Meet the Man Behind Functional Psychology: John Dewey

As one of the key American thinkers in the fields of psychology and education during the 20th century, it is unfortunate the John Dewey is not better known in the world today. Unlike many influential thinkers of his generation, Dewey understood the great power democracy had to shape our society into one that values quality education and the achievement of a fulfilling life.

Today, our society stands at the crossroads of change across various institutions that will determine the course our nation takes for the next generation of Americans. Now is a great opportunity for us to reacquaint ourselves with the life and work of John Dewey.

Dewey and the Rise of Functional Psychology

John Dewey was among the most prominent thinkers that advanced the philosophy of Pragmatism, a concept originally brought to prominence by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in the 1870s. Pragmatism represents one of the most successful attempts to marry hard science and reason with conceptual philosophy. This distinctly American school of philosophy was later developed and expanded upon by The Metaphysical Club, which counted Peirce, William James and John Dewey as three of its most prominent members.

Some of Dewey’s most important work in the area of functional psychology is rooted in his association with the members of The Metaphysical Club. Club member William James, whose work Principles of Psychology would serve as a foundational influence for Dewey’s work in the field. While teaching at Tufts University Medford, MA in the 1890s, Dewey and his colleagues departed from the traditionally abstract and theoretical approach to functional psychology and developed applications of the science that could help real patients and physicians. Their work stood in stark contrast to the more introspective-oriented psychology of their European contemporaries, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even so, the ideas developed by the Tufts thinkers contributed heavily to the rise of the more proactive treatment-focused brand of psychology that we’re still familiar with today.

Dewey’s Student-Focused Education Model

Dewey also brought his proactive psychological theories to his work on the improvement of American public education and policy. His recommendations were laid out in a series of five books published over the years 1897 to 1938, with Democracy and Education and Experience and Education. The latter would prove to be his most important and influential contribution to American education theory.

With these texts, Dewey laid the foundation for progressive education in the United States. It was Dewey that first emphasized the acquisition of knowledge as a communal endeavor that is rooted in the contemporary culture and social circumstance of the student. Moreover, one of the more debated aspects of Dewey’s theories on education involve his belief that students should be allowed and encouraged to find their own motivations for learning. Teachers, he thought, should act as a guide for helping students find their place within their unique social systems. Despite the controversy surrounding his then-radical and liberal theories on education, many of Dewey’s ideas are still applied in our education system to this day.

From an academic perspective, many of Dewey’s ideas concerning education and functional psychology have been met with both acclaim and criticism. On the one hand, some academics have labeled Dewey’s work as “dangerously radical.” And Dewey faced strong criticism from American Marxists and Communists throughout his career. On the other hand, Dewey’s work is frequently hailed by academics as a crucial evolutionary step for education and psychology in our time. Over the span of his career as a philosopher, activist and teacher, Dewey was awarded with no less than four honorary doctorates from colleges and universities throughout the world.

Dewey’s Greatest Influences

The concept of humanism was a major influence for Dewey, as well as several other major intellectuals and creative figures of the 20th century. Like the author Thomas Mann in Germany, Dewey saw a great opportunity for positive social change in the concept of humanism. This is best summed up in his own words: “What Humanism means to me is an expansion, not a contraction, of human life, an expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good.”  (From the 1930 article “What Humanism Means to Me”).

The Greek democratic philosophy of Plato and the Enlightenment idealism of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F Hegel were also major influences. Much of Dewey’s work in the field of education is directly influenced by the theories of public education espoused by Plato in The Republic. The influence of Kant and Hegel, on the other hand, can be seen in Dewey’s work in psychology, which relies heavily upon the empiricist and utilitarian ideas of these two great thinkers.

It may be impossible to measure the full impact Dewey’s work had on the way we think about psychology and education. Explore The John Dewey Society homepage to explore further resources on the man, his life and his legacy.