The transactional model: A critical examination of John Dewey's philosophy of freedom

Mark N. Lenker, Marquette University


Do human beings make choices in a state of freedom, or are their choices determined by factors beyond their control? This dissertation is an attempt to articulate and defend a Deweyan response to this perennial question. Although this dissertation refers to a broad range of Dewey's writings, the most crucial texts for addressing this problem are his essays "Philosophies of Freedom" and "Time and Individuality" and his book on social psychology Human Nature and Conduct . Dewey's position on the question is subtle. Although he rejects determinism, he does not believe that absolute freedom of choice is the inherent possession of every individual. Instead, Dewey links freedom to choose with freedom to act, arguing that freedom in a robust sense is constituted by a growing capacity to make intelligent choices and to pursue effective courses of action. These two factors reinforce one another: successful actions tend to enhance the agent's cognizance of his circumstances, thereby making his choices more insightful, while intelligent choice increases the agent's potential for effective action. Because capacity for successful action cannot be separated from a meaningful notion of freedom, the opportunities and obstacles presented by the agent's circumstances must not be excluded from consideration when attempting to determine whether an agent chooses and acts freely. For this reason, Dewey's understanding of free choice is best characterized as transactional . Both the individual and his context make important contributions to any choice, and it would be a mistake to regard choice purely as the product of contextual factors (determinism) or purely as the result of individual's arbitrary will (libertarianism). An important consequence of this transactional understanding is the idea that individuals enjoy varying degrees of freedom depending upon the social, political, and economic factors at work in their situation. The extension of such objective conditions of freedom to those who lack them constitutes one of the core values of Dewey's social thought. The transactional model also holds important implications for our practices of finding and holding other people responsible for their actions.

Recommended Citation

Lenker, Mark N., "The transactional model: A critical examination of John Dewey's philosophy of freedom" (2003). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3116854.