The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part IV: “We Lie in the Lap of Immense Intelligence”

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 10, 2021

"There was plenty of thought but no action, and in the 1890s, there was plenty of action but almost no thought,” wrote John Dewey biographer Jay Martin. “It would be up to men like Dewey to put thought and action together and thus create something solid from the chaos they encountered.”[1] Other scholars have argued that in response, Dewey developed a “participatory” theory of knowledge, one “that sees the mind as ‘a problem-solving tool for adjusting to an unstable environment.’”[2]

While Dewey’s work is portrayed as a response to the disruption and power concentration inherent to “industrial society,” this sounds remarkably similar to a mid-19th century dynamic that I described in an earlier piece.

As I wrote, Mann “sought to reconcile social stability with individual autonomy by promoting a shared culture organized around a balance among mental faculties in each citizen.” His idea of public schools was one “in which children of diverse backgrounds find common ground in the pursuit of mental discipline.”[4] This sounds awfully similar to Dewey’s own model. At the same time, but under different circumstances, Lincoln “settled on trying to develop individual judgment and character, bounded by natural law and loyalty to the American project.”[5] The parallels here are less obvious, but Dewey’s insistence on the centrality of scientific thinking and democracy could be understood as a substitute for the organizing principles of “natural law and loyalty to the American project.”

This suggests that Dewey’s interpretation of the problem, and the way he conceived of his calling, may have more to do with the nature of democratic education and politics, as it developed in America than it does with anything specific to capitalism, progressivism, or the complexity of modern life in general. What we see is an assumption that stabilization can be found through the expansion of responsibility—trusting pluralistic discourse to achieve a new consensus. This requires trust that the parts can self-organize into an acceptable whole because they share some fundamental goal-orientation—a kind of “crowd-sourcing” of individual abilities—and a willingness to let that happen, rather than try to dictate the terms in advance.

Dewey's 1927 comments give the impression that his ideal of social organization was something like Twitter: generating a shared but fluid worldview via a constant, reactive flow of conversation.

“There is no limit to the liberal expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment[s] which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates . . . in the communications of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion. We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate, and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.”[6]

This may sound like the naïve fantasies of someone in the early mass media age in a growing America, but it also sounds very similar to the expressions of Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Dewey here, and Walt Whitman. Both Emerson and Whitman were writing between 1840 and 1870 when no one could complacently assume a social consensus, or even that the country would hold together long enough to reach its industrial potential. Both, however, like Dewey, seized on “democracy” as an organizing principle, and associated it with a constant renegotiation of social life.[7]

Emerson believed developing independent judgment from one’s own observations of what he called “Nature” was paramount. While he had his concerns about the American experiment with self-government, he did not believe true character could be dictated by authorities, as it was of a revelatory nature. Dewey’s rebuttal of Walter Lippman reflects a similar conclusion. Lippman believed that the traditional conception of democracy assumed an “omnicompetent citizen” that could not possibly exist in the twentieth century. No one was capable of understanding community affairs anymore, in large modern states, and, anyway, “life is too short for the pursuit of omniscience.” Instead, the knowledge had to be crowd-sourced by top political leaders from specialized experts. Dewey believed citizens could be omnicompetent about the affairs they were directly involved in, as they used to be in small communities where they had direct contact with all aspects of life, and that this could be recreated.[8]

As one scholar put it:

“Dewey...suggests that what is necessary for truly popular governance is the buildup and dissemination of a different kind of knowledge and a different kind of competence—what Dewey calls social knowledge and what I will call, so as to make clear the distinction with Lippmann, democratic competence. Taken together Dewey’s ideas about (social) knowledge and (democratic) competence help him recapture the possibility of ‘intelligent political life.’

...Even though Dewey recognizes, with Lippmann, that ‘the individual on his own may lack the intelligence to make reasonable political judgments,’ he also understood that ‘to the extent that the individual joins with others in common effort his intellectual and moral faculties are expanded.’ In this way, both communication and participation are essential to democracy itself. We come to know and we come to enlarge our faculties by acting in—that is, participating in and transacting with —our social and physical environment.”[9]

Another has summarized Dewey’s reasoning as follows:

“One need not be omnicompetent ‘to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns’—that is, to use the stock of social knowledge built up by social scientist experts. Instead, we need only a democratic competence, marked by reflective, imaginative, and critical thought, and openness to new ideas.”[10]

Whether or not Dewey was counting on the guidance of social scientists to the degree suggested here, where Emerson offered individual “revelation” and alignment with Nature’s laws, Dewey’s conception was more social and more subjective. Certainly, Emerson had no issue with subjectivity. He recognized that a collapse in meta-narratives required embracing disruptive change, perceived deterioration in standards, and existential uncertainty. A neat consensus could not be re-imposed bureaucratically from the top in such a case. It required a single mind—a consciously subjective approach—an intensely personal approach, but one alert to other perspectives and one’s own biases.[11]

This is where Dewey diverges from Whitman and Emerson, even more so than in going beyond recognition of subjective perception to relativism: he does not account for the power of personal credibility and example, and in fact, seems to fear it as a form of excessive influence or authoritarian overreach. But from the perspective of Emerson and Whitman, only “prophets of referentiality and essentialism” could get such a productive social conversation going—not by entering into a debate, but by speaking their mind in a sincere voice that attracted the responses—or inspired the independent efforts-of other sincere people with something to contribute.[12] They were modeling an attitude and style of engagement in their poems, essays, and lectures, which were neither dialogues nor systematic instructions for community interaction.

One scholar has gotten at the crux of the issue by saying that Dewey believed “a new account of individuality emerge[d] with the modern revolt against monarchical and ecclesiastical authority, which foregrounded the necessity of political accountability and demystifying political legitimacy,” and that “his philosophy of action doubles as a narrative of the emergence of the modern subject--an account that is presented in less systematic form in Emerson--in which the meaning-content of individual identities is not exhausted by their functional location in society.”[13]

The task of Emerson and his peers was grappling with “the necessity of political accountability and demystifying political legitimacy” in order to guide society through the democratic revolution, which had separated political influence from one’s “functional location in society.” They had to find a way to make the system responsive and legible to an expanded and pluralistic group of people, and so they became philosophers of democracy/political equality.

Dewey and his peers were dealing with a similar problem, except that this time, there was no real expansion or diversification of the public. The dislocation and mystification instead had to do with the electorate becoming alienated from an elite that had appointed itself to adapt the government to manage the affairs of an increasingly complex society. In the former situation, bringing people into contact with each other and letting them work towards a new understanding made sense. It’s less clear that it works in the situation Dewey operated within, especially without the personal guidance and "demystifying” talents of strong moral leaders.[14]

In Part V, I will address how the absence of Emerson and Whitman’s belief in non-social intelligence affected Dewey’s philosophy.

[1] Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.)

[2] Tony DeCesare, “The Lippmann-Dewey ‘debate’ Revisited: The Problem of Knowledge and the Role of Experts in Modern Democratic Theory,” Philosophical Studies in Education 43 (2012), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1000304.pdf.

[3] Ellard, K. (2021). Montessori's Initial Reception in America. (https://montessorium.com/blog/montessori-initial-reception-america)

[4] Benjamin Raber, J. (2014) Doctoral Dissertation "Progressivism's Aesthetic Education: The Bildungsroman and the Struggle for the American School, 1890-1920"., http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:12271800

[5] Ellard, K. (2021). Montessori's Initial Reception in America. (https://montessorium.com/blog/montessori-initial-reception-america)

[6] John Dewey, quoted in Martin, J. (2013). The Education of John Dewey.

[7] They did not see it as a constant revolution or evolutionary progression, assuming some fundamental values and limits were shared by most people and would keep the conversation within certain bounds and patterns. Nor did they expect conflict to cease. Not taking these assumptions into account can make it seem like they were almost indifferent to the morality of the organizing principle. The same goes for Mann, but he assumed that the schools would consciously impart the local social consensus to children, not that students would constantly re-negotiate it. Lincoln’s approach was the only one that clearly asserted objective moral and/or political standards that were not open to negotiation, but he believed these standards could only be adopted at the societal level through moral suasion and appeals to shared experience.

[8] Lippman was also responding to another crisis of the twentieth century: “...During and after World War I, the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘propaganda’ was blurred, causing Lippmann to lose faith in news media, especially newspapers, which are often held up by traditional democratic theorists as the main source by which ostensibly objective information can be disseminated to citizens.”DeCesare, “The Lippmann-Dewey ‘debate’ Revisited.” The nineteenth-century American press model was by no means objective or non-partisan, but it had a variety of competing voices. The centralization and nationalization of the press around the turn of the century removed these natural checks on the influence of this kind of propaganda, a problem that has been accelerating ever since. Lippman argued that early 20th-century American citizens were “forced to live in ‘pseudo-environments,’ in which they reduce the world to stereotypes in order to render it intelligible,” a theme Dewey often dwelled on but mainly blamed on the destruction of pre-industrial contact with life. See Sean Illing, “Intellectuals have said democracy is failing for a century. They were wrong,” Vox, December 20, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/9/17540448/walter-lippmann-democracy-trump-brexit.Emerson and Whitman would likely have denied that routing around mass media-created pseudo-environments was so difficult as to make self-government impossible.

[9] “John Dewey,” in Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy - 5 Volume Set (United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2020.)

[10] DeCesare, “The Lippmann-Dewey ‘debate’ Revisited.”

[11] See, for example, the discussion of “Personalism” in the work of Whitman, Emerson, and the Transcendentalists, in Jason Scott Andrews, “UNUM ET PLURIBUS: WALT WHITMAN’S PHILOSOPHY OF DEMOCRACY,” Dissertation in Communication Arts and Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, The Graduate School
Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, December 2015, https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/files/final_submissions/11391.

[12] See, for example, ibid., and Jesús Bolaño, “Overcoming Postmodernism: David Foster Wallace and a new Writing of Honesty,” U.S. Studies Online, July 10, 2017, https://usso.uk/overcoming-postmodernism/.

[13] Melvin L. Rogers, The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.)

[14] See, for example, Andrews, “UNUM ET PLURIBUS: WALT WHITMAN’S PHILOSOPHY OF DEMOCRACY.” Arguably, this situation is more similar to the one Lincoln faced—a slow fracturing of the consensus that eventually surfaced as an irreconcilable conflict.