Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey’s Social Philosophy

  • Lynda Stone
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_399


John Dewey was known as America’s quintessential philosopher of the early twentieth century. Along with William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, he was one of the founders of the philosophical tradition known as pragmatism. This tradition grew out of a distinct US context; it rose and fell in prominence across the century. A late-century renaissance in Dewey and pragmatism especially demonstrates its significance as a social theory. Across the same decades, Dewey’s importance spread worldwide as an educational reformer. This is ironic as he was first and foremost a philosopher and not an educator.

Dewey and his first wife Alice were heavily involved in the practice and theorizing of schooling at the turn of the twentieth century when their own children were young. The laboratory school that they founded at the University of Chicago and Dewey’s talks to parents and public essays for educators remain significant today. Across his writings, Dewey’s focus in education shifted; however, he paid much less attention to schooling and much more attention to a broad social conception of a society in which education in and for a democracy is paramount. It is this conception, from Dewey as social philosopher, that is the focus of this entry. Given a twenty-first century mentality seemingly worldwide on a narrow view of schooling on measurable achievement and competitive credentialing (and turbulent global times), this socially focused theorizing may be the best educational vision for a better world.

A Philosophical Context

In 1979 a publishing event occurred that changed the face of philosophy although some scholars in the discipline continue today to refuse to face its significance. Analytically trained, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature appeared. Therein he takes on the leading American philosophers of his generation, pointing to fissures in the paradigm of logical positivism by the works of Willard Van Orman Quine, Nelson Goodman, and Wilfrid Sellars. Rorty’s project overall undermines philosophy’s traditional search for certainty and foundations (Rorty 1979; West 1985). A multi-genre discipline emerges post-analytic, neo-pragmatist, and post-structuralist blurrings that redefine philosophy by inserting influences from literary culture, science, and moral theory (Rajchman and West 1985). This new tradition is best described as social theory. It is social because, as becomes obvious across the twentieth century and as described by neo-pragmatist Cornel West, knowledge originates in the use of language that is public and intersubjective.

The contributions of Rorty and others produce a sea change beyond philosophy that is known as the linguistic turn. In Mirror Rorty joins Dewey to Heidegger and Wittgenstein as the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century. This entry on Dewey’s philosophy is premised on the historicist belief that one cannot read him today without taking the linguistic turn into account. Moreover, the thesis is that Dewey’s philosophy is social philosophy that presages more contemporary developments. Dewey is not a social theorist in today’s terms but his work has strong affinity. A basis for this thesis is a conception of social context that actually can be found throughout his writings. The entry is organized as a set of descriptive social contexts, biographical, philosophical, and democratic. While education does not appear until the end, the underlying purpose of the entry is expressed by philosopher Steven Cahn: “For Dewey, all social philosophy was at bottom philosophy of education implicitly or explicitly” (Cahn 1991, p. xvii). Understanding Dewey’s social philosophy locates education within a broader vision of a social order and of democracy. As indicated in the introduction, this vision may indeed offer insights for educators that extend beyond but can reform schools and the lives of teachers and students.

There are other ways to interpret Dewey and his place in the history of philosophy and for education. After all his speculative writings are very comprehensive, incorporating modern subtopics such as epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. For example, interrogating his writings on knowledge has led to one neoclassical characterization for educational research based in Dewey’s psychology and focused on science, inquiry, and action (Biesta and Burbules 2003). Additionally, the change introduced above also has had different broad interpretations such as a Deweyan “post-postmoderism” (Hickman 2007).

As part of the history of philosophy, Dewey responds to writings that come before his time. Not quite in Rorty’s later idiom, his view is anti-systemic, anti-absolutist, and anti-dualist. One way to see his position is precisely what Dewey writes about when and how a philosopher and his theory comes to be written; these are historical – and thus social – conditions. Rather than immutable knowledge, Dewey posits that philosophers such as Plato and Locke write in their own times of strife and conflict. Ironically each proposal for a system for all time has been superseded by another (Dewey 1988b). Dewey comes to see the seriousness of history in his own work most clearly in a reintroduction to his programmatic essay, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Dewey 1988e). He writes,

the distinctive office, problems, and subjectmatter of philosophy grows out of the stresses and strains in the community life in which a given form of philosophy arises… and vary with the changes in human life that are always going on and that at times constitute a crisis and a turning point in human history (p. 256).

Dewey means here that all philosophy is historically contextualized and so must his own that does include the significance of World War I in his life (Ryan 1995). A first social category in his philosophy is thus biographical.


Dewey lived a long fruitful life as professor, public intellectual, and philosopher, born in 1859 and dying in 1952 at the age of 93. Raised in New England’s Vermont, Dewey attended public schools, elementary through college – the University of Vermont in his hometown of Burlington. His first unsatisfying occupation was school teacher. Receiving some encouragement about philosophical acumen, he then attended the first US graduate school, the Johns Hopkins University, and it is noted with a virtual lack of personal financial backing. Graduating, his first professorial positions were at the new public universities at Michigan and Minnesota. His excellent early productivity led to his appointment also at a new institution, the University of Chicago. As the university gained prestige so did Dewey and following a tumultuous event involving the leadership of the laboratory school, he moved to Columbia University in 1904. New York City was to be his home for nearly 50 years. While he did have an appointment in pedagogy at Chicago and was associated with Teachers College at Columbia, he is best recognized as a philosophy professor.

Dewey’s writings reflect dominant American values even as he most often reinterprets them. They include rewritings of individualism, community, and democracy. He was a man of his time, what is known as the Progressive Era, roughly 1870–1920 (McGeer 2003). Life in these decades was complex, of great societal inequalities arising from vast changes in American immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. Dewey’s own reform efforts were local as well as international: for example, from working at the Hull House settlement of Jane Addams in Chicago to joining President Woodrow Wilson in advocating America’s entry into World War I. He belonged to many social groups. Indeed he helped found the American Federation of Teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In later life he considered himself an American socialist. Dewey was a well-intentioned radical of his day even as the era and the man were not without fault. Of note, the most important and comprehensive intellectual biography is Robert Westbrook’s John Dewey and American Democracy (Westbrook 1991).

Contemporary historian Louis Menand offers a useful characterization of pragmatism that focuses on the founders, Peirce, James, and Dewey, and adds the contributions of several others. Of note, Dewey recounts his vital debt to James in his only autobiographical essay, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism” (Dewey 1988c). Significantly different from traditional philosophy, each theorist poses a singular philosophy. Logic, religion, science, law, and societal conditions are all topics written about by classical pragmatists. Pragmatism, according to Menand (1997), is an account of the way people think in actually coping with the world. Dismissed are abstractions or formulas of rationality and truth. There is no absolute truth, no absolutes of any kind upon which to base everyday life. Coping entails action, and all action is to be judged by its consequences, its effects by what it “dictates or inspires,” Menand writes (p. xiii). A final point, given an American culture with all of its integral and enduring diversity, pragmatic action exhibits a down-to-earth quality, a practicality and utility, and a tenacity in working with problems. In its less than best actions, it is anti-intellectual and crassly utilitarian – settling for “what works” as short-sighted solutions.

Social Philosophy

Following an early interest in absolute idealism influenced by mentor neo-Hegelian scholar George Sylvester Morris, Dewey became increasingly interested in thinking about and responding to what he termed “the social subjects” as the focus of his pragmatism. Across his career, a set of concepts emerged to characterize his philosophy in both the abstract, disciplinary sense, and in the concrete, everyday problem-solving sense. Some are more directly contextual and some more indirect, and both, as they overlap in his writings, can be understood as integral to his social philosophy (see Toulmin 1988).

Dewey’s first published article appeared in 1882 and the last posthumously in 1953. His collected works comprise 37 volumes brought together in three chronological series, Early, Middle, and Late Works (1969–1991). In recent years, American philosophers have subdivided his writings into traditional categories, such as moral philosophy and political philosophy. For them a “social” category may be too broad, too unfamiliar in the times of analytic dominance, or implied but lacking significance. From above, Rorty does support a social interpretation with his statement that “’justification’… for Dewey’s conception of knowledge… [is] a social phenomenon rather than a transaction between ‘the knowing subject’ and ‘reality’” (Rorty 1979, p. 9). Westbrook offers his own rendering of Dewey’s “social philosophy,” although demurring that his text “is not quite… [a] full intellectual biography” (Westbrook 1991, p. 9).

Dewey’s biography, especially in its historic times, forms an external context for this social philosophy. A second context internally organizes his philosophy and is constituted of a set of “social” concepts that make his philosophy like no other. Of significance, Dewey does write about context, primarily with regard to language and its use. It is the background that is taken for granted in understanding words, symbols, and the like (Ratner 1989, p. xi). In the essay, Context and Thought, published in 1931, he first critiques analytic philosophy for ignoring context and then turns to a general discussion of “selective interest.” It extends from spatial and temporal background to existential and theoretical interest (Dewey 1989). Of special importance is Dewey’s beginning attention in this essay to culture: thus culture for him prefigures language and not the other way around.

In an initial internal category, Dewey’s philosophical intent is problem resolving, practical, provisional, and especially skeptical. Foremost in this category is a premise that life is inquiry, a flow of constant meaning making. This flow is dynamic, moving within bounded problematic situations that are indeterminate, confusing, and conflictual even. These brief or protracted moments require resolution that is provisional since within the flow a next situation “always” arises. Moreover since flow is life, situations are always potentially practical, requiring action as part of what Dewey identifies as the denial of any a priori model of knowledge in favor of “the actual reasoning practices of human thinkers” (Toulmin 1988, p. xxii).

Next, Dewey’s philosophical form is organic, holist, and isomorphic. Organic for Dewey means natural from nature, with all life and thought arising in a Darwin-inspired context portending a modernist progress. In Dewey’s holism types of thought processes or domains of intellectualism are not distinguished. His stance is that philosophy is always fully funded and value-laden in which, for instance, a particular moral import cannot be separated from thought and action. Isomorphism refers to a repetition of basic organization of social processes and forms; the problem-solving of an individual is replicated in that of any larger group.

Lastly, Dewey’s philosophical process is, first, in thought that is abstract and reconstructive and, second, in the concrete that is experiential, experimental, and consequentialist. Perhaps reconstruction is Dewey’s singular methodological contribution. Appearing across selected writings, he delves into philosophical pasts for positions and proposes a reconfiguring of one contemporary – reminiscent of a dialectic. Most characteristic of the pragmatism of Dewey’s time and influenced by James, experience is Dewey’s basic process unit. Experimentalism takes experience into the realm of problem-solving; in Dewey this reflects an idea in how human thought and action function and from that in science. Finally consequentialism is the means and ends of problem-solving: it is only in the carrying out of action that effects can be recognized and, at the utmost, serve as warrants for truth claims.

At this point, one might say that Dewey’s philosophy is social “all the way down.” Elaborating on the central idea of experience, this is manifest in a basic organic process of interaction, of organism and environment: the social enters when the organism is a human being interacting with all sorts of environments and typically with other humans. Dewey takes this process into discussions of human organization. Differing and responding to an emphasis on the personal psychology of his day, Dewey’s writings do refer to the individual but increasingly focus on active groups. The individual is always in interaction with others; contemporary debate concerns whether interaction or transaction best conceptualizes this process.


The final context in Dewey’s social philosophy is democracy, often described as his overall project (Westbrook 1991; Bernstein 2010). This commitment surely has roots in his middle class, Vermont background. His writings begin with an essay “book review” in 1888 in which democracy is characterized as a social and ethical unity and not just political. Dewey continues the latter idea in his most renowned work, Democracy and Education (Dewey 1985). Therein he offers this definition: “democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (p. 93). Further, association is created by voluntary disposition and interest and itself furthered democratically by the action of social groups. Participation that is democratic is in depth in one’s own group and by extension in contact with groups that are different. Beyond this textbook presentation, Dewey elaborates on association with other works especially in the 1927 volume, The Public and Its Problems (Dewey 1988a). For him association is organic; it is social and societal in modes of organization and conduct, and importantly it contributes to other, more intentionally, moral forms of human life. Public is acknowledged as Dewey’s most political work; reconstructions of the public, the State, and the community – for him a search for the great community – are central.

It is in this context of democracy that Dewey most clearly identifies his philosophy as social. Two addresses from different but “similar” times are exemplary. First from 1918 he asks if there is a philosophy that is “distinctive of a social order, of democracy” (Dewey 1988d, p. 43). His answer, interestingly, differs from other modern philosophers in “returning” to a classical root, to emphasize desire and wisdom herein rather than knowledge and science. Discussing in his own way liberal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, he restates his basic definition of associated individuals in intercourse with others that “makes the life of each unique” (p. 53). “Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us” (Dewey 1991b) is the better-known second address read in his absence at an eightieth birthday party in his honor.

Dewey’s writings on democracy, it should be clear, appear at various historic moments but perhaps exhibit special urgency during international crisis; in these two pieces, one cannot help but recall the historical contexts of 1918 and 1939! In the second, short essay, Dewey does call for deliberate attention to democratic institutions and duties that, once again, are more than political. What is especially significant is the need for individual commitment through expression of character and attitude especially across differences and conflicts. One emblematic statement is this:

The heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gatherings of neighbors on the street corners to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day… . Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business bars [sic] freedom (p. 227).

In this essay, Dewey also turns to education: for him such experiences are educative and are part of the “knowledge of conditions” that foster free and full communication.

Education connects to democracy as integral to this social context. Education is the vehicle for democracy and democracy ensures the appropriate conditions for education. Education appears in writings across most decades; there is the shift of emphasis mentioned in the introduction. What is significant might also be the belief that schools could not be the vehicle for democracy that he initially envisioned. His most direct writings about schooling concern life at the laboratory school. In them, Dewey’s organization, curriculum, and pedagogy are primarily social. The most famous statement from the talks to parents describes the school as a community. He says, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal… is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy” (Dewey 1900, 1915, 1976, 1990, p. 7). An accessible redux about schooling, Experience and Education, in the late 1930s, builds on the social contexts and philosophical concepts overviewed above and fundamentally incorporates individuals in social groups (Dewey 1991a). Concepts that educators have found inspirational and one hopes applicable include the following inexhaustive list: educative as the value for learning that contributes to the social order, continuity that refers to the connections and indeed broadening of educational experiences, and social control that describes the socializing effect of such experiences in which a social group and its participants “order” itself. It is important to note that the lab school was to be a pragmatist educational experiment and not a model for others or for all time. The two texts from 1916 and 1938 were invitational endeavors and exceptions to his general stance toward schools.


Today educators as well as philosophers and other social theorists read Dewey for insights into living in a different context than was his. Central to intellectual life and social practices that “result” a new conception of making sense of the world has emerged following from the linguistic turn. A more flexible and more open conception – denial of the need for certainty – fits a twenty-first century complex world. Dewey’s philosophy conceived as social philosophy can be seen as presaging contemporary intellectual and social life. This entry has offered an interpretation based in a series of social contexts found in Dewey’s writings: biographical, philosophical, and democratic. In the latter education is central since democracy and education are integral to each other. Reformers, in education and elsewhere, can gain insights from Dewey. Conceptualizing his philosophy in a social light can actually suggest new directions, so needed in these complex tumultuous times.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of North Carolina, School of EducationChapel HillUSA