An Interpretation of John Dewey's Instrumentalism.
Mark Blythe
University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom

Freedom, for Dewey, R. S. Peters reminds us, means the “intelligent harmonizing of habits”, with the principal purpose of creating an “intelligent human being” (p. 63). “Habits”, Dewey contends, are principally “physiological functions”, and although can be “acquired”, like other bodily functions, they also require the “cooperation of organism and environment” (Dewey, 1922b, p. 14). Correct development, is, therefore, the remit of the acquisition and development of the requisite habits. When Dewey says acquired he is referring to the type of “plasticity” (Dewey, 2007, p. 39) within habit over which we have easier control, such as “playing a musical instrument”, and not inherent habit, since the former are “technical abilities…passive tools waiting to be called into action” (Dewey, 1922b, p. 24). The inherent ones, Dewey considers to be bad habits, because of their “inherent tendency to action”, which have “command over us”, and crucially they have this power because “we are the habit” (p. 24). The use of a metaphor must not deceive, Dewey means this literally and, therefore, it ought not to be underestimated, especially bearing in mind that the “traits” of bad habit “are precisely the things which are most instructive about us”; a bad habit, he claims, even “overrides our formal resolutions” and “our conscious decisions” (p. 24). Dewey further justifies his claim that habits “constitute the self” on the grounds that they are specific activities, which are not only our principal guiding force, our “will”, but their underlying reason; “they form our effective desires”, which in turn provide us with usable abilities “our working capacities” (p. 25). An habitual tool, whatever it may be, is only so when it is in “active operation…cooperating with external materials and energies” (pp. 25-26). By implication, therefore, good habits cannot be trusted to chance, they have to be honed: “through control of the organs of action” one encounters “active control of the environment” (Dewey, 2007, p. 39) and if carried out purposefully, the individual stands a chance of keeping the reins on the so-called bad ones.

It is within the psychological realm of habit in instrumentalism that most informatively expresses Dewey’s definition of ideological realism. J. E. Tiles, who states that Dewey was not an idealist per se, affirms, however, that he “insisted on the right of his own version of pragmatism to be regarded as a realism” (Tiles, 1988, p. 142). Within this ideology Dewey presents an insight into his ontological beliefs about the self. The ontological involves the need to comprehend, as Kennedy, (1959) referring to Dewey, points out “a conception of experience”, and for Dewey this involved “the complex series of transactions which occur between the live creature and its environment” (Dewey, 1931, “Conduct and Experience”, as cited in Kennedy, 1959, Oct., p. 802). Dewey expresses this transactional relationship using a vocational analogy, “the sailor” who is “at home on the sea”, the “hunter” similarly in “the forest”, the “scientist” in the “laboratory”, to represent everyman in his chosen habitual environment (Dewey, 1922b, p. 176), and explains this as a real and biological process:

These commonplaces are universally recognized in the concrete; but their significance is obscured and their truth denied in the current general theory of mind. For they mean nothing more or less than that habits formed in process of exercising biological aptitudes are the sole agents of observation, recollection, foresight and judgment: a mind or consciousness or soul in general which performs these operations is a myth. (p. 176)

In focussing on this theory of “transaction”, Dewey implicitly alludes to the Hegelian reality of categories, and in particular to the abstraction of becoming, which is the synthesis of being and not being, in order to criticise the prevailing contemporary psychological obscurantism. By privileging something as tangible as biological aptitude, or habit, over mind, consciousness and particularly soul (aside from the fact that he considers conceptions of the functions of the latter three fictitious, or “myth” [p. 176]), one is able actually to grasp more clearly, pragmatically and realistically, what mind and consciousness might actually be. It is important to state that Dewey (1922b) considered the “doctrine” of an eternal soul as the reason for the “failure” to recognise the fundamental role of habit as the real progenitor, or “means” of mind, consciousness and soul (p. 176); all of which he appears to equate with habit; only to jettison the latter as indefinable. Dewey observes that “all habits are demands for certain kinds of activity” and that these experiences “constitute the self” (p. 26). In particular, he states that habits are actually the catalysts of thinking and of the outcomes of such processing of knowledge, “concrete habits are the means of knowledge and thought” (1922b, p. 176). Dewey (1922b) thought that the crucible of his “naturalistic method” was a shared human experience “employed in coordinated conjunction with one another” (p. 26), a symbioses with self and environment, and “behavior [sic], in which organism and environment inter-act” (Dewey, 2008, p. 40). This, for him, is the essence of his “naturalistic method”, an emancipating dialectic that circumnavigates both relativism and absolutism.

3.2.1 Thought depends on habit

Moreover, the individualism of the individual is, accordingly, partly innate and essentially intrinsic, and partly influenced by the extrinsic. That is, it is found in “habits acquired under social influences…in concrete aims”, which are “reflexes of social conditions” (Dewey, 1922b, p. 318). The importance of further understanding habit as a socially constructed tool is crucial in understanding the fullness of instrumentalism; and this is made all the more necessary in view of Dewey’s belief that morality is as central to the individual’s “interaction” with the environment as “walking” is an “interaction of legs with a physical environment” (p. 318). For Dewey, morality is social, in spite of his own admission that we “have a moral nature, a conscience” (p. 325). He considers it to be morally backwards to think that conscience existed in us innately, “the notion that an abstract ready-made conscience exists in individuals … is associated with the causes of lack of definitive and orderly moral advance … it is associated with lack of attention to social forces” (p. 319). As Dewey puts it “Nature…is a progressive realization of purpose strictly comparable to the realization of purpose in any single plant or animal” (Dewey, 1922a, p. 34). By social forces, he appears to mean “human action” understood as “the conscious phase” – the emphasis on the adjective, which he observes was shifted to become the abstract noun of “consciousness”, obfuscating therefore the reality of the act (p. 322). It must therefore be the case that the conscious phase, in the process of forming effective habit, excoriates error, or as Dewey puts it “flaw”, by destroying things “once cherished” in order to reveal their “inconsistency with the nature of things” (Dewey, 1958, p. x).

The aim of this process is to produce a disposition, which is “consistently” inclined to excoriate rigid habits, and to cultivate flexible ones, this Dewey argues, “inspires the mind with courage and vitality to create new ideals and values” (Dewey, 1958, p. x).

Parallel Session A:2
Mark Blythe
Presentation type:
Full paper
Wednesday, 28 September
17:15 - 18:00