John Dewey’s Heritage
November 4, 2014
Five aspects of John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism hold the potential to put us back on track to valuing the public good, says Dan Yankelovich.
I’ve argued in these blogs that the great majority of Americans who believe the nation is on the wrong track are, unfortunately, correct in their suspicions.
The most obvious signs of being on the wrong track are the countless instances of our institutions pursuing their own self-interest rather than the public good.
The most compelling aspects of pragmatic philosophy for today’s America are those advanced by the philosopher John Dewey.
As to the major cause of the nation’s derailment, I’ve pinpointed an inadvertent consequence of the nation’s shift from the 1950s ethic of sacrificing one’s own self-fulfillment for others to an ethic of celebrating one’s own self-expressiveness. Self-expressiveness and other forms of individualism are fine in their place, but they must leave room for values that also advance the public good.
My most consequential proposal is that the American public needs to develop and nourish a countervailing ethic to the prevailing cult of the self. This would be an ethic that preserves individualism while also enhancing the integrity and official mission of our institutions.
Bringing about an ethical transformation in our society poses a monumental challenge. If we were obliged to create such a transformation from scratch it might be nearly impossible to achieve. The task becomes far more doable once we realize that we don’t have to invent the sort of ethic that is needed: it existed and thrived in the early and late decades of the last century in the doctrine of pragmatic philosophy.
Some parts of pragmatic philosophy are now obsolete, but others are powerfully germane to our current situation. The most compelling aspects of pragmatic philosophy for today’s America are those advanced by the philosopher John Dewey.
Five aspects of Dewey’s philosophy hold the potential to form building blocks for a new ethic of civic virtue. These are:
- Support for the Strong Versus Weak Form of Democracy
- Many Ways to Arrive at Truth
- A High Value Placed on Community
- Respect for “Intelligent Conduct”
- The Relevance of Philosophy to Everyday Life
Here is a brief elaboration of the first of these building blocks.
Support for the Strong Versus Weak Form of Democracy.
Many democratic theorists equate democracy mainly with voting. This reductionist view of democracy was particularly dominant in the years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
I think of the democracy-means-voting definition as the weak form of democracy. This is the kind of democracy that Bush was eager to develop in Iraq and other nations in the Middle East.
Inevitably, it failed to install the kinds of democracies Bush had in mind. Instead, it resulted in installing sectarian leaders like the Shi’ite leader Nouri el-Maliki in Iraq, electing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and voting Hamas into power in the Gaza Strip. These elections advanced conflict more than democracy; they destabilized their nations because of their extreme partisanship.
John Dewey, on the other hand, was an advocate of the strong form of democracy. In addition to voting, the strong form of democracy requires the rule of law and democratic institutions. But even these are not enough. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions for successful democracy. Essential to a thriving democracy, Dewey endlessly argued, is a high level of citizen engagement and participation.
Dewey recognized that our institutions are fully aware of the importance of voting and are prepared to take whatever action is needed to preserve its integrity. But he also recognized that our society is not nearly as conscious of the need to provide the public with the tools it requires for thoughtful democratic deliberation.
In the 1930s and 40s, Dewey engaged in a lively debate with the influential journalist, Walter Lippmann, about the public’s ability to contribute to shaping national policy. Lippmann, a thorough elitist, insisted on the public’s inability to understand the issues of the day, let alone contribute to resolving them. In response, Dewey championed active and constant public engagement as the heart and soul of successful democratic governance.
In my next blog I’ll identify the other four values and beliefs espoused by John Dewey that compositely constitute the kind of ethic the public needs to preserve but also that will help constrain the out-of-control aspects of our cult of the self.
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