Two Quests for Unity: John Dewey, R. G. Collingwood & the Case for Synthesis in the Age of Fragmentation

Project: Dissertation

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • History of Ideas


  • R. G. Collingwood, John Dewey, Idealism, Liberalism, Practical knowledge


A widespread crisis consciousness caught the imagination of many intellectuals during the early twentieth century, as the First World War shook western civilisation to its foundations. Although new scientific fields emerged and many discoveries were made, the immense increase in knowledge did not seem to lead to a better world. While industrialisation and specialisation opened new possibilities, technological innovations were also threatening. As traditional values and beliefs became increasingly questioned and no consensus existed of what to replace them with an increasing number turned towards the promises of the totalitarian ideologies.

During this period, independent of each other and on different sides of the Atlantic, the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and the British historian and philosopher Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) found society shattered and human life fragmented. They argued for the importance of wholeness and unity; to connect human being to the world and to break down the divisions between individual and society, mind and matter, faith and reason. Against the tendencies towards specialisation, they argued for the necessity of bringing all forms of knowledge and human experience together in a single view. Against the emerging totalitarian ideologies, they argued for the necessity to rethink democracy, liberalism and western civilisation.

This thesis makes the argument that the attempt to bring about unity should be understood as the overarching aim of Collingwood’s and Dewey’s thought. Their quests for unity are interpreted as answers to various social, political, cultural and intellectual threats of the early twentieth century. Dewey’s and Collingwood’s thought is contextualised against the inter-war crisis, political liberalism, and philosophical idealism. To read Dewey and Collingwood side-by-side brings out previously unknown similarities in their thought and provides new knowledge on the under-researched topic of unity.

Keywords: unity, synthesis, holism, John Dewey, Robin George Collingwood, liberalism, idealism, crisis, practical knowledge, intellectual history, history of philosophy

Layman's description

Denna studie argumenterar för att enhet (unity) bör förstås som det övergripande målet i den amerikanske pragmatisten John Dewey och den brittiske historikern och filosofen Robin George Collingwoods tänkande. Med detta avses dels viljan att föra olika kunskapsformer som historia, religion, politik, filosofi och naturvetenskap närmare varandra, dels en strävan efter att överbrygga filosofiska dualismer som kropp-själ, individ-samhälle, förnuft-känsla, teori-praktik. Deras intellektuella projekt hämtar inspiration från den filosofiska idealismen och den politiska liberalismen, och ska förstås som ett svar på diverse kristendenser som aktualiserades under mellankrigstiden.
Short titleTwo Quests for Unity
Effective start/end date2016/09/012021/09/01