The Public In Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems

The first chapter of John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems lays out the structure of his conception of political theory. I discuss the method he proposes to follow here. In this post I give his definitions of public and state, and a brief sketch of the argument.

Dewey starts with the observation that we live in groups of people from the beginning to the end of our lives. We are in a strong sense created by those groups. Their influence shapes us in deep as well as shallow ways. All of our actions take place in the context of such groups.

People’s actions have consequences, direct and indirect. Some actions mostly affect the parties to the transaction, as a discussion between friends about the weather. Others have indirect effect, as friends joining for dinner at a restaurant. We call these private, because they don’t affect large numbers of people and do not have any significant impact on others.

Other actions affect a larger group, directly or indirectly, or affect a few people strongly. For example, a Pastor of a church gives a sermon, which causes changes in members of the congregation. A neighbor puts up an ugly fence, hurting property values. If the group is large enough, we call the action public. Most of our actions are private. A few have such an impact that we as a society want to encourage or discourage them.

This leads to this definition:

The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for. P. 69.

We delegate the task of coping with the consequences of public acts to people we designate as officials. This point is necessary to Dewey’s thought, because the thing we call the State only operates through individuals. Some single person issues a regulation. Some single person decides who should be prosecuted for a crime. He takes up the nature of the State in more detail in Chapter 2.

The precise form of the institutions these officials work at, the selection of officials. and other details arise from the historical context. In the US, for example, we have some institutions and forms from England, others from other countries, some created here based on theories current at the time of the founding of the country, some generated here in response to problems that are specific to this place, and some arising in response to subsequent events and changes in social attitudes.

… [W}hen a family connection, a church, a trade union, a business corporation, or an educational institution conducts itself so as to affect large numbers outside of itself, those who are affected form a public which endeavors to act through suitable structures, and thus to organize itself for oversight and regulation. P. 79.

These “suitable structures”, are groups of officials acting through institutions. Of course, these institutions may not suffice. In that case change is necessary. The newly emerging public created by changing conditions may be unable to force the State to adapt to new problems This can have disastrous consequences:

The public which generated political forms is passing away, but the power and lust of possession remains in the hands of the officers and agencies which the dying public instituted. This is why the change of the form of states is so often effected only by revolution. The creation of adequately flexible and responsive political and legal machinery has so far been beyond the wit of man. An epoch in which the needs of a newly forming public are counteracted by established forms of the state is one in which there is increasing disparagement and disregard of the state. General apathy, neglect, and contempt find expression in resort to various short-cuts of direct action. And direct action is taken by many other interests than those which employ “direct action” as a slogan, often most energetically by intrenched class-interests which profess the greatest reverence for the established “law and order” of the existing state. P. 81.

This leads to the assertion that the form of the state must be constantly scrutinized and changed. That doesn’t suit the “intrenched class-interests”. It also leads to this formal definition;

… [T]he state is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members.

Finally Dewey says that the important thing to understand is that we can’t understand the public and the state by looking for or asserting the existence of special forces outside of intentional human action.


1. Dewey’s method turns on facts, but not on the kinds of facts we saw in Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism or Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. The latter two trace out long historical sequences and use them to understand the then current situation. If followed this method we’d have to look at the organization of hundreds and thousands of societies, from tribes to clans to kingdoms, to the different city-states of ancient Greece, to the empires of the Persians and the Dynasties of China and on and on. That’s not what Dewey did. [1]

Dewey also relies on facts, but he uses facts about the way human beings interact. They are more like the facts used by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice. [2] It’s a way of weeding out contingency in the hope of finding a generalizable statement of the problem.

2. The most common way to understand the nature of the state is the theory of the Social Contract. The following begins this thorough discussion.

Social contracct theory … is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live.

There is no such a contract, of course, and no one actually assents to it in any meaningful way. It’s merely a construct. Dewey addressed social contract theory in a 1888 essay, The Ethics of Democracy.

The notion, in short, which lay in the minds of those who proposed this theory was that men in their natural state are non-social units, are a mere multitude; and that some artifice must be devised to constitute them into political society. And this artifice they found in a contract which they entered into with one another. …

The fact is, however, that the theory of the “social organism,” that theory that men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations to men, has wholly superseded the theory of men as an aggregate, as a heap of grains of sand needing some factitious mortar to put them into a semblance of order.

Sadly, Dewey got this wrong. Social Contract theory remains dominant and Dewey has receded.

[1] Aristotle seems to have done it, gathering and classifying 170 constitutions.

[2] Here’s an explanation of the veil of ignorance, the basic starting point of the book.

14 replies
  1. skua says:

    Thanks Ed.
    I liked seeing Dewey capture the necessary perception by the public of consequences through the use of “deemed necessary” – it is only perceived consequences that can demand a response.

    I suspect that “the existence of special forces outside of intentional human action” has now been well demonstrated by psychology with cognitive biases being recognised as inherent in human cognition.

    • John Paul Jones says:

      I wonder whether by “forces outside … intentional human action” Dewey had in mind theories (like Marxism and others) which assume that History has a teleology, that is, theories which are scarcely disguised forms of theodicy.

      • skua says:

        I think your wondering is generally correct.
        But I wonder in turn why Dewey would have used such a broad formulation when the existence of different internal traits had been recognized for centuries or millenia. Considering the times in which Dewey lived I then wondered how he had approached the then science of eugenics.
        I looked at Dewey’s Stanford philosophy website bio. And then searched for “John Dewey eugenics” more widely (in part because Stanford and eugenics have to my memory a troubled past). And was pleasantly surprised to find that Dewey seems to have been largely silent on eugenics, apparently resisting it’s so popular prescriptions and blandishments by pushing forward his own programs. Dewey wrote, “[creative education] implies studying and treating individuals in their distinctive and unique qualities. It involves getting away from that class and averaged education to which the current interpretation of the results of mental testing the more rigidly commits us”.
        The sole passge that I’ve found to date of Dewey being positively associated with Eugenics is in a co-written text book, in a chapter written by his co-writer. It is mild compared to much eugenics science based social programs, but sickening none the less.

        “Admitting that as yet our knowledge of eugenics is very imperfect
        it is still reasonable to hold that on the whole children of healthy
        parents inherit a better physical organism than children of diseased
        or feeble-minded parents, and that children of educated parents are
        likely to be better cared for and better prepared to play their part in
        life than children of ignorant parents. In fact at the present time many
        thoughtful students believe that the problem of maintaining the best
        stocks is one of the most serious which confronts us.” (John Dewey & James Hayden Tufts, Ethics, Later Works 454)

        To end this wall of text I wonder if Dewey used that very broad formulation, treating internal factors as irrelevant, as a way to avoid evoking with eugenics.

        See DOI: 10.5406/pluralist.7.3.0096 on sci-hub

        • Ed Walker says:

          I didn’t go into much detail on the idea of forces outside human agency. In general, Dewey rejects the idea that there are causes innate to us as humans. Aristotle, for example, argues that we have politics because people are political animals. Other common theories look to the force of history, most obviously in Marx, but also in Hegel. Certainly our social structures reflect some of our innate responses, but I read him to say that in a social setting we can overcome our instincts and replace them with more useful responses.

          • John Paul Jones says:

            “I read him to say that in a social setting we can overcome our instincts and replace them with more useful responses.”

            The connection is probably remote, but this is broadly similar to what T.H. Huxley argued in his “Evolution & Ethics,” and the “Prologomena” to that essay, so eugenics, while popular (and linked to any number of “social Darwinists”) at the time, always had opponents. I just mention this because many folks these days seem to assume that the past was somehow uniform in its embrace of these ideas. The contemporary push-back from Huxley and Dewey, at least, shows that the past was equally as contested as we are today.

            And yes, I was thinking also of Hegel.

  2. skua says:

    They say “sex sells”.

    Readers of this article need to know that one of the links provided is to an extensive discussion of the Original Position, what it lets happen and the possibilities that flow from it.

    Even just as a thought experiment I find it very interesting.

  3. Manuel Gonzalez says:

    Thanks, a timely scaffolding for my Supreme Courtly anxieties. Ed, there is a word (view) missing here: “The social contract is the that persons’ moral…..”

    • bmaz says:

      There is no scaffolding here. Amy Coney Barrett is a member of a freakish religious cult. She will effectively replace Roberts as the Chief Judge. There is NOTHING positive or acceptable with her elevation.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      ACB’s appointment also removes the guardrails and slams down the accelerator. The new majority can accept whatever lower court rulings that are submitted to it on appeal. Thomas and Alito are already soliciting cases, which will be brought to them by reactionary groups, funded by Hoover and more arcane deep pockets.

      They will seek cases in order to override a prior longstanding consensus in order and to impose the new majority’s will. It’s not a risk, it’s a certainty, because that’s what zealots do.

      If the Democrats refuse to increase the size of the Supremes and to add substantial numbers of lower court judges, not only will they enable that zealotry. They will find themselves – the majority – frozen out of governance by its effects.

      • bmaz says:

        Yeah. People probably think I am trying to be cute by calling it the Barrett Court. I am not in the least. JGR effectively runs that court for another 7-10 days. ACB may have to fetch the coffee and donuts per tradition, but she is the new power center.

      • MB says:

        Speaking of “funded by Hoover”…

        Hoover has also given us Dr. Scott Atlas, the California radiologist masquerading as Trump’s “epidemiology expert” who has effectively supplanted Fauci, and then only because he says what Trump wants to hear – y’know: herd mentality (immunity), masks=bad, etc. Quite the think tank, that Hoover.

      • skua says:

        I’ve got an additional remedy in mind for SCOTUS.
        But am currently wanting to not contribute in any way to making voting seem important for those who like the direction that Barrett will take the court.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Not only a missing word, a poor transcription, both of which I fixed. Thanks.

      I think a lot of us are worried about being governed by a pack of aging ideologues bent on destroying the remaining shards of our democracy.

      • John Paul Jones says:

        They are creating a Taney court, which will be – which is – similarly out of touch with the heart of the Republic. One of the interesting bits of data in the Clinton emails was (apparently; I’m relying on news reports) discussion about the possibility of impeaching Thomas, given that evidence has come to light that he lied to get on the court. Maybe Biden, if elected, could suggest that Thomas might want to retire rather than face impeachment. With him and Roberts gone, maybe Alito asked to retire too, and three new judges, they’ll be less need for increasing the judge count.

        And of course, this counts as utopian speculation, of a sort…..

Comments are closed.