requiem for certainty

Dewey’s Problems of Publics (1927)

with 2 comments

“There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with” (Dewey 1927, 126).

The starting point of Dewey’s argument in The Public and Its Problems is Walter Lippmann’s thesis, expounded in his 1922 Public Opinion and 1925 The Phantom Public, that the public is today, in Dewey’s phrase, “lost” and “bewildered” (116).  The public finds itself midst multiple gluts of misinformation.  It cannot cope.  Inquiry and deliberation are hardly capable of being intelligent.  This can be seen as a serious insult to democracy.

Dewey’s articulation of the problem he finds through Lippmann is more detailed and analytically exact than he is typically given credit for.  One way to make sense of Dewey’s argument is to see him as outlining a concept of what might be called dual-form severe pluralism.  Where for Lippmann, this sort of pluralism amounts to a condition incompatible with democracy, for Dewey this pluralism is a challenge to democracy which democracy may yet reconstruct.

Dewey’s text outlines two corollary forms of pluralism which I will call internal pluralism (or fragmentation) and external pluralism (or distribution).  These two forms of pluralism are corollary and hence Dewey’s concept of pluralism is dual-form and they both run all the way down such that Dewey’s concept of pluralism is severe rather than limited.

Dewey writes, “There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with” (126).  Internal pluralism (or “too much” public) refers to the way in which publics are internally differentiated or composed of units which are themselves not all of the same stuff—the persons composing publics are not all alike in every salient political aspect (cf. Dewey 126 and 146 on the “manifold” public).  External pluralism (or “too many publics”) refers to the way in which the public is scattered into many publics such that we always find ourselves midst multiple publics which are not always easily reconcilable—the publics in which we participate are many (cf. Dewey 126 and 137 on “scattered” publics).  Every public is itself composed of a complexity of lower-order units at a lower level (internal pluralism) and is also itself composable into a higher-order unit that shows it to be one of many publics at its level (external pluralism).  [I realize that a diagram would be helpful here.]

These conditions of severe dual-form pluralism pose a challenge to democracy just insofar as they make plain how much democracy finds itself confronting an immense organizational challenge.  Conflict proves itself relentless under such conditions, and in multiple ways.  Democracy, as a method of managing conflict, seems to have its work cut out for it.  Lippmann would take this is an irremediable insult to democracy.  Dewey would take it insulting, but would respond by taking it in stride as a remediable challenge to democracy.

Next week: Dewey on communication and community (about which there is, rightly, much confusion).


Written by Colin Koopman

May 3, 2011 at 12:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. Dewey sees Democracy in terms of socialization or management?


    May 4, 2011 at 6:34 pm

  2. dmf

    February 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm

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