John Dewey: America's Social Philosopher

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 13th Jan 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Philosophy>History of Philosophy

John Dewey was a social philosopher who had a major influence on social thought in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. One of his concerns was the social consequences that followed from the loss of community and meaning that he felt was side effect of the new technological age. His ideas anticipated the later work of the American sociologist Robert Bellah.

A Synopsis of Dewey's Social Philosophy

John Dewey's long life (1858 to1952) witnessed the emergence of the United States as a major industrial and world power. The world in general was one that had been radically changed and transformed by science and technology. Dewey was no Luddite. He welcomed the potential and promise that technology and science held for improving the conditions and quality of life for everyone. At the same time, Dewey's philosophy was always motivated primarily by social and ethical concerns. While welcoming the changes wrought by science and technology, he was equally aware of social, political, and economic risks and problems as well.

Dewey thought that one of the essential problems of the modern predicament was the alienation of the modern individual from a large sense of the social whole. This problem is addressed by Dewey in a book called The Public and Its Problems and in a short essay titled Individualism Old and New. In the latter essay, Dewey puts forth the thesis of "the lost individual." Dewey argues that the American experience in democracy was founded upon the idea of the rugged and independent individual. One of the fundamental images is the myth of the frontier and western expansion in the 19th century. The transition from the 19th to the 20th century - from an agrarian to a more urban and industrial environment - had consequences for idea of individualism. In a nutshell, Dewey's argument is that the the 20th century required a new sense of individualism that is more suitable to the new social environment.

The 19th century individual is "bewildered" and "confused" or "lost" in Dewey's words Industrialization and the ideology of individualism, in Dewey's view, results in a rigid dichotomy between the private sphere and the public sphere. The technological advances of science and technology that had the potential for improving the quality of life for humanity, in Dewey's view, had the adverse affect. The new technological society was more of a crowd than a genuine community. It was a crowd "composed of private individuals" who had lost their sense of bearing. In other words, the relationship between the private and public spheres is alienated. In The Public and Its Problems Dewey puts it this way: "Assured and integrated individuality is the product of definite social relationships and publicly acknowledged functions." Dewey goes on to say:

"The unrest, impatience, irritation and hurry that are so marked in American life are inevitable accompaniments of a situation in which individuals do not find support and contentment in the fact that they are sustaining and sustained members of a social whole."

Only in a community is there the opportunity for such support. The heart of the problem for Dewey revolves around the idea of the individual and individualism. The idea of the individual over and apart from society - and society as composed through a social contract of preexisting individuals in the style of Rousseau - is placed in question by Dewey. Dewey rejects the dualism of the individual and society. He also rejects the idea of the individual. "Such thinking," Dewey says, "treats individualism as if it were something static, having a uniform content. It ignores the fact that mental and moral structures of individuals, their patterns of desires and purposes, change with every great change in social constitution."

One of the essential characteristics of human beings, in Dewey's view, is their ability to adapt. The world continually confronts us with novel and precarious situations which demand a creative and intelligent response. A second characteristic of human beings is that identity is formed through the ebb and flow of social interaction. "Society is of course nothing but the relations of individuals to one another in this form and that. And all relations are interactions, not fixed modes."

Dewey was a social philosopher - who has been referred to as America's last public philosopher. He exerted his influence outside of the academy through public lectures, and essays as well as his experiments in the philosophy of education. The public nature of his work was intended to provide answers for the problems he diagnosed in his theoretical and critical work.


Ethics, John Dewey, Political Philosophy, Robert Bellah, Social Philosophy

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author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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author avatar Denise O
20th Jan 2012 (#)

I think a loss of community is a downfall of society. I have witnessed its impact just in my life time, sadly. Nice read. Thank you for sharing.:)

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