a John Dewey primer

I am co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies  and blogging about roughly half of the 18 topics on our syllabus. Today, I focus my blog notes on John Dewey’s book, The Public and its Problems (1927). In the same session, we also discussed Philip Selznick’s The Moral Commonwealth, on which I posted notes in 2009. (Selznick developed his own views but acknowledged a pervasive debt to Dewey; you might call him Dewey 2.0.)

The John Dewey/Walter Lippmann debate in the 1920s

These two major American intellectuals rejected the classic (“civics class”) view of democracy, which holds that masses of people know what’s going on, vote according to their principles and interests, and thus steer the ship of state. They agreed that this was impossible in a complex and huge society.

Lippmann was particularly acute in diagnosing the problem, which he first recognized as he worked on propaganda during World War I. He coined the term “stereotype” (in its modern use) and explored other cognitive biases and limitations as he argued that the “phantom public” could not know what is going on, did not have coherent values or interests, was very easily manipulated, and never seriously affected the government. He concluded that the only role of the public was to use the blunt force of popular voting to unseat extremely incompetent or tyrannical leaders.

Dewey’s theory of democracy and the public

Dewey basically shared the diagnosis but couldn’t accept the outcome because of his core normative premises, which were what? (p. 147-8)

• Everyone must have “a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which [he or she] belongs.”
• Every group must derive the full benefit of all its members’ contributions: “it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and good which are in common.”
• Everyone belongs at once to many groups, which must “interact flexibly and fully.”

In sum: “Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community.” And democracy is identical to community in its ideal form.

What about formal aspects of democracy like voting and equal legal rights? These are mere manifestations of a deeper current toward democracy and community.

Because of Dewey’s underlying principles, he cannot accept Lippmann’s conclusion. So he seeks “the means by which a scattered, mobile, and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and recognize its interests” (146). His question becomes (p. 157): “What are the conditions under which it is possible for the Great Society [the large and complex modern nation] to approach more closely and vitally the status of a Great Community, and thus to take form in genuinely democratic societies and state?”

Another way to understand his principles is as a progression. Being part of a group is natural and utterly inevitable. As human beings, we can become aware of our common life. Finally, our awareness can become reasonable or rational if we formally communicate about our common interests through symbols, especially through education and science. This is the classic Hegelian triad of consciousness, self-consciousness, and reason.

But our reason is unacceptable at present. “The prime condition of a democratically organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist.” (p,. 166). We may have freedom of speech, but that is merely negative, the absence of censorship. “No man and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone.” We need positive conditions for “freedom of social inquiry and [the] distribution of its conclusions” [p. 166].

Why don’t we have adequate reason/communication?

• Bad people: “those who have ability to manipulate social relations for their own advantage have to be reckoned with. …. We seem to be approaching a state of government by hired promoters of opinion called publicity agents (p. 169 and see also pp. 182ff).
• Sacred cows such as “the Constitution, the Supreme Court, private property, free contract, and so on,” for which “the words ‘sacred’ and sanctity’ come readily to our lips,” interfering with critical reason( pp. 169-70)
• “The backwardness of social knowledge is marked in its division into independent and insulated branches of learning. Anthropology, history, sociology, morals, economics, political science go their own ways without constant and systemized fruitful interaction.” (p. 171). Note “morals” on the list: Dewey opposes a fact/value distinction.
• “Separation between pure and applied science” (p. 174). “Science is converted into knowledge in its honorable and emphatic sense only in application. Otherwise, it is truncated, blind, distorted. When it is then applied, it is in ways which explain the unfavorable sense so often attached to ‘application’ and the ‘utilitarian’: namely, use for pecuniary ends to the profit of a few. At present, the application of physical science is rather to human concerns than in them. That is, it is external, made in the interests of its consequences for a possessing and acquisitive class. Application in life would mean that it was absorbed and distributed; that it was the instrumentality of that common understanding and thorough communication which is the precondition of the existence of a genuine and effective public.”
• We are flooded with “news,” defined only as what’s new. Its “meaning depends on relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are.” But that is not explained or discussed. News degenerates into sensationalism.
• Serious inquiry is presented in dry and abstract forms.

Public opinion (p. 177) “is judgment which is formed and entertained by those who constitute the public and is about public affairs.”

Discussion questions:

• How accurate and applicable is Dewey’s critique today?
• What can we do about it?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.