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The Public’s Problems In Finding Itself

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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.

Discussion

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.

The Two Communities And The Future Of Democracy

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems is a rich statement of much of Dewey’s thinking on knowledge, science, and psychology, all brought to bear on the question of what is needed to bring us closer to an ideal community and an ideal democracy. I’ve discussed some of these points in the last two posts. Here I look at two more points, and conclude the discussion of this chapter on a sour note.

1. In the previous post, I quoted this:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

This idea is central to Dewey’s concept of the nature of a community. We think of ourselves as separate individuals. Certainly in private settings we are. But we are much more than that. In public settings, such as work, team sports, Church, and in government service, we become more. Our understanding of ourselves is completely different when we act as part of a group or a family. In the work setting and in government service we have responsibilities and powers we don’t have as individuals. In our Churches, we are affected by worship and service, in self-examination and openness to forces beyond ourselves.  When we play basketball with others, we have different roles, and our success or failure comes from the actions of all of us.

One of the main things that links us in our different roles is a common understanding of the situation in front of us. That includes both the context of the norms of our society, “its beliefs, desires and methods”, and the nature of the contending forces. Norms set limits on our behavior, especially our interactions with others. They channel our actions in ways deemed socially useful. Deviations can cause us problems. Negotiating changes is a long-term project.

2. Dewey thinks that habits of thought frequently blind us to the need for change. He says that for most of us habits of thought are so deeply engrained that we cannot truly question them. When these habits are activated, we respond to abstract concepts instead of to the merits of the proposition. Here’s Dewey’s example:

One of its commonest [bad habits of thought] is a truly religious idealization of, and reverence for, established institutions; for example in our own politics, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, private property, free contract and so on. The words “sacred” and “sanctity” come readily to our lips when such things come under discussion. P. 192-3.

This must have been shocking to Dewey’s audience (recall that this book is a series of lectures). I picture gun fetishists braying about their sacred Second Amendment rights which have existed from all eternity, or at least 1791. Hilarious bewilderment follows when they’re confronted with Dewey’s statement that their sacred rights are subject to change.

Change might come from a new group of Justices who see fit to reject the mummery drooled by the intellectually dishonest hacks who signed on to the Heller opinion. Change can come because we as a nation are entitled to move on from the dictates of the long-dead Founders which merely resolved the political problems they faced. We can make our own rules fit for our purposes. For example, we are even free to adjust the absurd idea that a democracy can function under the dead weight of unaccountable life-tenured ancients acting as a bevy of Platonic Guardians. [H/T Learned Hand]

That last is a good example of throwing off bad habits of thought. I was a lawyer for many years and defended the role of SCOTUS. Now I just see it as one of many obstacles to democracy, an institution in desperate need of rethinking. In a similar way, the prison abolition people and the defund the police people are demanding close inquiry into the roles of major institutions. Dewey would be pleased, I think.

Conclusion on Chapter 5

It’s helpful to think of democracy as the natural form of government for a healthy community. As a nation we need knowledge of the situation, reasonable means for discourse on those problems, conceptual tools that enable us to do a good analysis, and the willingness to proceed even when we are uncertain of the best path, with the idea that we will change direction if our first solutions don’t work, and with a commitment to facing the problems our solutions create.  Only then can we forge a community and a democracy.

In other works, Dewey emphasizes the importance of a good education for all citizens as a key to a functioning democracy. Dewey doesn’t say it, but we also need to conduct ourselves in good faith.

Dewey doesn’t try to apply these ideas to his time, and disclaims the ability to suggest practical steps towards a healthy community. I think our problem is that there are forces at work that are aggressively trying to create a massive divide in our nation, as if we are two competing communities. The Republicans are hell-bent on creating an alternate reality, one that has few points of contact with the world as I see it. Theirs is the world of the Big Lie, Qanon, Trump as an anointed savior sent by the Almighty, a vaccine that causes people to shed something something that upsets menstrual cycles and causes sterility, science denial, patriarchy, and unthinking acceptance of gibberish readings of ancient texts. It’s also a world in which only unfettered capitalism can save us.

One of their tactics is attacking the conceeptual tools we use to understand our selves and our society. A recent example is the redefinition of Critical Race Theory. This tool begins with the idea that what and who we are is largely shaped by our institutions and power structures, just as Dewey suggests. Critical Race Theory looks at the way our legal system and the power structures it supports interact with race. The Right Wing media translates this into “being white is bad”, or “all white people are racists” or some similar stupid lie. This is a deliberate attack on a conceptual tool that may be of great value.

This has been running side-by-side with the effort of Christian Fundamentalism to create a separate world for its adherents, perhaps with a long-term goal of turning the government into a Christian Theocracy. That includes Seg Schools, havens for White Christian Children safe from the unChristians and other rabble, Christian Rock music, creationism and other forms of fake science, home schooling, and colleges in which the devils of secular humanism can be expelled along with anything that threatens their world view.

These trends now include adherence to a limited range of self-sorted media and social media platforms where the two groups intermingle to some extent, or perhaps where the dominant class teaches the subordinate class what to believe and how to think.

To see these trends, see this by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, and this by Eric Levits in New York Magazine.

I do not see anything in Chapter 5 that helps me even begin to think about this problem. I’ll just say again following Pierre Bourdieu that the the right wing part of the dominant class is using this division to maintain its own position and serve its own desires. The sane part of the dominant class can’t seem to do anything about this division, assuming it opposes the division.

Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To Form Community

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only exists in communities. Just as there has never been and will never be an ideal democracy, there has never been and will never be a perfect community.

Human beings have always worked together on joint projects as a matter of course. Dewey says community arises when people begin to share signs and symbols that enable communication. They talk about their conjoint efforts, to remember and record them, to discuss them, to take pleasure in the accomplishment, to work out how to share in the accomplishment, to talk about ways to do the project better, and to talk about other possible conjoint activity. [1]

1. He starts with this simple proposition, which we’ve seen before in other discussions of his work:

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native, even though it could not be learned without native structures which mark man off from other animals. To learn in a human way and to human effect is not just to acquire added skill through refinement of original capacities.

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

The communication Dewey describes lies in sharing the meanings attached to our words and symbols. It only works if there is shared understanding of those meanings and accurate recounting and recording of beliefs, desires, and methods. This enables the group to come to a reasonably clear view of the situation facing the community, to resolve problems, and to make decisions about the future course of conjoint activity.

2. Knowledge can be kept private, or held close by a few. In the latter case, it can be used to further the interests of the few instead of the community at large. That is the usual case in societies controlled by economic interests. When knowledge is widely and freely held, the community can give careful consideration to the potential outcomes of different uses and results, and it is more likely that those usages will be broader in scope and that the outcomes will benefit the community as a whole.

3. The formation of habits of behavior and thinking makes it possible for us to cope with a complex and changing environment by freeing us to focus on significant changes in the environment. When we experience something that calls our habits into question, we move out of the realm of habit into the realm of actual thinking, which Dewey calls inquiry. Rational directed linear thought is itself a specialized habit, learned with great effort by a few, scientists, philosophers, writers, and only infrequently practiced by them. This is Dewey’s flat dismissal of neoliberalism’s rational man perspective.

4. Dewey says that people expected that with new democratic forms of government the industrial revolution would change things and lead to greater community control. But the habit of kowtowing to the social hierarchy intervened, and nothing really changed. Most of the same people stayed in power, with some new people added from the industrialist class and some of the aristos dropped.

Discussion

Dewey’s thoughts on habit are close to those of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus, discussed in this series. Bourdieu made it his life’s work to study how the dominant class reproduces itself in ways that hide the continuity of domination from itself as well as from the submissive class, so that it seems natural and just and the submissive class doesn’t revolt. That’s what Dewey is talking about when he says that habits of thought were so strong that even the tumultuous changes of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy were unable to shake up long-standing power structures,

Bourdieu offers a modified explanation: he says habitus comes from experience and from class structures. See this post for a discussion of habitus.

ONe obvious bad habit is trusting authorities blindly. We think “Tucker Carlson said it” or “I saw it in the New York Times”; and then we just accept it as true, even if a bit of thought would cause us to question it.

Our habits of thought can also be obstacles to learning new things, especially things that seem radically new. Think about what it would be like to be a farmer in Copernicus’ time, and to be told that the earth revolves around the sun. Or think about what it would be like to be a devout Christian when Darwin explained the origins of the species homo sapiens. If you didn’t understand the methods used by Copernicus and Darwin, and didn’t understand the chains of thought that led to their theories, it would be very hard to accept them. Then add to that the threat to your religious beliefs, and the possibility that accepting these new views would lead to eternal damnation.

Your original ideas were engrained from infancy. One you learned from direct experience. The other was taught by your whole society and was reinforced regularly throughout your life. Changing one’s mind about these things requires a tremendous commitment, intellectual daring, and at least some community support.

Now think about the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. The mechanism is new for most of us. The technology seems exotic, and even scary. There are links to fetal stem cells. Management of the pandemic was politicized by Republican politicians. Some Democrats publicly worried about the possible politicization of the FDA, which was sadly realistic, but added to the idea that politics was involved.

Black and Brown people had reason to worry that the testing was inadequate, and that they were being made test subjects as their forebears were, repeatedly. Anti-vaxxers made all sorts of maddening claims about the dangers. The new technology scared people who had previously driven themselves into conniptions over earlier vaccines. Very few of us understand the science behind the creation, manufacture and testing of mRNA vaccines.

The government did nothing to teach the facts. People wallowed in ignorance. And now we may never achieve herd immunity, meaning we are condemned to a future of regular and unpleasant vaccinations.

Far too many of us have lost the ability to reconsider our habits of thought even when they produce absurd or dangerous outcomes. Prominent Democrats drink the blood of children? Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines? But I’m not sure how open our society is to new ideas at any level, particularly ideas around status, dominance and power.

As Dewey says,

Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines; a specialized occupation. Scientific men, philosophers, literary persons, are not men and women who have so broken the bonds of habits that pure reason and emotion undefiled by use and wont speak through them. They are persons of a specialized infrequent habit. P 185.

This is an ugly picture of almost all politicians, and almost all of the pundits and media personalities who cover them, and far too many of us. It’s hard to see how the nascent US Public can identify itself when so many of us have such bad habits of thought. It makes you wonder if the dominant class uses this failure to cement itself in power.
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[1] Here’s the text summarizing several pages from which I gathered this idea:

A community thus presents an order of energies transmuted into one of meanings which are appreciated and mutually referred by each to every other on the part of those engaged in combined action. “Force” is not eliminated but is transformed in use and direction by ideas and sentiments made possible by means of symbols. P. 179-80.

The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and adjusted and accepted by the SDS, asserts that the left needs both a program and a vision. The value section gives the vision. Those values are reflected in the critique of society. Hayden says that social structures of the early 60s were stultifying. Young people go from formative experiences in college to positions in the adult world for which they were prepared.

The fraternity president is seen at the junior manager levels; the sorority queen has gone to Grosse Pointe: the serious poet burns for a place, any place, or work; the once-serious and never serious poets work at the advertising agencies.

No one questions the system. The elites explain this passivity as evidence that people are satisfied with the status quo. But how can that be if people haven’t learned about alternatives, or how to change things, or about the actual power that have? Or, the elites claim that actual issues are disappearing. But they control the media and the education system, so how would we know otherwise? Other elites claim that “democracy never worked anywhere in the past”. But “… how can a social order work well if its best thinkers are skeptics, and is man really doomed forever to the domination of today?”

Universal apathy is reinforced by the existing power structure, which separates the public from full knowledge of the facts, and protects decision-makers from the public. Socially isolated citizens have no way to grasp how their world works. Hayden uses Dewey’s language around “publics”.

The very isolation of the individual — from power and community and ability to aspire — means the rise of a democracy without publics.

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Hayden identifies several reasons for this. First, the policy differences within both of the main parties are greater than the differences between the parties. Mostly this means that the Dixiecrats are more like the Republicans than they are either mainstream Democrats or liberal Republicans. The rigidity is increased by the seniority system in the Democratic Party, where most committees are chaired by Dixiecrats, and the system gives these chairs enormous power to enforce their wills.

Second, there is a bias towards local concerns. Legislators are more interested in trying to stay on the good side of their voters, even when the interests of those voters runs contrary to the national interest. Therefore politics fails to confront national and international issues in a smart way.

Third, whole communities are unrepresented: Black people, particularly in the South, migrant workers, poor people, and urban and suburban people gerrymandered into districts where they do not count

Fourth, all of this is made much worse by corporate power, expressed through lobbying and special access.

These forces work together to calcify politics, and weaken government, especially the legislature. Image and charisma replace thoughtfulness and insight. Voters are confronted with “pseudo-problems”, but actual problems are not addressed, let alone solved, by a weakened government. The confusion and lack of results lead to worse apathy. Politicians do nothing about this state of affairs; in fact, they support it.

The dominant feature of politics in 1962 was anti-communism. Public apathy and ignorance open the way for highly nationalistic, conservative anti-communists. These people took over the Republican party under the leadership of Barry Goldwater.

Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.

The economy has a few elements of social support, but for the most part it contributes to the malaise. Hayden says we live in a “national celebration of economic prosperity”, but millions live in poverty and deprivation. Work is “unfulfilling and victimizing”, but it’s the only means to achieve financial security. We think we are free because we live in a free enterprise world.

People are excluded from control over their work lives. The rich and their corporations run the country. They dominate the fabric of social life. Government is not a countervailing force protecting citizens.

The military industrial complex is another dominant force. The cooperation between corporations and the military is crystalized by the statement of Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, who lauded the creation of the “permanent war economy.”

There’s more, but that gives a good flavor of the critique.

Discussion

1. The Port Huron Statement was written nearly 60 years ago, and 35 years after the publication of The Public And Its problems. I think it still serves both as a statement of values and as a social critique. True, it doesn’t mention women or the LGBTQ community, and its discussion of racism and the labor movements is weak. Some of the issues are no longer relevant, like the Dixiecrats. But these criticisms can be addressed within its framework.

2. Dewey says that corporations and the rich control political discussion. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the vast majority. Most people can’t even articulate their own interests because of the confusion and dissembling of the wealthy and their minions. Dewey thinks that a good society is one in which individuals have agency in all aspects of their lives.

The Port Huron Statement puts those concerns in the center of the discussion. Hayden adds discussion of the role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it. That shows the influence of C. Wright Mills, especially his book The Power Elite.

3. The critiques of Dewey, Mills, and Hayden of the way democracy is actually working in America could all have been written today, with only minor changes. Mill’s power elites still run things. Issues of social inclusion are still a huge problem. National discourse is still confused by lies and distortions that serve the rich at the expense of everyone else. It is still difficult for citizens to recognize themselves as publics, capable of pursuing their own interests. The average person has little agency. Americans are divided by manipulation of pseudo-issues.

As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs. At the same time, a huge number of Americans are suffering under a catastrophic pandemic and the effects of deteriorating infrastructure, chemical pollution, and climate change.

A significant majority of us want the government to act. Courts offer years of delay to any objection from almost anyone. Most legislators are locked into their ancient games. Legislators who have internalized the values of the rich, or who are corrupt, or just stupid and indifferent, use senate procedure to block necessary changes. The dissemblers and liars raise absurd questions like “do they deserve it?” and “how do we pay for it?”, questions never asked about the demands of the rich. Anything that works for the common good is labeled Communist. Those arguments and tactics have been used at least 120 years.

This history is evidence of another of Dewey’s basic principles: democracy is a project of a community, never a finished product.

Finding The Public In A Complex Society

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In the last two posts we looked at Dewey’s idealized form of democracy. In Chapter 4 of The Public And Its Problems, Dewey desribes some of the obstacles citizens face in identifying themselves as a public, as a group capable of organizing to solve its problems. The obstacles he describes never went away.

He begins by pointing out that our form of democracy originated in small communities, based on town meetings and elections of neighbors to carry out the solutions reached through those meetings. Waves of industrialization and immigration created giant urban communities. Absorbing and socializing those groups into urban American life went quite well considering the enormous difficulties. But:

In spite of attained integration, or rather perhaps because of its nature, the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered. The government, officials and their activities are plainly with us. … But where is the public which these officials are supposed to represent? How much more is it than geographical names and official titles? P. 149-50; fn omitted.

The effort to adapt the politics of the small town to densely packed urban areas worked well enough to prevent the nation from falling into civil strife, but was not robust enough to deal with urban problems let alone national issues. Dewey describes the drop in the percentage of the population who voted and the cynicism that many show to the process.

Those still more inclined to generalization assert that the whole apparatus of political activities is a kind of protective coloration to conceal the fact that big business rules the governmental roost in any case. Business is the order of the day, and the attempt to stop or deflect its course is as futile as Mrs. Partington essaying to sweep back the tides with a broom. P. 151; fn omitted]

This accords with what he wrote in Chapter 3. We are not so much a nation of self-motivated individuals as a interchangeable group of “standardized units”, a phrase with echoes of neoliberal Homo Economics. These units are driven into corporations or other huge organizations for economic purposes not voluntarily but by the need to make a living.

[Corporations] are so massive and extensive that they determine the most significant constituents of the public and the residence of power. Inevitably they reach out to grasp the agencies of government; they are controlling factors in legislation and administration. Not chiefly because of deliberate and planned self-interest, large as may be its rôle, but because they are the most potent and best organized of social forces. P. 142.

This obstacle is exacerbated by the existence of political machines and other groups who insert themselves between individuals and the state; and use this position for their own ends.

Dewey identifies other things standing in the way of a public trying to recognize itself.

1. Political parties don’t do policy, and policy is never the issue in elections. He points to the fact that child labor laws are supported by a large public majority, but neither party makes them an election issue, or pushes the necessary Constitutional Amendment. This reminds us that SCOTUS struck down Child Labor Laws in a typical anti-democratic action by a 5-4 majority of conservatives.

2. Elected officials are rarely held to account by the electorate for specific votes or positions. Instead, the primary determinant seems to be a general consensus about the overall state of things.

3. Public relations experts manipulate the attention and energy of the public to focus on non-political matters. This leaves the experts and their sponsors to manage political activity for their own ends. Even non-corrupt leaders use theories developed for altogether different purposes and developed in different circumstances.

4. Mass societies lead to the disintegration of small communities where people develop the habit of participation in politics.

5. Mass societies create complex problems beyond the ability of a non-specialist to grasp. Of course, the consequences of the decisions made by specialists are clear. But see point 2.

6. It is difficult to apply even a simple political principle in a large society. Dewey gives two examples. Southerners claim to favor small government. They also claim to want to prevent drinking alcohol. But Prohibition requires a larger government. Farmers want small government, but also want fair railroad freight rates. That requires a large government bureaucracy.

7. Apathy sets in when it becomes difficult to identify issues, as is the case in a complex society, especially when traditional political slogans lose their meaning. People vote against one or the other party based on adherence to worn-out ideas when they bother to vote.

8.

The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public. Man is a consuming and sportive animal as well as a political one. P. 167.

9. Earlier American communities were stable. But technological forces create instability, mobility and constant change. “Steam and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all the agencies which affected human relationships before our time.” P. 169. This makes if difficult to formulate a sense of solidarity that is necessary to create a public.

These factors have confused citizens and made it difficult for them to recognize themselves as a public with problems that require organization to create a solution. Dewey offers his thoughts on solutions in chapter 5.

Discussion

The problems Dewey identifies are worse today that they were 100 years ago. Occasionally catastrophes have forced us to demolish those obstacles, and face up to life and death situations that can only be solved as a group. After WWII, there was a brief time, the time of my childhood, when the problems had not completely overwhelmed a sense of national community, when we slowly began to see real changes. It was short-lived, partly destroyed by endemic racism and an immoral war, and partly by a group of right-wing rich people and their economic theorist enablers. It was finished off by yet another economic nightmare. Catastrophic stagflation in the mid- to late 70s was met with neoliberal solutions, and the same for the following economic crashes, through the Great Crash and the Great Recession. We were distracted, unable to protect ourselves while our nation slowly fell apart.

Then came the pandemic. While we were locked down we saw the horrifying killing of George Floyd, which came on the heels of so many other police killings of unarmed Black people. We saw massive protests often met with state and right-wing violence. We saw the horror of the second and third waves of the pandemic, and the disgusting behavior of the former guy and the antics of his incompetent administration. We watched his absurd lawyers hack at our election. Then we saw the Capitol Insurrection. There weren’t any distractions, no manipulations that could hide it. [1] We were able to see ourselves as a public.

I hope this is a permanent change.
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[1] I first saw this observation in a tweet from Jemele Hill (@jemelehill). Added on edit.

Dewey’s Functional Description Of Democracy

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In this post I described Dewey’s theoretical description of democracy:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s a functional definition, not a poetic one; it doesn’t conjure up images of purple mountain majesties. It’s not even exactly a definition, though I’ll use the word. In the same way Dewey’s descriptions of the public and the state aren’t exactly definitions. I have high hopes for Dewey’s conception of government, this bare theory, this skeleton on which we can build. As we consider these descriptions we can see the limits of theory, and particularly the limits of philosophy. [1]

The Problem of the Public

Dewey says that the Public is a group of people who face problems arising from the conjoint actions of others. That makes a lot of sense in a small community. People might be worried about speeding in their neighborhood. That’s a specific group of people, a public, facing a specific problem with a relatively small set of solutions, and a hierarchy of officials who are charged with handling problems like this.

The problem is that this description doesn’t translate well to a larger society. Our huge society contains an enormous number of publics, and we’re all members of more than one. What does this mean for actual practice? In Chapter 4, Dewey says that publics are confused by their own multiplicity and find it hard to identify themselves as publics. This problem is hard to unravel. For now, I’ll just point out that this creates problem when others in a public have different priorities, and even bigger problems as more people are drawn into a single public.

Selecting Officials

The two legacy parties each select one person to run in the general election in what is most often a two-person contest. Some people assert allegiance to one of the parties, and others pick and choose candidates from both. One wins. The elected group meets and carries out its duties, representing the public interests. The idea is that the group representing one public will work with the group representing the opposing public to come to a decision that somehow reflects the interests of both. That presents many problems, not least of which is the plain fact that some of those winners refuse to compromise.

1. The schematic story hides the influence of the rich and powerful, who come to dominate the system, a point Dewey discusses. If there is a large group of single-issue voters, they can have similar power on that issue, even if their demand on that issue is rejected by a substantial majority. A politician might work to create large group of single-issue voters as a springboard to election.

2. Is there a common ground between two opposing publics? We might think there is common ground in the center, with the two wings complaining about losing. How does that work with racism? Consider abortion. If there were a middle ground, why isn’t it Roe v. Wade?

3. It’s one thing for officials to make decisions about how to proceed with legislation or administration of law when there is general agreement. But it’s extremely hard when the public is genuinely divided. Consider systemic racism. Apart from a significant number of outright racists and white supremacists, a huge number of us refuse even to examine the question seriously, as was demonstrated in the Merrick Garland hearings by Louisiana Sen. Kennedy:

Later, Kennedy pushed Garland on the “concept” of implicit bias, asking, “Does that mean I am a racist no matter what I do or what I think?”

Garland said everyone has biases and stereotypes. The department would investigate when an institution has a pattern of biased behavior that could be identified and remedied.

“You shouldn’t take it as pejorative,” Garland said. “It’s an element of the human condition.”

4. What kind of problem is amenable to solution by the state? People can claim that many of the actions of others are a problem for them, and demand state action. Dewey’s descriptions don’t give us any help deciding which problems we should hand over to the state for solution.

What can we learn from Dewey?

A. The definitions and concepts Dewey uses to deal with government don’t lead to normative conclusions. The idea of democracy is that the best solutions for specific problems arise from open-ended informed discussion. There are no foundational concepts [3] that we can use to reason our way to answers. Put another way, politics is the realm of persuasion, not of deterministic rationality. Dewey’s approach establishes a framework for persuasion.

B. I think it’s helpful in stressful times to remember that the goal of a public is to deal with a certain kind of problem.

Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences. P. 157.

Consider prayer in public school. What is the conjoint action that has extensive, enduring and serious consequences of barring prayer in public schools?

I think we should be very careful about forcing public officials to deal with abstract harms; and I think, or hope, Dewey would agree. If an issue doesn’t involve a tangible harm caused by the conjoint action of other people, it should be avoided. Most culture war issues only raise abstract harm, if they bother claiming any kind of harm. Marriage is the perfect example. Not a single person is harmed when people are allowed to marry the people they love. But denying that right harms real people. There are real problems causing tremendous damage to all of us: the pandemic, racism, climate destruction and more. We need to focus on problems we can actually fix.

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[1] As we will see, the rest of the book is about how things work in the real world.

[2] Oddly, these are the same people waving Don’t Tread On Me flags.

[3] I’ve been trying to learn about conservative political philosophy as in Oakeshott and Strauss. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it later. Here I’ll just note that systems that claim to be able to identify the foundations of political philosophy seem likely to lead to bad outcomes. If you are certain of the truth, why shouldn’t you use force to bring it about?

Failing At Democracy

Posts in this series.

One of the reasons I read old books is that they help me understand the chaotic events of our current times. In The Public And Its Problems, John Dewey lays out a theory of the democratic state, and as we shall see, we are doing badly at it.

Recall that the public is a group of people who have common interests that need to be addressed, usually arising from the actions of other people. The public empowers certain of its members with the task of representing and protecting those interests. We call the aggregate of those people the state. [1]

The origins of the state.

This description implicitly separates “the state” from specific forms of government. Any reasonably large group of people has some form of government, and the bigger the group the more complex the government. In order for there to be a state, there must be a public.

It may be said that not until recently have publics been conscious that they were publics, so that it is absurd to speak of their organizing themselves to protect and secure their interests. Hence states are a recent development. Chapter 3, The Democratic State, p. 116.

One way to think about this is that the modern self-aware public evolved from prior traditional societies. The serfs in a feudal society generally do not see themselves as participants in government, but as fulfilling pre-ordained social roles.

What is a Democratic State?

Dewey likes this definition:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s not a soaring aspiration. It’s a functional description of what has to be done. The democratic state needs two things: 1) a system for the public to select its officials; and 2) a system for regulating the conduct of officials.

Selection of officials.

In the US, we elect a small group of officials, and they in turn select others for subsidiary roles. The public, all of us, are responsible for selecting officials who will represent our interests in conflicts with individuals or groups of people, as corporations and militias. The public may fail at its task by selecting people who use their position to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the public or otherwise. Dewey says the crucial step is the selection of the right people. [2]

Regulating the Conduct of Officials.

The US Constitution provides two methods for regulating officials. These are impeachment, in the case of the executive and judicial branches, and expulsion, for the legislative branch. These are supplemented by rules that allow for sanctions short of removal, such as censure, and formal means for investigation through committees. There are statutes and formal regulations that constrain conduct of other officials, and many informal rules, now called norms. These laws and rules provide for sanctions.

The evolution of political democracy.

Political democratic states in Western Europe and North America evolved from older forms of government as the result of many small non-political developments. Dewey emphatically denies that these changes were driven by some overarching cause, such as an innate desire for democracy, or by dramatic changes in philosophical theories.

But theories of the nature of the individual and his rights, of freedom and authority, progress and order, liberty and law, of the common good and a general will, of democracy itself, did not produce the movement. They reflected it in thought; after they emerged, they entered into subsequent strivings and had practical effect. P. 123.

As an example, the ideas of John Locke were one of the theoretical sources for the Founding Fathers. His ideas are grounded in the rising economics of mercantilism, the attenuation of religious hegemony, and rising scientific understanding. He seems to be arguing against earlier thinkers grounded in earlier social, cultural, and intellectual structures. [3] Democracy was not the driving force of any of these changes. It emerged as a solution to the societal problems these non-political changes created.

Dewey doesn’t try to explain the entire evolution. He points to just two factors. First, the changes that led to democracy were driven by a fear of government and a desire to keep it to a minimum. This seems like a plausible reaction to an all-powerful monarchy, as existed in England and France, for example. Earlier governments were tied into other institutions, like the Church, and these too were feared or loathed. These institutions came to be seen as oppressive, not to groups of people but to individuals. There was already a growing tendency to think of the individual as the atomic unit. [4[ For Dewey, individualism was the result. [5]

The second important factor is the rise of science and technology. Over time it created changes in the nature of productive work and increased the range of consumer goods. People of all classes wanted more. The old rules became obstacles, and people began to question these rules and the system that produced them.

The old conception of Natural Law as the source of morality merged with the new idea that laissez-faire economics was a natural law in a synthesis that opposed artificial political laws. This led to the conclusion that government interference in property was bad, if not a moral evil, and the role of government should be little more than to protect property rights and personal integrity.

This is an overly simplified history, even more simplified by me, but it gives an idea of the genesis democracy as Dewey defines it. It leads to the conclusion that government officials are likely to be bad, so we should have short terms and serious control.

Problems arising from large organizations.

In earlier times, people’s primary relationships were face-to-face, family, friends, co-workers, church members, local people. The government was hardly relevant in day-to-day life. Its primary impact was taxes, the occasional war, and a few laws. By the time Dewey is writing, the primary relationships were impersonal, the individual was facing large corporate organizations in many aspects of life, including productive work. The state acted directly acted on individuals, touching their lives in many ways.

Group, or conjoint, action through business entities rivals the government in impact on individuals. Businesses “reach out to grasp the agencies of government;” not out of evil intent necessarily, but because they are the best organized groups of people. Even so, the power of these organizations has been controlled and directed by the state to some extent, and more is possible.

Discussion.

The second impeachment of Trump shows us that as a nation we have done badly at democracy. We elected unfit officials, people who are stupid, venal, conspiracy-ridden, power-maddened or a combination. Unfit legislators have for decades let the executive branch do monstrous things and refused to hold any of them accountable. The unfit people who staff our courts at all levels, but especially the unconstrained ideologues of SCOTUS have stymied legislative power, and have limited accountability of government and business elites with their pronouncements. Prosecutors are at fault as well, because they refuse even to investigate powerful private entities and their executives.

We fail democracy if we do not carry out our responsibility to regulate the conduct of our officials, and continue to select unfit people as our officials.

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[1] I discuss these matter in detail in earlier posts, especially … and ….

[2] Dewey discusses different ways in which leaders were selected in earlier times, which I skip. It’s worth noting that we still elect people who met those irrelevant criteria: military and religious leaders, children of officials, charismatic people, and old white men. Pp. 117-9.

[3] I agree with Dewey about this, but it’s very far afield.

[4] Think of Descartes, sunk in self-contemplation. We also see it in Locke.

[5] Individualism lies at the heart of social contract theory and neoliberalism. Dewey rejects social contract theory.

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.
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[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.

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.

Discussion

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.

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[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.

The Public And Its Problems By John Dewey

People don’t agree about things, and they can’t always be brought to consensus on important issues. But we have to do something; we can’t just let problems fester. [1] In The Public And Its Problems John Dewey discusses his ideas for the operation of democratic government. The first posts in this series focus on Chapter One, which you can read here. There are two themes, the method Dewey will follow, and the definition of “public” for his purposes. In this post I look at method.

The basis of Dewey’s method is Pragmatism. [2] He starts with the observation that facts do not carry meanings on their face. That is just as true of scientific facts as it is of social facts. We believe in gravity because we experience it. We believe in Newton’s Law Of Gravity because of the method by which it was developed: careful observation, measurement, the repeatability of the measurement and observation, the trustworthiness of the observer/measurer, and more. In general, it is the method that establishes the law, not any one fact. This is true of social science too.

Dewey writes:

No one is ever forced by just the collection of facts to accept a particular theory of their meaning, so long as one retains intact some other doctrine by which he can marshal them. Only when the facts are allowed free play for the suggestion of new points of view is any significant conversion of conviction as to meaning possible. P. 59. [3]

The first sentence refers us back to Charles Peirce’s idea that we only have a reason to change our minds if we have some conflict. As long as we don’t sense a conflict between two of our beliefs, we feel no necessity to doubt our views or to change our minds.

The second sentence offers another reason to change our mind. When facts are allowed free play, when they are brought into the widest context possible, when we can freely put them together in different ways, we can create new constellations that might give us a wholly new understanding.

This is a step one person can take. Einstein, for example, allowed facts to float free in his own mind, and came up with radically new ideas. But most of us aren’t Einstein. We can do some of this in our own mind, but we can do much more if we interact with other people all looking at the same problem with their own personal points of view. That only works, though, if we are not committed to a doctrinal understanding which we refuse to yield. [1]

Dewey says we can all look at the actions of elected officials, bureaucrats, and other organs of the government and agree on the facts of what they are doing. That isn’t enough, though, because facts don’t carry meanings. He then describes a number of theories of the state, including those more or less attributable to Aristotle, Hume, Rousseau and Marx. [4] These theories conflict in fundamental ways. The societies they produce differ also, in ways large and small. Dewey recognizes that the theories are actually used in the formation of governments, along with the facts on the ground.

Here’s my example. The Founders of the US government inherited many institutions from England, and a few from other countries, including legal structures and general ideas about governance, some of which they accepted, and others they dismissed. Colonial governments had created some institutions and theories. There was a heavy dose of Enlightenment thinkers. There were power/money issues, slavery chief among them, but also the different sizes of the original thirteen colonies. These and many others interact in the formation of our state.

Trying to come up with a causal theory of a real state like the US is useless, according to Dewey.

One way out of the impasse is to consign the whole matter of meaning and interpretation to political philosophy as distinguished from political science. Then it can be pointed out that futile speculation is a companion of all philosophy. The moral is to drop all doctrines of this kind overboard, and stick to facts verifiably ascertained. P. 61.

He defines two different kinds of facts.

But the difference between facts which are what they are independent of human desire and endeavor and facts which are to some extent what they are because of human interest and purpose, and which alter with alteration in the latter, cannot be got rid of by any methodology. P 62.

Gravity is a fact which is utterly independent of human desire, interest or purpose. We can study its effects, and think about it in different ways, but we cannot reject it or affect it. The office of County Assessor is a fact, but it is strictly a fact for human purposes, and can be changed or eliminated. We have to consider this in any effort to understand the state .

The first step in is to find a starting point, a set of facts that will enable us to proceed. I’ll take that up in my next post.

Discussion. One alternative method Dewey sees is something like coming up with explanations that seem to fit one’s intuitive understanding of the way things work. This is how we decided the sun goes around the earth. It might explain Aristotle’s idea that people are political animals. Maybe further explanation didn’t seem useful or necessary. But, as Dewey points out, saying that we have politics because we are political animals is circular reasoning.

Dewey’s method focuses on allowing a broad range of facts free play in our minds. That allows us to form new associations among them and draw new conclusions from them. It allows a collaborative effort to make sure we are considering all of the relevant facts. If we record our assumptions, our facts and our discussions reasonably carefully others can inspect them and offer their own insights; and we will be able to check later to see what mistake we made if it turns out badly. [5]

This method of thinking about social matters is common. We see it very clearly in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt writes entire histories of European anti-Semitism and Imperialism on the way to her examination of the rise of Nazism. It’s at the root of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, and other books I’ve written about here. Without these roots, it is difficult to understand our society, or, indeed, ourselves.

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[1] Of course we can do nothing. Just ask any Republican.

[2] The word pragmatism refers to the American philosophy. I give a short primer on Pragmatism in three posts, here, here, and here. Also this, which is a sort of introduction to this series.

[3] Page references are to the Kindle edition, Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Ohio University Press.

[4] I’m just guessing at the latter three as Dewey doesn’t attribute them to anyone.

[5] Compare this to the method of Modern Monetary Theory, which I discuss here. The starting place for MMT is the question How does money work in this society? It deals with facts, not assumptions about human nature or philosophies.