I am on a roll with John Dewey. I was reading through his book “Experience and Nature” for the second time and something finally clicked and I started to see what he was getting at. Once that happpens it is like reading a different book, suddenly I started to be able to understand what I was reading. I am going to put up a short flurry of posts on it so that I can describe what I got out of it.
The embrace of continuity through time is at the heart of the Pragmatist’s view of life. All of the founding American Pragmatists, Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey emphasized the relentless ongoing flux of reality. Everything to them was in a state of transition between what has been and what would or could be. Nothing is fixed or settled, everything is constant movement and evolution.
John Dewey called this embrace of the transitory nature of reality “the source of philosophic enlightenment.” The reason we don’t see reality this way according to Dewey is because it is simply too unstable, insecure and scary. Throughout history human beings have always celebrated “ends.” After the hunt there is a feast to celebrate its completion. The ends of affairs give us a sense of stability. In a universe of constant flux we want to find some fixed objects that we can anchor to. The ultimate fixed anchor throughout human history has been the belief in a static and unchanging god. No matter how crazy things got there was always god up there in the sky, never wavering and helping us feel safe.
Dewey felt that even in his time (and I would extend that to us today) people give too much weight to ends. Nature is a collection of histories and these histories do come to ends, but every end is also a beginning. The need to find security by identifying fixed objects in a sea of unending change remains with us and manifests as our habit of defining reality in terms of fixed objects and the ends of histories,. In doing this we are missing the fact that every fixed thing is also a transition to something else and that reality ultimately is one unending continuous stream of change.
I have a butcher block table in my kitchen. That table is the end of a long history. That history started with a tree that was cut down, hauled to a saw mill and cut again into boards. The boards were hauled to a lumber yard where they were displayed and then purchased. The boards were sent to a factory where they were turned into a table that was boxed and shipped to a store. The box sat in the store until I bought it, brought it home and put the pieces together and placed the table in my kitchen. Once that was done I stood back and admired my new table. In effect, I was celebrating the end of the history that brought me the table.
To my way of thinking, what Dewey was getting at is that this perception of the table as an “end” is a distortion of reality because it is not the whole story. The table is an end of the history that I described, but it is also the beginning of the histories of all of the meals that I am going to prepare using it. Seeing the table not only as the end of a history, but also as a means to other ends was central to Dewey’s conception of Pragmatism. Dewey referred to this perception as seeing the “instrumentality” of the table and he called his version of Pragmatism, Instrumentalism.
Dewey, like Peirce and James before him, was trying to articulate a new perception of reality. He was trying to peal human attention off of immediate ends, off of the illusion of fixed objects and put it on the instrumental and transitory nature of things. Everything is not only an “is” it is a “becoming.” When I walk in to the forest and see a tree, I am going to habitually see it as the end of a history that started with a seed, but the tree is also the start of a history that will end as a butcher block table in someone’s kitchen.
The transformational insight of Pragmatism is the fundamental shift in awareness from seeing predominately only the present state of things to seeing the future possibilities of things. When we embrace that everything is in a constant state of flux, a relentless transition to what will be, we begin to incorporate more of the future’s possibilities into our immediate experience of the present. This is also the fundamental shift in perception that evolutionary spirituality supports in people. The result of this shift in perception is an increase in the ability and effectiveness with which we can adapt and change. I believe that in a world such as ours, in which so much change of such enormous magnitude is called for over such a short period of time, this perspective is invaluable.
This is great Jeff. I really enjoyed reading this piece. What and how you write about this perspective that “everything is in a constant state of flux” is so well described by you. I feel like I am experiencing the results of your “clicking in” to what John Dewey was expressing by reading your blog now. I am very struck when you speak about how we are always seeing “ends” and how distorted that is of reality. At first when I was reading I thought of the similarity to Buddhism in terms of impermanence, but this is different than that,… Read more »
When I cut & past and gather the concepts, it is like solving puzzles.
• Understand the world is the collection of individual systems
• Every result has underlying system that cause that result
• The relationship of Individual to society as a system and our evolving perspectives as an evolving whole system.
• Embracing Constant Flux
• The result of this shift in perception is an increase in the ability and effectiveness with which we can adapt and change.
I am finally catching up, and the discussion is already far away, but I like to start at he blog where I left ! The idea of everything having “ends” is one which has tormented me the most in my life. When I was an adolescent I couldnt’ accept that a book that I was reading passionately suddenly comes to an end. On the other hand I always likes, from the childhood, to complete the solution of a problem. Like you solve a Math exercise and your understanding has reached an end, in this small context. It was always very… Read more »
It’s a waste of time trying to describe yourself, we are all deluded in a sense,because you are not what you think you are, but what others perceive you to be, we are all full of contradiction and hypocrisy, and everyone see us differently, we are continually changing,, from the day we are born to the day we die, we don’t know ourselves let alone anyone else. As a starting point, everyone I meet, I try to treat people the same, until I find a reason not to. The only sense in this world is nonsense.
What an unhappy person you must be! I probably do not have to remind you that we see the world as we see ourselves. A person who is very depressed only sees the horrors in the world, which makes him even more depressed. I often experienced it myself, the moment I change perspective I suddenly see a totally different world around me. You might try it..
As is known, the only things constant are death, taxes and change. Time is a river that we all are swimming in, carried on for our life time. The landscape changes with each moment, much as some would like life to slow down and maybe be more predictable. In our push-button instant technology world, does it seem the pace of changes has really picked up bigtime? It may be wearing but to attempt to keep up as much as possible or comfortable is important or else left behind. It’s daunting and not easy to be overwhelmed. It’s important to maintain… Read more »
i reallyenjoy this and great jeff its so amazing
Hi Kalin,Here are some tips for keeping rdeear’s interest: use stories (that make it come alive) and examples, use fun metaphors, use humor (exaggerate), play with words (alliteration, puns), use tip lists, add interesting facts. You also asked in your e-mail about books besides Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Zinsser’s On Writing Well. A recent new pick of mine is Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. Stephen King’s On Writing is also terrific. Good luck.