Dewey’s “Public” and Its Many Problems

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on maintaining the balance of community and environmental health, healthy lifestyles, and encouraging sustainable living.

During one of my MPA classes, Politics of Administration, we read a book about the concept of “the public,” how it is formed, and how it is identified.

Review of “The Public and Its Problems”:

In his book “The Public and Its Problems,” John Dewey discusses the concept of “the public” and how its role fits into the history and context of U.S. politics. The reader also uncovers a nexus described between the state, the public and democracy. Dewey describes the problematic nature of the concept of “the public.” After exploring the nexus described by Dewey and the problems with “the public,” I will then explore the most problematic feature of “the public” as it pertains to discussions today, and whether or not the 80 year-old discussion is relevant to political life in the U.S. in 2010.

Throughout the text, Dewey describes a nexus between the state, the public and democracy. These three concepts are intertwined into a system where each depends on the existence of the other. However, part of the difficulty in understanding the significance and meaning of each is knowing how to fit them together in context.

Let us start by trying to understand the concept of “the public.” Dewey says the public exists when the consequences of a conversation or exchange extend outside of the confines of those directly involved in the exchange to affect the lives and welfare of others (Dewey 13). Almost simultaneously with the emergence of “the public” is the emergence of “the state,” which is an entity that involves members of the public bound by shared concerns and interests (33). The state is something to which members of the public belong and identify. However, Dewey does warn that people looking for “the state” will inevitably get lost in the process. It is a concept that is nearly as abstract as “the public” because its existence depends on consequences and the emergence of people who need to be taken care of as a result of those consequences (27).

With the emergence of such entities as the public and the state, a form of government is necessary to govern and administer the needs and concerns of the public. Dewey portrays democracy as a system of government that resulted from fear (86), and a democratic government gave people the ability to participate in their own governing. Within this democratic system, individuals felt free to express their own individualized ideals. Dewey notes that the American Revolution was a revolt against an established government that oppressed individuality (87), and democracy resulted in the U.S. as a form of government administered by the people. Individualism became the new movement within the system of democracy that allowed people to express their own political and social ideals while being involved in the forming of a new political nation.

The nexus of these three concepts converges in their dependence on the existence of each other, but putting them into context is difficult when their boundaries are ambiguous. The public and the state emerge when private exchanges result in external consequences. Democracy is a form of governing the members of the public included in the state, by involving individuals from the public as officials to govern the matters of the public. The challenge arises with the concept of individualism because it inherently discourages unity, a necessary characteristic of a state. Therefore, the development of states must be an ongoing process of experimenting through trial and error, using historical experiences to learn from previous mistakes (33-4).

Dewey sees the public as being problematic mostly because it is difficult to find in the context of a situation. It is an abstract concept to describe an abstract group of people, which makes it difficult to identify. In theory, the public is a community as a whole that is affected by the transactions of private individuals (88), but in practice, it is often very difficult to identify the specific public (and therefore state) affected because of the private nature of the exchanges.

According to Dewey, the difficulty in finding the public lies in the advent of modern technology that impaired the need for face-to-face relationships between members of the public. The very same technologies that create the ease of national interaction also create the ability for individuals to focus on the bettering of their own lives without much personal contact with others (131). The individualistic philosophy utilizing the new technology is a force that detracts from the sense of community. If the needs of the public as a whole are not identified, then those problems cannot be addressed by the officials elected specifically to govern such issues.

The most problematic feature of “the public” as it is invoked and discussed today is that the concept is abstract and the people involved are difficult to identify. Dewey’s discussion of how the Great Society (what we have now) may become the Great Community (the ideal) helps put the sense of individualism and of community into perspective as related to the public. While the Great Society is composed of many groups of people with advanced technology, the Great Community only comes about when individuals share interest and responsibility to the community on common issues (147). The transition can only be accomplished through communication (142). Without communication, the consequences affecting the public through private exchange cannot be identified by governing officials. If the problems cannot be identified, they cannot be solved. Also, if the problems are not identified, the people who suffer from the problems cannot be identified, which creates further confusion about the boundaries of the public.

Even though Dewey’s text was originally published in 1927, I think his discussion still has relevance to political life in the U.S. today. His concerns about the steam engines and the printing press as forms of modern technology that decrease personal relationships apply today using things like the internet and credit cards as substitutes. The concept is still the same, that identifying the public is a challenge, especially with rampant individualism and lack of face-to-face communication.

One thing that I think makes Dewey’s discussion particularly relevant to politics in the U.S. today, perhaps even more so than when his text was first published, is that groups with shared interests and concerns in the modern world (or, a “state”) typically do not share the same political boundaries. People commute, they live out-of-state, they even live in other countries, but they still stay virtually connected to the people they share common interests with through the use of telephones, Skype, email, and any other form of communication technology available today. Dewey’s concern about the boundaries of the state was that geographic lines created arbitrary boundaries when determining who was included in the state and who was not. The technology available in 2010 makes determining those boundaries even more challenging.

Another part of the discussion relevant to the political world today is the idea of controlled inquiry and looking at history to understand context and application. It is important when implementing new ideas in politics and society to have something about the present to compare with the past. By learning what works through experimenting, we can better tweak the form of government that will facilitate the Great Society becoming the Great Community (147).

While his writing style is very difficult to digest, Dewey’s message is actually fairly simple. “The Public” is an abstract group of people that we can only identify once they have something in common. That something in common outlines the boundaries for “the state” and also creates the simultaneous need for administration to protect the interests of the designated public. The next part of his discussion gets confusing with the many problems and methods involved with what comes next: government. Determining political jurisdiction is just the first part of the challenge, then comes the potential for corruption and the ongoing struggle for effective communication. His discussion is still fairly abstract, but it does help us discern the inevitable challenges that present themselves within the ambiguous realm of political life.


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