Monday, May 14, 2012

A Re-Introduction to How Nature Thinks

Here is the rewritten introduction to my book manuscript.  I am toying with titling it How Nature Thinks that is at once accurate and plays upon Dewey's How We Think.  I am searching for a more descriptive subtitle.

Another’s choices are inscribed into my body and mind long before I call them my choices.  They are my choices in the sense that I claim them, yet I their performer and not their author.  I am easily led to think I am the agent of my actions, because the tincture of my intention pervades the scene.  We all mistake our being actors for being agents, because we mistake intentionality for freedom.  We improvise upon a script that no one holds before us, but we all follow.  Who writes it—who is the author of our thoughts?  No one.  Everyone.

Society and civilization engender patterns of desire, wherein instinct, impulse, and want motivate action and not mythic free will.  Human agency grows through the cultivation of desire, whose patterns and objects are given definite form by culture.  We are not first motivated by individual choice, but by want, and subsequently realize the suggested idea.  Only that realization frees us from the tyranny of instinct and impulse, from another’s choices written into my body and mind, and frees us to be intelligent.  Only then do we become singular, one person or “I”, rather than a performer of social habit.  Freedom is not absolute, but exists to the degree that I mold desire by thinking it against its anticipated consequences.  However, this is simultaneously a struggle against myself, my community, my body, and nature itself.

John Dewey provides these insights before they became the pillars of continental European philosophy in such thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sarte, Michel Foucault, or Judith Butler.  His thought provides alternative ways of grappling with the problems of later thinkers, especially with the separation of metaphysical and phenomenological strains of thought and the frequent alienation of science.  Dewey offers a novel theory that unifies the third-person viewpoint of experimental science with the first-person viewpoint in which we all live.  He believed that the former was the key for ameliorating the latter, and he would rebuke contemporary scientists, scholatr, and intellectuals that oppose nature and scientific knowing to humanity and its culture.  He achieves this by unifying metaphysics and phenomenology by showing how they are as continuous as the environment, body, and mind are to nature.  The unification and continuity of metaphysics and phenomenology is the background goal of this work and situates a foregrounding question.

How do I achieve agency when human nature impels us to act first and think second?  Dewey rejects cognitivist views that search for answers attentive and reflective thought and its pre-conditions.  He holds a view similar to the contemporary embodied mind thesis.  Mind is an event that emerges out of bodily conditions; it enlarges possibilities beyond mere autonomous physicality, but is neither free of nor discontinuous with bodily and environmental conditions.  There is a sense in which asking how I achieve agency and think is also asking how nature becomes free to think.


  1. jh, my impression from your blogging is that you are not just doing exegetical work with Dewey but really fleshing out some gaps in his work and this isn't explicitly here, and if I have already read Dewey (as I imagine a possible/interested reader of the this text might) than I would want to know why I should also read this work.

  2. DMF,

    You are correct; I prefer synthesis to exegesis, and I am very consciously following the continental tradition of philosophy-by-way-of-commentary. This is not new to pragmatism, but is less overt than in continental. Unlike most who do this, I provide heavy citation and careful analysis as I want to provide continuity to the tradition.

    A response to your question is the next section. Part of my editing is to make the prose more accessible to both a general audience and to pragmatist scholars. The original text presumes intimate familiarity with Dewey's text--which is far from the same thing as intimiate familiarity with his commentators. Those who have the latter without the former raise my blood pressure when they are insistent on a disputed textual point.

    Does the phrase "The unification and continuity of metaphysics and phenomenology is the background goal of this work and situates a foregrounding question." not suggest one reason to read the work? I have been going back and forth since I was writing my dissertation about how fast to "get to the point" in a book introduction. The problem is that if I wade in early, then it is extremely likely that I will be misread even by fellow scholars. I've just seen this too many times to ever think otherwise. Hence, for me the question is how much patience will I ask.

    I would greatly benefit from your advice.

    My target audience, btw, are scholars familiar with or interested in pragmatism.

  3. Here is the next paragraph.

    As much as Dewey has so many answers to contemporary problems, he left so many glaring questions. He rarely dwelled on the negative implications of his model. The possibility of reflective and cognitive control of the direction of thought occurs only within a “problematic situation,” when our activities meet resistance, and we “feel a difficulty.” We stub our toe, are confronted with angry protesters, or are rebuked for racist/sexist/gender insensitivity, and then we reflect. If desiring organizes our activity and may become reflective only in the face of resistance, then to what faces are we sensitive? Dewey’s recognition of the material, bodily, social, cultural, and other factors that constitute mind is not followed by an explanation of how a person without a virtuous character may overcome bad habits, which is a fatal oversight since “habit” functions as “transcendental” in the Kantian sense for Dewey, as noted by Victor Kestenbaum. A habit is a “condition for the possibility of experience” in the sense that a physiological “habit” coordinates sensori-motor perceptual action and associates phenomenal qualities with meanings such that appearing a certain way is perceived as “being a no-good bum.” Habits function as limits of meaningful experience that we do not experience as such, and without a hermeneutic rehabilitation of our own habits as described by John Stuhr, then we may be at the mercy of the arbitrariness of our upbringing. Dewey and I disagree with Aristotle when he claimed in the Ethics that nothing could be done for the character of a person who was poorly educated. Transformation is possible.

  4. as to the first response I would say that a Deweyite likely already sees Dewey as providing such answers/solutions and there are other philosophers who do as well these days, but with the 2nd comment I can see that you are getting to the selling-point of your work, not sure about the patience/lure question so let me sit with it a bit.

  5. DMF,

    The Deweyans are horribly wrong on that point, which is something I have been discussing with amiable senior scholars for years. The phenomenological branch of pragmatism, especially Deweyan, was killed off some decades ago. Aside, first I am trying to serve the tradition, and second I will speak to philosophy at large in subsequent works. My blog has already hinted at the second.

    The selling point becomes obvious once the reader gets there, but I have to get them there first. That's the hard part.

  6. p.s., I don't think I was clear.

    When I'm "serving the tradition," I am speaking to those who may not want to go outside of the tradition to smuggle-in philosophies to appropriate. Contemporary philosophy has become so compartmentalized that people can often easily do that in some traditions, but pragmatism is sufficiently alien to the other traditions such that doing so creates many inconsistencies that are all too frequently swept under the rug. I chastised pragmatists in my article for doing this with Mark Johnson. Too much contemporary philosophy is pastiche--so much so that not thinking in that way seems "wrong" to many. Crossing traditions responsibly is difficult and time-consuming.

    I say this because some, though I think not you, take me as circling the wagons, whereas I really intend intellectual honestly and scholarly precision. Just ask my Asianist scholarly friends about hey their tradition gets appropriated ... they have long since strained their eye-rolling muscles.

  7. afraid I can't come up with a simple solution to all of these tangles/tensions so I would say go with what you have, when it gets reprinted you can alway write a new preface. Will be interested to see how it is received and hope you find some open minds to respond.

  8. DMF,

    The intro vs. get-to-the-point problem is likely to haunt me always. I have already edited it somewhat to streamline it. I am hoping to have a book jacket or something that can get to the point.