John Dewey (1859-1952) was a major leader in the American school of philosophical thought known as pragmatism. Dewey, born in Burlington, Vermont, attended the University of Vermont. It was in college that Dewey established his interest in philosophy being heavily impacted by the theories of natural selection and evolution. From this education and thought, Dewey developed ideas concerning the importance of the relationship between humans and the environment. After graduating from the UVM in 1879, Dewey was encouraged to develop his career as a philosopher by enrolling in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University (Campbell, 1995).
It was at John Hopkins where Dewey discovered three powerful intellects, George Sylvester Morris and G. Stanley Hall and James Hayden Tufts, who became his mentors. It wasn’t until 1894 when Dewey followed Tufts to Chicago that Dewey’s early idealism inspired him to take part in the American school of thought known as pragmatism. During Dewey’s many years of philosophical thinking, he wrote numerous articles concerning the theory of knowledge and metaphysics, as well as publishing two books. Dewey’s reputation grew immensely within society being considered a leading philosopher and educational theorist, along with becoming a respected commentator on contemporary issues like women’s suffrage and the unionization of teachers.
Dewey made numerous contributions to the field of philosophy with his ideas on the theory of knowledge and metaphysics. However, Dewey is most known for his ethical thoughts and social theories that gain meaning from his social aims and values. Dewey explained in Experience and Nature (1925) that the human individual is a social being from the start. Individual satisfaction and achievement can be realized only within the context of social habits and institutions that promote it. Dewey goes further to determine that moral and social issues have to do with the guidance of human action to the achievement of socially defined ends that are productive of a satisfying life for individuals within the social context (Field, 2002). It is important to note that this concept is essential in learning about media ethics. The way individuals in the media deal with moral and ethical issues and act certain ways are based off of human action and the means of living a good life. Dewey’s beliefs in ethical and social theory defined the actions and thoughts humans must take in order to promote human good (Damico, 1978).
Along with Dewey’s ethical thoughts on society and values, he also contributed greatly to the philosophy of education. Described in Experience and Education (1938), Dewey developed ideas for both traditional education (curriculum and cultural heritage) and progressive teaching (learner’s interests and impulses). Dewey explains that acquiring successful education requires education and human experience. Experience-based education provides students with an opportunity that allows for growth and creativity (Dewey, 1938). By thinking about experiential education and opportunity, Endicott College comes to mind. With the requirement of three internships to be completed before graduation, students are pushed to learn, experience and gain knowledge from the real world. Dewey’s progressive ideas have clearly influenced numerous education systems.
Being such a prominent member in the pragmatist thought, Dewey became a very well-known philosopher being accepted and criticized by many. Dewey’s teachings successfully answered the long-lasting questions of philosophy by the use of relatable concepts and ideas. Many criticized Dewey’s ideas and beliefs for being more confusing than helpful to the thoughts of ideology and philosophy. However, Dewey took his criticisms and attempted to clarify his thoughts in his later writing. For example, Dewey substituted “transaction” for his previous use of “interaction” to describe the relationship between human form and environment (Welchman, 1995). Recent trends in philosophy have continued to expand on Dewey’s existing thoughts of his naturalistic theory of inquiry.
Campbell, James. Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1995.
Damico, Alfonso J. Individuality and Community: The Social and Political Thought of John Dewey. Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1978.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.
Field, R. (2002, January 1). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/dewey/#H2
Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey’s Ethical Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.