John Dewey and the Progressive Redefinition of Freedom

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Today is John Dewey’s birthday, and though it’s been almost 50 years since this major Progressive figure passed away, thoughtful conservatives should acquaint themselves with his writings, since they had a profound impact on our society.

Dewey, who is best known for his work on education’s role in democracy, wrote extensively on numerous topics, including philosophy, psychology, art, and politics during the course of a long academic career at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. Dewey’s great themes are progress, democracy, and the experimental method (or the scientific understanding of humanity) leading to what he calls the “reconstruction” of American society. Given the great breadth of Dewey’s work—he published over 40 books and 700 articles!—where does the interested conservative begin?

As part of our new Primary Sources series, we have republished two short and important Dewey writings along with helpful introductions.

In the excerpt from his book on ethics, Dewey clearly articulates the fundamentally different understanding of freedom at the heart of Progressivism (and liberalism). What the Founders called liberty Dewey dismisses as a mere formal freedom, an essentially empty idea. If we are to truly speak of freedom, formal freedom must give way to real, effective freedom.

Effective freedom requires two preconditions: (1) the necessary material means to fulfill one’s desires, and (2) developed mental capabilities allowing one to use foresight and make proper decisions without being subjected to baser desires.

The implications of this redefinition of freedom are momentous. Men and women are no longer free by nature—they must be made free. Freedom, as Dewey wrote in Liberalism and Social Action, is “something to be achieved.” And it requires not only material means but also enlightened decisions.

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Hence, to use a contemporary example, the freedom to use the Internet means nothings unless you have access to the Internet and possess the “powers of intelligent self-control” to make intelligent use of it.

Building on his redefinition of freedom, Dewey argues that we must reconstruct society to allow for attainment of effective freedom in “The Future of Liberalism.” Here Dewey embraces “the idea of historic relativity” and translates it into a methodology—a “continuous reconstruction” of vast experiments to socialize individuals, to make them more cooperative. The ultimate aim is “full freedom of the human spirit and of individuality.”

While sounding perfectly in line with American thinking, Dewey’s truly free individual is thoroughly socialized and democratized—incapable of living freely in the Founders’ sense. The new American understands himself not as someone reflecting self-evident truths about human nature, liberty, and happiness but as someone who has come to be of, by, and for liberal experimental social policy. To achieve its aims, the new liberalism will be guided by an elite composed of social scientists. He speaks of “the maximum reliance upon intelligence.”

While Dewey may not be around anymore, his demands that society provide everyone with all the means to full self-realization—coupled with his trust in the rule of benevolent experts—still make up the undercurrents of contemporary liberal thought.

Source material can be found at this site.

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