John Dewey and the Unity of Mind and Matter

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 7 Comments

One of the challenges of the philosophy of Pragmatism is that it is too easy to reduce its complexity and subtlety to simple utilitarianism. Some of the same language that William James used to almost single handedly popularized Pragmatism into an international philosophic sensation probably also exasperated this problem. Statements like, “Grant an idea or belief to be true, it says, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?” are easy to misinterpret.

In my reading of the Pragmatists what has excited me (as someone who holds an Integral understanding of reality myself) is that the depth of their view, in my opinion, relies on an integrated view of inner and outer reality. Peirce’s adherence to Objective Idealism and James’s Radical Empiricism both reflect their commitment to this unity. As for John Dewey, he stated his integrated view of reality in an early essay entitled “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology.”  In this short, technical and arguably awkwardly written paper, Dewey lays out the foundations for a view of reality that I find deeply compelling.

Essentially he points out that the psychological understanding of stimulus and response mechanisms for action are overly simplistic and not reflective of reality. The classic stimulus/response mechanism that Dewey describes in his paper is probably not that different than the ideas that most of us hold today. A child walks into a room in which there is a lit candle. The candle is the stimulus that stimulates a response in the child –reaching out to touch the flame – the sensation of being burned is the next stimulus that stimulates the next response – the child pulling its hand away from the flame and so on. Dewey protests that this view chops up reality into bits that occur in succession one after the next, but the truth of human interaction with the environment is more complex, fluid and continuous than that.

He goes on to depict how thought, activity and environment are all part of a constantly interacting “circuit.” As I imagine this, I see myself walk into a room and my mind is flashing through different thoughts feelings, memories, desires, intents and interests, my eyes passing over and focusing on different aspects of the scene in front of me, the muscles of my eyes and body are all in motion and flux. Some combination of all this results in my reaching out for the candle flame, but the candle flame didn’t cause the motion – there was a lot more to the picture. The motion almost grew out of the total of  everything together. My thoughts are in play, as are my preferences, ideas, and feelings. In addition I am comparing the candle light against other objects in the room and selecting it over other things in the room based on preferences and circumstance some conscious and others unconscious.

As Dewey describes it there is an ongoing interaction of mind, body and environment all in some flowing ever-changing state of dynamic equilibrium. I had the sense, as I started to get what he was describing, of a human wave of activity passing by in constant interaction with the environment, changing the environment as it sweeps by and being changed by the environment in turn. It is a powerful description of the interrelated and undivided connection between mind, body and environment as one complex system. I think it is a description not unlike the vision of reality held by the American behaviorist psychologists B.F. Skinner, in fact Skinner mentions as much in one of his notebooks.

To my mind this view is critical to understand how the Pragmatists saw ideas literally growing into results.

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Carl
11 years ago

A nuance about Skinner’s work in relation to your vision that “I see myself walk into a room and my mind is flashing through different thoughts feelings, memories, desires, intents and interests, my eyes passing over and focusing on different aspects of the scene in front of me, the muscles of my eyes and body are all in motion and flux” is that the consequences of one’s action “select out” the parts of that stream that actually had an impact (“were functionally related to”) the behavior. In other words, we don’t actually know what aspect of the scene you were… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

You know, I think that Dewey was also writing in this way in a way that I didn’t quite get and that I think Skinner thought he was saying but wasn’t quite sure (I don’t think Dewey is the clearest writer.) I am going to have to think about it more, but he was implying that the action wasn’t the end of a train, it was actually the start of it. I still don’t get it, but I think there is something related. I also have to think about your sense of experimental pragmatism. I think I have to get… Read more »

Brian
11 years ago

I can barely hang with you guys anymore, but here is what science was doing during the Pragmatists’ heyday: I900 •The zeppelin invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. •Charles Seeberger redesigned Jesse Reno’s escalator and invented the modern escalator. 1901 •King Camp Gillette invents the double-edged safety razor. •The first radio receiver, successfully received a radio transmission. •Hubert Booth invents a compact and modern vacuum cleaner. 1902 •Willis Carrier invents the air conditioner. •The lie detector or polygraph machine is invented by James Mackenzie. •The birth of the Teddy Bear. •George Claude invented neon light. 1903 •Edward Binney and Harold… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, you have brought up to me the concept from Dewey of the “reflex arc,” which you have probably encountered by now in the technical publications of Skinner. Skinner addressed the idea of functionally defined reflexes, and made them the foundation of his experimental science. This was new to me — the link between Dewey and Skinner in this regard — but I think it’s very important and provides a more tangible link back to Pragmatism. Pretty exciting.

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

There is a “new” movement called Experimental Philosophy http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=3040510972 led by Joshua Knobe of UNC and Shaun Nichols of University of Arizona. Coming from the other direction to the same point is Moral Psychologist Jonation Haidt of UVA http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=39990505700. Enjoy!

johnreid
johnreid
9 years ago

experimenting is great to get results, but for what ‘real’ purpose? It doesnt matter how wide or old our knowledge is it never seemes to penetrate into the realm of that ‘knowing oneness’ by itself. its more about how/when its communicated and if it strikes at the core of ones preconcieved beliefs. And surely one wouldnt be open to it if one intended to test it.Maybe pragmatism is just another diversion from the knowledge we wont give ourselves to,maybe through a lack of faith.

johnreid
johnreid
9 years ago

i think what i mean to say is; tests, fascination, or even observing the environment seems futile without a link or unity to it. this becomes ever more clear once a knower, but the problem is then we doubt what we experienced and begin to test through lack of faith (purely from that perspective). i say we but sadly stand alone more often than not.