Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How Pragmatists Commit Hubris

I am editing the last major chapter of my book. By now, I have completed a synoptic reading of Dewey's metaphysics and phenomenology with emphasis on its processional and temporal elements, and begin critiquing his concept of valuation. The problem? Dewey's analysis of valuation is incomplete, and most subsequent scholars follow him in this blindness, which leads them to commit hubris. They promise more of Deweyan method that it can accomplish, rarely admit its short-comings, and thereby hamstring any attempt to rectify deficiencies. Below I give you the introduction to the last chapter.

We have come full circle. In the beginning I asked how intelligence and agency are possible when impulsivity and desire are their root. For many, this formulation might have come as a shock, for western thinkers frequently understand the two to be opposites. John Dewey championed the view that intelligent inquiry is the transformation of impulsive desire through harmonizing it to ideal ends. However, I challenged his view because he promised more of our transformative capabilities than is warranted. He presumes that individuals are either more transparent to themselves or more integral of character than they are, and thereby assumed that desire is always ideational and available for reflective control at least in principle. Since I broached the question and criticism, I have presented a synoptic vision of Dewey’s philosophy focused on his metaphysics and phenomenology through the lens of Alexander coming to the following conclusion.

Every reflection is grounded upon what does not come to light, and this insight is fundamental to Dewey’s theory of experience. Experience is a process in which the unconscious phase occurs first and constitutes the conscious phase that becomes reflection. The “unconscious phase” includes the local environment, the active human body, the situation, habits ranging from instinct to the finest refinements of culture, etc., although I focus on only one strand of the unconscious phase, the process inclusive of “desire” or motivated human purposiveness that is a species of valuation. Our habits give us purposes without conscious intentions, and these purposes are the coordinated activity of biological impulses. When these purposes are sufficiently disrupted, the tension in ongoing activities may give rise to emotion and affectivity or a “felt difficulty” that initiates reflection and a problematic situation. Only then may we be an intelligent agent rather than rely on intelligently educated habit. However, the original impulsivity continues to constitute the situation, and supposing otherwise ignores the continuity of thought. The problem that confronts us is not whether an individual has a felt difficulty that provokes thought, but whether the individual may interpret the situation to re-educate habits and engender future felt difficulties that otherwise may not have been likely.

We cannot assume that every disruption launches us into reflection or reveals every unthought purpose. The conundrum is that only physical resistance necessarily provokes a felt difficulty, but the problem might be symbolic rather than physical. Symbolic resistance is possible only when a person interprets an event as a sign for a particular meaning. That is, morality does not walk across the street and slap sense into you. Racism is not only about conscious intention, but about attitudes, preconceptions, behaviors, and the material endurance of institutions that are frequently unthought. Culture is as much symbolic as physical, but only interpretation converts the physical into the symbolic. Intelligence requires resisting impulsive behavior, but when the event requires a symbolic resistance, talk about the possibilities of the situation become narrowed to the possibilities of interpretation.

In the process of experience, the unconscious phase occurs first and constitutes the conscious phase in which intelligence and agency occur. Part of the unconscious phase includes instinctual and habitual impulse that are primary in the direction of semi-autonomous behavior, and they function as gatekeepers of what might become conscious or what we might experience as meaningful. Every reflection is grounded upon what does not come to light, and this insight is fundamental to Dewey’s theory of experience. While there is no necessity for the occurrence of any particular event, the asymmetric flow is necessary, which establishes the enduring possibility of unconscious habits fragmented behavior from the reflective apprehension of their meaning. This is an unavoidable limitation of Dewey’s theory of intelligent inquiry that he did not adequately address.


  1. very good, one sees much of this in the growing euphoria over "plasticity", might be interesting down the road to see how Malabou and co. might fit in with your critique.

  2. DMF,

    Yes, that is the kind of thing I am targetting. In my dissertation, I even named a lot of names, but my committee said that it was bad politics, so I took it out. The same should hold for my book.

    My concern is that we *might* be plastic enough in our habits (neurology, whatever), but what I focus upon is the reflective control of agency and its intersection with desire. Or, in Platonic terms, the (dis)harmonies of desire and intelligence that allow one to become an intellectual brute (Thrasymachus) or a clever thug (Glaucon's argument in the Republic). We might be able to change our ways, but if we haven't the agency to realize these changes, the mere possibility is of little help. This is something that pragmatists rarely confront, and for them its a theoretical issue far more problematic than it is even for others, in part because they dance on the grave of the naturalistic fallacy. I can explain if you don't get my thrust there.

    It is good to hear from you. I was worried that something had happened to you since you've been so quiet. Of course, I have been as well, but you've been gone a long time.

  3. thanks JH, I'm hanging in there and sometimes need to take a break from the blogosphere (not sure if we are getting anywhere in these kinds of formats), I think I understand your position but am not so sure that "habits (neurology, whatever)" and reflective control,desire, and agency are really separable but either way the continental plasticity folks are not just talking about neurology and such and may be closer to your lines of inquiry than not.
    sadly I'm afraid I'm an unrepentant man of my times; correlationalist, individualist, naturalist, nominalist, etc, but I guess we should expect that we get stuck in our grooves, eh? best, dmf

  4. DMF,

    We agree then: habits, etc. are *not* separable, and that is my point. Hence, my recent article was a pragmatic theory of imagination that explained the structural limits of imagination from a Deweyan framework. The point was that Deweyan pragmatism is not even internally consistent on the point, and that they presume more agency and imaginative powers than is defensible. Classical pragmatist types think that "plasticity" can solve any problem since we can imagine our way around it. I'm less familiar with the details of the continental arguments, but I do think that Butler et al are overly optimistic, though I suspect that the optimism is rhetorical, and that Butler, for instance, would admit it if asked personally.

    I do not think you should worry about being unrepetant. The local blogosphere is energized with the promise of tomorrow without having established itself sufficiently for those who are not already caught up in certain continental discourses.

  5. http://newbooksinphilosophy.com/2012/05/15/paul-thagard-the-cognitive-science-of-science-explanation-discovery-and-conceptual-change-mit-press-2012/

  6. don't know if you want to play lifeguard in the shallow-end of the blogosphere but if you have some interest in public service you might want to wade in @:


  7. Thanks, DMF. I'll take a look. Whenever I play lifeguard, I usually do a bad job.

  8. DMF,

    I'm confused. Reading that post, I am quite impressed at its quality, especially since it mentions a few key points that no superficial reader of Dewey would likely note. Why does the post need a "life guard," i.e., someone to save it from something? Who needs saving? From what? Seems like all is good.

    I have added the blog to my list of reading, as it looks interesting.

  9. I see I thought that you had a more reserved, even Santayana like, take on Dewey's faith in experience to overcome the undercurrents of our trieb-ishness , but if my error has born some fruits via your reading list than all is well, cheers.

  10. Yes, I have that view, and I think Santayan's criticism of Dewey not entirely unmerited. "Home vistas" is what Deweyan inquiry can ever so easily become, but given the limitations of nature and human nature, I do not think that we can do much better than the general outline given by Dewey.

    I'm still curious about what in that post makes you think that something less reserved is occuring. My principle criticisms are hermeneutic and pseudo-psychoanalytic (there is something like an unconscious that Dewey neglects).

  11. the arc of the piece was from Nietzsche to Pirsig (the blog author thinks that Pirsig is a updated {new-age?} dancing Wu Li master version of William James), and I don't think that these folks share the same confidence/faith in the publics' capacity to find some objective "Quality" in/of experiences, to be tuned into the Way of things...
    yes, Dewey lacks our contemporary sense of the un-conscious processes but I think the key is not in dated ideas of repression but in phenomenology and cognitive biases.

  12. DMF,

    I suspect that if I knew Pirsig I would have more to say. Never even heard of the name. Dewey rejected Freud's theory of the unconscious and probably wouldn't be swayed by his inheritors. For the most part, I'm with Dewey on this. In practice, the differences need not be that stark. Rather than talk about the unconscious as a quasi-separate realm, I would talk about habituated semiotic systems (cultural habituation of thought). The differences need not be that great, depending upon one's interpretation of psychoanalysis. The big difference for Dewey, and likely for me, is that he refused to grant autonomous power to a subconscious realm of mind. That said, I argue that people are far more fragmented, and irrevocably so, than Dewey wants to admit. And most of his subsequent scholars are still following his lead, though I think it's slowly tipping back as the scholars are looking for new things to say to push out more articles. (Yes, I am implying that material practices are altering the theoretical landscape, which is wholly Deweyan of me.) If I knew more Derrida I might be able to make this connection, which is where I think you're going with "phenomenology" (and post-phenomenology). And yes, what I'm talking about is equivalent to a "cognitive bias," though far, far more detailed.

    I think classical pragmatism/americanism still has much to offer, especially with the metaphysical-epistemic linkage of experience and nature.

  13. ah sooner or later you will run into an undergrad with a well-worn copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance clutched in his hand (not a bad summer read actually), I too think that the way of the future springs from Dewey and many of my favorite writers/researchers like Paul Rabinow and Alva Noe agree:


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