by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The difference between "traditional idealism" and Dewey's practical idealism is the difference between an idealism which is "contemplative" and an idealism which is "practical"; practical idealism views the ideal as something to be done (possibility) rather than something already done (actuality). Contemplative idealism views the universe as somehow already complete, if not as it appears to the senses, at least as its essential structures or "forms" can be grasped by the mind. It believes that beneath the apparent instability of constantly changing conditions, there is an unchanging foundation, something that stays the same, a constant that can be counted on. This "ground" or underlying structure or "nature" is something that can be known, in the sense of being looked at, by an attentive mind. No matter how troubling life becomes, one may return again and again to the consoling contemplation of this ultimate reality. For some historical idealisms, not only do present facts have a secure foundation, but also the future is something already settled, decided in advance; it is that part of a predetermined path that has not yet been trodden. Cutting one's own path, to the extent that it is possible, is bounded by the limits of an all-inclusive destiny prescribed in advance.

2. From the standpoint of traditional idealisms, such as that of Plato, the blueprint for human personal and social conduct already exists and only needs to be discovered. Although its discovery (in the case of Plato) leads the way to personal and social reforms, the blueprint itself is more important than its "application." For many idealisms, discovery of timeless truth is more noble than handling matter and changing conditions. A brief account of their views would include the following: Pure science is superior to applied science. Contemplation of first principles is superior to practice and production (of results). Metaphysics is more important than Ethics and Art. A look in advance at the form of the finished product is superior to the work of bringing imperfect particulars into being. Contemplation is superior to action, since action has to do with the imperfect, the contingent, the toilsome, and the changing.

3. For Dewey, on the other hand, contemplation has no special privilege; the world which is contemplated is in fact an incomplete world, a contingent world, one that is essentially and not just apparently unfinished, and which can be made better or worse. For Dewey, there is no "ultimate" or "higher" reality beyond the given of experience. Experience is the "foreground" of nature. Things as experienced are precarious and stable, moving, changing, open to modification. Thus, for Dewey, the choice between contemplation and action is no longer a choice between looking at a superior world or changing an inferior one, but a choice between looking at an imperfect world and making it better. Since no "eternal" plan or design or destiny guides the movement of energies, it is up to human beings to make their own plans, to decide which way things ought to go. Thus, just as there are no unchanging essences or absolute structures, there are also no "ends" or purposes decided in advance of human endeavor. Practical idealism means not only taking action to modify actual conditions, to improve things, but also devising the very ends or purposes or ideals that direct and guide that action. And since it has no eternal account to draw from, it has to fashion these ends and ideals out of the negative and positive content of lived experience. It has the ability to go "beyond" the actual, in that it can envision the possible (possible existence) or "idealize" actual conditions by reordering them imaginatively, so as to anticipate a better movement of energies and a situation improved over the present one. Ideals are "superior" to facts, only in the sense that they anticipate the possibility of new unity and harmony. But, because they represent possible rather than actual existence, they are inferior to hard and fast realities actually experienced. Contemplation of ideals means looking at objects of imagination, not eternal truths. Practical idealism is an attempt to combine appreciation of real facts and acts with an imaginative vision of their possibilities; it is not meant to be a retreat from facts to imagination.

4. John Dewey's practical idealism is characterized by a "down-to-earth" faith in the possibilities of human experience and an unflinching optimism about the boundless capacities of ordinary human beings. It is a working idealism, a hardheaded and practical enthusiasm, an American brand of matter-of-fact aspiration, such as that of Whitman or Thoreau or Emerson, that animates Dewey's thought. It is not content to entertain itself with dreams of castles in the air. There is work to be done; America is not yet finished; something is "broken" and needs to be fixed. This "fixing" requires a vision of new possibilities, better ways for Americans to live and work together, that captivate the heart and yet bear fruit in hard efforts and gradual transformations. In fact, the very projection of such new ends and ideals affords some peace in the interim, a sense of being on the right track even in the midst of crashing failures.

5. The heart of John Dewey's practical idealism is a projection of the ideal of democracy. Dewey's concern is that the spirit and method of democracy should permeate every aspect of people's lives, including the way people think and philosophize. Although Dewey's statements of this ideal sometimes sound, on the surface, like familiar phrases of America's founding fathers, they take on a whole new significance when read in the context of Dewey's views of natural science and psychology, wherein a model of interaction and mutual transformation of energies takes precedence over a model of mechanical and external forces or "matter in motion." From the standpoint of this new scientific perspective, Dewey reinterprets the meaning of human nature and interhuman association; and he recasts traditional ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity on the basis of these new interpretations. The ideal of democracy, which embraces these ideals, has to be newly projected on the basis of new scientific evidence as well as a reading of the movements of new social conditions. In this way, a new conception of the ideal of democracy can light up whole new possibilities for human thought and action.

6. The ability to think anew about democracy and the conditions that further or diminish it requires freeing imagination from the constraints of pre-scientific and feudalistic views of human nature and morality. The ability to think a new democratic ideal in terms of new problems and conditions requires free play of imaginative thought; the very ability to rethink and recast the ideal of democracy depends upon the democratic liberation and development of individual human minds and dispositions. The ideal of democracy itself contains the clue to the fabrication of any practical ideal; the ideal of democracy is the only ideal which fully meets the requirements of any successful ideal. It is the only ideal appropriate to a way of life devoted to open-minded inquiry and assessment of facts, unprejudiced consideration of alternatives, and flexible in the face of physical and cultural change. Furthermore, it is the only ideal that requires that individuals be treated fairly and equally, that each be given a chance to contribute on the basis of his unique capacities. It is the only ideal that regards the individuality of individuals with impartiality, that requires that the "common man" be taken as seriously as a monarch or a president.

7. For Dewey, the term democracy is not confined to actual or potential political regimes, but extends to every facet of human culture; democracy, for Dewey, indicates a way of life, a method of thinking, a manner of approach, a habit of "expecting the unexpected," an attitude of openness to novelty and variety, of flexibility in actively attending to and adjusting facts and conditions as they present themselves. Democratic political institutions are but means to further, as well as consequences arising from, widespread democratic attitudes and culture. The people and their relations have to be democratic before democratic institutions can have any meaning. Spirited public debate, elected officials representing communal interests, town meetings, free and face-to-face discussion between neighbors and friends are all manifestations that democracy has been at least partially achieved. These experiences of partial democracy have in common something of a democratic spirit; at the same time, they suggest new possibilities for a more extensive and inclusive democracy, where individuals have what they need to develop fully their individual capacities and where human associations are conceived to be mutually reinforcing, where cooperative values are installed in place of patterns of mutual hostility, exploitation, and exclusiveness.

8. The democratic disposition, for Dewey, is equivalent to the spirit of discovery and experimentation in scientific method. Scientific method must, according to Dewey, practice a kind of "democracy of facts," where no stone is left unturned, no fact is considered unimportant, no bit of data is ruled out of account, and every working hypothesis must be submitted to public scrutiny and debate. Similar to the "democracy of facts" in the scientific approach is equality (not quantitative, but qualitative) of persons in a genuine social democracy, where every human counts, every person has his place, every individual represents a unique outgrowth of complex interactions. In a similar way, the truly "democratic" scientist understands that a seemingly unimportant fact may release a whole new line of inquiry. All facts are important. True empiricism begins with this belief. Additionally, the true experimental scientist does not impose rigid theories on the facts or begin with an ideology that will predetermine his findings. He listens to what the world has to say. He is open-minded. He listens to what his colleagues have to say. He understands that free and open debate -- swimming in a pluralistic sea of ideas -- will in the long run guarantee the fruitfulness of his efforts. In a word, he is like the existentialist, for whom existence comes before essence, for whom life and its facts take precedence over generalizations about life, however appealing their mathematical order, their tidiness, compared to the conditions of real life. For the true scientist, every generalization is preliminary and temporary. It is a working hypothesis, soon to be replaced by a better working hypothesis. It does not dominate or prejudice the facts or the experimental results. For Dewey, no hypothesis is a fact; and no hypothesis is superior to the facts it attempts to read and regulate. Ideas are servants, not monarchs, for Dewey. The "universal" does not order the "individual."

9. True scientists appreciate that science is a process, subject to constant revision. The "final" answers of today quickly become the dated prejudices of yesterday. Every finding in science is at the same time a mistake, a solution, and a clue to further investigation. Science is a field where a new "better" constantly supplants an old "better," but where only the presumptuous would stake claim on a "best" or final theory. For that reason, a truly scientific attitude, like a genuinely democratic attitude, is characterized by engagement in open debate, free communication of ideas, willingness to learn, cooperative striving, respect for the facts, and reverence for continually changing process. Simply put, for Dewey, the ideal of a community of scientists working together without absolutistic claims, provides a model for all fruitful and democratic human communication.

10. When it comes to moral and social problems, unlike those posed by the physical sciences, cultural resistance to democratic thinking is hard to overcome. We are unaccustomed to think of moral growth and social progress as experiments, where mistakes are challenges to revise purposes and principles, so that no moral principle or end-in-view is absolute or unchanging or sacrosanct, where all projected possibilities are viewed as working hypotheses rather than as unchanging precepts fixed in stone. Democratic openness and thinking and framing purposes for oneself come hard for those in the habit of taking or giving orders, rather than working things through for themselves and encouraging others to do the same.

11. For Dewey, ends-in-view and moral "standards" are flexible tools, that direct and influence individual thought and conduct. They are useful to the extent that they assist in redirecting energies in productive ways, particularly in the production of distinctive and socially-minded individuals. But just as present conduct is not a simple duplicate of past experience, however similar situations happen to appear, so ends and ideals (new possibilities) must be constantly reworked in the face of changed conditions. Ends and ideals should be modified and grow, even as humans grow. This seems to amount to a moral relativism, to some critics. But it is really a kind of meliorism. For Dewey, each person, each fact, each situation, each end, each decision is unique and irreplaceable; but the irreplaceable uniqueness of a human being changes to a new and higher unique configuration insofar as he grows. For Dewey, an endless series of betters does not amount to no betters at all; nor does it admit a final "best," a kind of final resting place for existence. As evolution is ongoing, yet upward process, which is not predetermined and has no foreseen terminus, so human growth -- human moral growth -- can be ongoing and upward without a last stage, without a highest good. For Dewey, the "highest good," if you can call it that at all, is the process itself. The end of growth is more growth; the end of education is more education. Or rather, it would be better to say that growing aims at more growing; learning aims at more learning. Adjectives and adverbs are better suited than simple nouns for describing the importance of process and qualities in Dewey's thought.

12. For Dewey, growth means movement toward democracy and away from autocracy. It lies in the overall direction of advancing humanistic, open-minded, cooperative, and communicative habits of thinking and interacting over quantitative, ideological, atomistically individual, and aristocratic or autocratic habits of thinking and interacting. Democracy as an idea or Ideal means ending elitism in academic circles as well as in the marketplace. From the democratic standpoint, "superior" and "inferior" refer only to successive stages of individual growth within individuals; they are out of place in making comparisons between individuals. No person is better than another, but every person can be (become) better than himself or herself. This is how we may take Dewey's respect for the "common man," who is unique and irreplaceable and must be listened to. In a democracy, everyone counts; or, at least in democracy as it ought to be (the ideal), everyone ought to count. Truly, in a democracy which entails cooperative striving of divergent individuals having in common certain interests, values, and conditions (having in common also the necessarily plastic and indefinite ideal of democracy which signifies shared work and interest), no person is "common." Each person is uncommon, individual, uniquely important -- a potential "aristocrat."

13. According to Dewey, America is not yet democratic. It combines elements that hold promise for greater democratic potential with elements that threaten the very future of democracy. Hope for Dewey in transforming minds from thinking in terms of absolutes and fixed ideas to thinking experimentally and openly lies primarily not in legislation and executive orders, but in the educative process (which includes formal education, free dissemination of meaningful information, and open-minded face-to-face dialogue). Educating means for Dewey what paideia meant for the ancient Greeks -- raising, rearing, upbringing, growth in potential. The educative process must raise and strengthen the capacity of the whole human being (whether child or adult), not just fill a tabula rasa mind with data and isolated techniques. More than anything else, it must encourage the use of imagination in discovering new possibilities in old actualities. Imagination, as the free play of ideas (possibilities), is essential to the projection and realization of the democratic ideal.

14. It must be recognized that the ideal of democracy, like any ideal for Dewey, cannot be fixed once and for all, but is always or ought always to be changing, in the light of changing personal and social conditions. The imaginative possibility of democracy is altered with each success or failure in democratizing human experience.

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Copyright © 1992 -1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.