norman rockwell's freedom of speech Academic Summary of John Dewey’s
The Public and Its Problems

Update 8/18/10: I wrote this for a course a few years ago, posted it and forgot about it. After a few months, I discovered that roughly 53% of the search-engine traffic to my site was coming specifically to this entry, and it has ultimately ended up on a few syllabi. I by no means claim to be a leading expert on John Dewey, but I am a fan—and more importantly I’m a big advocate of contributing useful content to the Internet commons. So if you’re just now finding this article—or returning to it—I’d love it if you’d leave a brief comment/critique telling me if it was helpful or not, and how I might make it more so.


John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems deals in large part with the problem of broadening access to scientific and specialized knowledge in a way that realizes the ideals of democratic societies. A disclaimer: I’m cribbing heavily from a paper I wrote on the topic. Anyhow, Dewey’s argument in The Public unfolds roughly as follows:

If we believe, as most political philosophers do, that human societies and nations are distinct from bands of animals, we should not try to explain the structure of our societies by referencing subconscious instincts—an impulse to democratic government, for instance—but by focusing our attention on those faculties we possess that are unique to humans. People are distinct from animals in their ability—or at least in the extent of their ability—to perceive the consequences of their actions and adjust their behavior accordingly, so as to maximize positive consequences and minimize negative ones.

If we examine this faculty in the context of social relationships, we can begin to see why political states emerge and how they function. Most actions by and between people are private—which is to say they affect only the individuals in question and are of no legitimate interest to anyone else. But some activities on the part of individuals may have indirect consequences on others. For instance, if two neighboring farmers agree to dam a stream to irrigate their fields, their action, while perfectly pro-social in the context of their dyad, may have devastating consequences for others who live downstream and suddenly have no water.

Thus, the downstream group has an interest in the actions of the farmers. When private actions, such as those taken by the farmers in this example, have indirect consequences that negatively affect a large enough group, that interest group becomes, in Dewey’s terms, a public, with a stake in regulating the actions in question. The public, then appoints officials whose job it is to intervene in the undesirable action. The officials require resources, which are collected from the affected public, and constitute the common-wealth. The officials, who collectively form a government, employ these resources to organize the community into a regulated body, and the people who are subject to this regulation are known as the populus.

But political states come with several sorts of problems. First, officials often turn the wealth and authority invested in them by the public to their own personal ends. This is, Dewey says, only human. Despotic governments throughout history have been prime exemplars of this difficulty. Problem governments also exist for a second reason, which is that, in the face of nasty indirect consequences, people are not always able to identify the source of these consequences or adequately recognize their common interests to a degree sufficient to become an acting public.

Lastly, insofar as publics coalesce in response to adverse consequences that are likely to be locally and temporally situated, new publics are, or would be had they the means, popping into and out of existence all the time—while the governments they create are likely to grind along unresponsively under their own inertia for quite some time.

Democracy, says Dewey, is one sort of response to these problems—potentially an effective one—but has so far been sabotaged by serious inconsistencies among its founding principles. It is, he says, a victim of its own mythology. Americans found colonial laws and practices inappropriate for the frontier. As such, Americans became a public interested in doing away with enforcement of these laws and practices by colonial powers.

Americans who sought to jettison colonial rule needed to rationalize their increasing disobedience to England and found great utility in emerging political philosophies that championed the sovereignty of the individual over that of the government and the church. Such philosophies were snapped up by American revolutionaries with such abandon that it apparently did not matter whether all of them made sense individually or were compatible with one another. More on this in a moment.

Democracy provides a potential solution to earlier problems of the state because, in predicating official power on regular elections and guaranteeing the electorate freedom of expression, it provides a check on officials’ tendency to abuse their power for private ends. To stay in power, government officials must first and foremost serve the interests of the electorate. Unfortunately, the reality of democratic societies has relegated these checks on official power to theory and rhetoric. And this is largely because of some founding fallacies perpetuated in democratic government. One of these is the notion that the individual can be a sovereign.

By predicating our legal structure on the notion that individuals can, through their rationality, work and live in full independence of one another, we (1) forget that all our human faculties are developed in and by larger communities, and (2) consequently grant rights to individuals to do things that are ultimately destructive to the community as a whole. This makes room for a second fallacy—namely that laissez faire capitalism can benefit the community, that individuals can act in their own interests and, in doing so, serve the greater good. In fact, says Dewey, capitalism has run amok, and while the government itself has carefully avoided laying hands on its citizen-consumers, industry has risen to become the new organizing force in society. The doctrine of capitalism ultimately preserves pre-democratic notions of property rights, which benefit the elite at the expense of the community.

The industrial revolution and the first World War ultimately brought this division between the capitalist elite and the working masses into sharp relief. In the wake of advances in science and industry, democracy and capitalism have called forth bureaucracy. Production and large-scale governance have begotten specialized work roles. All knowledge has become specialized, and the pioneer ideal that any person can do any task has faded, or at least become more rhetoric than reality. This specialization adds inertia to our systems of class and governance. When no one can wrap his or her head around the mechanisms from which undesirable consequences proceed, no public can organize itself. Matters of importance to the people are decided outside their purview and when they do speak, through elections, they are most often asked to choose between vetted candidates and bills on largely superficial grounds.

Thus the specialization and abstraction that have entered into science and industry serve the elite at the expense of the populus. Dewey insists that until the fruits of science and elite knowledge can be made accessible to the layperson, the public will remain eclipsed and alienated, while the elite will continue their rule. Thus, improved education and communication are necessary if specialized knowledge is to be opened to the masses and the public thereby emancipated. Until such time as this improved communication is available, democracy, in its ideal form, cannot exist. And until ideas and modes of governance are road-tested through social experimentation in everyday life, for and by the public, our knowledge of how best to regulate the populus cannot increase, and scientific ideas cannot serve the common good.

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