Volume 67, Issue 2, Spring 2023
Dewey, Self-Realization, and Romanticism
John Dewey’s conception of democracy as the political form devoted to the maximum individual self-realization of the citizenry, in the broadest sense of that term, promises to lift democracy above angry populism while avoiding untenable and contentious metaphysical commitments. The idea of self-realization is traditionally tied to a hierarchical and therefore unacceptable model of society. Dewey breaks this tie by stripping the idea of its metaphysical commitments. But Dewey requires supplementation. I argue that Dewey’s own insights can be best kept alive by being read in light of Stanley Cavell’s understanding of Emersonian Perfectionism, in particular the latter’s focus on the failure of the self to realize itself and its ordinary resistance to doing so. Bringing this Romanticism to bear upon Dewey’s ideas would temper them in important ways, preserving and developing what is best in the rich conception of democratic citizenship he has left us.