The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Michael Festl on Experimental Democracy

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Dr. Michael Festl

On Thursday, April 21, 2022, AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), a research center that promotes the practice, study and life of democracy, hosted Dr. Michael Festl, Permanent Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St. Gallen and director of the Dewey-Center Switzerland, for a guest lecture. Festl led a discussion on “John Dewey’s Political Liberalisms.” The hybrid event saw audience members attend both in person in the Combes Student Life Center and online.

Festl began his talk by contextualizing Dewey’s work at the nexus of experimentalism and democracy. In political philosophy Dewey is most famous for his concept of experimental democracy. But Festl argued that Dewey doesn’t elaborate on what he means by “experiment” and how this concept would translate into politics. So, what are the major elements of an experimental democracy along Deweyian lines? Festl suggested that the best way to answer this question is to look at how Dewey’s own political positions – his liberalisms – have changed over his long career.

Festl articulated Dewey’s liberalism in four successive iterations, each of which was characterized by different priorities. In phase one, Dewey embodied progressive tendencies, criticizing the super-rich and advocating for the breakup of trusts, though staying away from socialism, despite its popularity. In phase two, in the aftermath of the First World War, Dewey’s priorities were oriented around health and the maintenance of the international order, as he embraced liberalism more fully. The third phase, which according to Festl began in 1929, responded to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression and coincided with Dewey’s most aggressive critiques of capitalism. Dewey appeared to think that the New Deal was insufficient and looked to the Labour Party in Britain as a worthy political example. The fourth phase began during the Second World War, wherein Dewey understandably started to prioritize peace, and he tempered the ferocity of his critique.

Festl traced, over Dewey’s lifetime, his apparent satisfaction with the political situation, his desired level of state interference, and his critique of capitalism, noting that the fluctuations were shaped by historical events. In observing this timeline, he argued that it was possible to see experimentalism as a response to external stimuli and previous experience.

Following the lecture, audience members raised questions about pragmatism and the general popularity of the opinions held by Dewey throughout his life.