John Dewey pp 13-23 | Cite as

Liberty’s Practice

  • John BaldacchinoEmail author
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Education book series (BRIEFSEDUCAT)


While John Dewey is considered as the Liberal American philosopher, had he been alive today his social and radical democratic credentials would make him one of the staunchest critics of neo-liberalism. In this chapter readers are invited to discuss what does being liberal mean today; how do historical contexts and temporal relativity help us understand the crises that we face; and how does Dewey reposition philosophy within a dispositional context of “edification”. In his book Liberalism and Social Action Dewey signals what he considers as a crisis in liberalism. Together with other texts on individualism, freedom and culture, this book was written in the 1930s, at a time when a heightened mode of political and artistic consciousness sustained an ideological entrenchment that would destroy liberal democracy, particularly in Europe, and sustain the Stalinist degeneration of the socialist revolutionary experiment. It was also a time when the industrialized world, particularly the United States, was plunged in deep economic and political crisis. Looking beyond America but also reflecting back on it, Dewey speaks of an “impotency of existing political forms to direct the working and the social effects of modern industry”. This impotence generates “distrust of the working of parliamentary institutions and all forms of popular government. It explains why democracy is now under attack from both the right and the left.” Dewey sees the crisis in liberalism as “connected with failure to develop and lay hold of an adequate conception of intelligence integrated with social movements and a factor in giving them direction.” Unlike today’s neo-liberals, Dewey presents a notion of liberty that “signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as bondage.” In Dewey we find the voice of a man with the inventive intuition of the scientist and the rigor of the artist. His work breaks all imaginable barriers. His philosophical approach to freedom is closely linked to a practice that becomes integral to education. Dewey’s philosophy provides a flexibility that moves from the abstract to the concrete, irrespective of scale and location, even when it remains historically aware of the diversification of conditions and the complex multiplication of these problems. This is why Richard Rorty describes him as a “great edifying, peripheral, thinker” who “make[s] fun of the classic picture of man, the picture which contains systematic philosophy, the search for universal commensuration in a final vocabulary.” Following on from Rorty, one could argue that to fully appreciate Dewey, one must always take a step back from what appears to be the immediate problems at hand in order to begin to understand where Dewey stands philosophically. This has nothing to do with how far his philosophy gains traction against other philosophical positions. More importantly it is concerned with what the world means to us as individuals who live in cooperation with others.


Crisis of liberalism Individualism American politics 1930s Temporal relativity Social action 

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of DundeeDundeeUK

Personalised recommendations