UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Social change in the social philosophy of John Dewey Desjardins, Pit Urban


This essay is, in the main, a presentation of Dewey's social and political philosophy, with particular attention being given to his theory of the origin and nature of the state and to his recommendations for a programme of social reconstruction. As Dewey relies on the use of intelligence for conscious intervention within the social process and for the purposive control of social change, the first chapter of this essay is given to an exposition of Dewey's version of the pragmatic method, Instrumentalism. The major influences which operated to shape Dewey's methodological approach to philosophic problems are the following: (1) the rise of American industry: the divorce of production from hand-tool methods and the introduction of technology and mass manufacturing techniques; (2) the emergence of Pragmatism as a distinctive American philosophy; (3) the rising influence of the biological sciences; (4) the contemplative character of classic philosophy. These influences form the matrix out of which Dewey's general philosophic outlook emerged; an outlook in which thinking is shifted from the contemplative to the practical, and which is ordered by the principle that thinking is instrumental to a control of the environment. Consistent with his methodology, Dewey places his theory of the emergence, existence and functioning of the state on an empirical base. Causal agency theories of the state are rejected; a theory of social organization must start with what is observable, human behaviour. The hypostatized "'Individual" and "Society" are dissolved by a psychology of social behaviourism which holds that the individual is an emergent from a group matrix and his behaviour as an individual Is explainable only by reference to the group. Dewey's social theory begins, therefore, with the facts that human beings exist and act within some kind of social grouping and that the consequences of acting within an association are perceived by the Individuals comprising it. The perception of consequences is the keystone of Dewey's theory. In Dewey's view the fact that consequences are perceived gives rise to the problem of controlling certain consequences, and to the correlative problem of providing the apparatus for regulating actions to attain specified and predetermined consequences. Dewey distinguishes two kinds of actions (or transactions, in Dewey's terminology): those whose consequences are direct and confined to the group within which the actions take place are defined as private; but actions which have effects outside of the group and generate indirect consequences are classified as public. The need to control actions affecting the welfare of those not directly involved in the transactions brings into existence a special social group which Dewey calls A Public. This social entity takes on political form, It becomes a political state, when officials or representatives are appointed or elected and the organize the Public to care for the common interest generated by the indirect consequences of transactions. The formation of states in a continuing, experimental process; as the conditions of social life change so does the need for new forms of political organization. Finally, democracy, in Dewey's theory, is a form of government arising out of a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. Dewey's social theory implies the direction of society by ideas and by knowledge. It is Dewey's general thesis, therefore, that the method of experimental social inquiry is the most effective means for a community organized as a political state to make satisfactory adaptations to a changing material, intellectual and moral culture and, at the same time, allowing maximum freedom to the individual for the development of his capacities and potentialities. Recognizing that men are ruled by habit and that they cling to long established beliefs, Dewey saw the persistence of the liberal tradition as the means for carrying the experimental methodology into the arena of social and political affairs. But before it could serve this purpose, liberalism had to be reconstructed. In this reconstruction Dewey saw no need to modify the ends of liberalism, but he points out that if they are to play a guiding role in contemporary life liberalism must abandon its atomistic psychology and the correlative doctrines of individualism and laissez-faire and adopt the ideas and methods of an experimental social philosophy. The immediate problematic situation which prompted Dewey to advocate an experimental method of social inquiry operating through a renascent liberalism was the lack of integration in contemporary social life manifested by (1) the fragmentation of society into a multiplicity of changing publics with differing needs and demands, and (2) the apparent absence of a public controlling and directing the apparatus of government. Dewey argues that the impact of science on society has been so traumatic that traditional political methods are incapable of dealing with the problems which have been created. However, he does not specify what the alternative methods are, but only commits himself to identifying the conditions which must prevail if the Great Community and a democratically organized Public are to emerge. These conditions are absolute freedom of social inquiry and the widest possible distribution of its conclusions. Given the foregoing conditions, the state will become effectively the instrument of the Public.

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