Lecture Supplement on Dewey’s “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” [1939], With

 

Additions from “The Problem of Method” [1927], and “Philosophies of Freedom” [1928][1]

 

     Copyright © 2017 Bruce W. Hauptli

 

In our text there is an essay by Reinhold Niebuhr which critically reviews Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action [1935] as well as a section from that work.[2]  Niebuhr [1892-1971] was an American theologian, ethicist, and liberal social theorist.  Like Dewey he was a leading public intellectual and they offered competing views of the nature and justification of democracy.  Robert Westbrook notes that

 

…Dewey’s philosophy emphasized the moral resources and slighted the limitations of human nature, and Niebuhr’s was weighted in the opposite fashion.  Niebuhr found that man “constitutionally corrupts his purest visions of disinterested justice,” while Dewey asked why he had “to believe that every man is born a sonofabitch even before he acted like one, and regardless of why or how he becomes one?”  Dewey worried more about despair than arrogance and Niebuhr more about arrogance than despair.  Dewey spoke of God to comfort his readers; Niebuhr spoke of God to discomfort his.[3] 

 

Dewey did not devote extended time to replying to Niebuhr’s criticisms, but Niebhur’s vision of democracy became more popular with the public after World War II.  As Westbrook notes, by the time of his 80th birthday (where this essay we are discussing was read), Dewey was widely honored, especially by liberals and democratic socialists, but his philosophical theories were under-appreciated.  On this occasion

 

Dewey established the pattern for the speeches he would give on similar occasions for the next decade.  He admonished his audience to remember that “creative democracy” remained an ideal and not a fact of life in the United States—a “task before us.”  Surveying the events of his long lifetime, he noted that Americans could no longer rely on the frontier to regenerate democracy as they had in his childhood. [4]

 


 

Westbrook goes on to cite the following passage from “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us:”

 

[240-241] at the present time, the frontier is moral not physical.  The period of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished.  Unused resources are now human rather than material.  They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and it the young men and women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity.  The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.  

 

Dewey believed that the creativity he called for was necessary because for too long too many had believed that democracy would survive and prosper without individuals having to exert specific effort.  Dewey contends, however, that

 

[241] …democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life.  Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes. 

 

[242] Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.  Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the democratic creed.  That belief is without basis and significance save as it means faith in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of material or cultural wealth.  This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display into one another in the incidents and relations of daily life. 

 

[242-243] 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.  I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, a utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence.  At all events, I did not invent this faith.  I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit.  For what is the faith in democracy in role of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication.  I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that faith in the capacities of intelligence is utopian. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies the faith he convicts himself of treachery to his profession.  

 

To an all-too-causal reader the passage may call Niebuhr to mind.  Commenting on it in his “Introduction” to Dewey’s A Common Faith [1935], Thomas Alexander maintains:

 

a “common faith” means a faith in the potentialities of human life to become genuinely fulfilled in meaning and value, but only if those potentialities are actualized through action.  Dewy is often misread as saying that “ordinary” experience is fine as it is.  This misreading is usually followed by a critique of his “optimism.”  In fact, Dewy did not think things were fine as they were; he saw that the problems of modern society left the best potentialities of most lives unrealized and frustrated.[5] 

 

The three crucial themes Dewey presents in A Common Faith are: (1) the distinction between religions and “the religious” as a form of experience, (2) the idea of God as the creative intersection of the ideal or possible and the real or actual, and (3) the infusion of the religious as a pervasive mode of experience into democratic life.  Insofar as the “Abrahamic” religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have defined themselves by sets of theological dogmas about the world, they have been challenged by modern science as well as by other religions with dogmas of their own.  In fact, there is no one thing called “religion,” only diverse religions.  But what of “the religious” as a quality of experience—as a way in which existence can become fulfilled?  (It should be recalled that for Dewey “experience” refers primarily to a way of living in the world, not to some “mental” or conscious event.)  In fact, states Dewey, established religion soften inhibit or prevent people from experiencing “the religious” in their lives…. 

  “The religious” is not a specific type of psychological experience, such as those William James explores in his Varieties of Religious Experience.  “It denotes attitudes that may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal.”  The word “attitude” is important.  Often people who have mystical experiences think that some truth about reality has been revealed.  Dewey urges that we put the question of revealed truth aside and look at the effect such experiences have on he lives of the individuals who undergo them.[6] 

 

Finally, Alexander discusses an interview Max Eastman had with John Dewey where he discussed a “transformative experience” he had as a High School teacher:

 

it was an answer to that question which still worried him: whether he really meant business when he prayed.  It was not a very dramatic mystical experience.  There was no vision, not even a definable emotion—just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries were over.  In Dewey’s words, the sense of it was, “What the hell are you worrying about?  Everything that’s here is here and you can just lie back on it.”  Dewey added, “I’ve never had any doubts then, nor any beliefs.  To me faith means not worrying.”[7] 

 

With these remarks in mind, we can see that when Dewey says on p. 242: “Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.  Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the democratic creed,” he is neither availing himself of an “appeal to faith” nor referencing some “established creed.”  Instead he is [optimistically, even in light of the Fascist and Communist challenges of the day--1939] maintaining that democratic government can provide for a moral social order which is not in the service of any external authority, but instead fosters both individual and social development.  As he says in “Creative Democracy:”

 

[244] …democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.  Every other form of moral and social faith rests upon the idea that experience must be subjected at some point or other to some form of external control; to some “authority” alleged to exist outside the process of experience.  Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich and order the ongoing processes.  Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education.  All ends that are cut off from the ongoing processes become arrests, fixations.  They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences. 

 

Of course the ensuing final two paragraph of the essay is the continuation of his thoughts here, but I will not reproduce it here.  The important points emphasized in this discussion are:

 

-when ends or values are cut off from on-going processes, they become lifeless and dead. 

 

-experience is the condition of individuals interacting with their surrounding conditions (physical, social, psychological, and valuational). 

 

-current needs, desires, and values (which themselves grow out of prior experiences, beliefs, desires, needs, and values) grow new purposes and directions of effort, and lead the agent to “go beyond exists—“…they continually open the way into the unexplored ad unattained future.” 

 

-democracy focuses on the “process of experience” as both a means and an end (in a continuing feed-back loop) which uses inquiry and science to direct further experience to bring new experiences and values. 

 

Where democracy does not obtain, the available ways of life:

 

[245] …limit the contacts, exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched.  The task of this release and enrichment is one that has to be carried on day by day.  Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humanistic experience in which all share and to which all contribute. 

 

(end)

 

For Dewey there are no “ends” which are “final”—instead insofar as it makes any sense to speak of the goal of “associated living,” or democracy, I think we can find what this could mean near the end of his A Common Faith (but one must keep in mind the qualifications noted above about his use of “religious terms):

 

human beings have impulses toward affection, compassion and justice, equality and freedom.  It remains to weld all these thigs together.  It is of no use merely to assert that the intrenched foes of class interest and power in high places ae hostile to the realization of such a union.  As I have already said, if this enemy did not exist, there would be little sense in urging any policy of change.  The point to be grasped is that, unless one gives up the whole struggle as hopeless, one has to choose between alternatives.  One alterative is dependence upon the supernatural; the other, the use of natural agencies.[8] 

 

The ideal ends to which we attach our faith are not shadowy and wavering.  They assume concrete form in our understanding of our relations to one another and the values contained in these relations.  We who now live are pats of a humanity that extends into the remote past, a humanity that has interacted with nature.  The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves.  They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link.  Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.  Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race.  Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind.  It remains to make it explicit and militant.[9] 

 

     In the selection in our text titled “The Problem of Method” [1927], Dewey maintains that just as scientific theories have been “freed” from absolute and external authorities, so social and political thought needs such freedom.  According to him

 

[187-188] the essential need…is improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion.  That is the problem of the public.  We have asserted that this improvement depends essentially upon freeing and perfecting the process of inquiry and of dissemination of their conclusions.  Inquiry, indeed, is a work which devolves upon experts.  But their expertness is not shown in framing and executing policies, but in discovering and making known the facts upon which the former depend.  They are technical experts in the sense that scientific investigators and artists manifest expertise.  It is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns. 

 

     In his “Philosophes of Freedom” [1928] he contends that

 

[141] …the possibility of freedom is deeply grounded in our very beings.  It is one with our individuality, our being uniquely what we are and not imitators and parasites of others.  But like all other possibilities, this possibility has to be actualized; and, like all others, it can only be actualized through interaction with objective conditions.  The question of political and economic freedom is not an addendum or after-thought, much less a deviation or excrescence [an abnormal outgrowth], in the problem of personal freedom.  For the conditions that form political and economic liberty are required in order to realize the potentiality of freedom each of us carries with him in his very structure.  Constant and uniform relations in change and a knowledge of them in “laws,” are not a hindrance to freedom, but a necessary factor in coming to be effectively that which we have the capacity to grow into.  Social conditions interact with the preferences of an individual (that are his individuality) in a way favorable to actualizing freedom only when they develop intelligence, not abstract knowledge and abstract thought, but power of vision and reflection.  For these take effect in making preference, desire and purpose more flexible, alert, and resolute.  Freedom has too long been thought of as an intermediate power operating in a closed and ended world.  In its reality, freedom is a resolute will operating in a world in some respects indeterminate, because open and moving toward a new future. 

 

Effectively, then freedom is both a necessary condition for inquiry and it is instantiated in the practice, or life, of the inquirer.  And where this life of free inquiry is pursued in a social setting of like-minded individuals, individuality will prosper and democracy shall exist.  That is, the processes of inquiry, whether in the “natural,” the “social,” or the “political” sciences are both necessary for democracy, and living a life with others which conforms to such a model involves a moral commitment to oneself and others which instantiates democracy.  When one comes to habitually treat democracy as “a personal way of life” one realizes

 

[244] … that democracy is a moral ideal and so far as it becomes a fact it is a moral fact.  [This] is to realize that democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living. 

 

 

Note: (click on the note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us,” was first read at a dinner in honor of Dewey in New York on 10/20/1939, then published in John Dewey and the Promise of America Progressive Education Booklet No. 14 (Columbus: American Education Press, 1939), and reprinted The Later Works, v. 14.  John Dewey, “The Problem of Method,” was first published in his The Public and Its Problems (NY: Henry Holt, 1927) and reprinted in Later Works, v. 2.  John Dewey, “Philosophies of Freedom,” originally published in Freedom in the Modern World, ed. Horace Kalen (NY: Coward-McCann, 1928), and reprinted in The Later Works, v. 3.  The selections we are discussing appear in John Dewey: The Political Writings, ed. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), on pp. 240-245, pp. 184-191, and 133-141 respectively, and page references here refer to this reprint and emphasis has sometimes been added to the passages. 

[2] Cf, Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Pathos of Liberalism” [1935] in John Dewey: The Political Writings, ibid., pp. 153-157—the essay was originally published in The Nation on September 11, 1955; and John Dewey, “Renascent Liberalism” [1935] on pp. 142-152 of the same volume—this essay was originally published in Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1945). 

[3].  Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1991), p. 530. 

[4] Ibid., p. 533. 

[5] Thomas M. Alexander, “Introduction” to John Dewey’s A Common Faith [1934] (Second Edition) (New Haven: Yale UP., 2013), pp. ix-xxxvi, p. xx. 

[6] Ibid., pp xxii-xxiii.  The citation is to Dewey’s A Common Faith, op. it, p. 9. 

[7] Ibid., pp. xxiii-xxiv.  The Eastman interview appeared in The Atlantic, December 1941. 

[8] John Dewey, A Common Faith, op. cit., p. 75. 

[9] Ibid., p. 80

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File revised on 5/02/17