Examining the Compatibility of Dewey’s Pragmatism and Hegel’s Idealism

By Louis Altena

An emergent area of inquiry has situated itself around the compatibility of idealist thought with pragmatism. Although heavily influenced by the idealist Hegel, John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy differs greatly from Hegel’s absolute idealism, a school of thought which Dewey subscribed to in his earlier years. I examine the fundamental differences between the absolute idealist position which Hegel takes, and the pragmatist position which Dewey adopts to determine to what degree idealism and pragmatism are compatible with regards to their conception of the individual and the collective. In doing so, to ensure the focus of this essay will remain on Dewey’s pragmatism, we will track Dewey’s own move away from Hegelian absolute idealism before attempting to draw parallels and reconcile the two beliefs.

Early in his career as an academic Dewey was introduced to Hegel’s work through his undergraduate experiences alongside Marsh at the University of Vermont. Hegel’s philosophy had a significant impact on Dewey, and as such, to understand Dewey’s pragmatism it is important firstly to understand absolute idealism and its appeal to Dewey in his formative years. Hegel’s Geist concept roughly outlines his notion of the collective as a rational social mind (or spirit), which encompasses all in a panentheistic fashion.[1] Hegel’s absolute idealism evolves from the claim that “…thought is not a subjective faculty” but “the manifestation of the meaning of reality itself…” and as such, through his dialectical process the Geist can come to achieve absolute knowledge by seeking synthesis with the material world in an organicist union.[2] For Hegel, this process signifies a perpetual freeing of the Geist moving towards the achievement of self-knowledge (a.k.a. absolute knowledge—hence the term absolute idealism).[3] Understanding this dialectical process as a freeing of the Geist strongly hints at Hegel’s idea of individual and collective freedom. For Hegel, freedom is not a complete individualistic freedom from external constraints, but instead is a freedom from coercion. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel argues that “…individual minds exist together; or they do not exist at all…” and as such, freedom of the individual is merely a precursor to the true collective freedom.[4] Indicating why exactly he takes this position, Hegel criticises atomism and states that when “…citizens come on the scene as isolated atoms, and the electoral assemblies as unordered inorganic aggregates; the people as whole is dissolved into a heap.”[5] To solve this problem, then, people must not operate as individuals pursuing their own isolated goals, but they must operate as a collective that is united by the universal reason embodied by the Geist.[6] For Hegel, the universality of reason provides individuals with complete freedom as when individuals operate in purely rational terms, the mind has the power to control everything.[7] Although Hegel recognises the existence of individual minds, he believes that in an ideal society the beliefs of the individual and the collective would become united. As such, Hegel overcomes the supposed dualism between the individual and the collective.

Dewey’s initial impressions of Hegel were positive, as he admired Hegel’s dialectical method as well as his organicist unification of the individual and the social, a unification which would stick with Dewey for the remainder of his intellectual career. In a similar way to Hegel, Dewey rejects dualistic inorganic notions of radical liberal individualism in favour of a unified view of humanity and specifies that opposites being together is unity—not the challenge to unity.[8] Dewey initially described himself as a neo-Hegelian, but later recalls a slow “drift” away from Hegelianism over a period of about 15 years as his interest in psychology, and particularly the functionalist work of William James (another pragmatist), led him to seek unity between Hegel’s organicist conception of the collective with contemporary scientific concepts and experimental methods.[9] In his 1917 essay, The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy, Dewey highlights his concerns with Hegel’s Geist and offers his alternative conception of the collective and the individual. This philosophical essay critiques idealism on the basis that it alienates the individual from the ideal by subjecting their efforts to comparison with its lofty and seemingly unreachable perfection.[10] Dewey identifies further issues with idealism in Psychology, arguing that by having an absolute ideal which is predetermined absolves individuals of moral responsibility to achieve it, as its realisation is predetermined.[11] Ultimately, Hegel fails to encourage individual agency and participation in the achievement of the absolute ideal and, according to Dewey, this lack of responsibility leads to morally reprehensible actions.

To avoid the problem highlighted in Psychology, Dewey’s functionalist/experimentalist leanings lead him to consider concepts as possessing an active participatory role in inquiry. Opposing Hegel, Dewey argues that the self is a work in progress and because of the immediacy of the self, one “…must act concretely and see knowledge only in relation to action.”[12] This criticism of Hegel manifests itself in Dewey’s application of psychological functionalism to philosophy, as he argues that in order to determine truth individuals must act in the world as if that which is most likely to be true is in fact true and that a fallibilistic observation of the consequences of these actions will reveal the truth of the beliefs which guide them.[13] Significantly, this move marks what has often been called the “naturalisation” of Hegel by Dewey, rejecting Hegel’s metaphysical side in order to force his compatibility with Dewey’s understanding of modern science, and to prevent the separation of the individual’s immediate experience from absolute knowledge.[14] Finally, it is important to note that this functionalist understanding of concepts led Dewey towards his conception of truth as an ever-changing non-fixed and immediate idea which embodies his pragmatic philosophy.

Through his rejection of a fixed ideal it would seem an irreparable divide between Dewey and Hegel has been forged. This may not be the case, however, as although Dewey clearly departed from Hegelianism in the latter half of his career, there are still clear points of compatibility between the two thinkers. Firstly, it is important to understand what Dewey’s rejection of idealism actually signified. In his 1897 lecture series on Hegel Dewey indicates a more nuanced understanding of Hegel’s concept of absolute knowledge than one would expect from someone who rejects absolute idealism. In his now-recovered lecture notes, Dewey dismisses critics of Hegel’s philosophy of history, arguing that Hegel’s dialectic is not an a priori assumption of the way history works, but instead emphasises the necessity of a goal toward which history moves—as without one, history “…would not even be so much as a child’s fairy tale, for children require a certain point in their stories.”[15] Clearly if Dewey believes in the importance of an overarching goal for human achievement there must still be room within his philosophy for a conception of an ideal, though it is unlikely for this ideal to be “absolute” in the Hegelian sense. Dewey has stated in the past that his ideal would encompass the realisation of the individual and the collective as he sees the two inherently intertwined but unfortunately does not elaborate on his position regarding the ideal any further.[16]

A final glaring divide between Hegel and Dewey that is worth addressing is their near opposite conceptions of what an ideal society would look like. For Dewey, the ideal society is unapologetically democratic, with freedom for the individual and maximum voter participation seen as largely beneficial to society.[17] Dewey perhaps best outlines his reasoning for his commitment to democracy in The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry, when he argues that “The man [sic] who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.”[18] Directly drawn from his philosophy, which emphasises the individual’s participation in the achievement of society’s goals and in education, Dewey clearly applies the same logic to advocate for participatory democracy as the best method for defining and subsequently solving society’s problems. It would seem near impossible to suggest that there is any compatibility between Dewey’s democratic society and Hegel’s constitutional monarchy.[19] However, as Allen Wood emphasises, “Hegel’s state has a very liberal look to it. This may be one of the reasons why Dewey, a dedicated democrat, used some of the most important theoretical elements of the Philosophy of Right when he wrote Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics.”[20] The compatibility which Wood highlights is to be found in Hegel’s belief that subjective freedom was a prerequisite for absolute freedom. Whilst Dewey rejects Hegel’s notion that individuals should “vote as collectives,”[21] he also understands that Hegel was not a Hobbesian either. From their shared organicist position, Dewey refuses the notion that Hegel would allow the subjugation of individual liberties to collective power as this would create an individual-collective dualism which is the exact thing Hegel seeks to avoid consistently throughout his philosophy.[22] To put it simply, Dewey was merely imagining a less idealistic society than Hegel.

Although there are clear disagreements between Dewey and Hegel, there is ever growing support for the notion that compatibility can be found between the two. This essay has argued that although the conclusions of their respective philosophies differ greatly, there is in fact a great deal of overlap between the Hegel’s idealistic and Dewey’s pragmatic conceptions of the individual and the collective. As such, further work should be undertaken to identify new schools of thought which could potentially incorporate the work of pragmatic and idealist thinkers in solving the fundamental problems of modernity which they both sought to address.

Louis Altena is a Student Philosophy Ambassador and the Treasurer of the UQ Student Philosophy Association. Louis is currently studying a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics and is interested in the influence of German idealism on contemporary philosophy.


[1] Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2001), 95.

[2] James Good and John Shook, John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, with the 1897 lecture on Hegel ( New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010), 105.

[3] Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, 90.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (New York, NY.: Basic Books, 1969), 262.

[6] Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, 53.

[7] Ibid., 96.

[8] Good and Shook, John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, 61.

[9] George Adams and Montague Pepperell, From Absolutism to Experimentalism(Bloomington, IN.: Contemporary American Philosophy, 1930), 20-21; Michael Buxton, “The Influence of William James on John Dewey’s Early Work,” Journal of the History of Ideas(1984): 451-463.

[10] John Dewey, The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy (Indianapolis, IN.: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1917), 3-4.

[11] John Dewey, Psychology (New York, NY.: Harper & Brothers, 1887), 338-339.

[12] Buxton, “The Influence of William James,” 457.

[13] John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems(Athens, GA.: Swallow Press, 1927), 220.

[14] James Johnston, Dewey’s Critique of Kant (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 2006), 530; Good and Shook, John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, 18-19.

[15] Good and Shook, John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, 128.

[16] George Mead, “The Philosophy of John Dewey,” International Journal of Ethics(1935): 64-81.

[17] John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 144.

[18] Ibid., 224.

[19] Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, 51.

[20] Allen Wood, Hegel’s Ethical Thought(New York, NY.: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 258; David Waddington, “Uncovering Hegelian Connections: A New Look at Dewey’s Early Educational Ideas,” Education and Culture(2010): 71.

[21] Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, 53.

[22] Good and Shook, John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, 128.

Works Cited

Adams, George, and Pepperell Montague. 1930. From Absolutism to Experimentalism. Bloomington: Contemporary American Philosophy.

Buxton, Michael. 1984. “The Influence of William James on John Dewey’s Early Work.” Journal of the History of Ideas 451-463.

Dewey, John. 1887. Psychology. New York: Harper & Brothers.

—. 1920. Reconstruction in Philosophy. New York: Henry Holt And Company.

—. 1917. The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

—. 1927. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Swallow Press.

Johnston, James. 2006. Dewey’s Critique of Kant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kojeve, Alexandre. 1969. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Basic Books.

Mead, George. 1935. “The Philosophy of John Dewey.” International Journal of Ethics 64-81.

Shook, John, and James Good. 2010. John Dewey’s philosophy of spirit, with the 1897 lecture on Hegel. New York: Fordham University Press.

Singer, Peter. 2001. Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Waddington, David. 2010. “Uncovering Hegelian Connections: A New Look at Dewey’s Early Educational Ideas.” Education and Culture 67-81.

Wood, Allen. 1990. Hegel’s Ethical Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Featured image by Internet Archive Book Images via flickr


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