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  • John Dewey and Social Criticism:An Introduction
  • Arvi Särkelä and Justo Serrano Zamora

Critical social theories are generally understood to be distinct from other normative theories by their explicit orientation toward emancipation: they not only present normative criteria for assessing the legitimacy or justification of social institutions or merely inquire into the actualized freedom of a given form of social life but claim to point toward a “freedom in view”—an end that might aid those participating in social struggles to overcome the pathological, alienated, or ideological social order of the present. John Dewey’s social theory clearly cherishes this ideal of social criticism. It contributes to a critical social inquiry in a variety of ways, some of which, so we believe, are still to be discovered. For a long time, however, it was rarely discussed explicitly as a critical theory or in the context of other traditions of social critique, as exemplified by the Frankfurt school.

Yet the last few years have witnessed a reemergence of attempts to bring Dewey and critical social theory into dialogue. In this context, some central questions concerning the possibility of a critical theory in our times arise: Should Dewey be understood as a Frankfurtian critical theorist? Or is he, [End Page 213] rather, providing an original and challenging form of social criticism of his own? If the latter is the case, what is the nature of Deweyan social criticism? Can a productive dialogue between both paradigms, the Frankfurtian and the Deweyan, be brought about? This special issue on Dewey and social criticism collects seven articles that adhere to this idea of a productive dialogue while aspiring to underline Dewey’s unique contribution to critical social theory. Indeed, although none of the authors wants to reduce Dewey to the role of a classical “critical theorist,” these essays show that Dewey did provide his own perspective on the classical topics of the Frankfurtian kind of social critique, such as the method of immanent critique, social ontology, the dialectic of progress, the ontology of work, gender domination, and social conflict and mobilization. However, Dewey achieved all this by sticking firmly to his own ideas of naturalist metaphysics, progressive historicism, instrumentalism, democratic epistemology, and radical fallibilism—all commitments that stand in tension with some of the tenets of Frankfurt school critical theory.

The articles in this issue have a common ancestry. They all originated as papers presented at the workshop “Freedom in View? The Critical Theory of John Dewey,” which took place at the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt on April 17–18, 2015. As the director of the Institute of Social Research, Axel Honneth, pointed out in his introductory speech, bringing Dewey’s thought back to the building at the Seckenberganlage was not casual but marked a new era in the history of the reception of American pragmatism by the Frankfurt school tradition. As is known from the writings of Horkheimer (e.g., 2004, 29–42), the attitude of German social critics to their American pragmatist colleagues was not always as charitable as it became after Apel’s and Habermas’s reception of Peirce. Besides some surprising insights by Adorno (e.g., 1993, 144–45) about Dewey’s Hegelian immanent critique, one can only talk of a strong critical-theoretical reception of Dewey’s work from the 1980s onward, with Honneth (1998) and Joas (1993) as initial protagonists soon to be followed up by Hartmann (2003) and Jaeggi (2014). The authors in this issue, however, do not merely wish to receive Deweyan ideas into critical theory but, in fact, to interpret Dewey’s original approach to social criticism in its own right.

Hence, this issue consists of a selection of essays that do not mainly focus on historical issues such as the reception of Dewey in the Frankfurt school. Instead, these authors raise systematic claims and questions: they focus [End Page 214] on the nature of the (philosophy of) social criticism that Dewey practiced. The first four texts deal with the general social-critical claim of Dewey’s philosophy, while the last three articles explore Dewey’s contribution to central questions of social criticism: work, gender, and social movements.

In his article “Immanent Critique...


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