Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Multiple Mr. Dewey: Multiple Publics and Permeable Borders in John Dewey's Theory of the Public Sphere

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Multiple Mr. Dewey: Multiple Publics and Permeable Borders in John Dewey's Theory of the Public Sphere

Article excerpt

John Dewey held an expansive view of democracy. He believed that democracy did not proceed exclusively through aggregative behaviors such as voting, nor did it take shape solely through formal institutions such as parliamentary government. John Dewey did not delimit his vision of democracy to a properly political domain. A democratic spirit and a concern for the social and political problems of contemporary societies animated his writings even as he discussed ostensibly non-political subjects (Westbrook, 1991, pp. x-xi; see also Caspary, 2000; Ryan, 1995; cf., Willard, 1996). Dewey advocated a far-reaching, fundamental, and yet personal view of democracy: democracy constituted a way of life. In an 1888 essay titled "The Ethics of Democracy," Dewey gainsaid instrumentalist conceptions that regarded democracy as an institutional framework established to secure social stability and consensus. The significance of democracy lay not in a predetermined end, but in the means of public life. In language revealing his early adherence to idealist philosophy, Dewey explained that democratic and aristocratic theories of governance shared the same goal--the mutual fulfillment of the individual and the social organism. However, democratic ends could not be obtained for citizens by others; citizens themselves had to achieve democracy. Its achievement could be envisaged because the democratic ideal was "already at work in every personality, and must be trusted to care for itself" (1888/1969, p. 243).

Fifty years later, Dewey continued to advance an expansive yet quotidian notion of democracy. In a 1939 essay titled "Creative Democracy--The Task Before Us," he defined democracy as "a personal way of individual life." As such, democracy signified "the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life" (1939/1991, p. 226). This definition of democracy highlighted the indispensable role of publics in establishing and sustaining democracies. Fundamentally, this definition relied on an optimistic assessment of human potentiality, one that could not be circumscribed by "race, color, sex, birth and family, [or] material or cultural wealth" (1939/1991, p. 226). Specifically, it prescribed a strong link between efficacious democratic praxis and vigorous public engagement: democracy could not function properly if citizens did not participate actively in public life. The need for public participation, in turn, depended crucial ly on an optimistic assessment of citizens' capacity for public deliberation and judgment. Dewey explained that "democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished" (1939/1991, p. 227). Dewey protested that his views were not utopian, for they arose from a "democratic spirit" animating his surroundings. Moreover, a faith in human intelligence was absolutely required of advocates of democracy. To doubt citizens' capacity to participate in democratic methods like public deliberation was to doubt the very possibility of democracy itself.

Still, Dewey tempered his optimistic assumptions with critical assessments of actual democratic practices. In important respects, Dewey's pragmatism compelled these assessments. He believed that a worthwhile philosophy was a practical philosophy. In Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey recounted a history of philosophy not as a speculative search for absolute knowledge that transcended human experience, but as an intellectual practice embedded in the realm of human affairs. This alternative history enabled a necessary reformulation of the scope and aim of philosophy: "The task of future philosophy is to clarify men's [and women's] ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day. Its aim is to become so far as is humanly possible an organ for dealing with these conflicts" (1920/1948, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.