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. Nothing that I have written runs counter to Dewey, but it gains from many decades of scholars in myriad philosophic traditions pursuing this thought. We now know perhaps better than Dewey how divided a person can become, and thus I would retool his work.