Excerpts from "A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy" (Renewing Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 1992)

The need for such fundamental democratic institutions as freedom of thought and speech follows, for Dewey, from requirements of scientific procedure in general: the unimpeded flow of information and the freedom to offer and to criticize hypotheses. Durkheim offered similar arguments up to a point, but came to the conclusion that political opinions should rest on "expert opinion", those without expertise being required to defer to the authority of the experts (and especially to sociologists). While Dewey may not have known of Durkheim's essay, he did consider and reject this view, and he did so for frankly empirical reasons: "A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all." Here Dewey links up with another of this themes, that privilege inevitably produces cognitive distortion: "All special privilege narrows the outlook of those who possess it, as well as limits the development of those not having it. A very considerable portion of what is regarded as the inherent selfishness of mankind is the product of an inequitable distribution of power-inequitable because it shuts out some from the conditions which direct and evoke their capacities, while it produces a one-sided growth in those who have privilege" (Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, pp. 358-386). Thus, if a value as general as the value of democracy is to be rationally defended in the way Dewey advocates, the materials to be used in the defense cannot be circumscribed in advance. There is no one field of experience from which all the considerations relevant to the evaluation of democracy come.

The dilemma facing the classical defenders of democracy arose because all of them presupposed that we already know our nature and our capabilities. In contrast, Dewey's view is that we don't know what our interests and needs are or what we are capable of until we actually engage in politics. A corollary of this view is that there can be no final answer to the question of how we should live, and therefore we should always leave it open to further discussion and experimentation. That is precisely why we need democracy.

At the same time, we do know that certain things stunt our nature and capacities. Dewey was well aware that equality and freedom can conflict, and that there is no easy solution when they do conflict; but he would, I think, feel that this conflict is too much emphasized in present-day political philosophy. In Dewey's view, there is simply no doubt that inequality, on the scale that exists today, stunts our nature and capacities, and thus leads to unfreedom on a massive scale. If we are to talk about "conflicts between equality and freedom", we should also talk about the ways in which inequality leads to unfreedom.


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Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College