Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

JOHN DEWEY: Habit and Will

John Dewey is one of the few Americans included in the Great Books series. And he has been described as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Maybe he was. Unfortunately he wasn’t a very good writer so it’s hard to tell. Few English writers need a good translation of their work into language that English-speaking people can understand. Dewey does.

Having said that, what is Dewey’s concept of the human being? What sort of creature is man? If I understand him correctly Dewey thinks we are what we do. In his words, We are the habit…All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. Our “self” is the interpenetration of will and desire and habit and action. Our selfhood isn’t what we think, but what we do; the way we act. There’s a strong sense of pragmatism in Dewey’s outlook on life. He wants no part of what he calls hocus-pocus. That kind of thinking only retards human progress. Dewey says that Belief in magic has played a large part in human history. And the essence of all hocus-pocus is the supposition that results can be accomplished without the joint adaptation to each other of human powers and physical conditions. A desire for rain may induce men to wave willow branches and to sprinkle water. The reaction is natural and innocent. But men then go on to believe that their act has immediate power to bring rain without the cooperation of intermediate conditions of nature. This is magic… This is also a very modern outlook on life. Our modern faith is placed in science and technology, not a “god” who intervenes in human affairs. When we need rain we don’t pray to the gods, we look for ways to get water ourselves; maybe irrigation canals or trucking water in somehow. Magic has no place in the modern world.

And yet in the Great Books tradition we read about miracles taking place. In The Gospel of Mark, just to take one example, we read that there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? This story is very much in the Western tradition and is the subject of various paintings, poems, sermons and stories. Until quite recently this story was a crucial part of the Western psyche. Why? Because these kinds of stories were drilled into children from the time they were old enough to understand the meaning of words. As they grew older they may have rejected them, but kids still knew the stories by heart and it molded their lives, for better or worse.

Parents teach their children good stories because they think it helps them grow up to be better adults. Dewey also understood the importance of implanting good habits. He remarks that Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is…For, as Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character not. It’s important to cultivate good habits because of the crucial difference it makes in our daily lives. Take the simple act of walking, for example. Dewey says Everything that a man who has the habit of locomotion does and thinks, he does and thinks differently on that account. But you could apply this kind of thought to ANY habit. Any habit makes us think and act differently. Unfortunately Dewey doesn’t know how to explain this simple fact very clearly.


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