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John Dewey and American Democracy

reviewed by William M. Shea - 1993

coverTitle: John Dewey and American Democracy
Author(s): Robert B. Westbrook
Publisher: Cornell University Press, Ithaca
ISBN: 0801481112, Pages: , Year: 1993
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Robert Westbrook, a University of Rochester historian of American political thought, has written a stunning interpretation of the importance of Dewey’s work to American political theory. The book is not quite a biography; a new biography, surely a multivolume work, must now be considered a priority. Taken together with Steven Rockefeller’s recent thorough and fascinating discussion of Dewey’s religious life and his thought on religion,1 Westbrook’s study provides us with the foundation necessary for a complete intellectual biography of Dewey.

He divides his story into four periods: the unfolding of Dewey’s Hegelianism in Ann Arbor and the transformation of it into pragmatism in Chicago (“A Social Gospel: 1882-1904”); “Progressive Democracy: 1904-1918,” covering his first years at Columbia where he forged his public and academic reputation as the philosopher of democracy and education; “Toward the Great Community: 1918-1929,” the time during which Dewey argued that unless it involves direct participation of citizens in communities taking full responsibility for their destiny, democracy is a mere political form masking the hegemony of elites who play manipulatory games with the public; and “Democrat Emeritus: 1929-1952,” that period in which his philosophical creativity and public recognition remained high and when, paradoxically, his impact on both public political discourse and increasingly technical American philosophy was at its nadir.

While its overriding value to scholars is to be found in its lively chronicle, its intellectual history, and its engrossing footnotes, the most moving parts of the book deal with Dewey’s troubles and failures. Dewey made a remarkable about-face when Wilson sent the troops to Europe, and he supported the war with vigor in an exercise of ordinary patriotism hardly to be expected of this severe critic of uncritical nationalism. In doing so he alienated many of his admirers. The exchange with Randolph Bourne (or, to be more accurate, the uncharacteristic lack of exchange on Dewey’s part!) is recounted and analyzed with sensitivity but with no attempt to justify Dewey’s contemptible maneuver to exclude Bourne from politically significant connection with Dial. It is hard to imagine Dewey with a clear conscience afterward.

In the thirties Dewey’s attempt to shape American politics displayed his theory but proved little but his practical naivete, and again ended in broken alliances and personal connections. The -muddleheaded criticisms of his philosophy of knowledge and muddleheaded uses of his philosophy of education were paralleled now by equally muddleheaded and ideological attacks on his political theory from his left as well as from the center and the right. He accepted the fact and necessity of the Second World War after spending himself in the search for peace, and engaged in another bitter exchange over the implications of his political theory, this time with Lewis Mumford, Bourne redivivus but attacking from the right. Finally, there was Dewey’s intense struggle with “democratic realists” like Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, who consistently in these later years treated him as a fuzzy-headed idealist unable to confront the world as it is and whose “liberal solution” to the human dilemma they thought pathetic, and who sold out America’s chance at participatory democracy. Westbrook tells these tales as fully as the evidence allows, with verve and compassion.

But all this is merely to repeat the obvious in Dewey’s career. What counts about the book is its dense research, the author’s control over both primary and secondary literature in the many compartments of Dewey’s philosophy as well as his political theory, the deft organization of the materials, the subtlety and justice of the commentary, the broad acquaintance with American political theory and history, the engaging prose style, and the author’s evident reflective capacities. Westbrook has a perspective, no doubt: He himself is a participatory democrat, and tells the story of his intellectual father without hiding the flaws in his behavior and theory. And he has a worthy antagonist in Richard Rorty’s recreation of Dewey as a post-modern bourgeois liberal.2 The epilogue contrasting Dewey and Rorty is brilliant.

The Dewey Center in Carbondale has made possible a string of first-rate books on Dewey over the past twenty years. The aid it has extended to these intellectual historians and philosophers has cashed out. Westbrook’s book is the latest and to date the best of the books, following on the heels of excellent recent work by Sleeper, Alexander, Boisvert, and Rockefeller.3 The achievement of “America’s philosopher,” increasingly clarified in such works, puts him among the giants. He may still be in eclipse for most American intellectuals, academic and otherwise, but Westbrook makes him more difficult to ignore.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 2, 1993, p. 283-285
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 139, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 1:08:26 AM

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