A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Cultivating the Democratic Spirit: Trained Capacities and Radical Progressive Rhetoric

Review of Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice edited by Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark, 2014; University of South Carolina Press 

Trevor C. Meyer, University of South Carolina  

 (Published: February 8, 2016)

As editors Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark illustrate in the introduction to Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice, John Dewey, the “patron saint of U.S. education,” is an interesting subject for rhetoric scholars because he was not one and scarcely uses the term at all. Furthermore, Dewey’s speaking and writing is described as dry, depressing, and monotonous, certainly lacking the flourish and ornament of the common sense understanding of mere rhetoric. Evoking Quintilian, we might have considered Dewey a good man, bonus, but he apparently did not speak well, dicendi peritus.

That is, while Dewey enacts values and practices rhetoricians might want to emulate, he apparently lacked the skills to be an effective and engaging rhetor. However dryly he did so, Dewey “articulated over and over a clear progressive vision of democratic culture that puts back-and-forth communication at the center of…the democratic project—one in which individuals and their groups can hope to progress together” (7). This collection focuses on Dewey’s “democratic project” that Jackson and Clark identify as “inherently rhetorical, in the sense of requiring both assertion and response to be accountable to others with whom one is engaged” (2). With this rhetorical democratic accountability, Dewey challenges the model of community as separate social monads working for their own interest, in favor of “creative democracy,” in which the democratic spirit, a Whitman-inspired moral-aesthetic sensibility, is cultivated through civic education.

Democracy is not merely a category of institutions and practices, but an artful style of action, a “manner of being” in everyday life in which the citizen is oriented towards others, not merely herself. This orientation to others is not violent or defensive, but must be assertive and attentive, something Dewey articulates as horticulture in Individualism, Old and New, published in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning: “to gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence around this garden: it is no sharply marked off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle at which it touches our own manner of being” (122-3 qtd. in 19). For Dewey, communicative exchange is central for cultivating these gardens. While Dewey didn’t use the term, this collection re-reads his capacity for communicative exchange as rhetoric, as an Aristotelian dunamis, an ability to act with others. As a capacity for action, rhetoric must be trained through its practice, as we might see in Deweyan education with its emphasis on civic issues, ethical and practical action, breaking down the boundary between school and so-called real life. Valuing both individual and community, Dewey’s democracy is an ethical way of being-with others and ourselves, in terms of enactment, not abstract principles.

This volume brings together many of the rhetoric scholars who have examined Dewey, many of whose articles appear in Rhetoric & Public Affairs and Philosophy & Rhetoric. In addition to this collection, three other recent university press monographs also address Dewey and rhetoric: Robert Danisch’s Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric (2007), Nathan Crick’s Democracy and Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming (2010), and Scott Stroud’s John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality (2011).  The contemporary rhetorical scholarship on Dewey is still sparse, but it is certainly sprouting. Perhaps, this growth is motivated by the similar exigencies. With similar changes to the paradigms of global conflict and economy, The World Wars and The Great Depression for Dewey and the War on Terror and The Great Recession for us, the concern for and concerns about democracy that motivated Dewey are germinating now. Like rhetoric, Dewey is slippery, himself a dunamis or potentiality and each of the essays in this collection considers Dewey in relation to prevalent themes or interlocutors. Thus, each of the authors presents a slightly different Dewey, and each essay provides new soil and spades for future cultivation of the rhetorical democratic spirit.  

Part I 

In Part I, “Dewey and Democratic Practice–Science, Pragmatism, and Religion,” three essays utilize Dewey to engage questions of method, theory, and practice, both conceptually and discursively:

In “Dewey on Science, Deliberation, and the Sociology of Rhetoric,” William Keith and Robert Danisch discuss Dewey’s connecting science and deliberation, emphasizing the different senses of science in Dewey’s work. As Keith and Danisch outline, Dewey uses science in one sense as “reasonable method,” while it is used in another sense to refer to the research of professional scientists. They argue that Dewey outlines a sociology of rhetoric, granting the mutual co-constitution of individual and collective, which provides a method, Science1, for democratic deliberation and collective action.

In “John Dewey, Kenneth Burke, and the Role of Orientation in Rhetoric,” Scott R. Stroud develops a pragmatist rhetoric in response to the lack of explicit “rhetoric” in Dewey. Stroud engages the resemblance (or identity) between Burke’s orientation and Dewey’s habit; both are acquired, projective, and evaluative manners of action that ground rhetorical activity, offer a way of changing perspectives, highlighting the relationship of experience to agency, and provides a tool for tracking the ways experience is utilized in attempts at persuasion.

In “Minister of Democracy: John Dewey, Religious Rhetoric, and the Great Community,” Paul Stob examines William Jennings Bryant’s vitriolic campaign against Darwinism, which tested Dewey’s democratic value of tolerance and inclusion of people like Bryant in his “Great Community.” Rather than demonize the angry Bryant, Stob examines how Dewey responded by utilizing elements of Bryant’s own religious rhetoric; by recognizing the power of symbols, making moral delineations, and investing democracy with spiritual significance, Dewey made the religious orientation to democracy foundational and articulated salvation as the result of concerted human effort, not a supernatural being.

Part II

In Part II, “Dewey and His Interlocutors” each essay reads Dewey in direct or metaphorical conversation with a series of other thinkers, from ideological predecessors to his contemporaries:

In “Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War,” Jeremy Engels examines Dewey’s articulation of democracy as a “fighting faith” by examining his support for World War I and protestation of World War II. Engels shows that Dewey harbors a deep, explicitly Jeffersonian “democratic faith” in the reasonability and decency of common people, the demos, that Dewey sees as essential for democracy to function. War might embody this faith and consequent action, as Dewey saw WWI, but it can also lead to its dissolution, as Dewey saw WWII.

In “John Dewey and Jane Addams Debate War,” Louise W. Knight examines the exchanges following America’s entrance into WWI between Addams, a pacifist for whom all conflict was personal and not objective, and Dewey, a supporter who advocated social justice as a justifying goal for war; both initially supported American neutrality prior to World War I.  Addams saw Dewey as hypocritical, Dewey saw Addams as naïve and emotional (a still-too-common ‘critique’ of women thinkers by their male counterparts). Knight illustrates how these exchanges matured the positions and motivated the inquiry of both Addams and Dewey, who remained friends, in subsequent years. Knight’s essay is a valuable statement in the reclamation of female scholars and intellectuals, whose histories have been grossly limited by the decorum of their time.

In “John Dewey, W.E.B. De Bois and a Rhetoric of Education,” Keith Gilyard utilizes the educational philosophies of De Bois and Dewey to synthesize a rhetoric of education that accounts for their commonalities, while addressing Dewey’s very limited and Du Bois’ very vocal advocacy for education of African Americans. As Gilyard outlines, such a model emphasizes social welfare and racial justice, development of students’ full capacities, and a democratic education community, fosters active criticism, considers teachers as guides, and includes education on all subjects and adequate funding for all levels of education.

In “Walter Lippmann, the Indispensable Opposition,” Jean Goodwin re-articulates Lippmann as more than merely a foil for Dewey. Goodwin explores Dewey’s all-inclusive public with Lippmann’s public as an assemblage of different, local expert groups (insiders) who are lay audiences (outsiders) for other experts; while not everyone can adequately judge everything for Lippmann, we all can read “the coarse signs” produced by experts for consideration. Goodwin illustrates that Lippmann’s responses and disagreements with Dewey were generative of Dewey’s own thought, emphasizing the importance of Lippmann and his arguments with Dewey for future scholarship on education for/in democracy.

In “’all safety is an illusion’: John Dewey, James Baldwin, and the Democratic Practice of Public Critique,” Walter Muyumba examines the investments of both Dewey and Baldwin in radical democracy and the necessity of aesthetic critique: initiating, expressing, and reflecting on shared experience, rather than suspicious, traditional juridical criticism that cannot question cultural commonplaces. By reading Baldwin and Dewey against and through each other, Muyamba argues that the radical democracy of these two great thinkers is only realized through the legitimation of Othered, in this case African-American cultural experience and expression. 

Part III

In Part III, “Dewey as Teacher of Rhetoric,” three essays engage Dewey for challenges and questions of contemporary pedagogy in communication and composition:

In “Rhetoric and Dewey’s Experimental Pedagogy,” Nathan Crick examines Dewey’s pragmatist experimental pedagogy through comparison with sophistic and contemporary critical rhetorical pedagogy. All three emphasize the necessity of (con)testing ideas and practices, whether in sophistic dissoi logoi, Paulo Friere’s “problem-posing” model, or Dewey’s classroom-as-laboratory. While there are distinct differences between these three pedagogical methodologies, Crick outlines their common view of rhetoric as essential to the project and education of democracy, aiming to produce critical, self-respecting, and open-minded citizens.

In “The Art of the Inartistic, in Publics Digital or Otherwise,” Brian Jackson, Merideth Reed, and Jeff Swift examine Aristotle’s inartistic proofs, i.e. evidence or “witnesses” as the authors explain, in light of contemporary developments in digital communication. Such developments have produced a “Rashomon World,” in which there are just as many arguments of fact as there are of policy. Understanding the inartistic proofs as “self-evident,” the authors argue that Aristotle’s “witnesses” are no longer sufficient, but rather look to Dewey’s emphasis on social inquiry as the production of knowledge, the manufacture of facts, which they see as exemplified by the link-circulation of the blogosphere.

In “Dewey’s Progressive Pedagogy for Rhetorical Instruction: Teaching Argument in a Nonfoundational Framework,” Donald C. Jones compares Dewey’s progressive education, which requires the questioning of assumptions, with traditional positivistic education aimed at “absolute reality,” what Paulo Freire calls “banking,” and permissive education, in which everyone’s opinion is equal as everyone else’s. Utilizing classroom experiences and a survey of popular argument composition textbooks, Jones illustrates that Dewey’s progressive educator is immanently rhetorical and kairotic, provides a multiplicity of argument styles in teaching, and emphasizes the process and practice of creating knowledge.


Finally, in his afterword to the collection, “The Possibilities for Dewey Amid the Angst of Paradigm Change,” Gerard Hauser argues for the relevancy and necessity of Dewey for contemporary scholars of rhetoric, situated as we are in a shifted and shifting political paradigm not unlike Dewey’s own. Utilizing a short political history of America in the 20th century, Hauser illustrates how the factions of the polemical political establishment are differentiated only by their bio-political style of governance, i.e. both Left and Right have granted neo-liberal capitalism as a given and left no true alternative. Therefore, Hauser argues, Dewey’s emphasis on common experiential learning, a broader understanding of reason beyond mere rationality, and investment in civic life and communal well-being might provide a path to transformation for our students and “eventually in the American polity” (246).

This collection provides a welcome addition to the small, but growing body of rhetorical scholarship on Dewey, most of which was written by contributors to this volume, and thus in addition to providing new and interesting work, provides a solid survey of the work on Dewey in rhetoric thus far. Examining the important contemporary and subsequent influence of John Dewey through a rhetorical disciplinary frame offers new questions and topoi that might allow scholars and teachers of rhetoric, democracy, and education an alternative style of engagement and grounds for future invention in the democratic project of rhetorical education and scholarship, not as mechanistic production of good little workers, but cultivation of students-citizens’ capacities, “best realized in the free flow of artful communication among individuals who together form a dynamic social organism” (4). Rhetorical education is democratic education and the only tool we have, however dysfunctional, in the democratic project of cultivating our gardens, of training the capacities of both our students and ourselves as we struggle and stretch toward a shining, blinding future.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.

Freire, Paulo. "Chapter 2: The Banking Concept.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993 Print.

Jackson, Brian and Gregory Clark, eds. Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. Print.

Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory. Ed. Lee Honeycutt. Trans. John Selby Watson. 2006. Iowa State. 15 Nov. 2012. PDF.