Do you know Dewey?

I am a retired engineer with some formal education in philosophy that I gained over a period of time while engaged in my engineering career. I have, over the last thirty years, been actively engaged in reading a great deal of history, biography, philosophy and science. All of this activity I would describe as disinterested learning. To me this means learning only for the sake of knowing and understanding. I find value in knowing and understanding as an end in-itself.

One thing that has struck me along the way is that contemporary philosophizing has become irrelevant to the problems of society. I also think that society has suffered enormously as a result of this failure. This is my opinion and from what I read it is an opinion shared by many.

Perhaps one result of this failure of contemporary philosophizing has had an advantageous result. The result I speak of is a rebirth of interest in the works of John Dewey. I have discovered Dewey in the last decade and have become slightly familiar with his work. His work is prodigious and I have gained most of my understanding from secondary sources.

Ernest Becker makes the point that the humanization process is one wherein the individual exchanges the natural organismic propensity for a mysterious symbolic dictation. The child in its very essential formative age is faced with denying that which ‘comes naturally’ for what are symbolic dictates that are far beyond its ability for comprehension. The child’s formation of character is dictated by its need to be somebody in the symbolic world.

John Dewey learned long ago that “the child continually loses battles he does not understand…we earn our early self-esteem not actively but in large part passively, by having our action blocked and re-oriented to the parents pleasure.”

In the very essential formative years the child develops character traits that in many cases remain with that individual for the rest of their life.

What is character? Character is the network of habits that permeate all the intentional acts of an individual.

I am not using the word habit in the way we often do, as a technical ability existing apart from our wishes. These habits are an intimate and fundamental part of our selves. They are representations of our will. They rule our will, working in a coordinated way they dominate our way of acting. These habits are the results of repeated, intelligently controlled, actions.

Habits also control the formation of ideas as well as physical actions. We cannot perform a correct action or a correct idea without having already formed correct habits. “Reason pure of all influence from prior habit is a fiction.” “The medium of habit filters all material that reaches our perception and thought.” “Immediate, seemingly instinctive, feeling of the direction and end of various lines of behavior is in reality the feeling of habits working below direct consciousness.” “Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts. It means will.”

Britannica specifies that attitude is “a predisposition to classify objects and events and to react to them with some degree of evaluative consistency.”

If I consult my inner self I cannot focus upon an attitude but can infer such an attitude based on behavior. If I wish to become conscious of my intuition I can through observation of behavior describe the attitude, which, in turn, allows me to ascertain the nature of my intuition.

When a mother tells her son “you must change your attitude”. The son cannot change the attitude directly but the son must change his intuition from which the inferred attitude emanates. This does become a bit convoluted but in essence when we wish to change an attitude we are saying that our intuition must be modified. We can modify intuition only through habit directed by our will.

“Were it not for the continued operation of all habits in every act, no such thing as character would exist. There would be simply a bundle, an untied bundle at that, of isolated acts. Character is the interpenetrating of habits. If each habit in an insulated compartment and operated without affecting or being affected by others, character would not exist. That is conduct would lack unity being only juxtaposition of disconnected reactions to separated situations. But since environments overlap, since situations are continuous and those remote from one another contain like elements, a continuous modification of habits by one another is constantly going on.”

I would like to recommend the thoughts of John Dewey to all those who are disheartened by the direction of education, politics and the general drift of our society wherein citizens have allowed themselves to become propagandized into recognizing production and consumption as its most important values.

My understanding of character and the quotations concerning the nature of character are taken from Habits and Will by John Dewey