Dewey (1927/1954): The Public and Its Problems

Public & Its ProblemsPublic & Its Problems by John Dewey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my committee members suggested I re-read John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems because my dissertation is dealing with issues of privacy, publicity, and the social. It was a delight to return to early 20th century pragmatism, since I haven’t read much (except for Josiah Royce) since my master’s program. Here’s a few (disjointed) notes and quotations from Dewey.

Dewey argues that the public/private distinction is not simply an individual/social distinction, because private acts can be social: “their consequences contribute to the welfare of the community or affect its status and prospects” (13). For Dewey, “any transaction deliberatively carried on between two or more persons is social in quality. It is a form of associated behavior and its consequences may influence further associations” (13). Thus, private acts between individuals can be social. Dewey seems to define social as something that is largely good for society, and thus some public acts are not “socially useful” (14).

Dewey’s ontology of humanity is one of becoming: unlike other things that associate, a human “becomes a social animal in the make-up of his ideas, sentiments and deliberate behavior” (25). Becoming human: “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. But this translation is never finished” (154).

The same is true for democracy: it is an ideal, a becoming, rather than a fact: “the tendency and movement of some thing which exists carried to its final limit, viewed as completed, perfected. Since things do not attain such fulfillment but are in actuality distracted and interfered with, democracy in this sense is not a fact and never will be” (148).

The Public occurs when “association adds to itself political organization” (35). For Dewey, the Public is intricately tied to the state, involving organization and representation (35). The problem of the Public is that it cannot recognize itself. Dewey writes that “‘The new age of human relationships’ has no political agencies worthy of it. The democratic public is still largely inchoate and unorganized” (109).

Method: He is also less interested in causes of events and phenomenon, which can lead to wild “interpretation” (19) and tautological arguments (I’m reminded here a bit of Eve Sedgwick’s critique of hermeneutics of suspicion). Instead, he is more interested in an “empirical and historical treatment of the changes in political forms and arrangements, free from any overriding domination such as is inevitable when a ‘true’ state is postulated” (46). Thus, Dewey proposes that in order to create a more vital democratic public, we need to turn to a scientific method, one that attends to consequences and criteria. “Intelligence” itself is not enough, for we are stuck in habits that are conservative (157-159). His proposal is ultimately a “logic of method” like the experimentation in laboratories (202).

On technology: “Industry and inventions in technology, for example, create means which alter the modes of associated behavior and which radically change the quantity, character and place of impact of their indirect consequences” (30). Technology create means that affect how we associate.

Finally, “the first and last problem” that we must address “is the relation of the individual to the social” (186). “The individual” is hard to define because it is a matter of perspective: something can appear to be individual, until you either break it up more or look at the connections that it depends upon (187). Dewey defines individual as “A distinctive way of behaving in conjunction and connection with other distinctive ways of acting, not as self-enclosed way of acting, independent of everything else” (188). For individuals to be “social” together, instead of just “associative” there must be common interest and joint action (188). Dewey is suspicious of “evolutionary” claims about sociality (that we are moving to or from collectivism) because there is a “continuous re-distribution of social integrations on the one hand and of capacities and energies of individuals on the other” (193).

Reading this was useful in getting a discussion of the social, public, and individual/collectivism. I was mostly familiar with some of Dewey’s arguments already, but it was nice returning to him. A few concerns: Dewey privileges the local community as necessary for improved democracy (216). What to do with this in today’s social climate, where local communities seem fragmented and associations seem to be transnational or distributed over space and time? He also privileges face-to-face over print (218), which is understandable, but also limiting.

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