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The Cambridge Companion to Dewey


reviewed by Lynda Stone - January 10, 2011

coverTitle: The Cambridge Companion to Dewey
Author(s): Molly Cochran
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, New York
ISBN: 0521697468, Pages: 376, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com


John Dewey is largely acknowledged as at least one of, if not “the” quintessential American philosopher of the first half of the 20th century. Over fifty years have elapsed since his death in 1952. In that time, it is in educational theory of practice that interest in his writings has been largely sustained. In mainstream Anglo-American philosophy, attention waned but in recent decades has been revived in a new pragmatist movement. The 2010 publication of The Cambridge Companion to Dewey is testament to this renaissance. Of note, in the eighty volume series by this eminent British publisher, there are volumes on only four other Americans, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, Dewey’s fellow pragmatists, and Willard Van Orman Quine and John Rawls, more recent, very significant philosophers.


The Companion is organized as fourteen chapters that the editor, Molly Cochran, very usefully identifies in subsections. The following is a listing for educators: Chapters One, Thirteen, and Fourteen, Dewey’s biographic premise and development as a “democrat,” both in the American context and internationally; Chapters Two, Three, Four, and Five, Dewey’s naturalistic “foundation” for philosophy and his logic of inquiry; Chapters Six and Seven, Dewey’s theory of mind and action as connected to neuro and cognitive science; Chapters Eight and Nine, Dewey’s moral philosophy and his related psychology; and Chapters Ten, Eleven, and Twelve, Dewey’s philosophical writings on religion, aesthetics, and education. The frontpiece for the volume posits its utility for both Dewey specialists and non-specialists; this claim is addressed below.


First, the volume needs situating in education. Dewey is read specifically in philosophy of education, curriculum studies, and teacher education, and in fields such as art, and experiential and holistic education. He is read for historical as well as contemporary utility in the educations of professors and researchers and of practicing professionals in formal and non-formal institutions. Some read Dewey as “letter,” others for “inspiration.” While most who read Dewey do so with admiration, for some decades there has been a small but insistent group of “critics;” these include revisionist educational historians and philosophers in the later 20th century decades who were, at least in part, Marxist-influenced. Critics also include those who wish to take Dewey at his word, rethinking his philosophical ideas from a prior for a present time. The latter are well represented in The Companion.


A debatable question remains for education: why continue to read Dewey when there are many other progressive, even radical theorists, who might serve reform better. An answer is complex and well beyond the scope of a brief review. However, one possible response comes in recognizing the scope of Dewey’s writings and the claim that “working through” problems in education and schooling are embedded in larger philosophical ideas and processes. The Companion ably assists in this understanding. In general, and in a Deweyan sense, thoughtful reformers must keep in mind the following recognitions: a dynamic social context of education, a set of premises about what constitutes knowledge and morality, a workable politics that is “pragmatic” yet hopeful, and significantly, that there may well be multiple—and no singular—roads to reform.


As promised by the publisher, chapters are indeed generally accessible to both Dewey specialists and non-specialists. Three examples are turned to below. In addition, there are several other valuable aspects of the volume. First as the editor rightfully suggests, Dewey’s writings are “concept-led rather than concept driven” (p. 4). She describes three of these: experience, intelligence, and situation. Other examples from which readers can learn about Dewey’s thought include interaction, qualitative immediacy, and habit. Also present across chapters is Dewey’s metaphysics in rejection of absolutes as well as his commitments to naturalism, valuation, sociality, and democracy. Second, chapter contributors offer contemporary viewpoints based in Dewey’s philosophy on such important topics as mind, action, creativity, intentionality, embodiment, and intersubjectivity. Third, the volume’s citation process that includes major and minor works is especially useful as specific titles and location in The Collected Works are provided. Finally, from respected American and international scholars, contributions exemplify a combination of synthetic and analytic writing that is “philosophy” at its best today; specific text citation from Dewey’s writings is especially valuable as a model for education non-specialists.


The reviewer does have a couple of small “complaints.” Only one education scholar, Nel Noddings (discussed below), is included in the book. Given the prominence of Dewey in the field and for so many decades, others who ably write for philosophy as well as education might have been included. Two examples are Jim Garrison and James Scott Johnson. Missing too are several Dewey scholars who are widely read in education. These include Thomas Alexander, James Campbell, Larry Hickman, and Charlene Haddock Seigfried. The feminist critique of Dewey, led by Seigfried, is an important missing topic, and as well something should be mentioned of the neo-pragmatists led by the late Richard Rorty. Their work, after all, largely initiated the Dewey renaissance.        


This review concludes with mention of representative chapters of interest for Record readers. First, Nel Noddings’s chapter on education is a must-read that could be included in virtually any university education course. It is organized around topics of practice: child, curriculum, learning and inquiry, democracy, and importantly, moral education. In her typical moderate style, Noddings does critique Dewey—again a good model—in a look at today’s character education and feminist-inspired care theory. Second, educators are certain to be interested in Mark Johnson’s chapter on Dewey’s theory of mind and thought in comparison to recent neuroscience advances. He makes two points of significance that deserve to be mentioned. The first is that in many ways Dewey’s psychology was not as “outdated” as previously thought. The second is that the chapter so ably demonstrates the need to carefully discriminate Dewey’s ideas and the language of his time from that of today. The third chapter of note, by Richard Eldridge on aesthetics, exemplifies the accessibility of much of the volume overall. The principal Dewey text is Art as Experience that many “neo-classical” Dewey scholars believe incorporates a significant shift in his thought. Topics from the art world include aesthetic experience, expression, medium, and interpretation. The final section is a fine example of “updating Dewey” as the social aspects of his theory of art are compared and critiqued with “artistic modernism” and writings by Jürgen Habermas and Stanley Cavell.


Philosophers have long relied on The Cambridge Companions for the highest quality contemporary interpretations of major Western thinkers and traditions. The Cambridge Companion to Dewey is a welcome, perhaps overdue, addition to the series, a volume that can be of significant interest both to philosophical and Dewey specialists and non-specialists in education. Any technical difficulties can well be overcome through direct reference to Dewey’s writings and to relevant commentators and critiques. A turn to this book also opens possibilities for use of other volumes.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 10, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16278, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:40:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Lynda Stone
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    LYNDA STONE is Professor, Philosophy of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is President, John Dewey Society, 2009-2011. Her interests focus on American and Continental social theory for educational reform. Among publications on Dewey are the edited volume (A. G. Rud, J. Garrison and L. Stone), Dewey at 150: Reflections for a New Century, Purdue University Press, 2009, and pieces appearing in Journal of Educational Controversy, 2008, Philosophy of Education, 2003, and Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 2000. A current project includes Dewey’s work on conduct in a study of contemporary schooling, youth culture, and ethics.
 
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