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the Open Society and Pluralism

The American Pragmatists on the Values of Pluralism and Democratic Debate
It is by no means surprising that American pragmatists should have responded to the challenge of totalitarianism in the mid-twentieth century. Not just Cold War realities, but philosophical method and values were key factors in this response. Given its strong emphasis on experimental method and the value of individual experience and fallibilism in epistemology, pragmatism would seem prima facie inimical to dictatorship.

i. John Dewey on Democratic Method
Philosophy, in order to be at its best, requires both critical thinking and democratic action, on any interpretation of Dewey’s pragmatism. In a number of works published between the 1930s and his death in 1952, John Dewey felt compelled to defend democracy against the growth and expansionism of totalitarianism, and this engagement was in keeping with Dewey’s passion for social activism and public education over the course of his long life. Dewey’s action on this matter included chairing the 1937 Dewey Commission that critically examined Soviet charges against Leon Trotsky.

Dewey had been interested in the problems of democracy for some time when he wrote his 1939 democratic credo I Believe. The rapid expansion of fascism and the Soviet Great Purge of the mid to late 1930s alerted Dewey to imminent threats to individual freedom from diverse quarters. In this short work, Dewey stated that he felt compelled to emphasize the fundamental value and importance of individuals over the state in the face of creeping totalitarianism. He here affirmed the pragmatist conviction that experience and institutions tempered by democratic problem solving ought to be primary in social philosophy. Dewey held that such problem solving, in order to be ethically compelling, must be respectful of the fundamental primacy of individual rights. It must furthermore involve an important element of negotiation and compromise over dogmatic assertion.