John Dewey: the Politics of Individualistic Pragmatism

John Dewey (1859-1952) was without doubt one of the most influential American thinkers of his day. His work as a philosopher included educational philosophy, political philosophy, and other important works. He also a popularized pragmatism as both a method and way of looking at the world. Dewey’s pragmatism, which he called, “experimentalism,” relied heavily on both Peirce, under whom he studied, and William James, who was also influential in this thought. Dewey’s experimentalism incorporates aspects of Peirce’s belief that philosophy ought to emulate science as a fallible enterprise of solving concrete theoretical problems, an enterprise in which defined, limited and provisional problems are solved in an experimental and scientific way.

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont. After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, Dewey earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Charles S. Peirce. Thereafter, Dewey taught at the Universities of Minnesota, Michigan, and Chicago. After a dispute in Chicago, Dewey finished his career at Columbia University in New York City, where he chaired the philosophy department until. retirement. After his retirement, Dewey lived another twenty-two years and continued to write articles and books not only on philosophy and logic but on art, education, science, and social and political reform. Among his many books are Democracy and Education, Reconstruction in PhilosophyThe Public and Its Problems, and Freedom and Culture. [1]


Like his mentor William James, Dewey was a defender of a kind of individualism, that makes the individual, and his or her self-development, the supreme end of political thinking. This radical individualism translates into a kind of radical democratic theory in which the individual becomes that center of all political calculation. However, this individualism might be better termed a “communal individualism,” whereby the individual finds his or her full self-actualization as a part of a society. This individualism does not deny government the ability and even duty to plan and control a great deal of the activity of individuals, especially in the economic arena. [2]

For Dewey society is composed of individuals and it is the individual that sits at the foundation of any democratic society:

Society is composed of individuals: this obvious and basic fact no philosophy, whatever its pretensions to novelty, can question or alter. Hence these three alternatives: Society must exist for the sake of individuals; or individuals must have their ends and ways of living set for them by society; or else society and individuals are correlative, organic, to one another, society requiring the service and subordination of individuals and at the same time existing to serve them. Beyond these three views, none seems to be logically conceivable. (Emphasis added) [3]

For Dewey, both the individual and the social are fundamental to society and exist in a mutually beneficial, organic, and “correlative” relationship. [4] Individuals are not a kind of atomistic unit, but are formed by a society within families and a variety of social institutions. [5]

Pragmatic Communitarianism

One review of his thought locates Dewey’s philosophy as follows:

Dewey elaborates a version of the Idealist criticisms of classical liberal individualism. For this line of criticism, classical liberalism envisages the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals, and takes social and political life as a sphere in which this competitive pursuit of self-interest is coordinated. By contrast, the Idealists rejected this view of social and political life as the aggregation of inherently conflicting private interests. Instead, they sought to view individuals relationally: individuality could be sustained only where social life was understood as an organism in which the well-being of each part was tied to the well-being of the whole. Freedom in a positive sense consisted not merely in the absence of external constraints but the positive fact of participation in such an ethically desirable social order. [6]

One might say that there is a complementarian relationship between the individual and social institutions, with each relying upon the other for its full and healthy expression. Individuals cannot emerge without a sound society in which they can flourish, nor can society flourish without well-formed individuals.

Mediating Institutions

For Dewey, the modern bureaucratic and administrative nation-state with the kind of powers common in America and Europe is a relatively new institution in human history. It is the result of a long struggle of society to liberate itself from subservience to feudal and other orders. Now, it exists, at least in part, to give support and freedom to other social institutions:

As the work of integration and consolidation reaches its climax, the question arises, however, whether the national state, once it is firmly established and no longer struggling against strong foes, is not just an instrumentality for promoting and protecting other and more voluntary forms of association, rather than a supreme end in itself. Two actual phenomena may be pointed to in support of an affirmative answer. Along with the development of the larger, more inclusive and more unified organization of the state has gone the emancipation of individuals from restrictions and servitudes previously imposed by custom and class status. But the individuals freed from external and coercive bonds have not remained isolated. Social molecules have at once recombined in new associations and organizations. Compulsory associations have been replaced by voluntary ones; rigid organizations by those more amenable to human choice and purposes—more directly changeable at will. What upon one side looks like a movement toward individualism, turns out to be really a movement toward multiplying all kinds and varieties of associations: Political parties, industrial corporations, scientific and artistic organizations, trade unions, churches, schools, clubs and societies without number, for the cultivation of every conceivable interest that men have in common. As they develop in number and importance, the state tends to become more and more a regulator and adjuster among them; defining the limits of their actions, preventing and settling conflicts. [7]

It is extremely important to understand this statement. Because human beings are by nature social animals, the freedom that humans gained during the modern era, did not and will not change the fundamentally relational and communitarian nature of society. What changes is that instead of externally imposed social relationships the foundation of society are voluntary social relationships and societies through which human beings develop and express their individual capacities. Government’s responsibility is to secure the status and freedom of the many voluntary societies of which any given political unit is composed.

In other words, once a nation, like the United States of America has achieved its status as the supreme governing body over a territory, it becomes the duty and primary responsibility of that governing body to secure the freedom and security of the various persons and social groups of which it is composed. Governments should not be monopolists of either political or economic power, as they are under both communism and national socialism, but regulators and guarantors of freedom for all those persons and institutions within their boundaries. In essence, governments must learn to serve the social organs of which it is made up, and especially what we would call “Mediating Institutions.”

Society as a Process

One feature of Dewey is his steadfast commitment to Darwinism and a vision of nature and society as embedded in a process of continuous change and development. This involves a vision of human maturation and human society as unceasingly in a state of dynamic change:

The tendency to treat organization as an end in itself is responsible for all the exaggerated theories in which individuals are subordinated to some institution to which is given the noble name of society. Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common. To this active process, both the individual and the institutionally organized may truly be said to be subordinate. The individual is subordinate because except in and through communication of experience from and to others, he remains dumb, merely sentient, a brute animal. Only in association with fellows does he become a conscious centre of experience. Organization, which is what traditional theory has generally meant by the term Society or State, is also subordinate because it becomes static, rigid, institutionalized whenever it is not employed to facilitate and enrich the contacts of human beings with one another. [8]

Individuals are embedded in society in such a way that ideas, emotions, values, and other features of a healthy culture are transmitted and made “common.” As human beings join together in cooperative enterprises, they free themselves from static, rigid conformity and are enriched in the process of social progress. “Freedom for an individual means growth, ready change when modification is required.” [9]

Democracy and Education

John Dewey was not only a political philosopher; he was also, perhaps even primarily, and educational philosopher. In fact, his best-known work is on education, Democracy and Education. [10]  The fundamental premise of the book is that the reality of personal death requires that societies have systems of education. One generation succeeds another, and any form of social progress involves the transmission of past experiences to a future generation:

The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education. On one hand, there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group—its future sole representatives—and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group. On the other hand, there is the necessity that these immature members be not merely physically preserved in adequate numbers, but that they be initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members: otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life. [11]

The necessity for education born of human finitude is true of even the simplest of societies, but grows as a society, such as ours, grows more complex. Any society continues only so long as it transmits its underlying values to a new generation of its members. This brute fact explains a great deal of the difficulties our society is having at the present time. There has been a massive failure by our educational systems to transmit the underlying an understanding of an appreciation for the values of our society to the next generations. A focus on what was wrong with the American experiment and American society has been taken to such an extreme that the succeeding generations do not have an understanding of the history, democratic tradition, personal and social skills, and other elements needed for our society to endure. The result is growing authoritarianism in political thought, debate, and action.

Human beings and human society are dependent upon the communication of the aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge, common understanding, and the like, so that a functional degree “like-mindedness” comes to exist among members of the society. [12] Communication of all types, between parents and children, between children and adults, between teachers and students, managers and workers, artists and admirers, etc is absolutely necessary for a society to continue and prosper. In placing communication at the center of society, Dewey is not merely talking about communication of information, but also communication of meaning and purpose, a communication of the heart of a society as well as raw information about that society, its institutions, and past accomplishments and failures.

While all persons and institutions in a society bear some responsibility for the communication of the past to the next generation, in a complex society, there must be formal education. Certain institutions must be formed and persons recruited to undertake the transmission of what is important for society to continue. A complex society has no alternative but to create a system or systems of formal education:

Without such formal education, it is not possible to transmit all the resources and achievements of a complex society. It also opens a way to a kind of experience which would not be accessible to the young, if they were left to pick up their training in informal association with others, since books and the symbols of knowledge are mastered. [13]


As sympathetic a reviewer as Bertrand Russell noted that, in the end, Dewey’s philosophy is about power, and in that sense, “Nietzschean,” though not as crudely Nietzschean as that of Nietzsche. [14] Dewey’s philosophy is essentially “modern” in that is dominated by a kind of materialistic application of Newtonian and Darwinian principles to society and education. The idealism of James, Peirce, and Royce is missing, as is the recognition of limits in political matters. His emphasis on process is important, and it will be the subject of the next set of essays as we look at Alfred North Whitehead and the Process Philosophers whose impact would be felt throughout the 20th Century in both philosophy and theology.

From Peirce and James, Dewey has a “scientific and instrumental” view of knowledge that always includes a kind of fallibilism that recognizes that our ideas, however well attested by reality and however comprehensively accepted, can always be wrong and in need of revision. This excludes any sympathy for totalitarian undertakings in philosophy, politics, education or any other field of inquiry. This part of Dewey’s philosophy is of increasing importance in our society in which there are so many loud voices, left and right, who are certain of the truth of their own opinions and contemptuous of the opinions of others

Finally, his emphasis on and interest in education is perhaps his most enduring contribution to American thought. It is for all of us to remember that the accomplishments of the past and present will be lost unless they and the characteristics that made them possible are transmitted to a new generation, for all of us will eventually pass away and with our passing our capacity to form the future of the world.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Scott London,  “Organic Democracy: Political Philosophy of John Dewey” (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[2] See, John Dewey, Individualism Old and New (New York, NY: Capricorn Books, 1930. This is one of Dewey’s more popular books and more clearly than others sets out his political and social prejudices and beliefs.

[3] John Dewey, Reconstruction of Philosophy (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company 1920), 187 (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter referred to as “Reconstruction.”

[4] Id, at 188. The term “correlative” means  “related,” “reciprocal” or “corresponding” and is used to indicate that there is a relationship between individuals and community such that one cannot be found without the presence of the other.

[5] Id, at 200.

[6] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy” Wed Feb 9, 2005; substantive revision Thu Jul 26, 2018 at (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[7] Reconstruction, at 202-203.

[8] Id, at 207.

[9] Id.

[10] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, transcribed by David Reed and David Widger (The Project Gutenberg EBook of Democracy and Education, by John Dewey (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter, Democracy and Education.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 827.