John Dewey and Walt Whitman on Democracy


“Democracy,” Dewey said, “is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature.” For both Whitman and Dewey, the terms “America” and .. democracy” are shorthand for a new conception of what it is to be human-a conception which has no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority, and in which nothing save freely achieved consensus among human beings has any authority at all. Steven Rockefeller is right to say that .. [Dewey’s] goal was to integrate fully the religious life with the American democratic life.” But the sort of integration Dewey hoped for is not a matter of blending the worship of an eternal Being with hope for the temporal realization, in America, of this Being’s will. It is a matter of forgetting about eternity. More generally, it is a matter of replacing shared knowledge of what is already real with social hope for what might become real. The word ” democracy,” Whitman said, “is a great word, whose history … remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”


  1. Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print. 18-19.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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