Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, March 01, 2013

DEWEY: Habits and Will

John Dewey is one of only a handful of Americans included in the Great Books. It’s always interesting to ponder this question: how well do American ideas and values hold up when we compare them with some of the classic texts of Western tradition? In this week’s reading, for instance, we can tackle the question of personal identity. What is it that makes “me” me? John Dewey takes a shot at answering that question. He thinks we’re composed of our habits. Dewey says it’s really very simple…we are the habit. That’s a very interesting definition of me: I am my habits; the good ones, the bad ones, and the ones I don’t even know about. Then Dewey goes on to say that all habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. In other words, we are what we do. That makes sense. It sounds American. It describes human life without going into a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But Aristotle views things from an ancient Greek perspective and he has this to say about Dewey’s perspective: We must not follow those who advise us to stick to human thoughts; they say since we’re only mortal men, we should have mortal thoughts, as mortals should. Dewey’s common sense philosophy doesn’t meet Aristotle’s requirements. Why? Because (Aristotle says) we should try to become immortal as far as it is possible and do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest within us. Aristotle agrees with Dewey that habits are important. And they both agree that all men are mortal. But Dewey seems to be saying we should aim for things which are achievable; Aristotle says we should aim for things which are highest. This is the difference between American and Greek democracy.

We can also compare Dewey on another question: where do ideas come from? Dewey has an answer. And that answer has its foundation in, you guessed it, Habit. Remember, we ARE the habit. So it seems natural that’s where ideas come from too. He says …a wish gets definite form only in connection with an idea, and an idea gets shape and consistency only when it has a habit back of it… Habits generate the ideas. Dewey goes on to say: Ideas, thoughts of ends, are not spontaneously generated. There is no immaculate conception of meanings or purposes. In other words, ideas don’t just pop out of nowhere. They’re connected to our habits. This is crucial. Here’s why. Dewey believes that Reason pure of all influence from prior habit is a fiction… So what? Well, consider what Kant says about conscience: Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with natural laws. It is not a mere faculty, but an instinct… If our conscience is molded strictly by habits, the way Dewey believes, then we’re all products of our environment. The way we’re raised is who we become. But if Kant is correct then we all have an inborn instinct to determine our own destiny, regardless of how we’re raised. That’s a big difference. Dewey says those who attack the notion of thought pure from the influence of experience, usually identify experience with sensations impressed upon an empty mind. Kant is from the “pure thought” school, as Dewey puts it. Henry Adams (another American) in The Education of Henry Adams does a good job showing how the “experience” school works: He first found himself sitting on a yellow kitchen floor in strong sunlight. He was three years old when he took this earliest step in education; a lesson of color. The second followed soon; a lesson of taste… he remembered quite clearly his aunt entering the sickroom bearing in her hand a saucer with a baked apple. John Dewey says ideas don’t just pop into our heads. We have to personally experience what yellow is, what a baked apple is. This conversation could go on but we’re still left with our original question: how do American ideas stack up? In the end each reader must decide for himself if Dewey can stand beside Aristotle and Kant.


Blogger SMJ said...

A habit is any repetitive activity in which conscious thought has become divorced from the activity itself. Dewey links desire with "propulsive power" and calls the result habit whenever "the union" is "forced upon us." What does this mean? It sounds like a kind of involuntary motion. We do something not because we want to or enjoy
doing it, but simply as an involuntary impulse, a kind of mechanical execution of our muscles or mind. "All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity." Dewey regards this kind of behavior as a product of "will." According to this model, our "will" is not necessarily an expression of our desire. The "will" has its own
agenda. This happens because our actions are not always the result of our conscious attention. Often, we do things as a form of blind repetition without any regard for the outcome. Over time, these habits become (or "constitute") the self. Dewey says that they form our "effective desires" and "rule our thoughts." This may be true, insofar as our desires are unconscious impulses, but it is not clear to me how unconcious impulses "rule our thoughts." Presumably, our thoughts are those ideas present to our conscious mind, so it seems odd that something unconscious (or not present to the mind) can rule or influence our thoughts which occupy our attention. Strange but not unprecedented. Freud made a whole career for himself about the (sometimes adverse)
influence of our unconscious mind over our conscience.

Dewey refers to organized perception as habits. By this, he means the objects of perception become known to the conscious mind as objects for reflection. The eye receives impressions which the mind then organizes into concepts. Left to itself, the eye would have no way to distinguish one color from another, or the ear one sound
from another. It is the mind which organizes this information. But nothing is ever learned until it is repeated. Things that are "de novo" in nature are unrecognizable. They become known to us only when experienced for the second time. Dewey is expanding our definition of habit to include these perceptual events. Nothing is ever
learned until it is repeated, which is an odd way of stating that continuity is necessary to learning. If everything we experience in life were unprecedented, then we would live in a constant state of bewilderment and confusion. This is a roundabout way of saying that nothing we know, or ever can possibly know, is new. This recalls the Platonic idea of knowledge being eternal (the realm of the Good). As Socrates put it, learning is really a process of remembering. I don't think Dewey believes that knowledge is only remembering, but his own use
of "habits" is problematic.

3/06/2013 1:44 PM  

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