The Two Deweys

Dewey Spine LabelsThe other day I realized I need to clarify that John Dewey is not the Dewey who organized the Dewey Decimal Classification system used in public libraries. That Dewey was Melvil Dewey who published his work in 1876. Were he alive today, Melvil Dewey may have found himself sued for intellectual property theft. In 1998 Wayne Wiegand wrote, “The ‘‘Amherst Method’’: The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classifi-
cation Scheme
,” in which he summarized research that has been done on Dewey’s sources.

…library historians have been trying to clarify and contextualize the classifi- cation’s origins. In the last half-century they have seized upon one or more of the informational tidbits Dewey left behind, assigned each a relative value, and drawn upon these values to create their unique interpretations of the scheme’s beginnings. On one thing they all agree, however. All believe Dewey did not create a decimal classification out of whole cloth, and for the past half-century the historiography addressing its origins has tried to identify debts Dewey owed predecessors and contemporaries in classification history that he at one time or another acknowledged, overlooked, forgot, allegedly even deliberately ignored.

Once again you will find the philosophical hand of G. W. F. Hegel writing American thinking on learning and education. Melvil Dewey’s work was built on a foundation laid by William Torrey Harris. William Torrey Harris predated John Dewey, but Harris was also enamored of Hegel and as U. S. Commissioner of Education from 1889—1906 used his influence to shape American education. In 1870 Harris published his own classification system described by Eugene Graziano in “Hegel’s Philosophy as Basis for the Dewey Classification Schedule.

In Harris’, Book Classification, he developed point for point the reasoning that he employed in deriving the particular classification scheme that he did. The reasoning is completely Hegelian….

Leidecker has shown that the major subject headings of the Dewey Classification Schedule and their relative order, were derived from the Harris Classification Schedule. The Harris and Dewey Systems have been supposed by some to be related to the classification of Francis Bacon. The evidence is strongly against the validity of such a supposition. Evidence is very strong if not conclusive, that the philosophy of Hegel is integral to the ordinal relationship of these classes, and that the demand for logic in the order is satisfied only in terms of Hegel’s philosophy.

There were in fact two Deweys who left their mark on American learning, but they both stood downstream from Hegel.

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