Wednesday, June 6, 2012

John Dewey's Theory of Meaning


Once again, I am posting a passage from the book that I am editing. This one gives some insight into Dewey's theory of meaning as read through Thomas Alexander's John Dewey's Theory of Art, Nature, and Experience: Horizons of Feeling. Below I give a taste of some of the basics of his theory of meaning that implicates a realist processional phenomenology.

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The basic condition for meaning, explains Alexander, is the "'stable,' the regulative supportive order, and the  'precarious,' the adventitious, problematic, and aleatory disruption of that order."[i]  A purely static world would not manifest consciousness, and time and history would not exist.  A world purely in flux would also be meaningless.  Meaning arises from the dynamic interplay of the stable and the precarious, the actual and the potential, that forms regularities of structure. That is, something is meaningful because of what it is not yet, or what we might do with it, or what would happen if we lost it. Because the history of loss and gain occur in regular patterns, we come to anticipate them and experience an event as meaningful. Meaning has something to do with memory, time, and change.
            Experience displays a "rhythmic structure" that characterizes natural interactions that Dewey describes in two words. There are phases in which the human organism is acted upon or is “undergoing,” and in which the organism acts or is “doing.” Undergoing is possible insomuch as an environment can affect an organism. Doing is the activity of the organism upon the environment in response to undergoing. Neither is absolutely separate, but is two parts in the rhythmic structure of interacting in the world.
            Meaning is the anticipated consequences of an action by definition. In any event, we may anticipate what might happen because experience has rhythms and stabilities that make successful anticipation possible. We experience a closed door as an exit or entrance, because we unconsciously anticipate the necessary acts of walking, reaching out for the doorknob, turning it, etc. Though we may think, “I’m going into the café,” we anticipate far more than we are reflectively aware of. Just as intention undergirds attention, meaning is experienced prior to reflective awareness. Alexander’s exposition of Dewey’s theory of meaning is an explanation of what we mean by “anticipation” and “consequence,” and how that applies to meaning. Given the example, it should be clear that we are not conscious of most meanings that we experience, since they are anticipated through bodily and not conscious or reflective action. Bodily action fuses into conscious action when consciousness occurs, but there is a large remainder that either does not or cannot become conscious.


[i]           Alexander, Horizons of Feeling, 125.

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For those who know A.N. Whitehead, yes, that "feeling" in the book title is very akin to his, although it owes more to C.S. Peirce. The paradigmatic "horizon of feeling" in human experience is imagination, which is central in the experience of meaning. 

A last thought. For Dewey, all thought is abduction. A meaning is, in my words, a "hypothesis of the flesh" after which it might become thought of mind. Those who borrow the pragmatic theory of meaning are often making cognitivist uses of it, whereas Dewey is a non-cognitivist, non-representationalist, and realist about experience. I'm pointing at you, Rorty and some neopragmatists. I have seen neopragmatists working in neuro- and cognitive science correct this misappropriation.

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