Humanist Profile: John Dewey (1859-1952)

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"What humanism means to me is an expansion, not a contraction, of human life, an expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good."

--John Dewey, "What Humanism Means to Me," Thinker 2 (1930)

This year marks the sesquicentennial birth of the great humanist John Dewey, born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont.

Dewey was a philosopher and educator who advanced the school of thought known as pragmatism. He was also an education reformer, labor activist, political commentator, and public intellectual who wasn't afraid to tackle contemporary social issues.

Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont and obtained his PhD at Johns Hopkins. In addition to teaching at the University of Michigan, the University Chicago, and at Columbia, Dewey published an amazing amount of written work during his lifetime--over 700 articles in 140 journals, and some forty books. Though primarily known for his educational philosophies that stressed experienced-based learning as opposed to rote absorption, Dewey wrote on other topics ranging from ethics, logic, metaphysics, art, and religious experience to war, politics, and economics.

In his early period, at the end of the nineteenth century, Dewey was a Christian and a Hegelian idealist. His middle period, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was notable for adopting instead an experimentalist philosophy that emphasized the scientific method and an ethics founded on "intrinsic capacities." In his later period he developed a humanistic concept of religion and participated in a variety of humanist activities in the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s. An original signer of the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, Dewey was named an honorary member of the Humanist Press Association in 1936 and was posthumously honored by the American Humanist Association with its Humanist Pioneer Award in 1954.

Writing in the May/June 1959 Humanist on the occasion of Dewey's centennial birthday, philosopher John Herman Randall Jr. wrote that in 1893 his own father, a student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, had asked Dewey how he conceived of God. …