John Dewey portrait

Portrait of John Dewey (artist and date unknown). Library of Congress / Public Domain

This talk was presented at the New School forum “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022.

What I want to talk with you about today is this crisis and the tools that John Dewey gives us to think through the notion of crisis, and what to do about it. The way that I approach Dewey’s thought is not really one where I recount his arguments or explicate his concepts in the context of their time. Instead, I try to take a Deweyan approach to Deweyan thought, which is to say I employ what I think is useful in the context of our livingness today.

So, it seems to me that what we’re faced with is a crisis of despair at the unraveling of the late-twentieth-century order. What I mean by “the late-twentieth-century order” is the post–World War II consensus—always contentious, always with counterpublics and dissent, but still a consensus—about a liberal international [progression] that would carry into the future indefinitely, a sort of steady spiral upward.

Now, we were led to believe that this order was an edifice that would be undergirded by institutions that, while not perfect, were mostly right, mostly good. This required us to look away from the vast populations that were left out of the care of those institutions and social structures because, as the story goes, things were so much better than they had been at the beginning of the twentieth century that they could only continue to keep getting better.

Well, what the twenty-first century showed us is that this wasn’t actually the case. The order that seemed like an edifice was actually an uneasy truce, and now we are in a moment in which all options are on the table. It’s an order where the nation, this sort of ideological truth of the late twentieth century, is no longer dominant. It’s an order where people are reaching toward other kinds of explanations for the world as it is, but also other kinds of idealizations of the world as it might be for better and worse. This is happening on the Left and the Right, and in places that are hard to characterize in that kind of linear progression.

And so the crisis, it seems to me, is that we are at a moment where we are stuck between past and future, one where there are some coalitions of folks and some individuals who would like to go back to what they thought of as the stable order of the late twentieth century. There are others on the right and the left, and elsewhere, who would like to reinvent a mythical version of a sort of pre-twentieth-century organization of society. This would allow naked hierarchy and the preservation of the nascent embedded white Christian nationalism that has always been present in the American project. It has always also been recursive, in terms of the historical moments that Americans and the American political system has had an opportunity to choose.

Will we have a vision that is more like Frederick Douglass’s vision of multiracial cosmopolitan democracy? Or will we have a vision that is more like the white supremacist patriarchal vision? That was the compromise after Reconstruction in 1877.

Through different means, the American polity often chooses to re-instantiate the white supremacist patriarchal structure. We are in a moment, again, when we have this choice not only as American polity, but also in the global context. We see this choice reverberating all over the world. But I think that’s because it is responding to this question of what the future looks like. We’ve come to realize that what we thought was a steady state, what we thought was the end of history, as it were, really wasn’t right.

So, if we have the opportunity to shape a twenty-first century, what is it that we want to do? What is it that we can do in terms of shaping the world to come? The thing that I think that John Dewey gives us in terms of thinking through this question is his notion of intelligence, his notion of social intelligence in particular.

For Dewey, the notion of social intelligence is that human beings are able to shape and change the world through the understandings that they gain from the fund of human knowledge that exists: old ideas combined and related through the world as we experience it, and latched onto something new. As Dewey writes in Liberalism and Social Action (1935), “We are always dependent upon the experience that has accumulated in the past. And yet, there are always new forces coming in and new needs arising that determine whether the new forces are to operate and the new needs to be satisfied, a reconstruction of patterns of old experience.”

The old and the new have forever to be integrated with each other so that the values of old experience may become the servants and instruments of new desires and aims. This is really important to me: that the old values will be the servants, not the bondsmen, but the servants of new desires and aims. I say this because oftentimes when we talk about our opportunities for going forward, what people do is go back, which we have to do: but then they go back and they want to pick a side in the past to be on.

We do not need to pick sides from the twentieth century or the nineteenth century in order to understand how to go forward. Instead, what we need to do is to seek to learn what we can to make the ideas that are available to us the servants of our aims and desires for the future that we seek to build. That is the social intelligence. Dewey goes on to say: “We are always possessed by habits and customs and this fact signifies that we are always influenced by the inertia and the momentum of forces temporarily outgrown, but nevertheless still present with us as a part of our being. Human life gets set in patterns, institutional and moral, but change is also with us and demands the constant remaking of old habits and old ways of thinking, desiring, and acting. The effective ratio between the old and the stabilizing and the new and disturbing is very different at different times.” It is not that our society creates that need, but that the necessity for the adjustment defines the character and content of democratic action.

So it falls to us, if we are able to employ this method of social intelligence, to use democratic action. And this democratic action, by the way, may not be contained in sort of officialized institutions. I don’t mean only the ballot, but to use democratic action to understand and also shape the balance between the old and familiar, the things that may be temporarily outgrown, but nevertheless are still with us, and the new and disturbing.

What I really find inspiring about this notion of social intelligence and its relationship to democratic action is what it gives human beings who are alive today. It acknowledges our capacity as human agents to shape the world in a way that I think that our twentieth-century understanding of liberalism tried to take away from us. Meaning that we’ve already designed the right system.

We just need to implement it in a way that is fairer.

All the people writing from all of the different traditions of political thought who’ve been saying this all along actually don’t like this. No, this doesn’t actually work. It doesn’t actually include all the people it’s meant to include, and it can’t, because it’s built on the notion of certain exclusions, right? Perhaps we cannot recover it. People have been writing in that tradition all along, but nevertheless there was a dominant hegemonic notion that no, no, basically all of these institutions, all of our kind of beliefs are the correct beliefs. We just need to implement them in a way that is fairer.

But what I think this notion of pragmatic social intelligence allows us to do is to look around and say, actually, maybe we didn’t get it right. But we are possessed of a power as human agents, as human beings in the world, as human beings in relation to one another, to continue to invent and implement a world that we wish to share. We are as entitled to do that as people were in the 1700s and the 1500s and the year 400 and in the year one.

And that’s something that I think that many of us have forgotten and something that when I read Dewey I always remember.

Deva Woodly is Associate Professor of Politics at The New School.