requiem for certainty

Dewey on Society (from 1888 to 1916)

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Contemporary political theory is haunted by a pair of interwoven ambiguities between pluralism and monism on the one hand and proceduralism and moralism on the other.  I find a valuable early example of these ambiguities in the work of democratic theorist and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.  What follows is a historical redescription of this ambiguity in Dewey as we chart the chronology of his democratic theory from his early Hegelian phase (in 1888) to his later explicitly pragmatist (but still ambiguous) philosophy (in 1916).

Dewey on Social Unity in 1888

In his early 1888 article “The Ethics of Democracy” we witness a young Dewey still in the capture of a certain strain of Hegelian idealism.  Dewey’s arguments in that article are indeed on behalf of a conception of democracy that extends beyond a merely state-confined conception of democracy as “only a form of government” (EW1.229).  Despite these early hesitations about statism, Dewey’s conception of democracy has yet to absorb the pluralism that would be necessary for a full repudiation of statism.  For Dewey is in this piece still explicitly anti-pluralist in his conception of democracy, urging as he does a “social organism” conception in which “society in its unified and structural character is the fact of the case” (EW1.232).  Democracy, for the young Dewey, is directed toward the coordination of government and governed according to the unity of society through which both have meaning.

The result is a substantive conception of democracy as a strongly moral notion fitting of a unified conception of the social that stands in need of democratic organization: “Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association” (EW1.240).

While this moral conception of democracy as a way of life broader in scope than mere government would remain at the center of Dewey’s democratic theory throughout his life, he would later call into question the premise of this early formulation that a way of life is always a unified way of life.  This amounts to calling into question democracy as a substantive ideal in favor of a more proceduralist conception of democracy.  This tension between proceduralism and substantivism in Dewey’s democratic theory has been discussed before, most notably by Axel Honneth (cf. his two 1998 articles in Political Theory and the Peirce Transactions journals).  What is worth noting at this point is, first, that Dewey’s shift from substantive to procedural democracy was correlative with a shift from monistic to pluralistic social theory, and second, that Dewey’s democratic theory would never finally resolve the tension at work between these two conceptions.

For evidence of the first point, Dewey’s monism, we need only consult this overblown statement of the final paragraph: “Democracy and the one, the ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonyms” (EW1.248).  There is more assertion than argumentation in this claim.  As such it assumes all the familiar trappings of idealism (including, by the way, Dewey’s colloquial, but presumably unintentional, claim that these are synonyms “to [his] mind’).  Dewey is aware of the concern: “But this, you will say, is idealism”.  Aware but apparently not sensitive: “It is indeed idealism” (EW1.249).  This idealistic monism gradually gave way in Dewey’s philosophical thinking and democratic theory alike to a more sensitive empiricism in virtue of which he came to recognize pluralism.  That the early trappings of monistic substantivism would always haunt Dewey’s democratic theory, my second point, can be seen by observing those texts.  This unresolved tension between procedural and republican theory, of course, should not be thought of as Dewey’s burden—it is the burden of democratic theory itself in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Dewey on Society in 1916

In Dewey’s more mature contributions to democratic theory we find a different kind of emphasis on the quality of democracy as a way of life.  To begin, in chapter seven of his 1916 Democracy and Education Dewey addresses “The Democratic Conception in Education.”  One central focus here is to get right the conception of social relations such that it can be made clear how education can inform and enrich specifically democratic social relations.  A central idea for Dewey, writing midst the centralizing tendencies of the American Progressive Era and the European Great War, is that, “Society is one word, but many things” (81).  Although “society is conceived as one by its very nature,” we can gain distance from this idealist abstraction and affirm as good empiricists the reality that when we actually look “we find not unity, but a plurality of societies, good and bad” (82).  Dewey affirms that gangs of thieves form a society as much as do those combined in political organizations.  What Dewey is here criticizing is the idealist tendency to think of society as an inherently normative term, such that some forms of society evince real society whilst others are parasitic corruptions of the ideal.  Rather than idealize society itself, Dewey suggests inquiry into the qualities of any given society as a means of determining its normative valence.  Thus, says Dewey, “The problem is to extract the desirable trains of forms of community life which actually exist, and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvements” (83).  This is immanent critique, just in the sense that it involves the critique of some aspects of society on the basis of other aspects.

Social critique in any form requires some kind of standard for distinguishing better from worse forms of society.  Interestingly, in invoking a standard for critique, Dewey proves himself to be only half-hearted in his commitment to immanent critique.  For Dewey does not so much articulate a standard that is already up and running in really-existing social practices as he imports a standard from outside which he takes to be constitutive of social practice as such.  In this, Dewey’s approach still bears evidence of the kind of moral substantivism characteristic of his approach in the 1888 “Ethics of Democracy” article.  This opens up a difficult tension in Dewey’s approach at this juncture—for he appears to want to combine pluralism (which seems incompatible with substantivism) with substantivism (which seems to depend on monism).  Dewey’s way of resolving this tension is surprising: he invokes pluralism itself as the standard!

Dewey, in other words, explicitly affirms pluralism as normative in Democracy and Education.  Of particular interest here is the way in which pluralism is specified: “How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared?  How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?” (83).  Dewey’s standard here speaks explicitly to both aspects of pluralism, namely the internal pluralism of a diversity of differentiated interests within a society, and the external pluralism of a multiplicity of social forms in relation to one another.  Dewey uses this as a basis for endorsing democracy, insofar as democratic forms of society better meet this two-form pluralist standard (cf. 86-88).

What remains unresolved in this early text, however, is the justification of this dual-form pluralism as a standard.  While Dewey is right that democracy perhaps better meets the requirements of internal and external pluralism than do other modes of association, there is no compelling reason why this form of pluralism is itself a good thing.  Again, we seem to have assertion in favor of argumentation, or better yet, examination and experimentation (i.e., “inquiry” in Dewey’s honorific sense).  Dewey’s immanent critique thus fails to meet its own requirements, in large part because Dewey insists on introducing pluralism as a non-immanent standard that could provide the justification for social critique.  Dewey, in other words, is half-hearted here in his commitment to immanence.  In later texts, Dewey would back off from this position in positioning pluralism more modestly as a condition of possibility of political life in modernity.  This is to conceive of pluralism as a conditioning historical fact moreso than as a conditioning transcendental norm.

Despite this shortcoming, it is worth taking clear note of how Dewey’s specification of a dual-form or dual-perspective pluralism anticipates Dewey’s later discussions of pluralism in Public and Its Problems, even if that later text is much more content to remain ambiguous about the normative status of pluralism itself.  In later work, Dewey would be much more thoroughgoing a pragmatist in taking immanent critique all the way down: the standards for social critique are to be found within society, understood as a plurality, rather than installed from without.  Dewey would then finally shift from a conception of democracy as a substantive norm to a democratic theory looking to invest democratic practice with thoroughly procedural norms which gain their substantive content only in the course of democratic practice itself.

Note 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 Problems.


Written by Colin Koopman

April 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

2 Responses

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  1. interested to see where this line of research takes you, thanks for getting Rabinow to write more about Dewey (and Foucault) I hope that the academic pragmatists embrace his contributions and perhaps even follow his example.


    April 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm

  2. […] 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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