Essays In Honor Of John Dewey

Essays In Honor Of John Dewey-23
Particularly in the post–Civil War American university, professors — many of whom had obtained their graduate training in German universities, and whose thought reflected the “intoxicating effect of the undiluted Hegelian philosophy upon the American mind,” as progressive Charles Merriam once put it — articulated a critique of America that was as deep as it was wide.It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead.Part of the reason for this was that he enjoyed an unusually long and prolific academic career.

Particularly in the post–Civil War American university, professors — many of whom had obtained their graduate training in German universities, and whose thought reflected the “intoxicating effect of the undiluted Hegelian philosophy upon the American mind,” as progressive Charles Merriam once put it — articulated a critique of America that was as deep as it was wide.It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead.Part of the reason for this was that he enjoyed an unusually long and prolific academic career.

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By seemingly establishing the agreement of the two groups, Dewey is able to dismiss their disagreement over the proper scope of government as a mere disagreement over the best “means” of securing their common “ends.” That is, although limited government may once have been the best means of securing individual liberty, its perpetuation in the changed social and economic circumstances of the 20th century would simply ensure liberty’s denial.

If contemporary defenders of limited government only realized this, he concludes, they would drop their commitment to limited government and enthusiastically join their fellow “liberals” in expanding the power of the state.

Dewey’s argument has enjoyed a potent legacy in subsequent scholarship, blinding many to what he and his fellow progressives plainly understood: however superficially similar, the founders’ conception of freedom, and the way of living to which it gave rise, differs markedly from the progressive conception of freedom and the more wholly “social” way of living that follows from it.

Commentators tend to underplay Dewey’s connection to the philosophical taproot of the wider progressive movement.

During the New Deal, Dewey and his students helped shape the character of various programs, including the fine-arts program of the Works Progress Administration and the flagrantly socialist community-building program undertaken by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads.

Dewey’s social theory continued to influence major political events even after his death in 1952.

Like his instincts, man’s spiritual faculties exist in him from the beginning; unlike his instincts, however, they exist only in potential, in an inactive or undeveloped way.

Man thus “cannot be all that he may be,” cannot realize his “full nature” and thereby achieve his “best life,” until he is able to develop his higher faculties properly and subordinate his lower nature to their rule — to the resulting “world of ideal interests.” A man so developed, the early Dewey declares, would be “perfect.” In short, for Dewey, as for Hegel, because individuals can become free only to the extent that they actualize their spiritual potential, true freedom is “something to be achieved.” n the early years of his career, accordingly, Dewey’s socialism was grounded on a conception of human freedom synonymous with the realization or fulfillment of spiritual potential.

Nevertheless, such an account of his thought is both incomplete and overstated.

Indeed, when he was a graduate student at Hopkins and in the early years of his career, Dewey’s thought, like that of his fellow progressives generally, was decidedly Hegelian. with me, and also carried away considerable of the paper the hoop was filled with.” Dewey’s break with Hegel was thus only partial, and did not essentially alter the content of the social theory he had developed while under Hegel’s spell.

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