Code: TP-26


John Dewey’s Theism





This paper seeks to evaluate John Dewey’s understanding of God by examining how the word is used throughout his writings. While there are three ways in which the word is used, it is the second and third understandings which are focused on in this paper. In the second understanding God is the union between the actual and the ideal. This paper covers his views concerning the ideal and how it is rooted within actuality and the importance of a view in which it matters that humans should strive to actualize inclusive ideals. In the third understanding God is the forces and conditions at work which actualize ideals. This paper examines some possible candidates which could be identified with such forces and conditions. It is the philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman, who identifies the best candidate: communication. It is Dewey’s theory of communication which can lay a groundwork for a viable theism.




"It is possible that, somewhat indirectly, at least, he (John Dewey)

may prove a principal creator of what appear as the twentieth century’s

supreme theoretical discovery-theistic naturalism"

                           -Charles Hartshorne (Hartshorne, BH, p.56)


The relationship between John Dewey and theism has always been marked with a

certain tension. This tension has been rooted in Dewey’s public disavowals of theism, his

rejection of traditional notions of God, and his signing of the first Humanist Manifesto. On the other hand he still retained the use of the word God when addressing the topic of  religion and his philosophic project was deeply influential for a whole generation of liberal Protestant thinkers. Hartshorne’s quote captures this tension by stating that while Dewey may not have directly sought this, his work ended up laying the groundwork for a naturalistic theism that would make it’s impact felt in 20th century American religious thought.

When Dewey writes about God, there are three ways in which the wordoperates. The first way is to connect the word God with the idea of the whole

and our relation to the whole. This whole may be the full world of experience or it may

be the imaginative felt unity between the human and the universe. Dewey, secondly, uses the word God to describe the unification of the ideal and the actual, or having the ideal actualized in human experience. Sometimes Dewey will write of this union as the active relation between the ideal as it becomes actualized. Thirdly, and connected with the second use, God is the environing conditions which play it’s part in actualizing ideals.

The purpose of this paper is to examine Dewey’s work to see if it provides an adequate basis for theism. This will be done by exploring Dewey’s second and third use of the word God.



In discussing the relation between the ideal and the actual, for Dewey, one would need to clear up particular issues on how the ideal has been historically conceived. The actual, Dewey writes, is the given conditions which we face today.  The ideal arises from situations which are imaginatively reconfigured in a way which presents possible courses of actions to change the situation for the better. As Dewey writes "Assertion of an idea or of an ideal, if it is genuine, is a claim that it is possible to modify what exists." (Dewey, QFC, p.300)

In this way, Dewey is able to say that ideals are not groundless or unconnected with the world we live in. Ideals are derived from actual conditions that make up human relations, cultures, institutions, our natural environment, and so on. Imagination provides the basis of "seeing, in terms of possibilities old things in new relations serving a new end which the new end aids in creating." (Dewey, CF, p.49). The imagination refers to this capacity to rearrange something that is, to imagine what it could possibly do or be.

The historical temptation has been to collapse the ideal into some actuality. While Dewey wants to insure that ideals are rooted in and come out of actualities, ideals are not themselves just another actuality. The temptation is so strong, Dewey thinks, because there has been a priority in the western tradition to that which exists. If ideals are to be valued they must exist, if not in this world then at least in some other realm. (Dewey, QFC, p.306)

There are two ways one might assert that ideals are existing actualities. One can say that this world is the place where ideals are fully actualized. One example of this is the argument that this world is the best possible of all possible worlds, an argument put forward by Leibniz.(Hamsphire, p.168) Such a view, takes on an air of unreality given the profound evils and inhumane conditions that much of the world has been subjected to, some of which strikes one as utterly gratuitous. Such a trivialization of evil, makes a large part of life’s experience inexplicable and provides no resources for meliorative courses of action.

The other way to assert that ideals are already an existent actuality is to posit some supernatural realm by which ideals can exist. Whether this is in God or in some realm of eternal objects, Dewey finds this view objectionable..The view tends to tie religious thinking into specific propositional claims about the supernatural abode which go beyond human experience. Given the power of scientific and empirical methods of inquiry, such a view has fallen into disrepute. And a religion which ties itself to such a view suffers the same fate.. (Dewey, CF, p.43)

If the temptation is undergone, then the power of the ideal, upon human life, becomes vanquished. As Charles Hartshorne wrote "The whole point of an ideal, Dewey reminds us, is that it defines possible, but not wholly actual achievement."  If ideals are already actualized whether in God or in another realm or in this world, there is no reason why ideals should be striven for in the first place. Fatal acquiescence to the world and it’s happenings would be the only option left for living.(Hartshorne, CAP, p.92)

When one recognizes the linkage between ideals and this world and that ideals are not actualized but call for actualization then one is able to get a better sense of the way ideals operate for Dewey.

Ideals, because they are ideals, have a particular ought-ness quality about them. This quality is rooted in the fact that the ideal is not actualized but it could be actualized. But it is also rooted in the attraction of the ideal itself. It moves us, motivates us, presents itself to us as a worthwhile end. Ideals operate as something "which imagination presents to us and to which the human will responds as worthy of controlling our desires and choices." (Wieman, IFF,  p.40).

The response to the ideal is rooted in Dewey's distinction between accommodation, adaptation and adjustment. Accommodation occurs when our response to the world is governed by seeking to modify our actions to fit with whatever the environing situation presents itself as. (Dewey, CF, p.15) Adaptation occurs when we decide to shape the environment to our own ends and desires. "Instead of accommodating ourselves to conditions, we modify conditions so that they will be accommodated to our wants and purposes."(Dewey, CF,p.16) There are occasions where adaptation and accommodation are necessary responses to the world, but as a general orientation they lead to the problem of acquiescence on the one hand and the myth of humans having ultimate control and power over nature on the other. In terms of relating to ideals, in a way which has efficacy neither option will do.

Rather Dewey claims that ideals move us when we act in terms of  what he calls adjustment. This response occurs when ideals "possess the will" and lay a claim on us as worthy of action. The response is one in which there is a holding together of human choice and a sense that there is something in the ideal which is compelling a particular course of action. (Wieman, IFF, p.42)

Given the plurality of ideals and goods to be realized do we have a picture of human beings chasing after various ends but living a life not marked by any unified purpose? Dewey claims no and this is where God comes in. God "denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action." (Wieman, IFF, p.40) The unification of ideal ends is not rooted in a collapse of all ideals into each other. It's not rooted in a collapse of ideal ends with an actuality.

The unification occurs on two levels. First, unification is not the elimination of distinctive ideal ends. Rather unification happens when various ideals end up supporting one another. To be an inclusive ideal is to be an end which unifies various goods and actions being done so that whatever we do re-enforces the ends being sought after.

Secondly there is a felt unification of one’s self and with our environment through our striving and achieving ideal ends. As Dewey writes "Inner harmony is attained only, by some means, terms are made with the environment." (Dewey, AE, 17). Dewey’s description in Art as Experience is one of an organism engaged in a rhythmic falling in and out of equilibrium with the environment. But the coming back into equilibrium involves a change in ourselves and our environment. An accruing of new methods and new experiences changes us in this successful adjustment such that the way we encounter the world is different and more meaningful, precisely because new encounters are filled with meaning and value derived from the previous encounters of disequilibrium and equilibrium.

The change being described by Dewey, is one of which one’s past experiences of adjustment with our world informs and shapes who we are and how we encounter new experiences. The impact of such experiences Dewey describes in this way "But, through the phases of perturbation and conflict, there abides the deep-seated memory of an underlying harmony, the sense of which haunts life like the sense of being found on a rock." (Dewey, AE, p.17) This sense of harmony then occurs within actual adjustments of life to the world and does not simply rest on sentiment or imagination.

This brings us to the third use of God in Dewey’s writings. Dewey writes of God as not only the unification of the ideal and actual but also "all the natural forces and conditions...that promote the growth of the ideal" (Wieman, IFF, p.43) 

This particular understanding of God, is the one which was the least explicitly dealt with by Dewey and yet has provided much material in the theological work of those affected by Dewey’s project. What makes this particular understanding of God fruitful is that it can provide the basis for inquiry into what conditions and forces do in fact promote the growth of the ideal and it’s actualization, so that we can adjust our activities, both individually and socially, in a way which cooperates with such forces.

There seems to be several candidates in Dewey’s thought in terms of what these conditions and forces are. The first candidate, could be the community of human life, both present and past, which has provided the conditions that we face in life today. This long chain of humanity and the work that marks this community becomes the source of the "heritage of values" by which ideals can grow. (Dewey, CF, p.87)

But then there is another candidate. At the end of A Common Faith, Dewey writes

The community of causes and consequences in which we, together

with those not born, are enmeshed in the widest and deepest symbol

of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe.

...It is the matrix within which our ideal aspirations are born and

bred. It is the source of the values that the moral imagination

projects as directive criteria and as shaping purposes. (Dewey, CF, 85)


In this understanding, the universe or every part of the universe which is related to and impacts human life is what constitutes the forces at work which create ideals and their actualization.. It is to this which Dewey identifies as God. Instead of a chain of humanity or the civilization which humans are born into and help create, we have a more cosmic vision. And what adds to the breadth of such a vision is that it includes not just the past and present but the future, "those not born". (Dewey, CF, p.85)

There is a third candidate, but one which Dewey never specifically identifies. It would take later commentators to identify this as a basis for religious thought and even then it is not commonly done. Before this paper goes into this, there are particular strengths and weaknesses of the first two candidates.

 First, Dewey’s understanding of God actually puts value on human striving for ideals. Ideals prove their efficacy in that they are not realized, so human action is needed, but because they are embedded in the actual, it is not a vain hope that such ideals can be realized. Secondly, Dewey’s idea of God avoids the temptation to value the ideal and disparage the actual or to value the actual and disparage the ideal. Both provide the basis for meaningful existence. Thirdly, the vision of the source of values as such is so broad, that no experience or no area of life can be cut off as unimportant and not worthy of interest and value. Thus, it strikes out against any form of idolatry that would seek to cut us off from each other or from the natural world as such.

But this last point becomes the weakness, one that Dewey counsels against. The weakness is that it is problematic to have vague and general causes for what ends up being experienced as concrete goods. Dewey expresses a hope that the way we treat questions of value and morals can move away from such broad generalizations, so that we can more specifically deal with concrete goods and the means to bringing them about. (Dewey, CF, p.77). Given the importance of the ideal, of possibilities, of realizing value in the world, claiming that the source of these things is the human community or the natural world, becomes so broad and general as to not provide the sort of specific direction in life needed to bring these things about.

The third candidate could avoid this problem, providing the sort of specificity to the forces and conditions at work which create meaning, value, and the actualization of the ideal. This third candidate is rooted in Dewey’s idea of communication. Communication is given scant attention by Dewey when he is specifically addressing the topic of religion and yet in his understanding of  it does work to provide a basis for meaning and value.

First communication is rooted in symbols and the ability to represent meanings broader then a bare event. Thus we are taken out of the bare immediacy of experience to a realm of meanings by which particular events can be related and informed by one another and thus providing some recourse of appropriate response to whatever the event is. As Dewey writes "Where communication exists, things in acquiring meaning...are infinitely more amenable to management." (Dewey, EN, p.167)

Secondly, communication means that meanings are shared, one is communicating to another and so one adapts one’s actions and discourse in such a way that it can become meaningful for the other as well. Thus meaning is never private, but is rooted in a particular exchange with one another. (Dewey, EN, p.166)

This ability to represent meaning to one another, means that the prizings of civilization which Dewey writes of in the end of A Common Faith can have continuity and can be shared across generations and well into the future. To be able to have this level of continuity of meaning and value, demands the ability to share meaning across spans of time and generations as well as across cultures and space. Without this ability to communicate, the idea of relating ourselves to some  human or natural community would become nonsensical. (Wieman, IFF, p.32-33)

Thirdly, such communication provides the basis for ideals, in that it becomes possible to symbolize in language and in the imagination possibilities, which are not yet existent. Instead of being caught within an immediate environment, we are in a position to rearrange in our mind the actuality in which we live in so as to imagine different possibilities and the resultant courses of action needed to actualize them. (Wieman, IFF, p.32-33)

Fourthly, communication creates the possibility of communities, which broadens the arena of possibilities as well as the means by which such possibilities could become actualized. The wider the community, the more widely shared are the meanings which can inform one’s life. As Dewey writes "communication is not only a means to common ends but is the sense of community, communion actualized. (Wieman, IFF, p.32-33)    

When one considers the way in which John Dewey’s language about God operates, the realm of communication becomes the means by which any of these other ways become explicable. To either unite the ideal and the actual or to have a sense of ourselves in relation to the whole, requires communication.. If we wish to nurture ideals and their actualization and have a sense of a unity of ourselves with each other and a whole we need to further a particular form of communicative action.


Is John Dewey a Theist?

The question of the relationship of Dewey to theism is a problematic one. On the one hand, if one was to conceive of theism in narrower terms, Dewey could not be a theist. He rejected the belief in a supernatural entity or entities and he rejected the belief in a transcendent personal being. He was a signer of the first Humanist Manifesto which right from the start says that the time for theism has ended and the turn must be to human well being and flourishing. As Edgar Brightman puts it "Dewey’s thought, stated simply, is that we should be better off if we to forget about whether there is a God or not and devote ourselves to bettering the state of human life by active, social efforts." (Brightman, p.53).

There are some problems with this picture of Dewey’s thought though. As the paper demonstrated, Dewey’s concern is much broader in range than social improvement for human beings. It was rooted in the search for the unity of the self to one another and the self to the whole cosmos. Dewey’s religious language is really one of finding our place in the universe, and this concern is not always made apparent if one starts off with the assumption that Dewey was a humanist and social reformer and leave it at that.

On the other hand, if we are to conceive of theism in broader terms, we could still run into problems. Paul Tillich defined God in terms of ultimate concern. Since everyone has some ultimate concern that governs their life, by definition Dewey is a theist and so is really everyone else for that matter. When the word has become so elastic as to cover all people, the specific markers which provide use for a particular word is no longer there or available for use. It just doesn’t mean anything per se if everyone is covered by the term and there is nothing to distinguish the term from. (Wieman, IFF, p.48)

So the question becomes, does Dewey’s understanding of the word God provide a meaningful understanding of the term. In otherwords, is it theistic? This issue became front and center when the debate surrounding A Common Faith came to the pages of the Christian Century magazine. Henry Nelson Wieman’s review of the work interpreted Dewey as embracing theism. Dewey rejected this assessment. Why?(Rockefeller, p.524)

The debate centered around what operates to promote actualizing ideals and human well being. Dewey sets himself off from theism by claiming that the forces and processes at work which create for the possibilities of good and actualizing ideals are manifold and not one. Therefore Wieman’s claim that there is one center which is the source of good is at odds with Dewey.

But Wieman was able to look at Dewey's understanding of communication and see it as the unified source of meaning and value that the theism of Wieman was working on. In doing so, it is reflective of a unified source of good in Dewey's own writings, which suggests that Dewey's disavowals of theism was not legitimate. And if this is the case,.where does this leave us?

We have a picture of God as that which is able to conserve what is good and what is ideal through the process of communication. God can become the source of ideals and good, in that this process of communication generates an increase shared meanings  as well as human sympathy for the other. God has specificity, referring to a particular process and so it’s possible to inquire into what conditions will unleash the possibilities of this process.

          In the end, Dewey came to particular understandings of God which have provided a rich base


to work from in 20th century American religious thought. Whether or not such a conception can


provide a meaningful framework for worshiping communities  is not clear but it is the case that 


his work provides the sort of  framework by which a theism which calls us to this life and world, can


be understood and articulated.












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Dewey, John. A Common Faith. Hartford CT: Yale University Press, 1934

                      Art as Experience. New York City: Capricorn Press, 1958

                      Experience and Nature. New York City: Dover Press, 1958

                      The Quest for Certainty. New York City: Capricorn Press, 1960

Hampshire, Stuart. The Age of Reason. New York City: Mentor Books, 1956

Hartshorne, Charles. Beyond Humanism. Chicago: Willet and Clark, 1937

                                Creativity in American Philosophy. Albany NY: SUNY Press, 1984

Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism.

                                 New York City: Columbia Press, 1991

Wieman, Henry Nelson. American Philosophers of Religion. Chicago: Willet & Clark,


                               Intellectual Foundation of Faith. New York: Philosophic Library, 1961