When John Dewey celebrated his ninetieth birthday
on October 20, 1949, fifteen hundred guests crowded a huge ballroom in
New York City to do him honor. Messages of congratulation poured in from
President Harry Truman, Prime Minister Atlee, Pandit Nehru, and from a
hundred United States colleges and universities. A dozen foreign nations
had planned celebrations. Friends were raising $90,000 for an
educational Dewey Birthday Fund. And all because in the eyes of millions
of admirers no one in the history of America has so profoundly and in so
many areas of human endeavor influenced and determined his own age as .
. . "America's dean of Philosophers: John Dewey."
In striking contrast with this adulation, American
Catholics regard Dewey as a modern prophet of error whose philosophy of
education is "socialistic naturalism without God, without Christ,
without religion, without immortality. Every single strain in it, from
the influence of Hegel to the inspiration of Darwin, finds its place
within his system."
DEWEY'S IMPORTANCE IN AMERICA EDUCATION
All are agreed, however, that no philosopher in
modern times, certainly no American, has made a deeper and more
effective impression on educational theory and practice in the United
States. The extent of his literary productivity alone suggests something
of what this means. To commemorate "Dewey's Eighth Decade" in
1939, Columbia University issued a bibliography of his published
writing. One hundred fifty-eight pages of this volume contain the
titles of his own books and articles; another sixty pages list the names
of published commentaries on Dewey, mostly doctorate theses. It is worth
noting that the title of his first published article, in 1882, was
"The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism," and of his
first book in 1884, The Psychology of Kant. As of 1949, he had to
his credit forty-five volumes, originally in English, but eventually in
a score of languages, including Russian and Japanese, and over three
hundred full-length articles, dealing almost exclusively with
However, the real test of Dewey's influence is the
practical effect which his ideas have had on the people for whom he
wrote. And here, "A host of disciples look upon him as the great
intellectual liberator of our times." Other thousands consider
him as "a thinker whose vital influence upon the reform of school
methods is greater than that of any of his contemporaries." His
birthday encomium, published in 1949, summarizes the depth of his
John Dewey is at once the foremost philosopher
in the history of America, its greatest educational thinker and many so
judge our most distinguished citizen. His influence on education is
unequaled both in extent and in depth. Each public school child in our
country lives a happier and a better life because of Dewey, and the same
holds for most pupils of non-public schools. And not simply in this
country; in most other countries of the world is his influence felt.
Pestklozzi had prepared the ground. Froebel and
Herbart had helped. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, . . . and others had
carried America along the Pestalozzi road. But one thing was lacking. No
one of these men, nor all combined, had given an adequate theory for a
thorough-going democratic, science-respecting education. This Professor
Dewey has done.
It is no exaggeration to say that Dewey has
affected the pedagogy of "most other countries of the world,"
besides America. In England, Professor Findlay of Manchester championed
the pedagogical theories of Dewey and established a school modeled on
his plan. It is well known that the renowned German educator,
Kerschensteiner, had come largely under the influence of Dewey. He was
the founder of the famous Arbeits-schule of Munich, which closely
approached Dewey's ideal of the "active school." In 1919,
Professor Dewey was invited to Japan as guest lecturer at the Tokyo
Imperial University. Then followed two years' teaching at the National
Universities of Peking and Nanking in China. Trips to Turkey in 1924 and
Mexico in 1926, on special request from these governments, further
extended his theories of "democratic education." For at least
ten years, from 1923 to 1933, Dewey is conceded to have had a large part
in organizing the Soviet educational system. Lunarcharsky, the Russian
Minister of Education, was a personal friend and ardent admirer of John
Dewey. In 1928, he was asked by the Soviet Government to visit Russia,
study the educational needs in that country and make recommendations for
improvement. Returning to the United States, he wrote a series of
articles on Russia that were very sympathetic in tone with the U.S.S.R.,
which led to his being described as a "Bolshevik" and a
"Red" in the conservative press.
Dewey's most lasting influence, however, was
exercised personally and directly as professor of philosophy at Columbia
University since 1904. Teachers College of Columbia, with which Dewey
was associated, is the largest in the country. Of the 23,631 students at
the University in 1950, over a third 9,032, were enrolled in Teachers
College, training twice as many teachers and educational administrators
as any other college in America. It was during his early connection with
Columbia that Dewey helped to organize the American Association of
University Professors and served as its first president.
DEWEY'S IDEAS ON GOD AND RELIGION
We may now ask ourselves: What sort of ideas and
principles did John Dewey propound to give him what is generally
recognized as "world leadership in educational theory"?
It is unfortunate that so many studies on Dewey
have concentrated on his pedagogy, ignoring the fact that he was
primarily a philosopher whose interest in education, on his own
confession, was a matter of practical efficiency. He was simply using
education as the most effective instrument for putting his principles of
philosophy into living practice.
On the subject of God in its metaphysical aspects,
Dewey's first publications were plain expressions of orthodox
Hegelianism. In 1884, he wrote:
God, as the perfect Personality or Will is the
only Reality, and the source of all activity. It is therefore the source
of all activity of the individual personality. The Perfect Will is the
motive, source, and realization of the life of the individual. He (the
individual) has renounced his own particular life as an unreality; he
has asserted that the sole reality is the Universal Will, and in that
reality all his actions take place.
Writing in 1930, he stated: "I have drifted
away from Hegelianism.... Nevertheless, I should never think of
ignoring, much less denying, that acquaintance with Hegel has left a
permanent deposit in my thinking."
The nature of this Hegelian deposit may be judged
by the definitive statement of his "theology" given in a
series of lectures at Yale University in 1934. "God," he
defines, "denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire
and actions." He admits:
The idea that "God" represents a
unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin
when the imagination supervenes in conduct, is attended with verbal
difficulties, owing to our frequent use of the word
"imagination" to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. But the
reality of ideal ends as ideals is vouched for by their undeniable power
in action. An idea is not an illusion because imagination is the organ
through which it is apprehended.
In other words, God does not exist except as the
projection by our imagination of those non-objective ideals which guide
our human conduct. While the idea of God is not real, therefore, since
it is created by the fantasy, it is not illusory because it serves the
purpose of idealizing our hopes and desires.
Consistent with this doctrine of atheism, Dewey
inveighs against the idea of religion — any religion — which pretends to
represent man's relations with an objective and personal Deity. He
introduces a distinction between religion and religious which has since
become famous. Projected ideals of conduct are religious, but
there is no warrant for religion, since there is no extra-mental
God for religion to worship. "Any activity," according to him,
"pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite
of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and
enduring value is religious in quality." And then he launches
into as militant an attack on established religions as may be found
anywhere in the writings of Lenin or Marx:
If I have said anything about religions and
religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm
belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of
ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they
can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively
religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for
no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with
which I have employed the adjective "religious" to conceive of
what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as
religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them
and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these
values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults
of religions must be dissolved.
Dewey is not satisfied with denying the foundations
of religion by substituting his conceptual ideals for a personal God. He
goes out of his way to oppose what he calls the suicide of reason and
human effort which consists in revelation and the belief in divine grace
to supplement the weakness of man. Man is quite capable of himself to
attain all the knowledge that he needs and achieve all the ambitions he
desires. If there must be faith, let it be men's faith in each other and
in their mutual co-operation. "Faith," he says, "in the
continued disclosing of truth through directed co-operation of human
endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed
revelation." A cardinal principle of Dewey's naturalism is the
rejection of any kind of fixed doctrine or creed, based on revelation,
and therefore stultifying the progress of human science which must be
independent of such chains.
Some fixed doctrinal apparatus is necessary for
a religion. But faith in the possibilities of continued and rigorous
inquiry does not limit access to truth to any channel or scheme of
things. It does not say first that truth is universal and then add that
there is but one road to it. It does not depend for assurance upon
subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It trusts that the natural
interactions between man and his environment will breed more
intelligence and generate more knowledge, provided the scientific
methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into
the mysteries of the world.
Here we have a definition of faith, based not on
the authority of God's revelation but on the autonomy of man's own
reason. "There is such a thing," says Dewey, "as faith in
intelligence becoming religious in quality — a fact that perhaps explains
the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of
intelligence as a force. They properly feel such a faith to be a
So much for knowledge. The same holds true in
action and achievement. "Men have never fully used the powers they
possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some
power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are
responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external power is the
counterpart of surrender of human endeavor." Dewey sees only
one objection to this deification of man's ability to perfect himself.
He answers the objection:
Nor is emphasis on exercising our own powers
for good an egotistical or a sentimentally optimistic course. It is not
the first, for it does not isolate man, either individually or
collectively, from nature. It is not the second, because it makes no
assumption beyond that of the need and responsibility for human
endeavor.... It involves no expectation of a millennium of good.
Consequently, it is not man alone but man in union
with nature who achieves whatever may be the goal of his existence; and
the goal in question is quite attainable, since it modestly ambitions
nothing beyond the natural and temporal goods of earth.
BACKGROUND AND DEVELOPMENT OF DEWEY'S PHILOSOPHY
In 1930, Dewey contributed an autobiographical
chapter to a volume on Contemporary American Philosophy, which
was later translated into Italian. "This fragment of
autobiography chronicles Dewey's formative experiences in the study of
philosophy. It is perhaps the most succinct and revealing statement of
his intellectual development yet to appear." It is also the
best key that we have to understanding some of Dewey's otherwise
notorious obscurity of thought.
There is first of all his own confession to what
others have called "inconsistency" and
"self-contradiction." On one page he will defend one position,
and three pages later the very opposite. And between one year and
another, the change may be so radical you wonder if the same author
could possibly have written both statements. Dewey explains himself:
"I envy those who can write their intellectual biography in a
unified pattern.... By contrast I seem to be unstable, chameleon-like,
yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible
influences; struggling to assimilate something from each." The
result is a mass of incompatibilities that frequently defy analysis and
still more classification. A Catholic educator who recently finished a
doctorate thesis on Dewey's philosophy remarked that his work was
"extremely difficult, in view of the fact that Dewey repeatedly
Another point which Dewey stresses is the motive
which led him to identify the scientific method and the principles of
morality, and identification which plays such a large part in his
As my study and thinking progressed, I became
more and more troubled by the intellectual scandal that seemed to be
involved in the current (and traditional) dualism in logical standpoint
and method between something called "science" on the one hand
and something called "morals" on the other. I have long felt
that the construction of a logic, that is, a method of effective
inquiry, which would apply without abrupt breach of continuity to the
fields designated by both of these words, is at once our needed
theoretical solvent and the supply of our greatest practical want. This
belief has had much more to do with the development of what I termed,
for lack of a better word, "instrumentalism," than have most
of the reasons that have been assigned.
Dewey then traces the genesis of his principles of
psychology to William James, the Harvard Professor of Psychology and
founder of American pragmatism. Previously he had said that "upon
the whole, the forces that have influenced me have come from persons and
from situations more than from books." But now he admits that
"the great exception to what was said about no very fundamental
vital influence issuing from books . . . concerns the influence of
William James. As far as I can discover one specifiable philosophic
factor which entered into my thinking so as to give it a new direction
and quality, it is this one."
There are two strains in James' psychology which
Dewey recognizes and on which he claims to have built his own concepts.
The first was James' functionalism as against the traditional concept of
substantial personality. So complete was Dewey's conversion to the
functional theory, that he accuses James of faint-heartedness. James had
dispensed with the Pure Ego in thought; Dewey believed he should also
dispense with the Pure Mover in conduct. James invented the theory of
"a stream of consciousness" which needs no substance in and
from which to act; Dewey went beyond James, declaring, "If the
stream of thought can run itself in one case, the stream of conduct may
administer itself in the other." He would have nothing to do
with James' fiat; not even the mildest kind of determinism may be
allowed. "The individual and his actions," according to Dewey,
"are one. There are concrete attitudes, habits, desires, ideas, and
ignorance; but there is no ego behind these states. There is no call to
recede into the ego to explain will, any more than to explain
consciousness." One of the clearest statements of Dewey's
functionalism was written a year before the autobiography where he says:
"The distinction between physical, psycho-physical and mental is
(only) one of increasing complexity and intimacy of interaction among
natural events. The idea that matter, life and mind represent separate
kinds of Being is a doctrine that springs, as so many philosophic errors
have sprung, from a substantiation of eventual functions."
Mind, will, and matter are therefore only different types of
interaction, not different types of being; there is only functional not
entitative distinction in reality.
The second strain in James which Dewey adopted was
"a return to the earlier biological conception of the psyche."
True, some of the ancients also conceived of mind as an organic function
of the brain, but the modern return to the ancients was "possessed
of a new force and value due to the immense progress made by biology
since the time of Aristotle. I doubt if we have as yet begun to realize
all that is due to William James for the introduction and use of this
idea (which) . . . worked its way more and more into all my ideas and
acted as a ferment to transform old beliefs."
The final statement which Dewey makes about himself
in the autobiography gives us a clue to what many have called
"iconoclasm," which is impatient to the point of hatred with
the accumulate wisdom of the past:
I think it shows a deplorable deadness of
imagination to suppose that philosophy will indefinitely revolve within
the scope of the problems and systems that two thousand years of
European history have bequeathed to us. Seen in the long perspective of
the future, the whole of western European history is a provincial
episode. I do not expect to see in my day a genuine, as distinct from a
forced and artificial, integration of thought. But a mind that is not
too egotistically impatient can have faith that this unification will
issue in its season. Meantime, a chief task of those who call themselves
philosophers is to help get rid of the useless lumber that blocks our
highways of thought, and strive to make straight and open the paths that
lead to the future.
The last sentence ends on a personal note and
epitomizes Dewey's lifetime of fruitless effort to discover the truth:
"Forty years (his own) spent in wandering in a wilderness like that
of the present is not a sad fate — unless one attempts to make himself
believe that the wilderness is after all itself the promised
PSYCHOLOGY AND INSTRUMENTALISM
Man, according to Dewey, possesses no soul or mind
in the traditional sense of these terms. The doctrine of organic
de-development has eliminated the dualism of soul and body. A spiritual
vital principle is rejected because "the independently existing
soul restricts and degrades individuality, making of it a separate thing
outside of the full flow of things, alien to things experienced and
consequently in either mechanical or miraculous relations to
Although the mind is not spiritual, it can still
acquire knowledge in Dewey's hypothesis through what he calls the medium
of experience. There are no objective norms of truth or morality because
"human experience consciously guided by ideas, evolves its own
standards and measures, and each new experience constructed by their
means is an opportunity for new ideas and ideals."
The specific instrument by which ideals are to be
discovered and the court of last appeal in their prosecution is the
scientific method. Dewey recognizes three names by which this theory of
scientism may be denominated. Viewed in terms of the specific end or
goal of human knowledge, whether this-worldly human utility or divine
and extra-mundane, it is pragmatism; viewed in terms of the method by
which knowledge is gained, whether by deduction from fixed principles or
by experimentation through the scientific method, it is experimentalism;
and viewed in terms of the immediate function which thought is to serve,
whether to acquire knowledge of truths and finally of Truth or merely as
an instrument to "more vital living," it is instrumentalism.
His own definition of scientism is unmistakable:
It (the scientific method) breaks away
completely with that part of the philosophical tradition which holds
that concern with superior reality determines the work to be done by
philosophical inquiry. It affirms that the purpose and business of
philosophy is wholly (concerned) with . . . search for the ends and
values that give direction to our collective human activities. It holds
that not grasp of eternal and universal Reality but use of the methods
and conclusions of our best knowledge, that called scientific, provides
the means for conducting this search.... The movement is called, in its
various aspects, by the names of pragmatism, experimentalism,
instrumentalism. Not these names are important but the ideas that are
held regarding the distinctive aim and business of philosophic inquiry
and of how it shall be accomplished.
DEWEY'S CREDO OF NATURALISM
The basis of Dewey's philosophy of life is an
unmitigated naturalism. In 1925 when Santayana, himself a confirmed
materialist, accused Dewey of cowardice in his profession of
naturalism, Dewey defended himself in a spirited article entitled
"Half-Hearted Naturalism," in which he clarified his position
to make it very certain that he wanted to be considered "a
whole-hearted naturalist." While this should be evident from
the reading of his numerous works, it is significant that he went out of
his way to remove every doubt on this point. He calls himself an
empirical naturalist who allows no break or discontinuity between nature
and social man. There is no "gulf between nature and man — social or
conventional man." Any other concept is "reminiscent of
supernatural beliefs.... To me human affairs, associative and personal,
are projections, continuations, complications of the nature which exists
in the physical and pre-human world. There is no gulf, no two spheres
of existence, no `bifurcations.'" There is only a
"thorough-going continuity" between man and nature, a fact
which is demonstrated by the progress of physical science.
Finally in 1933, as though to remove any lingering
doubt about his philosophical convictions, John Dewey along with a dozen
leading Americans signed and published the so-called "Humanist
Manifesto," which contains in nucleo the basic principles
for which he stands. In the original document there were fifteen
articles to this "Credo in Naturalism," of which the following
are the most representative:
(1) Religious humanists regard the universe as
self-existing and not created.
(2) Humanism believes that man is a part of nature
and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.
(3) Holding an organic view of life, humanists find
that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.
(4) Humanism asserts that the nature of the
universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural
or cosmic guarantees of human values.
(5) Religious humanism considers the complete
realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks
its development and fulfillment in the here and now.
(6) In the place of the old attitudes involved in
worship and prayer, the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed
in the heightened sense of personal life and in a co-operative effort to
promote social well-being.
(7) The humanists are firmly convinced that
existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be
inadequate.... A socialized and co-operative economic order must be
(8) Though we consider the religious forms and
ideas of our fathers on longer adequate, the quest for the good life is
still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that
he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams,
that he has within himself the power of its achievement.
In the opinion of his followers, John Dewey is
"the foremost philosopher in the history of America" and
"its greatest educational thinker." This is true, but only
in the sense that Dewey is America's outstanding prophet of a new
kingdom, in which the only god who is admitted is the subjective
creation of Man.
1. Paul A. Schilpp, Commemorative Essays, p.
41. Stockton, Cal.: The Author, 1930.
2. Geoffrey O'Connell, Naturalist in American
Education, p. 137. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938.
3. M. H. Thomas and H. W. Schneider, Bibliography
of John Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
4. W. T. Feldman, Philosophy of John Dewey,
p. v. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1934.
5. Henry Suzzallo, in Introduction to John Dewey's Moral
Principles and Education, p. x. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909.
6. William H. Kilpatrick, "Apprentice
Citizens," Saturday Review of Literature, XXXII (October 22,
7. William H. Kilpatrick in Philosophy of John
Dewey, p. 471. Edited by Paul A. Schilpp. Chicago: Northwestern
University Press, 1939.
8. Frederick S. Breed, Education and the New
Realism, p. xviii. New York: Macmillan Co., 1939.
9. George H. Mead, quoting Dewey in John Dewey,
the Man and His Philosophy, p. 100. Addresses Delivered in New York
in Celebration of John Dewey's Seventieth Birthday. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1930.
10. John Dewey, "The
Philosopher-in-the-Making," Contemporary American Philosophy,
II, p. 10. Edited by George P. Adams and William P. Montague. New York:
Macmillan Co., 1930.
11. John Dewey, A Common Faith, pp. 42-43.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934.
12. Ibid., p. 27.
13. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
14. Ibid., p. 26.
17. Ibid., p. 46.
19. John Dewey, "The
Philosopher-in-the-Making," Contemporary American Philosophy,
II. Edited by George P. Adams and William P. Montague. New York:
Macmillan Co., 1930.
20. Editor's note to reprint of John Dewey,
"The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of
Literature, XXXII (October 2a, 1949), 9.
21. Dewey, ibid., 39, where he excuses his own lack
of clarity by accusing other writers of a deceptive lucidity of
expression at the expense of a penetrating insight into the facts of
experience. "I have been acutely aware," he says, "of a
tendency of other writers and thinkers to achieve a specious lucidity
and simplicity by the mere process of ignoring considerations which a
greater respect for concrete materials of experience would have forced
upon them." Aliis verbis, Dewey's expression is obscure
because his ideas are profound.
22 Ibid., 42.
23. Quoted from a personal letter of Rev. William
J. Mehok, S.J., assistant national secretary. Jesuit Educational
Association, New York, October 22, 1951.
24. Dewey, "The
Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of Literature,
op. cit., 42.
27. John Dewey, "The Ego As Cause," Philosophical
Review, III (May, 1894), 340.
28. G. W. Allport, "Dewey's Individual and
Social Psychology," Philosophy of John Dewey, p. 268. Edited
by Paul A. Schilpp. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1939.
29. John Dewey, Experience and Nature, p.
261. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1929.
30. Dewey, "The
Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of Literature,
op. cit., 43.
31. Ibid., 44.
33. John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on
Philosophy, p. 268. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910.
34. John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, p.
168. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1929.
35. John Dewey, Problems of Men, pp. 10-11.
New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1946.
36. George Santayana, "Dewey's Naturalistic
Metaphysics," Journal of Philosophy, XXII (December 3,
1925), 673-688. Here Santayana makes reference to Dewey's inveterate
obscurity. He says, "In reviewing it (Dewey's naturalism), I may be
excused from attempting to sum up his chief contentions in his own
language, considering especially that his language, as he himself says,
is the chief or only obstacle to understanding him." (p. 673).
37. John Dewey, "Half-Hearted
Naturalism," Journal of Philosophy, XXV (February 3, 1927),
39. A Humanist Manifesto, published as a
separate statement under the auspices of the American Humanist
Association, Salt Lake City, 1933, and listed among Dewey's authentic
writings in the official Bibliography of John Dewey, p. 130. New York:
Columbia University, 1939.
40. William H. Kilpatrick, "Apprentice
Citizens," op. cit., 12.
Reprinted from The Catholic Educational Review,