John Dewey was younger than William James, but they were contemporaries. Dewey was profoundly influenced by reading James’ book “Principles of Psychology” and became, along with James and Charles Sanders Peirce, the third of a trinity of great thinkers that developed American Pragmatism.
Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1859, the same year that Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was first published. Dewey was introduced to Darwin’s book as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont and he had an insight about evolution that guided his thinking throughout a long career as arguably America’s most influential philosopher.
Dewey realized that human beings were indeed part of an evolutionary process, but more importantly he realized that the process of evolution only had one value. In the history of the evolutionary process only one thing was ever consistently rewarded and allowed to continue. That one thing is “increased potential for further evolution.”
What Dewey realized was that evolution would only reward those developments that provided greater opportunity for more evolution. Any development that led to a developmental dead-end, would be terminated into extinction.
Dewey lived to be 92 years old and worked actively almost the entire time. He is known as the father of American education for the enormous work he did to update the school system of the United States. He also wrote extensively about the nature of democracy and the relationship between education and democracy.
In both of these areas his thinking was guided by what he saw as an evolutionary mandate. He felt that the goal of education had to be more education; the goal of a democracy had to be maximizing its citizen’s potential for growth. Since the process of evolution would only reward the human species if it increased the potential for further evolution, then the goal of our social systems had to be to provide ever greater opportunities for individual and collective growth and development.
Dewey was effectively creating a national agenda based on evolutionary demands. I suspect that in the first half of the 20th century Dewey had to down play the importance of evolution’s role in his thinking, (as it was he found himself under constant criticism and attack.) but I wonder if now, at the start of the 21st century, we are ready to accept the truth of our evolutionary universe and work together to meet the demands of evolution.
Can we create an evolutionary national agenda?
I highly recommend Jerome Popp’s book, “Evolution’s First Philosopher”for further reading on this topic. In it Popp clearly describes Dewey’s work in light of his big insight into the nature of evolution.