James A Good. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 44, Issue 2. April 2006.
The traditional view of John Dewey’s philosophical development dates back to Morton White’s The Origins of Dewey’s Imtrumentalism, published in 1943. According to White, Dewey embraced British neo-Hegelianism as a neophyte philosopher, but during the 1905 he began to criticize neo-Hegelianism and gradually overcame his need for transcendent realities, both in his philosophy and in his personal religious commitments. Dewey heroically liberated himself from his absolutist chains and proclaimed to the world his newfound philosophical freedom in the Studies in Logical Theory in 1903. For years, subsequent studies debated the precise timing of Dewey’s development during the 1905, but accepted the Studies in Logical Theory as his definitive declaration of independence. Perhaps few Dewey scholars still read the Studies in Logical Theory; when I first read it several years ago I was astonished to discover that Hegel was never mentioned in the book. Despite William James’s oft-quoted praise of the Studies, it is significant that C. S. Peirce, who complained that it was a Phänomenologie of thought, failed to see it as a clean break from Hegel. Moreover, in his recent autobiography, White made an admission about the writing of The Origins of Dewey’s Instrumentalism that may put his interpretation in a different light. The book was White’s Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University, which he defended in the spring of 1942. White explains,
I followed Dewey’s development only up to 1903 … because I had written enough in my discussion of these early years for a coherent book that could earn the Ph.D. And since I had to publish my thesis according to the rules then existing at Columbia-and might have had to publish it at my own expense-there was a premium on keeping it short.
Regardless of why the traditional view was initially articulated, the issue of Dewey’s debt to Hegel continues to beleaguer Dewey scholars pardy because, in 1930, he acknowledged “that… Hegel ha[d] left a permanent deposit in [his] thinking.” But Dewey’s vagueness about the content of that deposit has puzzled scholars ever since. In recent years, John Shook and I have countered the traditional interpretation of Dewey’s intellectual development by arguing that he broke from British neo-Hegelianism during the early 1890s, but he never made a clean break from Hegel. I suspect that the persistence of the traditional view is due partly to academic fragmentation, according to which historians and philosophers generally ignore one another’s work, and even within history and philosophy departments, Americanists rarely study Hegel or his German intellectual context in any depth, and thus oversimplify the issues. I also suspect that the traditional view has endured pardy because of a desire, motivated by the horror of two world wars, to demonstrate that the philosopher of American democracy presciently recognized the allegedly inherent authoritarianism of Hegelian philosophy well before the first of those disastrous conflagrations. In this brief article I cannot fully excavate Dewey’s Hegelian deposit, but I hope to demonstrate that the traditional view, conceived at the height of World War II, has outlived its usefulness and to recommend a more fertile avenue of research into this problem.
Although Dewey was certainly influenced by the British neo-Hegelians during the early years of his philosophical development, he was immersed in an American Hegelian tradition, particularly defined by the St. Louis Hegelians, that scholars have neglected. I have argued elsewhere that the St. Louis Hegelians’ influence on Dewey was significant. In sum, Dewey published his first four articles in their Journal of Speculative Philosophy (JSP), edited by William Torrey Harris, and resolved to pursue a career in philosophy largely because of Harris’s encouragement. Their correspondence demonstrates that Dewey and Harris remained close personal friends until Harris’s death in 1909. Moreover, for the first fifteen years of its existence the JSP was the only serious philosophical journal in the English language. For that reason, all of the intellectuals with whom Dewey studied and interacted were well aware of the St. Louis Hegelians’ interpretation of Hegel. Finally, Dewey associated with Harris and other St. Louis Hegelians at Thomas Davidson’s Glenmore Summer School of the Culture Sciences throughout the 1890s. Among other things, this American Hegelian tradition encouraged Dewey to see Hegel as a politically liberal and eminently practical philosopher, to embrace his view of the individual’s relationship to society and his concept of positive freedom, and to develop a theory of learning and human growth similar to Hegel’s. To understand how Dewey received this vision of Hegel from his American peers, we need a more nuanced appreciation of the American Hegelian tradition and the context in which it was shaped.
The American Hegelian Tradition
The story of the American reception of Hegel is punctuated by war. The American Civil War (1861-65) and the series of European wars that culminated in German unification (1864-70) stimulated the growth of a budding American interest in German culture. During the period between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914, the vast majority of American intellectuals viewed Germany as one of the most advanced nations in the world and German idealism as a politically liberal philosophical movement. The American perception of German culture was abruptly reversed during World War I, however, as many intellectuals argued that German idealism, particularly the philosophy of Hegel, was inherently militaristic and authoritarian. Some World War I attacks on Hegel were republished during World War II, and new ones appeared as well. Our post-World War II perception of Hegel has clouded our understanding of the way Americans perceived German thought and culture during the nineteenth century.
Early in the nineteenth century, prominent American educators traveled to Germany to observe the educational system, and a few Americans studied there. During the antebellum period, a gradual transformation of American primary education began, inspired by Pestalozzi’s and Froebel’s advocacy of love and respect for the individuality of the child. After the Civil War, the trickle of American intellectuals who traveled to Germany became a torrent because of the unification of the German states, which was completed in 1870, and a growing respect for German research universities. Americans viewed unification as a liberal advance that paralleled the unification of the United States during and after the Civil War. Moreover, the fact that German-Americans who fought in the Civil War overwhelmingly chose to fight for the abolition of slavery associated Germaness with the advance of liberal politics in the minds of American intellectuals. Americans were also impressed by the German ideal of academic freedom and their standards of research, both of which transformed higher education in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Because of its emphasis on respect for the individual and academic freedom, American intellectuals viewed German educational thought as a liberalizing influence and Germany as the nation the United States should emulate.
This perception of German thought and culture is most apparent in the writings of the St. Louis Hegelians, a philosophical group that began to form before the Civil War and coalesced immediately after the War. Harris, a Connecticut Yankee who rose to prominence as a local public educator, was the primary leader of the group. Harris served as editor of the JSP from 1867 to 1893, and Superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools from 1868 to 1880. Soon Harris was one of the brightest stars in the American intellectual firmament because, under his editorship, the JSP became the flagship publication of American philosophy, and under his superintendence, the St. Louis public school system received international recognition for its progressive approach to education. Thus Bronson Alcott enthusiastically named Harris resident sage of the Concord Summer School, a position in which Harris served from 1879 to 1889, and President Benjamin Harrison appointed him United States Commissioner of Education, a title Harris carried with distinction from 1889 to 1906. There can be no doubt that American intellectuals, including Dewey, paid close attention to Harris and his work. Yet American historians today know little about Harris’s reading of Hegel.
It is often correctly noted that Harris and his colleagues in St. Louis were devoted students of Hegel’s logic, and historians seem to presume that this exposes them as right-wing Hegelians who espoused a metaphysical/theological reading of Hegel much like the British neo-Hegelians. The assumption seems to be that nineteenth-century Hegelians could choose one of two diametrically opposed paths: either they became reactionary right-wingers or revolutionary left-wingers. This obscures the complexities of the spectrum of Hegelians in Germany, some of whom were theologically left wing, but politically more moderate than the Young Hegelians. Although Harris defended the doctrine of the Trinity in an effort to rescue Hegel from pantheism, this alone does not definitively associate him with the theological Hegelian right in Germany. Moreover, a careful perusal of the St. Louis Hegelians’ publications demonstrates that, unlike the British neoHegelians, they studied all of Hegel’s work and were particularly fascinated by the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophical Propaedeutic. The St. Louis Hegelians translated and published, with commentary, portions of both works in the JSP. Moreover, Harris’s Hegel’s Logic included five chapters on the Phenomenology that demonstrate his conviction that it is the introduction to Hegel’s system. For this reason, Harris’s reading of Hegel is distinct from that of the British neo-Hegelians who were influenced by James Hutchison Stirling’s The Secret of Hegel (1865). Stirling tended to ignore the Phenomenology, and later British neo-Hegelians followed his lead on this point, viewing The Science of Logic, rather than the Phenomenology, as the beginning point of Hegel’s system.
The St. Louis Hegelians are more comparable to the German Hegelian center-Eduard Gans, Karl Ludwig Michelet, Karl Rosenkranz, and Johannes Schulz. The Center Hegelians were pupils of Hegel who eschewed Prussian conservatism as well as the revolutionary thought of the Young Hegelians. Michelet and Rosenkranz were auxiliary members of the St. Louis Philosophical Society and, according to Arnold Ruge, Rosenkranz was “the most liberal of all the Old Hegelians.” The St. Louis Hegelians corresponded with Rosenkranz and were profoundly influenced by his 1844 biography of Hegel. In that work, Rosenkranz contextualized Hegel within the German neo-Humanist tradition that included Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe, Schiller, and Novalis and drew on Hegel’s short political essays to depict him as a cultural, rather than a political, nationalist and a lifelong advocate of the ideals of the French Revolution. An examination of the translations of, and commentaries on, German philosophical and literary works in the JSP reveals that the St. Louis Hegelians promoted neo-humanism and that this shaped their reading of Hegel. In this context, Hegel appears less as the philosopher’s philosopher, fixated on the perennial conundrums of the Western tradition, and more as the liberal humanist who sought to set those problems aside in order to reconstruct Western thought and culture for the purpose of individual emancipation. Hegel’s potential contribution to Dewey’s mature philosophy looks markedly different when one considers this reading of his thought rather than that of the British neo-Hegelians.
During their nation’s sectional crisis, the St. Louis Hegelians found a sophisticated philosophy of cultural unification in Hegel’s thought. Hegel’s criticisms of radical French revolutionaries provided them with the conceptual tools to argue that radical American abolitionists like John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison misunderstood the social and historical context of moral standards. Hegel’s criticisms were motivated by the Reign of Terror which, he argued, arose because revolutionaries believed they followed a morality that transcended their society and that gave them license to execute their opponents summarily. Hegel criticized Kant in the same way, arguing that the notion of an absolute duty to the categorical imperative disregards our desires and the concrete social limitations in which we must act. More seriously, Hegel warned that absolute devotion to an abstract ideal would lead to fanaticism and a disregard for the consequences of our actions. Moreover, Hegel criticized radical French revolutionaries because they embraced a negative or abstract theory of freedom, the notion that man is free and equal in the absence of social restraints. Similarly, the St. Louis Hegelians argued that this one-sided perception of freedom led the radical abolitionists to mistakenly conclude that the eradication of the institution of slavery alone, without more profound reform of society, would fully emancipate American slaves. Hegel’s analysis of the Reign of Terror convinced the St. Louis Hegelians that negative freedom would inevitably lead to the indiscriminate destruction of social, religious, and political institutions as the way to protect transcendent rights. As institutions were destroyed in the Terror, Hegel argued, restraints on individuals were diminished, resulting in an accelerating frenzy of annihilation. In the same way, the St. Louis Hegelians feared that negative freedom would inevitably lead to “some sudden eruption … of madness and fury.”
The St. Louis Hegelians were also influenced by Hegel’s theory of learning, which was based on the organic Bildung model of education as individual and collective growth to promote cultural, rather than national, unity. Hegel was critical of the Enlightenment’s fixation on a narrow conception of knowledge, arguing that Bildung requires self-knowledge, an accurate perception of one’s talents and abilities. Hegel’s concept of Bildung entails that knowledge is gained only from experience and from the widest variety of experience. Furthermore, on the Bildung model, learning involves activity. Hence Hegel rejected Locke’s passive spectator theory of the mind, according to which we should restrain our passions in order to gain objective knowledge. For Hegel, learning involves a passionate search for truth. Hegel’s notion of Bildung emphasized Selbsttätigkeit, self-activity and self-development, according to which, true education is a matter of conscious self-development that requires arduous individual effort and responsibility. Yet Hegel was also critical of the “beautiful soul,” the person who is so consumed with his own salvation that he has no adequate sense of the suffering in the world and is unwilling to act to counter it for fear that he will corrupt his own soul. For Hegel, fulfillment must come in the activities of real life.
Finally, unlike the British neo-Hegelians, Harris and the St. Louis Hegelians resisted the temptation to conflate the tangible world of experience with the ideal because it opened the door to subjective idealism and idealistic pantheism. Rather than absorb the real into the knowing self, and ultimately into an absolute self, Harris specifically explained that Hegel affirmed the reality of both object and subject in the dialectic. In ordinary experience, object and subject exist in undifferentiated unity and harmony. In the successful solution of a problem, object and self, which have been rendered separate by the problem, are reciprocally related and, without surrendering any measure of their identity, reunited in a more inclusive whole that has shaped them both. Rather than a pre-existing substance that acts on material set over and against it, the self is a self-determining activity that incorporates without obliterating the other into its identity. More plainly, the self is a process of growth through a perpetual striving for unity and harmony. On the St. Louis Hegelians’ neo-Humanist reading of Hegel, Bildung is the lifeblood of the self.
Dewey and Hegel
As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins from 1882 to 1884, Dewey embraced Hegelianism under the tutelage of George Sylvester Morris, a frequent contributor to the JSP and a friend of Harris. To be sure, during these years Dewey was a close student of the British neo-Hegelians, especially T. H. Green, but as early as 1886 he distinguished his thought from theirs in “The Psychological Standpoint” and “Psychology as Philosophic Method.” According to Dewey, the neo-Hegelians erred in the same way as Kant because they attempted to explain experience by introducing elements that went beyond possible experience when they posited a transcendent absolute self. In a development that paralleled Dewey’s move from liberal Congregationalism to humanistic religion, soon after the publication of his 1887 Psychology, Dewey permanently jettisoned the neo-Hegelian concept of a transcendent absolute. In 1892 Dewey elaborated on his critique of neoHegelianism in “Green’s Theory of the Moral Motive.” First, Dewey explained, Green erected a sharp dualism between the ends that would satisfy the finite, individual self, and those that would satisfy the infinite, universal self. The ideal self was the goal of the moral life, but it was ultimately unattainable for the particular self. Second, Dewey argued that ethical theories based on standards of moral perfection were impractical because they remain “the bare thought of an ideal of perfection, having nothing in common with the special set of conditions or with the special desire of the moment.” Here Dewey restated Hegel’s critique of Kant’s categorical imperative. Dewey referred to Green as a neo-Kantian because he transformed Hegel’s temporal and immanent absolute into a timeless, transcendent absolute for the same reason that Kant postulated a noumenal realm and the categorical imperative.
Although Dewey’s flirtation with British neo-Hegelianism was brief, it is rash to assume that his criticisms of Green entail a rejection of Hegel. To say the least, it is odd to claim that this Hegelian critique of Green’s moral theory signals that Dewey was progressing toward a definitive break with Hegel. Elsewhere I have argued that Dewey was developing a non-metaphysical reading of Hegel, similar to that espoused in recent years by Klaus Hartmann and the numerous Hegel scholars he has influenced. This shift has been difficult to discern in part because Dewey articulated it most clearly in an unpublished 104-page 1897 lecture that was apparently unavailable to White and that more recent Dewey scholars have overlooked. We get a sense of this shift near the beginning of that lecture in a passage that calls to mind Hegel’s infamous proclamation in the preface to the Philosophy of Eight, “What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.” According to Dewey,
Hegel was a great actualist. By this I mean that he has the greatest respect, both in his thought and in his practice, for what has actually amounted to something, actually succeeded in getting outward form … Hegel is never more hard in his speech, hard as steel is hard, than when dealing with mere ideals[,] vain opinions and sentiments which have not succeeded in connecting themselves with the actual world.
By this point in his philosophical development, Dewey had come to understand Hegel’s dictum not as an admonition passively to accept the actual, the status quo, because it is rational, but as a critique of ethical theories that provide only abstract rules, empty ideals, as guides to action. Truly rational moral principles have actual effects in the world, and the rational does not transcend the world in any way. This understanding of Hegel’s maxim was common among American Hegelians. In Lectures on Modern Idealism, Josiah Royce wrote that “for Hegel, thought is inseparable from will, [and] logic exists only as the logic of life.” Royce also stated that the dialectic possessed “for Hegel pragmatic significance … illustrating the way in which men live as well as the way in which men must think.” Dewey also rejected the view that Hegel’s dictum reduces empirical reality to the thought process of a rational, transcendent mind; rather, it elevates thought to the same degree of reality as the world of ordinary experience. In Dewey’s words, Hegel “implies that thought is so real that it can be found only in the object and not in any subjective opinion.”
In the lecture Dewey also specifically mentioned Rosenkranz’s biography of Hegel and characterized him as a politically liberal philosopher. At this time there was only one other full-length biography of Hegel available, Rudolf Haym’s Hegel una seine Zeit (1857). Haym’s biography fueled the characterization of Hegel as the official philosopher of the reactionary Prussian state. Hence, it is significant that Dewey preferred Rosenkranz’s interpretation of Hegel to Haym’s. There is other evidence in the lecture that Dewey agreed with Rosenkranz. Although Dewey characterized Hegel’s theory of the state as artificial, he explicitly rejected the notion that Hegel was an apologist for Prussian authoritarianism. According to Hegel, Dewey asserted, the central task of the modern state was the preservation of individual rights. Of Hegel’s philosophy of history, Dewey flatly asserted that it “is absurd” to claim Hegel forced the particular events of history into an a priori scheme. Every history must be given some sort of unity, he explained, or it would not even be “a child’s fairy tale, for children require a certain point in their stories.” Dewey argued that this charge against Hegel would be correct if he had postulated the goal of history arbitrarily, but that he discovered the goal by taking the facts of history seriously and letting them speak for themselves.
This reading of Hegel’s philosophy of history is part and parcel of the fact that Dewey had taken the St. Louis Hegelians’ humanistic Hegel in a more consistently historicist direction than Harris, decisively rejecting the British neoHegelians’ efforts to “correct” Hegel’s historical relativism by elevating the absolute into a transcendent personal being that guaranteed the permanence of fixed logical categories. In this way Dewey moved to the left of Harris within the American Hegelian tradition. This is evident in the 1897 lecture in which the absolute spirit is nothing more than the human race in its historical development. Rather than a pre-existing ground of being or guarantor of logical categories, absolute spirit is an interpretation of human history. Absolute spirit “is simply a theoretical formulation of the idea of subjectivity, of individuality, of freedom, which has played so large a part in the modern consciousness.”
As late as 1904 Dewey argued that Hegel had opposed Kant’s ethical formalism by grounding morality in “an ethical world (as real as the physical) from which the individual must take his cue.” And although Dewey associated himself with pragmatism in 1905, in that same year he also acknowledged a continuing debt to Hegel in his Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association. In that address Dewey complained about the “purely Anglo-American habit” of “interpreting Hegel as a Neo-Kantian, a Kantian enlarged and purified.” Unlike Kant, Dewey argued, Hegel emphasized “life in its own developing movement” over logic. In “Intelligence and Morals” (1908), Dewey rejected the notion that Hegel’s identification of the real with the rational glorified the conservative Prussian state. According to Dewey, Hegel’s dictum
gave the pleasant appearance (which Hegel did not strenuously discourage) of being specifically an idealization of the Prussian nation, and incidentally a systematized apologetic for the universe at large. But in intellectual and practical effect, it lifted the idea of process above that of fixed origins and fixed ends, and presented the social and moral order, as well as the intellectual, as a scene of becoming, and it located reason somewhere within the struggles of life.
From Actualism To Brutalism
For a variety of reasons, Dewey refrained from talking about his debt to Hegel between 1905 and 1915. One simple explanation for this fact is that he was much more concerned about advancing philosophy than preserving his intellectual history. Without abandoning the insights he found in Hegel, Dewey had decided much earlier that he could better contribute to philosophy’s progress by discarding Hegel’s notoriously obscure language in favor of more contemporary terms.
There was a period extending into my earlier years at Chicago when, in connection with a seminar in Hegel’s Logic I tried reinterpreting his categories in terms of “readjustment” and “reconstruction.” Gradually I came to realize that what the principles actually stood for could be better understood and stated when completely emancipated from Hegelian garb.
No doubt, professional pressures are also relevant to Dewey’s abandonment of Hegelian nomenclature. Robert Westbrook correctly notes, “on the face of it, the years between Dewey’s move to Columbia [in 1905] and American entry into World War I in 1917 were among the most professional of his career. “The American Philosophical Association was founded in 1901 and Dewey served as its president in 1905. In this professionalizing context Dewey took part in a lively debate among pragmatists, realists, and idealists. Heated polemics in this dispute made it almost customary to exaggerate the views of one’s opponents, and all idealists were routinely lumped together as devious purveyors of a transcendent absolute mind and a necessary historical teleology. If Dewey had any chance of defending pragmatism, he had to do so in terms that his peers would respect. And because one might justifiably conclude that idealists ultimately lost the debate, as their philosophy went into decline until after World War II, it is no surprise that Dewey would prefer to distance himself from that camp.
That pragmatists like Dewey needed to distance their thought from idealism is apparent in numerous articles, such as Warner File’s “The Experience Philosophy” (1906). Fite claimed that pragmatism and idealism were both variants of subjective idealism. According to Fite, subjective idealism, pragmatism, personal idealism and the radical empiricism of James all “deny that there is a world beyond experience; all, in substance, hold with Berkeley and Schopenhauer, that ‘the world is my idea.'” Focused on the defense of pragmatism, Dewey did not attempt to disabuse realists of the claims they made about idealism or to articulate his reading of Hegel. It is notable, however, that Dewey defended pragmatism from the charge of subjective idealism by appealing to his version of Hegel’s notion of self-alienation and return. In “The Realism of Pragmatism,” Dewey argued that “States of consciousness, sensations and ideas as cognitive, exist as tools, bridges, cues, functions-whatever one pleases-to affect a realistic presentation of things, in which there are no intervening states of consciousness as veils, or representatives.” The problematic alienates us from the world in a veil of consciousness; completed inquiry, in which we come to integrate the problematic into the whole allows us to return to ourselves, to our ordinary “naïve realism.”
Contrary to the traditional account of his repudiation of Hegel, Dewey’s first published criticism of the philosopher appeared rather abruptly during World War I. The conclusion that Dewey’s reassessment of Hegel was motivated by geopolitical realities rather than impartial philosophical analysis is difficult to avoid. While it is true that the direct influence of Hegel’s philosophy on the English-speaking world had gradually declined before World War I, Bruce Kuklick correctly notes that “the anti-idealist movement might have been a dubious challenge to Hegel’s place in Modern Philosophy were it not for the war… After the war Hegel became, for Americans, a silly, pompous, and defeated figure, unworthy of the great tradition.” Thus, as Americans deliberated about their nation’s entrance into World War I, Dewey prepared his first public condemnation of Hegel, German Philosophy and Politics (GPP).
Dewey’s primary goal in GPP was to reveal the cultural/philosophical roots of German militarism.66 The book’s main target is Kantian dualism, or what Dewey called Kant’s “two worlds” thesis. Though it may seem odd that he focused on the advocate of “perpetual peace,” throughout his career Dewey criticized Kant more than any other philosopher. Dewey proclaimed that Kant’s doctrine of “the two realms, one outer, physical and necessary, the other inner, ideal and free” is the element of German philosophy that has defined German national character. The German people were not, Dewey added, consciously devoted to Kantian philosophy; rather, “Kant detected and formulated the direction in which the German genius was moving, so that his philosophy is of immense prophetic significance.” In this regard, GPP is Hegelian intellectual history. Dewey’s claim was that Kant had understood and was a vehicle for the German Zeitgeist.
In a summary of his objections to Kant, Dewey wrote,
Kant’s decisive contribution [to German philosophy] is the idea of a dual legislation of reason by which are marked off two distinct realms-that of science and that of morals. Each of these two realms has its own final and authoritative constitution: On one hand, there is the world of sense, the world of phenomena in space and time in which science is at home; on the other hand, is the supersensible, the noumenal world, the world of moral duty and moral freedom.
Kant’s dualism, Dewey averred, facilitated a “combination of self-conscious idealism with unsurpassed technical efficiency and organization in the varied fields of action.” More explicitly, Dewey claimed that Kantian philosophy fostered an absolute devotion to transcendent ends, ends that could not be checked by practical and humane considerations, thereby facilitating a preoccupation with technical efficiency at the expense of everyday decency. Dewey scholars have missed the extent to which this is a Hegelian critique of Kant, and after his discussion of Kant Dewey turned his attention to Hegel without acknowledging the similarity.
Dewey proclaimed that, “It is customary to call [Hegel] an Idealist,” but that, “In one sense of much abused terms, he is the greatest realist known to philosophy. He might be called a Brutalist.” This comment signals a decisive change in Dewey’s attitude toward Hegel. He also associated Hegel with the “purely artificial cult of race” in Germany, which he described as a crucial component of Germany’s geopolitical ambitions. This shift in Dewey’s characterization of Hegel correlates to a shift in the sources on which he relied. In his 1897 lecture, Rosenkranz’s reading of Hegel influenced Dewey as it had the St. Louis Hegelians. But in GPP, Dewey uncritically cited Rudolf Haym’s biography of Hegel. It is perhaps noteworthy that this is the only place in Dewey’s entire thirty-seven-volume corpus in which he mentioned or cited Rudolf Haym.
Dewey also quoted, without citation, passages from §258 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to support this reading of Hegel.
The State is the rational in itself and for itself. Its substantial unity is an absolute end in itself. To it belongs supreme right in respect to individuals whose first duty is-just to be members of the State… [The State] is the absolute reality and the individual himself has objective existence, truth and morality only in his capacity as a member of the State.
Comparison to S. W. Dyde’s 1897 translation of the Philosophy of Right, the only one then available, indicates that Dewey used his own rather loose translation of passages from the Philosophy of Right. Dewey ignored a paragraph just two sections after the one he quoted that contradicts his reading of §258. In §260, Hegel wrote,
The state is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom requires that personal individuality [Einzelheit] and its particular interests should reach their full development and gain recognition of their right for itself… The principle of the modern state has enormous strength and depth because it allows the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-sufficient extreme of personal particularity, while at the same time bringing it back to substantial unity and so preserving this unity in the principle of subjectivity itself.
In a discussion of these sections, Allen Wood writes that it is “a gross distortion to associate Hegel’s view with the image of individuals having to sacrifice themselves to the ends of the state. Such sacrifices may be required in some circumstances, but it is precisely the abnormality of such circumstances which makes the state an end in itself.” Despite these evidentiary problems in his reading of Hegel, and despite the fact that in 1905 he claimed that Hegel did not elevate logic above lived experience, Dewey now claimed that the problem in Hegel’s political thought arose from the identification of the actual with the rational, coupled with the conviction that reason drives history with no regard for individual rights and interests. This is similar to Dewey’s critique of Kant. Both philosophers, Dewey claimed, subordinated practical considerations of right and wrong to an overarching rationality, both set up a “dual legislation of reason.” Dewey went on to state that Hegel equated reason with both God and the state, thus making it the duty of the individual to subordinate his interests completely to the state.
An important element of this shift is revealed in Dewey’s characterization of Hegel’s philosophy of history, which he reiterated in Democracy and Education, published in 1916.
But since Hegel was haunted by the conception of an absolute goal, he was obliged to arrange institutions as they concretely exist, on a stepladder of ascending approximations. Each in its time and place is absolutely necessary, because a stage in the self-realizing process of the absolute mind. Taken as such a step or stage, its existence is proof of its complete rationality, for it is an integral element in the total, which is Reason.
In GPP, Dewey’s characterization of Hegel is completed in his claim that Hegel’s necessary teleology is fulfilled through war. Contrary to the St. Louis Hegelians, Dewey construed Hegel’s philosophy of history in nationalistic terms. As a rabid nationalist, Dewey contended, it was inevitable that Hegel would articulate a “philosophical justification of war.” Although in Democracy and Education Dewey articulated what can be plausibly read as a defense of education as Bildung, Hegel had become, for Dewey, the bellicose philosopher of Prussian conservatism.
But as his nation fought another devastating war with Germany, Dewey republished GPP in 1942 with an additional introduction that includes a new criticism of Hegel. He distinguished Hegel’s concepts of Vernunfl (reason) and Verstand (understanding) in a way that is difficult to defend with reference to Hegel’s writings, and in fact he provided no defense of his reading. According to Dewey, Hegel subordinated Verstand, which Dewey defined as “reflection, inquiry, observation and experiment to test ideas and theory,” to Vernunft. Dewey’s point was that Hegel denigrated empirical inquiry, valorizing a transcendent reason instead. Hence Dewey defined Hegel’s concept of Vernunflasa metaphysical entity or force, the agent that moves world history. Oddly enough, in 1916, Dewey republished his 1900 essay, “Some Stages of Logical Thought.” In that essay, Dewey more plausibly characterized Verstandas our ability to make ideas precise rather than experimentation to test ideas. Moreover, in that essay Dewey implied that Verstand is a stage of thought, or a function within the process of experience, rather than a discrete faculty. Dewey made no changes to the republished essay although he republished it during World War I. Nor did Dewey bother to mention in the 1942 edition of GPP that he had characterized Verstand very differently in previous work.
The reasons I have already given for Dewey not talking about his debt to Hegel in the ten years prior to World War I do not explain his less than rational repudiation of Hegel during the war. A partial explanation for that repudiation could well be that during the twenty-five years prior to World War I, Dewey’s family was battered by a series of emotional traumas that led him to reflect on the contingency of human existence and may well have made him more suspicious of any philosophy, like Hegel’s, that might give the appearance of positing a necessary historical teleology, whether it really did or not. Although his critics have accused Dewey of being naïve about historical progress, evidence in his poetry indicates that this series of existential crises led him to reflect on the contingencies of human existence.
Although this existential explanation may account for some lack of judgment on Dewey’s part, in and of itself it does not explain why he targeted German philosophy in the way that he did in 1915. It is not difficult to understand why Dewey would reject the notion of a necessary historical teleology, since it requires something that exists beyond history, an ahistorical, unchanging purpose to history. Because Dewey provided no evidence for his claim that Hegel posited such a teleology, we must look beyond his writings to explain the sudden reversal of his assessment of Hegel.
At the time of the original publication of GPP, war had been raging in Europe for a year, and some might conclude that Dewey was mired in popular anti-German hysteria. Yet in 1915 widespread anti-German hysteria had not begun in the United States and most Americans still favored President Wilson’s policy of neutrality. It was only after the publication of GPP that Dewey engaged in impassioned polemics about American involvement in World War I. The most satisfying explanation I have found is that Dewey’s attitude toward German thought and culture in general was adversely affected by the rhetoric of German and German-American intellectuals during the war.
A prime example of extravagant pro-German rhetoric is the wartime writings of Hugo Miinsterberg, a German-American psychology professor at Harvard. In American Patriotism and Other Sodal Studies (1913), Münsterberg articulated the sort of rhetoric about duty that animated Dewey in GPR According to Münsterberg, “systematic education” in Germany “with sharp training and hard discipline early inculcates into every mind a habit of hard work. This energy for doing one’s duty in spite of all selfish temptations, moreover, is greatly strengthened by the years of military service, the great national high school of labor and disciplined effort.” In The War and America (1914), Münsterberg conceded that British propaganda had been the most effective, argued that Germany was forced into the war by the actions of Russia and France, and depicted the war as unavoidable. Though the “war might have been delayed a month, perhaps a year,” Münsterberg claimed, political tensions in Europe made it inevitable. War was brought on by the natural growth of European empires, including both the Central and the Allied Powers; thus, “no one is to be blamed.” Each nation entered the war convinced that it was “fighting for a just and solemn cause and that it was performing its national duty.” In his defense of war as a positive good Münsterberg penned a passage that Dewey would have found provocative:
It is as if at the eastern frontier at the town of Königsberg a little old-fashioned man had left the grave, Immanuel Kant, and whispered into the heart of everyone: ‘There is only one thing worth while in life, and that is the moral will.’ And all are ready to give their lives to protect those boundaries against the Russian onslaught. Never was the moral will of the nation more alive and more pure.
Münsterberg continued this Kantian theme in a third volume, The Peace and America, but it is difficult to know if Dewey had time to read it before he published GPP.
Although Mücnsterberg’s writings are more relevant to Dewey’s attack on Kant, they were but a small part of the flood of pro-German war propaganda. In a letter “To the Civilized World” published in the New York Times in 1914, a galaxy of distinguished German scholars, including Rudolf Eucken, Ernst Haeckel, Karl Lamprecht, Max Planck, Wrilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Wundt, protested the “lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavouring to stain the honour of Germany in her hard struggle for existence-a struggle which has been forced upon her.” The letter condemned those “who have allied themselves with Russians and Serbians” and who incited “Mongolians and Negroes against the white race.” Two years after its publication, Dewey identified the moment as one of sudden and profound disillusionment with the German intellectual tradition that had figured so prominently in his own intellectual formation.
But I doubt if a single outsider who had previously refrained from committing himself as to the justice of the cause did not conclude that if that was all that Germany had to say for herself, bad indeed must be her cause… I doubt if anyone can reread, say, the Address to the Civilized World, without being again overcome by those old sensations of incredulity and amazement. Was it possible that men to whom we had been trained to look up could lend their names, even in a moment of patriotic fervor, to such a farrago?
Dewey’s heightened concern about the notion of inevitable historical progress was not unique among American intellectuals. As Franklin H. Giddings wrote in 1916, whereas “the nineteenth century had closed in a blaze of scientific glory” and hopes for the future, World War I raised disturbing doubts about the notion of progress. Nicholas Murray Butler eloquently encapsulated the trauma many intellectuals felt:
The peoples who are engaged in this titanic struggle are not untamed barbarians or wild Indians of the virgin forest. They are the best-trained and most highly educated peoples in the world. They have had every advantage that schools and universities can offer, and they have been associated for generations with literature and science and art and everything that is fine and splendid in what we call civilization.
For Butler, and others, civilization had proven to be a “thin veneer” over the “passions of jealousy, envy, hatred, and malice.”
Future Research into Dewey’s Hegelian Deposit
The arguments I have presented here should undermine the traditional view that Dewey made a clean break from Hegel by 1903 and demonstrate that his wartime writings contain, at best, an ambiguous rejection of Hegel. More precisely, rather than reject Hegel during the 1890$, Dewey rejected the British neo-Hegelians’ metaphysical/theological Hegel and, with the assistance of a distinct American Hegelian tradition, embraced a reading that is significantly comparable to the humanistic/historicist Hegel of recent scholarship, according to which he did not posit a transcendent absolute and was primarily concerned with human growth and development. To further mine Dewey’s Hegelian deposit, scholars must distinguish between neo-Hegelianism and the humanistic/historicist Hegel and study Hegel’s writings and recent scholarship on his thought. I am confident that this approach will reveal a more sizeable and interesting Hegelian deposit than has been identified thus far.
Moreover, there is much in recent Hegel scholarship to suggest that there is more to be said about Dewey’s debt to the German philosopher. In 1994, for example, Tom Rockmore asserted, “Hegel … proposes a new paradigm of systematic knowledge without foundations with an obvious, but as yet largely unexplored relation to pragmatism.” Many other scholars have identified unexplored similarities between Hegel’s thought and pragmatism. The interpretation of Dewey’s debt to Hegel that I have suggested here can help Dewey scholars appreciate these claims by contemporary Hegel scholars.
In 1965 George Eastman complained about Joseph Ratner’s need to show “that Hegelianism-and idealism in general-is an effete, a somehow suspect, if not dissolute philosophy from which Dewey wisely, and heroically, freed himself.” Perhaps Dewey’s GPP and other books like it motivated some Dewey scholars to identify a clean break from Hegel and to place it at a relatively early date in his intellectual development. Perhaps it is also no accident that the book that inaugurated this trend in Dewey scholarship, White’s The Origins of Dewey’s Instrumentalism, was written during World War II and published in 1943, just one year after the second edition of GPP. To understand better his “permanent Hegelian deposit,” Dewey scholars must liberate themselves from the chains of prejudice about Hegel that were created by the exigencies of twentieth-century warfare.