Imagination and Judgment in John Dewey's Philosophy: Intelligent transactions in a democratic context



In this essay, I attempt to interpret the educational philosophy of John Dewey in a way that accomplishes two goals. The first of these is to avoid any reference to Dewey as a propagator of a particular scientific method or to any of the individualist and cognitivist ideas that is sometimes associated with him. Secondly, I want to overcome the tendency to interpret Dewey as a naturalist by looking at his concept of intelligence. It is argued that ‘intelligent experience’ is the basic concept of education. I suggest how this concept should be understood. I propose to look at it as an interplay between the faculties of imagination and judgment.

This essay is an attempt to reconfigure the relationship between democracy, learning, and intelligence in John Dewey's educational philosophy. In doing this, I address two problems. The first problem has to do with the interpretation, particular within the psychological domain, of the social aspects of John Dewey's work. The other problem is concerned with the way much of the research on Dewey's educational philosophy combines the concepts of experience and intelligence.

It is quite commonplace, particular within psychology, to equate the educational philosophy of John Dewey with two points of view. First, his thoughts are attached to an individualist approach to education. This is found in quotations such as ‘Dewey's concept of experience has often been criticised for being too individualistic and lacking a societal dimension’ (Illeris, 1998, p. 151). In this way, Illeris accentuates a tendency to forget that the concept of learning in Dewey's thought is deeply integrated with his philosophy of society. This observation is reinforced in Philipp Gonon's review of how Dewey has been interpreted in Germany: ‘In German-speaking countries, John Dewey came to be considered a school reformer, an advocate of the project method and as the propagator of a cognitivist psychology of learning’ (Gonon, 2000, p. 141). Second, as indicated in the Gonon quote as well, Dewey is attributed a particular method, the method of project work. This method and similar approaches are quite often interpreted as a sequence of instrumental phases in the cognitive handling of a particular problem. These phases have different names, e.g. problem-setting, hypotheses, experimentation and evaluation, that is, formal circular structures of cognition working completely independently of the content of education.1 The project method is considered to be a universal procedure, which can be taught and learned by anybody, at any age and in any disciplinary circumstance. As long as the student works along these lines, everything else seems to take care of itself.

However, both assumptions are mistaken. The reasons for the mistakes are, first, that Dewey's theory of learning and education is not at all attached to an individualistic psychology. Basically, in a certain sense, it is not a theory based on individuality at all. I will return to that later. Second, it is not the alleged ‘method’ that should be the focus of an attempt to identify the educational process. Thus, the ideas in this essay fit with a recent trend to discuss Dewey as a contributor to an understanding of the exact character of postmodernity, language and plurality—and as distant from scientism and cognitivist psychology.

Furthermore, not only has Dewey been the victim of methodological and psychological simplifications, we can, if we look into much research on Dewey, find a lack of understanding of the role of intelligence in educational experience. It is telling, for instance, that, in recent books on the matter, there is no chapter or discussion on ‘intelligence’ as such (e.g. Hickman, 1998; Oelkers & Rhyn, 2000). Another tendency in the modern reception of Dewey is a kind of ‘dismantling strategy’, a reduction of Dewey to be ‘merely’ a proponent of an open society. An example of this is found in this quote from Richard Rorty: ‘I have urged elsewhere that all that remains of Peirce's, Dewey's and Popper's praise of science is praise of certain moral virtues—those of an open society—rather that any specifically epistemic strategy’ (Rorty, 1999, p. 36). This ‘lack’ of interest and this process of ‘emptying’ are frustrating, because, as we shall see, Dewey actually equated educational experience with intelligent experience. Finally, there is a tendency to equate Dewey's philosophy of education with a philosophy of experience. This is not, of course, altogether wrong, but there is a pitfall in this view. The problem is that the concept of experience is relevant to all Dewey's philosophy. By focusing only on experience, therefore, one tends to reduce the education of philosophy to his natural philosophy, and this ‘naturalism’ of Dewey is, I think, unduly highlighted. To make ‘experience’ the focal concern is in this sense equivalent to forgetting the concept of ‘education’ altogether, certainly a problematic consequence. I am not going to say that ‘experience’ is irrelevant to education. On the contrary, experience is the underlying ground for the whole analysis to come. I am going to argue, however, that what transforms an experience into an educative experience is the idea of intelligence, and I intend to present an interpretation of how this concept of intelligence should be understood. One may say, to put the point a bit polemically, that education should not be defined as ‘learning by doing’ but as ‘learning by intelligence’.

Thus, the task in this essay is to reinterpret Dewey with these challenges in mind. That is, first, to look at his concept of educational experience as being inscribed in a broader social philosophy and to look at it as a theory of learning that is deeply embedded in the subject matter and cultural material of education. Second, the task is to discuss his concept of experience in a way that is closely connected to Dewey's idea of intelligence. To realise this goal, I will identify an educational circularity, which is simultaneously detached from and attached to the subject matter of the educational process and which is far more advanced than the simple formal circularity of learning, which is found in various kinds of ‘method-essentialisms’. By pointing to both canonical and overlooked passages in Democracy and Education and Art as Experience, I will provide a conceptual circularity between habit, imagination and judgment, and this circularity is outlined in Figure 1. This circularity works, whether we talk about individuals, organisation, groups, adults or children, as a constant state of intelligent reconstruction of habits at all levels in an open society. It is this circularity that is the subject matter of this article. Educational experience is not a formal or a natural process—but a process in which the subject and the world simultaneously emerge in an open, intelligent and quivering instant, due to the workings of habit, imagination and judgement. The consequence is that thinking is both connected to and detached from culture and society, an ambivalence that might be fruitful for future ideas of education based on the ideas of pragmatism.

Figure 1.

The transaction of the existing cultural and the possible social world in the medium of imagination and judgement

The article begins with a short presentation of the concept of experience. It is argued, perhaps trivially to some, that experience has two aspects, a passive and an active component, and that all understanding of the processes of learning must be interpreted with this duality and the transactions of its parts in mind. Subsequently, it is argued that the passive side of experience should be equated with the faculty of imagination, that is, the ability to make something present which is absent (the cultural material). On the other hand, the active side of experience is found in the faculty of judgment, that is, the ability to communicate reflectively to a critically engaged audience. This is how simple it is and, to my knowledge, there has been no such systematic inquiry into the concepts of imagination and judgment by recent commentators on Dewey's work. I will not have space to go much into the consequences of this for the practice of schooling. However, as indicated above, I think that the insights of this essay point to a much more positive attitude towards schooling as an institution, which is simultaneously both more remote from and more engaged with society than is normally assumed to be the consequence of Dewey's thought.

Experience and Democracy

In his aesthetics, Dewey says: ‘Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 35, my italics).2 Notice the words ‘live creature’ and ‘environing conditions’. The concept of experience is biologically founded as a twofold process of exchange. Some things in nature are characterized by the environing conditions affecting the organism in a one directional process: for example, a stone that only very slowly erodes due to the environing conditions. Other organisms are capable of reorganising themselves but only through the slow development of the species. In this case, the reorganisation of the structure and identity of the organism have to wait for the genetic material to experiment with itself and, eventually, change. However, what characterizes humans is that this exchange and reorganisation are intelligent; that is, human beings can reorganise themselves and environmental conditions in such a way that the content of the interaction changes as well. A complete change of subject, object and content simultaneously. This entire essay deals with how we should understand the character of such an intelligent process of change, that is, the human educational exchange with one's surroundings.

This notion of experience, as an intelligent exchange between an organism and its surroundings, means that we must concentrate on looking for a two-sided process. On one hand, we must look at the movement from environing conditions to ‘live creature’. This we call the consequences of action, and it relates to the fact that the environing conditions are interpreted as consequences of former experiential actions. On the other hand, we have the movement from organism to environment, which refers to the component of action in the structure of experience. This is so because the organism in this case expresses itself in one way or the other. Simplified, we may say that the first movement constitutes the passive side of experience, because the environment decides what is present, and the second movement relates to the active part of experience in which it is the learning subject that influences the character of the environment (I will later discuss this in detail).

This basic distinction structures all Dewey's considerations about education. Regardless of whether we are talking about democracy, intelligence, organisation, responsibility, courage or habits, the task is to interpret each of these as experience, as exchanges between environments and organism in an active and a passive component. But how is this consistent with the following quote? ‘We are concerned with the general features of the way in which a social group brings up its immature members into its own social form’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 10, my italics). It seems as if learning in this case is described as a reproduction of an already existing formation instead of being an intelligent reorganisation.3 But it is not any process that is considered to have educational effects. The reason for this is that the concepts of ‘social group’ and ‘social form’ are used in a normative way. Dewey talks about a ‘genuine social life’ and a ‘true social group’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 5). The criterion with which he manages to make the distinction between ordinary and genuine social forms is whether or not the group in question promotes growth. What ‘growth’ means is what the entire Deweyan philosophy is all about. But basically it has to do with providing experiences—intelligent exchanges between organism and the environing conditions—that produce even more intelligent exchanges later on. Growth is a kind of endless doubling of intelligence. This constant doubling up can only take place in an open and democratic society. That is why many closed groups, e.g. criminal groups and dictatorships, cannot be genuine social groups and, therefore, are unable to offer education in its proper sense (they can only offer instruction). In a dictatorship, there are a priori limits on the flow of experience (on the passive and active parts of the experiential interchange) due to the restrictions of freedom of speech, of the communication flow and of the exchange of interests internally and externally in diverse social forms. Education for social life, the doubling of forms, therefore, can only take place in open societies. A dictator's school must find another name for itself. So, returning to the quote above, Dewey did not think of the society in the singular. On the contrary, a typical Deweyan remark would be: ‘Such words as “society” and “community” are likely to be misleading, for they have a tendency to make us think there is a single thing corresponding to the single word. As a matter of fact, a modern society is many societies more or less loosely connected’ (Dewey, 1944, pp. 20–21).

In other words, a Deweyan education must work within the framework of Dewey's conception of democracy, that is, a condition of the maximum number of exchanges, common points of interest and activities internally and between communities. It is only in very simple and monolithic societies that concepts and ideas may be said to have a privileged access to the world. In a democracy, where a plurality of communities develops together, we must find another principle of education.

Thus, an experience is characterised by having a passive and an active element. Something happens to us (the consequences), and we do something (the action). It is a transaction of impression and expression. The dual nature of this process is important to keep in mind in the rest of this article. Dewey attempts to inject this duality, in which the organism not only imports the environment but also tries to export something as well, in all of his analyses. This is not only a theory of education but also a theory of the basic mechanism of life and knowledge itself.4 The result is that we ought to be sceptical of all attempts to clip the wings of experience, that is, to interrupt the free flow of experience. Instead, we ought to organise our society and education in such a way that the process of experience can be intensified in free exchanges in a plural and open democracy. With such a vigorous link between concepts of learning, experience and society, it is easy to understand why in recent years an interest in Dewey has been revived. But it is equally hard to understand why Dewey, particularly among psychologists, has been associated with individualism. This theory is about learning and education in plural, multicultural and post-modern societies.

Habituation and Intelligence

The next question is: How should we understand the exchange of communication in an open society? The answer is provided by the concept of habit and the concept of intelligence (and is illustrated in Figure 1 a couple of pages ahead). To begin with, let us assume a situation in which we speak and act in particular ways, because so far things have actually worked out fine. Eventually, we build up a continuum, a constructed linearity between action and consequences, between active and passive experience, between organism and its surroundings. There is a kind of agreement between the actions of the subject and the consequences of these actions. The consequences of the action, the passive side, are without cusps or surprises. An example: The teacher asks, ‘What is the capital of France?’ The pupil replies: ‘Paris’ (the answer ‘London’ would be within the frame of a habitual answer even though it is wrong). The teacher acts/asks, and the consequences in this case are without surprises. Dewey calls such linearity a habit. Habits are not necessarily rigid routines. Habits are also an expression of increasing involvement with the world. This is illustrated by the way we learn to know the infrastructure of a city. Here we can regard the habits as a slowly growing sense of the structure of the town.5 This corresponds to the incorporation of consequences, that is, the passive aspect of experience. At the end of this process, after perhaps many years, you may be able to find your way around town without thinking at all. The active part of habit is revealed, not as a gradual incorporation of already existing cultural forms but as a habituation (note the verb), that is, a subjectively-produced variation on the city's infrastructure; i.e. a new path or a new road. A habit, then, is both something already existing in culture and a ‘habituation’, a new continuum, a new linearity between action and consequences, between impression and expression, a new form of life. A habit is an emergent property of a pluralist culture.

It should be emphasized that language should be treated as action as well. Dewey makes this clear: ‘In short, the sound h-a-t gains meaning in precisely the same way that the thing “hat” gains it, by being used in a given way’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 15). And the concept of habit actually covers all human activity—for example, ‘in unskilled forms the habits involved are not of a high grade. But there are habits of judging and reasoning as truly as of handling a tool, painting a picture, or conducting an experiment’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 48). In this way, the traditional positivist-based approach to education is queried, because education is not a conveyance of scientific facts. Instead, education is the development of intelligent linguistic habits; it is the enhancement of particular exchanges between organism and environment, a kind of cultural breathing.

Thus, any activity and language-use involve habit.6 This does not mean that Dewey is not aware that habits may take on routinised, fixed or arrested forms. These kinds of habits tend to enclose and determine the subject in rigid routines, sheer causality and lack of reflectivity. This would ‘put an end to plasticity’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 49). In this case, the habit stops being an exchange and becomes sheer impression, sheer passivity. This, for Dewey, would be equivalent to the end of growth, the end of educational experience: ‘only an environment which secures the full use of intelligence in the process of forming habits can counteract this tendency’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 49, my italics).

Here, we arrive at central point, because Deweyan democracy, with its countless fractures and pluralism, constantly interrupts these continuities or habituations. The relationship between actions and consequences, therefore, changes both rapidly and frequently. Someone who was once a friend might suddenly turn into an enemy, as exemplified by the moral inconstancy in ethnically-mixed Bosnian villages during the Yugoslavian civil war. But the change and the fissures in habitual continuity are, of course, also seen in the ordinary events of modern life, in working and family life and in schools and educational life in general.

This posits an important context for Dewey's educational philosophy, because his philosophy of experience becomes a philosophy for a modern pluralism that concerns the relationship between breaks and continuities. Dewey, of course, worked at the beginning of last century's America, a time characterised by extreme social pluralism; and he envisaged and even feared that the different communities would close themselves off from each other. Such a closure would prevent possible experience; it would cut off growth, creativity and democracy, and a closed and authoritarian form of life would result. And notice also how, in this quote immediately above, how Dewey stresses not only habits but also the concept of intelligence. Without intelligence, plasticity and growth is delayed. Intelligence and thinking become the defining characteristic of education in a pluralist society.

Distance, Presence and Educational Intelligence

So far, I have described Dewey's educational philosophy primarily with a biological vocabulary, working in a plural and democratic context, and I have conceptualised experience as an interruption of habits, on one hand, and the organism's reorganisation of the habits, on the other. The next task is a closer analysis of the more specific character of a habituation. The question is: how do we move from an interruption of habit to a new habit?7 In other words, we still lack a discussion of how to understand what was quoted earlier: ‘the full use of intelligence in the process of forming habits’. We leave, therefore, the discourse of biology and adaptation for a moment, focusing instead on the specifically human aspect of experience, that is, intelligent habituation. Instead of the formalism of method often connected with Dewey, we will find an emphasis on the content and subject matter of education. Not, of course, content understood as a simple transmittable scientific knowledge. Rather, we will discover learning and content simultaneously.

Intelligent habituation is equivalent to thinking (and not only reflection). For example, ‘[t]hinking, in other words, is the intentional endeavour to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 145). In this quote, thinking and habituation is closely linked. As a habit is a continuum between action and consequences, thinking is exactly the name of the activity producing this continuum. Thus, this is not only about a habit of intelligence, but, more fundamentally, it is an intelligent habituation. Education is in human nature rather than nature being a kind of education. In what follows, I will first show how this intelligent habituation is described in Democracy and Education and then illuminate the concept further by introducing some passages from Dewey's aesthetics, Art as Experience.

In part, Dewey's considerations on the nature of thinking consist of a reflection on the difference between being a participator and a spectator. A participant may be a soldier in action (or a teacher who teaches). Often, the soldier finds it difficult to take an objective stand on the war, because his actions are overdetermined by the need for survival. The soldier's overwhelming approach is ‘how do I avoid death’? The spectator, on the contrary, is not involved directly, and his point of view is rather how we should speak about the war: Which linguistic habits should we ascribe to? For instance, Dewey says in this evaluation of the First World War: ‘But even for an onlooker in a neutral country, the significance of every move made, of every advance here and retreat there, lies in what it portends. To think upon the news as it comes to us is to attempt to see what is indicated as probable or possible regarding an outcome’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 146). Thus, there is no doubt that, to the extent we should promote thought, it is the perspective of the spectator in particular that should be nurtured. This means that thought assumes a certain distance. The defining difference between actor and spectator is that the spectator has to act at a distance to the events in which the actor is involved. If the atmosphere of the act overwhelms the spectator, he becomes instead an actor. But this distance, on the other hand, must be supplemented by a particular kind of presence, by what Dewey calls ‘social sympathy’ with the movements of the actor. In sum, the condition of thinking is the co-presence of both participation and distance. This is obvious in that ‘only gradually and with a widening of the area of vision through a growth of social sympathies does thinking develop to include what lies beyond our direct interest: a fact of great significance for education’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 148, my italics). When Dewey speaks of thinking as experimentation and as an inquiry, he does not have in mind a settled, a priori scientific or pedagogical method. Instead, he wishes to work within and to expand the ‘area lying beyond our direct interest’, whereby the stretch between the distant and the present is made possible; a stretch, I will show in a moment, which creates the conditions for the introduction of the notions of imagination and judgement. Because of this distance, the possibility for developing ‘social sympathies’ is realised or, in other words, the possibility for understanding the attempts of other people and groups to habituate. Thus, an appreciation of the consequences of a phenomenon demands a reflection on the significance of different possible habituations for all relevant groups. This is not a mechanical process. To think is ‘to consider the bearing of the occurrence upon what may be, but is not yet’. In other words, what we are looking for is something that is in the process of becoming something we yet do not know. The same point is made, when Dewey says, ‘The starting point of any process of thinking is something going on, something which just as it stands is incomplete or unfulfilled. Its point, its meaning lies literally in what it is going to be, in how it is going to turn out’.8

In this process, we retrieve the Deweyan criterion of democracy: a free exchange of interests and numerous distinctions between and inside different communities. Where an actor may be tempted to follow his own interest, the spectator forces him to include others' interests as well, thereby constructing a more intelligent habituation. The term ‘interest’ should not in this context be understood as a cut-and-dried, politically-based expectation. Rather, the notion of ‘interest’ refers to the fact that ‘that self and world are engaged with each other in a developing situation’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 126). Even though the actor interacts with a limited part of the world, he is not inclined to see the enlarged reality. An insight into the larger world can only be brought about by enlightening him on the consequences of his acts. Therefore, the condition for an intelligent habituation, for thinking, is the existence of an exchange between an actor and a spectator perspective on the subject matter in question. In this process of distance and presence, the actor is forced to see new people, new pieces of art, new texts and so forth. He learns to develop ‘social sympathies’—not, it should be emphasised, as sympathy for a particular political or scientific value but as sympathy for the fact that other people, too, engage in intelligent habituations, whether they are Nobel Prize winners or terrorists. Again, not as a sympathy to the political goal of terrorism (which is a closure of the free exchange of interests), but rather, if it is to be educational, an investigation of how terrorists attempt to create a kind of linearity between acts and consequences for themselves and others.

The rest of this essay is an elaboration of the idea of intelligence. In short, I am arguing that intelligence should be understood along the lines of Figure 1:

I have already accounted for what in the Figure is meant by ‘the clash of habits in a pluralist culture’ and ‘the fractures of habit’. I have also discussed the character of neutral spectators. What remains to be analysed is the circularity; how to comprehend the concepts of imagination and judgment. This task is undertaken in the rest of the article.


Imagination, in Figure 1, is the capacity that makes possible the passive aspect of experience, the movement from surroundings to organism.9 It is the ability to make the absent become present. It is about re-presenting reality, a kind of motor of translation. It is the world tumbling in, all over our cognitive faculties. Dewey insisted that this ability is of vital importance, e.g. ‘for the general in the war, or a common soldier, or a citizen of one of the contending nations, the stimulus to thinking is direct and urgent. For neutrals, it is indirect and dependent upon imagination’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 147). In this quote, imagination is connected directly with ‘thinking’, due to a distance between actor and spectator. The importance of the concept is stressed even more clearly when he says, ‘The engagement of the imagination is the only thing that makes any activity more than mechanical’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 236). Thus, in most situations in which there is a relation between audience and actor, other interests and points of view are not directly present but must be re-presented, that is, re-created anew, and this re-creation involves the faculty of imagination. In other words, we must imagine who ‘the other’ is (some other, another pupil, a political group, etc.) or more precisely: what kind of habituations does ‘the other’ work with. We have to re-present the meaning of his texts, his art, his science and his practice. The importance of this operation can hardly be stressed enough: ‘If it were not for the intervention of agencies for representing absent and distant affairs, our experience would remain almost on the level of that of the brutes’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 232). Thus, it is human development set up against the brutes. Without imagination, we would be like wild animals. It is education in its most general condition. In addition, statements, which we might often consider to be a fact, are here considered as the result of the workings of imagination. Such statements are not facts in the sense of having an exclusive relation to nature, a relation that afterwards can be transmitted as a linguistic atom in different classrooms (from universities, to professional schools, to student essays, etc.). On the contrary, these statements or facts are the results of the activity of the imagination: ‘only a personal response involving imagination can possibly procure realisation even of pure facts’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 236). These representations that make the absent present are constructions of a manifold, and they are worked out in the gap between actor and spectator. Take, for example, the subject matter of ‘unemployment’. As an actor, one is situated as unemployed, as social worker, as employer, etc. All these positions of participation tend to re-present matters quite unimaginatively. They might utter about each other statements such as: ‘they are lazy’, ‘the social service is mean’ and ‘the workers are egoistic’. These are the positions of the brute, that is, positions that are incapable of exchanging imagined interests in a criss-cross of communication. The educated point of view, on the other hand, is the intelligent and pluralist working of the faculty of imagination, permitting all kinds of positions and habituations to be exchanged, e.g. how different groups cope with unemployment, distinctions within the notion of unemployment, consequences for the economy and for politics, etc. These re-presentations of affairs, which are absent, are an attempt to restore meaning to what takes place and is not immediately present. Most of the things being discussed in the classroom will not be immediately present but will take place outside the school, at places of work, in families, in workers unions or elsewhere. This entire complex manifold, then, must be re-presented in a classroom or in an essay. Teaching and learning, in this view, is about making the distant present, to suck into the classroom the ‘environing conditions’. This sensitive reduction of the external world—the translation of the distant manifold into sentences articulated in the classroom—is described by Dewey with the aesthetic concept of ‘dramatisations’. The faculty of imagination, in this sense, produces a piece of art and, in this production, an important element of play is involved. For instance, he says, ‘Theory and—to some extent—practice have advanced far enough to recognize that play-activity is an imaginative enterprise’ (my italics) and, furthermore, ‘[a]n adequate recognition of the play of imagination as the medium of realization of every kind of thing which lies beyond the scope of direct physical response is the sole way of escape from mechanical methods in teaching’. Dewey concludes: ‘Were it not for the accompanying play of imagination, there would be no road from a direct activity to representative knowledge’.10 This corresponds to saying that, without our imagination, schools could not produce or work with knowledge (representative knowledge). So the implicit critique of traditional schooling is harsh, due to their lack of cognitive ‘playfulness’, but—and this may, perhaps, come as a surprise to some—the implicit critique of much constructivist schooling (self-learning, radical constructivism, etc.) is even harsher, because these positions tend to think that pupils are capable of constructing knowledge isolated from the outside world.

The conclusion is that the faculty of imagination is not an isolated gift, working independently of the content of the education. On the contrary, this faculty is deeply rooted in ideas and practices that are socially available, and it works as a creative motor of transaction, making diverse structures of consequences accessible for the activity of the faculty of judgment. In this process of translation, the habituating of social life should be considered to be playful dramatisations of sentences, the quality of which is expanded by increasing distance between the present and the absent and the readings based on social sympathies. This is the account of the concept of imagination as it stands in Figure 1.


If the faculty of imagination concerns the structure of the playful assimilation of the environing conditions into any intelligent activity, then judgment in Figure 1 is connected with the active side of intelligent experience. Judgment is a sort of action, a suggestion that re-establishes the continuity between action and consequences. Where the faculty of imagination produces the material, the subject matter, as dramas of sentences, then judgment decides how the relationship between the different dramas should be understood. Judgment decides by producing a new set of sentences, an utterance, a book, etc. The importance of judgment is clear in ‘all of us have many habits of whose import we are quite unaware, since they were formed without our knowing what we were about. Consequently they possess us, rather than we them. They move us; they control us. Unless we become aware of what they accomplish and pass judgment upon the worth of the result we do not control them’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 29–30, my italics). The importance of judgment is also found in Dewey's discussion of the concept of ‘appreciation’, that is, the approval of a particular set of statements. The choice of one set of re-presentations (as prepared by imagination) rather than another is based on the sense of taste. The practice of taste is, however, a habit itself—for example: ‘The formation of habits is a purely mechanical thing unless habits are also tastes—habitual modes of preference and esteem, an effective sense of excellence’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 235). There are two kinds of habits, when we speak of judgment and taste. The first is the approval of a particular re-presentation, because it ‘tastes good’; that is, it corresponds to the values and interest that you have already. This kind of judgment is active in many instances when we evaluate food, music, literature and science. And it is, of course, constantly working, when school teachers evaluate the written or oral performance of students. It works as well in a flat and simple kind of democracy where, for instance, everything is decided upon by votes, by texting or by e-mail, without public argument or criticism. The other way to exhibit judgment stresses that the faculty of taste is not only active in applying particular standards. Taste is also working even when these standards need to be articulated in the first place. This view on the nature of judgment is found also in the following quote from a more recent Dewey-inspired theoretician of learning, David Kolb: ‘a second difference between knowing by apprehension and knowing by comprehension is that apprehension is a registrative process transformed intentionally and extensionally by appreciation, whereas comprehension is an interpretive process transformed intentionally and extensionally by criticism’ (Kolb, 1984, p. 103, my italics). Thus, ‘appreciation’ is distinguished from another kind of judgment, namely, criticism.

In sum, we have identified education as an enlightened or intelligent reflection concerning fractures of the habituations of culture. This fracture starts a process of reflection, which is possible due to the distance between spectator and actor, and its components are, on one hand, the dramatisations of imagination and, on the other hand, judgment's work of discrimination to suggest and approve of new vocabularies with either simple approval or criticism as the basic principle. Thus, I have identified a circularity of learning, which is well embedded in past culture and future social life. This is the intelligent breathing of the human organism. The breathing-in is the sensitive and playful workings of imagination on distant cultural elements, and judgment is the critical element of breathing-out. I have already outlined what makes the imagination intelligent. I still need a further discussion of intelligent judgment, criticism.

First, however, I want to provide an interesting note on how Dewey couples imagination and judgement with two important ethical virtues. The exchange between imagination and judgment is an activity with profound moral implications. The undergoing of consequences, the imaginative enterprise, requires courage. It seems odd that a ‘passive’ faculty is associated with courage, a virtue that is normally associated with the actions of the hero. But, here, courage is connected to the ability to ‘let your enemies’ into your thinking. It is somewhat similar to Immanuel Kant's statement that ‘it is our duty, therefore, to try to discover new objections, to put weapons in the hands of our opponent, and to grant him the most favourable position in the arena that he can wish’ (Kant, 1988, p. 443) or to the ‘passive contemplation’ of Aristotle (Aristotle, 1976, Book X). Courage is here defined as the ability to be passive proper. Some issues are so controversial or even taboo that the temptation to ignore them is overwhelming. It takes courage to allow them into your own thinking, your own classroom or your own text. When, for instance, issues such as the consequences of Islamic law are imagined by Salman Rushdie or some cartoonists, new language games are established that interrupt existing habituations, and, in some instances, this may mean a threat to one's career or even one's life. To be genuinely passive is a brave act. On the other hand, judgment, the active side of experience, is attached to the moral virtue of responsibility. This is so because the consequences imported by the imagination are being transformed into public utterances with consequences for others. To judge, therefore, is to take responsibility for the common future of a class, a school, a community or a profession. It is to suggest which statements should be considered valid in a common narrative. It is not only to breathe in cultural material and ruptures of habits but also, at the same time, to evaluate them according to the ‘bearings’ of new suggestions, new habituations. This is the province of judgment.

The relationship between judgment and criticism unfolds to an even deeper level if we realise that this entire discussion of the relationship between thinking, experience and judgment is also involved with important parts of Dewey's aesthetics.11 In Art as Experience, Dewey distinguishes between three different concepts of judgment: a legalistic, an impressionistic and a critical. The first, the legalist concept of judgment, is defined in this way: ‘judicial decision can be made only on the basis of general rules supposed to be applicable to all cases’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 300). Here, the general rule is the ontologically prior, and it subsumes particularities under its name. Examples of this are found not only the legal system but also in many situations in the educational system, for instance, when an evaluation is made of a student essay. The implementation of this kind of judgment is, therefore, a dissolution of the particular. It is the subsumption of any kind of activity under an already established rule—a rule, which in itself is postulated to have its validity outside experience, that is, in nature, in God, in common sense, etc. In other words, it is judgment exercised without any interest in concrete experience, taste and distinctions made in a particular field. It is action without consequences, and it is responsibility without courage. The problem with judicial judgment is the lack of the use of imagination. The more dynamic society becomes, the more ruptures of habits are encountered and the more problematic legal judgment ends up becoming. This is made clear when Dewey says that ‘the source of the failure of even the best of judicial criticism: its inability to cope with the emergence of new modes of life—of experiences that demand new modes of expression’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 303).

The concept opposite of legalistic judgment is impressionistic judgment, and it is ‘in effect, if not in words, a denial that criticism is possible’ and it ‘reacts from the standardized “objectivity” of ready-made rules and precedents to the chaos of a subjectivity that lacks objective control, and would, if logically followed out, result in a medley of irrelevancies—and sometimes does’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 304). This judgmental practice corresponds to the idea that sensations leave a naive imprint in the mind of the learning subject, an empty sheet that is magically organised into something comprehensible. In reality, however, it is not a concept of judgment at all, because it does not involve an active element. It is sheer courage without responsibility, pure consequence and no action. This is also, in fact, the basis for Dewey's criticism of child-centred pedagogy in Experience and Education, which was also (like Art as Experience) the work of the 1930s. A major problem for impressionistic judgment is that it tends to forget that, to work at all, it must presuppose another kind of judgment; for instance, ‘to define an impression signifies a good deal more than just to utter it. To define an impression is to analyze it, and analysis can proceed only by going beyond the impression, by referring it to the grounds on which it rests and the consequences which it entails. And this procedure is judgment’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 306). Thus, the situations do not spring naively into the mind. The situation must itself be defined as part of a process of habituation, and such a process or action deals with judgment as well as imagination.

In modernity, with its many interruptions of equilibria of actions and consequences, the many suggestions for new habituations cannot be evaluated by criteria, standards or rules that are reminiscent of former habituations (an interruption of which the new suggestions are the result). Therefore, Dewey says, ‘Unless the critique is sensitive first of all to meaning and life as the matter which requires its own form, he is helpless in the presence of the emergence of experience that has a distinctively new character’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 304). Thus, there is a problem here of how to evaluate, to judge or to meet the new form.

With these reservations, we can investigate more freely some of the educational themes already announced in the discussion of Democracy and Education but which may find more interesting expressions in his theory of art. Here are a couple of important quotes concerning the faculty of imagination: ‘The experience enacted is human and conscious only as that which is given here and now is extended by meanings and values drawn from what is absent in fact and present only imaginatively’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 272). Once again, we see the emphasis of imagination as a particular human faculty and, a moment later, we hear:

There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring. Because of this gap, all conscious perception involves a risk; it is a venture into the unknown, for as it assimilates the present to the past it also brings about some reconstruction of that past. When past and present fit exactly into one another, when there is only recurrence, complete uniformity, the resulting experience is routine and mechanical; it does not come to consciousness in perception. The inertia of habit overrides adaptation of the meaning of the here and now with that of experiences, without which there is no consciousness, the imaginative phase of experience. (Dewey, 1980, p. 272, my italics)

Imagination and courage12 produce a reconstruction of an original text (the past) and, on this basis, judgment attempts to formulate something new, which is a new vocabulary (‘a venture into the unknown’) that shall habituate a new linearity between actions and consequences. Another important aspect of this quote is that a conceived ‘break’, ‘the gap’, is always a breakdown in our perception and, I should emphasise, in our concept. A habituation is then not just a new linguistic habit, but rather a correction, or even a change, in the content of the perception or the concept. What we witness in passages such as these is Dewey struggling to make sense of a pragmatic relationship between tradition and change.13 It is a description of how tradition and change are working together with imagination and judgment in the evolution of a truly human action. It is a coming-into-presence of new language games, a new linearity: ‘we only know what the problem is at the very moment that we are able to solve it: Problem and solution stand out completely at the same time’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p. 60).

It is exactly in the search for a notion of judgment that is able to cope with the emergent forms of life that makes Dewey turn to the idea of criticism. In Art as Experience, Dewey repeatedly states ‘criticism is judgment’ (Dewey, 1980, pp. 298, 308, 309). On the other hand, ‘criticism is not valuing’ (p. 309), because valuing can easily take place without criticism or intelligent activity at all—for instance, when we say, ‘that is a bad film’, out of pure emotion without any further discrimination. Instead, we are told that ‘criticism is a search for the properties of the object that may justify the direct reaction’ and that ‘it is a survey’ (p. 308). Judgment, then, is an insistence on a relation of inquiry between subject and object of experience, between past and future. Further, ‘his criticism issues a social document and can be checked by others to whom the same objective material is available ... then his surveys may be of assistance in the direct experience of others’ (p. 308). Here, the public character of judgment is underlined. Judgment is exercised as a social faculty; it is communicated taste, exposed to public scrutiny. Its documents and results are themselves the objects for the workings of other people's imagination and judgment.

In addition to being a critical, experimental, object-oriented and public activity, judgment works according to two basic principles: discrimination and unification. Discrimination, also called analytical judgement, has its roots in the (already mentioned) sympathy with what is being evaluated. Not sympathy in the sense of appreciation or agreement but via the attention to the attempt of actors (or students) to habituate or form particular, yet unknown, experiences. Sympathy alone, however, is not enough. As an isolated event, it may result in sentimentalism. Enlightened sympathy knows how earlier experiences have been given form; it recognizes similarities and differences in the structure and content of a particular work. In other words, criticism can only be implemented as part of a social tradition. This is the reason we ought to know the ‘masterpieces’ or the ‘touchstones’ of a given tradition. Not because they provide a ready-made answer to anything, but because they are appreciated as the excellent exemplars of sensitivity within a tradition, that is, they may be the cause of new conversations and new vocabularies. This is what Dewey says: ‘in this sense acquaintance with masterpieces, and with less than masterpieces, is a “touchstone” of sensitiveness, though not a dictator of appraisals’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 311).

But it is also obvious that any piece of art may be understood within different traditions of discrimination. That is the reason Dewey says, ‘knowledge of a wide range of traditions is a condition of exact and severe discrimination’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 312). This means that what an object really is, what it tries to do, and which new experiences it points to can only be properly addressed when you move between different traditions of thought. The parallel to modern sciences and postmodern education is striking. Here, too, we find a criss-cross of paradigms, traditions, overlapping research programs, journals, etc. At first glance, every single research article seems to be, primarily within one tradition; but, on closer inspection, we find a dissolution of the singular tradition into a network of references relating to many different traditions. To be able to grasp this properly, the judge must be adequately enlightened.14 Now, nobody, or only a very few, can overlook the entire complexity of modern knowledge. That is why the results of judgments are published as a public document for others to investigate further. An evaluation of a text, a student or an essay, therefore, is a social enterprise, the open tradition's way of receiving new ideas or looking for what is pointing towards new ideas. It is ‘learning to see and hear’ and a ‘reeducation of perception’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 324).

The other element of judgment is unification. Here, we are taught that ‘without a unifying point of view, based on the objective form of a work of art, criticism ends in an enumeration of details ...’. Instead, ‘this unifying phase, even more than the analytic, is a function of the creative response of the individual who judges. It is insight. There are no rules that can be laid down for its performance.15 It is at this point that criticism becomes itself an art’ (Dewey, 1980, p. 313–314). This is where all the threads run together. The idea that imagination produces ‘art’ or ‘dramatisations’ was a point made in Democracy and Education. Moreover, we remember how judgment was involved even in the tiniest perceptions. This understanding of judgment as a piece of art that itself is to become the object of judgment emphasises the scope of generality in Dewey's thoughts on these matters. The dramatisations we want students, teachers and others to create are themselves the product of both imagination and a critical judgment that discriminates with respect to the material produced by a sympathetically-minded faculty of imagination. These threads, woven and spun by the open tradition, help keep the breaks of habit, perceptions and concepts in place in a fragile and never closed order, to be exposed once again to new earthquakes. This is what the Deweyan learner must be able to do. A sensitive motor, a mechanism of transaction, an ecology of learning. This is a classroom that is maximally open to the surrounding world, its practices, its texts and its art works, together with an equally strong intensity of reflection, because students and teachers must work toward publishing public documents to interested spectators.

As a final perspective, I would like to add that this conclusion is very much in line with what should be considered to be Dewey's own neo-Aristotelian approach. Reading his chapter on ‘Labor and Leisure’ (Dewey, 1944, ch. 19), two all-important concepts within the Aristotelian tradition, it becomes clear that Dewey should be interpreted as a democratised Aristotle (just as Aristotle should be looked upon as a democratised Plato). Dewey basically accepts the superiority of thinking to mere doing since ‘Aristotle was permanently right in assuming the inferiority and subordination of mere skill in performance and mere accumulation of external products to understanding, sympathy of appreciation, and the free play of ideas’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 256). However, Dewey does not accept the Aristotelian way of connecting this with different social classes or functions in the state (the citizen equipped with liberal education and slaves and women with pure mechanical skills of life). Instead, we should, in an open and democratic society, construct both practical and theoretical studies for everybody, which makes ‘thought a guide of free practice for all and which makes leisure [time to think versus simple consumption, TR] a reward of accepting responsibility for service’ (Dewey, 1944, p. 261). This is Dewey as a radical social propagator of a decentralised liberal education. Education is about making every habit thoughtful. Learning is not doing.


I started by positing two challenges. One of these was to produce an interpretation of Dewey's educational thought that was not individualistic or instrumental but was rather based on the social and democratic principles found in the major parts of Dewey's philosophy. Another challenge was to supplement the concept of experience with the notion of intelligence. The aim of this was to elaborate not only the ‘philosophy’ but also the educational philosophy of Dewey. In the main part of the essay, I have focused on this idea of intelligence. Basically, I have outlined intelligence as a circular relation between habit, imagination and judgment, a relation that stresses distance and social sympathies as focal points.

By stressing the faculties of imagination and judgment, Dewey points to a deep interrelatedness between aspects of experience, tradition, the social context and the content of education. For experience to be intelligent, the processes of imagination must work with the pluralist cultural world as background, as something that can be represented in a playful and dramatic way, and the processes of judgment can only work in front of an audience disposed to social criticism. Thus, to move from the level of the brutes to the level of education is to move from ‘learning by doing’ to ‘learning by doing thinking’. Following this line of thought, the school should not be a place of doing the ‘project method’ or a place of practical experimentation; rather, it should be a gap where intelligence can happen, a place where new forms of life are evolving somewhere between a ‘masterpiece’ (tradition) and a sympathetically-minded group of spectators producing public criticism.


  • 1

    Exemplified also in the works of Donald Schön. Schön does not speak of project work but tends to develop a concept of professional reflection based on a similar series of reflective phases (Schön, 1983).

  • 2

    See also Vanderstraeten (2002) for emphasis on the overall importance on this basic transaction between organism and environment.

  • 3

    Learning as a negotiated reproduction of already existing social forms is found in some theories of situated learning, e.g. Lave & Wenger, 1991.

  • 4

    This point is also found here: ‘Perhaps we should stop trying to understand Dewey as a philosopher of education at all. It might be better to think of him as answering the three great questions of human existence: What is life? How should we live? What does life mean?’ (Garrison, 1995, p. 63). However, as already mentioned, unless this view is supplemented by the Deweyan concept of thinking, this view tends to conflate the theory of nature and the theory of education.

  • 5

    This geographical and infrastructural metaphor is inspired by Wittgenstein, who compared the learning of language games with learning to find one's way about in the city, see Wittgenstein (1971, §85, §19, §203 and §500).

  • 6

    For this emphasis on the importance of habits, see Garrison & Neiman, 2003.

  • 7

    Which, in a Wittgensteinian view, is equivalent to asking how we move from one language game to another.

  • 8

    See Dewey, 1944, p. 146 for these last two quotes.

  • 9

    See Reich, 2007 for inspiration to this paragraph.

  • 10

    All quotes from Dewey, 1944, p. 236–237.

  • 11

    The connection between education, science and aesthetics is noted by Johnston: ‘In short, aesthetic cannot be sharply marked off from intellectual experience since the latter must bear an aesthetic stamp to be complete. Here is an argument for the importance of aesthetic qualities in thought ... This allows Dewey to make the rather bold claim that “thinking is pre-eminently an art; knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking, are works of art, as much so as statuary and symphonies” ’ (Johnston, 2002, p. 9).

  • 12

    And judgment itself. The whole circle of learning (habit, judgment, imagination) is always involved in any part of the intelligent process. There is no starting point, only circularity.

  • 13

    Or between language as structure and as event (see Rømer, 2003).

  • 14

    For this vocabulary of enlightenment, aesthetics and education from a Deweyan perspective, see Eisner, 1991.

  • 15

    This is a point that would be worth investigating further. In these passages, Dewey sounds somewhat like that Aristotelian tradition that speaks of the problematic relation between thinking and writing—for instance, in this passage from Hannah Arendt: ‘No matter how concerned a thinker may be with eternity, the moment he sits down to write his thoughts he ceases to be concerned primarily with eternity and shifts his attention to leaving some trace of them’ (Arendt, 1998, p. 18). On this view, when somebody starts to write, he leaves the play of imagination and posits instead judgment as a unifying and social act.