John Dewey (1859 – 1952) was a 20th Century American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, he is recognized as one of the founders of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism and his own doctrine of Instrumentalism. He was also one of the fathers of Functionalism (or Functional Psychology), and a leading representative of the progressive movement in American education during the first half of the 20th Century.
He developed a broad body of work encompassing virtually all of the main areas of philosophy, and wrote extensively on social issues in popular publications, gaining a reputation as a leading social commentator of his time.
Dewey was born on 20 October 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, the third of four sons born to Archibald Sprague Dewey (who owned a grocery store) and Lucina Artemesia (née Rich) (a devoutly religious woman), of modest family origins. He attended the University of Vermont in Burlington, and graduated in 1879. During this time, he was exposed to evolutionary theory, and the theory of natural selection continued to have a life-long impact upon Dewey’s thought. Although the philosophy teaching at Vermont was somewhat limited, his teacher, H. A. P. Torrey, a learned scholar with broad philosophical interests and sympathies, was decisive in Dewey’s philosophical development.
After graduating in 1879, he worked for two years as a high school teacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, but then borrowed money from his aunt in order to enter graduate school in philosophy at the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Two teachers in particular had a lasting influence on him: the German-trained Hegelian philosopher, George Sylvester Morris (1840 – 1899), and the experimental psychologist, Granville Stanley Hall (1844 – 1924). He received his Ph.D. in 1884, and left to take up a faculty position at the University of Michigan, which he kept for ten years, and during which time he wrote his first books. He married his first wife, Alice Chipman in 1886, and the couple had six children (with only four surviving into adulthood) before Alice died in 1927.
In 1894, Dewey joined the newly founded University of Chicago where his early Idealism gave way to an empirically-based theory of knowledge, and he started to align his ideals with the emerging Pragmatic school of thought. While at Chicago, he produced a collection of essays entitled “Thought and its Subject-Matter”, and his first major work on education, “The School and Society in 1899. This work was based on the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (also known as the “Dewey School”) which he founded in 1896, which taught according to his progressive principles of hands-on learning and exploration. In 1899, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and in 1905 he became president of the American Philosophical Association.
Having resigned from the University of Chicago over disagreements with the administration in 1904, he took up a position as professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York, and he taught there until his retirement in 1930. He developed close contacts with many philosophers working from divergent points of view in the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the north-eastern universities, which served to nurture and enrich his thought. He published two important books, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought” (1910) and “Essays in Experimental Logic”(1916). During this time, he travelled the world as a philosopher, social and political theorist and educational consultant, including trips to Japan, China, Turkey, USSR and Mexico.
His interest in educational theory also continued during these years, fostered by his work at the Teachers College at Columbia, leading to the publication of “How We Think” in 1910 and, his most important work in the field, “Democracy and Education” in 1916. Along with fellow Columbia professors Charles Beard (1874 – 1948), Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) and James Harvey Robinson (1863 – 1936), he founded the New School for Social Research in 1919 as a modern, progressive, free school.
Dewey retired from active teaching in 1930, occasionally teaching as professor emeritus until 1939. However, his activities as a public figure and productive philosopher continued unabated, including frequent contributions to popular magazines such as “The New Republic” and “Nation”, and participation in several prestigious lecture series. He was involved in a variety of political causes, including women’s suffrage, the unionization of teachers and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was involved in the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Against Leon Trotsky at the Moscow Trial.
In 1946, almost two decades after his first wife died, he married Roberta Lowitz Grant, and the couple adopted two Belgian orphans. Dewey continued to workvigorously throughout his retirement, including works on Logic, Aesthetics, Epistemology and Politics. He died of pneumonia in his New York home on 1 June 1952, aged 92.
Dewey’s output was prodigious: 40 books and approximately 700 articles in over 140 journals. Many of his most renowned works were published after he was sixty years old. Some of his best known publications include “Democracy and Education” (1916), “Human Nature and Conduct” (1922), “Experience and Nature” (1925) and “The Quest for Certainty” (1929).
Dewey is considered one of the three central figures in American Pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce (who coined the term) and William James (who popularized it). However, Dewey did not identify himself as a Pragmatist per se, but instead referred to his philosophy as Instrumentalism, a similar but separate concept.
Simply put, the doctrine of Pragmatism holds that the meaning of any concept can be equated with its conceivable operational or practical consequences, and that practical consequences or real effects are vital components of both meaning and truth. Even more simply, something is true only insofar as it works.
Instrumentalism, on the other hand, is the methodological view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, and their worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (Instrumentalism denies that theories are truth-evaluable) or whether they correctly depict reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. An important aspect of Dewey’s philosophy is that it starts from the point of view of Fallibilism, that absolute certainty about knowledge is impossible, and all claims to knowledge could, at least in principle, be mistaken. Another important aspect is his belief that humanity should be considered not just as a spectator in the world, but as an agent.
Dewey’s overall ethical stance can be described as “meliorism”: the belief that this life is neither perfectly good nor bad, and it can be improved only through human effort. He believed that philosophy’s motive for existing is to make life better, and this should be approached from a practical “bottom-up” starting point, rather than the theoretical “top-down” approach of most traditional philosophy. He was a confirmed atheist, rejecting belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God, (although he nevertheless honoured the important rôle that religious institutions and practices played in human life), and believed that only scientific method could reliably further human good.
Dewey has made arguably the most significant contribution to the development of educational thinking and the Philosophy of Education in the 20th Century. His philosophical Pragmatism, his concern with interaction, reflection and experience, and his interest in community and democracy, all came together to form a highly suggestive educative form. Consistent with his view that human thought should be understood as practical problem-solving, which proceeds by testing rival hypotheses against experience, he advocated an educational system with continued experimentation and vocational training to equip students to solve practical problems. He also emphasized “learning-by-doing” and the incorporation of the student’s past experiences into the classroom. In his “Democracy and Education” of 1916, he describes in detail how an ability to respond creatively to continual changes in the natural order vitally provides for individual and community life.
He was also a primary originator of Functional Psychology (or Functionalism), which refers to a general psychological approach that views mental life and behaviour in terms of active adaptation to the person’s environment. As such, it is not readily testable in controlled experiments or trained introspection (as the prevailing structuralist psychology approach of the end of the 19th Century suggested).