John Dewey: The Public and its Problems (1-4)

Posted: September 10, 2009 in Uncategorized
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This semester, I am taking a course about Habermas and the public sphere. As part of that, I’m reading Dewey’s book. So far (about 2/3 of the way through it). It’s an interesting book, some very cool ideas about what the public is, what the state is, and how/whether democracy works.

There are a couple of lines that struck me as important but were not part of the larger argument. For example, Dewey says that “ideas belong to human beings who have bodies” (8), which includes an interesting assertion about identity (linking it with the body), as does the later comment that “It is the essence of ordinary thought to grasp the external scene and hold it as reality” (101), which has an important assertion about epistemology and reality; Dewey seems to hold what philosophers refer to as the “correspondence theory of truth,” where something is true only if it corresponds to reality.

Dewey also says that “Progress is not steady and continuous. Retrogression is as periodic as advance” (30), an important and interesting statement. I think we often forget that progress isn’t always forward. Sometimes, errors are made, experiments fail. What matter is that we keep experimenting.

But on the whole, what Dewey is discussing is the idea of the public and of the state. The state, he says, “instead of being all absorbing and inclusive, is under some circumstances the most idle and empty of social arrangements” (28). This at first seems wrong, but after a bit of consideration seems not only right, but obvious. The state is created by those in it, and adjusted by those same people. This is why “In no two ages or places is there the same public” (33); there are different individuals involved in the public, and hence different individuals involved in the state.

The state and the public are pretty inextricably linked. The public forms the state, and as Dewey points out, “the public has no hands except those of individual human beings” (82), so the state has no hands except those of individuals. Which, according to Dewey, is how we get to the basic problem: “What arrangement will prevent rulers from advancing their own interests at the expense of the rules? Or, in positive terms, by what political means shall the interest of governors be identified with those of the governed?” (93). An important question. How can we have rulers that don’t put their own interests first, and instead put the interest of the ruled at the forefront? I’m not sure there is an answer to this.

At the end of chapter 3, Dewey says that “The same forces which have brought about the forms of democratic government, general suffrage, executives and legislators chosen by majority vote, have also brought about conditions which halt the social and humane ideals that demand the utilization of government as the genuine instrumentality of an inclusive and fraternally associate public” (109). I was asked what I thought of this particular quote. Here is my response:

While Dewey is talking here about the forces behind government as a whole, it seems to me like the individual people involved are the significant factors, and might explain how it is that these forces that bring about good things also bring about negative conditions. As Dewey says, every member of government has a “dual capacity” (76) as both government agent and individual. While government wants the ideals of suffrage, majority voting, etc, the individual people in that government still want what is best for them personally. As “all deliberate choices and plans are finally the result of single human beings” (21), and “the public has no hands except those of individual human beings” (82), we see personal desires and interests interfering with the ideals of the government (or public) as a whole. So while the society may be in favor of general suffrage, those elected officials may also be trying to stop the very same thing. Thus, the same forces that bring about the forms also bring about conditions which halt the social and humane ideals, because those forces are in the end the actions of the individual human beings involved, and they are always on some level looking for what is most beneficial to them first.

And I still think that. But I also think that Dewey is suggesting that democracy is a matter of experimentation: we try something, and either it works and we continue, or it doesn’t and we abandon it. We need to worry about the tendency to put the good of the public aside in favor of the good of industry.

In chapter 4, Dewey begins getting into the problems with democracy, that parties becomes more important than people. As Dewey says, “Political parties may rule, but they don’t govern” (121). People vote for parties rather than issues (135), and as a result, the public begins to lose authority.

It’s not that the public is destroyed or reduced in any way. As Dewey says, “It is not that there is no public, no large body of persons having a common interest in the consequences of social transactions. There is too much public, a public too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition” (137). So maybe the public is too big to really be powerful, too many groups with their own agendas to be able to do anything to help them all.

The problem is that the groups don’t communicate. As Dewey closes the chapter he writes “Communication can alone create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues but of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible” (142). It’s a very dark view of democracy, and not a particularly encouraging one. Hopefully, the rest of the book will swing back upwards.

  1. Lyn Headley says:

    There’s no correspondence theory of truth in Dewey, and the quote does not directly address epistemology or reality. It is an assertion about “ordinary thought,” not scientific thought or reality. Reading the sentence in context makes it clear that he is signalling a limitation of ordinary thought which requires more deliberate thought to rectify.

  2. cogitas says:

    Can you explain that a little bit? Because I’m willing to be convinced, but as of yet am not.

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