Panel Proposal for the 2007 SAAP Conference


Panel Title:


         Moral Cultivation and Growth in Dewey’s Moral Theory


Confirmed Participants (3):


“Deweyan Dialectics of Self-Cultivation”


“Growth and Orientational Meliorism in Dewey’s Moral Theory”


“For Dewey Growth is NOT the End”
































Moral Cultivation and Growth in Dewey’s Moral Theory

Session Abstract:

            Pragmatism’s flexibility often seems to be both a benefit and a curse—helpfully in proffering adaptability to contextual circumstances, and harmful insofar as it often leads critics and proponents alike to murky readings of uncertain positions.  The moral theory of John Dewey cannot be said to be an exception to this rule.  Dewey’s moral writings have always highlighted the important roles flexibility and adaptability play in moral reasoning and action.  This gets cashed out in terms of “progressive adjustment” in his early work and in terms of “growth” in his later writings.  The flexibility of these putative “endpoints,” however, may be their downfall—one is hard pressed to determinately explain what exactly is meant by “growth” or “adjustment.”  Such a concept, however, is a key part to any Deweyan scheme of moral improvement or cultivation.  The question that this panel will try to answer is straightforward but important: what would a Deweyan scheme of moral cultivation look like? 

            In order to examine Deweyan moral theory from the perspective of creating better and more able moral agents, this panel starts with the basis of any such scheme—what one is to aim for as an end.  Of course, Dewey was strictly opposed to anything being labeled an “end” or terminating point to activity.  Instead, he preferred changing ends-in-view that helped focus one’s attention on the materials of the situation at hand and that intelligently guided our activities toward desired future states of affairs.  In his moral and educational writings, such a provisional guiding endpoint is called “growth.”  This panel attempts to examine and explain the role that growth plays in a Deweyan scheme of moral cultivation.  What is growth?  How does one (or a community) go about “growing?”  This is an important issue for studies of Dewey’s moral thought, precisely because he has been critique on this point for being too specific (and wrong), too general (and thus non-useful), as well as for being only partially right.  An important recent critique on this latter point has been given by John Lachs, who questions how one is to make sense of Dewey’s notion of “growth” as well as its applicability to all important situations.[1]  Indeed, Lachs proposes his permutation of “stoic pragmatism” precisely to combat the limitations of growth in the face of life’s obstacles.  This panel hopes to begin the process of understanding what growth is and what it isn’t, as well as to conceptualize its place in Dewey’s moral theory. 

            The confirmed participants of this panel will address this issue from a variety of perspectives.  The first paper, “Deweyan Dialectics of Self-Cultivation,” addresses Dewey’s scheme of moral cultivation and its endpoint of growth, and argues that an important part to Dewey’s take is the improvement of bodily habits of action.  Thus, growth is examined as it relates to the project of somatic self-cultivation.  This is a crucial part to any Deweyan scheme of moral improvement, as Dewey himself practiced and advocated F.M. Alexander’s technique of somatic education.  The second paper, “Growth and Orientational Meliorism in Dewey’s Moral Theory,” takes a different perspective and argues that Dewey’s notion of growth focuses mostly on what can be called mental habits or “orientations” that an agent takes to action and thought.  This paper examines some of Dewey’s logical and religious writings to argue that the concept of growth is defined by a refinement of mental orientations that allow one to be more attentive to the particulars in the situation at hand, as well as to more ably respond to the situation’s demands.  Growth, on this scheme, is conceived of more as mental refinement and as the cultivation of certain orientations.  The third paper,  “For Dewey Growth is NOT the End,” responds to the general theme of the first two papers by arguing that growth is not the key concept in Dewey’s moral theory.  This paper makes important distinction between moral theory and moral development, and also draws from Dewey’s later writings on morality to point out the inevitable conflict in moral matters (thus denying the chance for simple and linear “growth”).  In all, this proposed panel will deal with a vital area of concern for those seeking to understand Dewey’s moral theory, and will do so in a comprehensive manner comparing somatic and mental aspects of growth, as well as skeptical readings of the importance of growth itself.

Paper Abstracts

Paper #1:          Deweyan Dialectics of Self-Cultivation

            Acclaimed as an exemplar of pragmatist perfectionism in practice, John Dewey is also celebrated for fervently advocating it as ethical theory through ideals of disciplined self-cultivation, self-realization, and growth.  From his early affirmation of "self-realization as the moral ideal", Dewey elaborated this ideal in terms of progressive growth that could do both to pragmatism’s metaphysics of flux and its meliorist, activist aims. Mere change in the self, like change in anything else, is inevitable and without normative direction. However, the ideal of cultivating growth suggests not only the natural directional normativity of living processes (both within humans and in their surrounding environment) but also intelligent human efforts to direct, adjust, and deploy these processes to promote greater flourishing.

            Rejecting not simply the idea of "a fixed, ready-made, finished self" but even the notion of any fixed or final ends for self-realization, Dewey seems to conclude that "the end is growth itself", since this would include the development of new ends previously unimagined. He therefore urges us to "fight against induration and fixity" in the self so as to "realize the possibilities of [its] recreation". "The growing, enlarging liberated self goes forth to meet new demands and occasions and readjusts and remakes itself in the process. It welcomes untried situations", for those precisely are what best provides it with possibilities of change and growth.  Transformative, enriching growth seems the highest moral injunction. Ethical goodness, argues Dewey, is not an absolute state or quality but a comparative measure of striving to be better. One who has a high level of moral self-development but seeks to go no farther is thus less moral than a less developed self faithfully working toward self-improvement; "direction of movement, not the plane of attainment and rest, determines moral quality."

            The concept of growth, however, is not necessarily positive in value: appetites that grow beyond their measure are dangerously disruptive; growth in crime is nothing to welcome; and disturbing pathological tumors of the body (including those viciously malignant) are also called growths. Moreover, Dewey’s own views on the nature of self seem to raise problems for the ideal of self-cultivation or self-realization.  First, if the self, as Dewey insists, is no fixed, clearly defined object but rather a growing nexus of complex habits that are largely defined in terms of interactions with its environment and largely beneath the level of self-consciousness, how can we truly or objectively identify the self so as to make it the explicit object of our conscious cultivating efforts? Even if such objectification is possible, it hardly would seem adequate or desirable in terms of Dewey’s position, which should oppose the reification of the self as contrary to the interactive fluidity of growth he affirms in the self and in the ideal of self-realization.

            Besides this problem of logical-cognitive problem of identifying the self for self-cultivation, there seem to be ethical problems in such focus on the self for its realization. “Many good words get spoiled when the word self is prefixed to them,” Dewey asserts in Human Nature and Conduct, “Words like pity, sacrifice, control, love.”  He does not continue this list to include “cultivation” or “realization” but he does explain the reason for the poison in the prefix. “The word self infects them with a fixed introversion and isolation.”  But Dewey elsewhere applies the same essential argument to self-cultivation. Since the self, even in its individual expression, is a product of social life, the kind of self formed through rich social engagement and concern for others "will be a fuller and broader self than one which is cultivated in isolation from or in opposition" to them. It follows that preoccupation with one's own self-perfection will be counter-productive; not only because it blinds us to resources already present in others that can promote our growth, but also because it prevents us from helping others to perfect themselves and so enrich the fund of resources that can benefit our own lives as well as theirs. Thus “to make self-realization a conscious aim” seems to contradict that very aim by distracting our attention from “those very relations ships which bring about wider development of self.” 

            If self-cultivation seems an impossible and dangerous project, it remains a necessary one that Dewey continues to support it while elaborating its dialectical tensions and doing his best to deploy them productively. This paper will demonstrate these dialectics in an area that powerfully displays both the narrowly self-centered dangers of self-cultivation and its necessary value for improving self-use that is crucial also in projects of working with and for others. This area is somatic self-cultivation, and the paper will discuss Dewey’s ardent affirmation of it through his sustained advocacy of F.M. Alexander’s theory and technique of somatic education.

Paper #2:          Growth and Orientational Meliorism in Dewey’s Moral Theory

            Dewey’s moral theory is an enigma to many.  With its shifting permutations, it seems to range from a sort of virtue theory in his earlier psychological writings to a social-psychological edifice building on “scientific” notions of habits and effective education.  Given his long career and myriad writings, the task of any commentator (especially one devoted to the tenets of pragmatism) is to reconstruct an appropriation of Dewey’s thought that would be of use given the experiences and challenges facing one’s community.  I will attempt to do this in the following paper.  Specifically, I will explore Dewey’s theory from an underdeveloped angle—his rather cryptic remarks on “growth.”  From his mid-career work on education, growth seems to take a prominent place in his thought on how to improve intrapersonal and interpersonal well-being, and thus would seem to be an important factor in any theory of morality. 

            What I will argue in this paper is that the most useful way to look at growth is as a certain mindset or orientation that allows for further development or progressive adjustment (as he calls it in his early work from the 1890’s) to one’s environment.[2]


  To do this, I will need to flesh out the scheme that I see in Dewey’s thought on what can be called a theory of moral cultivation or improvement.  This is, as I label it, “orientational meliorism,” or the improvement of one’s experiences (interpersonally or intrapersonal) through the directed and intelligent alteration of the orientations one takes to activity and the world.  Growth occurs when one is able to orient themselves in the appropriate way to the capacities and impulses they offer as an agent and the resistances and resources held by the environment.  I see the clearest hints of such a unifying theory of how one is to grow and cultivate themselves in light of ever-changing environments not in Dewey’s educational or moral works (although it is there), but instead in two other under-analyzed treatises—How We Think and A Common Faith.  I will draw from these texts to show that the key part to “growing” or “cultivating” is the mental habit or disposition as to how one approaches the world (including action and how other individuals are conceived of). Furthermore, I will argue that this (changeable) aspect of our “mental” make-up gets at the accommodation/adaptation distinction that Dewey uses to elaborate what he calls “adjustment” or “orientation” in his A Common Faith.[3]


  The best way to grow (another way of saying what we should aim for as the result of activity in the world—ethics in its largest sense) is to insure adjustment to the demands from “within” agent(s) and from “without” (viz., from the environment).  No one plan can be specified for how this harmonization is to occur, just as Dewey rightly states (in Democracy and Education) that there is no determinate end to “growth.”  There is only a certain sort of mental habit or orientation that can best reach such a malleable equilibrium.[4]


The conclusion of this paper will begin to flesh this sort of orientation of growth out by examining the importance of absorption and attention to activity that can be enshrined (or banished) by certain orientations taken by an acting subject.  In art or in moral matters (e.g., deliberation), Dewey’s insight is just this—that disposition that encourages a whole-hearted focus on the relevant material at hand, be it conflicting values held by agents or the use of particular pigments to constitute a painting, is the disposition that is most conducive to moral growth and cultivation.

Paper #2:          For Dewey Growth is NOT the End

John Dewey’s ethics is perhaps the most original—and certainly the most underappreciated —area of his entire philosophy.  The under-appreciation of one of Dewey’s greatest achievements begs for a reconstruction of his moral philosophy. This is not Dewey's fault.  It is a consequence of the poor state of philosophical reflection on Dewey's ethics.  As Ralph Sleeper once said, “attacks from the outside are less serious impediments to the development of a new program of inquiry than the misinterpretations and misapplications from within by those who profess the espousal of the program.”[5]

One of the most common mistakes is to claim that Dewey’s ethics is type of consequentialism or teleological system; more specifically, that for Dewey growth is the end.[6]  I hope to undermine once and for all this common but mistaken notion. Here is why growth is not the end (and the points I intend to cover in my presentation):

(a) This is to confuse Dewey’s social psychology, where growth is central for moral development, with his ethics.

(b) In any case, a closer look at Dewey’s remarks about “growth” does not support this interpretation. The common cause of this interpretation of Dewey is either a narrow and superficial reading (taken out of context) of particular text (in particular his remarks about “growth”).

(c) It is inconsistent with the pluralism of his ethics (see his essay “Three Independent Factors”).

(d)  It ignores (and is inconsistent with) Dewey’s view on judgment (his contextualism) and his criticism of the traditional quest in ethics for a universal criteria of right/wrong. It is wrongly assumed that Dewey must have some ultimate criterion of all moral judgments; otherwise (it is assumed) he does not have a substantive and defensible ethical theory

(e)  It ignores his attempt to shift the “center of gravity” of morality to concrete present situations. Good consequences or growth as the end puts the emphasis in morality on the future when Dewey wanted to reorient ethics toward the present.

 I will argue that for Dewey there is no overriding aim (good consequences or growth) to all of our moral struggles that can be used as the theoretical standard to judge all activity. What is accepted as an end changes with context and the only generalization worth making, prior to meeting any specific and unique situation, is that we must try to use all of our present best resources to judge and ameliorate present experience. There is no universal criterion of what is good.  This does not mean that there is no way to judge better from worst in particular contexts.




[1] John Lachs, “Stoic Pragmatism,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 19, no. 2, (2005): 95-106.

[2] His earlier use of “progressive adjustment” occurs in  John Dewey, “Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics,” in volume 3 of the Early Works of John Dewey (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 239-388; John Dewey, “The Study of Ethics,” in volume 4 of the Early Works of John Dewey (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 221-364.

[3] John Dewey, “A Common Faith,” in volume 9 of the Later Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 12.  This division is also evident in Dewey’s Democracy and Education, volume 9 of The Middle Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 52-53, although there it is given as “habituation” and “adaptation.”

[4] In Dewey’s “The Study of Ethics,” he spells out the endpoint of moral development as the “development of character, a certain spirit and method in all conduct” (307).

[5]  Ralph W. Sleeper, “Dewey's Metaphysical Perspective: A note on White, Geiger, and the Problem of Obligation,” Journal of Philosophy, LVII (1960), p.101.

[6] Many secondary sources have assumed that Dewey’s ethics is centered on some “good” conceived as either self-realization, human fulfillment, or growth. Here is some evidence:  (1)  Michael Slote in “Teleological Ethics”, his contribution to the Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1992), says “And still other forms of teleology, notably the socio-cultural self-realization to be found in Hegel (1770-1831), Bradley (1846-1924), and Dewey (1859-1952) allow of similar distinctions....”(p. 1238).   (2) According to James Campbell, in Understanding John Dewey (Chicago and La Salle: Illinois, 1995), John Dewey offers “a broad consequentialism, evaluating actions by their effects ‘upon the common welfare, the general well-being’ (LW 7:344) and defending ... growth as the criterion for evaluating the effects” (p.112).   (3) Matthew Festenstein argues in Pragmatism and Political Theory: From Dewey to Rorty  (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1997) that Dewey’s ethics is “intended to show how the demands of morality are rooted in a certain conception of human well-being”(p.47), one that proposes “intelligence as part of the human good.”(p.49). (4) Hilary Putnam, in Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) says that “One of the reasons that Dewey’s recommendation to use intelligently guided experimentation in solving ethical problems does not really help in such a case is Dewey’s consequentialism” (p.190).  (5) Axel Honneth argues, in “Between Proceduralism and Teleology: An Unresolved Conflict in Dewey’s Moral Theory” (Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Summer, 1998, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, pp.689-709) that Dewey’s remarks about growth assume an ultimate notion of human good, that is, a  “naturalistic teleology...incompatible with the intentions of his proceduralism” (p. 704).  (6) Andrew Altman claims, in “John Dewey and Contemporary Normative Ethics” Metaphilosophy (13:2 April 1982, pp.149-160), that “Among normative theories that are popular today, rule-utilitarianism is one of the closest to Dewey’s own view” (p. 153).  (7) J.E. Tiles claims, in Dewey (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) that Dewey’s ethics belongs to the type of ethical theory “based upon a conception of what it is for human beings to live well and flourish in a distinctively human fashion” (p. 212).  (8) Jennifer Welchman in Dewey’s Ethical Thought argues that for Dewey in moral situations options are “evaluated in terms of their potential to serve as constituents of a good life and character” (p.189).