While Many Have Explored the international reception of Dewey's thought—for instance, by Hu Shih in the Chinese context—little has been said about the fate of pragmatism in India. Yet there is a line of discernable influence to Indian politics and civil rights movements in the person of Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956). Ambedkar was a famous Indian statesman and anti-caste activist, but he was also a formidable intellectual and philosopher whose collected works span over twenty volumes. He also was highly educated in the West, earning degrees from universities in America and England. Importantly for the fate of pragmatism in India, one of the academic mentors that made a significant impact on Ambedkar during his education at Columbia University (1913–1916) was John Dewey. There is something special about this relationship, as Ambedkar spoke admiringly of Dewey throughout his life, and in ways that he did not praise his other professors. One well-known instance is Ambedkar's reply to his wife, Savita, upon hearing that Dewey had died during Ambedkar's voyage back to Columbia University in 1952 to receive an honorary doctorate; he ruminated in his letter, “I was looking forward to meet[ing] Prof. Dewey. But he died on the 2nd when our plane was in Rome. I am so sorry. I owe all my intellectual life to him. He was a wonderful man.”1 This was not the only time he spoke of Dewey in such glowing terms. In Ambedkar's epochal text, “Annihilation of Caste” (1936), he not only quotes his “Prof. John Dewey” on democracy and reconstruction, but further describes him as “my teacher and to whom I owe so much.”2 While Ambedkar was an original thinker of a unique vintage, the mystery remains: Why did he speak in these ways about John Dewey?

Most accounts of Ambedkar's development acknowledge his “debt” to the American pragmatist John Dewey and then move on. The story of the specifics of this influence, however, has yet to be told. How has Dewey mattered for Ambedkar's complex and creative thought? What has Ambedkar done to the tradition of pragmatism in his Indian context to change it, and to show its potentialities in dealing with caste oppression and other sources of injustice? The present study is part of a larger project that aims to chart out the influences and divergences between Dewey's and Ambedkar's forms of pragmatist thought. I hope to sketch out some of the main vectors for telling such a story, even if space does not allow for that entire tale. The classes, books, ideals, and methods of Dewey will all be shown as promising points of departure for saying more about why Ambedkar spoke so highly of the American pragmatist. As I will detail, Ambedkar took particular interest in Dewey's psychology as well as his reading of force and violence in his moral and political philosophy. These emerged in ways that Dewey would not anticipate in Ambedkar's own form of pragmatism, one which could be called Navayana Pragmatism, given its distinctiveness among the plurality of figures and philosophies that compose the multifaceted pragmatist tradition.3

Psychology and Social Psychology at Columbia University

Ambedkar is now well-known as the chief architect of India's constitution, as well as for being a tireless advocate and political activist against caste injustice all of his life. Being born a mahar—a so-called “untouchable” caste—meant Ambedkar was inserted into a graded hierarchy of hereditary value at its lowest rung, with the level of his existence being perceived as polluting to those around him. When Ambedkar managed to get a scholarship to study in New York, from an enlightened Indian prince, his fate was rendered more in his control than that of most of his fellow Dalits (untouchables). Upon arriving in New York by ship in July 1913, Ambedkar sensed the difference in the environments. Even though America had its racial problems, Ambedkar felt the relief that removal from the context of caste bequeathed to him in Manhattan. He saw a more equal and free form of life in New York City, where he could shake hands, dine, and eat with whomever he wanted. Ambedkar did not waste much of his time sampling American cuisine, however. The majority of his time, however, was devoted to his studies, both in the library and in the classroom; judging from his transcripts, Ambedkar took or audited over fifty courses, covering statistics, history, economics, political science, anthropology, and philosophy.4 Most importantly for the story of pragmatism's fate in India, Ambedkar took three courses from John Dewey while at Columbia. The first course was in the Fall of 1914, and it was titled “Psychological Ethics and Moral and Political Philosophy,” Philosophy 231. It was the first course of a two-course sequence. The second course, Philosophy 232, was precluded by Ambedkar's enrollment in Vladimir Simkhovitch's Economics 242 course on “Radicalism and Social Reform as Reflected in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” held at the same time during the Spring 1915 semester. Dewey's Philosophy 231–232 sequence was meant to be followed by his Philosophy 131–132, “Moral and Political Philosophy,” a two-course series in which Ambedkar enrolled in 1915–1916. In these three courses, Ambedkar received a unique summary of much of Dewey's moral and political thought at the time. What Ambedkar didn't receive from Dewey's thought, he would absorb later when he purchased a copy of the pragmatist's Democracy and Education while pursuing further education in London in January 1917.5 Two other philosophy courses—a year-long sequence taught by the realist philosopher and opponent of Dewey, William Pepperell Montague—are listed on Ambedkar's transcript, but the notations indicate that Ambedkar dropped these courses. When it came to his philosophy courses, Ambedkar voted with his feet for Dewey's pragmatism.

While they did not go into detail on Dewey's educational or epistemological thought, these courses with the American pragmatist clearly illustrated the psychological underpinnings of Dewey's approach to a range of subjects. Ethics, for Dewey, involved a complex combination of descriptive and normative perspectives. As Dewey indicated in his handwritten lecture notes for the start of the 1914 Philosophy 231 course, his approach combined a range of past philosophical theories of ethics and modern scientific accounts of ethics, in both giving a “general analysis of conduct” that does justice to “the place of instincts, impulses, habits, desires, emotions, and affections.”6 In this course, Ambedkar heard Dewey ruminate on how humans think and what this means for ethics—that is, rectifying human activity for more ideal ends and purposes. Part of this account concerned the stimuli that feature so heavily in evoking human action and reaction. For Dewey, humans are creatures of habit. This is both a good feature and a challenging quality; habits often aren't intelligent or adaptive, but their status as learned or acquired patterns of action means that they can be modified with intelligent foresight. As Dewey would put it in notes most likely recorded by students in Fall of 1914, “impulses in themselves are wholly lacking in moral quality. . . . Morality is [the] product of educational modification, in a social organization.” Put simply, impulses and the acquired habits that channel them have “to be transformed.”7 Dewey also connects impulses and habits to cultures and social organizations—indeed, these reactions toward stimuli become sedimented and common in what Dewey notes as “attitudes,” or dispositional stances taken by individuals toward situations. This is what he calls an emotion-laden “attitude-toward-an-object.”8

Ambedkar saw Dewey at his best, artfully combining a reading of individual psychology with social concerns that would surely interest the future reformer of Indian society. As Dewey put it in his teaching notes from Fall 1914, these impulses become “encased in a social medium and becom[e] factors in conjoint activities that gives them the mental or psychological quality.” Dewey considered the habits across socialized individuals that add to impulse create “meaning,” a notion that “implies a shared activity, an activity in which each participant refers his own response to that of another and that of another to his own.” Our meanings are not only enshrined in psychological habits—they are also shorthanded in linguistic tools such as labels and names. Dewey worries in these lectures and elsewhere about what he calls the “Philosophical Fallacy,” or the tendency of humans to take “a single unified word” as denoting “a corresponding unified fact.” We take our words and labels too seriously, resulting in instances of ethical myopia and unintelligent adaptation to social environments. Ambedkar imbibed Dewey's psychology of habit and attitude alongside this reading of language and labels that has great ethical import.

Dewey's psychology informed Ambedkar's later critique of Hindu society—and ideas of what could be done to relieve its injustices. Central to Dewey's psychology is the idea that the natural constituents of human nature can be changed, an idea that correlates the mental and the environmental through the ideas of stimulus-reaction and the mediating habitual construct of “attitude.” Attitudes embody our past reactions to things, situations, and people, and they prepare our future reactions to stimuli. For Ambedkar, an important implication of this psychology surely was the idea that mental habits—or attitudes—were created, enabled, and sustained by social environments such as those of caste-saturated Indian communities. This Deweyan background explains why Ambedkar, in his 1936 text “Annihilation of Caste,” focuses on the religious attitudes embedded within Hinduism. Truly emancipatory activity for Ambedkar centered on meliorating problematic attitudes: “All reform consists in a change in the notions, sentiments, and mental attitudes of the people towards men and things.”9 Extending Dewey's concern with labels becoming a central locus for attitudinal reactions to stimuli, Ambedkar points toward the importance of caste labels as “names” for groups and individuals—“It is common experience that certain names become associated with certain notions and sentiments which determine a person's attitude towards men and things. The names Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra are names which are associated with a definite and fixed notion in the mind of every Hindu.”10 One of the key points of his “Annihilation” address is that “[t]he Hindu must be made to unlearn all this,” an educative nod to the melioriative implications of the Deweyan psychology of attitude and habit that Ambedkar heard in 1914.11

This attentiveness to social facts and their normative implications vis-à-vis attitude formation also animated Dewey's year-long sequence of courses that Ambedkar attended during 1915–1916. In Philosophy 131–132, “Moral and Political Philosophy,” Ambedkar heard Dewey sympathetically review a range of philosophical accounts of society and morality, each tethered to its own historical context.12 For Dewey, ethical analysis could not be separated from the current status of a society or its own internal ideals. The world as it was served both as the basis for ethical reflection and as the material to be critiqued and melioriatively improved. For Dewey, remote ideals are not that useful; what is useful is a concrete engagement with the challenges, materials, and successes of a determinate social setting. It is in this course that a young Ambedkar most likely first heard the motto of the French revolution. Dewey broaches this influential slogan, along with its tripartite values, in the Spring of 1916: “the moral standard, aim, as a common good . . . the notion consequently of the control of the individual in the name of the common good. Liberty, equality, fraternity, and the name fraternity means common good.”13 Dewey did not make much of this motto, here or elsewhere, but it would assume prominence as a set of incredibly influential values for Ambedkar, who would continually refer to them up to the end of his life as guiding themes for any successful reform effort or social movement.14

Ends, Means, and Ambedkar's Pragmatism

Ambedkar continued to work with and extend pragmatist themes that he encountered in Dewey's class—and books—in the years after he left Columbia University. He continued to emphasize the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, which entailed one of the central problematics of Ambedkar's thought: how a society could achieve and maintain all of these endpoints or values, and not merely some subset of them. This balanced, sustainable instantiation was the state of justice. Ambedkar's challenge became: How can one achieve equality and liberty for India's so-called “untouchables” while still forming the sort of social democracy animated by fraternity or fellow-feeling?15 Might our attempts to achieve some of these values harm the balance we need to strike for a just society? These concerns were entangled with a persistent worry about the effective use of force in reform, another lasting inheritance from Ambedkar's time in Dewey's Philosophy 131–132 class. Shortly after his time with Dewey at Columbia, Ambedkar published a review of British philosopher Bertrand Russell's book Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916). Ambedkar's 1918 review is notable because it contains his first recognizable reference to Dewey's thought. Russell's book was largely focused on the use of violence by the parties in the European war, each convinced that their side was just and right. Ambedkar recovers Russell's critique and preserves the necessity of force for reform by evoking “the language of Professor Dewey,” namely, the distinction among types of force that he heard in the 1915–1916 course sequence.16 Ambedkar explains that Russell is not arguing against force in general; instead, Russell is “only against ‘force as violence’ but is all for ‘force as energy.’”17 Ambedkar desired to “present Indian readers of Mr. Russell with a correct interpretation of his attitude. Their innate craving for a pacific life and their philosophic bias for the doctrine of non-resistance, I am afraid, might lead them to read in Mr. Russell a justification of their view of life.”18 Ambedkar seemed concerned to persuade Indian readers—many of whom were taking part in the increasing wave of nonviolent protests against the British—that reformers gave up hope for improvement and justice if they abandoned the nuances of force in thought or practice. The force that was problematic for Ambedkar, and for Dewey, was the sort that violently and fanatically sacrificed too many other ends or values held among community members for the sake of one end or goal, most likely that held by the reformer. Force called for intelligence, balance, and a respect for the intricacies of social change.

The distinction between forces that enable a range of valued ends and those that fanatically sacrifice too many ends stuck with Ambedkar. We can see this exact distinction, identical to the one he heard in Dewey's course in 1916, in his final writings that compared his reconstructed Buddhism with communism in the 1950s.19 In an unpublished manuscript, “Buddha or Karl Marx” (most likely written in the 1950s), Ambedkar delineates the vital difference between Buddhism and Marx-inspired communism: both pursue equality and liberty, but only Buddhism can attain these along with fraternity. Ambedkar attributes this ability of Buddhism to its exclusion of certain means that would preclude true community or fellowship among individuals. Whereas communism is said to turn to violence against oppressors, Ambedkar claims that “[i]t is clear that the means adopted by the Buddha were to convert a man by changing his moral disposition to follow the path voluntarily.”20 Ambedkar again appeals to the analysis of force and violence he heard in Dewey's 1915–1916 seminar, referencing the “grounds against violence such as those urged by Prof. John Dewey. . . . Dewey has rightly asked what can justify the means if not the end.”21 Ambedkar argues that the Buddha also “would have probably admitted that it is only the end which would justify the means. What else could? And he would have said that if the end justified violence, violence was a legitimate means for the end in view.”22 Ambedkar appeals to the Deweyan distinction as a way to limit one's enthusiasm for force that merges into violence:

As Prof. Dewey has pointed out that violence is only another name for the use of force and although force must be used for creative purposes a distinction between use of force as energy and use of force as violence needs to be made. The achievement of an end involves the destruction of many other ends, which are integral with the one that is sought to be destroyed. Use of force must be so regulated that it should save as many ends as possible in destroying the evil one.23

From 1918 to his final years, we see Ambedkar engaging with the fundamental issue of force and moral reform, extending and augmenting the distinctions he heard in Dewey's classroom.24

Ambedkar was also impressed by Dewey's books, owning and annotating multiple copies of Dewey's 1908 Ethics (with James Hayden Tufts) and his 1916 Democracy and Education. He also owned copies of many other books by Dewey, including The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (1910), German Philosophy and Politics (1915), Experience and Nature (1929), The Quest for Certainty (1930), Freedom and Culture (1939), Education Today (1940), Problems of Men (1946), Essays in Experimental Logic (1953), and Human Nature and Conduct (1948).25 When he encountered the Ethics is difficult to determine, but we know from his own inscription that he procured Democracy and Education while in London in 1917.26 From the 1908 Ethics, Ambedkar appropriated Dewey's distinction between rigid “rules” and flexible moral “principles,” a conceptual tool that appeared in Ambedkar's “Annihilation of Caste” text as well as in his final book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, to describe what was wrong with the Hindu religion and what was useful about his pragmatic version of Buddhism.27 Dewey's Democracy and Education impressed Ambedkar insofar as it developed a vocabulary of social democracy that could be creatively adapted to the Indian context; he would integrate this notion of social democracy into his critique of Hindu attitudes toward caste and outcaste groups, pointing out that these attitudes betray social endosmosis and fraternity, “which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”28 These words are echoes from Dewey's Democracy and Education, but Ambedkar recontextualizes them in service of his critique of Hindu habits of mind—something that Dewey did not notice as a site of social injustice. Dewey's emphasis on “reflection” and “reflective thought” also gets a new life once Ambedkar takes this idea and works it into his critique of caste attitudes: his shocking 1936 speech aimed to create a crisis for caste Hindus, since “Man's life is generally habitual and unreflective. Reflective thought, in the sense of active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge, in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends, is quite rare and arises only in a situation which presents a dilemma—a crisis.”29 The Deweyan educational ideal of habitualized reflective thought and attitudes conducive to associated communal life animated Ambedkar's novel critique of Indian society, and Ambedkar saw the need to highlight overlooked problematic situations in the social structure of India to spur reflection and reform.

There is much left to say about the fate of pragmatism in India, but I will conclude by hinting at what we can see in Ambedkar's complex thought: a “new vehicle” of pragmatist philosophy, or a Navayana Pragmatism. This new instance of a pragmatist philosophy will surely be explained in conjunction with Ambedkar's Navayana Buddhism, since he saw religious means of melioration as important in ways that Dewey did not. In its most general contours, Ambedkar's Navayana Pragmatism is a philosophical approach committed to the melioration of problematic habits, customs, and structures that create injustice. In other words, it attempts to reform the individual and social factors that harm the balance among the ends-in-view represented by the values of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Striking the correct balance among these guiding values is vital, both for the reclamation of human personality as well as the creation of sustainable and just social democracy. The means that Navayana Pragmatism authorizes are diverse, ranging from individual religious conversion to political organizing and legislative reform. As this article has demonstrated, an enduring theme in Ambedkar's pragmatism (as well as his reconstruction of Buddhism) is that these means ought to be pursued in ways that leverage the non-coercive forces of persuasion and attitudinal change that preserve as many ends as possible, and that instantiate equality and liberty for all along with maintaining the possibility for the creation of community animated by fraternity. The story of pragmatism's evolution in India has yet to be fully told, but it will surely involve Ambedkar and his creative reconstruction of—and even resistance to—certain portions of the complex pragmatism of John Dewey.



Nanak Chand Rattu, Last Few Years of Dr. Ambedkar (Amrit Publishing House, 1997), p. 35.


Bhimrao Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste,” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, edited by Vasant Moon (Government of Maharashtra, 2014), p. 79.


This term comes from the label given to Ambedkar's new form—or “new vehicle”—of Buddhism, “Navayana Buddhism.” More must be said about Navayana Pragmatism, but one must not make the mistake of thinking that the descriptor “pragmatism” here excludes Ambedkar's work in Buddhism; his Navayana Pragmatism overlaps with his Navayana Buddhism developed in the 1950s.


A copy of his transcript, issued on 24 March 1965, is held in the Khairmode Papers at the University of Mumbai.


The earliest of Ambedkar's personal copies of Democracy and Education, a 1916 edition now preserved by Siddharth College in Mumbai, is signed and marked inside the cover with “London 6/1/17.”


“Lecture Notes, Dated: Psychology of Ethics 1914,” Center for Dewey Studies, Carbondale, Illinois, p. 1.


“Notes on Psychological Ethics by John Dewey,” Center for Dewey Studies, Carbondale, Illinois. Using internal evidence, I date this document to his course held during 1914–1915.


“Notes on Psychological Ethics by John Dewey” 16.


Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 59.


Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 59.


Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 59; emphasis added.


For more on these notes and courses, see Scott R. Stroud, “Pragmatism, Persuasion, and Force in Bhimrao Ambedkar's Reconstruction of Buddhism,” Journal of Religion, vol. 97, no. 2, 2017, pp. 204–43.


Homer H. Dubs's notes are held by the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Robert Lee Hale's handwritten notes are held by the Butler Library Rare Book and Manuscript Collection at Columbia University.


For further details on Ambedkar's time at Columbia, see Scott R. Stroud, “Ambedkar at Columbia University,” The Cambridge Companion to Ambedkar, edited by Anupama Rao and Shailaja Paik (Cambridge UP, forthcoming).


For more on fraternity and maitri, see Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy (Stanford UP, 2015).


Bhimrao Ambedkar, “Mr. Russell and the Reconstruction of Society,” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, edited by Vasant Moon (Government of Maharashtra, 2014), p. 485.


Ambedkar, “Mr. Russell” 486.


Ambedkar, “Mr. Russell” 486.


For appraisals of Ambedkar and communism, see Anand Teltumbde, Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva (Navayana, 2018); Gail Omvedt, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (Sage, 1994).


Bhimrao Ambedkar, “Buddha or Karl Marx,” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon (Government of Maharashtra, 2014), p. 450.


Ambedkar, “Buddha or Karl Marx” 451.


Ambedkar, “Buddha or Karl Marx” 451.


Ambedkar, “Buddha or Karl Marx” 451.


Note that this sustained reading of ends, means, and force as given in Dewey's course is different in important ways from the points that Dewey evokes in his dispute with Trotsky, an argument that there is no direct evidence that Ambedkar attended to or used.


This list includes books authored by Dewey (with their copyright date) that I have identified among the remains of Ambedkar's library preserved at Siddharth College in Mumbai, Milind College in Aurangabad, at Rajgraha in Mumbai, and the Symbiosis Institute in Pune.


Scott R. Stroud, “The Influence of John Dewey and James Tufts’ ‘Ethics’ on Ambedkar's Quest for Social Justice,” The Relevance of Dr. Ambedkar: Today and Tomorrow, edited by Pradeep Aglave (Nagpur UP, 2017), pp. 33–54.


Bhimrao Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 75–76; Ambedkar, “The Buddha and His Dhamma,” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 11, edited by Vasant Moon (1979. Government of Maharashtra, 1992), pp. 345–47. Also see Meera Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers UP, 2003).


Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 57. See Arun P. Mukherjee, “B. R. Ambedkar, John Dewey, and the Meaning of Democracy,” New Literary History, vol. 40, no. 2, 2009, pp. 345–70; Scott R. Stroud, “Pragmatism and the Pursuit of Social Justice in India: Bhimrao Ambedkar and the Rhetoric of Religious Reorientation,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–27; Scott R. Stroud, “What Did Bhimrao Ambedkar Learn from John Dewey's Democracy and Education?,” Pluralist, vol. 12, no. 2, 2017, pp. 78–103; Christopher S. Queen, “A Pedagogy of the Dhamma: B. R. Ambedkar and John Dewey on Education,” International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture, vol. 24, 2015, pp. 7–21.


Ambedkar, “Annihilation of Caste” 73.