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American Philosopher John Dewey and Pragmatism

It can be argued that the world was turned upside down after the Industrial Age. Indeed, it was a time of great upheaval, especially in the highly industrialized nations of the Western hemisphere. It was at this time of radical change that an American philosopher by the name of John Dewey elaborated on the idea of pragmatism, a new school of thought that rejected the ethical foundations as well as the traditional rules and ethical standards adopted by many European nations such as England, France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Dewey asserted that men should think in pragmatic terms and this is the only way that they will be able to come up with an ethical framework and ideology that will help create positive change in their community and their country.

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John Dewey (1859-1952) lived from the Civil War to the Cold War (Anderson, par. 1). This statement provides a hint that Dewey was a man who saw the Western world, – Europe in general and the United States in particular, transform from a rural society to an urban society and from an agricultural to an industrial economy (Anderson, par. 1). One effect of the Age of Industrialization was succinctly described in the following statement, “The onset of the industrial revolution brought about a great shift in population, drawing people from farms into burgeoning cities … by 1920, more Americans dwelled in cities than on farms” (Gillhma, 25). This titanic shifts in populations led to overcrowding, extreme poverty, and high crime rates.

It was this world view that prompted Dewey to look for alternative solutions to pressing problems. He had to figure out a way to change the way people think in accordance to the changes that were happening all around Western societies. The traditional means of creating rules and policies to govern nations no longer apply in the modern world. Face-to-face interactions were an integral component in the way local communities were governed for thousands of years. But in 19th century communities sprang up overnight in the attempt to provide living quarters for laborers who migrated from the rural areas into the cities to work in factories (Gillman, 25).

It is not the goal of this paper to make an in-depth analysis of the Industrial Age and the impact of the creation of urban centers in Europe as well as the United States. Yet even without going into details it is easy to understand that the shift in populations to the cities will easily result in overcrowding and then the negative impact of such a change will soon follow. Overcrowding means that land will become very expensive and thus housing will be a major problem for newly arrived workers seeking jobs in the city. Poverty is the expected outcome because whatever daily wage was earned in the factories will never be enough to support a family. Dewey realized that it will not take long before the same social ills will be experienced in the United States.

It is now very clear that industrialization is a two-edged sword, meaning it creates wealth but at the same time oppresses those who are at the mercy of employers and investors. A farmer who moves to the city will be forced to comply with whatever terms and conditions set by employers because there is no other way to earn money in the city except by working in the said factories. In the rural community where the farmer came from there was an extensive network of social support that would assist him in times of great need. But in the city he is in the midst of a sea of people and all of them are strangers. The farmer will quickly realize that he has dug a deep hole for himself and his family that he brought with him to the city.

Prior to the Industrial Age the power structures in Europe were evenly distributed to the military and religious power of the day. In most cases it was the Roman Catholics and the Protestants who provided guidance and ethical standards for most people in Europe. The law enforcers were the royal families and the nobility in each respective country. There is no problem with this set-up but through the years the kings and queens of Europe began to demonstrate that they prefer to rule with an iron hand and their selfishness in other aspects of governance became a heavy burden for the people.

The dissatisfaction of the masses grew even more when they saw with their own two eyes how the royals and the nobles were pampered with every imaginable material wealth and enjoyed the effects of luxurious living while their constituents has to labor all day to provide them such luxuries. Since ancient times this has been the trend but in the late 19th century there were certain factors that triggered a wave of revolutionary ideas desiring for change and desiring for freedom from oppression (Chadwick, 48). The Americans were represented by one of the most important thinkers of the modern era and he is none other than John Dewey.

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According to one commentator the genius of Dewey is found in his ability to consider the larger social structures, political systems, and economic institutions and with his belief in individuality and personality, was able to “…shun old philosophic forms of dualism, absolutism, and transcendentalism and put forward new social theoretic understanding of knowledge, power, wealth, and culture” (West, 70). Dewey believed that solutions to problem must be practical, meaning one can see plain results and there is no need to sugar-coat it and there is also no need to get someone to hype up what is already plain truth.


In this kind of discourse one remembers the age-old adage that right thinking will result into right beliefs. Yet on the other hand there are also those who contend that right beliefs lead to right thinking (Anderson, par. 2). Thus, detractors of Dewey are saying that he is preaching a message of subjectivity and that all the rules must be thrown out of the window. The conservatives are seething mad when confronted with the idea that everything goes and that men are no longer bound to traditions and other ancient rules. Those who favor traditions and the status quo reasoned out that this is a tried and tested system and they argue that it has been proven to work for thousands of years.

It can be said that Dewey is just like Karl Marx and other modern day philosophers who saw the inadequacies of ancient ethical systems as well as the political and cultural structures that seek to enrich the few but enslaved the many (Chadwick, 48). It is therefore imperative to analyse what Dewey had to say with regards to these remarks. Dewey countered that his goal is not to be a subversive but to offer a new paradigm for critical thinking. In a nutshell Dewey’s ideas with regards to the right way of thinking can be seen in how he pointed out the reason why many fail to achieve it. First of all Dewey said that there is a need to have a certain “fund” or store of experiences and facts from which suggestions or ideas can come forth and therefore initiates critical thinking (Dewey, 30).

It has been made clear that the proper way of thinking requires not only the capability to memorise facts but the critical thinker is also aware of current realities. Failure occurs when:

…he has not enough actual material upon which to base conclusions; or because concrete facts and raw materials even if extensive and bulky fail to evoke suggestions easily… finally, because, even when these two conditions are fulfilled, the ideas suggested are incoherent and fantastic rather than pertinent and consistent (Dewey, 30).

What Dewey said may appear trivial in the 21st century but if one will consider the context of the transition period between the Medieval Age and the Age of industrialization, it can then be understood the bold statements uttered by Dewey. He was one of the first to clearly articulate the break from traditions in terms of critical thinking. It must be pointed out though that although Dewey was the preeminent pragmatist philosopher in the United States, his ideas did not originate from his homeland but just like many philosophers of his era the philosophical wellspring where they draw sustenance is Europe.

A historian traced the source of Dewey’s ideas in the discovery of the impact of industrialization in key cities in Europe and remarked that it was a mode of historical consciousness, “…that highlights the conditioned and circumstantial character of human existence in terms of changing societies, cultures, and communities” (West, 69). Just like Karl Marx and other progressive thinkers Dewey was moved by the economic situation as well as the social problems that plagued people in the post industrial world. Something has to be done about it but the prescribed solutions are not effective enough to remedy the pain and the suffering of the people, especially the masses.

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A casual overview of Karl Marx’s works will reveal that he wanted to turn the world upside down. Karl Marx’s ideas were magnified through Lenin, another progressive thinker who saw the problem and proposed that the poor and oppressed had no chance of transforming a wicked and oppressive society except to unite in arms and overthrow the bourgeoisie (Chadwick, 48). It was a complicated and labor intensive proposition. It took decades of armed struggle before Marxism-Leninism made substantial contributions to the global political arena and its impact felt worldwide.

Dewey did not dream of annihilating the economic and social structures of his time and all the more he did not propose the use of violence to achieve his goals. His solution is subtle and it is only after much scrutiny that one can be able to ascertain what he actually meant when he wanted every serious political thinker to be a pragmatist rather than to go with the flow of tradition and established authority.

This is first seen in his idea that it is through experience and the consideration of the practical outcomes of the critical thinking process that should form the basis for decision-making processes. Thus, under pragmatism, an idea, standard, tradition and creed is considered useless if it does not contribute to the creation of a better society in light of the major changes that are happening in the world today.


The problems of 19th century Europe can be traced to the negative impact of industrialization. In the modern age people like farmers, fishermen, and other rural folks, survived without ever going to the city to find work. But in the 19th century radical changes in technology, communication and transportation compelled many to move into the cities. It is partly due to the hardships of living in the rural areas as well as the promise of a better life that made them change their residence. Many workers brought their families with them and therefore in an instant created urban centers that could not deal with the massive influx of migrants.

It was difficult to create solutions for a modern problem. The only way to do it is to think out of the box. Progressive thinkers suggested that it only through critical thinking and a focus on nature that would allow for positive change. Philosophers like Karl Marx and Lenin suggested a more radical approach which is to use force and violence to turn the world upside down. Dewey did not propose a violent solution but one that encourages critical thinking. His solution was more subtle than those employed by Marx and Lenin but it can be argued that it is more effective and the changes more long lasting.

Without thinkers like Dewey, Karl Marx, and Lenin, this world would have stayed the same. The traditional beliefs as well as ancient ethical standards would have remained the same to the chagrin of critical thinkers such as Dewey. His belief system was not based on what can be found in ancient scholasticism and religious circles. Dewey realized that just like Descartes he is a thinking person capable of doing great things with that gift. He therefore created a system of thinking that is still important even in the 21st century.

His ideas can be simplified by two words: practicality and experience. The thinker must be immersed in an environment to observe and then develop the skills necessary to create solutions to problems encountered. In ancient times this thinking process was never given to ordinary folks. Dewey made it clear that it is only through pragmatism that critical thinkers see the real world and therefore able to make practical solutions that will help improve the plight of the downtrodden all over the globe.

Without Dewey’s ideas the whole world would still make decisions based on what others will say. More importantly, the whole world will be forced to follow rules and laws that no longer apply in the 21st century. It is understandable why many older people continue to hold on to their ancient strategies. It is because it worked. Dewey understands this simple truth and turned it on its head. In a nutshell Dewey argued that if it does not work then there is no longer wisdom or beauty in that particular strategy.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Elizabeth. Dewey’s Moral Philosophy. 2009. Web.

Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dewey, John. How We Think. New York: Dover Publications, 1997.

Fesmire, Steven. John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics. IN: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Gillham, Oliver. The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 21). American Philosopher John Dewey and Pragmatism.

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StudyCorgi. "American Philosopher John Dewey and Pragmatism." November 21, 2021.


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