Dewey On The State

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone….
September 1, 1939
W. H. Auden

Index to posts in this series.

In Chapter 1 of The Public And Its Problems, Dewey introduces his conceptions of a public and the state. This post discusses Chapter 1, and it might be helpful to read the first part of it. Chapter 2 is focused on the state. Dewey starts by pointing out that his views are radically different from standard ideas about the state.

The state is not created as a direct result of organic contacts as offspring are conceived in the womb, nor by direct conscious intent as a machine is invented, nor by some brooding indwelling spirit, whether a personal deity or a metaphysical absolute will. P. 86.

Dewey doesn’t think there is a perfect or ideal form of the state towards which all states are evolving, or such that we could measure each existing state against it to determine the quality of a state. States arise to meet situations, he thinks. Situations vary, solutions vary, cultural acceptance of solutions vary, histories vary, and each of these and more influence the form of a state. All we can hope to do is to measure how well that form meets the needs and desires of the related public.

Here’s how Dewey formulates the connection between the public and the state:

The lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity bring into existence a public. In itself it is unorganized and formless. By means of officials and their special powers it becomes a state. A public articulated and operating through representative officers is the state; there is no state without a government, but also there is none without the public. P. 109.

It is the appointment of officers and the grant of special powers that forms the state. Through those officers, themselves members of the public, the state organizes the public. The state itself is just a select group of people given special powers. It doesn’t matter who grants those powers. It could be by democratic vote. It could be by force of arms, as kingdoms were organized for centuries. Or it could be that a group of rich people arranges things to their liking. Or something else.

Dewey points out that there are many different forms of states across space and time. He claims that they exhibit traits which show that they are functioning in accordance with his formulation. These traits, or marks, relate to the consequences arising from the actions of a group of people, intentionally or not. [1] We can both check the theory and begin to study states by observing and studying these marks.

The rest of Chapter 2 discusses four such traits. They are: a) temporal and geographical contiguity; 2) the “… fact that the quantitative scope of results of conjoint behavior generates a public with need for organization.” P. 94; 3) states are concerned with behaviors and outcome that are long-established; 4) children and other dependents are the peculiar concern of a state. [2]

The trait of contiguous territory is obvious. As to temporal contiguity, He says that discrete harms occurring at irregular intervals will not stir up demand for representation of the interests of a public that would lead to the creation of a public.

The second trait is more problematic. People in a territory experience a range of impacts from the conjoint action of other people, and those impacts change over time. If there were such a thing as an ideal state, we would not expect different ranges of harm or changes that would necessitate changes in the nature of the state. But that is the case. Dewey sees this as confirmation of hypothesis about the nature of states.

The state is primarily concerned with established patterns of action. Dewey says that established patterns are engrained in members of the public, and that people resist changes. The state has helped in the establishment of those patterns. Innovation is essentially an individual act, and innovation is mostly resisted by the public.

About the most we can ask of the state, judging from states which have so far existed, is that it put up with their production by private individuals without undue meddling. P. 103.

This works better in some states than in others. [3] The point is that with old, established behaviors, there seems to be a psychological desire to make them uniform and official.

Dewey’s fourth mark, that children and other dependents are a special focus, seems obvious. Children are the future, so the public sees the need to make sure that they are protected and supported. For other dependents, such as “the insane and the permanently helpless”, there is a need to insure care and treatment as appropriate. Underlying this is the reality that when people are unable to protect themselves, the vast part of the public wants them protected.

Dewey discusses each of these four marks of the state with concrete examples, showing his view of the history of states. the kinds of things a state might do, and in the case of the fourth mark, a basic introduction into his ethical thought.

One of those sub-issues seems especially current: the role of laws and regulations. Dewey points out that no one can calculate all the ways and different people who might be affected by an action or an innovation. That creates an insecurity among those who might be affected. They form a public, and create state officials and empower state action to protect themselves from possible future harm.

It is not merely that the combined observations of a number cover more ground than those of a single person. It is rather that the public itself, being unable to forecast and estimate all consequences, establishes certain dikes and channels so that actions are confined within prescribed limits, and insofar have moderately predictable consequences. P. 98.

Laws and regulations benefit the actor, the innovator, and the rest of us. They make it unnecessary for actors to work out every last detail of a proposed action, because there are regular forms which can be adapted to their needs and desires. The rules may be irritating, but at least one can predict with reasonable certainty the risks and rewards.

People persist in calling laws and rules “commands”, as if they issued form some distant dictator. Dewey says that’s wrong. He points out that this command view is the logical outcome of theories of the state based on will, or causality, whether divine or human. Dewey says that these views rest on the idea of a superior force imposing its will on others.

Rules of law are in fact the institution of conditions under which persons make their arrangements with one another. They are structures which canalize action; they are active forces only as are banks which confine the flow of a stream, and are commands only in the sense in which the banks command the current. P. 99.

To extend the metaphor: we have a name for a river not constrained by its banks: we call it a flood.
[1] Pollution is a good example. The intent of a polluter is not to harm others, it’s to maximize profits. But pollution harms others.

[2] This transition is extremely confusing. I’m not sure I have it exactly right, especially point 2.

[3] For example, I’ve heard a number of French people complain about the refusal of the government to permit innovation, and the tight constraints imposed on innovators.

24 replies
  1. Godfree Roberts says:

    ‘About the most we can ask of the state, judging from states which have so far existed, is that it put up with their production by private individuals without undue meddling. P. 103.’

    Given that Dewey wrote this when China was at its lowest point, we can forgive its parochialism. We now know better, of course.

  2. skua says:

    Dewey says that established patterns are engrained in members of the public, and that people resist changes.
    This was made clear to me from the initial alarm I felt on seeing
    “Schumer suggests Biden could use emergency powers for climate policy” – a call which is so at odds with the long term norm of the US government avoiding facing up to what climate change demands. When the alarm subsided I was then able to consider the change that such a call marked, and the benefits of following that suggestion. But initially it was alarm.

  3. Eureka says:

    In other words laws are agreements and locks keep honest people honest.

    The state is (becomes) the symbol* for which laws index agreement — “conceptually”, to a social membership; and as indexical (icons) of specific agreements. Some of the latter reify the former, imbuing society with time depth (i.e., the US Constitution) and swailing into further attached symbols like “patriotism” (writ as an emotional attachment to — here — American identity). (This can then be reified by a whole host of behaviors: one can sit on the sofa and feel patriotic, or work to GOTV, or storm a Capitol, and feel the “same” way. *Kind of the rub of our current climate: we have a “thirdness” problem.)

    * these things are why pragmatists like to break things down to show the guts of building, forming

    • Ed Walker says:

      That sounds too much like social contract theory, which Dewey rejects. He sees the state and a public as enmeshed in complicated ways, as we know they are: government workers are just a set of members of the public given special powers. The result of establishing those powers and giving them to one group of people is that we are organized into a seamless whole. As Auden puts it:

      There is no such thing as the State
      And no one exists alone….

      • Eureka says:

        No, I am talking in the Peircean sense (and by calling the state a “symbol” was indicating that it does not exist). To clarify, by laws as indexes to “agreements”, I mean that also in the Peircean sense of say how a proper name is an index to a naming event (after a baby is born). So the laws are not abstract but are representations of social interaction — interaction_s_, starting from at least some origo of making the law, and with various sociolinguistic divisions of labor marking those understandings (e.g. lawyers as experts vs laypersons’ understandings — obviously “treason” and “RICO” come to mind as, uh, rich examples from this blog).

        While I’m here, might as well also clarify that the word “agreement” itself is a marker of social dynamics (who agreed, to what, in what context, and so forth). i.e. I am not speaking of or in terms of social contract theory, but of social interactions (and decidedly not referring to universality).

        • Eureka says:

          ^ does not “exist” outside an instance of human signification; an abstraction

          And further clarifying, an index (the “agreement” above) is deictic — always pointing to relationship, context, cotext.

          So I believe my intended comment was quite in line with Dewey, if not apparent.

  4. skua says:

    How does law=agreement and “Laws and regulations benefit the actor, the innovator, and the rest of us” match up with the Holocaust and the current genocide of Uyghurs?

    • Eureka says:

      Since I am the one who used the word “agreement” [and in quite a different context than the rest of the base of your query, which relates to Ed’s post/words], perhaps my additions above can help clarify.

      My reference, a pragmatic one (sensu “pragmatics” of language, communication, social interaction — not the current political pejorative) would and does include exactly the horrors you describe. I was not talking panacea-like or about idealized conditions (or of conditions as ideal).

      • skua says:

        Thanks Eureka. That is some densely packed language that you, Ed and Dewey are using.
        And I got a new word to play with – deictic.

  5. PeterS says:

    I don’t get the command/river bank metaphor as presented here: laws are commands “only” in the sense that river banks command the flow of the river.

    If people call laws and rules “commands” it matters not much whether the river banks are built by a distant dictator, a divine force, or the public themselves because the river is still told what to do.

    Until, of course, the banks prove insufficient for the flow and then, again, what difference does it make who built the inadequate river defenses?

    P.S. sometimes I don’t feel smart enough for ew, and reading Eureka above didn’t help!

    • Ed Walker says:

      Everything in this book is different from the way we were taught to understand social organization. The dominant view is the social contract, the idea that as free individuals we somehow agree to an existing set of laws, regulations, institutions, and procedures for changing those things.

      Dewey rejects the social contract idea, as I discussed in Posts 4 and 5 in the index at the top of this page. He also rejects other theories, especially Hegel and Aristotle. I am trying to avoid too much of older political philosophy, and perhaps that clouds the river metaphor.

      All of these theories work off the idea that there is some external force that pushes us to comply with the existing rules of the society. In Hegel, it is some historical will I don’t pretend to comprehend. In Aristotle, it’s that Man is a Political Animal, so the force comes from instinct, I guess? In the Social Contract theory, there is a separate entity, the State, that enforces compliance, first through persuasion and training, then with actual force.

      Dewey disagrees. He thinks the state is a natural outgrowth of living in a society. Think about that Auden bit at the top of this post. We cannot exist alone, especially without the organization that we create through the state. Creating the state is a natural process, and creation of laws and regulations is a natural process, just like the channeling of a river by its banks.

      I hope that helps. It’s not like what we learned in school, is it?

      • PeterS says:

        Thank you. If I have to choose between God, a dictator and society as the genesis for “the state” I’ll happily go with the last one.

        (I know I’m absurdly focussing on the metaphor, but perhaps the natural process at play is the river carving out its own banks :))

    • Eureka says:

      Jeez I guess I should stop scrolling this page and return to sports or seditious nutter topics.

      Couple things:

      When I commented, I had assumed some knowledge that I _thought_ Ed might have covered in prior posts but am perhaps mistaken.

      I added some comments above which may help.

      I’ll add a link that explains Peircean semiotics (Charles Sanders Peirce being one of the forerunners of American pragmatism, along with John Dewey, William James, and others). But to be fair no one really understands Peirce and to read from this wiki would make anyone’s head explode.

      Semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce – Wikipedia

      Adding: here, much clearer:

      Indexicality – Wikipedia

      The very reason anthropological linguistics focuses on things like “indexicality” is because all is social, not some “out there” thing in existence.

      • Eureka says:

        Our laws, for example, are not some “things” out there which exist outside the people, conditions, etc., which created them and _recreate them_ on a daily basis. Of course we have them (the laws) as texts, but texts always under modification — some more than others, and as we have all learned in the case of 45 many we have not paid attention to and for which we have returned to origo (the obscure law creation event) to learn more and realize we might need to remake them given our different social context.

        They are recreated on a daily basis by how people behave about them — look at “jaywalking”, for example, and the elaborate rules/nonrules about it. Or carrying your insurance card in your car every day (“constantly”; and exceptions). Or lawyers — all parties — involved in court cases every day. Consider lawful protest vs the insurrectionists’ behavior. It would take a lot of time and acutely grained broken-down examples to observe all of these nuances in a formal sense, but we navigate these every day, “choosing”* the faithfulness with which we recreate them (and implicitly or explicitly recalling the past as we do so).

        Hence why I started with the very simple word, “agreement” (which, again, points to all of these things — including disagreements, parties which never participated in any such “agreements”, and so forth).

        Plus the comment about locks keeping honest people honest. (A remark on human behavioral tendencies.)

        *another word which is socially grounded in any explication. For the love of God I am not talking about free will or anything like that.

        • Eureka says:

          jaywalking: some people under some circumstances dare to or casually jaywalk (depending on things like traffic density; urgency of need to get to where one is going; nearby LE; LE known to you or not; race/other status; someone sketchy following behind you; … ); as an offense it can be selectively enforced as a means to enact bigotry, prejudice, or a personal grudge, to harass; or (like speeding/ other tickets) to help meet a monthly quota …

          LE–community “understanding” as to whether jaywalking laws are to be generally enforced can change, it can become a more universally charged crime under rubric of “law and order” [continue on to examples of broken windows policing concepts; laws for various drug crimes; Trump-Barr’s policy goals/ changes at/via DOJ; laws enacted by the Third Reich and what they meant to accomplish …]

          • bmaz says:

            Ha! To get from where I used to park to the superior courthouse, nearly every day, I used to diagonally jaywalk. Right in front of the sheriff’s office. (yes that sheriff). I have never gotten a jaywalking ticket in my life.

      • PeterS says:

        Hey, I was acknowledging my own ignorance, no criticism of you was intended. Thank you for all your comments.

        • Ed Walker says:

          @Eureka,Thanks for the further explanation. I am almost totally ignorant of semiotics, and had no idea Peirce wrote in this area. These ideas are fascinating, and your explanations are clear. It’s helpful to understand laws as agreements, either agreements to the substance, as for example most readers here accept Roe v. Wade; or acceptance of the process which creates them leading to acceptance until we can change them, as the anti-abortionists “accept” Roe v. Wade.

          @PeterS neither of us takes offense easily, and certainly not at your question, which has served to allow both of us to think more clearly about Dewey’s words. I’m sure Eureka’s passing irritation was directed at my own lack of accuracy in dealing with this issue and my complete misapprehension of the response, not at your question.

        • Eureka says:

          Hi, PeterS — Ed is correct and I didn’t take your comment in a negative way. There is bemusement in my voice as I was going back and forth between things, thought I had worked to repair any misunderstandings above, then return to scroll and see, Oh, I am not finished! I always want to work towards understanding in contexts like these, and Ed is always very generous with discussion on his posts because the ideas — towards a better society — are the, his point.

          Ed — I should just make clear that using “agreement” in this context is my word, based on how I see things (that was not something Peirce or a subsequent said, to my knowledge, but is based in that tradition).

          It was just a quip. (yikes. and lol.)

          All — specific jargon (that I used) from Peirce is “icon”, “index”, and “symbol” (his tripartite manner of breaking down signs, which he also combines and nests — not worth getting into here but for a fun example or two I’ll part with), and “thirdness” (he corresponds icon, index, and symbol with firstness, secondness, and thirdness, respectively).

          And in this I disagree(ish — it’s complicated) with Peirce: he called laws a “thirdness”, I am calling them at least in ways a secondness (indexical) and calling the state a symbol and therefore a type of thirdness. But he may have meant (or today agree) that thirdness to really mean the state and we might not disagree so much — and there’s been a century of work on these things since he wrote. That intervening work, to include discourse analysis, has shown that much of (everyday) human communication is not so much symbolic but grounded in indexicality (/deictics/shifters/etc.).

          In the context-dependent nature of communication, we are often calling forth co(n)texts we’re not even aware of. And our discourse partners might know or hear different ones than we intend: compare the misunderstanding which ensued when I said agreement and Ed heard social contract theory; and of course the readily-recognized issue of talking via keyboard, missing cues like intonation, interruption (IMO a potentially important time saver of what in other circumstances is serial monologuing), direction of gaze, facial expression, and so forth. That’s (human) social life for you.

          Combo example of an indexical icon: bee waggle dance, which points (triangulated with the sun) in the direction of the nectar source (indexical), the duration of which corresponds to the distance from the hive (iconic). Hence an indexical icon.

          Consider how your dog might wag his or her tail (pointing to happiness and you!) and dance about with a vigorousness/ duration iconic with the length of time you’ve been gone from home (if you ever get to leave the house again).

          Marcy retweeted a great thread Monday morning:

          Tom Pepinsky: “Burma or Myanmar? What’s the difference? Does it matter? A thread on political linguistics in Southeast Asia 👇”

  6. madwand says:

    Here’s what Chomsky thinks of the social contract as he posits three major threats to humanity, the destruction of the social contract is the new one.

    According to Chomsky

    Countries in North America and Europe have eviscerated their public function as the state has been turned over to the profiteers and civil society has been commodified by private foundations. This means that the avenues for social transformation in these parts of the world have been grotesquely hampered. Terrible social inequality is the result of the relative political weakness of the working class. It is this weakness that enables the billionaires to set policies that cause hunger rates to rise.

  7. milton wiltmellow says:

    What a wonderful and useful analysis.

    >>>It could be by force of arms, as kingdoms were organized for centuries. Or it could be that a group of rich people arranges things to their liking. Or something else.<<<

    That "group of … people" is a faction in most states; in the US that faction becomes a party with binary options: Yes, remove those binary options — or even one of those options — then a flood follows as from a broken levee.

    These two factions — a historic and structural reality of the US state — itself creates a new sort of state/non-state. Let's say substate.

    This substate can be a canal linking two great oceans like the Panama Canal. But through its binary nature, it can also prevent alternatives, thus rendering the value of the canal not only moot, but actually contrary to the conception of the canal itself. See Rove's 'permanent Republican majority" for instance. Or the Civil War.

    In America we've seen these two factions organize upon limited issues each in conflict since inception.

    I count five:
    *wealth / poverty,
    *urban / rural,
    *religion / no religion,
    foreign policy.

    Of course these limited issues have various iterations throughout US political history. (e.g., abortion is a religion / noreligion issue.)

    For a couple of generations (post-Nixon) one faction — one party — has intentionally sought to subvert, sabotage, dismantle and destroy the alternative substate.

    This is the what and why of Trumpism. The culmination of a substate faction to render the alternative moot.

    How could it not end (if it has indeed ended) with an insurrection?

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