John Dewey and the “ends” of the Universe

The third of the founding American Pragmatists was John Dewey. In the early 1870’s while Charles Sanders Peirce and William James were busy brewing the original conceptions of what would become Pragmatism; John Dewey was a young teenager growing up in Burlington, Vermont. Louis Menand in his book “The Metaphysical Club” refers to Dewey as the last of the Vermont Transcendentalists because he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Vermont, a university that whose first president was James Marsh an early Transcendentalist. By the time Dewey attended the university the philosophy department had turned decidedly Hegelian and Dewey might have become a decidedly Hegelian philosopher had he not read William James’ book the “Principles of Psychology” and been converted to the perspective that would become Pragmatism.

Like Peirce and James, Dewey’s vision of reality is fluid, progressive and evolutionary. Peirce’s philosophy leaned toward a description of the evolution of the cosmos. James’ philosophy was centered on the subjective experience of the individual. Dewey staked out a claim to the middle ground between the cosmic and the personal and spent his life focused largely on the evolution and development of culture and society.

 In his book “Experience and Nature” Dewey described nature as an “affair of affairs” and by that he meant that it is a process filled with other processes. Dewey describes how our experience of reality tends to be dominated by what appears to be a succession of discrete and separate things. These things he says are actually not separate things at all; they are the ends of historical events. “Ends” he says have a unique quality to them. When a succession of events culminates in some final moment, that moment feels like a termination, an end point that contains a quality of completion to it. The ending might be a happy ending or a bad ending, but either way it feels like an ending.

The esthetic quality of endings, according to Dewey, tends to grab our attention. In the flow of ongoing activity it is the endpoints that stand out and get noticed against what appears to be a blurry background of ongoing activity. As a result our experience of reality is as a succession of ending moments. In truth every end is the end of a history of successive events. Every end is also the beginning of some new history and every beginning of a new history is also the end of an old one. Reality is one flowing river of histories within histories bounded by still other histories. Because we get mesmerized by the ends of the history we don’t see the continuous flow that the histories are a part of. It is like being mesmerized by the shimmering sparkles on the surface of a river and missing the river.

Dewey believed that if we were  “weaned from partisan and ego-centric interest” we would discover that nature is “a scene of incessant beginnings and endings.” This recognition he said was “the source of philosophic enlightenment.” For those familiar with the Buddhist idea of dependent origination you will recognize the distinct similarity. Everything is emerging out of what happened before in a never ending stream of becoming. This sense of the rushing creative flow of reality was at the heart of the view of all of the three founding pragmatists.

I was thinking about all this in relationship to one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember having dinner with my family at the end of a wonderful day at an amusement park. That moment that I remember, sitting at a booth in a restaurant having just eaten and talking with my family about the day we just spent together is all that remains in my mind of the day. That moment was the end of the history of that day at the park. The history of that day was part of the history of my summer vacation. The history of that vacation was part of the history of my life. My life is part of the history of American’s of my generation. The history of American’s of my generation is part of the history of America. The history of America is…can you can keep going until you see that everything is part of the history of this universe. But we don’t perceive this “affair of affairs;” we just perceive the end of a great day at the park.

Once an end arises the first time it can then be conceptualized and we can if we choose work to recreate it. Ends that can be conceptualized and potentially recreated Dewey calls “ends-in-view.” Deciding which “ends-in-view” are valuable enough to be worked toward recreating and determining how best to guide the flow of evolution toward those ends was what Dewey dedicated his long and enormously successful career toward.