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Dewey’s Novel Individualism

Dewey invented his own terminology regarding individualism.  The old individualism  the concept where each of us exists apart from others and engages in intercourse with others as an independent agent  Dewey replaces with “new individualism” (Dewey’s phrase)  where social conformity is imperative, and indeed the very existence of the individual depends on society.

His new individualism is collectivism.

His is not the simple observation that to live comfortably one must deal with others.

The following is from Dewey’s book Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) chapter 8 (starting on page 152) with my remarks interpolated in brackets.  All emphasis is Dewey’s.

Dewey starts out by describing what he would demolish.

“Consider the conception of the individual self.  The individualist school of England and France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was empirical in intent.  It based its individualism, philosophically speaking, upon the belief that individuals are alone real, that classes and organizations are secondary and derived.  They [i.e. classes and organizations] are artificial, while individuals are natural. ...

“The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there.  [In other words, the problem with the above is that it says individuals per se exist.]  Consequently, he [i.e. one of these fictitious individuals] can only be something to be catered to, something whose pleasures are to be magnified and possessions multiplied.  [These seem to be bad things according to Dewey].  When the individual is taken as something given already, anything that can be done to him or for him [there’s a grammatical lapse here, I haven’t left anything out] it can only be by way of external impressions and belongings:  sensations of pleasure and pain, comforts, securities.  [In other words, these fictitious individuals are mindless philistines.]

“Now it is true that social arrangements, laws, institutions are made for man [by men Dewey ignores], rather than that man is made for them;  [and it is true] that they [institutions etc.] are means and agencies of human welfare and progress. But they are not means for obtaining something for individuals, not even happiness.  They are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum.  [In other words, only the individual meat exists, there are no independent minds.  Now comes some smoke:]  Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out.  It means initiative, inventiveness, varied resourcefulness, assumption of responsibility in choice of belief and conduct.  These are not gifts, but achievements.  [That sounds good doesn’t it? But wait:]  As achievements, they are not absolute but relative to the use that is to be made of them.  [By whom?]  And this use varies with the environment.  [In other words, as is clear from the rest of the book, society  collective men of a given time and place  is the arbiter of what passes for an achievement.]

“The importance of this conception comes out in considering the fortunes of the idea of self-interest.  [Dewey goes on to describe the futility of past attempts to use altruism to justify self-interest  and they are indeed futile  and opts for altruism.] ...  When the play of interest is eliminated, what remains?  What concrete forces can be found?  Those who identified the self with something ready-made [that is, existing] and its interest [a person’s interest] with acquisition of pleasure and profit took the most effective means possible to reinstate the logic of abstract conceptions of law, justice, sovereignty, freedom, etc.  [Dewey goes on to denigrate these as “vague general ideas”] ...  Interests ... are damned beyond recovery when they are identified with the things of a petty selfishness.  They can be employed as vital terms only when the self is seen to be in process [that is, never really existing], and interest to be a name for whatever is concerned in furthing its movement.  [That is, self-interest should be redefined to mean group-think.]”

Instead of advocating a self-interest where one neither sacrifices oneself to others nor others to oneself, Dewey advocates altruism, self-sacrifice, and even denies your self’s very existence.

Note the religious overtones:  the evil of pleasure, the phraseology of hell-fire.  We will return to this point on another page.

It’s men like John Dewey who make “society” and “social” dirty words.