John Dewey
Researched and written by:  Donald F. Kneessi
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

  • John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. His father, Archibald, left the family tradition of farming, which had been followed for three generations, to become a grocer in the small city of Burlington. Dewey's mother was named Lucina.  Archibald sold the grocery business when he volunteered to join the Union Army in the Civil War, but after the war he became owner of a cigar and tobacco shop (Ecker, 1997).
  • John and his two brothers grew up in a middle-class household in a community that included old Americans as well as new immigrants from Ireland and French Quebec. Lucina Dewey carried out philanthropic work with poor families living in the industrial section of Burlington. At his mother's request, Dewey joined the First Congregational Church at age eleven, although he later sought a more liberal religious perspective than was evident in his mother's conservative church (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey completed his grade school work in Burlington's public schools at age 12. He selected the college-preparatory track in high school, starting in 1872 and completed his high school courses in three years. He began attending the University of Vermont, in Burlington, in 1875, when he was 16 years old. The classical curriculum was similar to Dewey's high school courses, emphasizing Greek and Latin, English literature, math, and rhetoric; however, the faculty encouraged their students to be themselves and to think their own thoughts. By his senior year, Dewey was immersed in studies of political, social, and moral philosophy (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. With the help of a relative, he obtained a high school teaching position in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he was part of a three-member faculty for two years. Dewey returned to Vermont in 1881, where he combined high school teaching with continuing study of philosophy, under the tutoring of Dewey's former undergraduate professor, Henry A. P. Torrey (Ecker, 1997).
  • In September 1882, Dewey entered Johns Hopkins University to begin graduate studies in philosophy. Dewey continued to study philosophy, as well as history and political science as minors (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey's dissertation, "The Psychology of Kant," was completed in 1884. The manuscript was never published and has never been found; however, an article by Dewey titled "Kant and Philosophic Method," published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy in April 1884 is believed to cover some of the same material as the dissertation (Ecker, 1997).
  • After the completion of his Ph.D., Dewey received an appointment as an instructor of philosophy at Michigan, where he began teaching in September 1884. Dewey taught a variety of courses and wrote a number of articles. Two articles published in the journal Mind in 1886, brought Dewey to the attention of the scholarly community. In these articles Dewey attempted to bring together views of philosophy and psychology; he argued that philosophy did not need a special methodology, since it is an expanded or more comprehensive psychology (Ecker, 1997).
  • At Michigan, Dewey also was involved in founding and supporting a number of student organizations, including the Philosophical Society, the Students' Christian Association, and the Michigan Schoolmasters' Club, which studied the issues and connections between public secondary schools and universities (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey's first book, Psychology, was published in 1887. In it, he explained a single philosophical system that was based on connections between the scientific study of psychology and German idealist philosophy. The book was well-received by some scholars and was adopted as a textbook at several universities, but it was criticized by Dewey's former professor of psychology, G. Stanley Hall, and by Hall's mentor, the philosopher William James (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey's growing reputation as a scholar and teacher led to an offer to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota. Dewey accepted the position of Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy in 1888. He remained at Minnesota for only one year, and then returned to Michigan in 1889 to serve as Chair of the Department of Philosophy.  Dewey continued to teach, write, and be involved in campus and community issues (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey remained at Michigan until 1894, when he was recruited by William Rainey Harper to join the faculty at University of Chicago. Dewey resigned his position at the University of Chicago in 1904.  He established a laboratory school, a radical innovation in education, which became the cornerstone  for the progressive education movement (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • He was soon offered a professorship at Columbia University, with appointments in Philosophy and the Teacher's College. Dewey remained at Columbia until the end of his active teaching career in 1930, and his most noted works in philosophy and education were completed while he was associated with Columbia. He continued his teaching as an emeritus professor until 1939, and then retired completely from university activities. Dewey continued to write and speak about intellectual and social issues until shortly before his death on June 1, 1952. (Ecker, 1997).
  • Dewey was brilliant, but he was not a good teacher (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • Dewey’s article “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”, published in the Psychological review (1896).  The article became so popular that it was voted the most influential article published in the 50 first volumes of the Psychological Review (Backe cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • Dewey attacked the psychological molecularism, elementism, and reductionism of the reflex arc with its distinction between stimulus and response.  Dewey was arguing that neither behavior nor conscious experience could be reduced to elements.  The reflex arc argued that any unit of behavior ends with the response to a stimulus, such as when a child withdraws his or her hand from a flame.  Dewey suggested that the reflex forms more of a circle than an arc because the child perception of the fame changes, thus serving a different function (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • Initially the flame attracted the child, but after feeling its effects, the child repelled by the flame.  The response has altered the child’s perception of the stimulus (the flame).  Therefore, perception and movement (stimulus and response) must be considered as a unit and not as a composition of individual sensations and responses (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • By thus, Dewey was arguing that the behavior involved in a reflexive response can not be meaningfully reduced to a basic sensorimotor  elements anymore than consciousness can be meaningfully analyzed into elementary component parts. (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 
  • This type of artificial analysis and reduction causes behavior to lose all meaning, leaving only abstractions in the mind of the psychologist performing the exercise.  Dewey noted that behavior should be treated not as an artificial construct but rather in the terms of its significance to the organism adapting to its environment. Dewey concluded that the proper subject matter for psychology had to be the study of the total organism as it functions in its environment (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 




Ecker, P. (1997). John Dewey


Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology.

p. 194-195. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.



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