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More than six decades after John Dewey’s death, his political philosophy is undergoing a revival. With renewed interest in pragmatism and its implications for democracy in an age of mass communication, bureaucracy, and ever-increasing social complexities, Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, first published in 1927, remains vital to any discussion of today’s political issues.

This edition of The Public and Its Problems, meticulously annotated and interpreted with fresh insight by Melvin L. Rogers, radically updates the previous version published by Swallow Press. Rogers’s introduction locates Dewey’s work within its philosophical and historical context and explains its key ideas for a contemporary readership. Biographical information and a detailed bibliography round out this definitive edition, which will be essential to students and scholars both.

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An Essay in Political Inquiry

John Dewey

Edited and with an Introduction by Melvin L. Rogers



Swallow Press An imprint of Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio 45701

Copyright © 1927 by Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1954 by Mrs. John Dewey This edition copyright © 2016 by Ohio University Press All rights reserved

To obtain permission to quote, reprint, or otherwise reproduce or distribute material from Swallow Press / Ohio University Press publications, please contact our rights and permissions department at (740) 593-1154 or (740) 593-4536 (fax).

Portions of Melvin L. Rogers’s introduction first appeared in "Introduction: Revisiting The Public and Its Problems and John Dewey and His Vision of Democracy, both in Revisiting The Public and Its Problems," special issue, Contemporary Pragmatism 7, no. 1 (2011): 1–9, 69–92.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Dewey, John, 1859–1952, author. | Rogers, Melvin L., editor.

Title: The public and its problems : an essay in political inquiry / John Dewey; edited and with an introduction by Melvin L. Rogers.

Description: Athens, Ohio : Swallow Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016020374| ISBN 9780804011662 (paperback) | ISBN 9780804040730 (pdf)

Subjects: LCSH: Democracy. | Political science. | State, The. | BISAC: POLITICAL SCIENCE / General.

Classification: LCC JC251 .D47 2016 | DDC 321.8—dc23

LC record available at

printed with season’s grant

Figure Foundation

oneness of states, full unity




Editorial Note

Introduction: Revisiting The Public and Its Problems

Melvin L. Rogers

John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry

Foreword (1927)

Introduction (1946)

1. Search for the Public

Divergence of facts and theoretical interpretations concerning the nature of the state. Practical import of theories. Theories in terms of causal origin. Theory in terms of perceived consequences. Distinction of private and public substituted for that of individual and social. The influence of association. Plurality of associations. Criterion of the public. Function of the state. The state as an experimental problem. Summary.

2. Discovery of the State

Public and state. Geographical extent. Multiplicity of states. Spread of consequences. Law is not command. Law and reasonableness. The public and long-established habits of action. Fear of the new. Irreparable consequences. Variation of state-functions according to circumstances of time and place. State and government. State and society. The pluralistic theory.

3. The Democratic State

Private and representative rôles of officials. Selection of rulers by irrelevant methods. The problem of control of officials. Meanings of democracy. Fallacy as to origin of democratic government. Influence of non-political factors. The origin of individualism. Influence of the new industry; the theory of natural economic laws. James Mill’s philosophy of democratic government. Criticism of individualism. Criticism of antithesis of natural and artificial. Wants and aims as functions of social life. Persistence of pre-industrial institutions. Final problem.

4. The Eclipse of the Public

Local origin of American democratic government. National unification due to technological factors. Submergence of the public. Disparity of inherited ideas and machinery with actual conditions. Illustrations of resulting failures. Problem of discovering the public. Democracy versus the expert. Explanation of eclipse of public. Illustrated by the World War. Application of criteria of the public. Failure of traditional principles. Political apathy accounted for. Need of experts. Rivals of political interest. Ideals and instrumentalities.

5. Search for the Great Community

Democracy as idea and as governmental behavior. Problem of the Great Community. Meaning of the democratic ideal. Democracy and community life. Community and associated activity. Communication and the community. Intellectual conditions of the Great Community. Habit and intelligence. Science and knowledge. Limitations upon social inquiry. Isolation of social inquiry. Pure and applied science. Communication and public opinion. Limitations of distribution of knowledge. Communication as art.

6. The Problem of Method

Antithesis between individual and social as obstruction to method. Meaning of individual. Where opposition lies. Meaning of absolutistic logic. Illustration from doctrine of evolution. From psychology. Difference of human and physical science. Experimental inquiry as alternative. Method, and government by experts. Democracy and education by discussion. The level of intelligence. The necessity of local community life. Problem of restoration. Tendencies making for reëstablishment. Connection of this problem with the problem of political intelligence.

Editor’s Notes

Bibliographical Essay



I would like to thank former students at Carleton College (2005–7) for their suggestions on the introduction. I extend thanks to Kendra Boileau of Penn State University Press, Gillian Berchowitz of Ohio University Press for her commitment to the project, the original reviewers of the manuscript, the editorial staff, and Colin Koopman of the University of Oregon, Jack Turner of the University of Washington, Christopher Lbron of Yale University, Eric MacGilvray of Ohio State University, Eddie Glaude of Princeton University, and my original research assistant, David Novitsky, at the University of Virginia, all of whom provided helpful suggestions in preparing this volume. As always, support from my partner, Frederick Godley, has sustained me in working on this project.

Melvin L. Rogers


In the preparation of this chronology I have relied on many sources, especially the similar chronologies in Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, eds., The Essential Dewey, vol. 1, Pragmatism, Education, Democracy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998); Barbara Levine, Chronology of John Dewey’s Life and Work, Center for Dewey Studies, Carbondale, Illinois (; Molly Cochran, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dewey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Editorial Note

The present version of The Public and Its Problems reprints the 1954 edition by Swallow Press, now an imprint of Ohio University Press. The 1954 edition includes the Introduction (titled Afterword in that edition) that John Dewey wrote for the Gateway Books edition published in 1946 in Chicago. The present version, however, also includes the subtitle that Dewey appended to the Gateway Books edition, thus providing the full title: The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. All of these editions, excluding the substantive additions from 1946, are reprints of the 1927 book published by Henry Holt and Company of New York City. That initial book was in print from 1927 to 1941, and the decision to discontinue its publication was largely due to diminishing sales.

This is the second reprint of The Public and Its Problems for which I have served as editor. The first version, published by Pennsylvania State University Press in 2012, was discontinued in 2015. Pennsylvania State University Press allowed me to honor the initial agreement between Roberta Lowitz Grant (Dewey’s second wife) and Alan Swallow that granted Alan Swallow exclusive rights to The Public and Its Problems. All of the content found in the Pennsylvania State University Press volume (which I shall comment on in a moment) has now been moved over to this edition. This present volume thus replaces the Pennsylvania State University Press 2012 edition and updates the 1954 edition published by Swallow Press.

The only other version of this text in print is the Southern Illinois University Press edition as found in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925–1953, vol. 2, published in 1984. This reprint differs from the Southern Illinois University Press edition in the following notable ways. The Southern Illinois volume contains full publication information for most of the texts cited by Dewey, the content of which was drawn either from The Public and Its Problems or from Dewey’s personal library as found in John Dewey’s Personal and Professional Library: A Checklist, compiled by Jo Ann Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982). Unlike the Southern Illinois University reprint of The Public and Its Problems, however, this volume fully incorporates that information into Dewey’s original notes so that the main text and notes are continuous. Further, in instances where citation to a particular edition is not included either in The Public and Its Problems or in Dewey’s personal and professional library, this version provides that information with reference to the most recent edition of the work cited, thus rendering the reprint more complete.

Additionally, I provide informational notes that are otherwise missing from the Southern Illinois volume. My rule has been to supply a note wherever a modern reader might reasonably stop for an explanation or description that Dewey does not provide or might wonder about the full passage of a text from which Dewey quotes. In especially important cases, I have referred the reader to other works by Dewey that might provide further illumination on the subject matter at hand in the text. This now provides the reader with connective tissue among the ideas that are on offer in The Public and Its Problems and the earlier or later iteration of those ideas in Dewey’s corpus.

In all cases above, I have tried to limit my editorial additions, relying whenever possible on the argumentative context and the reader’s general knowledge. As a result, some decisions regarding what was worthy of an informational note inevitably cannot escape the risk of appearing arbitrary. I have tried to be careful not to overburden the reader. In every instance, the aim is to provide a richer and more useful volume than currently exists. In some instances—although very few—it was simply impossible to locate a source to which Dewey referred. In other instances, Dewey refers to traditions of thought far too diffuse to attribute to a specific source. In such cases, I have provided no additional information. The annotations coupled with the Introduction, Chronology, and Bibliographical Essay are all meant to aid both student and researcher in their engagement with this most important work by John Dewey.

Dewey’s own notes appear as asterisked footnotes. My notes are signaled by superscript arabic numerals. In some cases, I have appended, in square brackets, comments after Dewey’s notes consistent with the approach outlined above.

All selections from Dewey’s writings are taken from The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882–1898 (abbreviated EW), The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924 (MW), and The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925–1953 (LW), edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–83). All references to Dewey’s works appear in notes. Citations include title, series abbreviation with volume number, and the page number(s) (e.g., The Quest for Certainty, LW 4:214).

This edition retains Dewey’s original punctuation and spellings from the 1954 Swallow Press edition, except for the correction of obvious typographical errors. These amendments will be made without explicit remark. Dewey often uses rare or archaic variants of words, which have not been modernized in this edition; none of the words disrupt the meaning of the sentences in which they occur. In a limited number of cases, I have emended punctuation or supplied a missing word in square brackets. Occasional syntactical infelicities still remain. In the case of a few sentences that are awkwardly constructed, rendering the meaning vague, I have provided a note of clarification that includes guidance on Dewey’s likely intended meaning.


Revisiting The Public and Its Problems

Melvin L. Rogers

Dewey’s Democratic Vision

Published in 1927 and reissued in 1946 with an added subtitle and introduction, The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry is not John Dewey’s (1859–1952) only work on politics. Still, it is perhaps one of his richest meditations on the future of democracy in an age of mass communication, governmental bureaucracy, social complexity, and pluralism that implicitly draws on his previous writings and prefigures his later thinking. It is this work, above all others, to which scholars consistently turn when assessing Dewey’s conception of democracy and what might be imagined for democracy in our own time. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to open a book in contemporary democratic theory without finding substantive references to Dewey and his work.¹ This is because these themes remain as important today as when Dewey first engaged them.

Dewey came to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a philosopher, but it was his writings on progressive education, ethics, democracy, and contemporary issues in the twentieth century that earned him both national and international fame as a public intellectual of the highest order.² Born in Burlington, Vermont, and a graduate of the University of Vermont and the then newly formed graduate school of Johns Hopkins University, Dewey studied the great thinkers of liberal and democratic thinking, from John Locke (1632–1704) to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), in his efforts to reimagine politics in America. If America was viewed as the modern experiment in democracy, then Dewey was its greatest defender and most reflective critic.³ As historian Henry Commager observed in 1950, attesting to the importance of Dewey’s voice: So faithfully did Dewey live up to his own philosophical creed that he became the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.

While it is true that Dewey achieved a level of respect unmatched by his contemporaries, it is a mistake to read him as the spokesperson for his time. It has been clear since Robert Westbrook’s magisterial intellectual biography, John Dewey and American Democracy, that Dewey was not a proponent of a crass corporate liberalism that came to dominate American society beginning in the late nineteenth century.⁵ Rather, he was its most perceptive critic, who sought to articulate the moral demand of democratic liberalism. Properly understood, democratic liberalism locates the individual within, even as it provides him or her with resources to guide the diverse network of social relationships in which he or she is located.

Although for Dewey liberalism and modern democracy are closely related, and he often yokes the two together, it is a mistake to see them as involving the same logic. This is for two reasons. First, modern democracy places emphasis on the equality of the individual before the law and on the shared identity of the rulers and the ruled and views the people as the creative source of authority. But the constitution of the people in modern democracy—a view that Dewey himself advances, as we will see—is understood as resulting from politics. In other words, who constitutes the people is the result of individuals fighting to give direction to their lives, rather than something determined by the governing nation.

Second, Dewey is critical of classical liberalism and a defender of modern liberalism. Classical liberalism involves a deep appreciation of liberty; it elevates the standing of individuals, but as it specifically relates to their taking responsibility for their own fate, it valorizes private property and is concerned to constrain the use of state power.⁷ In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, classical liberalism finds its founding elements in John Locke (1632–1704) and Adam Smith (1723–1790), but its policy-oriented vision of society is most clearly located in the nineteenth century in thinkers such as David Ricardo (1772–1823) and William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), and in the twentieth-century figure Frederick Hayek (1899–1992). These last three thinkers in particular are motivated by a philosophical desire to limit state power and elucidate a laissez-faire model of political and economic development.

In The Public and Its Problems, but also in his Individualism: Old and New of 1930 and Liberalism and Social Action of 1935, Dewey is critical of the extent to which classical liberalism, with its atomistic psychology, narrow understanding of individuality, and limited role for the state, undermines the communal dimension of democracy. As he argues in last of the three works: There still lingers in the minds of some [liberals] the notion that there are two different ‘spheres’ of action and of rightful claims; that of political society and that of the individual, and that in the interest of the latter the former must be as contracted as possible.⁸ As he understands it, the problem centers on balancing the relationship between the two, no matter how difficult that proves, in the service of collective problem solving. Liberalism, he writes, has to assume the responsibility for making it clear that intelligence is a social asset and is clothed with a function as public as is its origin, in the concrete, in social cooperation.

When Dewey speaks this way he sides with what L. T. Hobhouse (1864–1929) calls new liberalism or with those who seek to free the potentiality of individuals and elucidate the social conditions for the flourishing of life.¹⁰ Identifying those conditions often entails combating economic deprivations and political exclusions that constrain individuals. This new or modern liberalism includes such figures as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), T. H. Green (1836–1882), W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), and more recently John Rawls (1921–2002).¹¹ And while it too is concerned with freedom and elevating the standing of individuals, it is uniquely guided (albeit negatively) by extending to the state a greater role in removing inhumane conditions and constructing and underwriting (albeit positively) a welfare state.

Dewey’s aim in Liberalism and Social Action is not simply to address the contradictions of the 1930s—a deep financial depression amid technological advance, a noble belief in equality and liberty amid various forms of exclusion and oppression—by locating the responsibility of economic and social forces within the domain of democratic oversight. He is simultaneously providing an elucidation of democratic liberalism (hereafter simply referred to as democracy) that defines the entirety of The Public and Its Problems, published several years earlier, whether democracy applies to the market economy, the schools, or social relations more broadly. Dewey’s vision of civic participation aspires to pervade all of society. Indeed, society becomes responsible for generating the values by which it will live—values that are open to debate and refinement by its members and in response to socially and politically demanding problems. A vision of civic participation that pervades all of society implies, in Dewey’s view no less than in the view of the modern liberals with whom he is associated, self-control and self-direction in living one’s life. According to this view, individuals are capable of distancing themselves from their interests to assess the role of those interests in the flourishing of their lives and the lives of those with whom they share political society and on whom they necessarily depend.

In Dewey’s estimation, the creative potential of a democratic community is fundamentally connected to debate as the community revises and develops its institutional structures and values. In fact, it is for this reason that in works such as The School and Society (1899), How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Dewey attempts to elucidate the contours of human reflection (often referred to as inquiry) and the way it makes us responsive to the social and natural world in which we are located. His vision of participation cannot therefore be reduced to a minimalist view of democracy that is confined exclusively to voting. In fact, he rejects this account as a primary description of democracy.¹²

In The Public and Its Problems, he specifically ties the idea of representative government to deliberation among the citizenry (see chapters 2–3). He believes this will ensure that justification of one’s actions does not come uncoupled from being accountable to the public. This, he further maintains, will mitigate any blind faith we might otherwise place in political institutions. In Freedom and Culture of 1939—a work dedicated to elucidating the cultural outlook needed to sustain democracy against the tide of totalitarianism—Dewey argues, in a Jeffersonian fashion, that we must get rid of the ideas that lead us to believe that democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves, or that they can be identified with fulfillment of prescriptions laid down in a constitution.¹³

For him, this vision of democratic self-governance necessitates that political judgments by citizens be tested based on the extent to which they can withstand contrary arguments, reasons, and experiences. Forming the will of the democratic community, for Dewey, is a process of thoughtful interaction in which the preferences of citizens are both informed and transformed by public deliberation as citizens struggle to decide which policies will best satisfy and address the commitments and needs of the community.¹⁴ It must be the case that a vision of a shared life (rather than some narrow idea of self-interest) informs the extent to which citizens are willing to participate in this practice. But this shared life, he explains, is substantively informed and enriched through the exchange that deliberation makes possible. It is no wonder that many see Dewey as an important spokesperson for deliberative democracy.¹⁵

His vision of democracy does not exclusively or even principally refer to specific institutional arrangements and political procedures. They are important, but they do not exhaust the meaning of democracy. For him, democracy implies, as it had for Jefferson, Emerson, and Walt Whitman (1819–1892), and as it would for Jane Addams (1860–1935) and Du Bois, a public culture or ethos as the Greeks understood it that extended to matters of the mind, heart, and spirit.¹⁶ As Dewey explains in a 1939 address, Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us, to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit of treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal.¹⁷ This view guides the genesis of The Public and Its Problems and determines its content; in fact, it is at the core of both his first and his last set of reflections on democracy.

The Ethics of Democracy

What is the wider context for understanding The Public and Its Problems? Dewey wrote The Public and Its Problems in the spirit of debate and disagreement about the meaning and future of democracy, particularly with the journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) in mind. The Dewey-Lippmann debate is a staple of American political thought. The challenge that both democracy and Dewey faced in the figure of Lippmann—a challenge that centered on the viability of popular sovereignty and any faith placed therein—was not new to Dewey. He had encountered similar doubts decades earlier after reading Popular Government, published in 1885 by jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine (1822–1888).¹⁸

It is worth turning to Maine’s text and Dewey’s response in his 1888 essay, The Ethics of Democracy. Written at the age of twenty-nine, this essay marks Dewey’s first explicit reflection on democracy and contains elements of his view that he never abandoned and to which he returned almost forty years later. Although Dewey published a number of important works between 1888 and 1927 in which democracy figures as a central theme, The Ethics of Democracy is the most immediate thematic and conceptual predecessor to The Public and Its Problems.¹⁹ This is not simply because each work owes its existence to an intellectual provocateur. Independent of the similarities in motivation for writing each text, both center on the