Publishing Information

    Authority and Freedom

    John Dewey

    Survey Graphic
    November 1936
    Vol 25, No. 11, p. 603.

    Through the achievements of the scientists humanity has taken its longest forward steps. Can we apply their daring pattern of cooperative intelligence to economic and social problems? We publish here, in part, John Dewey's dynamic contribution to the Harvard Tercentenary

  1. THE last four centuries have displayed an ever increasing revolt against authority, first in the forms in which it was manifested and then against the principal itself. None of its important forms has been immune from assault. The assault was first directed against dominant institutions of Church and State. But the control exercised by Church and State in combination had entered into all phases and aspects of life, in belief and conduct alike. Hence attack upon ecclesiastic and political institutions spread to science and art, to standards and ideals of economic and domestic life. For the practical movement of assault, like every other such movement, had to defend itself on intellectual grounds. The best intellectual defense was attack, and so defense grew into systematic justification, and a social philosophy developed that was critical of the very idea of any authoritative control.

  2. The theoretical system spawned watch-words, rallying-cries, slogans for popular consumption. One of the latter, by constant iteration, has assumed the status of a comprehensive social and political idea. To many persons it seems to be itself the summary of a profound social philosophy. According to the formula, the one great intellectual problem is the demarcation of two separate spheres, one of authority and one of freedom; the other half of the formula is to maintain this theoretical demarcation as a sharp division in practice. The formula has a corollary. The inherent tendency of the "sphere" of authority is to encroach on the "sphere" of freedom, thus enstating oppression, tyranny, and, in the language of today, regimentation. Hence the right of way must belong to the idea and actuality of individual freedom; authority is its enemy, and every manifestation of social authority and control is therefore to be zealously watched, and almost always to be vigorously opposed. However, since the sphere of liberty has its boundaries, when "liberty" begins to degenerate into "license" the operation of authority is properly to be called upon to restore the balance.

  3. The formula, like most slogans that attain popularity, owes its vogue and influence to the fact that it seems to afford a solution of an outstanding problem while in fact it evades the problem.

  4. The genuine problem is the relation between authority and freedom. And this problem is masked, and its solution begged, when the idea is introduced that the fields in which they respectively operate, are separate. In effect, authority stands for stability of social organization by means of which direction and support are given to individuals; while individual freedom stands for the forces by which change is intentionally brought about. The issue that requires constant attention is the intimate and organic union of the two things: of authority and freedom, of stability and change. The idea of attaining a solution by separation instead of by union, misleads and thwarts endeavor whenever it is acted upon. The widespread adoption of this false and misleading idea is a strong contributing factor to the present state of world confusion in thought, in objectives and in action.

  5. The genuine import of the formula which divides and apportions the total field of human life and action between freedom and authority, is to be found, not in its theoretical statement, but in its relation to the historic events of the last few centuries. As a purely theoretical formula, it claims an inherent validity and universal application which 1, for one, find absurd. But when the formula is taken to be the record of a historic period, the case is otherwise. The formula then achieves the significance of a symbol of the distinctive crises of western civilization in recent centuries; it becomes representative of a great historic struggle. In its dual character, the formula celebrates, with one hand, the decay of the institutions which had exercised sway over men's minds and conduct; and, with the other hand, it signalizes the rise of the new social and intellectual forces. The old traditions and established social organizations resisted the new forces in human life and society on their emergence, as being dangerous, even mortal rivals who came to dispute for the power and privileges they had hitherto exclusively enjoyed. The formula, instead of supplying a means of coping with this historic struggle, offers as a solution what is none other than a theoretical transcript of the nature of the conflict itself. As a guide to understanding and action, the formula is, as I said, absurd. But as a symbol of historic events it is deeply revealing.

  6. Unfortunately, when the struggle first got under way, the newer forces tended to accept the established institutions at their own evaluation, namely, as necessary expressions of the very principle of authority. Finding the existing institutions oppressive, the new movement reacted against authority as such, and began to conceive of authority as inherently external to individuality, and inherently hostile to freedom and the social changes that the overt expression and use of freedom would bring to pass. In consequence, while the new movement should have the credit for breaking down a system that had grown rigid and unresponsive, and for releasing capacities of individuals that had been dormant—its virtual denial of the organic importance of any embodiment of authority and social control, has intellectually fostered the confusion that as a matter of practical fact in any case attends a time of transition. More particularly, as I shall show later, the new movement failed to acknowledge as authoritative the very power to which it owed its own vitality, namely, that of organized intelligence. Such are the propositions I desire to advance in this discussion.


  7. I THINK a survey of history shows that while the individualistic philosophy was wrong in setting authority and freedom, stability and change in opposition to one another, it was justified in finding the organized institutional embodiments of authority so external to the new wants and purposes that were stirring, as to be in fact oppressive. The persons and classes who exercised the power that comes from the possession of authority were hostile to the variable and fresh qualities the qualities of initiative, invention and enterprise in which change roots. It was a struggle for authoritative power between the old and the new; between forces concerned with conservation of values that the past had produced, and the forces that made for new beliefs and new modes of human association. It was also a struggle between groups and classes of individuals—between those who were enjoying the advantages that spring from possession of power to which authoritative right accrues, and individuals who found themselves excluded from the powers and enjoyments to which they felt themselves entitled. The necessity of adjusting the old and the new, of harmonizing the stability that comes from conserving the established with the variability that springs from the emergence of new needs and efforts of individuals—this necessity is inherent in, or a part of, the very texture of life.

  8. By far the greater number of millenia that man has lived on the earth, man has been, for the most part, content with things as they, from time to time, are. For the human disposition has been to attribute divine origin and sanction to whatever claimed for itself the authority of long tradition and custom. Individuals instead of seeking change were more generally afraid of it. If we were justified in putting authority and freedom, stability and change in opposition to one another, we should be compelled to conclude that for the greater period of human history individuals have preferred authority and stability.

  9. The identification of the individual with the forces that make freely for variation and change is something new and recent. Speaking in general terms, the identification is an expression of special and specific historic events. These events may be condensed and summarized. New methods and conclusions in natural science and their technological application in new modes of industrial production and commercial exchange of goods and services, found themselves checked and limited by the institutional agencies of Church and State which were the possessors of actual social power and the claimants for exclusive and rightful authority in all the variegated fields of human endeavor. In this conflict, the new forces defended and justified themselves by restricting the very idea of authority to the ecclesiastical and political powers that were hostile to their own free expression, and by asserting that they alone furthered individual freedom.

  10. The final result was a social and political philosophy which questioned the validity of authority in any form that was not the product of, and that was not sanctioned by, the conscious wants, efforts and satisfactions of individuals in their private capacity; a philosophy which took the form of laissez-faire in economics, and individualism in other affairs. This philosophy claimed for itself the comprehensive title of liberalism.

  11. Two general conclusions, it seems to me, clearly emerge: first, the older forms of organized power that had exercised authority were revealed as external and oppressive with respect to the new forces that operated through the medium of individuals, and as hostile, in consequence, to all important social change; second, the new philosophy so tended to decry the very principle of authority as to deprive individuals of the direction and support that are indispensable both for the organic freedom of individuals and for social stability.

  12. The result is the present scene of confusion, conflict and uncertainty. While decrying the principle of authority, and asserting the necessity of limiting the exercise of authority to the minimum needed for maintenance of police order, the new philosophy in fact erected the wants and endeavors of private individuals seeking personal gain to the place of supreme authority in social life. In consequence, the new philosophy, in the very act of asserting that it stood completely and loyally for the principle of individual freedom, was really engaged in justifying the activities of a new form of concentrated power—the economic, which new form, to state the matter moderately, has consistently and persistently denied effective freedom to the economically underpowered and underprivileged. While originating as a social force that effected widespread social change in opposition to, indeed, in despite of the powers that had authority when it began to emerge, economic power has now become, in its turn, an organized social institution that resists all further social change that is not in accord with itself, that does not further and support its own interests as at present existing.

  13. It is for such reasons as these that I affirm that the real issue is not that of demarcating separate "spheres" for authority and for freedom, for stability and for change, but that of effecting an interpenetration of the two. We need an authority that, unlike the older forms in which it operated, is capable of directing and utilizing change and we need a kind of individual freedom unlike that which the unconstrained economic liberty of individuals has produced and justified; we need, that is, a kind of individual freedom that is general and shared and that has the backing and guidance of socially organized authoritative control.


  14. IT requires little argument to prove that the institutional forms in which authority has been embodied in the past are hostile to change. It suffices, perhaps, to recall that those who have labored to change the forms authoritative power had taken, were denounced as heretics, as elements subversive of social order. And, I need hardly add, those who are engaged in similar labor today, are similarly denounced. The point that does require emphatic attention is that in spite of possession of power, and in spite of persecution of heretics and radicals, no institution has in fact had the power to succeed in preventing great changes from taking place. All that institutions have ever succeeded in doing by their resistance to change, has been to dam up social forces until they finally and inevitably manifested themselves in eruptions of great, usually catastrophic change.

  15. Nor is argument necessary to prove that the individualistic movement has been allied with a period of immense and rapid changes, many of which, taken one by one, have brought positive benefit to society. The intimate connection between the new individualism and social change is seen in the watchwords of the movement: Initiative, Invention, Enterprise. For all of these words point to the loci of departure from what has been; they are the signs which denote the sources of innovation.

  16. But I venture the statement that just as the past manifestation of the principle of authority has failed precisely where its claim was most vehement, namely, in the prevention, or at least in the guidance of change, so the individualistic movement, taken historically and in the large, has failed to secure freedom for individuals on any commensurate scale—and in any assured way—even for its temporary possessors. The individualistic movement has tended to identify the exercise of freedom with absence of any organized control, and in this way, it has in fact identified freedom with mere de facto possession of economic power. Instead of bringing freedom to those who lacked material possessions, it has imposed upon them further subjection to the owners of the agencies of production and distribution.

  17. The scene which the world exhibits to the observer at the present time is so obviously one of general instability, insecurity and increasing conflict—both between nations and within them—that I cannot conceive that any one will deny the desirability of effecting and enstating some organic union of freedom and authority.

  18. The weight of the evidence of the past is assuredly strongly against the realization of any such possibility. As far as the idea of organized authority is concerned, the pathos of the collective life of mankind on this planet is its exhibition of the dire human need for some authority; while its ever mounting tragedy is due to the fact that the need has been repeatedly betrayed by the very institutions that claimed to satisfy it. That all is not well, on the other hand, with the principle of individualistic freedom in the form in which it has been influential up to now, is shown by more than one fact in the present scene of discord and insecurity. Above all is this manifested by the recrudescence of the principle of authority in its most extreme and primitive form—the rise of dictatorships.

  19. As if in substantiation of the old idea that nature abhors a vacuum, it might be contended that economic competitive individualism, free from social control, had created a moral and social vacuum which recourse to dictatorships is filling. In many countries, the demand for collective and organized guidance and support has become so urgent that the very idea of individual freedom has gone into the discard and become an ideal, not to be praised, but to be despised. The regime of economic individualistic liberty is attacked by dictatorships from both the right and the left. In countries in which there are no open and acknowledged dictatorships, the conceptions of liberty and individualism seem to be losing their magic force; and security, discipline, order and solidarity are, by social transfer, acquiring magic power in their stead. The actual concrete conditions that produce resort to dictatorships vary from country to country. But the phenomenon is so wide spread it demands a generalized explanation. The most obvious one is the virtual bankruptcy and moribund state of a regime conducted for private gain and subject to no control by recognized, collective authority.

  20. Neither the past nor the present afford, then, any ground for expecting that the adjustment of authority and freedom, stability and change, will be achieved by following old paths. The idea that any solution at all can ever be attained may seem to some romantic and utopian. But the most fantastically unrealistic of all notions, is the widely prevalent belief that we can attain enduring stable authority by employing and, where necessary, by re-exhuming the institutional means tried in the past; equally fantastic is the belief that the assured freedom of individuals can be secured by pitting individuals against one another in a pitiless struggle for material possessions and economic power. The issue, in my judgment, can be narrowed down to this question: Are there resources that have not as yet been tried out in the large field of human relations, resources that are available and that carry with them the potential promise of successful application?


  21. IN raising this question I am aware that it is almost inevitable that what I have said about the human necessity for some kind of collective authority to give individuals direction in their relations with one another, and to give them the support that comes from a sense of solidarity, will appear to be a plea for a return to some kind of social control brought about through, and perpetuated by, external institutional means. If my question is so taken, then the criticism I have made of the alliance that has taken place between the principle of individual freedom and private initiative and enterprise in economic matters, will necessarily also seem to be merely an argument for social control by means of a collective planned economy—put forward, of course, with some change in vocabulary. However, the argument in fact cuts in both directions. It indicates that while movements in the direction of collective, planned economy may cure evils from which we are now suffering, it will in the end go the way of all past attempts at organization of authoritative power unless some hitherto untried means are utilized on a large and systematic scale for bringing into life the desired and desirable organic coordination.

  22. The resource that has not yet been tried on any large scale, in the broad field of human, social relationships is the utilization of organized intelligence, the manifold benefits and values of which we have substantial and reliable evidence in the narrower field of science.

  23. Within a limited area, the collective intelligence which is exemplified in the growth and application of scientific method, has already become authoritative. It is authoritative in the field of beliefs regarding the structure of nature and relevant to our understanding of physical events. When we turn to the practical side, we see that the same method is supreme in controlling and guiding our active dealings with material things and physical energies. To be sure, it cannot be said that intelligence, operating by the methods that constitute science, has as yet completely won undisputed right and authority to control beliefs even in the restricted physical field. But organized intelligence has made an advance that is truly surprising when we consider the short time in which it has functioned and the powerful foes against which it had to make its way—inertia, traditions and habits entrenched in forms of institutional life that are effulgent with the prestige of time, crowned, severally and collectively, with an emotional halo made of the values that men most prize.

  24. What is deeply significant to the theme of the relation between collective authority and freedom, is that the progress of intelligence as exemplified in scientific advance, exhibits their organic, effective, union.

  25. In spite of science's dependence for its development upon the free initiative, invention and enterprise of individual inquirers, the authority of science issues from and is based upon collective activity, cooperatively organized. Even when, temporarily, the ideas put forth by individuals have sharply diverged from received beliefs, the method used has been a public and open method which succeeded and could succeed only as it tended to produce agreement, unity of belief among all who labored in the same field. Every scientific inquirer, even when he deviates most widely from current ideas, depends upon methods and conclusions that are a common possession and not of private ownership, even though all of the methods and conclusions may at some time have been initially the product of private invention. The contribution the scientific inquirer makes is collectively tested and developed and, in the measure that it is cooperatively confirmed, becomes a part of the common fund of the intellectual commonwealth. Here is brought into bold relief and in typical form the kind of individual freedom that is both supported by collective, organic authority and that in turn changes and is encouraged to change and develop, by its own operations, the authority upon which it depends.


  26. THE thesis that the operation of cooperative intelligence as displayed in science is a working model of the union of freedom and authority, does not slight the fact that the method has operated up to the present in a limited and relatively technical area. On the contrary, it emphasizes that fact. If the method of intelligence had been employed in any large field in the comprehensive and basic area of the relations of human beings to one another in social life and institutions, there would be no present need for our argument. The contrast between the restricted scope of its use, and the possible range of its application to human relations—political, economic, and moral—is outstanding enough to be depressing. It is this very contrast that serves to define the great problem that lies before us.

  27. No consideration of the problem is adequate that does not take into account one fact about the development of the modern individualistic movement in industry and business. There is a suppressed premise in all the claims and reasonings of the individualistic school. All the beneficial changes that have been produced are attributed to the free play of individuals seeing primarily their own profit as isolated individuals. But in fact, the economic changes of recent centuries have been parasitic upon the advances made in natural science—upon the utilization of results which are consequences of the method of collective, organic intelligence working in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. To speak baldly, it is a plain falsehood that the advances which the defenders of the existing regime point to as justification for its continuance, are due to mere individualistic initiative and enterprise. The truth is that individualistic initiative and enterprise have sequestered and appropriated the fruits of collective cooperative intelligence. Insofar as the attempts that are now being made in the direction of organized social control and planned economy ignore the role of scientific intelligence, insofar as these attempts depend upon and turn for support to external institutional changes effected for the most part by force, just so far are they reinstating reliance upon the method of external authority that has always broken down in the past. For a time, while in need of security and a sense and feeling of solidarity, men will submit to authority of this kind. But if history shows anything, it shows that the variable factors in individuals cannot be permanently suppressed or completely eradicated. The principle of individual freedom expressed in the modern individualistic movement is deeply rooted in the constitution of human beings. The truth embodied in it cannot die no matter how much force is brought down upon it. The tragedy of the movement is that it misconceived and misplaced the source and seat of this principle of freedom. But the attempt to uproot and eliminate this principle on behalf of the assurance of security and attainment of solidarity by means of external authority is doomed to ultimate defeat.

  28. There is no need to dwell upon the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of extending from its present field to the larger field of human relations, the control of organized intelligence, operating through the release of individual powers and capabilities. There is the weight of past history on the side of those who are cynical and pessimistic about the possibility of achieving this humanly desirable and humanly necessary task. I do not predict that the extension will ever be effectively actualized. But I do claim that the problem of the relation of authority and freedom, of stability and change, if it can be solved, will be solved in this way. The failure of other methods and the desperateness of the present situation will be a spur to some to do their best to make the extension actual. They know that to hold in advance of trial that success is impossible is a way of condemning humanity to that futile and destructive oscillation between authoritative power and unregulated individual freedom to which we may justly attribute most of the sorrows and defeats of the past. They are aware of the slow processes of history and of the unmeasured stretch of time that lies ahead of mankind. They do not expect any speedy victory in the execution of the most difficult task human beings ever set their hearts and minds to attempt. They are, however, buoyed by the assurance that no matter how slight the immediate effect of their efforts, they are themselves, in their trials, exemplifying one of the first principles of the method of scientific intelligence. For they are projecting into events a comprehensive idea by experimental methods that correct and mature the method and the idea in the very process of trial. The very desperateness of the situation is for such as these but a spur to sustained, courageous effort.