Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Towards a Pragmatic Phenomenology: Agency and Objects

Here I give an introduction to agency and objects in a Deweyan phenomenology.  It was not written as a general introduction, and thus I hope that non-specialists will get enough to ask for further clarification.  Someone asked about "objects," and this is a partial response.  Note that this work was written before my shift to a synthesized Deweyan-Peircean position, as here I present Pure Dewey.   For those of you wondering what you're missing in pragmatism, here's the stuff that rarely gets heard outside a small group of scholars.  Also, please see the prior post about conatus in Dewey, as "desire" means something quite other than "affect," but more like "primal vital drive" that may manifest as an affect.
Below is a passage from my dissertation, which is copyrighted by me, and by posting this passage I in no way waive or grant any rights of an author or copyright holder to anyone else.  Please do not reference without attribution.

Many words must and will be said about Dewey's terminology, and here I offer a few.  Dewey used such words as "control," "object" and “free” (freedom), yet what he meant by those terms was alien and unintelligible to his contemporaries and remains so to this day.  Let me explain in reference to my constructive critique.  Dewey's theory of desire proposes that desire can be controlled through controlling its object that leads to control of activity, e.g., inquiry.  I criticize him for assuming that desire is always ideational and therefore available for cognitive control, and propose to explicate the idealization of desire such that it may come into intellectual control. Thereby, we may discuss the conditions for an inquirer becoming aware of various meanings of a situation including potential meanings of the object of desire.

There is no self separate from desire or control, and thus commonsense "self-control" is not what Dewey meant by "control."  "Control" is the effective immanent organization of desire.  Insomuch as control is effective, it is "reasonable" (rational), a "quality of effective relationships among desires" (MW 14:135).  James Gouinlock phrases it as "[w]hat is called self-control or—ideally—the identity of desire and intelligence is not the work of something called the will or of a presumed reason possessed as such of motive power.  It is the cause, but not a result."[i]  Hence, reason or ordered willing is the result of the ordering of desire that constitutes the self.  The significance of proportionate desiring is that there is no removed subject choosing or not to submit to an affect.  Choosing occurs when "some combination of elements of habits and impulse, finds a way fully open.  Then energy is released" (MW 14:134).  Therefore, disordered desiring may result in the inability to inhibit impulsive activity that makes a self less "free."  Freedom or agency is realized in and through the immanent determination of the object of desire.[ii]  Finally, as if this were not unusual enough "object" has a radically different meaning than one might anticipate, and thus the phrase "control of the object of desire" is anything but straight-forward.

Objects are "habits turned inside out" that implicate the "projectile power" of habits.  These "forecasts" that are "anticipatory" (intentional) manifest the "onward tendency of habit" that has recoiled inward to become sensation in immediate consciousness rather than unconscious outward activity on the environment.  The sensations reflect the "objective conditions" that have been "incorporated" in the recoiling habit (MW 14:21).  The objects and contents of consciousness represent the "incorporeal material of habits coming to the surface" (MW 14:128).  The "incorporeal material" is the activity of habit that has not yet been incorporated or integrated; it does not mean disembodied.  Consciousness is an event that manifests the connection between organized habits and unorganized impulses.  The appearance of objects is due to the disintegration and reintegration of organized habitual activity.  Disintegration occurs when impulses conflict or are frustrated in anticipating the environment, whereas reintegration comprehends impulses and renders them efficacious as objects to which one may respond.  Consciousness seeks to organize activity to give it an outlet, and an object is a means to comprehending the situation so as to reduce felt tension.

[i] James Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value (New York: Humanities Press, 1972), 242; see also 264.
[ii] See also Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 282-286.


  1. This is really interesting, I'm glad I'ce come across your work, Jason.

  2. Thanks. Hopefully my article in the Transactions of the C.S. Pierce society will come out soon. I have plenty more posts on this and can recommend historic and contemporary work. This post should give a sense of how different pragmatism is, especially in ways that are poorly if known at all outside the tradition.

  3. Oh, I looked you up. I am quite a fan of G.H. Mead.


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