Democracy as a Way of Life: Addams’ Pragmatist Influence on Dewey

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Democracy as a Way of Life: Addams’ Pragmatist Influence on Dewey
Charlene Haddock Seigfried

Purdue University

SAAP, Spokane, WA, Mar. 10-12, 2011

Because John Dewey is such an important and well-known philosopher and Jane Addams has only recently been acknowledged to be a philosopher in her own right and because they were such good friends, it is only reasonable to assume that Addams must have learned whatever was genuinely pragmatic in her outlook from Dewey. There is, however, new evidence that Addams also influenced Dewey and was in some ways the more pragmatically-oriented philosopher and at an earlier stage. This is particularly evident in their views on democracy, as I will explain.

Because John Dewey is such an important and well-known philosopher and Jane Addams has only recently been acknowledged to be a philosopher in her own right and because they were such good friends, it is only reasonable to assume that Addams must have learned whatever was genuinely pragmatic in her outlook from Dewey. There is, however, new evidence that Addams also influenced Dewey and was in some ways the more pragmatically-oriented philosopher and at an earlier stage.1 This is particularly evident in their views on democracy.

According to Joe R. Burnett, Democracy and Education, published in 1916, contains “some of Dewey’s earliest, clearest, and most theoretical statements about democracy as a way of life.”2 But the beginnings of this theme can be traced back even further. In the earliest of these essays, “The Ethics of Democracy” (EW 1:1888) and “Christianity and Democracy” (EW 4:1893-94), Dewey had not yet broken from idealism.3 He asserts that the real is fully explained by the ideal, so much so that he claims that “democracy and the one, the ultimate, ethical ideal of democracy are to my mind synonyms” (EW 1:248). Addams’s book, Democracy and Social Ethics, published in 1902, appeared after these early essays and before Democracy and Education.4 Although her title recalls Dewey’s earlier essay, “The Ethics of Democracy,” it is a strikingly original work of pragmatist social and ethical theory. Dewey was very impressed with it, which is not surprising, given the fact that it was during his years in Chicago that he was working his way out of idealism and beginning to develop his instrumental version of pragmatism. It was also during these years that he and Addams became close friends and shared ideas about intellectual and social reform.5 Although Darnell Rucker, in his introduction to volume 3 of The Middle Works says that it is important to trace the sources of Dewey’s problems, ideas, language and method in this transitional period from idealism to instrumentalism, he lists Morris, Hegel, Hall, Darwin, James, and Mill as important influences, but not Addams.6

And yet Dewey was attracted to Addams’s work of social reconstruction even before he started working at the University of Chicago, and he later referred to and recommended her books, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) and Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), in both his original 1908 edition of Ethics and his revised 1932 edition, both co-written with Tufts.7 He also refers (MW 5, 434) to an unnamed 1893 article of Addams in Philanthropy and Social Progress: Seven Essays.8 The article is “Hull House, Chicago: An Effort toward Social Democracy,” and it was first published in October, 1892, in the Forum and republished--along with her “Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements”--as “Objective Value of a Social Settlement” in Philanthropy and Social Progress.9 Although we know from Dewey’s correspondence that he read and appreciated these early writings of Addams, his published references to them are tantalizingly brief. It has not been clear exactly how she has influenced his thinking.

It has been known that Dewey used Addams’s book, Democracy and Social Ethics, as a class text at the University of Chicago and even that he invited her to class, but nothing more specific was known about his interpretation of it. 10 He taught it in a class called the “Sociology of Ethics” in Autumn of 1902, the year it was published. Thanks to the recovery of transcripts made by a stenographer hired by Dewey’s students, it is now possible to examine his assessment of it, his own philosophical assumptions at the time, and to gain some insight into how it affected his philosophical perspective.11

We know that later in his career Dewey recognized the importance of the issue of democracy as a way of life in Addams’s outlook. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Hull House, he emphasized this aspect of the settlement house movement that was also central to his own philosophical vision. He said: "In these days of criticism of democracy as a political institution, Miss Addams has reminded us that democracy is not a form but a way of living together and working together."12 With this new evidence that Dewey was thoroughly familiar with Democracy and Social Ethics, it is now apparent just how early he learned this central idea from her. In Dewey’s lecture 22, for example, we have the strongest evidence yet that not only did he get his idea of democracy as a way of life from Addams, but that he recognized the importance of this insight. He says that “The most original and powerful part of this book is the clear statement—which I cannot recall as ever having stated before so definitely—that democracy means certain types of experience,--an interest in experience in its various forms and types” (196).

Addams’s original formulation is even more explicit. In her introduction to Democracy and Social Ethics, she explains that her conception of democracy extends beyond being merely a sentiment expressing a desire for the well-being of all people, although it does include this sentiment; it also extends beyond an ideology espousing “the essential dignity and equality of all men,” although this is also an important component, to offer “a rule of living as well as a test of faith” (p. 7). Along with the close connection of democracy as a way of life in both their philosophies, Addams and Dewey also share a distinctive emphasis on the social character of ethics. But at this early stage of their development of the social nature of ethics, Addams’s position is pragmatic in theory and method in a way that Dewey only achieves at a later time. In analyzing their writings, it becomes apparent how differently Addams and Dewey understood some core concepts in their philosophies as they were first being formulated.

Dewey’s 1902 class on the sociology of ethics was not the first time that he raised these issues. In the Spring of 1896, Dewey had already taught a class on “Political Ethics.” In contrast to Addams’s pragmatic philosophy and social action at the time, Dewey’s philosophical idealism is apparent in his definition of political philosophy as “the theory of consciousness as social. It might be called social psychology for the use of other sciences.” And in his later class on the Sociology of Ethics, Dewey says that “by ‘sociological ethics’ or ‘social ethics,’ I understand primarily the statement of the social situation out of which ethical problems of the individual arise.” He does not mean, as Addams does, that ethics itself is social. Although he later comes to the same conclusion, it is not until his 1932 Ethics that he calls attention to the fact that this central insight was first formulated in Democracy and Social Ethics. The origins of this radical shift in the understanding of morality is given in a long quotation he cites from Addams’s 1902 book, which includes the statement:

To attain personal morality in an age demanding social morality, to pride

one's self upon the results of personal effort when the time demands social

adjustment is utterly to fail to apprehend the situation. . . . All about us are

men and women who have become unhappy in regard to their attitude toward

the social order itself. The test which they would apply to their conduct is a

social test. . . . They desire both a clearer definition of the code of morality

applied to present day demands and a part in its fulfillment, both a creed and a

practice of social morality (LW 7:315).

On his first reading of Democracy and Social Ethics, Dewey seems to see it as a contemporary compendium of social problems that require the development of a rigorous philosophical ethics, one that he wants to work out with his students. He begins by summarizing Addams’s book as presenting “precisely a series of concrete social-political problems, and in a very concrete way, and at the same time in a way that presupposes general principles.” How far he thinks these general principles are only presupposed and not developed is apparent from his description of his own class as one devoted to the problem of the proper method to be used in regard to ethical questions, and so is apt to be “rather abstract and theoretical” in comparison to the concrete, practical questions he and the students will be dealing with (85). Dewey is struggling to satisfactorily relate to the methodology and material of a subject which he finds is still in a chaotic condition and he recommends Miss Addams book for assistance in making the sort of connection he is seeking.

He gives an abstract of the book which allows us to see his own understanding of it. He says that “the book is largely a tracing out in detail these places where the ethical horizon is widened, where people are coming to recognize responsibility in important directions, where before they did not deny them but simply were not conscious of them (89).” People who are supposed to be leaders of opinion, in particular, need to help develop a more definite, intellectual standpoint and consensus of belief in situations where the existing status of belief is a matter of opinion, caprice, and sentiment and consequently highly chaotic.

What is already strikingly different is Addams’s and Dewey’s contrasting attitudes to the situations described. Addams is at pains to emphasize that the sense of entitlement of those of

privileged educational, class, religious, and ethnic status leads them to misunderstand and misjudge those of different backgrounds. She consequently develops at length the strengths and contributions of each of the despised immigrant groups, whom she wants to empower. She gives many striking examples of how the assumptions of charitable, social, or political elites that they know better and have better values than those they are seeking to help or control, distorts their vision and interferes with resolving the dire social problems brought about by the industrial revolution.

Dewey recognizes that Addams wants to widen the ethical horizons of elites, but not her method of doing so by listening to and cooperating with those less privileged. Instead, he wants them to become more conscious of their responsibilities and develop “a more definite, intellectual standpoint and consensus of belief,” thus inculcating the very sense of privilege and ability to arrive by their own wits and according to their moral values at the right solution, which are the very beliefs that Addams argues are hindering their ability to do so. He does not follow Addams’s explanation of why privilege begets prejudice and therefore does not recognize what is needed to correct it. Instead, he thinks that the problem is more general and undifferentiated. This blindness to her most striking contribution to pragmatist theory and practice will become clearer as the lectures go on.

Dewey emphasizes that it is especially those people who are supposed to be leaders of men--and here I think he has his own students in mind--who need to help evolve a more definite intellectual standpoint and consensus of belief. Addams, by contrast, directly challenges the traditional notion that the poor or disadvantaged members of society need to be guided by elites, whether by the newly emerging technocratic elites or by those privileged by class, education, or dominant ethnicity. This determination that the beliefs and values held by divergent classes, ethnic groups, genders, and religions be shared reciprocally and not hierarchically and that they be experimentally refined and co-determined is a guiding principle of Hull House especially, and the settlement movement more generally. As Caroline M. Hill, an early reviewer of Democracy and Social Ethics, confirms, “Hull-House has not now a single resident who would say that she was living there to do good to the neighborhood. She is there because it is an atmosphere of freedom and inspiration, because it is an educational institution of the broadest scope, and because it is a rendezvous for the kind of people whom is it most worthwhile to know.”13

It is clear that Dewey picks up on Addams’s efforts to revalue the contributions of the poor, the disadvantaged, the working class, and immigrants, to the reconstruction of society, but he does not seem to grasp her intent in doing so. He does not regard it as Addams does, as being a demonstration of the interdependency of all strata of society and the underpinning of the democratic ethos of according dignity and worth to every person regardless of their social standing. Instead, he seems puzzled by her emphasis and returns to the issue in his second class on October 20.

The topic of the class was “The Connection of the Theoretical and the Practical.” Dewey rather opaquely explains that the solution to connecting theory and practice is “the transformation or reconstruction of factors so as to make them operate more harmoniously in the more integral situation.” He points out the importance of scientific theory for Addams in effecting practical adjustments, but expresses surprise that she concludes her preface by crediting “the simple, uneducated elements in society” as actually “doing more practically to remedy evil than the well-educated and cultural minds who feel the strains more strongly. “ His counter-argument is that practically resolving social problems is not enough. There needs to be a recognition of some meaning and value in the actions taken. He could imagine that the struggles between capital and labor could be completely solved by a series of purely practical adjustments, but that from the ethical standpoint, this result would not be morally satisfactory unless there were also a growth of social consciousness.

Dewey says that “what the more educated and reflective classes are presumably doing,

if . . . Miss Addams is right that the more uneducated classes are doing the most practically, is to evolve the valuational side, so that in this sense there is co-operation in the division of labor.” He concedes that “undoubtedly the division has gone too far.” One class is too purely speculative and empirical, and another class’s work has been too practical. It is only reasonable to bring them together—“one side making an overt adjustment, the other side supplying the conscious meanings that go along with it” (96).

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dewey is more concerned to protect the right of his own privileged, educated, middle class to determine meaning and value for society than to recognize the ability of the immigrant working classes to do so. For a philosopher who will eventually make the abolition of dualisms the center-piece of his pragmatic philosophy, his stance at this time essentializes the traits of mind and body as instantiated in intellectual worker and manual laborer.

Addams’s praise of the uneducated classes continues to disturb Dewey and he returns to the issue again in lecture 17 of November 10. He says that in some periods of history the ends are clear, but not the means to obtain them. But it is the opposite problem in the present industrial period. This thesis is illustrated by reference to the “educated man [who] has more knowledge and culture than he can make function in his life,” while “the poor classes of society have more moral standards than they can control or manipulate.” This very odd explanation is followed by the statement that since the poor classes are not so handicapped by intellectual burdens, they are much more direct and could effectively set up new ideals. Dewey then says, “This also throws some light on Miss Addams’ statement that the more unreflective classes are making more headway in correcting some of our social evils than the more reflective classes. Of course there is a good deal of talk about degeneracy, which is exaggerated, but on the other hand, there is a certain positive truth in the fact that civilized culture has to be renewed from below, by persons who have not become too over-weighted with intellectual and ethical machinery” (190).

What Dewey leaves out of his paraphrase of the last sentence of Addams’s introduction is that what the more educated and self-conscious members of society feel is “the strain and perplexity of the situation” (9). He does not take up her explanation in chapter 1, “Charitable Effort,” that the perplexity arises from the fact that the working classes’ understanding of morality challenges the middle class morality which the charity visitor has taken for granted as universal and unquestionable. If the charity visitor does not just dismiss the challenge as coming from a false sense of morality which one would expect from the lower classes, she must face for the first time the possibility that it is her own ethical understanding that might be flawed. This involves the realization that morality does not transcend social identities, but is an expression of them. Such perplexity can be the beginning of wisdom if the charity visitor does not turn away from the strained confrontation to the comfort of her unexamined life, but instead begins the painful process of rethinking her own ethical assumptions and sense of self in further encounters which will continue to challenge her and allow her to grow both intellectually and morally.

Since Dewey does not recognize that Addams is making visible and criticizing the assumption that the white, middle class, educated, nativist perspective is factually accurate and morally correct, he struggles to make sense of what she is saying in terms of his own understanding. He sees her contrasts as exemplifying not so much two of many possible perspectives, each with their own negative biases and positive outlooks and values, but two poles of a hierarchical binary. He thus reproduces the very blindness to one’s own privileged status that Addams is trying to undermine. His terms for the two conflicting classes illustrate this. They are not only described in opposite terms, but as inherently unequal. His own class is educated, cultured, intellectual, and reflective, while the other is uneducated, simple, unreflective, in short, not “too over-weighted with intellectual and ethical machinery.” His is said to be empirical while the other is practical, foreshadowing his later description of his philosophy as empirical and raising questions about the status he assigns to the practical. No wonder Dewey is puzzled over how what he takes to be an essentially unreflective class of people can have something to teach his students about ethics since ethics is by definition reflective.

In a later work, The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, Addams continues emphasizing the

contributions of the various classes without privileging one or the other. In doing so, she gives the reasons Dewey is seeking for why moral development requires the transgressive insights of those whose points of view and ways of life are not inscribed in the supposedly more reflective morality of the educated classes. She says: “But because no conventionalized tradition is perfect, however good its intent, most of them become challenged in course of time, unwittingly illustrating the contention that great social changes are often brought about less by the thinkers than by ‘a certain native and independent rationalism operating in great masses of men and women.’”14

In lecture 21 (Nov. 18), Dewey denies that there is any objective basis for the distinction between individual morality and social morality that Addams makes. He misses the fundamental criticism behind Addams’s distinction; namely, that morality understood as strictly personal and

autonomous can no longer be defended as valid once it is understood that morality evolves over time in interaction with the social and natural environments. Concentrating on one’s individual efforts and self-culture do not meet the requirements necessary for breaking through the conceit that one is the center of the universe. It fails to recognize that both individual growth and well-being and that of others take place “through contact with social experience; that such contact is the surest corrective of opinions concerning the social order, and concerning efforts, however humble, for its improvement” (D&SE, 7). Morality is not transcendental, but experiential and experimental. Limitations inherent in the perspectival and interpretational manner of human understanding require ever wider and more critical encounters and transactions to overcome such limitations, however incrementally.

Finally, Dewey’s explanation does not tie together the reasons for the various claims he attributes to her, thus minimizing the coherency, originality, and strength of her position. Others at the time were more perceptive. In her review, for example, Hill remarks that the chapters on “Industrial Amelioration” and “Political Reform” were already highly praised when first given as lectures. “They are philosophic in the best sense; they find a guiding thread which will lead out of the tangle of mere opinion, a principle which explains apparent contradictions.”15

In paraphrasing Addams for his class, Dewey recognizes Addams’s important insight that our moral codes are no more universal than are those of the people we seek to reform and that the final realization of ethics requires modification of ourselves as well as others. But he does not highlight the struggle Addams says is involved in questioning our own standards and opening ourselves up to those of others who significantly differ from us in such aspects as class, ethnicity, and gender. Moreover, Addams deliberately rejects the claims that she had a superior morality that others lacked or were deficient in. Addams’s theme of perplexity perfectly captures the puzzlement that a reflective person might feel when her intention to help those in need is met with ingratitude. Such puzzlement can be the occasion for moral development insofar as it leads to the recognition that what has been taken as one’s universal ethical standards is instead merely a circumscribed, middle-class morality.16 Moral progress requires the courage to move beyond our settled beliefs to grapple with only dimly understood alternatives.


It is clear from Dewey’s early lectures at the University of Chicago that Addams’s philosophy was thoroughly pragmatic and far ahead of Dewey’s views at the time. Addams’s

analyses joined theory and practice as co-determinative, were grounded in concrete experiences and arrived at experimentally, and were sensitive to unequal hierarchies of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity. Moreover, in his early lectures Dewey simply did not recognize what was most original, what was most creatively pragmatic in theory and method in her book.

But in stressing Addams’s priority as a pragmatist philosopher, I do not want to leave the impression that because Dewey did not grasp the full implications of her thought at the time, that Addams’s writings did not make a profound impact on him. Jessie A. Charters, one of Dewey’s former students, later reported that by the turn of the nineteenth century he was already greatly influenced by the social philosophy of Addams.17 After all, he chose to teach her book when it first came out. And the more one is familiar with Addams’s books and articles, the more evident it is that her ideas acted as a ferment on Dewey’s thought and are developed in his writings.18 In fact, what makes Dewey’s 1916 book, Democracy and Education, such a clear, theoretical statement about democracy as a way of life is that it reflects more closely Addams’s position.19

1 This same assumption of a master-disciple relationship has been made in regard to Addams and William James concerning one of the latter’s most characteristic positions, that of “the moral equivalent of war.” But in this case also, Addams was not following in James’s scholarly footsteps, but preceded him. And although they developed the proposal around the same time, they did so in characteristically different ways. See Berenice A. Carrol and Clinton F. Fink, Intro., Newer Ideals of Peace (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), xxvi-xxxiii.

2 Democracy and Education in John Dewey The Middle Works, Vol. 9:1916 [MW 9], (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1980). Burnett’s comment is in MW 1:1899-1901 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1976), xx.

3 “The Ethics of Democracy” John Dewey The Early Works 1: 1888-1898 [EW 1], (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1969), 227-49

4 Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

5 See Louise W. Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 238-40.

6 Darnell Rucker, Intro., MW 3:1903-1906 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1977), xxiii.

7 Ethics, MW 5:1908, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1978), 136, 349, n5 and 382 and Ethics, LW 7:1932, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1985), 315.

8 Henry C. Adams, Intro., Philanthropy and Social Progress: Seven Essays (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1893).

9 Addams, “Hull House, Chicago: An Effort toward Social Democracy,” Forum, 14(Oct. 1892), 226-41.

10 See report of Jessie A. Charters in Seigfried, “Socializing Democracy: Jane Addams and John Dewey,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 29:2(June, 1999), 219, and Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 228.

11 Donald F. Koch with Larry A. Hickman and the Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, eds., The Class Lectures of John Dewey: Vol. 1: Political Philosophy, Logic, Ethics, Charlottesville, Va.: InteLex Corp., 2010, forthcoming.

12 Dewey quoted by Paul Kellogg, “Twice Twenty Years at Hull-House,” (1930), in Allen F. Davis and Mary Lynn McCree, eds., Eighty Years at Hull-House (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969), 171.

13 Caroline M. Hill, Review of Democracy and Social Ethics, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 20(Sept. 1902), 123.

14 Addams, The Long Road of Woman’s Memory (1916), (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 29. The source of Addams’s quote is not given.

15 Hill, Annals, 123.

16 See Seigfried, Intro., Democracy and Social Ethics, xxii-xxxi.

17 Charters in Seigfried, “Socializing Democracy,” 219.

18 An early article linking democracy and ethics shows both Addams’s influence on Dewey and the differences that still remain at this stage. “Philosophy and American National Life,” in John Dewey The Middle Works, Vol. 3, (1903-1905), 73-78.

19 See Seigfried, “Socializing Democracy,” 207-30. Among the connections explored is the influence of Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House on Dewey’s model of the ideal democratic community, pp. 213-16.

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