John Dewey's Idea of Democracy

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 8th Apr 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/218a3ykk/
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John Dewey was one of America's major intellectual figures. Dewey was philosopher, social theorist, educator and public intellectual. His long life (1859 to 1952) allowed him to witness the United States evolution into a major economic and industrial power. Dewey was intrigued with the democratic spirit that took birth in the United States and, at the same time, he was disheartened by the direction he saw it taking as the United States emerged into the 20th century.

Dewey's Theory of Democracy

Dewey presents a radical interpretation of democracy and its origins. The idea of democracy can only be understood by taking into consideration its historical and contextual dimensions. Democracy takes on different meanings and nuances in different contexts and the concept of democracy must be flexible in order to grow and develop. In The Public and its Problems (1927) Dewey seeks "the events and ideas that led to the actual emergence of the democratic state." Political theorists traditionally seek some type of "first cause," "first principle," or "fundamental idea" that serves as the philosophical foundation for democracy. Dewey dismisses this approach as misguided. The origins of democracy, Dewey argues, are to be found in the rich diversity of non-political factors. One of the essential argument in the Public and Its Problems that modern idea of democracy had multiple sources. "Democracy," Dewey says, "emerged as a kind of net consequence of a vast multitude of responsive adjustments to a vast number of situations"

The idea of democracy, according to Dewey, grew out of responses to different sorts of problems, non-political as well as political problems. The idea of democracy grew out a sense of dissatisfaction and spirit of revolt directed against tyranny and authoritarian forms of rule. One of the characteristics of this attitude is a suspicion of governmental power and a desire to minimize the harm it can do. Dewey argues that it was within this context that the doctrine of "individualism" became an essential element of modern democratic theory. The "rights of the individual" became the cornerstone of democratic theory. Dewey makes the following claim: "Since it was necessary, upon the intellectual side, to find justification for the moment of revolt, and since established authority was upon the side of institutional life, the natural recourse was the appeal to some inalienable sacred authority resident in the protesting individual." One of the consequences of this, in Dewey's view is that the individual became an isolated unit that artificially relates with other individuals through the social contract. The theme or motif of the social contract became one of the fundamental building blocks in modern political theory as articulated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The role and function of government is defined and delineated accordingly. Its role is to protect and serve the interests and rights of the individual.


In The Public and Problems Dewey points to a second factor that played a significant role in the evolution of the modern concept of democracy; the influence of the Industrial Revolution. "The use of machinery in production and commerce," Dewey says, " was followed by the creation of new powerful social conditions, personal opportunities and wants." The laws of nature were reinterpreted in light of this new economic conception. This in turn was integrated with the importance and priority of the individual. Dewey argues that the idea of natural right, outlined be Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, merged with the economic sense of right that became all the more prevalent in the 19th century. Dewey says "The economic theory of laissez-faire based upon the belief in beneficent natural laws which brought about harmony of personal profit and social benefit, was readily fused with the doctrine of natural rights." The rapid developments in science and technology on the one hand, and industrialization on the other hand, therefore, became intimately entwined with the earlier theories of natural law and natural rights.

Dewey is arguing that the modern concept of democracy emerged as a synthesis of the philosophical theories of individualism and modern developments in science and technology that began in the 19th century and that flowered in the early 20th century. People are motivated in terms of their own self-interest and the social transforming power of technology. However, the other side of the coin is that the individual and technology have an antagonistic relationship as well. In Dewey's view, technology possesses regressive as well as progressive qualities. Technology's potential to liberate the world also has the potential to be domineering and oppressive. Dewey argues that the doctrine of the individual - and his "natural right" to make a profit - results in the oppression of others. The reason for this, in Dewey's view, is that rapid social changes brought about by science and technology and the economic interpretation of individualism have diminished the role of authentic communities. Dewey summarizes his conclusion in The Public and Its Problems in the following way. The emergence of the state:

"... was marked by the liberation of the individual in theory and by his submergence in fact. The vast forces spawned by the industrial revolution have led to a regimentation of the ordinary individual. Human association is increasingly impersonal, and its forms are dictated by the demands of industrial production for private profit. Modern industrial life has had a profoundly damaging effect on the local face-to-face community.:


The most comprehensive resource for Dewey scholars is the "Center for Dewey Studies" located at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois. One of the most insightful studies of Dewey and democracy is John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism by Alan Ryan. Genuine democracy, in Dewey's view, depends upon the experience of the face-to-face encounter, an experience he saw as increasingly under threat. Dewey's theory of democracy is rich and nuanced and difficult to encapsulate in a nutshell but it has much to offer the contemporary debates and discussion about democracy.

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Democracy, John Dewey, Philosophy, Politics, Social Theory

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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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