The Public’s Problems In Finding Itself

Posts in this series

The sixth and last chapter of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses some of the obstacles to formation of a community capable of recognizing itself as a public. He doesn’t have any practical solutions. But he offers two theoretical ideas and a couple of practical steps. And he argues that community is the most human form of relationship in an almost poetic section.

1. Get rid of excessive individualism

This idea brings us back to an earlier post, in which I discussed Dewey’s rejection of social contract theory. The basic reason for this rejection is Dewey’s view that we are not human apart from the culture and society in which we find ourselves. That culture and that society formed us, gave us our language, our morals, our behavioral structure, and our self-definition. He takes this up again in Chapter 6.

We think of ourselves as individuals in a naive way. We are separate physically, and we move under our own steam. But so do animals. Every part of our psyches that is truly human comes from other humans, who tend us as babies, teach us as children, and interact with us in as adults. Certainly as separate entities we have different capacities, mental, physical, and emotional. But these only come into play when we interact with others. They only develop through our interactions with others.

Dewey uses an analogy to explain this. We know what a tree is, a plant with a trunk, branches, leaves or needles, and roots. We know that there are cells in the plant that perform certain functions, such as converting sunlight, carbon and other elements into itself. We can use this descriptive definition for some purposes.

But to say anything interesting about trees, we need to consider the earth on which they stand: the atmosphere, water, and sunlight they need for life; and the plants and insects that surround them and live in and inside them. It’s the same with humans. We cna use the common sense idea of the isolated individual human for some purposes, but to say anything interesting we need to consider the entire environment of the human, which includes other human beings.

The idea that humans exist at their fullest through their associations with other human beings is related to Dewey’s view that all that we think of as true comes from truths handed down to us from our ancestors. See, e.g. William James, Pragmatism, Lecture II.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to … apply [this lesson] to the most ancient parts of truth. They also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations.

This vision of humanity links us in a web of relations with our ancestors, our contemporaries and future generations. I once sat on a hill in the Dordogne Valley outside a cave decorated with prehistoric art. The art was the product of people like me, and some kid had stuck a hand in the pigment and made a handprint under a ledge designed to hold a pool of oil and a wick. Looking across the valley, I saw wild asparagus, edible berries and grains, walnut trees, and imagined small game. Beyond them lies the great river full of fish. I’d seen the tools of my ancestors at a nearby museum. I knew a little of how they lived. I could almost feel the connection across 25,000 years. And I know that some of what I know they knew, just as some of what they knew I know.

Treating our perceived selves as isolated individuals leaves us with no real way to become the humans we actually are.

2. Philosophical theory is absolutist

Even professedly empirical philosophies have assumed a certain finality and foreverness in their theories which may be expressed by saying that they have been non-historical in character. They have isolated their subject-matter from its connections, and any isolated subject-matter becomes unqualified in the degree of its disconnection. P. 214.

Other philosophers are even worse than empiricists. I listen to The Partially Examined Life, “a podcast by some guys who set out to do philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” They discuss the original works of a number of philosophers I will never read, like Kant and Averroes. Their descriptions of these works suggest that the writers thought their ideas were valid for all times and all places.

I suppose this was natural when people thought the universe must have a purpose laid out by its Creator. But Dewey was one of the first philosophers to take evolution seriously. He understood that the key insight of evolution theory is that there is no point to the universe. Evolution doesn’t move toward some predetermined goal. There is no direction in evolution other than survival. All evolution is the sum of the reactions of organisms to a changing environment.

Dewey thinks philosophical and ideological absolutism is dangerous.

The disciples of Lenin and Mussolini vie with the captains of capitalistic society in endeavoring to bring about a formation of dispositions and ideas which will conduce to a preconceived goal. If there is a difference, it is that the former proceed more consciously. P. 218-9.

3. Dewey’s Suggestions

From here Dewey goes into a detailed discussion of two things a properly functioning Public requires. First, the social sciences must become better and faster at free inquiry, a technical term best thought of as inquiry free of a pre-determined theory. Second, we need to educate people to the highest degree possible. These two steps will move us in the right direction.

One critical point stands out in the lengthy discussion that follows. There is no fixed set of rules. People change, societies change, technology changes, and our understanding of change changes. Our analytical tools, including our philosophy, must be formed and used for inquiry. We judge our tools by whether they do the work we want done. That’s just as true of social theory as it is of hammers. But we have to understand that any answer we come with is provisional.

… [P]olicies and proposals for social action [must] be treated as working hypotheses, not as programs to be rigidly adhered to and executed. They will be experimental in the sense that they will be entertained subject to constant and well-equipped observation of the consequences they entail when acted upon, and subject to ready and flexible revision in the light of observed consequences. P. 220.


In the last post in this series I discussed what seems to me like the emergence of two communities in the US. One, the one I think I live in, tries to grow knowledge and understanding both of ourselves and our society, and to share that knowledge and understanding as widely as possible. The other doesn’t like that. It can’t distinguish a plausible view of the world from the world conjured up by Qhucksters and right-wing liars. The second community despises the first. Mine is utterly unable to understand the second, moving between horror, disgust and laughter at the madness it sees.

Dewey believes that education and better social science can deal with this. He wrote this book in the early days of totalitarian movements, and must have seen the potential for danger. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t have an answer. I haven’t seen anything that suggests a way to have a real dialog with a true believing follower of Trump/Cruz/Gaetz/Hawley/Greene, or with the rich and their claque.

In the next post, I’ll conclude this very long series with some final thoughts.

27 replies
  1. Michael high says:

    The BBC has an interesting documentary on the “16” personalities, (Meyers Briggs and others), showing that these traits show up in organisms from snails to humans. So, given technology has provided a way for traits that normally would have been suppressed, and at least 1/3rd of people are hardwired to believe emotional rather than factual information, how does technology deal with the emotional component?

    • skua says:

      A tech solution, that is completely acontextual, is to provide emotionally fulfilling presentation with the desired “factual information” embedded in it.
      Maddow does a form of his. But not everyone agrees about what the desired “factual information” should be. But that isn’t a tech problem.

    • Rayne says:

      It’s the other way around – how do humans deal with the emotional component to create and/or use technology?

      Technology is a tool made by humans, like hammers and screwdrivers. Even those tools originally designed with a narrow intention, like hammers for pounding rock or nails, can find new uses expressing emotions, ex.

      Obviously, technology changes along with the needs of its creators and users.

  2. Savage Librarian says:

    In a micro/macro way, the article cited below might be seen as analogous to how the Public manifests. Individual neurons might be subject to something called “representational drift.”
    These scientists describe it as:
    “It’s not learning itself; it’s the smoke that comes out of learning.”

    They were surprised to see from these experiments that learning did not change even after some neurons were replaced by others that were not exposed to that learning.

    Our current system of education does not address vastly varying modes of learning in the same family. I speak from my own experience. The MAGA members of my family definitely did not process education the way that I did. It would benefit us to figure out how to address that. As the maxim goes, you can lead horses to water but you can’t make them drink.

    “Neuroscientists Have Discovered a Phenomenon That They Can’t Explain”
    – Ed Yong, 6/9/21

    • Nord Dakota says:

      Well, a monarch caterpillar’s neurons basically liquefy, I read, during the transformation in the chrysalis, and the butterfly emerges knowing and remembering what the caterpillar knew.

    • Ed Walker says:

      This is an interesting article, thanks. The physical side of this gives rise to one kind of speculation, about how we remain stable as individuals when our brains, the instruments of our sense of self, are themselves fluid.

      I also wonder if plasticity varies among people. Is it greater in the young than the old? In creative people more than the stolid? Does it connect to other outcomes, like tolerance for ambiguity? Or lowered levels of disgust? Or curiosity?

      I do think that education works differently for different people. As an example, law is frequently taught by the Socratic Method, in which the teacher asks questions and the learner tries to bring the cases to bear in answering. Over time we learn how to formulate answers that won’t get us chopped down. On the other hand, math is taught by example. We study a solution to a stated problem as a way of opening the mind to alternative paths from axioms, theorems, corollaries, and lemmas. We think about definitions and try to imagine how they would look in the space they describe. Art is taught by practice, and so is music. We learn by feel, almost.

  3. OldTulsaDude says:

    Stripped to its core, the need for belief in a planned universe is based on a visceral childlike fear of the dark, the unknown, and the powerlessness sensations bred by that fear. The dichotomy is that only by adopting a worldview of a non-planned universe is the fear vanquished and power restored.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Nicely said. In a way, letting go of the idea of purpose is the first step into true adulthood, because it requires us to be responsible for ourselves. It’s easier for us today because we share that point of view with lots of others, but it must have seemed frightening in the past when that view was dangerous in more ways than one.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A similar overlay is often forced on evolution. Contrary to myth, it is not directional, progressive, or predetermined. It is a many-branched bush, not a ladder of linear progress from oceanic slime to apex humans. It is contingent and opportunistic. Replay the tape, in Stephen Jay Gould’s metaphor, and the same process would rarely, if ever, yield the same result. His observation is profoundly unsettling to many belief systems.

      Evolution is not perfect, it is preferential: it works with whatever material is to hand at any moment and locality. Heritable change, common in sexually reproducing species, becomes more – or less – adaptive as the local environment changes (fast or slow, incremental or spectacular). Advantage can become failing and vice versa. There are many more losers than winners.

      Elites, for example, prefer a mythology that justifies their position and makes it seem inevitable, just, and earned, and makes any other arrangement impossible, disruptive, wasteful, or against the will of god.

    • timbo says:

      We don’t only react to fearful feelings, although the physical structures that are responsive to fear stimulus are certainly one of the things strongly selected for in many instances. Our genes do not care what we feel as much as they are propagated (or not) through how our feelings may help or hinder our survival long enough to procreate successfully. If you’ve ever felt strong desire for something that you know you will attain, that’s not about fear in the classical sense at all IMO. That’s about being happy that you know you will be getting what it is your brain, genetics, and experiences have helped you learn to desire. Of course, one can still argue that all of our other emotions themselves are deep down manifestations of a polyglot of feelings that come back to basic fear about something, even though we, our conscious selves, may not have any such fear, and that this “fear” is simply a lack of our genes not succeeding in propagating themselves into a follow on and viable succeeding generation.

  4. Dysnomia says:

    I always enjoy your posts, Ed, and this one was great.

    I wanted to comment about a point at the end, that there is no fixed set of rules and that any solutions we come up with are necessarily provisional. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure for us to have all the answers. Criticise the status quo, and people will expect a detailed policy proposal. “Well, what do you propose instead?” But it’s dangerous for us to try to lay everything out in advance. It’s okay to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, that we’re not smart enough to solve society’s problems on our own (even the most genius of individuals could not possibly have the understanding required to do so).

    Society, meaning the masses collectively, is going to have to come up with the answers through painful trial and error, rather than having individuals who think they have all the answers try to impose their inflexible ideology (which even with the best of intentions will be at best inadequate to the task of creating a free society).

    Also, I think there’s an irony in the concept of individuality vs collectivism. Modern western capitalist society is considered to be highly “individualistic,” and yet it allows very little room for the expression of genuine individuality (because self-actualization requires resources that are monopolized by the elites). I think the more “collectivist,” egalitarian methods of social organization, involving genuine participatory democracy (and I think that’s a redundant term by the way), are more likely to allow individuals to develop to their fullest potential and allow for a fuller expression of individuality than in our present society.

  5. skua says:

    Not clear as to how a non planned-universe world view banishes the fear of the unknown.
    AIUI many indigenous and civilisational cultures have had power-struggle-universe worldviews but still have fear of the unknown etc.

    And cultures that claimed insight into the “true/correct structure of things” provided enculturalisation that often provided nurturing and protection of the young, dignity for the aged, purpose, meaning and guidelines for its members. Whereas our current culture is telling people that they should be “rolling their own” lifestyle choices based on whatever Skinner box they have been in and that this will make them happy. Seems more like a recipe for severe depression and an empty consumptive half-life.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Maybe people don’t let go of a belief structure that comforts them in the face of the unknown unless they are really willing to face the unknown with some degree of equanimity?

      • skua says:

        There is the observation that humans won’t let go of something they know even if it is failing badly unless they can see something better to move to.

        But with cultural learning around effective community participation I suspect that humans do not/have not recognise/d what they have that works well because like fish they’re swimming in the water of their culture.
        And then things change and we become more hyperindividualised and leave behind more aspects of culture that underpin community engagement.

        Letting the elderly be warehoused in aged care institutions may not be best done with equanimity – best not done at all – but this is a consequence of prioritising individuality over whatever community glue that organised-universe/squabbling-gods-universe worldviews have provided.
        It is not that past cultures were without major problems, it is that we’ve not replaced their beneficial cultural aspects with anything reliable AIUI. Consumerism, corporate and beauracratic ethics, do not assure people of a meaningful old age. Any approach that doesn’t have intergenerational responsibilities culturally embedded is deeply suspect in my view.

  6. praxEs says:

    It will be 100 years this August since John Dewey left Shanghai after spending about two years delivering invited university lectures around China about his philosophy of knowledge (‘education’). He arrived just before the May 4th Movement commenced, a short-lived student movement (also with protests at Tianenman) influenced in part by the Treaty of Versailles that had ceded Chinese territory to Japan.

    Since reading your piece about Hayden’s Port Huron Statement, I found that at least some scholars in China and the US have recognized Dewey’s pragmatism in Mao’s On Practice (1937) published 16 years after Dewey left China. I was initially intrigued by your analysis of the influences on Hayden’s statement for SDS because I am just few years younger than he and attended college in the northeast where the influences on many of the politically active and engaged there had more of a marxist flair. We were all reading Edgar Snow. Hayden’s reverence for Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) in the PHS was quite silly and irrelevant to me then and now because there was already a good deal of evidence that Maslowe was full of shit, i.e., that he had never submitted his theory to ‘practice.’

    Thank you for leading me on such a delightful journey and I look forward to your last chapter

Comments are closed.