Code: PD -9


The Use of Dewey’s Force / Violence Distinction in Political Practice

Panel Proposal for SAAP 2004         


Participants (2):    "John Dewey on Force and the Roots of Political Violence"


     "The Evil that Lurks in Violence: Dewey, Fromm and Merleau-Ponty" Panel Abstract


The association of religion and civil rights brings to mind any number of different reasons for their conjunction. The coupling of religion and civil rights would suggest a conflict between the two with religion on the side of political repression and violence and civil rights on the side of tolerance and rule by law.  From a historical perspective the association of religion and civil rights could follow out the lines of the development of constitutional law as a result of the adoption of religious understandings of the body politic, as, for example, in the American Constitution.  The confrontation of religion and civil rights could also be viewed in terms of the grounding of political rights in the eternal law of God as was characteristic of Medieval scholastic philosophy. Finally, the focus of the discussion of religion and civil rights could be upon the public arena in which they both exist as political questions.  Then the emphasis would be placed upon how religion and civil rights are involved in the creation of human community, the distribution of material goods, the assignment of honors, and the sharing of political power across the divisions of social class.  Our comments bear upon that political discussion and upon the use of power and coercion which is not in the service of ideology, but is a preface to a political life in which a community of goods and values is the goal of political reflection and action.

One of the significant efforts to assess social movements in terms of the public nature of politics was John Dewey’s evaluation of the political impact and goals of American involvement in World War I and World II.  His reflections were guided by a distinction he forged between force and violence, a distinction that rested upon, among other things, an appreciation of the effects of human actions upon the public sphere and the realization of community goals.

The two papers in this panel take up Dewey’s analysis of force and turn them to the problems of ideology and public life. The first, "Dewey on Force and the Roots of Political Violence", recovers the distinction between force and violence and shows how it grounded in his critique of any politics guided by abstract universals. Dewey’s analysis of the authoritarianism implicit in German Idealism provides a tool for investigating any contemporary politics which overlooks concrete, lived relations between individuals.

The second paper, "The Evil that Lurks in Violence: Dewey, Fromm and Merleau-Ponty", examines Dewey’s distinction in light of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of political violence and Erich Fromm’s analysis of the destructive character. In each, we find a discussion of the place of violence in political acts and a point of resistance to a politics which ignores the suffering individual. It then proceeds to examine the critical differences between each and how these differences allow us to have a more subtle nuanced understanding of force in an unredeemed public sphere.

"John Dewey on Force and the Roots of Political Violence"


It has been said that Dewey chose the wrong war. Like many American intellectuals of his time, Dewey believed that the First World War marked an opportunity to intelligently reorganize that world and thereby end the threat of war itself. But once the war was over, and the great powers took a greater interest in punishing the Germans than in making the world safe, Dewey was quickly disillusioned. Twenty years later, when the world was at war again, he categorically opposed entry into another conflict with Germany. In hindsight, Dewey was wrong on both the reconstructive potential of war and on the need to fight in World War II.

This paper is not concerned with evaluating Dewey’s past judgments, but with the conceptual categories that he used to make them. I argue that Dewey’s discussions of war are grounded in two interwoven concepts - the distinction between force and violence and in his critique of German authoritarianism. In each, we may find tools of contemporary critique. These two concepts reveal the easy turn to violence, especially the violence of the State, once we separate humanity from its concrete context of human suffering and attempt to base ethics and politics in universal principles.

Dewey’s distinction between force and violence was originally derived though a critique of pacifism. He rejects the notion that all force is morally unjustifiable, simply because force is necessary if anything is to happen at all. We need finer distinctions. Dewey instead distinguishes simple force from both violence and law by asking whether the use of force is destructive or creative. Force is violent when if fails to meet the needs of a situation, turning it toward waste or destruction. It is not the use of force that is unjustifiable, but that the force itself was not justified by the circumstances. Though Dewey derived the force / violence distinction in response to pacifists during the first World War, he carried it forward to World War II and used it to ground his opposition to American involvement.

Contemporaneous with his use of the distinction during both World Wars, Dewey wrote on the authoritarian personality embodied by the German State. In his German Philosophy and Politics (1915) and the re-introduction written in 1942, Dewey makes the forceful - if often dismissed – argument that the violent authoritarianism of the State could be traced to a culture imbued with German Idealism. Rejecting the notion that Nietzsche is to blame, he argues that the two-world theory of Kant and his descendants separates man from his lived context and relocates value into a world of sheer universality. Dewey argues that it this universality, once stripped of experiential content, will be identified with a bureaucratic State and its concept of the good, whether that good is blood, nation or race.

Dewey then grounds the force / violence distinction in an analysis of violent Statism. Force is justified when it tends to the needs of a situation with all of its natural and human content. Violence is the inevitable result of an empty universality which often binds itself to established structures of power. I conclude by noting that Dewey’s analysis, mirroring that of Horkheimer and Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1942), exposes the violence possibility internal to rationalism. Like the western Marxists, Dewey offers his contemporary audience a tool to see the implicit possibility of totalitarianism in the abstractions of the Enlightenment.

"The Evil that Lurks in Violence: Dewey, Fromm and Merleau-Ponty"


In the context of any political discussion today, especially of the relationship between religion and politics or human rights, it is crucially important to draw the distinction between the analysis of human actions in terms of their consequences in the world and political ideology which subordinates the concrete world to abstract goals and sacrifices human lives for immeasurable gains as a means of justifying violence. Political analysis guided by the need for human discourse about human desires, actions and needs is the contrary of political ideology, although it is often entangled in the latter’s omnipresent web of assumptions and prejudices that lurk in the recesses of all rational arguments. Dewey’s distinction between force and violence in politics and warfare during the events that led up to the entry of the United States into the European conflict that became WWI constitutes a threshold between political analysis and ideology. It is a wedge to pry loose assumptions and prejudices that would falsify political vision and make politics an anti-politics by destroying "human intercourse." This study retrieves that focus of John Dewey’s political philosophy represented by his discussion during the period of the First World War of the use of force in the pursuit of political goals and its distinction from mere violence. 

            To characterize this endeavor as a critical retrieval is to emphasize the critical nature of philosophical reflection which is a critique of thought through what is ignored or forgotten when thought is formulated in concepts.  Dewey’s distinction between force and violence as an instance of political analysis of human action does not need to be repeated as an immutable truth, but must be retrieved from its historical context and his literary works as a contribution to contemporary efforts to understand the slaughter of men by men. That particular movement beyond the simple reiteration of the distinction entails involving Dewey’s political philosophy with that of others and with our own encounter with the blood in the streets, on the walls of block houses, and lining the interiors of school buses. The writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially the Preface to Humanism and Terror, and those of Erich Fromm, particularly The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, pose analyses that intersect with those of Dewey in his consideration of the role of force in politics.  They raise collateral questions and pose oblique critiques that enlarge the scope of Dewey’s political focus and change the angle from which he sees the political world. In the course of that analysis the distinction between force and violence and the conception of politics from which it flows remain important for the construction of political philosophy. Analysis of human actions through context and consequences clearly intersects with Merleau-Ponty analysis of political violence in Humanism and Terror. Dewey’s fundamental distinction between force and violence corresponds to a similar distinction between aggression and sadistic violence in Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. However, the contribution to political philosophy lies in the differences and their truth as sustained by the concrete world.

            Dewey’s political thought was not formed within the intellectual dynamics of the European Marxist movement. He does not take the political analyses of Marx and his followers as a starting for the development of the question of politics and violence. In some ways Dewey is the American post-Hegelian while Marx is the European post-Hegelian; their reactions to Hegel give them some common ground, but also some glaring differences.  In those differences lies the intersection of Merleau-Ponty’s thought with that of Dewey; both assume a world in which human actions carry the weight of conflict and destruction, but, while the concept of force neutralizes the sheer destructiveness of violence or waste in positing positive, concrete consequences for force, Merleau-Ponty views violence in the sense of destructiveness and terror as part of the objective reality of the positive, concrete consequences of human actions. For Fromm, aggressiveness is characteristic of human activity as actions and individuals put themselves forward and assert their physical presence and goals into the social and interpersonal world.  Human destructives arises from the desire to destroy in order to destroy, to cause pain and enjoy the pain of those subjected to violence - that is,  sadism. His analysis goes to the heart of evil and the distortion of the human personality.  At the same time, Dewey, Merleau-Ponty and Fromm can think concretely about the structure of political action because they begin to think through its dilemmas by rejecting political and epistemological absolutism. It is not the relation of actions to ideas that provide the access to political critique, but the relationship of human actions to the concrete world of consequences and social and economic relations that opens up political philosophy to thinking there world.