This is an excerpt from a manuscript on individualism. All references are to Dewey, J. (1999). Individualism Old and New. Promotheus Books.


John Dewey developed a theory of individualism as a response to what he saw as “complete economic determinism” (p. 6). He wrote about early 20th century Americans (ibid):

We live as if economic forces determined the growth and decay of institutions and settled the fate of individuals. Liberty becomes a well-nigh obsolete term; we start, go, and stop at the signal of a vast industrial machine.

Dewey did not oppose profit-driven industry and business, but the mechanization of industrial production and corporatization of the American culture; “the invention of the machine has given [industry and business] a power and scope they never had in the past,” instead of “the development of individualities […] there is a perversion of the whole ideal of individualism to conform to the practices of a pecuniary culture” (p. 9). He wanted that the American ideals of equality and freedom should be expressed “through personal participation in the development of a shared culture” (p. 17).

According to Dewey, the 20th century American individual was trapped in meaningless associations. The loyalties “which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared” (p. 26). The corporatization of society detached individuals from the local ties and allegiances which once held them together, “but not far enough to give them a new centre and order of life” (pp. 30–1). The American society should be recast “to serve the growth of a new type of individual” (p. 40).

Dewey’s contemporaries, in his analysis, were alienated; the philosophical idea “of a complete separation of mind and body is realized in thousands of industrial workers, and the result is a depressed body and an empty and distorted mind” (p. 64). The social conditions discouraged real and personal participation in shared enterprises, restraining “effective and creative individuality” (p. 69).