According to Chomskys Requiem for an American Dream:

John Dewey, the leading social philosopher in the late 20C argued that until all institutions - production, commerce, media - are under participatory democratic control, we will not have a functioning democratic society.

Did Dewey flesh out exactly how he envisaged this participatory democratic control would work? Did he point towards any model examples?

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    See John Dewey and Democracy: "Dewey is anti-elitist, and argues that the capacity of the wise few to discern the public interest tends to be distorted by their position. " Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 11:08
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    And "Dewey was a critic of laissez-faire liberalism and its accompanying individualistic view of society from his early writings. This criticism was amplified during the Depression, where he expressed a form of liberal and democratic socialism in writings such as Individualism, Old and New (1930), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), and Freedom and Culture (1939). He was a leading critic from the left of Roosevelt's New Deal while at the same time opposing Soviet communism and its western apologists." Note: as you can see, Dewey is not "late 20C". Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 11:10
  • @mauro allegranza: I noted that slip too. I quoted it verbatim. Thanks for the references. Looks like I've got some reading to do. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 11:50
  • See also Steven Fesmire, Dewey, Routledge (2015), Ch.5 Social-political and educational philosophy reconstructed Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 12:11
  • @Mauro allegranza: have you read all those refs, by the way? Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 12:19

1 Answer 1


Dewey and participatory democracy - a caveat

Westbook says repeatedly that Dewey favored "participatory democracy. " In a sense he did, but the term comes out of the student movement in the '60s and had a variety of meanings then. To apply it to Dewey seems both anachronistic and to add an unnecessary layer of undetermined meaning to a philosopher who already has enough problems with clear communication. (Daniel Levine, 'John Dewey and American Democracy by Robert B. Westbrook', Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 1992), pp. 143-144 : 143; Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991, $29.95). Pp. 570. ISBN 0 8014 2560 3.)

None the less we can read Dewey's commitment to a form of participatory democracy from the following passage :

Dewey and participatory democracy - the positive account

John Dewey believed that we could improve both our common life and each person's well-being by embracing democracy, not as a mere set of procedures ensuring one person one vote, frequent elections, majority rule, and the protection of minorities, but as a way of life. The former he referred to as "political democracy"; the latter "democracy as a social idea" (LW 2:325f). He valued the processes of open, informed communication so much that he thought they should characterize the many ways in which we interact with one another and not be limited to the narrowly and formally "political." Through free exchange at home and work and in informal gatherings of all sorts as well as the more formal ones of voluntary associations and governmental activities we can intelligently choose the best courses of action. He was even willing to speak of his commitment to the life of shared experience as a faith. Indeed, he thought that the methods of democracy required such an attitude (LW 14:227). To be a demo- crat was to commit oneself to participation in the intelligent give and take of our common life.

Faith language and talk of "a way of life," however, suggests religiosity. This Dewey was willing to acknowledge. He even argued in A Common Faith (1934; LW 9) that the religious in experience was a quality of our transactions with one another and our environments and not a relationship with some transcendental object. To be sure, many think they have such a relationship but, as a metaphysical naturalist who denied the existence of the supernatural, Dewey thought their religiosity consisted in the attitudes that they took to ward these objects. Any attitude that was sufficiently inclusive, intensive and self-unifying deserved to be called "religious" (LW 9:16, 19 & 52f). Certainly, on his own understanding of the religious, Dewey's faith in democracy as a form of social intelligence was a religious one. (Michael Eldridge, 'Dewey's Faith in Democracy as Shared Experience', Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 11- 30 : 11-12.)

So participatory democracy as a 'social idea' for Dewey extended far beyond politics to embrace 'the processes of open, informed communication so much that he thought they should characterize the many ways in which we interact with one another and not be limited to the narrowly and formally "political."

Dewey and participatory democracy - how would it work ?

Major questions remain open here. 'Realist' critics wanted to know just what political and social arrangements Dewey had in mind.

Dewey confronted "realist" critics such as Walter Lippmann - who posed an explicit challenge to his faith in participatory democracy, arguing that modernity had thoroughly undermined the possibility of expansive democratic citizenship. Dewey's response to the realists was disappointing. He argued forcefully that local publics were essential to his democratic ideal, for "in its deepest and richest sense a community must always remain a matter of face -to -face intercourse." Only in such publics could citizens engage in deliberative, democratic discourse, and hence "democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community." At the same time, Dewey accepted the realist contention that the forces of industrialization had invaded and partially destroyed the public life of local associations. Thus, Deweyan democracy as a "working end" depended to a considerable degree on the reconstruction of local publics. Dewey implied that such reconstruction was readily conceivable. It was, he said in The Public and Its Problems, "easy to point to many signs which indicate that unconscious agencies as well as deliberate planning are making for such an enrichment of the experience of local communities as will conduce to render them genuine centres of the attention, interest and devotion for their constituent members." But he did not say what these signs were, and consequently, as I have said, what stands out in that volume - Dewey's only extended venture into political theory - are his powerful descriptions of the manner in which the modern world has stripped local publics of control over their own destiny. (Robert B. Westbrook, 'Democratic Faith: A Response to Michael Eldridge', Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 31- 40 : 35.)

It appears, then, that Dewey was genuinely committed to participatory democracy and believed it to be a partial reality. He also thought the ideal of participatory democracy could be effectively promoted but he was sketchy on the practical details of its realisation. I don't think this was oversight or carelessness on his part. Detailed political theory was not one of his strengths. He does, however, offer one negative pointer as the next section shows.

Dewey and participatory democracy - the limits of his commitment

Dewey did not believe that participatory democracy meant that citizens and the public would run the entire apparatus of politics :

Westbrook correctly thinks that Dewey's democratic ideal and politi- cal theory sought to "maximize" citizen participation but that "mod- ern democratic government would continue to rely heavily on ac- countable officials other than citizen voters" (John Dewey and Ameri- can Democracy, p. 317). Dewey's political theory was not reducible to direct democracy. (Michael Eldridge, 'Dewey's Faith in Democracy as Shared Experience', Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 11- 30 : 14.)


Note on abbreviations

References to Dewey's works ('LW') are to the critical edition published by Southern Illinois University Press. There are 37 volumes in three series - the Early, Middle and Later Works. (Michael Eldridge, Dewey's Faith in Democracy as Shared Experience, p.28.)

  • "Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful. That things should be able to pass from the plane of exter- nal pushing and pulling to that of revealing themselves to man, and thereby to themselves; and that the fruit of communication should be participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales. When communication occurs, all natural events are sub- ject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking." Experience and Nature
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 11:57
  • I think in an integrative reading of (all of) Dewey, it becomes apparent that (participatory) democracy is but a natural outcome of public acting as the highest form of human experience, i.e. the public is the primary. Quote from the 1929 edition, page 166
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 12:00
  • @Philip Klöcking. I agree with all this. It definitely adds to my answer. Were you suggesting disagreement ? Not sure. Best anyway : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 12:13
  • No disagreement, just an addition. Especially since in the 1946 introduction to The Public and its Problems, he hints at how isolationism, i.e. the lack of The Public on an international scale, was a source of political problems.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 12:16
  • Many thanks - in debt to you again ! Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 12:21

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