Identifying Traces of Hegelian Bildung in Dewey’s Philosophical System

Spirit quickens; it is not only alive, but spirit gives life. Animals are
spirited, but man is a living spirit. He lives in his works
and his works do follow him (LW 1: 224).

Through work, through organized social practices (teaching, carpentry, cooking, engineering, etc.), humankind transforms nature and, transactionally, itself. We carry out this work to secure ideal ends-in-view that we desire; projected values ultimately control the goals of cultural labor in the struggle to unify self and society by overcoming the obstacles we encounter. By participating in the social practices of a culture, by engaging in its vocational occupations, we draw from the stock of culturally entrenched universals; that is, the skilled practices of tool use, including using the tool of tools (i.e., linguistic meanings) that literally impart to us our minds and selves and provide a place for us in the social order. We embody skilled practice in our habits (dispositions or attitudes), intellectual and emotional, of action. We acquire a mind as we acquire the meanings that circulate in the cultural practices of our culture. The highest cognitive task of those who seek to become truly unique individuals is to critically reflect on the culture and, ultimately, the cultural values that created them so that they can come to truly possess and recreate themselves by recreating culture to live a life of expanding meaning and value. For Dewey, like Hegel, all critique is immanent critique wherein the highest values (truth, beauty, and the good) confront each other exposing the surds and paradoxes that subtly disrupt our projects and require creative response. We could describe this whole process of endless learning and growth as dialectic, a hermeneutic circle, or, my preference, a trans-action. We could also call what I have been describing is a philosophy of Bildung. My paper briefly examines some aspects of the architectonic of Dewey’s philosophy as constituents of a philosophy of Bildung.

James A. Good finds that “philosophy, for Hegel, was Bildung, which . . . I will define simply as an organic model of education as growth.”[1] For our purposes, we may define Hegelian Bildung as follows:

Bildung is education understood as a developmental formation of an individuals unique potential through participation in the social practices and institutions of culture (i.e., family, school, university, civil institutions, and such) with their norms, beliefs, and values that yields an actualized self that, while constantly growing, is willing and able to make a unique contribution to culture through immanent critique and active reconstruction of the cultures norms, beliefs, and values, which affects the education of future generations.[2]

This definition is incomplete, but it will do for now. Reading Dewey as a philosopher of Bildung makes it much easier to understand why he had such a profound interest in education and saw the aim of education as growth.

In a famous and much misunderstood passage in Democracy and Education, Dewey proclaims:

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. and 342; emphasis in original).[3]

It is, however, easy to interpret this statement if we think of philosophy and education as Bildung. Dispositions are habits or attitudes that are formed (Bild) primarily by participating in the norms, beliefs, and values of institutionalized social practices. [4]

For Dewey, habits are comparable to physiological functions. They are affections having projectile power that, as beliefs, rule our thoughts, comprise the will, serve as skillful arts (means to ends or tools), constitute our characters, and form the self. Habits are “social functions” and individual habits persist because “individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs” (i.e., collective habit) and established social institutions (MW 14: 43). For Dewey, the task of social psychology is to determine “how different customs shape the desires, beliefs, purposes of those who are affected by them” (46). Hegel binds the Bildung of spirit up with Sittlichkeit, which as an ordinary German word just means “customary morality.” It naturally connects to the notion of ethical norms and social custom (Sitte). In Hegel, it is best translated as “ethical life” where it means both a social order differentited and structured by universal norms and laws of conduct (family, civil society, political state) as well as the attitudes and dispositions of individuals wherein the individual dispositions are in functional correspondence with the beliefs and values of the culture. Hegel rejects any self versus society dualism. We find precisely this same coordination of self and society in Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct, which also entwines social psychology with ethical life.[5]

For Hegel, spirit means cultural consciousness; for him it is substance and actualizes itself concretely through the culture. Here is an example:

Spirit, being the substance and the universal, self-identical, and abiding essence, is the unmoved solid ground and starting-point for the action of all . . . . this substance is equally the universal work produced by the action of all and each as their unity and identity (Phenomenology, sec., 439, emphasis in original)

Many interpret Hegel’s spirit as the sum of human work in cultural history. For instance, Philip J. Kain argues that spirit is not “any sort of metaphysical substance.”[6] Instead, “Substance is social, not metaphysical.”[7] I believe this is exactly how Dewey read Hegel, which is why for Dewey “the social” became “The Inclusive Philosophic Idea.”[8] I will follow Dewey’s inclusive philosophical idea through his theory of labor, tools, language, and logic. To do so, we will concentrate on the notion of learning, of acquiring the habits of the self, by participating in the institutionalized social practices of a culture controlled as they are by the practices norms, beliefs, and values. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to follow it through his theory of metaphysics, which is, after all, a tool of immanent cultural value critique.

For Hegel, work, acquiring an occupation, was critical to ethical life and hence an important part of education as Bildung. Alexandre Kojève comments that for Hegel: “Work is Bildung in the double sense of the word on the one hand, it forms [Bild], transforms the world, humanizes it by making it more adapted to Man; on the other, it transforms forms, educates man, it humanizes him by bringing him into greater conformity with the idea that he has of himself.”[9] Socially organized work provides the individual with creative self-expression, but in the more objective, culturally universal neo-humanist sense rather than the more subjective, purely mental, idiosyncratic romantic sense. As Kain notes, “Labor is for Hegel an ‘expressive’ activity where we not only interact with a world of material objects (Geganstände) in a causal way but in the course of that interaction develop our own distinctive capacities, skills, and dispositions. Labor is primarily a means of self-realization.”[10] He also notes that Hegel puts “a higher value on making or fabricating, what the Greeks called poiesis.”[11] Production, construction, and poiesis is something of which Larry A. Hickman makes much of in his work on Dewey’s philosophy of technology.[12]

The first sentence of Sidney Hook’s introduction to the Carbondale edition of Democracy and Education reads: “With the possible exception of some elements of the chapter on ‘Vocational Aspects of Education,’ John Dewey’s Democracy and Education continues to be a classic in the philosophy of education . . . .” (MW 9: ix). I would not exempt any part of this chapter either philosophically or in terms of current conditions in schools. The opening sentences of the chapter do, however, seem odd, unless we are thinking in terms of Bildung. Dewey writes: “At the present time the conflict of philosophic theories focuses in discussion of the proper place and function of vocational factors in education” (316). Dewey acknowledges this claim is hard to follow, but not, I would suggest, if we think in terms of Bildung. Using available cultural tools (including hammers, scientific laws, logical forms, social institutions, norms of practice, and such), we must work to make connections (inference, linguistic meaning, implication, etc.); in so doing, we transform both the world and ourselves. In an earlier work, Dewey writes:

If we search in any social group for the special functions to which mind is thus relative, occupations at once suggest themselves. Occupations determine the fundamental modes of activity, and hence control the formation and use of habits. These habits, in turn, are something more than practical and overt . . . . The occupations determine the chief modes of satisfaction, the standards of success and failure. Hence they furnish the working classifications and definitions of value; they control the desire process. Moreover, they decide the sets of objects and relations that are important, and thereby provide the content or material of attention, and the qualities that are interestingly significant. The directions given to mental life thereby extend to emotional and intellectual characteristics. So fundamental and pervasive is the group of occupational activities that it affords the scheme or pattern of the structural organization of mental traits. Occupations integrate special elements into a functioning whole (MW2: 43-43).[13]

Learning by doing, by working, is crucial to educative self-formation, to the development of fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, which is Bildung.

What Dewey says about work and the occupations above holds for the expressive arts. In Art as Experience, Dewey insists:

Individuality itself is originally a potentiality and is realized only in interaction with surrounding conditions. In this process of intercourse, native capacities, which contain an element of uniqueness, are transformed and become a self. Moreover, through resistances encountered, the nature of the self is discovered. The self is both formed and brought to consciousness through interaction with environment. The individuality of the artist is no exception. If his activities remained mere play and merely spontaneous, if free activities were not brought against the resistance offered by actual conditions, no work of art would ever be produced. From the first manifestation by a child of an impulse to draw up to the creations of a Rembrandt, the self is created in the creation of objects, a creation that demands active adaptation to external materials, including a modification of the self so as to utilize and thereby overcome external necessities by incorporating them in an individual vision and expression (LW 10: 286-287).[14]

Dewey rejects the fine versus practical art distinction, so what he has to say about the “work of art” here holds as well for the everyday social practices of productive work. I believe this passage is a fine description of Bildung as work.

For Dewey, work offered occasions for creative self-expression: “Occupation is a concrete term for continuity. It includes the development of artistic capacity of any kind, of special scientific ability, of effective citizenship, as well as professional and business occupations, to say nothing of mechanical labor or engagement in gainful pursuits” (MW 9: 317). For Hegel genuine human individuality depends on fulfilling the universal norms of a determine social function, having a specific job or profession, in a uniquely self-expressive way: “When we say that a human being must be somebody, we mean that he must belong to a determinate estate [“Stand,” a place, a standing in society]; for being somebody means that he is something substantial being [spiritual substance]. A human being with no estate [Stand] is a mere private person, and does not possess actual universality.”[15] For Hegel, self-development can only occur socially within culture. The notion of an individual transcending society to apprehend truth is pernicious to them. Dewey himself writes:

An occupation is the only thing which balances the distinctive capacity of an individual with his social service. To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness. Nothing is more tragic than failure to discover one’s true business in life, or to find that one has drifted or been forced by circumstance into an uncongenial calling” (MW 9: 318).

In a completely overlooked statement with profound consequences for understanding his educational philosophy, Dewey writes: “Education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to leaning than any other method” (319). Dewey’s emphasis is significant. Like Hegel, Dewey thought it was important to have a socially fulfilling calling, but he was against education for an occupation. Dewey argued against the idea of vocational education as job training and tracking in middle and high school. In fact, he was engaged in this debate during the years he was writing Democracy and Education.[16] When the Smith-Hughes act passed in 1917, Dewey lost his battle and tracking along with specific job education became part of the curriculum in U. S. public schools. Again, contra Hook, I find no element of this chapter that is still not highly relevant today. Education through occupations and, eventually, taking up a vocation, imparts “fundamental dispositions [habits or attitudes], intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men” (Op. cit.) in such a way that philosophy becomes the general theory of education, or Bildung.

In “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” Dewey observes that for many years his philosophy was “most fully expounded” in Democracy and Education and speculates that his “philosophical critics” fail to examine it because they do not believe “any rational person could actually think it possible that philosophizing should focus about education as the supreme human interest in which, moreover, other problems, cosmological, moral, logical, come to a head” (LW 5: 156). For the philosopher of Bildung it is, however, easy to understand. Recall, once again, that habits constitute the self; they are how the norms of cultural custom inscribe themselves on the bodies of individuals. For the rest of this paper, I will follow habits acquired by participation in organized social activities, or work, to trace a line from Dewey’s thinking about tools, to language (the tool of tools), to his theory of logic; if space permitted, I could easily move on to his metaphysics and its contribution to immanent critique.

Tools are the permanency of labor and extensions of human functioning. Recall that Dewey found many similarities between physiological functions and the functioning of biological habits. He also finds many similarities between habits and tools. Dewey sometimes views habits as literally tools:

Habits are our tools and if we haven't our kit of tools with us we are certainly helpless. These tools ought to be so readily adjustable that they will operate not only the immediate purpose to which we have become habituated, but the new ends and aims that may come to us (LW 17: 303).[17]

He also insists: “The invention and use of tools have played a large part in consolidating meanings, because a tool is a thing used as means to consequences, instead of being taken directly and physically” (LW 1: 146). If a tool is a meaning function, then language, in its instrumental use, is just a special instance of means-ends relationship. Language is simply a more pervasive and powerful tool. Dewey asserts:

As to be a tool, or to be used as means for consequences, is to have and to endow with meaning, language, being the tool of tools, is the cherishing mother of all significance . . . . [T]ools and artifices of agency are always found in connection with some division of labor which depends upon some device of communication (146).

As Dewey indicates, “the role of tools is subject to a condition supplied by language, the tool of tools.”[18] Tools and the tool of tools are both devices of labor that establish means-ends connections; they are aids of occupation. The habits of tool use contribute mightily to the constitution of our personal identity.

Breaking good tools fractures our occupation while breaking good habits fractures our identity. Dewey reminds us:

Meaning acquired in connection with the use of tools and of language exercise a profound influence upon organic feelings. In the reckoning of this account, are included the changes effected by all the consequences of attitude and habit due to all the consequences of tools and language (227-228).

Sometimes we need to retool our working habits. For Dewey, this way of speaking is not metaphorical. Disciplined activities are an important part of Dewey’s theory of Bildung.

We acquire psychological functions by participating in a social activity. For Dewey, to have a mind is to have meaning: “Mind denotes the whole system of meanings as they are embodied in the workings of organic life” (230). Meaning for Dewey requires the ability to grasp means-consequence connections: “Meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretation being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence” (147). When the mediating, means-ends, significant meanings of language supervene on our qualitatively immediate sense of situations, mind and self emerges. Since the agent is also a part of the context requiring co-ordination, the self (its passions, beliefs, and values) is always a tool, an instrument, a means to whatever valued ends they may choose. Thus, Dewey concludes:

Yet till we understand operations of the self as the tool of tools, the means in all use of means, specifying its differential activities in their distinctive consequences in varying qualities of what is experience, science is incomplete and the use made of it is at the mercy of an unknown factor, so that the ultimate and important consequence is in so far a matter of accident (189-190).

The mind and self are more than mere instruments, but they are that too. We ourselves are the most important means to whatever ideal ends we may elect.[19] If to possess mind and self is to possess linguistic meaning, then our identity, or essence, or spiritual substance, is social through and through, since we can only acquire language through social participation. Mind and self emerge through community, communion, and communication in shared social practices. Dewey insists: “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative” (MW 9: 8).

Natural and social objects often pose obstacles to our desires, thereby creating problematic situations. Hegel and Dewey are committed to a theory of emergence that rejects reductionism. The other, including other persons, construct us as much as we construct them. There is profound truth to the saying that you are what you eat and the company you keep. The social plateau of body-minds amplifies all this. Hegel writes: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” (sec. 178) Dewey derived his social constructivist theory of the mind and self in part from Hegel.

For Hegel, self-consciousness requires recognition from other self-consciousnesses. The need for social recognition initiates the dialectic of master and slave in a struggle to the death to secure self-certainty and control by dominating and negating (consuming) the other. The winner becomes the master who puts the slave to work to satisfy his desires. The dialectical irony is that the slave cannot provide the master with the freely given recognition he seeks. It is a multiple irony, because the slave learns through the work he performs for the master who, dependent on another less free than he, is actually less than the slave and learns little. As reciprocal recognition expands, the importance of culture and cultural institutions become more important. As we have already seen, for Hegel it is “through culture that the individual acquires standing and actuality.” (sec. 489) Without interactions with others, we have no potential for growth, the development of personal identity or selfhood; diversity is essential to growth and development. Social interactions giving rise to mutual recognition, and modulated by such cultural institutions as family, social practices (e.g., building construction or law), civic groups (e.g., political parties or motorcycle clubs), and the state, allows Homo sapiens to actualize their potential for higher mental functions such as language and reason beyond the bounds of their natural endowment. (see Hegel, sec. 652) While Dewey and his colleague George Herbert Mead did not retain the master slave dialectic, they did recognize the importance of reciprocal recognition. We may very plausibly read Dewey and Mead’s theory of the mind and self as expressing a philosophy of Bildung.

Dewey’s thinking about instrumentalist logic is an extension of this thinking about other instruments including habits, tools, the tool of tools, and the self. Mead remarks that it “was the logic rather than the metaphysics of this [Hegel’s] system that fascinated Dewey, the function of thought in the structure of the object, the evidence in thinking that thought and its object lie within the same experience. This position Dewey has never abandoned.”[20] Logic for Dewey, as for Hegel, is social and depends ultimately on the social practices specified by the various forms of work within the culture. Dewey insists: “Logic is a social discipline” (LW 12: 26). Hegel emphasizes practical reasoning much more than most recognize, Dewey however, came to emphasize practical means-ends relations exclusively, which better captures Hegel’s notion of the Begriff (the Concept) as concrete rationality determining the constructions of labor.

When Dewey revised and reissued his essays in the 1903 Studies in Logical Theory in 1916 as Essays In Experimental Logic, he wrote a long introduction explaining his instrumentalism that included the following passage:

Such an instrumentalism seems to analytic realism but a variant of idealism. For it asserts that processes of reflective inquiry play a part in shaping the objects—namely, terms and propositions—which constitute the bodies of scientific knowledge . . . . In so far as it is idealistic to hold that objects of knowledge in their capacity of distinctive objects of knowledge are determined by intelligence, it is idealistic. It believes that faith in the constructive, the creative, competency of intelligence was the redeeming element in historical idealisms (MW 10: 338. )

His position never wavers from this stance. In the 1938 Logic, Dewey insists that “proleptically, objects are the objectives of inquiry” (LW 12: 122). Objects do not exist antecedent to inquiry for Dewey, although, of course, we may assume the objects constructed by earlier inquires in subsequent inquiry.[21] Of course, different occupations will have different patterns of inquiry, different tools, skilled habits, and specialized language that form different minds and selves. Logic, the theory of inquiry, contributes much to Dewey’s theory of education as Bildung.


[1] Good, James A. (2006). A Search for Unity in Diversity: The “Permanent Hegelian Deposit” in the Philosophy of John Dewey. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., xix.

[2] See Hegel, G. W. F. (1807/1977). Phenomenology Of Sprit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Sec. 28 for perhaps Hegel’s best definition of Bildung.

[3] A bit later, he writes: “The reconstruction of philosophy of education, and of social ideals and methods thus go hand in hand” (MW 9: 341)

[4] Dewey is clear that given his definition of habit, “we may also use the words attitude and disposition.” (31). According to Dewey, “Disposition is habitual, persistent” (34).

[5] Elsewhere, Dewey states: “The moral and the social quality of conduct are, in the last analysis, identical with one another” (LW 9: 368). I draw my brief comments on Dewey and habit in this paragraph from the “Part I: The Place of Habit in Conduct” in Human Nature and Conduct. When one compares what Dewey has to say about habits in Human Nature and Conduct with what Hegel has to say about this in his Philosophy of Mind, especially sec. 410, one is struck by the many similarities. See Hegel, G. W. F. (1830/1969). Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. William Wallace, trans. Oxford: Clarendon Press, “the generation of habit as practice” (141). The form of habit applies to all kinds and grades of mental action. The most external of them, i.e. the spatial direction of an individual, viz. his upright posture, has been by will made a habit—a position taken without adjustment and without consciousness—which continues to be an affirmation of his persistent will” (142, I mention this because it seems relevant to Dewey’s embrace of the Alexander technique), “Thinking, too, however free and active in its own pure element it becomes, no less requires habit” (143), “in habit, on the contrary, man relates himself not to a contingent single sensation, idea, appetite, etc., but to himself, to a universal ode of action which constitutes his individuality” (144). I mention this one because habit is as much a universal for Hegel as it is for Peirce and Dewey might well have got that insight from them both).

[6] Kain, P. J. (2005). Hegel and the Other. Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 137.

[7] Ibid., 137.

[8] See LW 3: 41-54. 223-224 This is the Bildung of spirit.

[9] Kojève, Alexandre (1969). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 52.

[10] Kain, Hegel and the Other, 120.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Hickman, L. (1990). John Dewey's pragmatic technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, especially chapters.

[13] In a footnote, Dewey mentions:

We might almost say, in the converse direction, that biological genera are “occupational” classification. They connote different ways of getting a living with the different instrumentalities (organs) appropriate to them, and the different associative relations set up by them (LW 2: 41).

We may adapt to our environment using innate structures (first nature) or by acquiring habits (second nature). In these two cases, we make ourselves instruments; that is, means to our own ends. When we begin to use extra-organic organs, and especially the tool of tools, we have yet other ways of adaptation. Work to transform the environment takes place at all levels.

[14] I would like to connect this passage to another in Experience and Nature:

I say individual minds, not just individuals with minds. The difference between the two ideas is radical. There is an easy way by which thinkers avoid the necessity of facing a genuine problem. It starts with a self, whether bodily or spiritual being immaterial for present purposes, and then endows or identifies that self with mind, a formal capacity of apprehension, devising and belief. On the basis of this assumption, any mind is open to entertain any thought or belief whatever. There is here no problem involved of breaking loose from the weight of tradition and custom, of initiating observations and reflections, forming designs and plans, undertaking experiments on the basis of hypotheses, diverging from accepted doctrines and traditions. Or when it is observed that this departure occurs infrequently and is not easy, some vague reference to genius and originality disposes of the question. But the whole history of science, art and morals proves that the mind that appears in individuals is not as such individual mind. The former is in itself a system of belief, recognitions, and ignorances, of acceptances and rejections, of expectancies and appraisals of meanings which have been instituted under the influence of custom and tradition (LW 1: 169-170).

Culture has us before we have it. To actualize one’s unique potential to become a truly unique individual, we must reflective critique and poetically recreate the cultural practices that constitute our minds and selves. Individuality is an achievement for Dewey, and an important one:“Every invention . . . has its genesis in the observation and ingenuity of a particular innovator” (164). Cultural reflection and critique is the key to individuality for Dewey. If time permitted, I could easily connect this passage to Dewey’s modest metaphysics as a tool of cultural criticism. Unique individuality (I do carry out some of this task elsewhere. See Garrison, Jim (2005). “Dewey on Metaphysics, Meaning Making, and Maps.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 41, No. 4, 818-844.)

[15] Hegel, G. W. F. (1821/(1991). Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Allen W. Wood, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, sec. 207 addition.

[16] See “Education vs. Trade-Training: Reply to David Snedden,” New Republic, 1915, MW 8: 411 ff.

[17] Dewey made the connection between habits and tools quite early:

As it is, habits are the tools which put at our immediate disposal the results of our former experiences, thus economizing force; our general plans hold us within certain limits and thus keep us from being at the mercy of caprice or the flux of circumstance; while the play of the relatively uncertain elements keeps our life from petrifying and forms an unceasing call to the exercise of the best forethought at command. "Probability is the guide of life." It is the tension between the habitual and the more variable factors that constitutes the significance of our conduct morally. Habits, second nature, give us consistency and force; the reflective element keeps us thoughtful. All of the tendencies to action, taken together, constitute "capacity"--the power of action, whether impulsive, or habitual, or reflective, which an agent has at disposal (EW 4: 241).

[18] LW 1: 134.

[19] Sometimes, though, the most important use we may make of ourselves is to stand languidly by and let other events of the environment act more exuberantly.

[20] G. H. Mead, The Philosophy of John Dewey. International Journal of Ethics, 1935, Vol. 46, No. 1, 69.

[21] Similarly, persons do not exist prior to social trans-actions.