Volume III, Number 2, Fall 2007

“Situating Dewey” by Don Morse

Don Morse is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Webster University in St. Louis. E-mail:

The aims of this paper are to situate John Dewey’s philosophy within the main cultural context in which it occurs, and to evaluate his philosophy in terms of its response to this context, that is, to determine whether we should see it as retrograde or progressive in relation to its times.

The main cultural context that I have in mind here is modernism. Although seldom mentioned in Dewey scholarship, Dewey came to philosophical maturity in the heyday of what cultural historians specifically refer to as “modernism,” or the age of the modern, “an affirmation of faith in the tradition of the new” (Weston, 7). This context, which was pervasive and powerful for everyone at the time, cannot but have made a deep impact on Dewey, who, as a sensitive, even brilliant young man, must have registered a response to it to a significant degree. Like everyone, Dewey was a product of his times; but those times were modern times. They were the times of modernism as a massive cultural movement—the times, that is to say, of avant garde, atonal music, of the shocking paintings of Kokoschka and Schiele, of the challenging architecture of Loos, of the bone chilling anxieties of Kafka, and so on. These were Dewey’s times. It is to these times that we must turn, then, if we would learn something significant about Dewey’s response to his age and, ultimately, the nature of his philosophy itself.

In this paper, I will first define the meaning of modernism. I will then situate Dewey’s philosophy in its relation to modernism and discuss his explicit response to this cultural tradition. Lastly, I will offer an assessment of Dewey’s philosophy in terms of its relation to “the modern”—that is to say, I will explore the question of whether Dewey’s philosophy is, in fact, merely a pre-modern, regressive, even conservative, gesture to its times or, on the contrary, a post-modern, progressive, and indeed very timely response for us today. Situated in its times, located, indeed, in its own time, as perhaps the best way to understand it, was Dewey’s philosophy forward looking or backward looking? Was Dewey a unique, visionary herald of our own postmodern culture? Or was he just the opposite, an Enlightenment throw back who just could not get with the times? The answer, we will see, may lie somewhere in between these two extremes.

Defining Modernism

To define modernism, I will make special reference to Vienna at the turn of the century, for it is here that, to my mind, the movement finds most characteristic expression, although we must remember that modernism was a major cultural movement affecting the entire western world, and not just Vienna. Janik and Toulmin define modernism in their book, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, in relation to the great Viennese critic, Karl Kraus (Janik and Toulmin, 93). Janek and Toulmin explain how Kraus developed a worldview according to which there existed something deeper and more mysterious than the everyday, apparent world. Kraus thought of this distinction explicitly in terms of gender.

As Janik and Toulmin make clear, Kraus thought of the feminine in terms of emotions and the masculine in terms of instrumental reason.

The emotional essence of woman is not wanton or nihilistic, but is rather a tender fantasy, which serves as the unconscious origin of all that has any worth in human experience. Herein lies the source of all inspiration and creativity. Reason itself is merely a technique, a means by which men obtain what they desire. In itself it is neither good nor evil, it is merely effective or ineffective. Reason must be supplied with proper goals from outside; it must be given direction of a moral or aesthetic type. The feminine fantasy fecundates the masculine reason and gives it this direction. (Janik and Toulmin, 74)

On the one side, we have mere instrumental reason, which aims to get things done. On the other, we have creative fantasy, which is deeper and more mysterious, but which gives direction to what we do. Emotion provides the ends of action, reason the mere means.

Janik and Toulmin make clear, too, that for Kraus “fantasy… is under attack on all sides in the modern world” (Janik and Toulmin, 75). Kraus felt that instrumental reason was dominating the world, leaving precious little room for fantasy in our lives. He thought that the modern, bureaucratic world, which privileged functional reason, provided almost no space for the deeper, more difficult to define aspects of our existence, so that we were everywhere compelled to act but without any definite direction. We obeyed reason’s command to achieve, to be effective, but we have lost any sense of what we ought to achieve. The modern world was a cold, business culture devoid of the “tender fantasy” or feeling that alone gives meaningful direction to our reason (Janik and Toulmin, 74).

The movement known as modernism was born in Vienna from these Krausian reflections. An eruption of intense cultural activity occurred in their wake. Janik and Toulmin explain how in each of the various arts, and in philosophy as well, Kraus’ fundamental ideas find expression. In architecture, Adolf Loos, the master functionalist, strove to put reason in its place by stripping his buildings of all ornament: the rational purpose of a building was to stand on its own, so that any aspects of beauty or feeling were to be found outside of reason and rational function. Fantasy was to be preserved by keeping it out of the picture—its mysterious sources to be untouched and unmolested by reason (Janik and Toulmin, 98-100).

In painting, Klimt and Kokoschka affected a similar aim by trying to allow the deeper, expressive meaning of their subjects to shine forth from the painting. Kokoschaka, in particular, “sought the spiritual within the intensely individual faces he painted.” He tried to “bring out the reflection of a man’s character dynamically in his facts, especially his eyes, and in his hands” (Janik and Toulmin, 101). Here again a deeper, hidden meaning was revealed beneath the merely surface phenomena.

In music, again, a similar Krausian separation of creative fantasy and reason was achieved by the great modernist musician, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg “wished to teach them [composers] how to express themselves” (Janik and Toulmin, 108; emphasis in the original). To achieve greater expressive power, he developed atonal music, music that freed sound from reliance upon the rational systems of a music dominated by a single, intelligible tone. He also created the twelve-tone system, whose aim was to help the composer to express his or her own inner artistic integrity. What mattered to Schoenberg was not the sound of the composition, but its authenticity (Janek and Toulmin, 110-111). To achieve this authenticity, the composer must engage in “a ‘creative separation’ of all dramatic or poetical ornament from the musical idea itself and its presentation according to the laws of musical logic” (Janek and Toulmin, 111). Only by breaking away from all things save the musical idea itself, and its logic, could the composer qua composer truly and freely express themselves.

Janik and Toulmin explain, lastly, how in philosophy also, through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus, Krausian ideas manifest themselves as well. This is a long story to be told, but in essence the early Wittgenstein tried to achieve, as our authors see it, a total separation of the reasoned, instrumentalized world and the mysterious worlds of fantasy, feeling, and imagination. In the first, larger part of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein shows what we can speak about, that is, the everyday, matter-of-fact worlds of empirical life and scientific knowledge, which are imbued with rational (that is, instrumental) purpose. But by culminating his work with, in the words of Newton Garver, a “remark…commending silence for everything other than scientific statements” (Garver, 67), Wittgenstein opens up a space for all the rest—for what lies beyond scientific and instrumental reasoning, namely ethics and aesthetics, which remain untouched by reason in the end. These cannot be spoken about, cannot be rationalized, reduced to mere calculation. They remain powerful, determining motives in a person’s character despite the rationally over-determined world (Janek and Toulmin, 197-198).

In each of these cases, we have an immense cultural achievement—an achievement in architecture, painting, music, and philosophy. Each case rests on the idea that a deeper, more expressive side to life lies beneath reason. Beneath our intelligible, communicable, matter-of-fact existence, an abyss of un-masterable emotions resides, a profound source of all imagination, and of deeper, richer nuances of meaning. Drawing on a claim by Carl Schorske, that Nietzsche was a major figure in the modernist tradition, and his concept of the Dionysian vital to it, we can say that in the modernist account of rationality there exists something like Nietzsche’s Dionysian revelry at work underneath the Socratic picture of the intelligible world (Schorske, 221).

Schorske, in fact, in his book Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, explains the meaning of modernism most precisely in political terms.

Traditional liberal culture had centered upon rational man, whose scientific domination of nature and whose moral control over himself were expected to create the good society. In our century, rational man has had to give place to that richer but more dangerous and mercurial creature, psychological man. This new man is not merely a rational animal, but a creature of feeling and instinct. We tend to make him the measure of all things in our culture. Our intrasubjectivist artists paint him. Our existential philosophers try to make him meaningful. Our social scientists, politicians, and advertising men manipulate him. (Schorscke, 4)

The essence of modernism is the discovery of psychological man. It turns out, in effect, that we are not fully rational beings, after all, as the liberal tradition maintains. The name of Freud alone (another Viennese) helps capture the true meaning of the modernist reaction (a reaction, we now see, against liberal culture). A new, precarious view of ourselves appears on the scene—inescapably so. We cannot escape the view now that we are psychological—we have a darker, less intelligible side that determines who and what we are. Unconscious drives, not rational and intelligible motives, guide our behavior. Liberalism is wrong. We are not sturdy captains of our ship. We are more like a ship gliding through the sea without a captain. Our captain, human reason, turns out to have been a phantom all along.

Dewey’s Response to Modernism

The ideas I have just described were progressive ideas at the turn of the century. They were the new ideas, the forward-looking, advanced guard of thought—at least in Europe at the time. John Dewey lived from 1859-1952. He was philosophically alert and, indeed, very active at this time, a time when he was a young man, let us say, in his thirties and forties and already on his way to becoming a great thinker.

How did John Dewey respond to modernism? What did this great American pragmatist make of the modernist ideas then so current and electrifying to the artists and thinkers of his time? Did Dewey appreciate the cultural revolution then underway or did he find fault with it and move away? Or was Dewey unaffected by modernism? Did he ever respond to it at all or was his thought preoccupied with other things?

It turns out that Dewey did respond directly to the modernist tradition at the moment, as it were, of its ascendancy. He could not, after all, have been unaware of it, and as a thoughtful young man, he must have had an opinion or view of what was happening around him. Dewey’s view of modernism can perhaps best be captured in an early essay of 1890 entitled “Poetry and Philosophy.” Here Dewey begins with a quote from Matthew Arnold. In this quote, Arnold makes a quintessentially modernist claim that poetry will replace religion, science, and philosophy as guides to life, because modern life demands ever greater access to human feeling over rationality (and poetry, presumably, is more about feeling).

Dewey responds by taking Arnold’s quote quite seriously, asking whether it can be true. As Dewey presents the problem, he says

In a world of disintegrated intelligence and a broken authority, Arnold sees men more and more turning to poetry for consolation… We may say science is verifiable, but it lacks sympathy, consolation, humanity; it does not afford instruction where instruction is most wanted,—in the ordering of life. (Dewey, 110)

Poetry, on the other hand, provides “a kind sympathy with all of its [life’s] colored moods… What more do we want? What more natural than, in the difficulty of our times, men turning to poetry for guidance?” (Dewey, 111). Here, indeed, is the essence of modernism; Dewey has put his finger precisely upon it. The liberal tradition, with its emphasis on reason and science, has lost its hold; it has become too abstract, indifferent, and remote. Rational order has “disintegrated,” leaving men with their feelings and instincts (expressed by poetry) as the true guides to life.

In response to modernism thus defined, Dewey puts forward a question: “We have the thought of Matthew Arnold before us,” he says. “What shall we say of it? Shall we make bold to criticize the position?” (Dewey, 111). Some parts of it are surely true, Dewey says. As he puts,

we need not be detained by what our critic says regarding the existing disintegration of intellectual authority…all will admit readily that there is enough of unrest, enough of doubt in modern thought, to make it worthwhile to raise this question, Where shall we find authority, the instruction our natures demand? Shall we cease to find it in philosophy, or in science, and shall we find it in poetry? (Dewey, 111)

From this quote, we can glean already what Dewey’s response to modernism will be. He will allow that his times do indeed present a disintegration of faith in science and reason. The times are such that Arnold’s question is partly legitimate. It makes sense to ask: should we turn to the inexpressible over the expressible? Should reason be forsaken as the ultimate guide to life? Apparently, Dewey, too is aware of science’s loss of authority at this time. Indeed, he even says: “it is easy to disparage science” (Dewey, 112).

Here we can see that Dewey clearly understands and even keenly appreciates the modernist predicament. He appreciates the question of lost origins and authorities. But he does not share the modernist answer to the question. In fact, what Dewey wants to show in this essay is that Arnold’s modernist insight “was essentially limited in range…that he saw but a small part of the forces really at work in modern thought” (Dewey, 111). The true answer will be to find greater trust in reason—a new kind of intellectual trust and vigor. While feeling and emotion must become more prominent in life, they nonetheless rely themselves on reasonable beliefs that can help guide life more fully and clearly. Poetry, in effect, ultimately relies on reason and philosophy. This is what Dewey intends to show.

Dewey’s argument hinges on the claim that reason and philosophy are not remote from life, but “only the essay at reaching the meaning of this experience of ours” (Dewey, 112). They are the attempt to understand what life is about and this effort, Dewey insists, cannot be “remote from conduct, from the ideals and aspirations of life” (Dewey, 112). Indeed, he goes further and, in a stark reversal of modernism, claims that creative fantasy in fact depends on reason and belief. “The imagination,” he says, “rests upon belief; it is from belief that it gets its cue to stay, to interpret, its consolation” (Dewey, 112). The way Dewey sees it, poetry and feeling must have their basis in actual facts or else they are mere flights of fancy, without any real meaning. “Without the basis of fact,” he says, “of fact verifiable by science, our light is a will-o-the wisp, a wandering flame generated in the stagnant marshes of sentiment” (Dewey, 113). Indeed, Dewey makes even harsher, stronger claims and asserts: “If the life which the poet presents to us as throbbing, as pregnant, ever new from God, is other than the genuine revelation of the ordinary day-by-day life of man, it is but dainty foolery or clumsy masquerading” (Dewey, 113).

In actual fact, Dewey wishes to say, the poet simply register’s meaning from the life around him, the life of social and historical meaning that comes already interpreted before the poet.

Life is not a raw, unworked material. As it comes to the poet, life is already a universe of meanings, of interpretations…For good or for ill, centuries of reflective thought have been interpreting life, and their interpretations remain the basis and furnish the instrument for all the poet may do; he may simply use the assimilated results of the labors of scientific men and philosophers. (Dewey, 113)

So we can see that Dewey severely criticizes modernism. His view is that the reasoned, intelligible world that precedes the poet is the genuine one, the fundamental one. As he says, the poet “may simply use the assimilated results of the labors of scientific men and philosophers.” The poet has no special access to anything deeper than science provides. He can only respond to the intelligible world around him; to achieve anything else is to be lost in mere fantasy—something that presumably is without any direction or legitimate force, “the stagnant marsh of sentiment.”

To help make his case that the poet responds to the already-interpreted world, everyday, intelligible world, Dewey contrasts the poetry of Arnold with that of Robert Browning. The claim he wishes to make is that each poet responds to meanings that care already present in the social world around them, but in different ways, so that there are other than modernist options for us. Arnold responds to the disintegrated world that arises from the loss of faith in reason—hence, he sings of man alienated from man and nature. Browning, however, writes poetry of the affirmation of the world made possible by science, and so what is available to him is another, fuller meaning to the modern world than one of lamentation of reason’s loss and the turn to pure feeling. In Dewey’s words: “Browning reads a tale of keen and delicious joy. If Arnold sings of calm, self-poised resignation…the trumpet peal of an abounding life bursts from Browning” (Dewey, 119). Dewey continues. Unlike Arnold, who flees from the everyday to a more mysterious emotional depth, “Browning takes his place on this homely, every-day earth of ours:

Do I stoop? I pluck a poesy.
Do I stand and stare? All’s blue.
(Dewey, 119)

It is in this everyday world, moreover, that Browning finds a deeper reasonableness, indeed grounds for a remarkable optimism. “Strenuous, abounding, triumphant optimism, – that is the note of Browning:

How good is man’s life, the men living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy!
(Dewey, 119)

“The secret of his superior passion, of his superior joy,” Dewey says, is that Browning realizes “the world was made for man” (Dewey, 120). Browning, trusting to the deliverances and potencies of science, realizes that there is “the subordination of earth to man,” and that this is a good thing, a joyful thing (Dewey, 120). The larger, more life affirming truth that Arnold misses is that science and reason allow us to subordinate the earth to our purposes, so that there is a place for us and a guide to our lives, after all, if we but follow the revelations of science. Science, in fact, makes possible our return to nature—a reunion that restores us to ourselves as joyful, life affirming creatures, whose lives are all on the surface, all more or less reasonable and occurring with overt purpose.

Evaluating Dewey’s Response to Modernism

To paraphrase Dewey: we have the thought of John Dewey before us. What shall we say of it? Shall we make bold to criticize the position? (Dewey, 111).

We must not forget that, at the time Dewey wrote this essay, modernism was the newest movement, the cutting-edge culture. Do Dewey’s claims then make him sound retrograde to the spirit of his times? Do his criticisms amount to those of a liberal who is nostalgic for the authority of reason again? Is Dewey blind here to the ultimate creative force of feeling expressed so well by modernists such as Gustav Klimt? Is it correct to say that genuine feeling only takes root in the rationalized, intelligible world or is it more true to say that genuine feeling occurs in a deeper expressivity? Has Dewey missed something essential here?

Certainly Dewey’s claims must have sounded retrograde to modernist ears. How could it be otherwise? For Dewey asserts that feeling by itself is like a stagnant marsh and needs reason as its guide. A typical liberal, against whom the modernists rebelled, could have said the same thing. Dewey’s position is in fact the reverse of the modernist position, which asserts on the contrary that reason by itself would be a stagnant marsh, requiring fantasy to “fecundate” it (Janik and Toulmin, 74). In the eyes of the modernist progressive at the turn of the century, Dewey’s claim that emotion is a stagnant marsh must have seemed nothing short of old-fashioned.

On the other hand, knowing what we do now about postmodernism, Dewey may have been prophetic. Perhaps Dewey was ahead of his time in his criticism, seeing limits with modernism even as it was born. What I mean more specifically is the idea that feeling is all on the surface, and does not access deeper realities, is a very postmodern idea. The insight that social meanings predate and determine our individual feelings—-the idea that interpretations, in effect, precede us, and we locate ourselves within them rather than the reverse—is very postmodern. Postmodernism, after all, is the rejection of any origins—of any deeper, transcendent realities. Dewey concurs: the reality of poetry is really the reality of already-interpreted meanings, not of something created wholly new from some deep source. Moreover, in Dewey’s call for the joyful affirmation of surface life, of those social meanings we have already inherited, we can recognize postmodernism as well. Dewey would thus seem to be ahead of his contemporaries in rejecting the nostalgic, regressive values of the modernist tradition, affirming the multiplicity of available social meanings and their re-creation instead (See Harvey, 7-9; 58-59 for an account of postmodernism).

And yet, unlike postmodernism, Dewey places reason at the heart of our available social meanings. Whereas Foucault, for example, sees hidden, irrational power forces at work in our social meanings (such as the desire to discipline creating the notion of a criminal) (Foucault, 301), Dewey explicitly equates our social meanings with intelligence and reason. “For good or for ill,” he said, “centuries of reflective thought have been interpreting life,” and these reflections “remain the basis…for all the poet may do” (Dewey, 113; emphasis added). This smacks of liberalism. Why should the inherited social meanings available to the poet be only those which are the result of reflective thought?

Dewey does not say. But it seems clear that he believes this, and so we may venture to see Dewey, then, as once more regressive (relative to his times) in the sense that he misses a crucial insight of the modernists—an insight apparently retained even in postmodernism, namely that irrational forces underlie our overt activities and social meanings. Dewey thinks that rational forces underlie our social meanings. He thinks—at least at this time, in 1890—that our available social meanings are reflective and thoughtful, the result of rational purpose. But in this he is surely a bit naïve, in that the modernists do seem to be right that the irrational exists and erupts into our meanings, just as the postmodernists seem to be right (and Dewey too) that our social meanings hide no other forces in them than what he have inherited.


This is why, in conclusion, I would situate Dewey (and perhaps pragmatism itself) somewhere in between the modernist and the postmodernist cultural revolutions. He goes beyond modernism by rejecting mysterious sources of human meaning and insisting instead, like postmodernism, that all is on the surface. But he does not fully achieve postmodernism because he retains from liberalism a belief that our surface meanings are fundamentally rational and the result of reflection. John Dewey’s philosophy is the philosophy of the middle way. Seen in the context of his times, we can see that Dewey sought an alternative response to the disintegrating world around him. He rejected the idea of his contemporaries that we must embrace the abyss of emotion and tap into the inner recesses of our creative fantasies to find true meaning. But he also rejected the postmodernist idea that was to replace this—the idea that, although there was nothing deeper to tap into, we are nonetheless at the mercy of mindless inherited forces even still. Dewey thought that we are only what we inherited, but that we inherited rational order. Not quite liberalism, his view holds that reason is a social inheritance, not a basic human endowment. Thus, his view is quite distinct, a new cultural tradition that social meanings come first, these are predominantly rational, and the rational provides the basis for emotions, protecting them from barren expression.

Dewey is a new kind of liberal, as he himself came to say later. It is a liberalism without deeper realities and hence also without the modernist deeper appeal to fantasy. Whether this is a deficit or a surplus, a positive gain or a loss, I leave it to the reader to decide. I would suggest, however, that the modernists have taught us the value of emotion and feeling. And it appears that this element of life may have been under-theorized by Dewey. The irrational part of us does exist, and it goes deep, it defines us to a very great extent, although just how deep it goes, and what role it plays (and ought to play) in human life, remains for all of us, I think, an open question to contemplate.

Works Cited

  • Dewey, John. 1975. “Poetry and Philosophy.” In The Early Works of John Dewey, Vol. 3: 1889-1892. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Garver, Newton. 2003. “The ‘Silence’ of Wittgenstein and Kraus.” In Writing the Austrian Tradition: Relations Between Philosophy and Literature. Ed. Wolgang Huemer and Marc-Oliver Schuster. Edmonton: University of Alberta.
  • Janik, Allan and Stephen Toulmin. 1996. Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks.
  • Schorscke, Carl. 1985. Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Weston, Richard. 2002. Modernism. London: Phaidon Press.