The Self and the Great Community

John Dewey saw democracy as an ideal expression of associated living.

That’s a bit of an understatement though, because for Dewey, democracy is much more than “a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration.” Such institutions are an element of democracy, but fundamentally, Dewey argued,  democracy is a way of life.

To Dewey, democracy is recognizing “the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”

This concept of democracy is deeply tied to Dewey’s understanding of humanity. Indeed, Dewey argued, democracy is the process through which people learn to be human – and being human is the process through which people exercise democracy.  As he eloquently described in The Public and its Problems:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

I’m particularly struck here by Dewey’s vision of the democratic citizen as one who perceives themselves as an “individually distinctive member of a community.” Dewey clearly embraces the idea of “I” as unique and self-aware being, and yet there’s something in his language which nods to a broader understanding of “self.”

He goes on to talk about the illusion of a false psychology:

…Current philosophy held that ideas and knowledge were functions of a mind or consciousness which originated in individuals by means of isolated contact with objects. But in fact, knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted, developed and sanctioned. 

Associated living, Dewey argued, is “physical and organic,” but communal life – embracing the “self” not strictly as an isolated being, but as a being created by and reflective of its many associations – is moral: it is “emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.”

We differentiate humanity from animals by celebrating our consciousness, by claiming that we alone have the capacity to recognize that there is an “I” and by embracing self-awareness as a distinctively human trait.

Perhaps this is not far enough.

Not only is it unlikely that self-awareness is a uniquely human capacity, but it fails to capture humanity’s true gift. Dewey writes, “For beings whose ideas are absorbed by impulses and become sentiments and interests, ‘we’ is as inevitable as ‘I’.”

In short, “self” is not the unit we should be thinking in. There is a self, Dewey seems to argue; there is something about ‘me’ which is uniquely distinctive from ‘you’. But my self and your self are not as unique an independent as we might imagine. We are intricately tied up, interconnected, and interdependent. I cannot exist without you. I make you and you make me.

We are each of us, indelibly, co-created.

Recognizing and embracing that interdependence is what makes Dewey’s Great Community possible. Our biology ensures that we are associated beings – a baby, after all, cannot survive on its own. But through conscious and intellectual decisions, by recognizing that it is not only our fates but our very beings which are intertwined, we make communities.

We are far from achieving this yet – certainly terribly far from it on a global scale. As Dewey writes, “the old Adam, the unregenerate element in human nature, persist. It shows itself wherever the method obtains of attaining results by use of force instead of by the method of communication and enlightenment. It manifests itself more subtly, pervasively and effectually when knowledge and the instrumentalities of skill which are the product of communal life are employed in the service of wants and impulses which have not themselves been modified by reference to a shared interest.”

Yes, the old Adam persists. We hang doggedly to the idea that I have made my own way and that there is an isolated ‘I’ which has a way to make. We forget that we are fundamentally associated beings, and we underestimate the pockets of community collectively built. The old Adam persists, but a new vision is slowly taking its place; an awaking to ourselves as individually distinctive member of a community. Distinctive, perhaps, but inextricably intertwined.



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