The Individual and Society

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 –1831) was a leading figure in the movement of  German Idealism initiated by Immanuel Kant and Hegel’s philosophy  expanded on Kant’s theory of knowledge by adding a social and historical element.

Kant had recognized that human beings create knowledge by using laws of reason to incorporate new sensual information cohesively into their previous understanding of reality. The demand to maintain a coherent picture of what is real – a necessary transcendental unity – creates rules of thinking that shape our view of reality.

Hegel realized that not only must individuals maintain a cohesive picture of reality, but societies and cultures must also maintain a collectively held cohesive understanding of what is real. It is not enough for me to know that I am a doctor. If I am truly to be a doctor other people must also see me as a doctor and thereby give me the authority and demand from me the responsibility of being a doctor. Reality is not only individual, it is shared. Hegel further saw that the collective understanding of reality that is held in common by all human beings of particular societies of culture develops through the course of history. In his book The Philosophy of History Hegel outlines a theory of how this development occurs. .You might be able to imagine even from this brief description how Hegel’s ideas were in turn developed by Karl Marx. Marx started with Hegel’s philosophy and added to it his insights about how oppression and class struggle are the drivers of history.

John Dewey was the third great American Pragmatist along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, but unlike Peirce and James, Dewey started his philosophical career as an Hegelian. John Dewey was not associated with Harvard as Peirce and James were. He attended the University of Vermont. The University of Vermont’s first president was James Marsh who was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the central figure of what is known as Vermont Transcendentalism. Marsh was a Kantian and ran a very liberal philosophy program at the University of Vermont. By the time Dewey was an undergraduate in that same philosophy department the philosophical alignment of the program had moved from Kant to Hegel. Dewey’s thinking turned toward Pragmatism after reading William James’ The Principles of Psychology.

Dewey’s version of Pragmatism maintained a Hegelian flavor in a number of ways. For one he wrote much more extensively than the other major Pragmatists of social topics. John Dewey is perhaps the most influential philosopher in American history. During his long career Dewey made major contributions in the areas of logic, ethics, sociology, democracy, and most famously education. Dewey saw the individual as inseparable to society. Society is what defines the individual. Without society there can be no individual. If the individual is the foreground, society is the background. If the individual is the object, society is the context. Without a background there can be no foreground. Without a context there can be no object.

I see Dewey’s thinking as typical of the advancement on German Idealism that the American Pragmatists were exploring and that advancement was process thinking. Having the advantage of Darwin’s remarkable theory of evolution and over a century of remarkable scientific advances, the American Pragmatists were beginning to see things in terms of whole systems . Dewey saw the relationship of the individual to society as a system and Peirce and James saw evolution as an evolving whole system.