John Dewey's “Wholly Original Philosophy” and Its Significance for Museums



Abstract  John Dewey's lifework was to create a philosophy that encompassed both life-experience and thought. He attempted to construct a philosophical system that incorporated life as it is lived, not in some ideal form. He rejected all dualisms, such as those between thought and action, fine and applied arts, or stimulus and response. An analysis of “experience” (defined as almost synonymous with “culture”) is central to Dewey's writing and leads him to emphasize process, continuity, and development, rather than static, absolute concepts. This paper examines the significance of Dewey's educational views for museum exhibitions and education programs, and his complex definitions of relevant concepts, with special emphasis on his interpretation of “experience.” Dewey's faith in democracy and his moral philosophy require that the value of any educational activity depends on its social consequences as well as its intellectual content, a proposition that is discussed and applied to museums. This argument suggests that exhibitions and programs can strengthen democracy by promoting skills that improve visitors' ability to become critical thinkers and by directly addressing controversial issues, taking the side of social justice and democracy.