Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational
reformer, whose thought has been greatly influential in the United
States and around the world. He is recognized as one of the founders
of the philosophical school of Pragmatism (along with Charles Sanders
Peirce and William
James), a pioneer in functional psychology, and
a leading representative of the progressive movement in U.S. education
during the first half of the 20th century. He was also a contributing
editor of the Encyclopeadia for Unified Science, a project of the
logical empiricists organised by Otto Neurath.
was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins. He received
his PhD from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns
Hopkins University in 1884. From 1904, he was professor of philosophy
at Columbia University. Dewey's most significant writings were
"The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896), a critique
of a standard psychological concept and the basis of all his further
work; Human Nature and Conduct (1922), a study of the role of
habit in human behavior; The Public and its Problems (1927), a
defense of democracy written in response to Walter Lippmann's
The Phantom Public; Experience and Nature (1929), Dewey's most
"metaphysical" statement; Art as Experience (1934),
Dewey's major work on aesthetics; A Common Faith (1934), a humanistic
study of religion; Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), an examination
of Dewey's unusual conception of logic; and Freedom and Culture
(1939), a political work examining the roots of fascism. While
each of these works focuses upon one particular philosophical
theme, Dewey wove in all of his major themes into everything he
As can be seen in his Democracy and Education Dewey attempts to
at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic
or proto-democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato.
He saw Rousseau's as overemphasizing the individual and Plato's
as overemphasizing the society in which the individual lived.
For Dewey, this distinction was by and large a false one; like
Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process.
Thus the individual is only a meaningful concept when regarded
as an inextricable part of his society, and the society has no
meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual
members. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature
Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of
individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.
Dewey, it was vitally important that education not be the teaching
of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students
learned be integrated fully into their lives as persons, citizens
and human beings. At the Laboratory School which Dewey and his
wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned
much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating
the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast—an
activity they did in their classes. This practical element—learning
by doing—sprang from his subscription to the philosophical
school of Pragmatism. The school failed within three years and
forced Dewey to leave Chicago. He then created his famous Lincoln
School in Manhattan that also failed in a short amount of time.
ideas, while quite popular, were never broadly and deeply integrated
into the practices of American public schools, though some of
his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both
as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms
of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the
Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating
and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military
purposes. In the post-Cold War period, however, progressive education
has reemerged in many school reform and education theory circles
as a thriving field of inquiry.
and historical progressive education
The most basic idea of John Dewey's with regard to education was
that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect
and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills,
rather than simply on the memorization of lessons. While Dewey's
educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity during his
lifetime and after, they have a troubled history of implementation.
Dewey's writings can be difficult to read, and his tendency to
reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex
reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding.
while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals,
his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even
when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they
thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or
somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried, on occasion,
to correct such misguided enthusiasm, but with little success.
Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often
influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also
becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend
many, many contradictory theories and practices, as documented
by historians like Herbert Kliebard.
is often thought that progressive education "failed",
though whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions
of "progressive" and "failure". Several versions
of progressive education succeeded in transforming the educational
landscape: the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name
but one example, springs from the progressive period. However,
radical variations of educational progressivism were hardly ever
tried, and often were troubled and short-lived.
Dewey is one of the three central figures in American pragmatism,
along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term, and William
James, who popularized it—though Dewey did not identify
himself as a pragmatist per se, and instead referred to his philosophy
as "instrumentalism". Dewey worked from strongly Hegelian
and Neo-Hegelian influences, unlike James, whose lineage was primarily
British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian thought.
Dewey was also not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James.
He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social
construction, but a quality situated in events ("nature itself
is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience
also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural,
technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast
arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people
who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human
life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one
religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we
are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a
gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, or whatever.
Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious
institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief
in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. For Dewey, God was
the method of intelligence in human life: that is to say, rigorous
inquiry, or, very broadly conceived, science.
with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's
contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more
a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also
reemerged with the reassessment of pragmatism, beginning in the
late 1970s, by thinkers like Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein
and Hans Joas.
of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the
world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative
to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Dewey's non-foundational
approach pre-dates postmodernism by more than half a century.
Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful
to Dewey's original vision, though this itself is completely in
keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with
his own philosophy— for Dewey, past doctrines always require
reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.
Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism".
He has been called an instrumentalist, and experimentalist, an
empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term "transactional"
may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his
later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.
terminology problem in the fields of epistomology and logic is
partially due, according to Dewey and Bentley, to, inefficient,
and imprecise use of words, and concepts that reflect three historic
levels of organization and presentation. In the order of chronological
appearance, these are :
Self-Action: Prescientific concepts regarded humans, animals,
and things as possessing powers of their own which initiated or
caused their actions.
- Interaction: as described by Newton, where things, living and
inorganic, are balanced against thing in a system of interaction,
for example, the third law of motion that action and reaction
are equal and opposite.
- Transaction: where modern systems of descriptions and naming
are employed to deal with multiple aspects and phases of action
without any attribution to ultimate, final, or independent entities,
essences, or realities.
series of characterizations of Transactions indicate the wide
range of considerations involved.
Transaction is inquiry in which existing descriptions of events
are accepted only as tentative and preliminary. New descriptions
of the aspects and phases of events based on inquiry may be made
at any time.
- Transaction is inquiry characterized by primary observation
that may range across all subjectmatters that present themselves,
and may proceed with freedom to re-determine and re-name the objects
comprised in the system.
- Transaction is Fact such that no one of the constituents can
be adequately specified as apart from the specification of all
the other constituents of the full subject matter.
- Transaction develops and widens the phases of knowledge, and
broadens the system within the limits of observation and report.
- Transaction regards the extension in time to be comparable to
the extension in space, so that “thing” is in action,
and “action” is observable in things.
- Transaction assumes no pre-knowledge of either organism or environment
alone as adequate, but requires their primary acceptance in a
- Transaction is the procedure which observes men talking and
writing, using language and other representational activities
to present their perceptions and manipulations. This permits a
full treatment, descriptive and functional, of the whole process
inclusive of all its contents, and with the newer techiques of
- Transactional Observation insists on the right to freely proceed
to investigate any subjectmatter in whatever way seems appropriate,
under reasonable hypothesis.
of differences between self-action, interaction, and transaction,
as well as the different facets of transactional inquiry are provided
by statements of positions that Dewey and Bentley definitely did
not hold and which never should be read into their work.
They do not use any basic differentiation of subject vs. object;
of soul vs body; of mind vs matter; or self vs nonself.
2. They do not support the introduction of any ultimate knower
from a different or superior realm to account for what is known.
3. Similarly, they do not tolerate "entities" or "realities"
of any kind intruding as if from behind or beyond the knowing-known
events, with power to interfere.
4. They exclude the introduction of "faculties" or other
"operators" of an organism’s behaviors, and require
for all investigations the direct observation and contemporaneous
report of findings and results.
5. Especially, they recognize no names that are offered as expressions
of “inner” thoughts, nor of names that reflect compulsions
by outer objects.
6. They reject imaginary words and terms said to lie between the
organism and its environmental objects, and require the direct
location and source for all observations relevant to the investigation.
7. They tolerate no meanings offered as "ultimate" truth
or "absolute" knowledge.
8. Since they are concerned with what is inquired into, and the
process of knowings, they have no interest in any underpinning.
Any statement that is or can be made about a knower, self, mind,
or subject, or about a known thing, an object, or a cosmos must
be made on the basis of, and in the language applicable to the
summary, all of human knowledge consists of actions and products
of acts in which men and women participate with other human beings,
with animals and plants, as well as objects of all types, in any
environment. Men and women have, are, and will present their acts
of knowing and known in language. Generic man, and specific men
and women are known to be vulnerable to error. Consequently, all
knowledge (knowing and known) whether commonsensical or scientific;
past, present, or future; is subject to further inquiry, examination,
review, and revision.