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Vol. XLIII No. 1


January 2003 Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230

Dewey and Democracy: A Critique

Richard A. Posner1
John Dewey probably did the most, of all leading potheses were to be tested if at all by intuition, though
pragmatist philosophers, to try to apply his philosophy in those areas the emphasis fell not on hypothesis test-
to other departments of public policy, consistent with ing but rather on logical deduction from accepted pre-
his view that philosophers should play a constructive mises, just as in mathematical reasoning. The search in
rather than merely academic role in society. It is true any case was for truth, the “antecedently real,” that
that Richard Rorty, one of Dewey’s most prominent which exists independently of human cognition. The
contemporary avatars, has written almost as extensively world, including mathematical and even moral and po-
as Dewey did on policy issues of one sort or another, litical concepts, was regarded as a passive object wait-
including some legal issues. But Rorty’s discussion of ing to be discovered by human beings using the meth-
those issues owes little to his philosophy—or at least is ods of exact reasoning. And the quest for its secrets was
not closely integrated with it, perhaps because Rorty’s seen as a lonely one, conducted by trained experts, or
pragmatism is not so much a philosophy as a rejection by persons of great insight, operating as individuals.
of philosophy. In contrast, Dewey’s discussion of policy Dewey, following Peirce and James, questioned the
owes much to his philosophy. The master concept that emphasis both on “truth” and on the “individual.”
unites Dewey’s philosophy with the policy realm is Against the orthodox conception of scientific and other
“democracy,” and the nature and implications of this inquiry he set up a conception of it as oriented toward
union will be the principal focus of this essay. the cooperative acquisition of useful knowledge using
whatever tools lay to hand, including imagination, com-
I. Democracy—Epistemic and Political
mon sense, know how, and intuition, and thus of tacit
The word “democracy” has many meanings, but two knowledge as well as knowledge acquired by formal
are particularly important to understanding Dewey’s reasoning and systematic empirical methods. He
“take” on policy: epistemic democracy, which is the deemphasized the pursuit of “truth” as such, rejecting
idea that inquiry and decision making in general, not the possibility of disinterested, “objective,” conclusive
just political inquiry and decision making, are demo- inquiry and pointing out there is no way of knowing
cratic in character; and political democracy, which, in when one has found the “truth” because one cannot
its most common modern form, is a system of political step outside the world and observe the correspondence
governance the defining feature of which is that the between one’s descriptions and the world as it really is.
principal officials are selected by popular vote. Dewey’s All that people are capable of and fortunately all they’re
attempt to join these two conceptions is one of the dis- really interested in is getting better control over their
tinctive features of his version of pragmatism. environment, enlarging their horizons, and enriching
By “epistemic democracy” is meant a challenge to and improving their lives. The knowledge required for
the tenacious and, when Dewey wrote, the orthodox these endeavors is collective in the sense of being both
conception of scientific and other inquiry as essentially acquired by the cooperative efforts of diverse inquir-
an individual search for truth using the tools of logic (in ers—intelligence being distributed throughout the com-
the strict sense exemplified by the syllogism) either to munity rather than concentrated in a handful of out-
reveal truth directly (as in mathematics and some ver- standing experts—and validated by the community’s
sions of moral reasoning) or to generate hypotheses evaluation of its utility; as a practical matter, “truth” is
verifiable or refutable by experimental or other exact consensus.
data. In the case of moral or political reasoning, hy- This is the positive side of Dewey’s epistemology

and the negative is skepticism about the claims of the tarian, but “experimentalism.” The word aptly describes
orthodox approach. The more precise term for this skep- the tenor of his thought. He repeatedly commends the
ticism is “fallibilism,” the idea that knowledge grows experimental temper, which is impatient with conven-
by challenging and superseding existing beliefs with- tion and the accustomed ways of doing things—the
out necessarily achieving a resting point called “truth.”2 sediment of habit—and which is continuously insisting
Hypothesis testing has an important role to play in this that we must try now this, now that, in a creatively
process. Indeed, scientific inquiry is the very model of restless search for better means. It is a search that yields,
rational inquiry, because of its demonstrated capacity as a by-product, better ends as well. One might take up
to yield useful knowledge. That capacity is rooted in ballet to improve one’s posture and discover that one
the ethics of scientific inquiry with its insistence on loved the ballet for its aesthetic qualities; a means would
willingness to test belief against evidence and thus to have become an end. Through such examples the charge
accept—what people not schooled to the scientific ethic that pragmatism is philistine is rebutted.
find so difficult to do—the possibility that one’s belief Dewey’s approach is “democratic” in the sense of
is false. Science does not bring us to a resting point, as emphasizing the community over the exceptional indi-
religion claims to do: a point at which ultimate truth is vidual. Knowledge is not produced mechanically by
revealed to us. the repeated application of algorithmic procedures by
A critical issue is the process by which the scientist expert investigators all trained the same way, but by the
obtains the theories that he seeks to test, the process tug of communal demands, the struggle between doubt
Peirce called “abduction.” The “scientific method” pro- and habit, the diverse strivings of individuals of diverse
vides no guidance here. Abduction belongs to the do- background, aptitude, training, and experience, and the
main of imagination, a faculty that the orthodox ap- application of methods of inquiry, such as imagination
proach cannot explain, rather than to the domain of and intuition, that owe little to expert training. No one,
formulaic procedures. The orthodox approach also over- no elite even, has a pipeline to truth—truth is always
looks the importance of doubt as the essential stimulus just out of reach, like the grapes of Tantalus, is at most
of challenges to existing beliefs; habit as reluctance to a regulatory, an orienting, ideal—and if this is the case
give up existing beliefs and therefore as obstacle to with scientific truth, it is all the more likely to be the
progress; and diversity and competition as conditions case with moral and political truths as well. The project
that favor, as in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, of Plato’s Republic, the rule of experts, of the people
the creation of new theories by a “blind” process akin who by virtue of aptitude, training, and experience have
to trial and error. Dewey’s approach is also Darwinian, privileged access to scientific, moral, and political truth,
I note parenthetically, in its emphasis on human reason is quixotic.
as a mode of coping with the environment rather than Conceiving of science as a branch of practical rea-
of establishing a pipeline to the truth—the former be- son, that is, as oriented toward helping us cope rather
ing a more plausible description of the emergence of than toward revealing the external world as it really is,
mind as a product of biological evolution. Dewey was led to argue that scientific reasoning is not
The value of diversity in inquiry is closely connected fundamentally different from the reasoning used to solve
to the inability of the scientific method to generate the such “practical” problems as how to govern a society or
theories that it tests and explores. Because there is no organize its economy. Science just is better than our
algorithm for creating new theories, a diversity of ap- more common modes of inquiry because it has a more
proaches is necessary for there to be a good chance of fruitful attitude toward inquiry, an attitude emphasiz-
hitting on one that works; we cannot tell in advance ing openmindedness, intellectual flexibility, a practical
which one that will be. It is because we can’t know in orientation, and a readiness to be disproved, that is more
advance which path is best that progress is a social likely to achieve useful solutions than the slapdash ap-
undertaking and achievement, which in turn implies proximations to scientific inquiry that politicians and
that intelligence is distributed throughout the commu- other “men of affairs” tend to use.
nity. This has egalitarian implications that interested Dewey thought that because the scientific approach
Dewey and that suggest a third, a social rather than an is not fundamentally different from the epistemic pro-
epistemological or a political concept of democracy: cedures used by the ordinary person, maybe the popu-
the democratic temperament or ethos so emphasized by lation as a whole could someday learn to use that ap-
Tocqueville.3 proach in the moral and political domain.5 If so, politi-
Dewey’s preferred term for his epistemic approach, cal democracy would become unproblematic. But even
which I’ll call “distributed intelligence” (as in “distrib- short of that day, the theory of epistemic democracy
uted processing” of data by computers4) from now on, has implications for political governance. If rule by
was not pragmatism, with its connotations of the utili- experts is out, with it goes any theocratic or otherwise

authoritarian conception of right political rule, any ba- simistic about American democracy.
sis for the censorship of ideas and opinions, any legiti- The history of the United States in the half century
macy to having a fixed and durable political hierarchy. since Dewey’s death suggests that his pessimism was
The idea that there are experts who have reliable tech- misplaced, that he had succumbed to the intellectual’s
niques for getting in touch with the antecedently real in typical mistake of exaggerating the importance of intel-
morality and science is inconsistent with democracy, lect. He thought that until the American population as a
which is rule by people who have no claim to have such whole had acquired the ethics of scientific inquiry, de-
a pipeline. So Dewey’s philosophical project of over- mocracy would remain unsatisfactory, perhaps even
turning Platonic epistemology, to the extent it succeeds, vulnerable.10 So far as we can judge today, he was wrong.
makes the case by default for democratic political rule, It is probably the case (though India, with its 50 percent
the system in which the community as a whole rather illiteracy rate, seems to be a counterexample) that some
than selected experts makes political decisions,6 in just minimum of education is required for a democratic po-
the way that Platonic epistemology leads to the authori- litical system to work in a large, complex, modern soci-
tarian political system described in the Republic. Harvey ety; the system does require that the citizenry make
Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, quoting Tocqueville, occasional political decisions, and those decisions in-
contrast “democratic eagerness to get practical applica- volve persons and issues that the average citizen cannot
tions of science to the ‘ardent, haughty, and disinter- assess at first hand. But if we may judge from the U.S.
ested love of the true’ characteristic of a few.”7 Dewey experience, the minimum required for viable (indeed
turned Plato on his head. vibrant) political democracy is low, perhaps low enough
to be supplied by television rather than formal educa-
II. Dewey’s “Deliberative Democracy”
tion, which seems increasingly less inclined to provide
A name for the bridge that connects epistemic or it. Political democracy has as Dewey believed decisive
cognitive democracy to political democracy is “delib- advantages, at least for wealthy, secure societies hav-
erative” democracy—not Dewey’s term but a good de- ing relatively well informed populations, over alterna-
scription of how he related the two conceptions.8 Delib- tive forms of government. But they are not advantages
erative democracy is political democracy conceived of that depend on deliberation, on analogies to scientific
as not merely a clash of wills and interests (public choice inquiry, or on a lively and informed public interest in
theory), or as an aggregating of preferences (the public issues. Democracy’s only real epistemic advan-
Benthamite conception of democracy), or as merely a tage is one that Dewey did not emphasize: democracy
check on the officials, elected and otherwise, who are enables public opinion to be reliably determined, thus
the real rulers (Schumpeter’s conception of democ- providing vital feedback for the policy initiatives of
racy)9—none of these would be epistemically robust— political leaders and other officials. Nondemocratic re-
but rather as the pooling of different ideas and ap- gimes find it difficult to gauge public opinion, and as a
proaches and the selection of the best through debate result sometimes adopt, as it were inadvertently, poli-
and discussion. The problem with the suggested link- cies so radically unpopular as to kill the regime. It is
age, the problem that gave rise to Dewey’s pessimism easy for nondemocratic rulers to get out of touch with
about our actual existing democracy, is that delibera- the citizens.
tive democracy is almost as purely aspirational and hope- But this epistemic advantage of democracy is not
lessly unrealistic as rule by Platonic guardians. With democracy’s greatest advantage. Indeed, the epistemic
half the population having an IQ of less than 100 (not a disadvantage of the purest forms of democracy, such as
point that Dewey himself would have been comfortable Athenian direct democracy, a disadvantage resulting in
making, however), with the issues confronting modern part from the intellectual limitations of the citizenry, is
government highly complex, and with ordinary people decisive in the shape that modern democracy has as-
having as little interest in as they have aptitude for sumed—that of representative democracy. The classi-
complex policy issues, it would be unrealistic to expect cal tradition regarded representative democracy as “aris-
good ideas and sensible policies to well out of the intel- tocratic” in the Aristotelian sense,11 rule by “the best”
lectual disorder that is the political process. Part of what (hoi aristoi).12 The characterization grates, but is apt. In
lay behind Dewey’s interest in the reform of education representative democracy, as realistically understood
was his belief that political democracy would not work by Schumpeter, the people do not rule, though they
well unless people learned to think about political ques- decide who shall rule. The rulers are the officials, se-
tions the way scientists think about scientific ones— lected in an electoral competition among contestants
disinterestedly, intelligently, empirically. He seemed who are by no means ordinary men and women but
to think they could learn to think this way but he was instead belong to an elite of intelligence, cunning, con-
not optimistic that they would, and this made him pes- nections, or other attributes that enable them to present

themselves to the public plausibly as “the best.” The pression, the right of religious freedom—all these are
resulting division of labor in political governance, with rights primarily against popular majorities. They are
the people only intermittently and remotely engaged legally protected rights because of fear that the people
and actual governance delegated to specialists in poli- would sometimes want to infringe them. Granted, there
tics and government, is a sensible bow to the claims of is also the fear that democracy without rights against
expertise. But at least in the circumstances of modern the democratic majority is unstable; that a temporary
government it is not democratic in a Deweyan sense, majority will entrench itself by intimidating the tempo-
when one considers the role of parties and interest rary minority that opposes it. But this is to say that the
groups, the vastness and complexity of the issues that people cannot be fully trusted in the bestowal of au-
confront modern government, the political apathy and thority, and must be protected by the curtailment of
ignorance of the great mass of the people most of the their power.
time, and how much of the real power of government
III. Dewey’s Theory of Democracy Evaluated
resides in unelected officials, many of them judges and
civil servants with lifetime tenure. People’s preferences We must consider whether Dewey was right about
and interests influence government, certainly, through democracy. I think his concept of epistemic democ-
the electoral process and otherwise, but not in the way racy, what I am calling “distributed intelligence,” has
that views expressed in a faculty meeting influence fac- great merit, though maybe less than he thought. I am
ulty decisions, through debate and pooling of ideas. less persuaded by his belief that successful political
The role of the people at large in the governance of a democracy requires (or, I would add, at the risk of ap-
large democratic nation is altogether more passive than pearing paradoxical, is even consistent with) the adop-
its role in the concept of deliberative democracy. People tion by the public at large of the ethics of scientific
know when things are going well or going badly and inquiry. Writing in the 1930s, the decade of many of his
will vote accordingly, but that is about it. And the rel- most emphatic warnings about the limitations of Ameri-
evant “well” or “badly” is well or badly for them. They can democracy, Dewey had plenty of company in sens-
vote their interests. Voting is rarely disinterested. The ing a crisis of democracy. But from the perspective of
political parties know this, and so their campaigns ap- the present day, his concerns seem excessive. I am not a
peal to interests, rather than to the Good. pollyanna. But have we not muddled through quite well
It is even arguable that despite the expansion of the in the last six decades despite being a people increas-
suffrage, there is less political democracy in the United ingly disengaged from a serious and well informed in-
States today than there was in the early nineteenth cen- terest in the political process? Election turnout, for ex-
tury, at least outside the slaveholding region. Much ample, is substantially lower than when Dewey was
more of the business of government was done then by writing; education in civics and political history has
the states, and states are more democratic than the fed- dwindled; the funding of political campaigns has be-
eral government; terms of office are shorter, judges’ come a process of quasi-bribery. We may be experienc-
tenures are less secure, more officials (including judges) ing a long-term decline in the strength of the demo-
are elected rather than appointed; the issues with which cratic principle in American politics, a decline con-
state government deals are more comprehensible to the nected with the growth of federal relative to state gov-
electorate; and there is less delegation to administrative ernment. And yet the sky has not fallen. This may be in
agencies. Yet from a pragmatic standpoint, it is hard to part because the (recent) growth in political apathy has
argue that the shift in power from the states to the fed- paralleled and may indeed be the result of the recession
eral government has been on balance a bad thing; prag- of our most serious political problems, both foreign and
matism and political democracy are not synonyms. domestic. But it may also reflect the fact that like most
The real political spillover from a pragmatic theory intellectuals, Dewey exaggerated the importance of
of knowledge is, as John Stuart Mill recognized, not a knowledge and intelligence in public matters. Let us
boost for democracy but a boost for liberty. The first contrast him with Franklin Roosevelt, a man far less
chapter of On Liberty explains the dependence of sound learned, intelligent, or disinterested than Dewey, a man,
government on freedom of inquiry and expression. Lib- indeed, who was intellectually lazy, manipulative, and
erty is at once a precondition of and a limitation on not a little cynical—yet he was far more correct about
democracy—a precondition because without liberty the the great issues of the day than Dewey. Which is what
people lack the independence and competence to per- Dewey himself should have expected: as a consum-
form their role in democratic governance, that of con- mate politician, Roosevelt was far better plugged into
trolling the officials. But liberty is not democracy. The the distributed intelligence of American society than
right of just compensation for taking private property Professor Dewey.
for public use, the right of association, the right of ex- Of course it is possible to imagine things having

gone even better for us than they have. Utopian think- become as well informed about, attuned to, and en-
ing is easy, especially for intellectuals, whose minds gaged in politics as Dewey dreamed. But by the same
move easily from the actual to the imaginable. There is token, because they are not very well informed or po-
an “if only” quality about Dewey. If only hoi polloi litically engaged, the political process cannot be ex-
were like us, and if only the educational system real- pected to approximate the scientific; its products are
ized that and educated kids accordingly…. But besides not always entitled to the same respect as the products
practical constraints on educational reform, and the per- of scientific inquiry, therefore, and so the Supreme
sisting lack of a good educational theory 2,500 years Court’s interference in the name of the Constitution
after Plato first wrote about it, there is the unwarranted with political experimentation is not as untoward as it
Socratic assumption that people are selfish and mean would be if the United States and its states were
because they are ignorant. Education is a fine thing in Deweyan polities. Yet he surely would have been cau-
many ways, but above a threshold soon reached it tious about activist judicial review—he who said that:
doesn’t seem to improve democracy. So if we are real-
In the absence of an articulate voice on the
istic about human nature (and hence about the edifying
part of the masses, the best do not and cannot
as distinct from the vocational effects of education),
remain the best, the wise cease to be wise. It is
and consider realistically how the other nations of the
impossible for high brows to secure a monopoly
world have done in the period since Dewey wrote, we
of such knowledge as must be used for the regu-
shall be left with little reason for supposing that we
lation of common affairs. In the degree in which
might have done even better if only we had been better
they become a specialized class, they are shut
Deweyans and conducted politics on the model of a
off from knowledge of the needs which they
faculty seminar.
are supposed to serve.14
Schumpeter’s dyspeptic conception of democracy,
which would have so distressed Dewey, seems, in short, But Dewey’s philosophy for constitutional adjudica-
not only descriptively accurate but normatively ad- tion is a story for another day.
equate. I would go further and call it normatively supe-
rior to Dewey’s hopes for democracy. One reason is
that a strong interest in politics foments political dis-
cord, exacerbates conflict, and distracts people from Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Cir-
private pursuits, including business, science, art, and cuit; Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago Law
the professions, that contribute substantially to social School. This is a shortened version of a talk given at the
welfare, and in particular that build prosperity, a great First Annual Symposium on the Foundation of the Be-
emollient of political and social tensions. It is rather a havioral Sciences: “John Dewey: Modernism, Postmod-
strength than a weakness of representative democracy ernism and Beyond” held at Simon’s Rock College of
that, in contrast to direct democracy (especially in its Bard under the auspices of the Behavioral Research
town-meeting form, better described as participatory Council of the American Institute for Economic Re-
democracy and demanding a substantial investment in search, on July 21, 2001. Judge Posner would like to
time) or plebiscitary democracy, it allows most of the thank Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein for their helpful
people to tune out of politics most of the time. We don’t comments on a previous draft, the participants in the
have to spend all of our time fending off crazy political symposium for their helpful comments, and Bryan Day-
initiatives. I shudder at Bonnie Honig’s desire, superfi- ton for his research assistance.
cially Deweyan, to restore “politics as a disruptive prac- This is not philosophical skepticism, for example
tice that resists the consolidations and closures of ad- skepticism about whether the external world is real or a
ministrative and juridical settlement for the sake of the dream. Pragmatism is resolutely opposed to philosophi-
perpetuity of political contest.”13 cal skepticism because of its utter lack of practical sig-
Another reason not to want to raise the political con- nificance.
sciousness of the U.S. population is that even well edu- A notion quite similar to Dewey’s concept of dis-
cated and well informed people find it difficult to rea- tributed intelligence is Friedrich Hayek’s concept of
son accurately about matters remote from their imme- knowledge distributed throughout the community rather
diate concerns. People who vote on the basis of their than concentrated in a handful of experts. See my un-
self-interest are at least voting about something they published paper “Kelsen, Hayek, and the Economic
know at first hand, their own needs and preferences. I Analysis of Law.” From this Hayek drew policy impli-
am suspicious of the high-minded voter. cations antithetical to Dewey—that markets were the
If my concerns are well founded, our society might most efficient method of aggregating this knowledge.
be worse off rather than better off if people were to Dewey, in contrast, believed in central planning.

“True distributed processing has separate comput- terest Groups in American Public Law,” 38 Stanford
ers perform different tasks in such a way that their Law Review 29, 81–86 (1985).
combined work can contribute to a larger goal.” Mi- Derided, unjustly as I shall argue, as “narrow[ing]
crosoft Press, Computer Dictionary 154 (3d ed. 1997). democracy to little more than an ex post facto check on
See Eric A. MacGilvray, “Experience as Experi- the power of elites, an act of occasional political con-
ment: Some Consequences of Pragmatism for Demo- sumption affording a choice among a limited range of
cratic Theory,” 43 American Journal of Political Sci- well-packaged aspirants to office.” Robert B.
ence 542, 551, 562 (1999). Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy xv
See, for example, John Dewey, “Philosophy and (1991).
Democracy,” in Dewey, The Political Writings at 38, See, for example, John Dewey, The Public and Its
45–46 (1993). Problems, ch. 4 and pp. 166–167 (1927); John Dewey,
Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “Edi- “Science and Free Culture,” in Dewey, The Political
tors’ Introduction,” in Alexis de Tocqueville, Democ- Writings at 48, 56–57 (1993); Margaret Jane Radin, “A
racy in America xvii, xxxii (Mansfield and Winthrop Deweyan Perspective on the Economic Theory of De-
trans. 2000). Cf. David Zaret, Origins of Democratic mocracy,” 11 Constitutional Commentary 539, 543–
Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in 544 (1994–1995).
Early-Modern England 272–273 (2000), arguing that See Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representa-
the successes of experimental science promoted faith in tive Government (1997).
the power of reason to resolve public issues. This sense of aristocracy is to be distinguished
See Robert W. Westbrook, “Pragmatism and De- from hereditary aristocracy, which is rule by a privi-
mocracy: Reconstructing the Logic of John Dewey’s leged class determined by genealogy and (usually) own-
Faith,” in The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on ership of land, as distinguished from rule by elected
Social Thought, Law, and Culture 128, 138 (Morris representatives of the people at large.
Dickstein ed. 1998); and references to essays by Hilary Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displace-
Putnam and Joshua Cohen in id. at 139–140. Cf. Cass ment of Politics 4, 124 (1993).
Sunstein, 37–39 (2001); Sunstein, “In- Dewey, The Public and Its Problems at 206 (1927).

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