requiem for certainty

Dewey on Publics and States (in 1920)

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One of John Dewey’s lifelong obsessions with respect to political theory concerned issues of the democratic qualities in virtue of which some publics become capable of self-regulation or, to put it differently, become capable of growth (which for Dewey is always a self-directed process).  This theme emerges most clearly in his 1927 The Public and Its Problems, a text that has obsessed many commentators.  Another location where we find anticipations of that discussion is in chapter 8 of his 1920 Reconstruction In Philosophy.  One can follow the thread of that text through three themes in order to shed some light on Dewey’s conception of the democratic organization of publics, a conception which arguably is the very center of his entire philosophic vision.

I. Relation between Individual and Social.  Dewey starts Chapter 8 Reconstruction by recounting three bad concepts of individual-social relations.  The first is individualism.  The second is a kind of communitarianism or collectivism.  The third is a kind of organicism (and here he is thinking of certain strains of social thought emerging in the context of 19th. c. German Idealism, for instance certain prominent interpretations of Hegel, though it is debatable whether or not these ideas were actually Hegel’s).  Each of these has been subjected to severe criticism.  Dewey, too, rejects all three, in favor of a conception of democracy that he will work up to by the end of the chapter.

The central problem with all three of these conceptions, for Dewey, is that they rely on abstractions.  This is pernicious in the context of social inquiry because it takes us away from the particulars of social life.  In other words, abstractions take us away from social reality, and presumably that is what we want to address if we are going to address social problems.

Dewey’s critique here might appear blunt, and so it deserves some comment.  Dewey is not saying that abstractions are bad, but rather that abstractionism is bad.  Dewey is saying that we ought to be able to trace a path from any abstract concept we employ to the specific social problems or remedies that it serves to illuminate.  (Consider this an application of the pragmatic method for tracing consequences for actual life.)  If we cannot trace that path, then we are abstractionist in that we are trading wholly in abstractions without sufficient concern for the pragmatic cash-value that these abstract concepts have.  This has much to do with metaphilosophical issues of philosophical methodology—these issues were recently addressed by Philip Kitcher in an important article in the April, 2011 issue of Metaphilosophy that deserves our attention.  More on this in a week or two (I hope).

II. Empirical-Historical Method.  This brings us to the second moment in the text.  Dewey offers his historical-empirical method as an alternative to the speculative, intuition-focused, armchair methods of abstractionism, or what William James liked to call “intellectualism”.  We need to focus on “special historic phenomena” (189 [Beacon edition with apologies to Dewey Works team]) and employ abstractions only if they can be traced to these.  If we can’t trace them, we shouldn’t use them.  There are a number of places in the text at this point where Dewey reiterates this (cf., 193, 197, 198, 200).

III. States and Publics. This sets up the crucial discussion of the chapter, at least for the purposes of anticipating Dewey’s discussion of publics in his 1927 book.  Dewey tours through a number of examples of the results of applying the new method (193ff.).  The most prolonged of these is a discussion of the abstraction of the state vis-à-vis the social reality of association (200ff.).  This is a central problem that will occupy Dewey after the publication of this book, and it is at the heart of The Public and Its Problems.  A proper understanding of the 1927 book is facilitated by gaining a sense of what is going on here in 1920.

Dewey’s argument in 1920. Dewey, employing his method, traces the emergence of the state form of governance as a historical phenomena in order to counterbalance abstractionist conceptions of The State.  Historical inquiry suggests that the state helped to bring coherence to various social forms that were otherwise rivalrous and dogmatic (see Madison on faction for an instructive discussion).  This raises the question as to whether or not the state is an “end in itself” (203) or “just an instrumentality for promoting and protecting other and more voluntary forms of association” (202; why the ‘just’?).  Dewey prefers the latter of course.  The unifying and inclusionary functions of the state, Dewey suggests, have also brought us into conditions of pluralism: both internal pluralism within any given social grouping (such that, for example, it is clear that every individual is a member of a plurality of different social groupings, from which we can safely infer that every social grouping is not internally homogenous with respect to its members) and also external pluralism among a variety of (kinds of) social groupings.  These groupings, for Dewey, “have become the real social units” (204) such that the state itself is no longer primary (Dewey’s object of critique here, of course, is the organicist conception which presumably does not loom so large for us any longer, but noting that Dewey was writing in the midst of the great European Wars one can see why he would be concerned about this).  On Dewey’s view, the job of the state is to, in a secondary sense, “foster and coordinate the activities of voluntary groupings” (204) as a conductor coordinates an orchestra (203).

Dewey’s conclusion in 1920.  Dewey concludes that, “Society, as was said, is many associations not a single organization” (205).  Herein is registered a massive shift in social and political formation which much political theory, Dewey thought, has failed to take into account.  Dewey was right and indeed the situation is worse today insofar as a majority of contemporary political philosophy still proceeds as if its object of analysis is a singular monistic object (such as the state or the public or the society) that need not be internally differentiated according to contextual requirements as revealed by empirical-historical inquiry.  This sets up a problem for democratic association insofar as it creates conditions of fragmentation.  This will be the key problem that Dewey will address in The Public and Its Problems half a decade later.

It is notable that the response Dewey gives to this problem in 1920 is the same he offers in 1927: namely, communicative practice.  Dewey says, “The situation in which a good is consciously realized is not one of transient sensations or private appetites but one of sharing and communication—public, social” (206).  Communication, for Dewey, holds the key to linking together (or what I call ‘articulating’ in order to exploit both senses of that word) otherwise fragmented publics.  There is more to be said about all this of course.  Is communication for Dewey purely or even primarily linguistic?  Are all forms of communication on a level?  If not, when is communication more rather than less democratic?  How does communicative practice help us to manage power (to pose a question addressed by Melvin Rogers)?

I (again). Democratic Relations. This brings us, back, finally to the theme with which Dewey opened the chapter, namely the relation between individual and social.  In favor of the three bad conceptions Dewey is now in a good position to put forward his own alternative democratic understanding of this relation.  Dewey here all but defines democracy in terms of “the fact that human nature is developed only when its elements take part in directing things which are common, things for the sake of which men and women form groups—families, industrial companies, governments, churches, scientific associations and so on.  The principles holds as much of one form of association, say in industry and commerce, as it does in government” (209).  Dewey then proceeds to critique purely political conceptions of democracy according to which democracy is only a form of government.

All of this suggests that Dewey sees democracy as a form of association.  Associations, or what he would later call publics, are conceptually prior to forms of government, including the nation-state form of government.  On this view, states are one way (a particularly useful way, of course) of giving coherence and organizing our publics.  Dewey certainly emphasizes the importance of states in this respect, in both 1920, and in 1927.  But also often seemed to be of two minds about the role of states.  Sometimes it sounds as if he wants states to be conductors orchestrating the relations amongst all other kinds of publics.  But other times it sounds as if Dewey is willing to be more radical in accepting the view that the state is one form of social organization in which we sometimes find ourselves participant and which often functions to coordinate many (but certainly not all) of the other publics in which we find ourselves.

Regardless of what he actually believed, the important point is that Dewey certainly gives us reason for a radical and severe scrutiny of statism, which is the idea that (in its mildest form; and there are stronger versions) there should be a presumption in favor of organizing publics by states.  Eschewing statism helps us plainly see what I take to be Dewey’s most important insight for political theory: associations assume a democratic quality not in virtue of organizing a state that extends the franchise to all, but rather in virtue of executing the difficult work of being self-regulating, in whatever manner is required to do so effectively and efficiently.  States are sometimes efficacious for this.  But sometimes they are inimical for this.  As such, there should be no presumption in favor of states as forms organizational for publics.  That presumption, which just is what statism is, produces as many problems as it resolves.  Perhaps this helps explicate the meaning of Dewey’s insistence that, in a famous phrase he frequently borrowed from Jane Addams, “democracy is a way of life” (cf. 210).

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Written by Colin Koopman

April 11, 2011 at 11:39 pm

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  1. […] this post is the second in a series of posts on “Dewey on Publics” (read the first: Dewey on Publics and States).  Next week: The Public and Its […]

  2. […] obsession with respect to liberal democratic theory (as argued in posts from the last two weeks here and here).  Herein a brief review of these four methodological decisions, followed by […]


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