John Dewey: The Lost Individual

John Dewey was a philosopher, and sometimes he writes as one – carefully and logically. The following passage , which I am copying from the book Classical American Philosophy, page 383, has this same lucid, calm, academic style. Bear in mind, however, that what he is describing is our modern version of Hell.

The development of a civilization that is outwardly corporate – or rapidly becoming so – has been accompanied by a submergence of the individual. Just how true this is of the individual’s opportunities in action, how far initiative and choice in what an individual does are restricted by the economic forces that make for consolidation, I shall not attempt to say.

It is arguable that there has been a diminution on the range of decision and activity for the many along with the exaggeration opportunity of personal expression for the few. It may be contended that no one class in the world in the past has the power possessed by an industrial oligarchy.

On the other hand, it may be held that this power of the few is, with respect to genuine individuality, specious; that those outwardly in control are in reality as much carried by forces external to themselves as are the many; that in fact these forces impel into a common mold to such an extent that individuality is suppressed.

Stability of individuality is dependent on assured objects of belief to which allegiance firmly attaches itself. But the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.  It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief as the present. Individuals vibrate between a past that is intellectually too empty to give stability and a present that is too diversely crowded and chaotic to afford balance or direction to ideas and emotion.

Judged by this standard, even those who seem to be in control, and to carry the expression of their special abilities to a high pitch, are submerged. They may be captains of finance and industry, but until there is some consensus of belief as to the meaning of finance and industry in civilization as a whole, they cannot be captains of their own souls – their beliefs and aims. They exercise leadership surreptitiously and, as it where, absent mindedly. They lead, but it is under cover of impersonal and socially undirected forces.

This is not only true of those at the top. It is also true of the many specialists on whom they depend. They are the ones who create the new techniques and new technologies that enable it all work together. They are valuable when the have the special skills in demand at the moment – but these never last long.


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