Some Favorite Quotations

from the works of

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Craig A. Cunningham, Ph.D.


John Dewey (1859-1952)

John Dewey was an American philosopher and educator who, with Charles Peirce and William James, was a founder of the school of philosophy known as "pragmatism." Dewey had a long a distinguished career as a teacher, school reformer, labor activist, political commentator, and "public intellectual" who was not afraid to deal, in his philosophical writings, with actual social issues.

Dewey began his career as a Hegelian idealist, but gradually move away from idealism and adopted an "experimentalism" which stressed the continuity of human thought and natural conditions, and which emphasized the ways in which human intelligence may be applied, through inquiry, to the solution of real problems.

Dewey published over 100 books during his lifetime, dealing with such topics as education, ethics, logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, religious experience, war, politics, economics, and valuation. (Several of his booksare available on-line.) He was often scorned by other philosophers, who deemed his philosophy too much concerned with practice and not enough concerned with theory or with traditional philosophical issues such as epistemology (or "how can we know"), ontology ("what is real"), or traditional logic ("what is truth"). Indeed, Dewey was quite explicit in his claim that "Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." ("The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy," 1917; MW 10:42)

Craig A. Cunningham, who assembled this page, is interested in the ways that Dewey's theory of intelligence can inform the practices of schools in contemporary America. It is his hope that others will benefit from the availability of these quotations and, perhaps, be motivated to make real changes in educational and other practices in keeping with Dewey's social vision.

Please contact Craig A. Cunningham with comments and suggestions.

Web links to John Dewey


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To participate in ongoing discussions about Dewey and his philosophy, send a subscription message (containing only the words: "subscribe Dewey-L [first name] [last name]") to LISTSERV@GANGES.CSD.SC.EDU


These quotations from John Dewey's work are from the critical edition, The Collected Works of John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991), and published as The Early Works (EW), The Middle Works (MW) and The Later Works (LW). These series designations are followed by volume and page number, below. For more information about these volumes (and about some forthcoming CD-ROM products associated with Dewey's work), please visit the web site of the Center for Dewey Studies.
Note also that these quotations have been re-keyed by Craig A. Cunningham, and have not been approved by the publisher as consistent with their critical edition standards for The Collected Works.
"The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy," 1917; MW 10:42
Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:5
Education, in its broadest sense, is the means of this social continuity of life.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:7
Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge--a common understanding--likemindedness as the sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another, like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication which ensures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions--like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:8-9
Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience....The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. The formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another's experience in order to tell him intelligently of one's own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:20
things gain meaning by being used in a shared experience or joint action

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:93
A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:110
To have a mind to do a thing is to foresee a future possibility; it is to have a plan for its accomplishment...Mind is capacity to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions. And these traits are just what is meant by having an aim or a purpose...

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:147
To "learn from experience" is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction--discovery of the connection of things.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:152-53
Thinking, in other words, is the intentional endeavor to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous. Their isolation, and consequently their purely arbitrary going together, is canceled; a unified developing situation takes place. The occurrence is now understood; it is explained; it is reasonable, as we say, that the thing should happen as it does. Thinking is thus equivalent to an explicit rendering of the intelligent element in our experience. It makes it possible to act with an end in view. It is the condition of our having aims.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:155
We sometimes talk as if "original research" were a peculiar prerogative of scientists or at least of advanced students. But all thinking is research, and all research is native, original, with him who carries it on, even if everybody else in the world already is sure of what he is still looking for. It also follows the all thinking involves a risk. Certainty cannot be guaranteed in advance.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:157
The general features of a reflective experience ... are (i) perplexity, confusion, doubt, due to the fact that one is implicated in an incomplete situation whose full character is not yet determined; (ii) a conjectural anticipation -- a tentative interpretation of the given elements, attributing to them a tendency to effect certain consequences; (iii) a careful survey (examination, inspection, exploration, analysis) of all attainable consideration which will define and clarify the problem in hand; (iv) a consequent elaboration of the tentative hypothesis to make it more precise and more consistent, because squaring with a wider range of facts; (v) taking one stand upon the projected hypothesis as a plan of action which is applied to the existing state of affairs: doing something overtly to bring about the anticipated result, and thereby testing the hypothesis. It is the extent and accuracy of steps three and four which mark off a distinctive reflective experience from one on the trial and error plane. They make thinking itself into an experience.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:158
Thinking is the accurate and deliberate instituting of connections between what is done and its consequences.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:164
A large part of the art of instruction lies in making the difficulty of new problems large enough to challenge thought, and small enough so that, in addition to the confusion naturally attending the novel elements, there shall be luminous familiar spots from which helpful suggestions may spring.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:167
Ideas, as we have seen, whether they be humble guesses or dignified theories, are anticipations of some continuity or connection of an activity and a consequence which has not as yet shown itself. They are therefore tested by the operation of acting upon them.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:174
Experience, in short, is not a combination of mind and world, subject and object, method and subject matter, but is a single continuous interaction of a great diversity (literally countless in number) of energies. For the purpose of controlling the course or direction which the moving unity of experience takes we draw a mental distinction between the how and the what.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:179
How one person's abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher's business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning. Mind, individual method, originality (these are convertible terms) signify the quality of purposive or directed action.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:185
Ideas, as we have seen, are intrinsically standpoints and methods for bringing about a solution of a perplexing situation; forecasts calculated to influence responses.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:186
It would be much better to have fewer facts and truths in instruction--that is, fewer things supposedly accepted,--if a smaller number of situations could be worked out to the point where conviction meant something real--some identification of the self with the type of conduct demanded by facts and foresight of results.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:188
The educator's part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner's course. In the last analysis, all that the educator can do is modify stimuli so that response will as surely as is possible result in the formation of desirable intellectual and emotional dispositions.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:200
Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class. The notion that the "essentials" of elementary education are the three R's mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essentials needed for realization of democratic ideals. Unconsciously it assumes that these ideals are unrealizable; it assumes that in the future, as in the past, getting a livelihood, "making a living," must dignify for most men and women doing things which are not significant, freely chosen, and ennobling to those who do them; doing things which serve ends unrecognized by those engaged in them, carried on under the direction of others for the sake of pecuniary reward

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:225
Any experience, however, trivial in its first appearance, is capable of assuming an indefinite richness of significance by extending its range of perceived connections.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:233
The problem of an educational use of science is then to create intelligence pregnant with belief in the possibility of the direction of human affairs by itself.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:235-36
The function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race: emancipation from local and temporary incidents of experience, and the opening of intellectual vistas unobscured by the accidents of personal habit and predilection. The logical traits of abstraction, generalization, and definite formulation are all associated with this function. In emancipating an idea from the particular context in which it originated and giving it a wider reference the results of the experience of any individual are put at the disposal of all men. Thus ultimately and philosophically science is the organ of general social progress.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:304
every individual has grown up, and always must grow up in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values. (see p. 35.) Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, he gradually acquires a mind of his own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:312
The phrase "think for one's self" is a pleonasm. Unless one does it for one's self, it isn't thinking.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:335-36
the philosophic attitude is general in the sense that it is averse to taking anything as isolated; it tries to place an act in its context--which constitutes its significance. . . Philosophy is thinking what the known demands of us--what responsive attitude it exacts. It is an idea of what is possible, not a record of accomplished fact. . . Philosophy might also be described as thinking which has become conscious of itself--which has generalized its place, function, and value in experience.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:349
In brief, the function of knowledge is to make one experience freely available to other experiences.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:350
Knowledge is a perception of those connections of an object which determine its applicability in a given situation.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:353-54
The theory of the method of knowing which is advanced in these pages may be termed pragmatic. Its essential feature is to maintain the continuity of knowing with an activity which purposely modifies the environment. It holds that knowledge in its strict sense of something possessed consists of our intellectual resources--of all the habits that render our action intelligent.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:366
In truth, the problem of moral education in the schools is one with the problem of securing knowledge--the knowledge connected with the system of impulses and habits. For the use to which any known fact is put depends upon its connections.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:367-8[?]
To call [certain traits of character] virtues in their isolation is like taking the skeleton for the living body. . . Morals concern nothing less than the whole character, and the whole character is identical with the man in all his concrete make-up and manifestations. To possess virtue does not signify to have cultivated a few nameable and exclusive traits; it means to be fully and adequately what one is capable of becoming through association with others in all the offices of life.

Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:369
A narrow and moralistic view of morals is responsible for the failure to recognize that all the aims and values which are desirable in education are themselves moral. Discipline, natural development, culture, social efficiency, are moral traits--marks of a person who is a worthy member of that society which it is the business of education to further.