1In his 1909 syllabus on “The Pragmatic Movement of Contemporary Thought,” John Dewey listed the many philosophical battles awaiting pragmatism. One of them pertained to the need to rid philosophy and contemporary thought of the brand of individualism that described a “world of isolated particulars,” a vision based on “the simple soul substance in philosophy.” This particular version of individualism, Dewey argued, simply ignored “the rise of organic concepts in sociology and biology” (MW 4, 254)1. The program that the syllabus presented so straightforwardly was to be enacted several years later in Individualism, Old and New (LW 5, 45-123) which presented Dewey’s most comprehensive treatment of an issue that he had identified as strategic very early in his career, that of the relationship between the individual and society. However, there was no way Dewey could have anticipated in 1909 the historical context in which Individualism was to be written, namely the Great Depression of the 1930s. To fully understand what is at stake in Individualism, it is necessary to specify the kind of questions Dewey was addressing and to indicate how the course of history determined the angle that Dewey was to take to achieve his reconstruction of individualism.
2Individualism, Old and New is really a series of eight essays. The first two essays were written independently and were meant to be published in the New Republic to which Dewey had been a regular contributor since 1915. The first two papers, “The House Divided Against Itself” and “‘America’ – By Formula” appeared respectively on April 24, 1929 and September 18, 1929. They offered a reflection on the domestic situation following Hoover’s election to the presidency in 1928 after a decade of unprecedented prosperity. They read like a response to Hoover’s October 22, 1928 speech in which he celebrated America’s “rugged individualism” as the main driving force of prosperity. Dewey’s quip about our “ragged individualism” (LW 5, 45) expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the ideology Hoover embodied. At that time, Dewey already showed a very strong record as a liberal deeply committed to democratic values. During the 1928 presidential campaign, he had supported the socialist candidate, Norman Thomas. 1928 was also the year when Dewey visited the Soviet Union. His “Impressions on Soviet Russia” (LW 3, 202-250) reflected Dewey’s sympathetic support of this unique experiment in government and reflected his confidence that something good would eventually come out of it and ultimately provide the world with an alternative to what he called “private capitalism.” The subject of Individualism was present in his mind not only as a continuation of his early works of the Michigan years - “The Ethics of Democracy” and “Christianity and Democracy” - but also as a response to historical circumstances.
- 2 All references are to Individualism, Old and New (LW 5).
3Black Thursday probably found Dewey pursuing his reflection upon the course taken by individualism. The remaining six essays Individualism consists of were addressed to the one question that figured on his philosophical agenda: how to transcend the old “individual versus society” dualism within a strictly democratic framework? The six essays were published from January 1930 to April 1930 and were intended as a series. The pitfalls inherent in the “individual and society” conundrum had been amply illustrated by history: totalitarianism and “rugged individualism” represented the two equally harmful solutions to the problem. The transition from an individualistic paradigm to a corporate paradigm that acted as a background to Dewey’s analysis was characterized by the prevailing role of the economy as the sole regulator of social relationships: social relations were pre-eminently economic relations in the sense that the human and moral component, free from utilitarian motives, had receded in the background. When the “breakdown of unregulated individualistic industry conducted for private profit” (LW 5, 95)2 intervened, the state of anomie of American society became more blatant and the need to reconstruct the social link more urgent.
4If taken out of their context, some passages of Individualism may seem to justify Mumford’s critique of pragmatism’s acquiescence in his 1926 essay, The Golden Day. However, even a cursory reading of “Capitalistic or Public Socialism? The Fourth Article in Professor Dewey’s Series, ‘Individualism, Old and New’” suffices to realize that Dewey had embarked upon a piece of criticism that was anything but acquiescent. Dewey’s relentless plea in favor of a democracy based on “public socialism” and of the principles that sustain it is well illustrated in this passage: “There is that much enduring truth in our individualism,” Dewey argued,
But the outcome would surely involve the introduction of social responsibility into our business system to such an extent that the doom of an exclusively pecuniary-profit industry would follow. A coordinating and directive council in which captains of industry and finance would meet with representatives of labor and public officials to plan the regulation of industrial activity would signify that we had entered constructively and voluntarily upon the road which Soviet Russia is travelling with so much attendant destruction and coercion (LW 3, 98).
5Such then is the cooperative framework of Dewey’s reconstruction of individualism from the ruins of “rugged individualism.” As this passage makes it clear, Dewey did not believe in class struggle and never embraced the tenets of Marxism. His rhetoric, as radical as it is, reflects his faith in dialog; his vision of planning is inspired by the Progressive public philosophy more than by the Soviet experiment.
6Dewey was neither an economist nor a journalist. He responded to the Great Depression as a philosopher. His critique of capitalism and of its special brand of individualism was a continuation of some of his early texts from his neo-Hegelian days such as “The Ethics of Democracy” (EW 1, 227-249) or “Christianity and Democracy” (EW 4, 3-10). The following quotation from Dewey’s essay on Leibniz - which was also written while Dewey was at the University of Michigan - gives an idea of what constituted the point of departure of the line of thought that was to culminate in Individualism. Dewey commented on Leibniz’s notion of pre-established harmony and argued that “while the form of every monad is individuality, a unique principle of action, its content is universal […]. There is no actual interaction of one upon another […]. They are a true democracy, in which each citizen has sovereignty” (EW 1, 295). This dialectics between the individual and the universal within the limits set by pre-established harmony was the horizon of Dewey’s early works on the subject. However, in Individualism, Dewey’s early neo-Hegelianism gave way to an experimentalism that took into account the teachings of science and of history within strictly circumscribed naturalistic frontiers.
- 3 “Each [man], living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest […]. He exists only in him (...)
7But to effect this transition, Dewey needed to come to terms, not just with Hoover’s individualism, but with the whole intellectual and philosophical tradition that made it possible. To understand the individualistic tradition, one wants to start with Locke and from there follow a movement that was continued by Bentham, Mill and the Romantics, as Dewey recounted in Liberalism and Social Action (LW 11, 5-22). The individual that emerged from feudalism was endowed by the Enlightenment with transcendental faculties and rights inherent in Man as Man. In the late seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century, such universalism proved a highly effective defence against abusive authority, both religious and political. The language game that was shaped and given substance by the French Revolution became the natural language of emancipation, found its ways into the Declaration of Independence and provided a philosophical foundation to the idea of the democratic monad that attracted Tocqueville’s attention3.
8There was no denying that old style individualism proved highly serviceable in its own time. But this time was over. Using this language game in 1929 amounted to assuming “the uniform of a dead culture” (LW 5, 121). It had become ornamental and as an ornament, it covered up the reality of lived experience. To the Europeans who mocked the brutal and unsophisticated individualism current in America, Dewey pointed that the emancipation Europeans set such great store by failed to translate as a reality for the peasant and the worker (LW 5, 54). Americans fared no better in the sense that they paid only lip service to their ideals (LW 5, 47).
9In America, to make mention of individualism also led to some major misunderstandings. The European tradition ran into the pioneer spirit and the encounter of the two currents enhanced the rise of the culture that Lewis Mumford mourns. Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman were harsh critics of philistinism and materialism but their onslaughts were based on the same individualistic premises as those shared by materialism. In many ways, their specific brand of individualism was nothing but the genteel and polished side of the pioneer mentality. The self-made man was little more that a new offspring of the old frontier spirit. But by the time it got onto the historical stage, individualism had become intellectually respectable and historically proven. So the general drift of Dewey’s argument was that, quite unexpectedly, the myth of the self-made man which was the unfortunate acme of individualism in an economic age, had a noble origin that had become unrecognizable: the European philosophical and historical individualism that dates back to Locke, Mill and like-minded spirits who largely contributed to the defence of civil liberty had been defaced beyond recognition by an economic ideology that no longer bothered to find itself prestigious forerunners.
10The misunderstanding lay in the fact that in the eyes of the Europeans, the Fords and the Edisons were exemplifications of individualism and yet, as far as Dewey was concerned, it might be more suitable to use them as counter-examples. The 1929 crisis showed that the forces at work in the economy were impersonal: “personal motives hardly count” (LW 5, 59); the individual was “submerged” (LW 5, 66). The captains of industry were not even “the captains of their own souls” (LW 5, 67). To Dewey, circulating one’s name and parading as a self-made man had nothing to do with “genuine individuality” (LW 5, 66).
11Dewey himself was to recognize that he was unsure to what extent he helped to define such an illusive reality as “genuine individuality,” which is certainly an aspect of his philosophy that causes much frustration as Dewey clearly rejects essentialism without giving a clear definition of what “genuine” really means in this context. One thing however was certain: the US had entered the Corporate Age and this new age called for a new type of individualism, “as significant for modern conditions as the old individualism at its best was for its day and place” (LW 5, 56-57).
12The task before Dewey was not just an exploration of the history of philosophy and of its consequences: it consisted in a reconstruction of the relation between the individual and his society so as to be better equipped to face the challenge of history. The deceptively simple title of the first essay in the individualism series that Dewey wrote after Black Thursday is “The United States, Incorporated.” What Dewey had in mind was not just the idea that the US had become an immense business dedicated to profit, even though that much was part of the story: “The growth of legal corporations in manufacturing, transportation, distribution and finance is symbolic of the development of corporateness in all phases of life” (LW 5, 59), Dewey argued. Not only had big business an influence on the polity, which was only to be expected, but it was symbolic of a movement - “corporateness” - that affected it. This symbolic significance was the part that required clarification as “corporateness” played an important role in Dewey’s reconstruction of the individual and society dualism.
13The movement Dewey described was most conspicuous in the business world. Anti-trust laws, which turned out to be totally ineffective (LW 5, 59), tried to counter mergers which were the economic side of the corporate movement Dewey discussed. But the whole American culture seemed to be taken by this trend which forced individuals – be they human beings or firms - to cluster together. The artisan, the farmer and the artist were relics of the old pioneer, self-reliant mentality and yet they were also affected by this trend. If they wanted to survive, they needed to join in the aggregation movement: artisans were compelled to join larger production plants, the individual farmer was forced into extended landed properties controlled by the food industry. The fate of the artist was the most telling of all: “The inorganic position of the artist in American life today is convincing evidence of what happens to the isolated individual in a society growing corporate” (LW 5, 60-61). The inorganic artist was lost: he fled to Paris or elsewhere and cultivated a sense of aloofness. A whole generation did that, “failing to see the range of our problem” (LW 5, 101). Hemingway and his acolytes of the Lost Generation, whom Dewey never mentioned by name, were the inorganic intellectuals. They took up a spectatorial attitude and substituted the aesthetic for the political.
14Dewey’s use of the word “corporate” was purely anthropological. It is the sense in which Ruth Benedict spoke of “corporate behavior” (Benedict, PC 251) in her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, to designate what pertains to the group in so far as the individual is conditioned by the group. Benedict’s culturalism offered in many ways a counterpart to Dewey’s approach to individualism. The point that Dewey tried to make was that Robinson Crusoe stories – “Robinsonades”, as Marx called them - were no longer in order. Emersonian self-reliance, Thoreau’s Walden or Whitman’s “I” had become moot, reminiscences of a world now dead and gone. The vocabulary chosen by Dewey bore witness to his caution to avoid an expression that enjoyed some popularity in the twenties: “masses.” “Mass society” or “mass culture” had pejorative connotations mostly due to T.S. Eliot’s onslaughts against the decadence of culture and the demise of the aesthetic. Corporate and its cognates – corporation, corporateness - did not carry such negative connotations.It sketched a body metaphor that Dewey himself used repeatedly: “organization, as in any living organism, is the cooperative consensus of multitudes of cells, each living in exchange with others” (LW 5, 83). The social cells of Individualism now conformed to the need for cooperation that the monads of the Leibniz essay had lacked.
- 4 This is the option that Westbrook seems to take (Westbrook 1991, 33-58). Dewey’s relationship to co (...)
15The metaphor might be a way for Dewey to pay his tribute to Green4 as he described T.H. Green’s thought as “organic idealism” (LW 11, 19). However, when Dewey tried to describe and analyse the transition from an individualistic paradigm to a corporate paradigm, he was treading familiar ground for the readers of Tönnies and Durkheim. Tönnies, in his Community and Society, which had been reissued in 1912, and Durkheim, whose works had been widely circulated in the US and discussed in sociological journals, both tried to account for a transformation that was also affecting Europe. In Durkheimian terms, mechanical solidarity (Tönnies “community”) was giving way to organic solidarity (Dewey’s corporateness or Tönnies’s “society”). When Dewey described “the decline of an individualistic philosophy of life, and the formation of a collectivistic scheme of interdependence, which finds its way into every cranny of life, personal, intellectual, emotional, affecting leisure as well as work, morals as well as economics” (LW5, 64), he seemed to be following in Tönnies’s footsteps in Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft and showed striking similarities with Durkheim. Both were heralds of the “organic concept in sociology” that Dewey hailed in the syllabus on the pragmatic movement in contemporary thought, but whether Dewey borrowed the term “organic” from Tönnies or Durkheim is immaterial: Dewey found himself on sociological territory because the intellectual tools provided by neo-Hegelianism failed to fall in with his 1929 philosophical naturalism.
16Dewey abstained from passing value judgements on the growing movement towards corporateness: in so doing, he inevitably ran the risk of being mistakenly criticized for his supposed “acquiescence” in the mechanization and standardization that characterized the economic as well as cultural spheres. Science and technique, which sustained corporateness, were neutral instruments, means to an end, the ultimate end being emancipation. If science and technique served private ends and private profit, the responsibility did not lie with them, but with those who “privatized” them, that is, use them for private gain in Deweyan vocabulary. The whole social setup and the individualistic ideology conspired to alienate science and technique from their original purpose. The organic evolution of society was accompanied by an unprecedented development of science and technique as a body of knowledge with a record of proven achievements, but first and foremost science was a method that constituted the best defence against dogmatism and authoritarianism as it illustrated the old pragmatic maxim: “truth is something public,” open to inquiry and experiment.
17The inorganic intellectuals, those who cultivated the nostalgic memory of the past, failed to understand the deeper significance of science and technique and the role they could play in the making of a new individualism. In the twentieth century, science played the role that liberal philosophy played in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: science and technique were a promise of emancipation for the individual. They were the forces through which the individual would become truly organic and be in a position to actively share in the common culture.
18The intellectuals of the Lost Generation that Dewey criticized for their aloofness were suspicious of science and technique because they had interiorized all the dualism of modern thought: body versus mind, passion versus reason, etc. Such dualisms translated into social dualisms - workers and intellectuals, blue collars and white collars, artists and intellectuals – which prevented individuals from being fully integrated individuals. The inorganic intellectuals were led to believe that industrialization necessarily lay outside the province of the human, that it unavoidably pertained to a form of barbarism and that ultimately, it spelt alienation. The new individualism Dewey endorsed required to leave old dichotomies behind and to unify the different spheres of experience. Refusal to do so had deep social consequences:
To stop with mere emotional rejection and moral condemnation of industry and trade as materialistic is to leave them in this inhuman region where they operate as the instruments of those who employ them for private ends. Exclusion of this sort is an accomplice of the forces that keep things in the saddle. There is a subterranean partnership between those who employ the existing economic order for selfish pecuniary gain and those who turn their backs upon it in the interest of personal complacency, private dignity, and irresponsibility (LW 5, 117).
- 5 Actually, Dewey mentioned his failure twice: “ I am not anxious to depict the form which this emer (...)
19Dewey called for an ethic of responsibility on the part of the intellectuals but also of ordinary people. He stigmatized the attitude of “mental withdrawal, (…) failure to face the realities of industrialized society” (LW 5, 107) of the intellectuals who cultivate the old individualistic attitude which really amounts to complacent rumination. There is no doubt that Dewey called for a “hardy resistance” (LW 5, 103) against a social setup that had failed to keep the promise of the democratic ideal but it remains nevertheless true that the features of his new individualism remain uncertain as he himself confessed at the end of Individualism (LW 5, 111)5. Indeed, the picture that emerged from his essays was not as clear and simple as the one popularized by the “individual and society” dualism of the old individualism. There were good reasons for that: Dewey’s new individualism had not materialized yet and called for an effort of the imagination.
20The difficulty inherent in Dewey’s project’s lay in its attempt to avoid two equally fateful pitfalls: on the one hand, the monadic individualism made familiar by the long intellectual tradition that culminated in the idea of “rugged individualism,” a tradition that Dewey deconstructed, and on the other hand totalitarianism as it existed in Italy under Mussolini and as it began to appear in the Soviet Union after 1927. Neither Whitmanian praise nor totalitarian dissolution of the “I”: this posture called for a new geography of the “individual and society” dialectics.
21“There is no society at large”: Dewey’s pronouncement indicated that undoing the individual versus society approach required a re-evaluation of the two components of the dualism. The backdrop of Dewey’s analysis was the disappearance of religion as the great cement of social relations (LW 5: 71, 81) which was an issue that Dewey was to address in A Common Faith in 1934. However, saying that there is no society at large did not mean that society was bound to remain for ever in a state of monadic anomie but that it needed to be defined anew: “society is but the relations of the individuals to one another in this form and that” (LW 5, 82). Society was then a series of fluctuating social relations that our language games tried to capture. While it would be more appropriate to speak of societies, religions or laws, always in the plural, to describe human interactions, there was no such thing as a totalizing language game that could encompass the flux of associations between individuals. Social particles aggregate, then separate, reassemble, obeying laws of relative attraction that are still to be discovered. Part of the challenge of Dewey’s new individualism consisted in finding a new language game that might contribute to the reconstruction of the social link. Indeed, part of the dissolution of the moral and human dimension of the social link had to do with the absence of an adequate vocabulary to give it substance beyond the economic sphere.
22If one started from the other pole of the dualism to see how things looked from the individual angle, it was clear that Dewey couldn’t rest content with a definition of the individual derived from the philosophy of the subject. His deconstruction of the individual in the Cartesian sense was based on empiricist assumptions to which Dewey gave a decidedly social twist:
Individuality is at first spontaneous and unshaped; it is a potentiality, a capacity of development […] it is a unique manner of acting in and with a world of objects and persons. It is not something complete in itself […]. Since individuality is a distinctive way of feeling the impact of the world and of showing a preferential bias in response to these impacts, it develops into shape and form only through interaction with actual conditions (LW 5, 121).
23Such individuality was social –corporate and organic - through and through. It was further anchored in a kernel of human nature, a rare notion in Dewey’s works as it was little compatible with the tenets of pragmatism or instrumentalism: “generosity, good will, altruism” (LW 5, 83) were indigenous in human nature, which further supported its social drive. Individuality, Dewey added, was “inexpugnable” (LW 5, 120, 121) and “it is of its nature to assert itself” (LW 5, 120). But individuality did not assert itself through some inner essence – its conatus was not essentialist – but in the preservation of the individual’s link to the other and to the organic whole. It was “inexpugnable” in the sense that a molecule couldn’t decide to abstract itself from a mass or a body in order to run its own course. One couldn’t forego one’s link to the multitude of associations that gave corporate society its substance without at the same time forsaking one’s individuality and humanity. Existence made sense only insofar as the individual was informed in return by the associations society consisted of, to such an extent that “individuals who are not bound together in associations, whether domestic, economic, religious, political, artistic or educational are monstrosities” (LW 5, 80-81), Dewey warned with Aristotelian overtones. Dewey was so eagerly dedicated to his vision of the organic society that he had no patience for those who blamed society or civilization for their own suffering: “If, in the long run, an individual remains lost, it is because he has chosen irresponsibility; and if he remains wholly depressed, it is because he has chosen the course of easy parasitism” (LW 5, 121). Such inorganic individuals had only themselves to blame: chances were, one would always find at the background of their refusal to join in the great organic banquet at least a certain amount of unfortunate loyalty to a form of individualism that pertained to a world that was no more. Such “old” individualism had become a pervasive illusion that detained the individual into the past and cut him off from the world of experience.
24As the individual-society conundrum dissolved, “the balance between the individual and the social will be organic” (LW 5, 65), Dewey proclaimed. The model of democracy that emerged from the liberal tradition of Locke and Mill aimed at protecting the individual against abusive political and religious power. Such defence was no longer in order as the individual now needed to embrace his social destiny as Dewey’s corporate ideal relied on two benevolent forces: industry and education.
25Work, which was the great mediating experience of the corporate society, was no longer just an economic activity, but a cultural and civilizing task: “industry must itself become a primary educative and cultural force for those engaged in it” (LW 5, 105) and “work itself can become an instrument of culture” (LW, 101). In Dewey’s vision, work did not spell alienation, pace Marx, but emancipation and it signally contributed to the corporate ideal. As for the educational system, “it gives opportunity to many,” but “it is also the agency of important welding and fusing processes. These are the conditions of creation of a mind that will constitute a distinctive type of culture” (LW 5, 102). The United States presented the world with a unique, unheard of combination of a system of mass education – “no nation has been so actively committed to universal schooling” (LW 5, 101) – and of an industry of mass production which can potentially eradicate need. This new form of universalism would leave no individual behind.
26There was something of a paradox in this denouement, as if the democratic pact could no longer be sustained without destroying the conception of the individual that prevailed in the liberal paradigm. If there was to be such a thing as a democratic pact between the individual and society, then both the individual and society needed to be reformed through and through: the reconstruction of the individual really amounted to the dissolution of the “inner citadel” that individuals cherish (James, 1983, 285). Society was no longer considered as a solid block that one can bypass, but as a network of associations that one cannot dodge.
27However, Dewey’s ambition extended far beyond a deconstruction-reconstruction work. He aimed at making the American organic setup a new universal model:
If it is true, as some hold, that with the extension of the machine, technology and industrialism, the whole world is becoming ‘Americanized,’ then the creation of an indigenous culture is no disservice to the traditional European springs of our spiritual life. It will signify, not ingratitude, but the effort to repay a debt. […] A new culture expressing the possibilities immanent in a machine and material civilization will release whatever is distinctive and potentially creative in individuals, and individuals thus freed will be the constant makers of a continually new society (LW 5, 109).
28If the world was to Americanize, let it be for the better: the unique combination of industry and education would give rise to a new civilization in which, indeed, “the balance between the individual and the social will be organic” (LW 5, 65). There could be no such thing as a “lost generation” in Dewey’s world.