Panel Discussion Proposal


“John Dewey and the American Bildung Tradition”


Two presenters and one commentator confirmed




“John Dewey and the American Bildung Tradition”

Recent scholarship has placed greater emphasis on Dewey’s debt to Hegel, with some of this work arguing that he was also indebted to a broader German neo-humanist tradition (e.g., Herder, Goethe, and Schiller) that was founded on the Bildung metaphor, an organic model of education as growth. Other recent scholarship indicates that German neo-humanism had an important influence not only on Dewey, but also the American Transcendentalists, the St. Louis Hegelians, and the pragmatist movement in general. This panel seeks to expand on this new scholarship through the presentation of two papers, comments on those papers from a third panelist, and discussion with the audience.

In short, the concept of Bildung was used by the German neo-humanists to depict the individual as an organic totality with unique needs, talents, and abilities, that is also enmeshed within the relational web of a temporally situated culture. These thinkers used Bildung to displace the theory of knowledge with a morally laden theory of learning as a transformative encounter with the other. They maintained that the learning process is an interplay between self and the other that begins in self-affirmation, progresses to self-alienation, and culminates in a return to an expanded and enriched self. Subject and object are seen as moments within the learning process rather than discrete logical categories that correspond to separate metaphysical realms. Moreover, according to the German neo-humanists, the organic health of the individual requires continual growth through the learning process, and the health of society requires an interplay between diverse social groups that is analogous to the subject/object dialectic of the learning process. Rather than something to be tolerated, for the German neo-humanists, diversity and challenge should be embraced as the engine of both individual and social health.

The first paper, “Dewey’s Position in the American Bildung Tradition,” is primarily historical, focusing on the American reception of German idealism and German neo-humanism, and outlining an American Bildung tradition that adapted German ideas to the American milieu in the writings of the Transcendentalists and the St. Louis Hegelians. The purpose of this paper is to clarify what Dewey received from the American Bildung tradition. Whereas Transcendentalism certainly had some influence on Dewey through the Burlington Philosophy initiated by James Marsh, the Boston Transcendentalists also accepted certain aspects of German Romanticism, specifically the emphases on innerlichkeit and socially transcendent individual genius, that Dewey never embraced. Instead, Dewey’s thought is more indebted to the St. Louis Hegelian’s version of neo-humanism, which places a greater emphasis on the social and historical context of the individual.

The second paper, “Bildung in Dewey’s Mature Philosophy,” focuses on Dewey’s philosophical use and development of ideas and themes he gleaned from the American Bildung tradition, emphasizing the Hegelian inspiration for Dewey’s mature philosophy. This paper builds on the first by arguing that Dewey’s conception of philosophy as the general theory of education, and on education as growth, demonstrates his debt to the Bildung tradition. Moreover, the paper argues that many crucial themes in Dewey’s mature thought—his theories of labor, tools, language, biological habits, and the generic traits of existence—can be tied to the influence of the Bildung concept.

Through the presentation, critique, and discussion of these papers, the panel will foster more precise historical knowledge of an American intellectual tradition that has been recently identified and Dewey’s place within that tradition. Perhaps more importantly, this panel will help contemporary scholars learn more about an alternative conception of philosophy that could serve as a corrective to what many perceive as an overemphasis on technical philosophical problems that have fairly limited connection to ordinary life. The American Bildung tradition requires that philosophers pursue scholarly study, but also focus on the application of their wisdom to pressing social and political problems. More succinctly, when philosophy is understood as Bildung, philosophers must keep one foot firmly planted in the study and one in the everyday world. The American Bildung tradition can also provide philosophers with tools to productively reframe debates about contemporary struggles to relate to diverse individuals and groups.


Paper Abstract

Dewey’s Position in the American Bildung Tradition

The concept of Bildung, a German metaphor for education as cultivation, has a complex history of reception in America during the late nineteenth century. Beginning with a brief discussion of the concept’s German roots, this paper focuses on its American reception, arguing that it culminates in Dewey’s conception of the individual’s relationship to society. According to the Bildung tradition, philosophy and education are virtually synonymous terms that designate an ongoing process of both personal and cultural maturation. The tradition emphasizes the historical and social context of ideas and the learning process, the fallibility of humans, the inherent practicality of philosophy, and the development of an ability to criticize one’s culture on the basis of its highest ideals. Dewey’s emphasis on education as continual growth, the continual reconstruction and renewal of philosophy and of culture, the historicity of ideas, and fallibalism, demonstrate his indebtedness to the American Bildung tradition.

Dewey received this influence through German sources, but perhaps more directly through American Transcendentalism and the St. Louis Hegelians. Dewey was exposed to Transcendentalism early in his intellectual formation in Vermont, particularly as expressed in the Burlington Philosophy he studied at the University of Vermont. But the Burlington Philosophy predisposed Dewey against the Boston Transcendentalist’s embrace of certain Romantic ideas, particularly the notion that the individual genius could criticize her society by virtue of her ability to transcend its constraints. Dewey accepted more readily the St. Louis Hegelians’ version of the American Bildung tradition, which firmly situated the individual within history and culture, but proposed a notion of immanent, rather than transcendent, cultural critique.

Like the German neo-humanists, the St. Louis Hegelian’s tended to understand philosophy as both an individual and a cultural quest for human growth. These philosophers emphasize the social and historical context of truth and knowledge and depict philosophy as the theory of learning, emphasizing that, properly understood, philosophy should affect sociopolitical change and progress. According to these thinkers, philosophy accomplishes this task when it teaches individuals to transcend, not their society, but narrowly defined self-interest. For the St. Louis Hegelians, the purpose of philosophy is to promote individual fulfillment by teaching individuals to rise above the particular to the universal and helping them clearly identify and understand their own needs and talents. In this way, individuals learn that fulfillment comes within society, rather than in opposition to it. As individuals achieve an ever more universal perspective, they are better able to articulate their society’s most universal ideals, and employee their talents in the continual process of reconstruction and realization of those ideals.

Both the St. Louis Hegelians and Dewey expressed concern that the Romantic notion of transcendent individual genius would allow a dangerous fanaticism in which the individual seeks to affirm his perception of truth without regard for the needs of others and social constraints on his behavior. As Hegel had warned, French Revolutionaries’ emphasis on transcendent values led to the violent destruction of all social institutions, even the ones they themselves had created. The St. Louis Hegelians expressed parallel concerns about both American abolitionists and southern slave-owners who were willing for hundreds of thousands of Americans to die in the Civil War in order to affirm either the rights of slaves or their own property rights. We see this same concern in Dewey’s criticisms of Kant’s transcendent categorical imperative, to which Dewey ultimately attributes German militarism in both world wars. Like the German neo-humanists and the St. Louis Hegelians, Dewey believed that human fulfillment comes, not in opposition to society, but within it. This is the philosophical basis of his rejection of the individual/social dichotomy. For Dewey, rather than limit individual freedom, society makes it possible. And rather than tolerate challenge and diversity, we should see it as the engine of both individual and social growth. Because of the organicism Dewey received from the American Bildung tradition, he saw growth as a never-ending process.


Paper Abstract

Bildung in Dewey’s Mature Philosophy”

The two main sources of the Bildung tradition in the United States converged in the person of John Dewey. Burlington and the University of Vermont was the center of Vermont Transcendentalism, and, arguably, the place where the New England transcendental movement originated. The key work was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection with James Marsh’s Introduction. Marsh’s version of Transcendentalism was transmitted to Dewey through Joseph Torrey and his nephew, H.A.P. Torrey, who was Dewey’s first philosophical mentor. Coleridge, as well as the work of Marsh and the Torrey’s, was still required reading during Dewey’s undergraduate days at the University of Vermont. When Herbert Schneider presented Dewey with a copy of Coleridge’s Aids decades later, according to Schneider, Dewey claimed that all he had to say about religion was contained in that work. William Torrey Harris, Superintendent of the St. Louis public schools, editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and teacher at the Concord and Glenmore Summer Schools, encouraged Dewey to pursue a philosophical career. Through Harris, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and the summers he spent at Glenmore, Dewey came to know other luminaries of St. Louis Hegelianism, such as Thomas Davidson and Denton Snider. Additionally, Dewey studied with the idealist philosopher George Sylvester Morris at Johns Hopkins. This entrée into the study of Hegel encouraged Dewey to view Hegel through the lens of German neo-humanism, and to pay special attention to Hegel’s development of the neo-humanist’s concept of Bildung. This may be most apparent in Dewey’s philosophy of education, but in fact the concept of Bildung permeates his basic conception of philosophy itself.

In Democracy and Education, Dewey offers a seemingly absurd conception of philosophy:

If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education (MW 9: p. 338; see also, pp. 341 and 342; emphasis in original).

As it absurd as it may at first appear, we can understand this statement much better if we place it in the context of Hegel’s concept of Bildung.

Although the idea of Bildung preceded Hegel in German thought, as the great hermeneuticist, Hans Georg Gadamer (1960/1991) remarks: “Hegel has worked out very astutely what Bildung is” (p. 12). For Hegel, Bildung is an extremely complex concept. As Hegel uses the term throughout his philosophical oeuvre, it unifies issues of physical, cognitive, and moral development, education, and form, including logical, aesthetic, and ethical forms. Basically, it refers to the emergent formative development of the natural physical and biological individual by the social relations, cultural practices, and institutions of a society, including, but not limited to, explicitly educational institutions, along with the development of culture by uniquely expressive individuals.

Dewey relied on a pragmatic theory of habit to give the notion of “fundamental dispositions” a biological and embodied basis, but he was primarily interested in how cultural customs that governed the use of labor, tools, and language in society inscribed themselves as habits in individuals. In the same way, socially constructed customs, traditional rituals, and organized practices that make up social life characterize Hegel’s Sittlichkeit. Hegel entirely rejects liberal social contract theory as well as the Kantian ideal of Moralität based on abstractly rational, decontextualized, formal rules. Similarly, Dewey was equally critical of the notion that we must follow abstract moral rules that transcend actual social practices and thereby denigrate the needs and rights of individuals. Rather than a dualism between the “is” and the “ought,” like Hegel, Dewey believed we create values through our actions, and that the highest values are those that can be universalized. Worked out carefully in terms of Dewey’s theory of labor, tools, and language, it is possible to comprehend Dewey’s entire philosophy from biological habits to the generic traits of existence as Bildung. This paper will briefly outline some of the salient features of what we might well call Dewey’s Hegelian inspired theory of Bildung.