John Dewey (1859—1952)
Dewey was born on October 20, 1859, the third of four sons born to Archibald Sprague Dewey
and Lucina Artemesia Rich of Burlington, Vermont. The eldest sibling died in infancy, but the
three surviving brothers attended the public school and the University of Vermont in Burlington
with John. While at the University of Vermont, Dewey was exposed to evolutionary theory
through the teaching of G.H. Perkins and
Lessons in Elementary Physiology,
a text by T.H.
Huxley, the famous English evolutionist. The theory of natural selection continued to have a life-
long impact upon Dewey’s thought, suggesting the barrenness of static models of nature, and the
importance of focusing on the interaction between the human organism and its environment
when considering questions of psychology and the theory of knowledge. The formal teaching in
philosophy at the University of Vermont was confined for the most part to the school of Scottish
realism, a school of thought that Dewey soon rejected, but his close contact both before and after
graduation with his teacher of philosophy, H.A.P. Torrey, a learned scholar with broader
philosophical interests and sympathies, was later accounted by Dewey himself as “decisive” to
his philosophical development.
After graduation in 1879, Dewey taught high school for two years, during which the idea of
pursuing a career in philosophy took hold. With this nascent ambition in mind, he sent a
philosophical essay to W.T. Harris, then editor of the
Journal of Speculative Philosophy,
most prominent of the St. Louis Hegelians. Harris’s acceptance of the essay gave Dewey the
confirmation he needed of his promise as a philosopher. With this encouragement he traveled to
Baltimore to enroll as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.
At Johns Hopkins Dewey came under the tutelage of two powerful and engaging intellects who
were to have a lasting influence on him. George Sylvester Morris, a German-trained Hegelian
philosopher, exposed Dewey to the organic model of nature characteristic of German idealism.
G. Stanley Hall, one of the most prominent American experimental psychologists at the time,
provided Dewey with an appreciation of the power of scientific methodology as applied to the
human sciences. The confluence of these viewpoints propelled Dewey’s early thought, and
established the general tenor of his ideas throughout his philosophical career.
Upon obtaining his doctorate in 1884, Dewey accepted a teaching post at the University of
Michigan, a post he was to hold for ten years, with the exception of a year at the University of
Minnesota in 1888. While at Michigan Dewey wrote his first two books:
Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding
(1888). Both works expressed
Dewey’s early commitment to Hegelian idealism, while the
explored the synthesis
between this idealism and experimental science that Dewey was then attempting to effect. At
Michigan Dewey also met one of his important philosophical collaborators, James Hayden Tufts,