Final Thoughts On The Public And Its Problems

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I hoped John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems would help me understand our currant political morass. In a way, it did, as I noted in this post. I am disappointed that there aren’t any usable solutions, but that too is a lesson. In this conclusion I’ll discuss three things I got out of it.

1. Social Contract theory is wrong-headed

Before I read this book, I understood politics through the lens of social contract theory, the idea that a large group of isolated individuals enter into agreements on the organization of society in order to provide themselves a reasonable amount of security and protection from others. Dewey rejects social contract theory because it’s based on the idea of isolated individuals as the basic unit of society. In Dewey’s view we are all linked together from birth in social units, first families, then as we grow, into larger units, clans, tribes, schools, friendship circles, churches, sports teams, and then throughout our lives in larger and larger groups.

I’ve read several books explaining modern physics. I wish I were able to write about the idea of the universe as an energy field, with matter defined as clumps of energy of varying degrees of complexity, and with humans described as very complex clumps of energy. In this picture, everything is connected to everything else; it’s all part of the same energy field.

Even without that lovely image, I agree with Dewey. I can see the influences other people have on me and my thinking. I realize that my ability to cope with the world is the direct outcome of the way I was raised, the information I have been taught, and the ways of thinking I have learned from others.

We are not isolated individuals.

2. The Role Of Theory

A. Thinking

A number of the books I’ve read have a theory embedded in them. This seems especially true of the book about the Frankfurt School, where the grounding is in Marx and Freud, and the foreground is the dialectical method. Other books are grounded in a deeply historical approach. This includes Arendt and Polanyi; and Foucault, who talks about his genealogical approach. Pierre Bourdieu’s work is heavily grounded on data he gathered from observations and surveys of large numbers of people.

Dewey takes a somewhat different approach, free inquiry. I understand this to mean we should start by identifying the problem to be solved. Then look at the facts, including social facts, as carefully as we can. We generate possible solutions through discourse with others. Then we regard the chosen solution as tentative, which requires monitoring the situation continuously to see what needs fixing. It’s free in the sense that it is not affected by the demands of people trying to advance their own ends, or by religious adherence to some universal theory.

Another method of thought is explication and extension. Much of what we inherited from our ancestors is couched in old language and is expressed by discussion of older concepts. So, in philosophy much of the earlier work discusses the nature of being, and abstract ideas like whether we actually know the real world of objects or whether we only know what we receive from our senses. A lot of our new learning ins couched in academic language, which makes it hard to understand. Careful reading and explanation of these texts requires putting ourselves in the position of the writer and restating it in contemporary terms. We are then in a position to examine some of the possible extensions of that thinking, while being careful not to get too far ahead of the actual ideas of the original text. We might call it the student method.

B. The Goal of Theory For Liberals and Progressives

For Dewey, and for Arendt, Polanyi and the Frankfurt School, the goal of theory is to help us come to grips with specific problems and situations. Where are we? How did we get here? What were we thinking when we made the choices we made in the past? What facts did we get right and wrong? What were our goals? How close did we come to meeting them? And so on.

This kind of understanding does not tell us what we should do. It might suggest goals or solutions. But we still have the responsibility to identify our problems. Once we have done so we can use the social facts provided by theory to generate solutions. Then we are in a decent position to examine the question What Should We Do? For Dewey, that is the central question of politics.

C. The Goal of “Theory” for conservatives.

Conservatives use theory differently. They have a theory, a universal world view, valid at all times and places and for all people. Their only goal is to prove their theory is perfect and that the left and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their theory is evil and responsible for the sins of the world.

At the root of conservative theory is the idea of the isolated individual as the fundamental element of society. This leads them to the social contract theory, where voluntary agreements are the only binding force of society.

It’s easy to see this in action. It explains the secessionist movement in the Antebellum South. It explains the refusal to accept the 2020 election results, which were met with violence among a number of conservatives and with pouts and denial among a broad swath of them. It’s visible in the anti-mask and anti-tax movements, and the allegedly religion-based refusal to live with their fellow citizens under majority rule. They are alone and they are all that matters.

D. Conservative Pundits

Here’s a discussion of Michel Foucault by the pseudo-intellectual Ross Douthat. One of his premises is that leftists used to tout Foucault because he offered a radical critique of government power under the heading of biopolitics. Leftists loved this when conservatives were in control. Now they ignore Foucault because Democrats are in power. As evidence, he cites leftist acceptance of the governmental response to Covid-19.

That’s just wrong at every level. Here’s my discussion of Foucault’s biopolitics. It’s clear that Douthat hasn’t tried to read Foucault, or understand the details of his views of biopolitics. He doesn’t know that Foucault is describing what he sees, not prescribing anything.

Douthat isn’t doing any of the things I describe in Part A. He has a universalist world view: he’s a Catholic Conservative. He only reads books and papers to pick out shiny bits to attach to that world view, or to use as springboards for blaming progressives, liberals and Democrats for the sins of the world. This is a common problem among conservative pundits. They are not actively engaged in trying to understand the objective and social facts in front of them. The only problem they see is that the world doesn’t match their theory. Their only solution is to co-opt government into imposing their world view on the majority who don’t care about their world view.

3. Politics Is About Solving Problems

One central premise of The Public And Its Problems is that the point of politics is solving the problems common to a group of people. Dewey thinks of this in these terms:

One reason for the comparative sterility of discussion of social matters is because so much intellectual energy has gone into the supposititious problem of the relations of individualism and collectivism at large, wholesale, and because the image of the antithesis infects so many specific questions. Thereby thought is diverted from the only fruitful questions, those of investigation into factual subject-matter, and becomes a discussion of concepts.

The “problem” of the relation of the concept of authority to that of freedom, of personal rights to social obligations, with only a subsumptive illustrative reference to empirical facts, has been substituted for inquiry into the consequences of some particular distribution, under given conditions, of specific freedoms and authorities, and for inquiry into what altered distribution would yield more desirable consequences. P. 212-213. Paragraphing changed for clarity.

Conservatives like Douthat are much happier arguing abstractions than real problems. They don’t want to change the current distribution of freedoms and powers unless it imposes their pre-determined solutions. Neoliberal Democrats are happy talk about abstractions rather than problems, because it means they don’t have to act. That’s why we hear about budget deficits and filibuster rules instead of legislation. It explains the refusal of elites of both parties to confront actual problems. And it explains why Republicans get away with propaganda about Foucault and Critical Race Theory. It’s easy to lie about abstractuibs and conceptual tools. It’s hard to lie about specific facts.

Dewey is quite clear that he doesn’t have a solution to the questions about the self-identification of a Public or any of the other problems he raises. He hopes that education and theory will help. But in the end, it’s up to all of us, not the theorists.


Dewey’s idealism about the possibilities of democracy is inspiring. Even if we can’t use his book to find our way closer to that ideal, we still aspire to it.

17 replies
  1. OldTulsaDude says:

    Here in the U.S. the conservatives are our Taliban. Their goal is simple: bend everyone to their will as only their hierarchal order is valid.

  2. Epicurus says:

    Ed, there is a book titled “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life” by Jacques Barzun. It has a chapter titled “The Cubist Decade”. You would be well advised to read that chapter if not the book itself, and what it has to say about William James and his generation of pragmatists.

    • praxEx says:

      The chapter you invoked, Epicurus, reminds me of Jung’s notion of synchronicity, that everything is related to everything else without explicit notions of cause. I come to this conclusion via distant memories of studies long ago clouded by my understanding that there was little very relevant to my interests in knowing about human behavior.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The phrase, “well advised” can be a dismissive caution I would not apply to Ed’s work. Recommend or strongly suggest seem more appropriate.

      • Epicurus says:

        I recommend the book and chapter. “Well advised” was meant in the sense of Ed adding to his considerable background in and knowledge of pragmatism, in particular his offering that Dewey has no answers and Barzun’s concept of “decadence”. It was well intended and not meant as dismissive.

        Barzun: “But why should the story come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time,full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is one of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.” Ed seemed to be speaking those thoughts in his wrap up so I recommended the book and particular chapter. No insult or demeaning intended.

  3. praxEs says:

    “I realize that my ability to cope with the world is the direct outcome of the way I was raised, the information I have been taught, and the ways of thinking I have learned from others.” Ed

    I have often initiated discussions early in my lower level courses about what we all know about human behavior and it’s principal causes. It sometimes takes a few minutes for us to reach the grossly simplified notions of nature vs nurture. That, precisely, is what I want them to conclude. It sets up my argument that they, and others who invoke this mistaken simplification, miss completely the more influential variables that are relevant to the performance of most any behavior. I disclose to them that field of study in which they are now immersed attempts quite successfully to locate many of the instigating factors for behavior in the immediate social and physical context in which it is performed. Our experiments demonstrate to us that these immediate social context influences — perceived and not perceived — usually matter more than how I was raised or taught and even might be marshaled to understand influences on ways of thinking.

    Am I jumping to criticize an oversight? I am guessing that you did not intend to overlook effects of an immediate social context. Does this line of thinking help us to understand the Public?

  4. d4v1d says:

    One train of thought I have been following (over a cliff) is the ways in which such constructs as a theory, cosmology, theology etc. are really teleology – intrinsic meaning is imputed, generally in the service of self justification. (I ‘believe’ so I am saved, I am a republican so I am an antivaxer, I am a democrat so i am ‘woke’). None of these valuations are intrinsic – it’s the role of physics to strip teleology to the bare quanta, something science won’t give them, thus the threat to those who need a reason for being. I tell some in conversation that s/he is actually the center of the expanding hubbleverse.

  5. Wm. Boyce says:

    I’m afraid I believe that the U.S. public school system bears a lot of responsibility. Not because teachers don’t want to teach, but that the shift from subjects such as civics in school happened a long time ago. When I went to school in the 60’s and early 70’s, civics, politics, the process of the government were exciting and meaningful.

    Add to that a “phonics” system that purported to teach spelling: we really went downhill in those years. So you get the crop you’ve sown, to paraphrase better writers than myself. And now we live in an almost totally visual culture, which amplifies the ignorance. 140 characters would have to be used very carefully, and few do it, very few.

    • Artemesia says:

      I taught American Government at Bellevue High School in Wash State in the late 60s — a senior one semester course requirement. We were under constant assault by a very conservative (John Birch dominated) community. At one point we were the subject of an Evangelical radio program from Cape May New Jersey railing against our commie selves. Our sin, teaching about China in our world history courses. My colleagues just before I joined the faculty had been tarred as communists by local Birchers. (amusingly our most conservative faculty member – who was known as a not very inspiring teacher – had his feelings hurt by not being included on the list of ‘dangerous teachers’ as the list was clearly the best teachers on the faculty. (and FWIW not a commie amongst them — just people who had a gift for stimulating thought and debate in the young.)

      In the 70s they dropped the government requirement for their students and that was happening all over. Today’s students even in excellent school systems like Bellevue’s are now largely ignorant of the principles of the country’s founding or of the system of government and the Constitution. Having devoted my life to citizenship education — first teaching in HS then later doing research and teaching in a university in this field, I feel my life work has been utterly a waste.

  6. jaango1 says:

    Today’s academics have to take into consideration of where Pragmatism becomes a Future-Focus and where Demographics is taken into our consideration relative to future behavior. Take, for example, within the next twenty years, the Opinion Makers will be long gone to a better life that the generations that came before them did not necessarily enjoy.

    Consequently, if the demographics are proven be somewhat accurate, half of our population will remain White, while consolidating ourselves into Racial and Ethnics. Thus, Pragmatism will come to define itself as non-racist and for a wholesale unity that is premised on Non-Hate.

    And lastly, I commend Ed for his eloquence as well as his hard driving diligence for having crafted this thread on Pragmatism. Of course, more can be said on my part for his being a ‘smarty’.

  7. Ed Walker says:

    Let me elaborate a bit on the subject of thinking. Dewey thought that the scientific method was a great way to think. And so do I. As I read this book, I got the strong impression Dewey thought we could teach almost anyone to use the scientific method at least to some extent. He was convinced it offered the best way to make decisions about solving political problems.

    I think there are many other ways to think about things, some of which I outline here. Those methods lead to formulation of conceptual tools we can use to solve problems, or to accurate descriptions of our current situation and how we got here. These are not so accessible to everyone partly because they are more abstract, and partly because they require massive piles of information and years of training. For example, lawyers learn a method of thinking that infuses their practices as lawyers, and it frequently invades their private lives. People who haven’t learned that skill fail regularly in predicting the outcomes of legal cases.

    But all methods of thought require the will to reach the best outcome. As we learned from Charles Peirce, thinking is hard work, so we only do it to satisfy the discomfort created by doubts. Once we have an answer, any answer, we are satisfied.

    To reconcile Dewey’s view with this less optimistic view, I think we should assume that for Dewey, what Peirce is describing isn’t thinking in the sense of free inquiry. Peirce’ kind of thinking is directed solely by the desire to relieve oneself of discomfort. Dewey thinks we can teach ourselves to look for the best solution.

    Thus, in my view, Douthat isn’t engaged in free inquiry. I could argue that he is discomforted by the reality that people smarter and more well-regarded than he is flatly disagree with his world view. So, he tries to relieve himself of discomfort by stringing together some words that feel good to him. and to others who hold his world view.

    I rarely see him actually engage with the original writings of leftists. Maybe he’s the proof that Dewey is too optimistic about whether people can be taught free inquiry.

    • Silly but True says:

      A science-centric based approach leads to a rather pessimistic, but certainly valid observations for what we’re now experiencing: the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which is essentially a universal law about inefficiency and its resulting decay.

      We can only hope the tendency towards entropy is a reversible state of our government and not an irreversible state, where combined entropy of the system must be greater than the initial entropy.

      Because otherwise all we do, especially endless movement between political ends or extremes of a spectrum, must eventually mean the end of that system.

      It tells us that if untended, say by as much as 70% of eligible voters choosing to withhold their energy from the political process, that the system will decay.

      The solution to this unrelenting, perpetual decay is to continue pouring more energy into the system. That must be done even just to maintain the status quo. If you want to actually change or improve the system, jeez, that is going to take some work!

  8. Bobster33 says:

    An interesting review of values of Americans is presented in Albion’s Seed where the author David Fischer defines our values based on the four major immigration waves from England. Take the value of liberty. For the Calvinists (Virginia), liberty meant you had liberty to what you wanted provided you remember your station. Nobles go to do anything, but servants were restricted to doing what servants are allowed to do. For the Puritans (New England), liberty meant you could do what you wanted within the fixed structure of society. Puritans fixed society by their design of the town structure, church on Sundays, etc. It is why every f#@% New England town looks the same. Quakers (mid Atlantic) required that the society just work. They sought to find common ground in a functioning society which is why NWC became a melting pot of different groups, that found a way to just make things work. For the Borderlanders (South and Appalachia), liberty meant “you can’t tell me what to do.”

    It’s interesting to see how our modern America reflects the regions and values presented by the book. And it is interesting on how our founding fathers understood these differences. Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence seemingly knew the four differences in the meaning of the word liberty when he wrote, “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    • Epicurus says:

      Daniel Boorstin’s “The Americans: The Colonial Experience”, the first in a trilogy, has a similar discussion. The four sections of part one are The Puritans, The Quakers, The Settlers of Georgia, and The Virginians. Part two has a discussion of creation of the American frame of mind, including, education, law, medicine, and science.

  9. skua says:

    The understanding of “theory” I’ve got is that it is a fairly stable way of explaining a phenomeon. What I see Ma and Pa American conservatives doing, from from this distance, does not appear to have any fairly stable theory at its centre.
    Rather they appear to be motivated by an emotional revulsion of all right-centrist, left and progressive politics. And will change from their theory-of-the-day to its opposite if that will serve their purpose of rejecting and attacking their hated target better. If Trump is paying for abortions then theory will be created make continuing to support him virtuous, if Biden supports women being provided with fair access to abortions then theory will be created that makes Biden into a demonic corrupter of America. If Trump lies, claiming he’ll make the countrtry into a big loving family, then being part of a national family is suddenly an obvious good for American conservatives.
    It’s very possible that, at this distance, I’m wrong, and missing what Ed is pointing at about conservatives’ use of theory.

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