society. Chicago: Phoenix.

Dewey, John. 1960. "From Absolutism to Experimentalism." On Experience, Nature, and Freedom. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Dewey, John, and Bentley, Arthur F. 1949. Knowing and the Known. Boston: Beacon.

Thomas, Milton H. 1962. John Dewey: A Centennial Bibliography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonas F. Soltis

Dewey, John

views updated May 29 2018

Dewey, John



John Dewey (1859–1952), generally regarded as the most influential philosopher in American history, was born in Burlington, Vermont. After receiving his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1884, he taught at the University of Michigan (except for a year spent at the University of Minnesota) until 1894, when he moved to the University of Chicago.

Dewey was attracted to Chicago because pedagogy there was included in one department with philosophy and psychology. At Chicago he established an experimental elementary school, wrote The School and Society (1899), and became involved with Jane Addams’ Hull House. At this time Dewey was developing his pragmatic approach to the theory of mind and his “instrumentalist” theory of logic: his essay “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” which had considerable influence on developments in psychology, appeared in 1896, and Studies in Logical Theory, a collection of essays by Dewey and some of his colleagues and students, appeared in 1903. The book was greeted by William James as the signal of the birth of a “Chicago school” of pragmatic philosophy.

In 1904 Dewey resigned his professorship at Chicago because he was displeased with the university administration’s actions toward the experimental school he headed. He moved to Columbia University as professor of philosophy, with additional teaching responsibilities at Teachers College. Dewey taught at Columbia until his retirement in 1929. During the 1930s he produced some of the most ambitious philosophical works of his career. He also continued to take part in a wide assortment of civic and political activities, the most dramatic of which was his service in 1937 as chairman of the unofficial commission that held public hearings in Mexico and found Leon Trotsky innocent of the charges made against him in the Moscow trials.

Intellectual influences. Dewey’s early intellectual attachments were to Hegel’s philosophy. Dewey’s New England upbringing had stressed the radical divisions that exist in man and the universe between body and soul, nature and God, the world and the self. He found these beliefs “an inward laceration.” Hegel’s philosophy, with its dialectical elimination of the presumed antitheses between matter and spirit, nature and the divine, and subject and object, offered release from these oppressive dualisms. Hegel’s influence on Dewey can be seen in Dewey’s lifelong polemic against all forms of dualism in philosophy, in his concept of individuality as a social product, in his tendency to identify freedom with rational self-realization, and in his view that logical and moral principles are not fixed, external standards to be imposed on human inquiry and conduct but are instead evolutionary phenomena that emerge within the actual course of human thinking and acting.

Over a period of fifteen years after leaving Johns Hopkins, however, Dewey drifted away from Hegel’s philosophy and eventually renounced it al-together. The theme that came to seem increasingly important to him was what he called “the intellectual scandal” involved in the separation of science from morals. Hegel’s abstract, metaphysical solution of this problem became increasingly uncongenial to Dewey, who desired to reformulate philosophical problems so that they implied clear alternative programs for social action. What Dewey described as his transition “from absolutism to experimentalism” was further aided by the pioneer work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) in the development of a pragmatic theory of logic and by William James’s Psychology. Dewey’s own “pragmatism,” or “instrumentalism,” owes relatively little to James’s pragmatism but much to James’s biological approach to the problems of mind. The work of Dewey’s friend George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) also had considerable influence on Dewey’s philosophy. Dewey’s conceptions of the self, and of the genesis and function of such phenomena as “consciousness” and “conscience,” owe much to Mead’s work in social psychology and philosophy. Finally, Dewey’s thought is unintelligible except as a response to the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. Dewey’s theory of mind, his translation of Hegel’s categories into biological and cultural terms, his views on logic and morals, and his conception of the task of philosophy are all efforts to trace the implications of Darwin’s mode of thought.

With respect to the question of intellectual influences on him, Dewey’s own judgment, however, should be emphasized. He believed that most of the significant influences on his intellectual development came not from books but from personal associations and practical experience, particularly in education.

Instrumentalism. Throughout his career Dewey’s central interest was to repair moral and social beliefs and practices by encouraging the application of scientific methods and critical intelligence to them. Dewey believed that one of the principal obstacles to this was the traditional notion, embedded in common sense and defended and enshrined by philosophy, that “theory” is contemplative, passive, and unmarked by practical concerns and that “practice” is by its very nature not susceptible to intellectual formulation or control. The development of a logic of human inquiry that would reveal the underlying unity of “theory” and “practice” was therefore Dewey’s central intellectual enterprise.

According to Dewey the advent of modern experimental science had shown that theory and practice, far from being opposed, are in fact interdependent in successful scientific inquiry. Using such inquiry as a model, he formulated the view that general ideas are instruments for reconstructing “problematic situations.” An idea, in other words, is what is sometimes known as a “leading principle” or an “inference ticket”—a rule directing and regulating the movement of an inquiry or argument from one set of observations to another. The truth of an idea lies in its capacity to reorganize the materials of experience so that the problem that originally provoked reflection is resolved in accordance with the canons of disciplined inquiry. The power of an idea is measured by the novelty and significance for further inquiry of the questions it leads us to ask. Dewey thus rejected, or seemed to reject, the traditional “correspondence theory of truth,” according to which the truth of an idea is simply a matter of its correspondence to the external, independent reality to which it refers.

Dewey’s “instrumentalism” appears to involve, at the least, an overstatement, for if all ideas are simply rules for making inferences, then we are forced to the paradoxical conclusion that there are no general statements in the sciences that refer to anything external to human habits of thought. The emphasis of Dewey’s instrumentalism, nonetheless, was extremely useful in enhancing critical under-standing of science. It presented inquiry as a phase in the continuing readaptation of a social animal to its environment and portrayed general ideas as prescriptions for behavior, mental or physical, and as directives for action on the environment. It thus cast doubt on classic distinctions between theory and practice.

Theory of moral judgment. To establish still further the continuity of science and morals Dewey also undertook to show that moral judgments are subject to the same essential logic of inquiry as that of the sciences. Dewey’s argument, as developed, for example, in Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality (1903b) and Theory of Valuation (1939a), is that moral ideals are properly interpreted as hypotheses proposing that certain courses of action will resolve specified sets of difficulties. Moral ideals, therefore, like the general ideas of the sciences, are instruments for the solution of problems, and their validity is to be determined by a matter-of-fact examination of the consequences of acting on them, analogous to the procedure by which general ideas in the sciences achieve acceptance.

Dewey’s position is frequently criticized on the ground that he erased the distinction between factual statements and value judgments, a distinction on which the very conception of an objective science depends. The force of these accusations is weakened when it is seen that Dewey’s argument entails the denial of the normally accepted view that there is a hard and fast distinction between means and ends. Critics of Dewey frequently ask how, in Dewey’s terms, instrumental moral value can be ascribed to a course of action when he denied that there are in the last analysis any ends that have value for themselves. Dewey, however, rejected this question as irrelevant to the actual conditions under which moral choice takes place, for he believed that moral perplexities arise in specific contexts where certain established values are imperiled but where a host of other values, which might be questioned in other contexts, are not in fact in question. The problem of infinite regress is therefore not relevant to the practical contexts in which moral judgments are made; it implicitly introduces standards of demonstrative certainty that are not appropriate to this domain of thought.

The analyses of moral judgments that Dewey offered in different works were, however, not entirely consistent, and in the eyes of many critics he never successfully refuted the charge that he confused descriptive and prescriptive statements.

Critique of philosophy. Much of Dewey’s work consisted of polemics against “the classic tradition” in philosophy. The major effort of classic philosophy, he argued in such books as Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) and The Quest for Certainty (1929), had been to give men a sense of surcease from surrounding perils they were helpless to over-come. Accordingly, the usual message of classic philosophy was that behind the everyday world of change and irrationality there is an unchanging and rational world, in the contemplation of which men may gain understanding and serenity. Thus, in Dewey’s view, philosophical “dualism” was essentially an instrument of conservatism and retreat. It was also, he argued, an expression of such aristocratic social prejudices as the distaste for manual labor. Although relatively few scholars accept Dewey’s picture of the history of philosophy, his placing of that history within a social context has been the source of a considerable reappraisal of the Western philosophical inheritance.

Philosophy of education. For Dewey the principal object of education was to instill in students the attitudes and habits conducive to the development of their capacity to solve problems. As he argued in Democracy and Education (1916a), this required that classroom emphasis be placed not on arrays of factual information or on inherited ideas presented as settled and accepted but on the intellectual methods by which such factual information or such ideas are discovered and reliably established. This view was further fortified by Dewey’s belief that objective attitudes toward moral and social questions require the rejection of absolutes and the cultivation of flexibility and tolerance. Moreover, Dewey argued that a democratic culture requires from its members a capacity to adapt to diverse circumstances and to cooperate as equals with men and women of many different sorts. Schools responsive to these democratic imperatives would therefore aim at training students in habits of free and constant inquiry, in capacities to learn quickly, and in attitudes of social fellow feeling and cooperation. In spelling out this prescription, Dewey laid great stress on the atmosphere of the classroom: he opposed rote learning, stressing in-stead the pedagogical desirability of “learning by doing” and of connecting the materials of formal school instruction with the child’s experiences out-side the classroom.

Dewey’s theories of education came to be widely adopted, and they were given a variety of interpretations by ardent disciples. In his short book Experience and Education (1938a), written toward the end of his life, Dewey took account of some of the varieties of “progressive education” that had been associated with his name and expressed his serious misgivings about them.

Conception of the social sciences. Dewey provided intellectual support for the view that the logic of inquiry in the natural sciences is applicable in its major features to the study of human affairs. However, although he argued that the social sciences could and should offer objective descriptions of facts, he also stressed that their progress as intellectual disciplines depended on the importance of the subjects they chose for study and on the refusal of social scientists to dodge controversial issues. He argued that adequate social inquiry, like physical inquiry, requires the experimental manipulation of existential conditions. Accordingly, the removal of taboos against social planning, he believed, would greatly aid the progress of man’s social knowledge.

Social outlook. Dewey’s social views, in general, may be characterized as reasonably typical of the so-called progressive era of American thought. His special contributions to progressive thought consisted in his critique of ivory-tower ideals of scholarship, his attacks on such intellectual absolutes as the doctrine of natural rights, and his enlargement of the concept of freedom to include the dimension of personal self-realization, beyond the mere absence of external restraints. Closely connected with this was Dewey’s restatement of the relation of the growth of individuality to environing cultural conditions, a view that led to the emphasis on the role of the school in social reconstruction. In such essays as “Logical Method and Law” (1924), Dewey also applied his instrumentalist approach to questions of jurisprudence, influencing the evolution of American “legal realism”; in The Public and Its Problems (1927), he applied a similar approach to problems of political science, contributing to the progress of “interest group” theory.

The broad ideal behind his social outlook was articulated in several works, most notably, perhaps, in Art as Experience (1934). His critique of the industrial society of his day was based mainly on his conviction that this society reduced men to a state of passive acquiescence in external routines laid down for them. His image of a good society was one in which men are active agents, intelligently setting their own standards and participating freely and equally in the making of their common destiny.

Influence. Dewey’s impact on American philosophy before World War ii was massive, and his impact on educational theory and practice was even greater. His influence on psychology, juris-prudence, political science, and styles of thought in history and economics was also considerable. Even more important, perhaps, was his general influence on the atmosphere of American scholarship. He helped free that scholarship from subservience to genteel conventions and theological modes of thought, and he was one of those principally responsible for the acceptance of the view that the study of human affairs is properly a task of empirical science. By the example of his life, by his activities as a leader of such organizations as the American Association of University Professors, and most of all by his courageous articulation of his conception of philosophy, he contributed as much as any man to the spread of the idea in America that free scientific inquiry, recognizing no limits to the questions it might ask, is the linchpin of a sound society and of all responsible social action.

Charles Frankel

[For the historical context of Dewey’s work, see the biographies ofDarwin; Hegel; James; Mead; Peirce. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeEducation; Educational psychology; Learning; and the biographies ofAngell; Beard; Bentley; Merriam; Robinson.]


1896 The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology. Psychological Review 3:357–370.

(1899) 1961 The School and Society, Rev. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1903a Studies in Logical Theory. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1903b Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1916a) 1953 Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

(1916b) 1953 Essays in Experimental Logic. New York: Dover.

(1920) 1948 Reconstruction in Philosophy. Enl. ed. Boston: Beacon.

1924 Logical Method and Law. Philosophical Review 33: 560–572.

(1925) 1958 Experience and Nature. 2d ed. La Salle, III.: Open Court.

(1927) 1957 The Public and Its Problems. Denver, Colo.: Swallow.

(1929) 1960 The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. New York: Putnam.

1934 Art as Experience. New York: Putnam. → A paper-back edition was published in 1959.

1938a Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.

(1938b) 1960 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt.

1939a Theory of Valuation. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 2, No. 4. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1939b Freedom and Culture. New York: Putnam.


Berkson, Isaac B. 1958 The Ideal and the Community: A Philosophy of Education. New York: Harper.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1961 The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957. New York: Knopf.

Geiger, George R. 1958 John Dewey in Perspective. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hook, Sidney 1939 John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. New York: Day.

Schilpp, Paul A. (editor) (1939)1951 The Philosophy of John Dewey. 2d ed. New York: Tudor. → Contains an extensive bibliography.

Thayer, Horace S. 1952 The Logic of Pragmatism: An Examination of John Dewey’s Logic. London: Rout-ledge; New York: Humanities.

White, Morton G. 1943 The Origin of Dewey’s Instrumentalism. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Dewey, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Dewey

BORN: October 20, 1859 • Burlington, Vermont

DIED: June 1, 1952 • New York, New York

Philosopher; educational reformer

"We can have facts without thinking, but we cannot have thinking without facts."

John Dewey is considered by many historians to be the greatest educational philosopher of the twentieth century. His view of education is a theory called pragmatism. Pragmatism revolves around the concept that knowledge is valuable only if it is practical. Dewey acknowledged that each individual's experiences affected that practical application, and therefore, what one person knew as the truth might vary from another person's understanding of the truth. Pragmatism was in direct conflict with the traditional approach to education during the early Progressive Era (approximately 1900–13), which was authoritarian (unquestioning adherence to facts, with no consideration of individual experience). (The Progressive Era was a period in American history [approximately the first twenty years of the twentieth century] marked by reform and the development of a national cultural identity.) Dewey's revolutionary approach to learning changed the face of education forever. The value of his contribution continues to be debated in the twenty-first century.

Small-town childhood

John Dewey was the third of four sons born to Archibald Sprague Dewey and Lucina Artemesia Rich. He was born on October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, and spent his entire childhood in this small, rural (country) town, albeit one that included the University of Vermont. Dewey's father owned the one general store in town. The store was the gathering place for locals to discuss politics, current events, and any other topics that interested members of the community. Dewey grew up in this atmosphere of debate and discussion. His experience would continue to influence the philosopher throughout his lifetime.

Life in rural Vermont had a profound impact on Dewey's views toward education. Never a good student, he formed the opinion at an early age that the traditional approach to school—sitting at desks, being lectured, memorizing dates and names—was ineffective. Dewey believed the student should be an active learner, not the passive learner he or she was forced to be in an ordinary classroom. His perception of school was not completely negative, however. His social experiences at school, coupled with the stimulating discussions at his father's store, instilled in him a belief that the day-to-day contact one has with one's peers provides a real chance for significant learning, whether it be in the area of politics, culture, or economics.

College, as student and teacher

Despite his intense dislike of traditional education, Dewey attended the University of Vermont. While a student there, Dewey was exposed to various philosophers and their schools of thought. Having graduated in 1879, he spent the next two years teaching high school. During this time, Dewey considered his future, fully aware that he did not want to teach high school for the rest of his life. He entertained the idea of pursuing a career in philosophy. When the Journal of Speculative Philosophy published one of his philosophical essays, the budding writer took that as a sign that he should continue his studies. He enrolled as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dewey's experience at Johns Hopkins was a positive one. There, he studied under two professors who would help the young philosopher develop his own ideas about education. George Sylvester Morris (1840–1889) exposed Dewey to idealism (the concept that one can never know objects, but only the representation, image, or sensation of those objects), a philosophy Dewey would embrace for years. G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924), one of the most respected experimental psychologists of his time, showed Dewey the importance of scientific methodology (the techniques and strategy one uses to gather information) as it applies to human sciences (such as psychology, political science, and sociology).

After earning his Ph.D. in 1884, Dewey was hired to teach at the University of Michigan, a position he would keep for nearly ten years. He did leave in 1888 to teach at the University of Minnesota, but he returned to his post at Michigan after one year. In 1886, he married one of his students, Harriet Alice Chipman. They eventually had six of their own children and adopted another. Two of his sons died in childhood. During his tenure at Michigan, Dewey wrote and published two books, the first of dozens of books on various aspects of philosophy.

Dewey the pragmatist

In 1894, Dewey accepted a professorship at a new school, the University of Chicago. He remained there for another decade. It would be one of the most productive periods of his life.

While at the University of Chicago, Dewey's idealism was replaced with another school of thought. Pragmatism was, at the time, still in its development stages in America. The shift to pragmatism was a major one for Dewey because idealism was a philosophy in which results cannot be measured. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is a theory in which results can be easily measured by their practicality. With a curriculum based on each student's real life, lessons of the student's choosing could be incorporated. How those lessons were applied and the results of that application were the measurement of one's success or failure. Dewey's exploration of pragmatism resulted in a series of four essays he published under the collective title "Thought and Its Subject-Matter." The essay collection was published in 1903, along with essays written by his colleagues and students, in Studies in Logical Theory.

Establishes experimental school

Two years into his teaching position at Chicago, Dewey established what he called a laboratory school. This school would be the testing ground for his philosophical ideas and their implementation. The school was a laboratory in two ways: Dewey's primary intention was to use the school to facilitate research into new methods of learning and teaching. His second purpose was to allow children to experiment with their own unique approaches to learning.

Dewey envisioned his lab school as a place where children could experiment, find answers to questions that intrigued them, and create. No rows of wooden desks filled his school. Rooms were designed for movement and group activities. Furniture was designed to help students in their approach to learning, not to keep them in one position for hours at a time. Dewey felt traditional classroom furniture was built more for listening than for actual working, so he filled his school rooms with comfortable seating that could be easily moved, either to be pushed aside or gathered into groupings. But perhaps what set apart the lab school from the traditional American schools was Dewey's overall expectation that students would generally learn things for themselves. The teacher was there only to guide and direct, not to lecture, dictate, and test.

Students in the lab school were not under the authority of their teachers. It was not the teachers' responsibility to impose ideas on their students. Instead, their job was to help students find methods and styles of learning that were most effective for each student's unique personality or character. The student was at the center of education as an active, involved learner. The goal of education at the lab school was not to simply gather knowledge, but to reach a level of self-realization in which the knowledge learned truly helped each student function in his or her world.

Three principles

Dewey based his experimental school on three principles. These principles formed the foundation of his educational philosophy. The first principle involved the role of the school. Its job was to train children to help them live and grow within a community. Dewey believed education should help children develop an awareness of their role within a larger group so that they can successfully operate in real-life settings such as towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, and even families.

The second principle placed the children at the center of their own education and gave them the responsibility of navigating where that education would go. Dewey did not believe children learned if the presentation and application of knowledge was structured. His philosophy was that learning must come from a natural desire to know more about a particular subject. Dewey saw this principle as directly related to the idea of community. He argued that a child was social and that a community was made up of individuals. He believed that if one takes away social interaction, what the child or individual has learned is useless because the knowledge gained is not being used effectively to support or add to the community.

Dewey's third principle was that learning must promote a child's unique tendencies and activities. Under the proper guidance and influence (which the teacher would provide), these tendencies and activities would be organized to encourage the individual to thrive in a cooperative setting.

Dewey's school became famous throughout the country for its groundbreaking research. He published his first work on education based on his experiences with the school. The School and Society was published in 1899 to much critical acclaim.

Moving on

Dewey fell into disagreement with administrators at the University of Chicago over how the school should be run. Since he had achieved a level of fame, there was no shortage of job offers. He left the Laboratory School in 1904 and accepted a job as professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York. He remained at this school until his retirement in 1930.

Teaching at Columbia gave Dewey the perfect arena in which to spread his ideas about education as he had experienced them at the Laboratory School. Here he came into contact with the most brilliant philosophical minds of his time. He secured a reputation as a progressive, brilliant mind himself. His first decade at Columbia was one of his most productive periods as a writer. He published several books and countless articles on the theory of knowledge. As a professor, he lectured and traveled the world during his years at Columbia, which gave him further opportunity to share his ideas. He came to be perceived as an important commentator on current events. This perception was supported by his contributions to popular magazines and his involvement with important political issues of the day, such as women's suffrage (the right to vote).

Alice Dewey died in 1927; Dewey retired from active teaching in 1930 but continued to teach as professor emeritus (a professor who has officially retired) for another nine years. He continued to write and publish books and articles until shortly before his death. At the age of eighty-seven, he remarried, this time to a widow named Roberta Grant. Dewey died of pneumonia in his New York home on June 1, 1952, at the age of ninety-two. By the time of his death, he had published more than twenty books.

Not without his critics

Not everyone hailed Dewey as a great thinker. His educational theory had its opponents during his lifetime, most of them traditionalists who believed children needed to be controlled or they would go wild. More modern critics of Dewey credit him with the general failure of the public school system in America. To these critics, Dewey's theories had a harmful and lasting influence on education.

Other critics claimed to disagree with him when they simply could not understand him. According to an article on Dewey, written by Spencer J. Maxcy of Louisiana State University and posted on the Thoemmes Continuum, Dewey was "notorious for his terrible writing style, boring and meandering [wandering] lectures … by nature his writing style was difficult to penetrate and almost impossible to interpret." Being misunderstood did not bother Dewey; he knew what he meant and it was everyone else's responsibility to figure it out.

The most common misunderstanding about Dewey is that he was a proponent of progressive education. The early twentieth century was known as the Progressive Era, and generally this means American society was experiencing reform and change on every level, including education. There are similarities between pragmatism and progressive education, but one major difference separates the philosophies. Progressive education revolves around the idea of giving students total freedom in their learning methods. Dewey was against this absolute freedom because he believed it was not a solution to the problems presented by the strict structure of traditional education methods. He believed some structure and order was necessary. That structure needed to be based on a theory of experience (how humans have the experiences they do) and not developed on the whim of teachers or students.

Although many general aspects of Dewey's educational philosophy were incorporated into the progressive education movement, Dewey never considered himself a supporter of the progressive education movement. The movement lasted until the 1950s, when people finally grew weary of the endless debates about the nature of education in general and the administration of progressive education in particular.

Another reason some philosophers and educators criticized—and continue to criticize—Dewey was his tendency to change the essential meaning of common words such as "experience" and "democracy." Dewey would define such words in his own terms, then comment on the work of others using his personal definition rather than the common interpretation of the words. This habit made it difficult to critique his work, and it made it pointless for him to accurately assess others' work at times.

Without argument, Dewey's theories and research had a major impact on America's school systems. Simultaneously praised for his vision and criticized for his influence on education, Dewey is looked upon as a revolutionary (one who fights the system). Whether the results of his philosophy of education were positive or negative is up to individual interpretation.

For More Information


Casil, Amy Sterling. John Dewey: The Founder of American Liberalism. New York: Rosen, 2006.

Edmondson III, Henry T. John Dewey & the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching & Learning. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006.

Jackson, Philip W. John Dewey and the Lessons of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Maxcy, Spencer J., ed. John Dewey and American Education. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Continuum, 2002.


Flanagan, Frank M. "John Dewey." University of Limerick. (accessed on August 21, 2006).

JohnDewey.Org. (accessed on August 21, 2006).

"John Dewey (1859–1952)." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed on August 21, 2006).

John Dewey

views updated May 18 2018

John Dewey

During the first half of the 20th century, John Dewey (1859-1952) was America's most famous exponent of a pragmatic philosophy that celebrated the traditional values of democracy and the efficacy of reason and universal education.

Born on Oct. 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vt., John Dewey came of old New England stock. His father was a local merchant who loved literature. His mother, swayed by revivals to convert to Congregationalism, possessed a stern moral sense. The community, situated at the economic crossroads of the state, was the home of the state university and possessed a cosmopolitan atmosphere unusual for northern New England. Nearby Irish and French-Canadian settlements acquainted John with other cultures. Boyhood jobs delivering newspapers and working at a lumberyard further extended his knowledge. In 1864, on a visit to see his father in the Union Army in Virginia, he viewed firsthand the devastating effects of the Civil War.

Educational Career

Dewey's career in Vermont public schools was unremarkable. At the age of 15 he entered the University of Vermont. He found little of interest in academic work; his best grades were in science, and later he would regard science as the highest manifestation of human intellect. Dewey himself attributed his "intellectual awakening" to T. H. Huxley's college textbook on physiology, which shaped his vision of man as entirely the product of natural evolutionary processes.

Dewey later remembered coming in touch with the world of ideas during his senior year. Courses on psychology, religion, ethics, logic, and economics supplanted his earlier training in languages and science. His teacher, H. A. P. Torrey, introduced him to Immanuel Kant, but Dewey found it difficult to accept the Kantian idea that there was a realm of knowledge transcending empirical demonstration. Dewey also absorbed Auguste Comte's emphasis on the disintegrative effects of extreme individualism. The quality of his academic work improved and, at the age of 19, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and second in his class of 18.

Dewey hoped to teach high school. After a frustrating summer of job hunting, his cousin, principal of a seminary in Pennsylvania, came to his rescue. For 2 years Dewey taught the classics, algebra, and science, meanwhile reading philosophy. When his cousin resigned, however, Dewey's employment ended. He returned to Vermont to become the sole teacher in a private school in Charlotte, near his alma mater. He renewed acquaintance with Torrey, and the two discussed the fruits of Dewey's reading in ancient and modern philosophy.

Intellectual Development

At this time most American teachers of philosophy were ordained clergymen who tended to subordinate philosophical speculation to theological orthodoxy. Philosophy was in the hands of laymen in only a few schools. One such school was in St. Louis, where William T. Harris established the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Here Dewey published his first scholarly effort. Finally, Dewey decided to pursue a career in philosophy and applied for admission to the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, another haven for lay philosophers.

At Johns Hopkins in 1882 Dewey studied with George S. Morris, who was on leave as chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. Under Morris's direction Dewey studied Hegel, whose all-encompassing philosophical system temporarily satisfied Dewey's longing to escape from the dualisms of traditional philosophy. In 1884 Dewey completed his doctorate and, at Morris's invitation, went to teach at Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, Dewey met and married Alice Chipman. His interests turned toward problems of education as he traveled about the state to evaluate college preparatory courses. His concern for social problems deepened, and he adopted a vague brand of socialism, although he was unacquainted with Marxism. He still taught Sunday school, but he was drifting away from religious orthodoxy. In 1888 he accepted an appointment at the University of Minnesota, only to return to Michigan a year later to the post left vacant by Morris's death.

The next stage in Dewey's intellectual development came with his reading of William James's Principles of Psychology. Dewey rapidly shed Hegelianism in favor of "instrumentalism," a position that holds that thinking is an activity which, at its best, is directed toward resolving problems rather than creating abstract metaphysical systems.

In 1894 Dewey moved to the University of Chicago as head of a new department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. Outside the academic world he became friends with the social reformers at Hull House. He also admired Henry George's analysis of the problems of poverty. To test his educational theories, he started an experimental school, with his wife as principal. The "Dewey school," however, caused a struggle between its founder and the university's president, William R. Harper. In 1904, when Harper tried to remove his wife, he resigned in protest. An old friend of Dewey's engineered an offer from Columbia University, where Dewey spent the rest of his teaching years. His colleagues, some of the most fertile minds in modern America, included Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson.

Peak of His Influence

Living in New York City placed the Deweys at the center of America's cultural and political life. Dewey pursued his scholarship, actively supported the Progressive party, and, in 1929, helped organize the League for Independent Political Action to further the cause of a new party. He also served as a contributing editor of the New Republic magazine and helped found both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors. After World War I, reaching the peak of his influence, he became a worldwide traveler, lecturing in Japan at the Imperial Institute and spending 2 years teaching at the Chinese universities of Peking and Nanking. In 1924 he went to study the schools in Turkey and 2 years later visited the University of Mexico. His praise for the Russian educational system he inspected on a 1928 trip to the Soviet Union earned him much criticism.

As a teacher, Dewey exhibited the distracted air of a man who had learned to concentrate in a home inhabited by five young children. Careless about his appearance, shy and quiet in manner, he sometimes put his students to sleep, but those who managed to focus their attention could watch a man fascinated with ideas actually creating a philosophy in his classroom.

In 1930 Dewey retired from teaching. A year earlier, national luminaries had used the occasion of his seventieth birthday to hail his accomplishments; such celebrations would be repeated on his eightieth and ninetieth birthdays. He continued to publish works clarifying his philosophy. In public affairs he was one of the first to warn of the dangers from Hitler's Germany and of the Japanese threat in the Far East. In 1937 he traveled to Mexico as chairman of the commission to determine the validity of Soviet charges against Trotsky. His first wife having died in 1927, Dewey, at the ripe age of 87, married a widow, Roberta Grant. In the early years of the cold war Dewey's support of American intervention in Korea earned him criticism from the U.S.S.R. newspaper Pravda. He died on June 1, 1952.

Dewey's Philosophy

In his philosophy Dewey sought to transcend what he considered the misleading distinctions made by other philosophers. By focusing on experience, he bridged the gulf between the organism and its environment to emphasize their interaction. He rejected the dualism of spirit versus matter, insisting that the mind was a product of evolution, not some infusion from a superior being. Yet he avoided the materialist conclusion which made thought seem accidental and irrelevant. While he saw most of man's behavior as shaped by habit, he believed that the unceasing processes of change often produced conditions which customary mental activity could not explain. The resulting tension led to creative thinking in which man tried to reestablish control of the unstable environment. Thought was never, for Dewey, merely introspection; rather, it was part of a process whereby man related to his surroundings. Dewey believed that universal education could train men to break through habit into creative thought.

Dewey was convinced that democracy was the best form of government. He saw contemporary American democracy challenged by the effects of the industrial revolution, which had produced an over concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men. This threat, he believed, could be met by the right kind of education.

The "progressive education" movement of the 1920s was an effort to implement Dewey's pedagogical ideas. Because his educational theory emphasized the classroom as a place for students to encounter the "present," his interpreters tended to play down traditional curricular concerns with the "irrelevant" past or occupational future. His influence on American schools was so pervasive that many critics (then and later) assailed his ideas as the cause of all that they found wrong with American education.

Philosophical Works

To the year of his death Dewey remained a prolific writer. Couched in a difficult prose style, his published works number over 300. Some of the most important works include Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891), The Study of Ethics (1894), The School and Society (1899), Studies in Logical Theory (1903), How We Think (1910), The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (1910), German Philosophy and Politics (1915), Democracy and Education (1916), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Experience and Nature (1925), The Public and Its Problems (1927), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Individualism Old and New (1930), Philosophy and Civilization (1931), Art as Experience (1934), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Freedom and Culture (1939), Problems of Men (1946), and Knowing and the Known (1949).

Further Reading

For more information see Dewey's autobiographical fragment,"From Absolutism to Experimentalism," in George P. Adams and William Pepperell Montague, eds., Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements (1930). His daughters compiled an authoritative sketch of his life in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey (1939), which also contains valuable summaries of aspects of his philosophy.

Indispensable for any examination of Dewey's thought is Sidney Hook, John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (1939). John E. Smith presents an excellent chapter on Dewey in The Spirit of American Philosophy (1963). Paul K. Conkin in Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers (1968) attempts an evaluation of Dewey's place in the context of American ideas. Morton G. White, Social Thought in America (1949), considers assumptions common to Dewey and his colleagues in other disciplines. Longer, more challenging treatments of Dewey's ideas are in George R. Geiger, John Dewey in Perspective (1958); Robert J. Roth, John Dewey and Self Realization (1962); and Richard J. Bernstein, John Dewey (1966). See also Jerome Nathanson, John Dewey: The Reconstruction of the Democratic Life (1951).

Additional Sources

Campbell, James, Understanding John Dewey: nature and cooperative intelligence, Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 1995.

Ryan, Alan, John Dewey and the high tide of American liberalism, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. □

Dewey, John

views updated May 17 2018

John Dewey

Born: October 20, 1859
Burlington, Vermont
Died: June 1, 1952
New York, New York

American philosopher, educator, and writer

During the first half of the twentieth century, John Dewey was one of America's most famous teachers of philosophy (the study of the universe and man's place in it). He also made some controversial suggestions for changes in the American educational system.

Early life

Born on October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, John Dewey was the third of Archibald Dewey and Lucina Artemisia Rich's four children. His father was a local merchant who loved literature. His mother possessed a stern moral sense based on her belief in Calvinism (a religion in which one's faith is expressed through moral behavior and good works). John Dewey learned about other cultures from nearby Irish and French-Canadian settlements. Boyhood jobs delivering newspapers and working at a lumber-yard added to his knowledge. While visiting his father, who served in the Union Army in Virginia, he viewed the horror of the Civil War (18611865) firsthand.

Educational career

At the age of fifteen, Dewey, after receiving average grades in Vermont public schools, entered the University of Vermont. His best grades were in science, which he would later regard as the highest expression of human intellect. Dewey became aware of the world of ideas during his senior year. Courses on psychology (the science of mind and behavior), religion, ethics (the study of moral values), and logic (the science of reasoning) interested him more than his earlier training in languages and science. His teacher, H. A. P. Torrey, introduced him to the works of different philosophers. The quality of his work improved, and at the age of nineteen, he graduated second in his class.

Unsure of what career to pursue, Dewey hoped to teach high school. After an unsuccessful summer of job hunting, his cousin, principal of a seminary (institute for the training of priests) in Pennsylvania, got him a teaching job, which he held for two years. Dewey continued to read philosophy in his spare time. When his cousin resigned, however, Dewey lost his job. He returned to Vermont to become the only teacher in a private school in Charlotte. He began to spend time with Torrey again, and the two discussed Dewey's readings in ancient and modern philosophy.

Intellectual development

At this time most American philosophy teachers were religious men, who placed more importance on religious ideas than on creative thought. Philosophy was taught by lay teachers (teachers not associated with any particular religion) in only a few schools. One such school was in St. Louis, where William T. Harris established the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Here Dewey published his first essay. Dewey decided to pursue a career in philosophy and applied for admission to the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, which also attracted and employed lay philosophers. At Johns Hopkins, Dewey studied with George S. Morris, who was on leave as chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. In 1884 Dewey completed his doctorate and, at Morris's invitation, he went to teach at Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dewey met and married Alice Chipman, with whom he would have seven children. He became interested in problems of education as he traveled around the state to monitor the quality of college preparation courses. In 1888 he accepted an appointment at the University of Minnesota, only to return to Michigan a year later to replace Morris, who had died. The next stage in Dewey's intellectual development came with his reading of William James's Principles of Psychology. Dewey became a believer in "instrumentalism," a belief that thinking is an activity which, at its best, is directed toward resolving problems.

In 1894 Dewey moved to Chicago, Illinois, after accepting a position as head of a new department of philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago. To test his theories of education, he started an experimental school with his wife as principal. The "Dewey school," however, caused a struggle between its founder and the university's president, William R. Harper. In 1904, when Harper tried to fire his wife, Dewey resigned in protest. One of Dewey's friends then got him a job at Columbia University in New York, New York, where Dewey spent the rest of his teaching years.

Peak of his influence

Living in New York placed the Deweys at the center of America's cultural and political life. In 1929 Dewey helped organize the League for Independent Political Action in hopes of creating a new political party. He also served as an editor of the New Republic magazine and helped found both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors. After World War I (191418), he traveled the world, lecturing in Japan at the Imperial Institute and spending two years teaching at universities in China. In 1924 he went to study schools in Turkey, and two years later he visited the University of Mexico. His praise for the Russian educational system he inspected on a 1928 trip to the Soviet Union earned him much criticism. Dewey was a shy and quiet man, and as a teacher he sometimes put his students to sleep. Those who managed to stay awake, however, could watch a man fascinated with ideas actually creating ideas in his classroom.

In 1930 Dewey retired from teaching, but he continued to publish works clarifying his ideas. Although many are difficult to read, he published over three hundred books and articles. In public affairs he was one of the first to warn of the dangers from Adolf Hitler's (18891945) rise to power in Germany and of the Japanese threat in the Far East. At the age of eighty-seven, Dewey married a widow, Roberta Grant. (His first wife died in 1927.) In the early 1950s Dewey's support of American intervention in Korea earned him criticism from the Soviet Union. He died on June 1, 1952.

Dewey's philosophy

In his philosophy Dewey sought to rise above what he considered the inaccurate statements made by other philosophers. While he saw most of man's behavior as shaped by habit, he believed that the processes of change often produced conditions that could not be explained. The resulting conflict led to creative thinking in which man tried to reestablish control of his changing environment. Thought, for Dewey, was part of a process by which man related to his surroundings. Dewey believed that universal education could train men to break through habit into creative thought.

Dewey saw American democracy, which he considered the best form of government, challenged by the effects of the industrial revolution, which had led to too much wealth in the hands of a few men. This threat, he believed, could be met by the right kind of education. The "progressive education" movement of the 1920s was based on Dewey's ideas. Because he placed great importance on the classroom as a place for students to encounter the "present," his interpreters sometimes neglected to study the past and to prepare students for the future. Dewey's influence on American schools was so strong that many critics attacked his ideas as the cause of all that they found wrong with American education.

For More Information

Dewey, John. The Essential Dewey: Ethics, Logic, Psychology. Edited by Thomas M. Alexander and Larry A. Hickman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Por trait. New York: The John Day Co., 1939. Reprint, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Jackson, Philip W. John Dewey and the Lessons of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Ryan, Alan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and Ameri can Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Dewey, John

views updated May 21 2018


Born in Burlington, Vermont, on October 20, John Dewey (1859–1952) lived a long and productive life as a psychologist, social activist, public intellectual, educator, and philosopher. Educated at the University of Vermont and Johns Hopkins, Dewey taught philosophy at the universities of Michigan, Minnesota, and Chicago, and Columbia University. He initiated the progressive laboratory school at the University of Chicago, where his reforms in methods of education could be put into practice. He was instrumental in founding the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was active in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Dewey remained active until shortly before his death in New York City on June 1.

Dewey's philosophical pragmatism, which he called "instrumentalism," is both an extended argument for and an application of intelligence-in-action. Intelligence-in-action, human reasoning understood as fallible and revisable, aims to ameliorate existing problems (ethical, scientific, technical, social, aesthetic, and so on). It is rooted in the insights and methodologies of modern science and technology.

Intellectual Influences

At Vermont, Dewey studied the work of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and evolutionary theory, from which he learned the inadequacy of static models of nature, and the importance of focusing on the interaction between an organism and its environment. For Darwin, living organisms are products of a natural, temporal process in which lineages of organisms adapt to their environments. These environments are significantly determined by the organisms that occupy them. At Johns Hopkins, Dewey studied the organic model of nature in German idealism, the power of scientific methodology, and, with Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the notion that the methods and values of the natural sciences and technology (technosciences) should serve as a model for all human inquiry. Strongly influenced also by William James (1842–1910), Dewey became a proponent of philosophical naturalism. For Dewey, knowledge and inquiry develop as adaptive human responses to environing conditions which aim at reshaping those conditions.

Inquiry as Scientific and Technological

Along with Peirce and James, Dewey took the open, experimental, and practical nature of technoscientific inquiry to be the paradigmatic example of all inquiry. For Dewey, all inquiry is similar in form to technoscientific inquiry in that it is fallibilistic, resolves in practice some initial question through an experimental method, but provides no final absolute answer. In Studies in Logical Theory (1903), Dewey identifies four phases in the process of inquiry. It begins with the problematic situation, a situation in which one's instinctive or habitual responses to the environment are inadequate to fulfill needs and desires. Dewey stresses throughout his work that the uncertainty of the problematic situation is not inherently cognitive, but also practical and existential. The second phase of the process requires the formulation of a question that captures the problem and thus defines the boundaries within which the resolution of the initial problematic situation must be addressed. In the third, reflective phase of the process, the cognitive elements of inquiry, such as ideas and theories, are evaluated as possible solutions. Fourth, these solutions are tested in action. If the new resulting situation resolves the initial problem in a manner conducive to productive activity, then the solution will become part of the habits of living and thus a part of the existential circumstances of human life.

This method of inquiry works because, as Dewey points out in Experience and Nature (1925), human experience of the world includes both the stable, patterned regularity that allows for prediction and intervention and the transitory and contingent aspects of things. Hence, although for Dewey people know the world in terms of causal laws and mathematical relationships, such instrumental value of understanding and controlling their situations should not blind them to the sensuous characteristics of everyday life. Thus, not surprisingly, the value of technoscientific understanding and practice is most significantly realized when humans have sufficient and consistent control over their circumstances that they can live well.

Science, Technology, and the Good Life

Dewey rejects the distinction between moral and nonmoral knowledge because all knowledge has possibilities for transforming life, and arises through inquiry into a problematic situation. Thus, all knowledge has moral dimensions. Throughout his more explicitly aesthetic, ethical, and social writings, Dewey stresses the need for open-ended, flexible, and experimental approaches to problems, approaches that strive to identify means for pursuing identifiable human goods ("ends-in-view") and that include a critical examination of the consequences of these means.

For Dewey, people live well when they cultivate the habits of thinking and living most conducive to a full flourishing life. In Ethics (1932) he describes the flourishing life as one in which individuals cultivate interests in goods that recommend themselves in the light of calm reflection. In works such as Human Nature and Conduct (1922) and Art as Experience (1934), he argues that a good life is one characterized by (a) the resolution of conflicts of habit and interest within the individual and within society; (b) the release from rote activity in favor of enjoying variety and creative action; and (c) the enriched appreciation of human culture and the world at large. Pursuing these ends constitutes the central issue of individual ethical concern. The paramount goal of public policy is nurturing the collective means for their realization. Achieving these goals requires intelligence in action, best cultivated through democratic habits in everyday life, and education and practice in technoscientific modes of inquiry.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Dewey's ideas have had increasing influence in areas of applied philosophy such as philosophy of technology, bioethics, and environmental ethics. Nonetheless, Dewey has often been criticized as a mere apologist for the status quo and for a narrow straight-line instrumentalism that leaves no room for reflection on, or critical evaluation of, ends. Others criticize his work by noting that technoscience has unleashed great horrors on the world (such as nuclear weapons and environmental degradation), and increased the possibilities of social control and manipulation (Taylorism, mass media, surveillance, and so on). Dewey does not deny that technoscience has sometimes failed, but this has not been due to something intrinsic to science and technology. Failures in the use of science and technology are rather failures to consistently employ intelligence-in-action; failures of inquiry, failures to be sufficiently experimental, reflective, and open.

Among the influential interpreters of Dewey's work, especially as it applies to science, technology, and ethics, are Paul Durbin (b. 1933) and Larry A. Hickman. For some years Durbin has argued what has come to be known as the "social worker thesis," that philosophers dealing with science, engineering, and medicine have obligations similar to social workers not simply to analyze problems but to become socially and politically engaged in their solution. Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale), argues that Dewey's pragmatism offers the best account of how to develop moral intelligence and then bring it to bear in the context of an advancing technoscientific culture.


SEE ALSO Expertise;Pragmatism;Social Engineering.


Campbell, James. (1995). Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence. Chicago: Open Court.

Dewey, John. (1967–1991). The Collected Works of John Dewey, 37 volumes, ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John. (1981). The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. (1998). The Essential Dewey, 2 vols., ed. Thomas M. Alexander and Larry A. Hickman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Durbin, Paul T. (1992). Social Responsibility in Science, Technology, and Medicine. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press.

Eldridge, Michael. (1998). Transforming Experience: John Dewey's Cultural Instrumentalism. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Hickman, Larry A. (1990). John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hickman, Larry A. (2001). Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. (1998). Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dewey, John

views updated May 29 2018

John Dewey

American philosopher, educator, and psychologist who made significant contributions to the establishment of the school of functional psychology.

John Dewey was born near Burlington, Vermont. After receiving his B.A. from the University of Vermont, he taught high school and studied philosophy independently before entering the graduate program in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1884, Dewey served on the faculties of the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. Dewey was a founder

of the philosophical movement called pragmatism, and his writings on educational theory and practice were widely read and accepted. He held that the disciplines of philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology should be understood as closely interrelated. Dewey came to believe in an "instrumentalist" theory of knowledge, in which ideas are seen to exist primarily as instruments for the solution of problems encountered in the environment .

Dewey's work at the University of Chicago between 1894 and 1904together with that of his colleague, Rowland Angell (1869-1949)made that institution a world-renowned center of the functionalist movement in psychology. Dewey's functionalism was influenced by Charles Darwin 's theory of evolution, as well as by the ideas of William James and by Dewey's own instrumentalist philosophy. His 1896 paper, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," is generally considered the first major statement establishing the functionalist school. In this work, Dewey attacked the prevailing reductionist methods of such figures as Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Edward Titchener (1867-1927), who used stimulus-response analysis as the basis for psychological theories that reduced human experience to the simplest and most basic units possible. Dewey considered their approach flawed because it ignored both the continuity of human behavior and its significance in terms of adaptation . In contrast, functionalism sought to consider the total organism as it functioned in the environmentan active perceiver rather than a passive receiver of stimuli.

Dewey was also an educational reformer and a pioneer in the field of educational psychology . Paralleling his philosophical and psychological theories, his concept of instrumentalism in education stressed learning by doing, as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods and rote learning. Dewey's ideas have remained at the center of much educational philosophy in the United States. While at the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental school to develop and study new educational methods, a project that won him both fame and controversy. He experimented with educational curricula and methods, successfully combining theory and practice, and also pioneered in advocating parental participation in the educational process. His first influential book on education, The School and Society (1899), was adapted from a series of lectures to parents of the pupils in his school at the University of Chicago. During his time at Columbia, he continued working on the applications of psychology to problems in education, and his work influenced educational ideas and practices throughout the world.

Dewey wrote the first American psychology textbook, titled Psychology (1886), which was followed by William James's The Principles of Psychology four years later. Dewey served as president of the American Psychological Association from 1899 to 1900 and was the first president of the American Association of University Professors in 1915. In 1920 he helped organize the American Civil Liberties Union. In the following years, Dewey surveyed educational practices in several foreign countries, including Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. After his retirement in 1930, Dewey continued his writing and his advocacy of political and educational causes, including the advancement of adult education. Among Dewey's large body of writings are: Applied Psychology: An Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Education (1889), Interest as Related to Will (1896), Studies in Logical Theory (1903), How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916), Experience and Nature (1925), Philosophy and Civilization (1931), Experience and Education (1938), and Freedom and Culture (1939).

See also Assessment, psychological

Further Reading

Boydston, Jo Ann. Guide to the Works of John Dewey. Edwardsville, IL:Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. New York: John Day Co., 1939.

Dewey, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

Dewey, John (1859–1952) Over a long life spanning nearly a century, Dewey was one of America's leading philosophers, responsible for developing and refining philosophical pragmatism. Rejecting much of classical European and essentialist philosophy, Dewey stressed the importance of linking theories to active participation in the world, and to practical problem-solving (instrumentalism). His work exemplifies the North American approach to problem-solving and it has been especially influential in progressive theories of education. For example, in Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey stressed the importance of child-centred learning, where the experiences of the child are seen as valuable in establishing problems, and where thoughtful continuity of such experiences allows the child to exert increasing control over his or her life.

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