Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Democracy

  • Kathleen Knight-Abowitz
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_47



John Dewey is not known primarily as a political philosopher, but democracy was a backbone of his thinking and his philosophy of education. It is across his lifetime and his considerable body of work that Dewey articulated the entire scope of his unique democratic theory as it related to education and growth, public life and politics, and aesthetic experiences.

The earliest window into Deweyan democracy is through the now classic 1896 article “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” where he dismantled the stimulus-response theory dominating the then-new science of psychology (Dewey 1896/2003). This article does not mention democracy or political life, but its import to Dewey’s emerging democratic concept is now clear. In this article, Dewey is starting to deconstruct the body-mind dualisms and the individualism that has plagued western philosophy and social sciences. Dewey “conceived mind from a biological standpoint as interactive minding: exploring, navigating, reaching, grasping, making” (Fesmire 2015, 49, emphasis in original). If mind is an embodiment of experiential inquiry rather than a machinery of internal responses to external stimuli, then “we achieve integration and coordination through the feedback loop of our relationships, not despite our relationships through exertions emanating from the spectral inner space of mind” (Ibid., emphasis in original). Dewey’s early work in deconstructing the metaphysics of western dualisms in epistemology pave the way for Democracy and Education, where he situates the democratic concept within processes of individual and social growth.

Democracy and Education (1916) was published after his involvement in Chicago reform movements and in the founding of University of Chicago Laboratory School. The book articulates his philosophy of education, developed after reflection on those experiences in this context of his developing pragmatism. The organization of the text itself is illustrative of how Dewey situates and envisions the democratic ideal. Dewey begins the book with the idea of learner as living organism, and education as a natural process; he explains, in subsequent chapters, the indelibly social characteristic of education, as well as the roles of communication, community, and growth. The concept of democracy grows out of this organic beginning.

Democracy is a social process. All education socializes its members, he writes, but the “quality and value of the socialization depends upon the habits and aims of the group” (MW 3, p. 77). Thus, Dewey advises, we should consider what kinds of habits and aims we should cultivate in education. We should develop criteria for these habits and aims which both aspire to “the desirable traits of forms of community life which actually exist, and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement” (Ibid., 89).

The Criteria for a Good (Democratic) Society

In any social group, there are interests held in common, and there is interplay and cooperation between individuals. From this description of social life Dewey derives the twin criteria, presented as questions, for the associational life in which education should be formed and fostered: “How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?” (Ibid.) Dewey has not yet uttered the word “democracy,” but is building an argument for the democratic ideal grounded in forms of associational life that he believes best promote individual and social growth. This kind of society represents a particular type of democratic ideal, one that prizes experience, participation, experimentation, and pluralistic organizational forms.

The first of two social criteria refer to shared interests among group members. Dewey uses the example of a despotic State to illustrate the importance of this criterion. In a State run by a tyrannical ruler or government, shared interests are not organically created because there is a little or no “back and forth among members of the social group,” and people are united in a common interest of avoiding the backlash of their coercive rule or government. Fear indeed unites people in the society, but only in developing their capacity to hide, stay safe, and keep silent. In a free society, however, “all members of the group must have an equable opportunity to receive and to take from others” (Ibid., 90). These shared communications are especially essential for groups with cleavages such as distinct social classes serving to arrest individual and social growth through isolation. Isolation of individuals or groups leads to isolation of thought and communication, and as a result, stifles growth. Interaction among diverse individuals is essential to growth, adaptation, and flexible responses to life’s changing circumstances. These communications among diverse individuals create shared interests; common interests are discovered and constructed through free and equitable intercourse among members; these common interests will alter or shift over time as contexts change. Dewey’s ideal has within it Darwinian evolutionary roots, after all. And social criteria that are adaptive and flexible need not be chaotic or uncontrolled. Shared interests achieved through free associational exchange are a source of more flexible and humane social control, far more lasting than those achieved through despotic forms of government.

The second criterion concerns the freer interaction between social groups, which allows for changes in social habits as “continuous readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse”. This criterion, concerned with freedom of individuals and groups, is the flip side of the first, which is concerned with discovering and communicating the common interests of the group. Groups can become antisocial, closed off, and isolated from larger society. Social classes, families, schools, or other kinds of associations quite easily lead to exclusiveness among members. It is this tendency that Dewey wishes to call out and remedy with the second social criterion of his democratic ideal. Isolation makes for “rigidity” and for “static and selfish ideals within the group” (Ibid.). Individuals must freely associate within and across groups; groups achieve growth when our associations are wide, and when our social groups are porous in boundary rather than sealed off.

It is only after establishing the two criteria for social improvement and growth that Dewey defines democracy. The “democratic ideal” here is not set up as a telos or ideal end derived from the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophers, or from an Enlightenment metaphysical ideal of individual rights, but from a criterion of what kind of social life is needed to create conditions for individual and social growth. Dewey’s democracy is an extension of his organic experimentalist view of nature, humanity, and social life. It has no grand epistemological or political foundations. In part this is because Democracy and Education is a work of educational rather than political theory, but also because Dewey’s political theory was, like his educational theory, arising from his observations of how human beings are constituted and exist in the world as living, changing, growing organisms.

A Way of Living Rather Than Processes of Governance

Dewey defines democracy here more holistically than most: “as more than a form of government; …a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Ibid., 93). Dewey’s concept of democracy does not refer to any particular organizational or structural forms; that is, there is no prescription as how an organization, system, or society is to be set up or works, so long as the two criterion of common interest and free interplay of individuals and groups are met.

Deweyan democracy is not simply a political ideal but a broadly social one perfectly designed to promote growth in a diverse, changing society. Dewey saw, in his time, the “development of modes of manufacture and commerce, travel, migration, and intercommunication” (Ibid.) rapidly changing the ways in which the previously agrarian United States had functioned. Add to this description forces of social change, such as labor and civil rights movements, the rapid rise of scientific discovery, and the great expansion of State educational systems, all of which led Dewey to articulate a democratic ideal as an open, flexible criterion rather than set social standard, or organizational form. The democratic ideal is served by increasing the “number of individuals who participate in an interest” so that “each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which keep men from perceiving the full import of their activity” (Ibid.). Varied points of contact give a greater diversity of stimuli; they “secure a liberation of powers which remain suppressed so long as the inclinations to action are partial, as they must be in a group which in its exclusiveness shuts out many interests” (Ibid.).

Dewey’s notion of democracy is bound up in his view of how individual and social growth are best produced in a society comprised of a great diversity of individuals, classes, and groups. “After greater individualization on one hand, and a broader community of interest on the other have come into existence [in this era], it is a matter of deliberate effort to sustain them” (Ibid.). The challenge of education is to create the deliberate social effort to sustain communities of interest that can respond to challenges and grow, and adapt accordingly. As Dewey goes on in this chapter to contrast his democratic concept with the idealism of Plato or the individualism of Rousseau, he continues to criticize the mind-body and individual-social dualisms that characterized his early work in the groundbreaking “The Reflex Arc” article. His own concept of democracy would emerge from this antidualistic thinking, and from his educational starting point of experience, growth, communication, and community life.

Democracy at Work in a Pluralistic, Evolving Political Landscape

Dewey would expand his democratic concept in The Public and its Problems (1927). His only book devoted to political theory was written between the Great Wars as an exploration of how the American democratic system was evolving and changing in the face of the enormous challenges: industrialization, urbanization, workers and human rights movements, world war, and growing fascism in Europe; and massive growth of capitalistic structures, producing increased production, consumption, and transit.

The context for this work was the “grave doubts about the possibilities of American democracy,” articulated in part by Walter Lippmann, “who suggested that matters of political concern had become expert matters” (Campbell 2008, p. 20). For Lippmann, normal citizens did not have the intelligence to decide upon the increasingly complex problems of the twentieth century. In response to this historical moment, Dewey produced The Public and Its Problems (1927), a book in which Dewey makes several important distinctions and expansions of the democratic ideal described in Democracy and Education (1916): the notion of the democratic public, the State, and the important distinctions between the two. Dewey also discusses the challenges of democratic problem-solving and association in the modern age, analysis which still largely rings true today.

Instead of beginning with such standard topics of political theory as the citizen or individual rights, Dewey starts with the primacy of the political community over the individual in public life (Campbell 2008). Dewey defines a public by looking at the facts of human activity and their consequences. There are direct and indirect consequences to our actions. The difference between public and private is not that one is social and the other is not; many private activities are social and a conversation between two people can be public. The public also cannot be equated with “socially useful” because there are plenty of things that are public which are not useful, such as war. Instead, for Dewey “the public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (LW 2, pp. 245–246).

The associational view of the citizen, and democracy itself, is central here. “Man is not merely de facto associated, but he becomes a social animal in the make-up of his ideas, sentiments and deliberate behavior. What he believes, hopes for and aims at is the outcome of association and intercourse” (Ibid., p. 283). There are many associational forms of our lives (family, community, etc.) but the public is unique in that it forms in light of consequences that need systematic attention; those that need “special agencies and measures [which] must be formed if they are to be attended to; or else some existing group must take on new functions” (Ibid., p. 253). “Take the education of children: the consequences of irregular, uneven, or unavailable provision of education for all children are socially negative and thus education is a process requiring some special agencies that attend to its quality and distribution.”

Dewey’s distinction between a State and a public is pragmatic. The “State is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (Ibid., p. 256). He elaborates the relationship between State and public:

The lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity bring into existence a public. In itself it is unorganized and formless. By means of officials and their special powers it becomes a state. A public articulated and operating through representative officers is the state; there is not state without a government, but also there is none without the public. The officers are still singular beings, but they exercise new and special powers. These may be turned to their private account. Then government is corrupt and arbitrary. (Ibid., p. 277)

To return to the example of education, a useful distinction between publics, State, and government can be drawn. Many western democracies began attending to the public consequences of haphazard educational provision for the young more than a century ago. Publics had emerged comprised of citizens who wished for the State to attend to those consequences through means of government-provided education. But even now, publics are still emerging to point out the shared, indirect consequences, perhaps unintended, of some schooling processes and outcomes.

One example is the standardized testing policies in the U.S. public schools; parents, students, and teachers are forming publics around the consequences of so much high-stakes testing, including the Opt-Out Movement comprised of various groups throughout many States. Through inquiry and communication over networks, these citizens communicate around their shared interests related to curriculum and assessment; they work to effectively communicate those interests to government officials responsible for testing policy in hopes that State authorizes government to administer a change to current practices.

Dewey can be seen as a forerunner to associational, participatory, and deliberative democratic theories that have gained popularity in recent decades. Though not all of these are influenced by pragmatist democratic theory, the idea that democratic governance ought to be based in the influence and evolution of citizens’ associations is a common Deweyan thread running through deliberative and participatory democratic models.

Challenges and Strategies for Formation of Publics

The Opt-Out movement example shows how the relationship between publics, State, and government changes over time, and associational democracy inquiry and communication are an ever-present part of a democracy society. It is “only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness” (Ibid., p. 69). The scope and function of government changes over time. A pragmatic conception of democracy is evolutionary; good government is “defined primarily through its adaptive function rather than through some (presumed) essence” (Campbell 2008, p. 22). Government must stay flexible in order to respond to the shifting times and problems faced by citizens. Publics will form around erupting problems and conditions, as the opt-out testing public has done in recent years.

But mature publics are difficult achievements, in Dewey’s time and in our own. “Thus we come upon the primary problem of the public: to achieve such recognition of itself as will give it weight in the selection of official representatives” (P&P, p. 283). Dewey believed that publics were only embryonic in most places, rarely advancing to politically potent forms. Because publics were largely “inchoate” and “unorganized” in form (Ibid., p. 254), the functions of government seem further and further removed from citizens’ concerns or accountability. It is a difficult challenge for citizens to communicate effectively across difference, distance, and extremely divisive political discourses to inquire into a shared problem and develop new ways of thinking about it. The development of a mature public is a democratic achievement.

One remedy for the “lost” public is the wide cultivation of shared aesthetic experiences in a democratic society. Dewey wrote Art as Experience (1934) as his treatise on aesthetics. Coming not long after Public and Its Problems (1927), the book begins with an analysis of the human experiences of art-making and art appreciation; Dewey argues in the text that these very foundational human experiences are part of communal formation. Waks (2014) takes the example of the literary arts as providing a significant communicative experience in a democratic society, connecting the aesthetic with the democratic. Following Dewey, Waks points out that the unconscious, emotional, holistic immersion into an aesthetic experience of a novel, poem, or story is a powerful part of a diverse community coming together. Art thus can help citizens reimagine and reconstruct their societies as conditions changes and new problems surface.

All art, Dewey says, “is a process of making the world a different place in which to live, and involves a phase of protest” (LW 1, p. 272). Art grows out of the sense that existing conditions at the very least no longer excite and inspire, and involves experimentation and the search for new forms of expression, for salvation from moral arrest, and the discovery of new possibilities. Works of art both contain new worlds of experience and point forward to future social possibilities through concerted action. (Waks 2014, p. 41).

The literary arts in particular help create expressions where citizens’ individual boundaries and interests can become imagined as having intersections and common spaces. The habits of imagination and empathy created through a powerful play or oral performance can help us identify with others who are otherwise strangers; aesthetic experiences help us imagine and create the communal forms so necessary to public formation, without which State and government cannot adapt and adjust to the times of the moment.

Dewey’s democracy is a theory of adaptive reconstruction to present conditions, requiring a faith in citizens above all to imagine, inquire, and agitate. This view of democracy as a way of life, as a form of civic action in association with diverse others, has never been more relevant. The kinds of political problems we currently face demand the creative, inquiry-based responses of citizens, informed by experts, working across diverse classes, nationalities, and other identities. Deweyan faith in citizens’ abilities to associate, think, inquire, and act with intelligence – the heart of his democratic ideal – continues to inspire and challenge.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Miami UniversityOxfordUSA