Democracy By Way of Democracy: A Critical Explication of Deweyan Liberalism

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Abstract: For John Dewey, political philosophy is “First Philosophy”—as a result, his theories of experience, inquiry, education, and morality come full flower only when instantiated in his practical works.[1] Here, I will offer an explication of some of the concepts which are central to Dewey’s social and political thought, among them, Dewey’s call for the reconstruction of the values which lie at the heart of classical liberal ideology; of liberalism, itself; and, of democracy. I will pay close attention to the shape which the reconstruction takes. I will close by raising some questions as regards the tenability of Dewey’s project.


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She who is accustomed to reading Dewey understands that his work is saturated with manifestations of the dissolution of artificial dualisms. So too, she understands that, given this, a drawing of the reader’s attention to the concealed interpenetration of such opposites permeates Dewey’s texts. The initiated reader, then, has been habituated to seek out apparent contraries and to anticipate the ways in which Dewey intends to expose the atomist’s myopia. As a result of this the reader may, ironically, fall into the trappings of habit such that she perceives dualisms which have not been submitted for synthesis. Case in point: Dewey asserts that “habits of opinion are the toughest of all habits; when they […] are supposedly thrown out the door, they creep in again as stealthily and surely as does first nature. [This explains why] the more things changed, the more they stayed the same [with respect to social custom].”[2] Contrariwise, Dewey suggests elsewhere that: “Social change is here as a fact…Changes that are revolutionary in effect are in process in every phase of life.”[3]

            If ever a pair of statements had the potential to occasion the overzealous dialectician to prematurely reach for her Hegelian glue, this seems it. However, Dewey is certainly not attempting to redirect the reader’s gaze towards any shrouded conceptual bridging of permanence and impermanence, here. Dewey, more modestly, means to suggest that while the productive forces which underpinned the economy in early twentieth century America had undergone a dramatic revolution with respect to the production of goods, the growth of the relations of production had been stunted by bourgeois conceptions of fraternity, liberty, and equality, and the various political manifestations which are buttressed by these values. Among Dewey’s primary political theses is the notion that these concepts, when taken wrongly, function as gyves of the civic imagination, and arrest social development.[4] The first step towards righting this situation involves coming to understand that all social values and accompanying political expressions have an expiration date.

            These values were originally conjured, suggests Dewey, by the historical conditions antecedent to their collective birth. This counters the modernist’s own creation myth, wherein the concepts were developed by those imaginative idealists whose crusades took their cue from the Enlightenment. The mistake lies in the removal of the agent from that Age in which she finds herself. The modernist’s account makes it seem as though the influence had by the technological advancement of the day was negligible with respect to the formation of classical liberal ideology. Dewey tells a more compelling story: the existing mode of production sanctioned the introduction of such changes in the superstructure of various Western societies, thus bringing this revolution in idea about through the works of those “early liberals” who fought on behalf of “individual freedom of thought and expression.”[5]

While Dewey would certainly be the last thinker to deflate the achievement of the classical liberal theorists, the residual Hegelian elements which temper his analysis demands that he view said individuals as concrete instantiations of an Age whose temperament such demanded a sea change in social philosophy that, had Locke not been born, Nature would have been forced to forge him in different person.[6] “Philosophers,” Dewey writes, “are parts of history, caught in its movement.”[7] In this spirit, Dewey concedes to the historical materialist the following:

The transition from family and dynastic government was the outcome primarily of technological discoveries and inventions working a change in the customs by which men had been bound together. It was not due to the doctrines of doctrinaires. The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences. There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. These things were devices evolved in the direction in which the current was moving.[8]


The upshot of this is the establishment of what Dewey refers to as “political democracy.” While Dewey notes that political democracy is a necessary condition for the more robust conception of democracy that he hopes might one day be achieved, he understands it to be far from sufficient. The notion that the implementation of this political machinery is adequate for the realization of democracy springs from the classical liberal’s mistaken assumption that “each individual is himself equipped with the intelligence needed, under the operation of self-interest, to engage in political affairs; and that general suffrage, frequent elections…and majority rule are sufficient to ensure the responsibility of elected rulers...”[9]

According to the modernist, the individual is endowed with an innate capacity for recognizing the “self-evident.” Thus, intelligence is something which is had by the individual and about the individual; intelligence is not something housed in a community chest, nor is it something whose subject matter is the common, except in those instances where community encroaches upon the individual’s interests. As Raymond Boisvert wryly observes: “The kinds of individuals described [by the modernists as] in the state of nature bear an uncanny resemblance to the eighteenth century reformers themselves.”[10]

Acceptance of this “false psychology”[11] leads to an understanding of liberal values which is disastrous with respect to she whose potential for coming to achieve liberty and equality is intrinsically connected with community. Put another way, given that the modernist’s conceptions of fraternity, liberty, and equality were assembled in order to benefit that fictitious entity whose liberation hinges upon being freed from those “artificial bonds” which connect her to others, said ideas can only do harm to she whose amnesty is had in common with her community. Dewey writes:

The real fallacy lies in the notion that individuals have such a nature or original endowment of rights, powers and wants that all that is required on the side of institutions and laws is to eliminate the obstructions they offer to the “free” play of the natural equipment of individuals. The removal of obstructions did have a liberating effect upon such individuals as were antecedently possessed of the means, intellectual and economic, to take advantage of the changed social conditions. But it left all others at the mercy of the new social conditions...[12]


            This understood, a bourgeois understanding of liberal values is detrimental to both the individual and her community.[13] Moreover, this construal justifies the exploitation of the poor and powerless by those who had a leg up as the mode of production evolved following the implosion of feudalism; thus beginning a vicious cycle which continues to renew itself in the name of the “self-evidence” of classical liberal values.

Dewey holds that there is an extremely conservative force inherent within the psyche of our species: habit, “the mainspring of human action.”[14] That said, even under those conditions where the collective thought of a people is not tampered with by the svengalis of a ruling class, social custom evolves slowly. Add to this proclivity a steady diet of “fair and balanced” propaganda force-fed to a public under the guise of nourishment, and this people may seemingly never get from under the thumb of those whose interests are served by keeping things just as they are.[15] There stands, then, a pair of stumbling blocks which separates any given people from achieving substantial social progress: the first, psychological and unconscious; the second, political and clumsily cloaked in the “self-evident”—the ideology of the ruling class. Each of these barriers involves the acceptance of social values which are astoundingly antiquated. Let us consider these.

“Equality,” given classical liberalism, “becomes a creed of mechanical identity which is false to facts and impossible of realization. Effort to attain it is divisive of the vital bonds which hold men together.”[16] So too, equality is understood to be a “natural possession” as opposed to “the fruit of a community”—it is a quality which is portrayed as being inherent in each individual prior to implicit agreement to any social contract.[17] Liberty, assuming the Lockean perspective, is tantamount to the “independence of social ties”[18]—it amounts to “power to act in accordance with choice. It is actual ability to carry desire and purpose into operation, to execute choices when they are made.”[19]

Given this construal of liberty and equality, it seems clear why the exponents of Lockean psychology would argue that superior to any other form of government is the minimalist state; and that democratic machinery is sufficient for both realizing such a government and sustaining it. With these interpretations of equality and liberty serving as the two chief pillars of the classical liberal edifice, we need ask: What of the third watchword of the French Revolution? Fraternity? Granting social atomism, fraternity is more or less an albatross; however, the Lockean liberal, says Dewey, includes this value in her rhetoric as “a sentimentally appended tag.”[20]

            Deweyan reconstruction of these values involves their taking a fundamentally different shape. Equality, rehabilitated, “denotes the unhampered share which each individual member of a community has in the consequences of associated action. It is equitable because it is measured only by need and capacity to utilize, not by extraneous factors which deprive in order that another may take and have.”[21] Liberty amounts to “positive freedom”[22]—or, “secure release and fulfillment of personal potentialities which take place only in rich and manifold association with others: the power to be an individualized self making distinctive contributions and enjoying in its own way the fruits of association.”[23]

Given Dewey’s conception of liberty, one’s disconnection from the interests of others and community, rather than a precondition of freedom, is a hindrance to its realization, and must be overcome. Moreover, ‘only in communion with others can one become an individual,[24] as, “‘true’ individualism and ‘true’ community were for Dewey, as for Plato, one.”[25] This understood, freedom is not something which is had prior to, or following, any action; it is, rather, a kind of activity which allows the individual to develop her own person, and to consciously shape the course of this maturation. Of this, Dewey writes: “Our idea [of freedom] compels us […] to seek for freedom in something which comes to be, in a certain kind of growth.”[26]

Necessary for the procurement of Deweyan liberty is fraternity. That said, Dewey’s hierarchy of liberal values provides the inverse of that put forth by the modernist. Recall that, for Locke, fraternity is, if anything, an afterthought; for Dewey—as, for Hegel and Marx, before him, community is a precondition of the attainment of both liberty and equality. We may safely say, then, that Dewey’s notion of “community” provides the centerpiece of his political thought. We need transform “the Great Society” into what Dewey refers to as “the Great Community,”[27]i.e., a community which more fundamentally embodies the ideal of democracy, cashed out here as “the liberation of individuals so that the realization of their capacities may be the law of their life”.[28] This involves:

From the standpoint of the individual…having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of groups…liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common.[29]     


This entails a commitment to the reconstruction of, not only those values which underpin our understanding of democracy, but of liberalism as well. Whereas classical liberalism denotes that doctrine which is consigned to the preservation of bourgeois social values, Deweyan liberalism marks that creed which demands not only the reconstruction of the aforementioned values, but their realization in a democratic setting.[30] While classical liberalism is essentially conservative in nature, Deweyan liberalism is progressive. Dewey’s reconstruction of liberalism is, itself, that commitment to bring about the state of affairs most conducive to human flourishing.

For Dewey, democracy is that “way of life”[31] which affects “all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, [and] religion.”[32] Deweyan democracy denotes that cluster of customs which seeks to use the aforementioned institutions as instrumentalities by which the individuals who make up a community may grow together and affect positive change—in Hilary Putnam’s words, “Democracy is not just one form of social life among other workable forms of social life; it is the precondition for the full application of intelligence to the social of social problems.”[33] In order to arrive at an understanding of how the transition from merely political democracy to Deweyan democracy might take place, we need determine what Dewey takes to be the necessary conditions for the cultivation of that people which may constitute “the Great Community.” Let us turn to these requirements.

One precondition of the achievement of a deeply democratic community is “association,”[34] which Dewey takes for granted.[35] Of course, association is not sufficient for community; Dewey writes: “Association…is physical and organic, while communal life is moral, that is emotionally, intellectually, and consciously sustained.”[36] Necessary to the construction and perpetuation of values is the use of “signs or symbols.”[37] In addition to association, then, a community must be comprised of persons who have the ability to communicate. Only through the use of a common language can the persons who form a group construct a shared storehouse of values.

With communication and the adoption of common values comes potential for social knowledge, where the latter is had with the introduction of specifically social inquiry. Of this, Dewey writes: “Approximation of the scientific method in investigation and of the engineering mind in invention and projection of far-reaching social plans is demanded.”[38] In calling for the adoption of the scientific method for sociological and policy-forming purposes, Dewey does not mean to suggest that we draft a panel of “experts” to undertake such investigation; rather, this is to be an open-ended experiment, conducted on the community, by the community. This calls for “the democratization of inquiry.”[39] Ever present to see to it that such a change does not take place are those two aforementioned obstacles which lie between a public and its abandonment of convention—habituated social ritual, and the tendency to perpetuate such habit by the powers that be. This, in part, explains that component of Dewey’s analysis which Reinhold Niebuhr refers to as the theory of “cultural lag.”[40] Dewey writes:

When a certain state of accumulated knowledge, of techniques and instrumentalities is attained, the process of change is so accelerated, that, as to-day, it appears externally to be dominant trait. But there is a marked lag in any corresponding change of ideas and desires…The use of science to regulate industry has gone on steadily. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was the precursor of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth. In consequence, man has suffered the impact of an enormously enlarged control of physical energies without any corresponding ability to control himself and his own affairs. Knowledge divided against itself, a science to whose incompleteness is added as artificial split, has played its part in generating enslavement of men, women, and children...[41]


Given what has been said, the democratic community looks to be that association of persons who, at least, share a common language such that they may construct values and conduct inquiry; and, where the latter is undertaken from a scientific perspective; and where the pieces of its language game are semantically fluid; and, where the information gleaned from such experimentation is communicated to all. These, again, are but some of the preconditions of Dewey’s “Great Community.”

How, it is entirely fair to ask, are we to lay this foundation? Here, Dewey is extremely vague, except to suggest that such an endeavor must proceed by way of informed consensus. Rather than prescribing specific ways in which such an undertaking may find success, Dewey offers his reader a warning as regards that method by which such an enterprise is doomed to fail: violent means. He writes:

The means to which [democracy] is devoted are the voluntary activities of individuals in opposition to coercion; they are assent and consent in opposition to violence; they are the force of intelligent organization versus that of organization imposed from outside and above. The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends.”[42]


True democracy must be instantiated democratically. As the hallmark of the reactionary present is coercion—which includes, says Cornet West, any shape of “confrontational politics and agitational social struggle”—only a commitment to rational discourse can construct a horizon of values devoid of the influence of violence.[43] Like Jane Addams,[44] Dewey is quick to remind us that she for whom any means may justify the end has not taken seriously Nietzsche’s admonition: Those who fight monsters must be careful that they do not thereby become monsters in the process. This demands a revolution in thought brought about by still more thought—or, the instantiation of democracy by democracy, which, curiously, is where we began this inquiry.

Having said that, it seems as though the precondition for the mass acceptance of liberal values properly construed is a populace committed to democracy; however, among the preconditions of the cultivation of a people who are willing and prepared to work towards democracy is its acceptance of the rehabilitated liberal values. Where to begin? The primary impediment to any initial push is habit. In order to make any headway, the Deweyan democrat must supplant classical liberal values with her own en mass—which, of course, involves a collective abandonment of bourgeois convention, followed closely by a collective acclimatization of a people as regards new customs. This understood, perhaps I should close, in true dialectical fashion, by retracting my preface: my suggestion that there is no dialectic of permanence-impermanence to be harvested from Dewey’s political philosophy. This no longer seems to be the case: only in coming to form new social habits, especially as regards opening ourselves up to the possibility of reconstructing values, may we bring about true change; or, impermanence is to be found in permanence.




[1] See p. 85 of John J. Stuhr’s “Dewey’s Social and Political Philosophy,” in Larry A. Hickman’s Reading Dewey. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1998.

[2] See p.299 of John Dewey; Larry A. Hickman & Thomas M. Alexander, eds. The Essential Dewey: Volume I: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1998.—hereinafter ED1

[3] ED1, p.323. If anyone has had reason in their own life to conclude that change is the rule, stasis the exception, it must be Dewey. Boisvert recalls a handful of the countless significant social changes that occurred during Dewey’s lifetime: “[Dewey] was born during the Civil War, came of age during a period of massive immigration, saw America become an urban and industrial nation, lived through two world wars, and died at the beginning of the nuclear age. It is little wonder that change is a leitmotif permeating his entire work—see p.51 of Raymond D. Boisvert’s John Dewey. Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1998.

[4] ED1, p.295

[5] ED1, p.326-327

[6] Dewey writes: “…acquaintance with Hegel has left a permanent deposit in my thinking.” ED1, p.18

[7] ED1, p.79

[8] ED1, p.293-294—it is well worth noting that Dewey’s concession by no means constitutes a wholehearted acceptance of the Marxian theory of history; he writes: “We have in our prior account sufficiently emphasized the role of technology and industrial factors in creating the Great Society. What was said may even have seemed to imply acceptance of the deterministic version of the economic interpretation of history and institutions. It is silly and futile to deny economic facts. They do not cease to operate because we refuse to note them, or because we smear them over with sentimental idealizations…[However,] the doctrine of economic interpretation as usually stated ignores the transformation which meanings may effect; it passes over the new medium which communication may interpose between industry and its eventual consequences. It is obsessed by the illusion which vitiated the ‘natural economy’: an illusion due to failure to note the difference made in action by perception and publication of the consequences, actual and possible. It thinks in terms of antecedents, not the eventual; of origins, not fruits,” ED1, p.297—For Dewey, then, Marx’s notion that modern society is akin to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (The Communist Manifesto, p.14) is entirely premature; as well shall see, the proper reconstruction of liberal values, successful social inquiry, and the publication of the results thereof such that an intelligent population may guide future inquiry and experimentation, may lead to the sorcerer’s regaining control over his spells. Dewey’s meliorism, by and large, protects him from the Marxian notion that capitalist society may only be overcome by violent means. There are, however, moments in the text when the gravity of the situation counters Dewey’s optimism; for instance, he writes: “Man, a child in understanding of himself, has placed in his hands physical tools of incalculable power. He plays with them like a child, and whether they work harm or good is largely a matter of accident,” ED1, p.304.

[9] ED1, p.298; for further discussion, see p.87-91 of John J. Stuhr’s “Dewey’s Social and Political Philosophy,” in Larry A. Hickman, Ibid.

[10] Raymond D. Boisvert, Ibid., p.54

[11] ED1, p.298

[12] See p.307 of John Dewey; Larry A. Hickman & Thomas M. Alexander, eds. The Essential Dewey: Volume II: Ethics, Logic, Psychology. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1998.—hereinafter ED2

[13] ED1, p.295

[14] ED1, p.298

[15] Dewey seems to root the avarice of our species in habits formed in the previous ages where scarcity of resources was the rule rather than the exception; he writes: “Civilization existed for most of human history in a state of scarcity in the material basis for human life. Our ways of thinking, planning, and working have been attuned to this fact. Thanks to science and technology we now live in an age of potential plenty…[However,] the habits of desire and effort that were bred in the age of scarcity do not readily subordinate themselves and take the place of the matter-of-course routine that becomes appropriate to them when machines and impersonal power have the capacity to liberate man from bondage to the strivings that were once needed to make secure his physical basis. Even now when there is an age of abundance and when the vision is supported by hard fact, it is material security as an end that appeals to most rather than the way of living which this security makes possible. Men’s minds are still pathetically held in the clutch of old habits and haunted by old memories,” ED1, p.324. This, it seems to me, is simply not the case, if that “most” to which material security appeals is intended to refer to the majority of Americans. Members of the majority were in Dewey’s day—and, today are—right to allow scarcity of resources, at least in part, to determine their actions; as, for the majority, despite increase in the quantity and quality of goods produced, scarcity of resources remains a reality. At the same time, if the “most” to which material security appeals is intended to refer to that segment of the population for whom scarcity of resources is no longer an issue, then I suggest Dewey’s appraisal is wrongheaded for different reasons. While it is certainly the case that those who have plenty seem unwilling to share with those who have relatively little, this is not, I suggest, due to some habit grounded in the scarcity of a previous age; if this were true, those who were beholden to this habit would be somewhat conservative with their spending, which, more times than not, does not seem to be the case.

[16] ED1, p.295

[17] ED1, p.296

[18] ED1, p.296

[19] ED2, p.305

[20] ED1, p.295

[21] ED1, p.294

[22] ED1, p.301

[23] ED1, p.295

[24] Here Dewey finds common ground with his colleague, George Herbert Mead; Mead writes: “Our contention is that the mind can never find expression, and could never have come into existence at all, except in terms of social environment; that an organized set or pattern of social relations and interactions (especially those of communication by means of gestures functioning as significant symbols and thus creating a universe of discourse) is necessarily presupposed by it and involved in its nature.” See p.297 of Louis Menand’s Pragmatism: A Reader. New York: Vintage Books. 1997.

[25] See p.69 of Clarence J. Karier’s “Liberalism and the Quest for Orderly Change.” History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1972), pp.57-80

[26] ED2, p.311

[27] ED1, p.294

[28] ED1, p.323

[29] ED1, p.294-295

[30] ED1, p.325

[31] ED1, p.341

[32] ED1, p.293

[33] See p.180 of Hilary Putnam’s Renewing Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1992.

[34] ED1,p.296

[35] Despite the modernist’s contention to the contrary, we needn’t convince the members of our species that they need associate with one another any more than we need persuade a pair of mutually attractive subatomic particles that they ought to do so—association is a fact of nature.

[36] ED1, p.296

[37] ED1, p.296, emphasis is the author’s own

[38] ED1, p.329—here, the influence of Peirce’s thought on Dewey is evident; of the scientific method, Peirce famously writes: “To satisfy our doubts…it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect…Our external permanency would not be external, in our sense, of it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And, though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same. Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our feelings about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reason how things really are, and any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion.” See p. 120 of C. S. Peirce’s (Nathan Houser & Christian Kloesel, eds.) The Essential Peirce: Volume I: 1867 – 1893. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1992.

[39] See p.73 of Hilary Putnam’s Pragmatism. Oxford: Cambridge University Press. 1995.

[40] See Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Pathos of Liberalism,” on p.155 of John Dewey’s (Debra Morris, ed.) John Dewey: The Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. 1993.

[41] ED1, p.299, 303-304. Were we to conjoin to the analysis above the notion that this is a necessary result of contradictions which are inherent within the capitalist mode of production, we might, with Marx, conclude that this cleavage of scientific and social knowledge may only come together after that point in which the present set of economic arrangements collapses under its own weight. Of course, this would involve a concession that Dewey is ultimately unwilling to grant—viz., that the misuse of technology against those persons whose labor made its invention possible was—and, isnot merely a matter of a collective, unconscious allowance of the scientific method to be employed in the private sphere as regards the production of better and still better goods, and its disallowance with respect to the betterment of society. I do not mean to suggest that Dewey is so naïve as to assert that the capitalist’s retardation of the implementation of progressive sociology and social work is wholly accidental. Dewey clearly understands that “the smoothest road to control of political conduct is by control of opinion,” and that, since those in power own, by and large, any and all windows by which a public receives its information, these persons (and corporations) will use this force as a means by which they may construct a people sympathetic to those policies which prop up the capitalist’s interests.[41] Still, Dewey seems to suggest that such overt distortion of the part of the capitalist and her propagandist takes a backseat to—and, to a large part are only effective because of—the “emotional habituations and intellectual habitudes of the parts of the mass of men.”[41] Necessary to the construction of “the Great Community,” then, is a collective thawing of custom and habit on the part of those who make up any potential community.


[42] ED1, p.338, emphasis is the author’s own

[43] See p.102 of Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press. 1989.

[44] See especially “A Modern Lear,” on p.31-35 of Jane Addams’s Jane Addams: A Centennial Reader. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1960.