Summary of John Dewey's "The Eclipse of the Public"
in The Public and Its Problems

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. American political democracy evolved from small closely-knit communities. Town meetings were the means of securing communal ends. The electoral college and the local school system are reminders that the "public" once operated primarily in highly localized and manageable situations. People could meet to discuss and resolve issues affecting the entire community. But industry, technology, and economic forces have broadened human associations beyond local community boundary lines. The ability to travel and communicate over great distances has brought people together into new associations -- political, economic, etc. -- which go beyond and are more complicated than the neighborly face-to-face interactions of the small community. Political and legal measures have lagged far behind technological forces. Americans are thrown together in a variety of associations over which they seem to have no control. In particular, Americans are made aware -- through communication, travel, and business -- that they are lumped together into a "nation," although they lack the sense of immediate participation that seemed to characterize the local community and the town meeting. Thus, technology and economics have brought about human associations on a broad scale, but association is different from community -- which requires cooperative effort to bring about commonly desired consequences, which requires individual participation in a common "public." There are publics -- too many of them. But there is no genuine public on a national scale. The unity of the American people is a mere consolidation that standardizes and "levels off" cultural and individual differences. It is not a community wherein individuals have a vital role in determining social outcomes and in controlling and directing the conditions that can bring about these social ends. Technology and business bring together people who do not have common social goals (which must be distinguished from economic goals) and who do not have the means to bring about these ends even if they did have such ends.

2. Government must be distinguished from the "public." When the public is a truly effective force, public officials are the instruments or officers through which the public can manage social affairs. Voting for public officials is but a token and a vestige of genuine communal activity. Beyond voting, the management of roads, schools, medicine, money, and commerce is left up to the experts, to the professional managers, to the bureaucrats. Even more, the direction of social progress is left up to mechanical forces, to economic determinism. Society takes a direction whether human individuals play a role or not. If human beings do not consciously determine social ends or values and consciously work toward their fulfillment, other forces -- such as technological or economic -- will be allowed to take over. Economic and technological forces are indeed genuine conditions that reconstruct experience, but human beings acting in common -- as a public -- could add human intelligence, human planning, human anticipation of desirable ends, and the human cooperative action required to meet those ends to the situation presently dominated -- in the absence of a public -- by merely economic forces. Americans are opposed to "economic determinism" as espoused by communist regimes, but they allow their own affairs to be determined in large part by economics. It is perhaps ironic that the former Soviet Union, which espoused "economic determinism" in theory, was perhaps more ruled by ideology and conscious social planning than America, which gives lip service to the importance of social values and ideals. Americans tend to praise social values as ends, but when it comes to means they tend to let mainly economic factors operate. One reason for this is the long-standing presupposition that personal gain should take precedence over the common good. Individualism, as a Hobbesian striving for honor and profit, at the expense of others, persists. Associations can turn into communities -- a shared fund of meaning from which individuals can draw and to which individuals can contribute, wherein both individual and public growth can prosper. On the other hand, associations can be directed to self-gain exclusively, gradually depleting the common fund of shared meaning, values, and work, from which the self draws.

3. Both capitalists and socialists are wrong in absolutizing solely economic values. Economic factors are genuine determinants of experience, but they are not the sole determinants, and by themselves they can move society only toward economic ends. It is up to the people, to a "public," to determine genuine social ends -- such as freedom, equality, communication, democracy, community, etc., as well as to work together using social means to bring about these social ends. Note that for Dewey, freedom and democracy are not given and complete conditions, but are achieved and worked for results. The progress toward social ends is a social progress, not an economic progress. It requires social means, social instruments, socially tested theories and hypotheses, education, and the like. Economic factors can be used in this cooperative effort, but they must be directed in the light of added higher aims and allied to genuinely social tools and processes.

4. Dewey does not deny that "big business" can dominate and rule, but this is because the public is confused about its role and uncertain as to what to do. In addition, people have too many other things to do besides politics. They have personal business to attend to, and they have a wide range of available amusements and entertainments. Political and social issues can hardly compete with the multitude of personal affairs and distractions that proliferate. Even the consumption of goods and services is a pastime which absorbs more attention than public affairs. Only on rare occasions do politicians need to answer to the public for what they are doing. The public is too disorganized and uninformed and distracted to pay attention to more than "headlines" or superficial treatment of issues affecting the public. Consequences and aims are not examined; means and conditions -- mostly mechanical and economic -- are not tested and are given by default free rein in determining social outcomes. Without an informed public consciously directing material and social conditions toward consciously established social ends and values, individuals may fiddle with private amusements and private gain, while "Rome burns." Human beings, organizing into a public by means of communication and cooperation, have the capacity to direct social conditions toward socially desired outcomes. Human beings, swamped by technological and economic changes, feel helpless in the face of events. This helplessness, along with the traditional preoccupation with private gain, produces indifference and apathy toward social affairs. People wish for community and community values, but they feel unable to effect the changes necessary to realize these values. Moreover, individuals are quick to see the benefits of community life, but they are slow to realize that those benefits can only be reaped to the extent that social contributions are sown. According to Dewey, the individual is not "for" the state and the state is not "for" the individual. Both individuals and community (which is distinguished from state) flourish or wither together. Freedom and individuality are not inborn givens. They are the results or the fruits of a consciously tended communal life.

5. Mobility has contributed to social disintegration. Associations are brief and unstable. Time and persistence and communication are required to nourish genuine attachments, the basis of communal life. This continual shifting makes it hard for a public -- which arises from the perception of a common interest in the consequences of social interactions, from the awareness that there is something at stake for all and that some common action and common intervention is required. But the real problem, according to Dewey, is the failure to rethink old social ideas and presuppositions. As forces beyond our control direct affairs toward unimagined and unexpected outcomes, Americans hold onto worn-out ideas that have no power in directing experience. Old aims, old theories, old methods will not fit the present situation. Patchwork metaphysics, timeworn dualisms, social theories that view the individual as an "atom" rather than as an organism, political theories that espouse an "individualism" that does not work and that contradicts the facts of experience, philosophical theories that downgrade matter and material conditions and therefore ignore the consequences of these conditions, worship of ends (even social ends) apart from their relationship to the processes and conscious effort tied to these ends -- all of these are feeble instruments in the face of present social needs. The political situation needs to be reconstructed by a public that shares and communicates new symbols. In other words, the conditions of life together can be directed toward desirable consequences by an educated public -- that is, by a public that has a clear idea of what it wants and values and how to act together to bring its affairs to a successful conclusion -- a public that not only envisions ends, but sees these ends in meaningful relation to appropriate means and instruments. The alternative, according to Dewey, to consciously directed social action is abdication to unconscious material and economic forces. Situations always have outcomes, whether humans intervene or not. Human intervention cannot guarantee successful outcomes, but it can foster conditions that lead to favorable outcomes. Human cooperative intelligence can redirect social conditions. In addition, the very operation of the "public" -- people working side by side, communicating with one another, united in a common interest -- is enjoyable and satisfying in itself. Just as action tied to and animated by an anticipated aim is meaningful and enjoyable in itself, so common action tied to and inspired by a common purpose is meaningful and enjoyable in itself. As growth is both a means and an end for the individual, so community is both a means and an end for associated individuals.

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Copyright © 1997 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.