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Saturday, August 20, 2011

DEWEY: Habits and Will 2011

In the book of Genesis we read the story of creation. At first human beings were happy and living in a paradise world. But one thing God told them they must never do was eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course that’s just what they did. And this one simple act of disobedience led to a deep-seated tendency for us to choose wrong things. That’s why we develop bad habits and don’t live right. So goes the story. Philosophers have offered various opinions about how we can change all that. With this background John Dewey brings his can-do American spirit into the discussion. He says that a bad habit… makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. This observation comes from simple human experience. We’re not ashamed of putting on our right shoe first or eating with our right hand. These things don’t much matter. But some things do matter and we call them “bad.” Dewey gives examples such as foolish idling, gambling, or addiction to liquor and drugs. We believe there are some things we shouldn’t be doing. But we do them anyway. Why? And why do we feel ashamed doing them? Dewey thinks we feel ashamed because we’re not in full control of our lives. We feel shame because a bad habit overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit. That’s the part we don’t like and that’s the part that makes us feel ashamed. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve hide themselves from God because they’re afraid (ashamed): And he (Adam) said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. Adam's human weakness has been exposed and his first reaction is to hide. Dewey thinks this is a mistake. What we need to do is confront our problems intelligently. What if God had given Adam a different command: all he needed to do was stand up straight? Adam would have still failed. Why? Because the assumption is that if a man is told to stand up straight, all that is further needed is wish and effort on his part, and the deed is done. It’s not that easy according to Dewey: this belief is on a par with primitive magic in its neglect of attention to the means which are involved in reaching an end. In order for Adam to stand up straight he first has to know HOW to stand straight. Dewey goes even further: in fact a man who can stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. Unless Adam knows how to stand straight (or be obedient) he will ALWAYS fail because the deck is stacked against him. Unless we change the conditions affecting Adam’s posture then he will continue to slouch. According to Dewey what Adam needs to do is form an intelligently controlled habit. And this doesn’t just hold true for Adam. We all have false notions about the control of the body and extending to control of mind and character, and this is the greatest bar to intelligent social progress. This seems to be the key factor in Dewey’s philosophy: intelligent social progress. How can we make things better for everyone? After all, isn’t this the quest of American democracy? For Dewey it all boils down to getting the right kind of education: 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. We have to be taught what good and bad is. And it isn’t just a matter of private, personal learning. Dewey wants to improve Aristotle’s philosophy: (But he should have added that the influence of social custom as well as personal habit has to be taken into account…) If we can somehow change the social environment and develop good habits, things will improve. This brings us back to our original Garden story. Things were (almost) perfect in Paradise and yet we failed. That’s how the story goes. So maybe we can’t change the whole world but Dewey says the thing which is closest to us, the means within our power, is habit. Maybe we can at least start with ourselves.


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