Inquiry, Experimentation and the Conditions for a Community of Shared Meanings: A Deweyan Approach to Democracy and Law

Christopher J Collins, Fordham University


The “problem” that John Dewey grappled with in The Public and Its Problems was the inability of governments in putative democracies to regulate according to the public’s common good – a problem still perceived today. According to Dewey, the source of the problem was not any feature of government forms or institutional structures, nor the qualities or capabilities of officials. Rather, the problem was with the pubic itself. The complexities of modern industrialized societies had so overwhelmed the public that it could not recognize itself, or its interests, let alone communicate those interest to its representative officials in government. Dewey argued that the public must aspire to take on the characteristics of a Great Community in order to block the alienating effects of the Great Society. This will require radical transformation of political society and dramatic improvement of the communicative capacities and dispositions of ordinary citizens. Much of what Dewey says in The Public and Its Problems about the public, community, and the common good is abstract. Moreover, he does not explain what a public might do to assume more the characteristics of a Great Community. These were tasks he intentionally left open for further theorizing, and they are the focus of this dissertation. First, I develop an account of a “community of shared meanings” building on Dewey’s brief remarks in The Public and Its Problems and drawing on other resources from his practical and social philosophy. I then explain how this conception of community functions as a Deweyan ideal orienting concerted activities in ameliorative directions, and how it relates to a Deweyan notion of the common good. I then use Dewey’s theory of inquiry to develop a functional account of law as a means to address the problems of the pubic. Three orders of socio-political inquiry, with three corresponding orders of law, are developed. Third-order laws are especially important because they aim to create conditions in which a community of shared meanings can emerge within a public.

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Recommended Citation

Collins, Christopher J, "Inquiry, Experimentation and the Conditions for a Community of Shared Meanings: A Deweyan Approach to Democracy and Law" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10125231.