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John Dewey: Prophet of American Naturalism

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

When John Dewey celebrated his ninetieth birthday on October 20, 1949, fifteen hundred guests crowded a huge ballroom in New York City to do him honor. Messages of congratulation poured in from President Harry Truman, Prime Minister Atlee, Pandit Nehru, and from a hundred United States colleges and universities. A dozen foreign nations had planned celebrations. Friends were raising $90,000 for an educational Dewey Birthday Fund. And all because in the eyes of millions of admirers no one in the history of America “has so profoundly and in so many areas of human endeavor influenced and determined his own age as…America's dean of Philosophers: John Dewey.” [1]

In striking contrast with this adulation, American Catholics regard Dewey as a modem prophet of error whose philosophy of education is “socialistic naturalism without God, without Christ, without religion, without immortality. Every single strain in it, from the influence of Hegel to the inspiration of Darwin, finds its place within his system.” [2]

Dewey's Importance in America Education

All are agreed, however, that no philosopher in modern times, certainly no American, has made a deeper and more effective impression on educational theory and practice in the United States. The extent of his literary productivity alone suggests something of what this means. To commemorate “Dewey's Eighth Decade” in 1939, Columbia University issued a bibliography of his published writings. [3] One hundred fifty-eight pages of this volume contain the titles of his own books and articles; another sixty pages list the names of published commentaries on Dewey, mostly doctorate theses. It is worth noting that the title of his first published article, in 1882, was “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism,” and of his first book, in 1884, The Psychology of Kant. As of 1949, he had to his credit forty-five volumes, originally in English, but eventually in a score of languages, including Russian and Japanese, and over three hundred full-length articles, dealing almost exclusively with educational theory.

However, the real test of Dewey's influence is the practical effect which his ideas have had on the people for whom he wrote. And here, “A host of disciples look upon him as the great intellectual liberator of our times.” [4] Other thousands consider him as “a thinker whose vital influence upon the reform of school methods is greater than that of any of his contemporaries.” [5] His birthday encomium, published in 1949, summarizes the depth of his influence:

John Dewey is at once the foremost philosopher in the history of America, its greatest educational thinker and — many so judge — our most distinguished citizen. His influence on education is unequaled both in extent and in depth. Each public school child in our country lives a happier and a better life because of Dewey, and the same holds for most pupils of non-public schools. And not simply in this country; in most other countries of the world is his influence felt.
Pestalozzi had prepared the ground. Froebel and Herbart had helped. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard,…and others had carried America along the Pestalozzi road. But one thing was lacking. No one of these men, nor all combined, had given an adequate theory for a thorough-going democratic, science-respecting education. This Professor Dewey has done. [6]

It is no exaggeration to say that Dewey has affected the pedagogy of “most other countries of the world,” besides America. In England, Professor Findlay of Manchester championed the pedagogical theories of Dewey and established a school modeled on his plan. It is well known that the renowned German educator, Kerschensteiner, had come largely under the influence of Dewey. He was the founder of the famous Arbeits-schule of Munich, which closely approached Dewey's ideal of the “active school.” In 1919, Professor Dewey was invited to Japan as guest lecturer at the Tokyo Imperial University. Then followed two years' teaching at the National Universities of Peking and Nanking in China. Trips to Turkey in 1924 and Mexico in 1926, on special request from these governments, further extended his theories of “democratic education.” For at least ten years, from 1923 to 1933, Dewey is conceded to have had a large part in organizing the Soviet educational system. Lunarcharsky, the Russian Minister of Education, was a personal friend and ardent admirer of John Dewey. In 1928, he was asked by the Soviet Government to visit Russia, study the educational needs in that country and make recommendations for improvement. Returning to the United States, he wrote a series of articles on Russia that were very sympathetic in tone with the U.S.S.R., which led to his being described as a “Bolshevik” and a “Red” in the conservative press. [7]

Dewey's most lasting influence, however, was exercised personally and directly as professor of philosophy at Columbia University since 1904. Teachers College of Columbia, with which Dewey was associated, is the largest in the country. Of the 23,631 students at the University in 1950, over a third 9,032, were enrolled in Teachers College, training twice as many teachers and educational administrators as any other college in America. It was during his early connection with Columbia that Dewey helped to organize the American Association of University Professors and served as its first president.

Dewey's Ideas on God and Religion

We may now ask ourselves: What sort of ideas and principles did John Dewey propound to give him what is generally recognized as “world leadership in educational theory”? [8]

It is unfortunate that so many studies on Dewey have concentrated on his pedagogy, ignoring the fact that he was primarily a philosopher whose interest in education, on his own confession, was a matter of practical efficiency. He was simply using education as the most effective instrument for putting his principles of philosophy into living practice.

On the subject of God in its metaphysical aspects, Dewey's first publications were plain expressions of orthodox Hegelianism. In 1884, he wrote:

God, as the perfect Personality or Will, is the only Reality, and the source of all activity. It is therefore the source of all activity of the individual personality. The Perfect Will is the motive, source, and realization of the life of the individual. He (the individual) has renounced his own particular life as an unreality; he has asserted that the sole reality is the Universal Will, and in that reality all his actions take place. [9]

Writing in 1930, he stated: “I have drifted away from Hegelianism…Nevertheless, I should never think of ignoring, much less denying, that acquaintance with Hegel has left a permanent deposit in my thinking.” [10]

The nature of this Hegelian deposit may be judged by the definitive statement of his “theology” given in a series of lectures at Yale University in 1934. “God,” he defines, “denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions.” He admits: The idea that “God” represents a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin when the imagination supervenes in conduct, is attended with verbal difficulties, owing to our frequent use of the word “imagination” to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. But the reality of ideal ends as ideals is vouched for by their undeniable power in action. An idea is not an illusion because imagination is the organ through which it is apprehended. [11]

In other words, God does not exist except as the projection by our imagination of those non-objective ideals which guide our human conduct. While the idea of God is not real, therefore, since it is created by the fantasy, it is not illusory because it serves the purpose of idealizing our hopes and desires.

Consistent with this doctrine of atheism, Dewey inveighs against the idea of religion — any religion — which pretends to represent man's relations with an objective and personal Deity. He introduces a distinction between religion and religious which has since become famous. Projected ideals of conduct are religious, but there is no warrant for religion, since there is no extra-mental God for religion to worship. “Any activity,” according to him, “pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality.” [12] And then he launches into as militant an attack on established religions as may be found anywhere in the writings of Lenin or Marx:

If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved. 13


Dewey is not satisfied with denying the foundations of religion by substituting his conceptual ideals for a personal God. He goes out of his way to oppose what he calls the suicide of reason and human effort which consists in revelation and the belief in divine grace to supplement the weakness of man. Man is quite capable of himself to attain all the knowledge that he needs and achieve all the ambitions he desires. If there must be faith, let it be men's faith in each other and in their mutual co-operation. “Faith,” he says, “in the continued disclosing of truth through directed co-operation of human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation.” [14]

A cardinal principle of Dewey's naturalism is the rejection of any kind of fixed doctrine or creed, based on revelation, and therefore stultifying the progress of human science which must be independent of such chains.

Some fixed doctrinal apparatus is necessary for a religion. But faith in the possibilities of continued and rigorous inquiry does not limit access to truth to any channel or scheme of things. It does not say first that truth is universal and then add that there is but one road to it. It does not depend for assurance upon subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge, provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world. [15]

Here we have a definition of faith, based not on the authority of God's revelation but on the autonomy of man's own reason. “There is such a thing,” says Dewey, “as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality — a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel such a faith to be a dangerous rival.” [16]

So much for knowledge. The same holds true in action and achievement. “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external power is the counterpart of surrender of human endeavor.” [17] Dewey sees only one objection to this deification of man's ability to perfect himself. He answers the objection:

Nor is emphasis on exercising our own powers for good an egotistical or a sentimentally optimistic course. It is not the first, for it does not isolate man, either individually or collectively, from nature. It is not the second, because it makes no assumption beyond that of the need and responsibility for human endeavor…It involves no expectation of a millennium of good. [18]

Consequently, it is not man alone but man in union with nature who achieves whatever may be the goal of his existence; and the goal in question is quite attainable, since it modestly ambitions nothing beyond the natural and temporal goods of earth.

Background and Development of Dewey's Philosophy

In 1930, Dewey contributed an autobiographical chapter to a volume on Contemporary American Philosophy, which was later translated into Italian. [19] “This fragment of autobiography chronicles Dewey's formative experiences in the study of philosophy. It is perhaps the most succinct and revealing statement of his intellectual development yet to appear.” [20] It is also the best key that we have to understanding some of Dewey's otherwise notorious obscurity of thought. [21]

There is first of all his own confession to what others have called “inconsistency” and “self-contradiction.” On one page he will defend one position, and three pages later the very opposite. And between one year and another, the change may be so radical you wonder if the same author could possibly have written both statements. Dewey explains himself: “I envy those who can write their intellectual biography in a unified pattern…By contrast I seem to be unstable, chameleon-like, yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible influences; struggling to assimilate something from each.” [22] The result is a mass of incompatibilities that frequently defy analysis and still more classification. A Catholic educator who recently finished a doctorate thesis on Dewey's philosophy remarked that his work was “extremely difficult, in view of the fact that Dewey repeatedly contradicts himself.” [23]

Another point which Dewey stresses is the motive which led him to identify the scientific method and the principles of morality, and identification which plays such a large part in his pedagogical theories.

As my study and thinking progressed, I became more and more troubled by the intellectual scandal that seemed to be involved in the current (and traditional) dualism in logical standpoint and method between something called “science” on the one hand and something called “morals” on the other. I have long felt that the construction of a logic, that is, a method of effective inquiry, which would apply without abrupt breach of continuity to the fields designated by both of these words, is at once our needed theoretical solvent and the supply of our greatest practical want. This belief has had much more to do with the development of what I termed, for lack of a better word, “instrumentalism,” than have most of the reasons that have been assigned. [24]

Dewey then traces the genesis of his principles of psychology to William James, the Harvard Professor of Psychology and founder of American pragmatism. Previously he had said that “upon the whole, the forces that have influenced me have come from persons and from situations more than from books.” [25] But now he admits that “the great exception to what was said about no very fundamental vital influence issuing from books…concerns the influence of William James. As far as I can discover one specifiable philosophic factor which entered into my thinking so as to give it a new direction and quality, it is this one.” [26]

There are two strains in James' psychology which Dewey recognizes and on which he claims to have built his own concepts. The first was James' functionalism as against the traditional concept of substantial personality. So complete was Dewey's conversion to the functional theory, that he accuses James of faint-heartedness. James had dispensed with the Pure Ego in thought; Dewey believed he should also dispense with the Pure Mover in conduct. James invented the theory of “a stream of consciousness” which needs no substance in and from which to act; Dewey went beyond James, declaring, “If the stream of thought can run itself in one case, the stream of conduct may administer itself in the other.” [27] He would have nothing to do with James' fiat; not even the mildest kind of determinism may be allowed. “The individual and his actions,” according to Dewey, “are one. There are concrete attitudes, habits, desires, ideas, and ignorance; but there is no ego behind these states. There is no call to recede into the ego to explain will, any more than to explain consciousness.” [28] One of the clearest statements of Dewey's functionalism was written a year before the autobiography where he says: “The distinction between physical, psycho-physical and mental is (only) one of increasing complexity and intimacy of interaction among natural events. The idea that matter, life and mind represent separate kinds of Being is a doctrine that springs, as so many philosophic errors have sprung, from a substantiation of eventual functions.” [29] Mind, will, and matter are therefore only different types of interaction, not different types of being; there is only functional not entitative distinction in reality.

The second strain in James which Dewey adopted was “a return to the earlier biological conception of the psyche.” True, some of the ancients also conceived of mind as an organic function of the brain, but the modern return to the ancients was “possessed of a new force and value due to the immense progress made by biology since the time of Aristotle. I doubt if we have as yet begun to realize all that is due to William James for the introduction and use of this idea (which)…worked its way more and more into all my ideas and acted as a ferment to transform old beliefs.” [30]

The final statement which Dewey makes about himself in the autobiography gives us a clue to what many have called “iconoclasm,” which is impatient to the point of hatred with the accumulate wisdom of the past:

I think it shows a deplorable deadness of imagination to suppose that philosophy will indefinitely revolve within the scope of the problems and systems that two thousand years of European history have bequeathed to us. Seen in the long perspective of the future, the whole of Western European history is a provincial episode. I do not expect to see in my day a genuine, as distinct from a forced and artificial, integration of thought. But a mind that is not too egotistically impatient can have faith that this unification will issue in its season. Meantime, a chief task of those who call themselves philosophers is to help get rid of the useless lumber that blocks our highways of thought, and strive to make straight and open the paths that lead to the future. [31]

The last sentence ends on a personal note and epitomizes Dewey's lifetime of fruitless effort to discover the truth: “Forty years (his own) spent in wandering in a wilderness like that of the present is not a sad fate-unless one attempts to make himself believe that the wilderness is after all itself the promised land.” [32]

Psychology and Instrumentalism

Man, according to Dewey, possesses no soul or mind in the traditional sense of these terms. The doctrine of organic dedevelopment has eliminated the dualism of soul and body. A spiritual vital principle is rejected because “the independently existing soul restricts and degrades individuality, making of it a separate thing outside of the full flow of things, alien to things experienced and consequently in either mechanical or miraculous relations to them.” [33]

Although the mind is not spiritual, it can still acquire knowledge in Dewey's hypothesis through what he calls the medium of experience. There are no objective norms of truth or morality because “human experience consciously guided by ideas, evolves its own standards and measures, and each new experience constructed by their means is an opportunity for new ideas and ideals.” [34]

The specific instrument by which ideals are to be discovered and the court of last appeal in their prosecution is the scientific method. Dewey recognizes three names by which this theory of scientism may be denominated. Viewed in terms of the specific end or goal of human knowledge, whether this-worldly human utility or divine and extra-mundane, it is pragmatism; viewed in terms of the method by which knowledge is gained, whether by deduction from fixed principles or by experimentation through the scientific method, it is experimentalism; and viewed in terms of the immediate function which thought is to serve, whether to acquire knowledge of truths and finally of Truth or merely as an instrument to “more vital living,” it is instrumentalism. His own definition of scientism is unmistakable:

It (the scientific method) breaks away completely with that part of the philosophical tradition which holds that concern with superior reality determines the work to be done by philosophical inquiry. It affirms that the purpose and business of philosophy is wholly (concerned) with…search for the ends and values that give direction to our collective human activities. It holds that not grasp of eternal and universal Reality but use of the methods and conclusions of our best knowledge, that called scientific, provides the means for conducting this search…The movement is called, in its various aspects, by the names of pragmatism, experimentalism, instrumentalism. Not these names are important but the ideas that are held regarding the distinctive aim and business of philosophic inquiry and of how it shall be accomplished. [35]

Dewey's Credo of Naturalism

The basis of Dewey's philosophy of life is an unmitigated naturalism. In 1925 when Santayana, himself a confirmed materialist, accused Dewey of cowardice in his profession of naturalism,36 Dewey defended himself in a spirited article entitled “Half-Hearted Naturalism,” in which he clarified his position to make it very certain that he wanted to be considered “a whole-hearted naturalist.” [37] While this should be evident from the reading of his numerous works, it is significant that he went out of his way to remove every doubt on this point. He calls himself an empirical naturalist who allows no break or discontinuity between nature and social man. There is no “gulf between nature and man-social or conventional man.” Any other concept is “reminiscent of supernatural beliefs…To me human affairs, associative and personal, are projections, continuations, complications of the nature which exists in the physical and prehuman world. There is no gulf, no two spheres of existence, no 'bifurcations.” There is only a “thorough-going continuity” between man and nature, a fact which is demonstrated by the progress of physical science. 38

Finally in 1933, as though to remove any lingering doubt about his philosophical convictions, John Dewey along with a dozen leading Americans signed and published the so-called “Humanist Manifesto,” which contains in nucleo the basic principles for which he stands. In the original document there were fifteen articles to this “Credo in Naturalism,” of which the following are the most representative:

  1. Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

  2. Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.

  3. Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.

  4. Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modem science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.

  5. Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.

  6. In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer, the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in the heightened sense of personal life and in a co-operative effort to promote social well-being.

  7. The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate…. A socialized and co-operative economic order must be established.

  8. Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers on longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power of its achievement. [39]

In the opinion of his followers, John Dewey is “the foremost philosopher in the history of America” and “its greatest educational thinker.” [40] This is true, but only in the sense that Dewey is America's outstanding prophet of a new kingdom, in which the only god who is admitted is the subjective creation of Man.


  1. Paul A. Schilpp, Commemorative Essays, p. 41. Stockton, Cal.: The Author, 1930.

  2. Geoffrey O'Connell, Naturalism in American Education, p. 137. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938.

  3. M. H. Thomas and H. W. Schneider, Bibliography of John Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

  4. W. T. Feldman, Philosophy of John Dewey, p. v. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1934.

  5. Henry Suzzallo, in Introduction to John Dewey's Moral Principles and Education, p. x. Booston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909.

  6. William H. Kilpatrick, "Apprentice Citizens," Saturday Review of Literature, XXXII (October 22, 1949), 12.

  7. William H. Kilpatrick in Philosophy of John Dewey, p. 471. Edited by Paul A. Schilpp. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1939.

  8. Frederick S. Breed, Education and the New Realism, p. xviii. New York: Macmillan Co., 1939.

  9. George H. Mead, quoting Dewey in John Dewey, the Man and His Philosophy, p. 100. Addresses Delivered in New York in Celebration of John Dewey s Seventieth Birthday. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

  10. John Dewey, "The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Contemporary American Philosophy, II, p. 19. Edited by George P. Adams and William P. Montague. New York: Macmillan Co., 1930.

  11. John Dewey, A Common Faith, pp. 42-43. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934.

  12. Ibid., p. 27.

  13. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

  14. Ibid., p. 26.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., p. 46.

  18. Ibid.

  19. John Dewey, "The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Contemporary American Philosophy, II. Edited by George P. Adams and William P. Montague. New York: Macmillan Co., 1930.

  20. Editor's note to reprint of John Dewey, "The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of Literature, XXXII (October 22, 1949), 9.

  21. Dewey, ibid., 39, where he excuses his own lack of clarity by accusing other writers of a deceptive lucidity of expression at the expense of a penetrating insight into the facts of experience. "I have been acutely aware," he says, "of a tendency of other writers and thinkers to achieve a specious lucidity and simplicity by the mere process of ignoring considerations which a greater respect for concrete materials of experience would have forced upon them." Aliis verbis, Dewey's expression is obscure because his ideas are profound.

  22. Ibid., 42.

  23. Quoted from a personal letter of Rev. William J. Mehok, S.J., assistant national secretary, Jesuit Educational Association, New York, October 22, 1951.

  24. Dewey, "The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of Literature, op. cit., 42.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid.

  27. John Dewey, "The Ego As Cause," Philosophical Review, III (May, 1894), 340.

  28. G. W. Allport, "Dewey's Individual and Social Psychology," Philosophy of John Dewey, p. 268. Edited by Paul A. Schilpp. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1939.

  29. John Dewey, Experience and Nature, p. 261. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1929.

  30. Dewey, "The Philosopher-in-the-Making," Saturday Review of Literature, op. cit., 43.

  31. Ibid., 44.

  32. Ibid.

  33. John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, p. 288. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910.

  34. John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, p. 168. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1929.

  35. John Dewey, Problems of Men, pp. 10-11. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1948.

  36. George Santayana, "Dewey's Naturalistic Metaphysics," Journal of Philosophy, XXII (December 3, 1925), 673-688. Here Santayana makes reference to Dewey's inveterate obscurity. He says, "In reviewing it (Dewey's naturalism), I may be excused from attempting to sum up his chief contentions in his own language, considering especially that his language, as he himself says, is the chief or only obstacle to understanding him. (p. 673)

  37. John Dewey, "Half-Hearted Naturalism," Journal of Philosophy, XXIV (February 3, 1927), 58.

  38. Ibid.

  39. A Humanist Manifesto, published as a separate statement under the auspices of the American Humanist Association, Salt Lake City, 1933, and listed among Dewey's authentic writings in the official Bibliography of John Dewey, p. 130. New York: Columbia University, 1939.

  40. William H. Kilpatrick, "Apprentice Citizens," op. cit., 12.

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