Biography of the American Philosopher John Dewey

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“If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: ‘Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the present life.'” – John Dewey John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, was born on October 20, 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. Dewey’s mother, Lucina, was a devout Calvinist. His father Archibald was a merchant who left his grocery business to become a Union Army soldier in the Civil War.

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John Dewey’s father was known to share his passion for British literature with his offspring. In his formative years, John Dewey attended Burlington public schools, excelling as a student. At the age of 15 years, he enrolled at the University of Vermont where he studied philosophy under the guidance of H.A.P. Torrey. Four years later, Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont second in his class.

The autumn after Dewey graduated, he landed a teaching job at a seminary in Oil City, Pennsylvania. However, he was laid off two years later. After being laid off, Dewey went back to Vermont and taught at a private school there. During his free time, he read philosophical treatises and discussed them with his former teacher, Torrey. As his fascination with the topic grew, Dewey decided to take a break from teaching in order to study philosophy and psychology at Johns Hopkins.

After completing his PhD in 1884, Dewey was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan where he met Harriet Alice Chipman and the two married in 1886. Over the course of their marriage, they would give birth to six children and adopt one child.

By 1894 Dewey was made head of the philosophy department at the University of Chicago. He remained at the University of Chicago until 1904, also serving as director of its School of Education for two years. Dewey left Chicago in 1904 to join the Ivy League, becoming a professor of philosophy at Columbia University while working at Teachers College on the side.

In 1930, Dewey left Columbia and retired from his teaching career with the title of professor emeritus. Dewey’s philosophical treatises were at first inspired by his reading of philosopher and psychologist William James’ writing. Dewey’s philosophy, known as experimentalism, or instrumentalism, largely centered on human experience.

Rejecting the more rigid ideas of Transcendentalism to which Dewey had been exposed in academia, it viewed ideas as tools for experimenting, with the goal of improving the human experience. Dewey’s philosophy also claimed than man behaved out of habit and that change often led to unexpected outcomes. As man struggled to understand the results of change, he was forced to think creatively in order to resume control of his shifting environment. For Dewey, thought was the means through which man came to understand and connect with the world around him. A universal education was the key to teaching people how to abandon their habits and think creatively.


While teaching at the University of Michigan, Dewey published his first two books, Psychology (1887), and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding (1888). These books expressed Dewey’s commitment to British neo-Hegelianism. In his book Psychology, Dewey endeavored to explain an amalgamation between idealism and experimental science.

While still professor of philosophy at Michigan, Dewey and his junior colleagues, James Hayden Tufts and George Herbert Mead, together with his student James Rowland Angell initiated a reformulation of psychology, highlighting the effect of social environment on the mental characteristics and behavior rather than the physiological psychology of Wundt and his followers. By 1894, Dewey had joined Tufts, with whom he later wrote the book Ethics (1908), at the recently founded University of Chicago and invited Mead and Angell to follow him. The four men went on to form the basis of the so-called “Chicago group” of psychology.

This new style of psychology founded by them, later dubbed functional psychology, gave a practical emphasis on action and application. In Dewey’s article “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” which appeared in Psychological Review (1896) , he debates against the old-fashioned stimulus-response understanding of the reflex arc in favor of a “circular” account in which what serves as “stimulus” and what as “response” depends on how one considers the situation, and defends the unitary nature of the sensory motor circuit.

While he does not deny the existence of stimulus, sensation, and response, he disagreed that they were separate, juxtaposed events happening like links in a chain. He developed the idea that there is a coordination by which the stimulation is enriched by the results of previous experiences.

The response is modulated by sensorial experience. Dewey was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1899. Dewey also expressed interest in work in the psychology of visual perception performed by Dartmouth research professor Adelbert Ames, Jr. He had great trouble with listening, however, because it is known Dewey could not distinguish musical pitches – in other words was tone deaf.


Dewey referred to his philosophy as “instrumentalism” rather than pragmatism. Even then, he is considered to be one of the three major figures in American pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who invented the term, and William James, who popularized it. Dewey had strong Hegelian influences for his work, unlike James, whose intellectual lineage was primarily British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian ideas. John Dewey was not a pluralist or relatives. He detailed that “value” was a purpose not of quirk nor purely of social construction, but a quality situated in events

While his contemporary William James believed that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as an approximate arbiter of truth, that for many people who lacked “over-belief” of religious concepts, human life was superficial and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, etc.

Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important function that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a personal god. Dewey felt that only scientific method could reliably increase human good. Of the idea of God, Dewey said, “it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions.”

Because of his sociologically conscious opinion of the world and knowledge, his theory is considered sometimes as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern theory. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey’s original ideas, though this itself is completely consistent with Dewey’s own usage of other writers and with his own philosophy— for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

Dewey’s philosophy has had other names than “pragmatism”. He has been called an instrumentalist, an experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist, and a naturalist. The term “transactional” may better describe his views, a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience. Religious historian Jerome A. Stone credits Dewey with contributing to the early thinking in the development of Religious Naturalism.


Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938). Dewey’s views continue to strongly influence the design of innovative educational approaches, such as in outdoor education, adult training, and experiential therapies. John Dewey was a strong advocate for progressive educational reform. He believed that education should be based on the principle of learning through action.

In 1894 Dewey and his wife Harriet started their own experimental primary school, the University Elementary School, at the University of Chicago. His goal was to test his educational theories. In 1919, John Dewey, along with his colleagues Charles Beard, Thorstein Veblen, James Harvey Robinson and Wesley Clair Mitchell, founded The New School for Social Research. The New School is a progressive, experimental school that emphasizes the free exchange of intellectual ideas in the arts and social sciences. Dewey said that an educator must take into account the unique differences between each student. Each person is different genetically and in terms of past experiences.

Even when a standard curricula is presented using established pedagogical methods, each students will have a different quality of experience. Thus, teaching and curriculum must be designed in ways that allow for such individual differences. For Dewey, education also a broader social purpose, which was to help people become more effective members of democratic society.

Dewey argued that the one-way delivery style of authoritarian schooling does not provide a good model for life in democratic society. Instead, students need educational experiences which enable them to become valued, equal, and responsible members of society. The most common misunderstanding about Dewey is that he was simply supporting progressive education. Progressive education, according to Dewey, was a wild swing in the philosophical pendulum, against traditional education methods.

In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being relatively unconstrained by the educator. The problem with progressive education, said Dewey, is that freedom alone is no solution. Learning needs a structure and order, and must be based on a clear theory of experience, not simply the whim of teachers or students. According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student.

For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience. Educators are responsible, therefore, for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which better enable the students to contribute to society. On the other hand, progressive education, he argues, is too reactionary and takes a free approach without really knowing how or why freedom can be most useful in education. Freedom for the sake of freedom is a weak philosophy of education.

Dewey argues that we must move beyond this paradigm war, and to do that we need a theory of experience. Thus, Dewey argues that educators must first understand the nature of human experience. Dewey’s theory is that experience arises from the interaction of two principles — continuity and interaction. Continuity is that each experience a person has will influence his/her future, for better or for worse. Interaction refers to the situational influence on one’s experience. In other words, one’s present experience is a function of the interaction between one’s past experiences and the present situation.

For example, my experience of a lesson, will depend on how the teacher arranges and facilitates the lesson, as well my past experience of similar lessons and teachers. Dewey says that once we have a theory of experience, then as educators can set about progressively organizing our subject matter in a way that it takes accounts of students’ past experiences, and then provides them with experiences which will help to open up, rather than shut down, a person’s access to future growth experiences, thereby expanding the person’s likely contribution to society. Dewey examines his theory of experience in light of practical educational problems, such as the debate between how much freedom vs. discipline to use.

Dewey shows that his theory of experience (continuity and interaction) can be useful guides to help solving such issues. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of a student’s experience and the necessity for the teacher of understanding the students’ past experiences in order to effectively design a sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow the person to fulfil their potential as a member of society.

During the 1920s, Dewey lectured on educational reform at schools all over the world. He was particularly impressed by experiments in the Russian educational system and shared what he learned with his colleagues when he returned to the States: that education should focus mainly on students’ interactions with the present. Dewey did not, however, dismiss the value of also learning about the past.

In the 1930s, after he retired from teaching, Dewey became an active member of numerous educational organizations, including the New York Teachers Guild and the International League for Academic Freedom.


John Dewey was a chief supporter for academic freedom and in 1935 Dewey became a member of the United States section of the International League for Academic Freedom together with Albert Einstein and Alvin Johnson. In 1940, with Horace M Kallen, Dewey edited a series of articles related to the Bertrand Russell Case. As well as being active in defending the independence of teachers, and opposing a communist takeover of the New York Teachers’ Union, Dewey was involved in the organization that eventually became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Dewey was a promoter of socialism and collectivism who supported the Socialist Party candidate, Norman Thomas for president and was impressed and flattered by the Soviet Union’s “experiment,” particularly the Soviet’s fondness for his educational philosophy. While Dewey thought that a democracy was the best type of government, he believed that America’s democracy was strained in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization, he believed, had quickly created great wealth for only a few people, rather than benefiting society as a whole.

Viewing the major political parties as servants of big business, Dewey became president of the People’s Lobby, an organization that often lobbied their own candidates—in lieu of affiliating themselves with big business—in accordance with everyday people’s social interests. In 1946, Dewey even attempted to help labor leaders establish a new political party, the People’s Party, for the 1948 presidential elections.

He was an avid supporter of Henry George’s proposal for taxing land values. Of George, he wrote, “No man, no graduate of a higher educational institution, has a right to regard himself as an educated man in social thought unless he has some first-hand acquaintance with the theoretical contribution of this great American thinker.”

As honorary president of the Henry George School of Social Science, he wrote a letter to Henry Ford urging him to support the school. He directed the famous Dewey Commission held in Mexico in 1937, which cleared Leon Trotsky of the charges made against him by Joseph Stalin, and marched for women’s rights, among many other causes. In 1950, Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Benedetto Croce, Karl Jaspers, and Jacques Maritain agreed to act as honorary chairmen of the
Congress for Cultural Freedom


Dewey is considered the epitome of liberalism by many historians, and sometimes was portrayed as “dangerously radical.” Meanwhile, Dewey was critiqued strongly by American communists because he argued against Stalinism and had philosophical differences with Marx, identifying himself as a democratic socialist. On the other hand, some conservatives have called Dewey a Soviet ally.

Historians have examined his religious beliefs. Biographer Steven C. Rockefeller, traced Dewey’s democratic convictions to his childhood attendance at the Congregational Church, with its strong proclamation of social ideals and the Social Gospel. However, historian Edward A. White suggested in Science and Religion in American Thought (1952) that Dewey’s work had led to the 20th century rift between religion and science. Following are the academic honours bestowed upon John Dewey:

  • Copernican Citation (1943)
  • Doctor “honoris causa” – University of Oslo (1946)
  • Doctor “honoris causa” – University of Pennsylvania (1946)
  • Doctor “honoris causa” – Yale University (1951)
  • Doctor “honoris causa” – University of Rome (1951)

In 1946, Dewey, then 87, remarried to a widow named Roberta Grant. Following their marriage, the Deweys lived off of Roberta’s inheritance and John’s book royalties. On June 1, 1952, John Dewey, a lifelong supporter of educational reform and defender of rights for everyman, died of pneumonia at the age of 92 in the couple’s New York City apartment.

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Biography of the American Philosopher John Dewey. (2016, May 04). Retrieved from

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