Volume III, Number 2, Fall 2007

“John Dewey, Democracy and a Cosmopolitan Ideal” by John Ryder

John Ryder is Professor of Philosophy and the Director of International Programs for the State University of New York. E-mail:

These are not good times for democracy. As a practical goal for political development, it has been used too readily to justify foreign and military policies and practices that are so questionable in their wisdom as to render the very term “democracy” undesirable in many places and contexts. Many people around the world are now suspicious that an appeal to democracy is a veiled attempt by those making the appeal to dominate, to manipulate, or in other ways to advance their own interests at others’ expense. The most glaring example is the use of democracy as an ideal by the US, the UK, and their allies in Europe and elsewhere in the world, to justify the war in Iraq. In Russia, to give another example, the appeal to democracy to justify the economic, political and social perversities of the Yeltsin era has seriously damaged the ability to appeal to democracy as a guiding principle or an end in view. Along similar lines, there are political scientists and other theorists who have simply given up on democracy as a valuable component of policy analysis or political theory. In its place some have decided that human rights is a far less polluted ideal on which to base international political goals.

What does this mean for those of us who think about social and political issues in terms that draw on John Dewey and other figures and traditions in American philosophy? First, democracy as a social and political ideal is far too important to surrender to those who would misunderstand or abuse it for their own ends. Second, there is more than one way to understand democracy, and the meaning Dewey and others have given it differs considerably from the versions advanced by Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair and Mr. Yeltsin. For that reason alone it is important to continue to develop Dewey’s line of thought to the greatest extent possible.

The idea I would like to explore today is yet a third reason for continuing to draw on Dewey and his pragmatist tradition in the exploration of appropriate approaches to contemporary social issues. Dewey’s understanding of democracy was outward looking. Nearly a century ago, in Democracy and Education, he defined democracy in part in terms of the value of pursuing shared interests with those beyond the boundaries that define one’s own experience (Dewey 1985). Dewey meant boundaries of all kinds, including national boundaries. This means that democracy for Dewey is inherently and necessarily internationalist, not in the sense that a democratic society should or may export democracy as it pleases, but in the sense that a democratic society and people are expected to make every effort to identify, or if need be to create, common interests across international borders. Democracy in this sense is cosmopolitan, and it is this cosmopolitanism that I would like to develop.

Cosmopolitanism is for us a guiding principle, the discussion of which can be framed by two questions, the first methodological and the second substantial: 1) how does the principle of cosmopolitanism function? and 2) what is its content? We shall consider the two questions in order.

There are two ways in which much of the relevant contemporary philosophical literature treats cosmopolitanism. One of them is as an abstract principle from which we can deduce moral commitments, for example about human rights (Brock and Brighouse 2005). In this sense, cosmopolitanism is the principle that moral obligations apply to all people regardless of their national identity or citizenship. This is the principle of cosmopolitanism that is rooted in Kant. Recently analytically oriented philosophers have gone to considerable lengths to explore the justification and implications of this principle, frequently to valuable effect. The point I want to make here does not concern the details of the arguments in this literature. Rather, I wish simply to make the methodological point that the philosophical exploration of cosmopolitanism as a guiding principle, and as a crucial component of pragmatist, Deweyan democracy, does not proceed this way.

The broader point has to do with the nature of meaning, justification and valuation within a pragmatist philosophical inquiry. Following both Dewey and before him Peirce, the meaning of a concept is to be found in the effects it produces when applied in relevant ways. In this sense, the meaning of cosmopolitanism depends on what difference it makes or would make if it were taken to heart, for example, in public policy or for individual behavior. Substantially, this point bears on the content of the concept, to which we will turn below. Methodologically, however, it points to an important distinction between pragmatist and analytic philosophy. The analytic philosopher tends to be interested in the implications of a concept, specifically those that are revealed through logical analysis. The pragmatist philosopher, by contrast, is interested in what happens when a concept is put to work. In the end the distinction may be less stark than it appears because in practice it is often more a matter of emphasis than an absolute distinction. Nonetheless, it does point to an important difference in approach to philosophical inquiry, a difference that will distinguish this more or less Deweyan analysis of cosmopolitanism from the bulk of the philosophical literature currently in print.

The understanding of meaning is one of the important distinguishing traits of Dewey’s and other pragmatists’ methodology. Another concerns justification and valuation. In this respect William James, and to a lesser extent Richard Rorty, provide the model: an idea is justified to the extent that it works for us. When put this baldly, the point seems controversial at best and foolish or even dangerous at worst. James and Rorty both spent a good deal of their energy responding to objections to this understanding of the value of an idea, and I will not rehearse their points here. For our purposes, suffice it to say that we will assess the value of cosmopolitanism as a guiding principle by determining whether when applied, again in policy or personal respects, it contributes to outcomes that we have adequate reasons to desire. As in the case of meaning, this distinguishing methodological trait of pragmatist inquiry distinguishes it from more analytically oriented approaches. As a result our evaluation of the significance of cosmopolitanism will differ from the examinations of the concept in much of the philosophical literature. In the end our interest is not in the deductively inferred implications of cosmopolitanism but in its practical effects and their value.

To continue the methodological theme, a second way in which the principle of cosmopolitanism appears in much of the recent literature is as a deductively drawn conclusion from other principles, for example from a principle of justice. A good deal of the work based on John Rawls has this character. Another obvious example of such a principle would be human equality, so that if we accept the proposition that all human beings are morally equal then eventually it follows that the distribution of goods, in particular such moral goods as human rights, cannot justifiably be based on citizenship or nationality or ethnicity; hence cosmopolitanism. Arguments like this, though much more fully developed and articulated, are extensively discussed in the literature. And not surprisingly there is a good deal of disagreement about them. As in the previous case, though, I am not interested here in discussing the details. I simply want to point out that whatever interest and value there may be in considering the question whether cosmopolitanism follows from any other moral or political principles we might hold, it is at least as important, and maybe more so, to consider whether cosmopolitanism as a guiding principle does the work we want it to do. This kind of inquiry, and it is the distinctively pragmatist approach, will in the end do us more social and individual good than any other. More specifically, cosmopolitanism will be justified because it is a wise way for us to understand ourselves in the current political and international environment. It may in fact be wiser than the alternatives.

Let us move now from the methodological to the substantial question: what do we mean by cosmopolitanism? Though the fuller meaning of the principle can emerge only as we develop its effects in application, it is possible to begin with a working definition, and in this case it is a definition that is tied directly to Dewey’s general account of democracy. The principle of cosmopolitanism calls on us to take to heart, that is to take seriously, the interests we share with those beyond our own ethnic, national and cultural borders. It is an internationalism, though it is more than that. If internationalism means to value international interaction and cooperation, then cosmopolitanism goes further and asks of us that we interact with others in ways that allow us to identify, and where necessary to create, common interests that enable us to work together in their pursuit.

This is an important point because it helps us to distinguish our sense of cosmopolitanism from another fairly common way of understanding the term. For some, cosmopolitanism means to be at home in the world, or at least to be able to feel more or less at home wherever one is. There is a virtue in this, in that those who are able to feel more or less at home wherever they are can be open to a fairly broad range of experiences, and that itself is a good. The problem with cosmopolitanism in this sense is that it is severally limited. For one thing, in practice it is an unduly elitist principle because it applies only to a small segment of the population. It is a tiny minority of the world’s population that has the opportunity to spend enough time abroad to develop the sense of comfort cosmopolitanism in this sense is describing. The only segment of the population to which this principle can apply consists of those people who have the wealth and the opportunity to travel a good deal or to work abroad. While feeling at home wherever they are may be a virtue for them, it is a virtue for such a small number of people that it can never rise to the level of an important guiding principle.

A second and more important limitation of cosmopolitanism in this sense is that it also does not rise to the level of a foundation for public policy. It is a principle of personal value, which is not a bad thing but is nonetheless severally limited. If cosmopolitanism is, as I am suggesting, tied to the very nature of democracy itself, then it must have to do with more than personal satisfaction and the richness of an individual life.

Another sense of cosmopolitanism, this time having to do with institutions rather than individuals, which we should distinguish from ours, is that cosmopolitanism means world government. There is a great deal of disagreement about whether world government is an ideal worth pursuing, and one can easily imagine the arguments that may be advanced on either side of the issue. On the one hand, world government can provide consistency and continuity of policy, a value in a globally integrated environment. On the other hand, a single world government presents a danger in that there is no other comparable power that can serve as a counterweight if and when it goes bad. However the ideal of a world government might fare in the debate, it is virtually certain that for the near future it is a thoroughly unrealistic ideal. Simply consider the objections made in the United States to the United Nations and the World Court. It is not difficult to imagine how deep would be the resistance to world government. It is important to understand, though, that cosmopolitanism in the sense in which we are developing and defending it here neither requires nor expects world government. It would not necessarily be opposed to it, but that is another matter. Cosmopolitanism in our sense is not a form of political organization, but an ideal that has policy and behavioral implications.

So cosmopolitanism is something other than world government, and something more than an individual interest in other nations and cultures and an ability to function to some comfortable extent in them. It is rather something of an obligation of democratic societies and democratically minded individuals. The cosmopolitan obligation, if we may put it this way, is to use our public and where appropriate individual resources to develop common cause with individuals, institutions and governments abroad. Let us be clear about this. To develop common cause, that is to pursue common interests, with those beyond our own national boundaries is on this view not merely something that is nice, or desirable, or admirable, or interesting. It is a democratic responsibility, an obligation on those of us who would claim to be democrats or to value democratic institutions and societies. It includes the necessity for respect for other peoples, nations, histories and cultures; a desire to move beyond one’s own history and categories to attempt to understand others; a readiness to work collaboratively with others to advance shared interests and solve shared problems; a willingness at least and better an eagerness on the part of national governments, if we are to think about policy oriented cosmopolitanism, to suspend to some degree national interest as traditionally understood in favor of the promotion of common interests among nations, their governments, and their people.

Dewey was clear that democracy as he understood it, and as we understand it here, has its roots in community. In Democracy and Education he derives the basic characteristics of democracy from the basic traits of communities, and they are, fundamentally, the collaborative pursuit of common interests. This is the reason that Dewey in effect identifies democracy with community. He extends the observation, however, to say that a community cannot remain self-enclosed and isolated from those around it. The same processes and habits of mind that bind a community together must, if the community itself is to prosper, be extended beyond the confines of the community, beyond its boundaries. Because among the boundaries that circumscribe our various forms of communities are national boundaries, democracy means in its core the pursuit by members of a democratic society of common interests with the people of other nations and their institutions. This is the sense in which cosmopolitanism is part and parcel of democracy, and if democracy can be identified, as Dewey does, with community, then it can equally well be identified with cosmopolitanism.

So we have identified three aspects of cosmopolitanism: 1) it is a central trait of democracy; 2) it is therefore a democratic responsibility; and 3) it means the sustained attempt to develop and pursue common interests across national borders. In the exercise of this democratic responsibility we can expect to embody other distinctive traits of a democratic society and way of life. There are two that are especially important: fallibilism and experimentalism.

We began this discussion by pointing out that recent military and political adventures by a few of the leading liberal democracies have placed democracy itself in a precarious position in the contemporary world. One of the reasons this has happened is that the leadership in the US and elsewhere has allowed ideological rather than democratic principles to drive their policy decisions. Ideology, by which I mean the tenacious commitment to a set of principles in the face of experience and evidence that may suggest otherwise, is in fact one of the most profound dangers for a democratic society. In the 20th century it strangled whatever democratic potential socialism may have had, and now it threatens the viability even of liberal democracy. A rigid commitment to and insistence on the adequacy of one’s ideas, principles and policies make it unlikely that one will revise them when events do not go as predicted, and they make it less likely that new problems will be adequately understood and that solutions to them will be found.

The democratic alternative to ideological commitment and tenacity is fallibilism and experimentalism. Fallibilism means simply the assumption that even our most cherished ideas and values may be mistaken, or at least that they may need revision in the face of change in our individual and social environments. Our ideas and principles are not rock-solid foundations on which we stand; they are tools with which we make our way through our lives. And any tool can become dull and lose its effectiveness if and when the material on which it is put to work changes its characteristics. If new material appears that is harder or more resistant than that with which we are accustomed to deal, our tools need to be sharpened, improved, or even replaced with something more appropriate to the changed nature of the task we face. To understand ideas through this metaphor of course raises a set of epistemological questions and problems, with which pragmatist philosophers have engaged themselves for more than a century. We do not need to rehearse all of that here, so let us take it as an operative assumption that a plausible instrumentalist understanding of ideas and principles can be reasonably sustained.

If we embrace such an instrumentalist conception of ideas and principles, then fallibilism is a natural approach for us to take. That it is also an important aspect of democracy results from the fact that a democratic society is one in which its members individually and collectively engage the problems they face with an eye toward their resolution and the maintenance of conditions that are conducive to individual and social development. To achieve this end in any sort of sustainable way we must be willing and able to examine our ideas, principles, and habits and revise them as needed. The cosmopolitan principle embodies this same understanding and approach. To pursue common interests with people and nations beyond our own requires that we at least be willing to examine critically the principles and commitments that we bring to the process. It also requires that we be willing, and even eager, to try to understand the world and whatever problems we face from the point or points of view that our partners bring to the process. And it requires, in the process of identifying and developing common interests with others, that we be willing and able to revise those with which we began. These predispositions that the pursuit of common interests requires are precisely what it would mean to take fallibilism seriously. To attempt to interact with others toward any kind of common end, or with a common purpose, without such fallibilist predispositions would doom the process to failure. This is the reason that the current government in the US is having as much difficulty as it is in its foreign policy. It operates with ideological and very much undemocratic and non-cosmopolitan purposes.

If the cosmopolitan principle embodies a democratic fallibilism, then it equally well embodies a democratic experimentalism. To the extent that it means exploring new forms of interaction with international partners, cosmopolitanism is itself an experiment. If we consider foreign policy to illustrate the point, there are painfully few examples of cases in which nation states have set aside their internally developed interests to seek common ground with other states. The most outstanding case in which this has been done is the European Union, in which a growing number of nations have willingly, in some cases eagerly, set aside internally determined interests in pursuit of common interests and common ends with their neighbors. And whatever else it is, the European Union is a grand experiment, the outcome of which remains uncertain.

However it turns out, the European instinct is the right one. Despite being bogged down in its own bureaucracy, it is experimenting; it is trying policies that have not been attempted before in an effort to develop new solutions to new problems. Sometimes the experiments fail – consider the fate of the constitution – but they are succeeding more than they are failing, and that so far is the EU’s great achievement. Such an experimental frame of mind is the sort of mood that the cosmopolitan principle calls for, and as should be clear by now, it is also an appropriate trait of a vibrant democracy.

We may still ask at this point what we can expect cosmopolitanism to help us achieve. The obvious first item on the list, because it is built into the definition of cosmopolitanism, would be common interests. It may be obvious, but its significance should not be underestimated, particularly given certain features of the contemporary world. As the processes of globalization transform nearly every feature of our lives, from the economy to medicine to art, science and education, the significance of the traditional nation state is fairly rapidly decreasing. Unfortunately the relations among nation states have not yet caught up with this transformation. In a world as interrelated as ours is it is potentially catastrophic for nations to continue to interact with one another as they have throughout the roughly 400 years since they developed. The member states of the European Union appear to understand this, but other states are slower to catch on. In the area of foreign policy the world will be a safer place for all of us to the extent that governments adopt the cosmopolitan principle and begin to work with one another in the pursuit of shared interests and their realization.

In order for the pursuit of shared interests to produce fruitful results in commerce, education, research, foreign policy and other fields, there must be other changes in our habits and practices. The cosmopolitanism we are defending here is conducive, for example, to increased and more refined communication. This is a good in itself, but it is also a condition of the ongoing development of democratic social relations both within any community and among communities. In turn, putting into practice the cosmopolitan principle will lead to democratic development overall. Democracy is not a fixed and stable condition. It is quite capable of being eroded, degraded, and of turning into something else. Even currently democratic societies will benefit from practices and policies that exercise the crucial characteristics of democratic communities. Furthermore, with respect to international relations, democracies behave best when they lead by example. A serious cosmopolitanism is the best example we can provide, and the way most likely to attract other peoples to democratic social and political structures that are conducive to their own individual and social development. To the extent that they embody the traits of democracy and cosmopolitanism that we have been describing – common interests, experimentalism, fallibilism, communication, etc. – such structures carry with them a deeper respect for human integrity and human rights, however we might define them. And in the end, as the model of the European Union suggests to us, democratic development and the pursuit of shared interests across borders, and a foreign policy that exemplifies these values, are more conducive than any alternative to the prospects for peace.

To put to work the cosmopolitan principle is no easy matter. We have talked about it in general terms, pointing out its centrality to democracy, its meaning, and its pragmatic justification. But we have not considered the obstacles to policy development along cosmopolitan lines, and there are many. There is, first, the fact that the principle itself is little understood by many people, including national leaders, especially its democratic importance. Second, in many nations, including and perhaps especially the US, it is difficult for policy makers and influential thinkers to accept the prospect of setting aside national interests in pursuit of common interests with other nations. Third, and perhaps most seriously, there is the fact that the world includes both nations and non-national forces that have other agendas than the development of shared interests with us. How we are to interact with them presents a distinct challenge to cosmopolitanism. But as serious as this challenge is, it does not count against cosmopolitanism as a critical democratic value. It simply points out that in its application we must grapple with the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be in theory.

Notwithstanding such difficulties, the fact remains, or so I have argued, that the cosmopolitan principle, grounded in an instrumental, Deweyan understanding of democracy, is a crucial component of our interactions with one another and of democratic development in general.

Works cited

Brock, Gillian and Brighouse, Harry, eds. 2005. The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dewey, John. 1985. Democracy and Education, Middle Works, Vol. 9. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press.