Embracing Constant Flux

I am on a roll with John Dewey. I was reading through his book “Experience and Nature” for the second time and something finally clicked and I started to see what he was getting at. Once that happpens it is like reading a different book, suddenly I started to be able to understand what I was reading. I am going to put up a short flurry of posts on it so that I can describe what I got out of it.

The embrace of continuity through time is at the heart of the Pragmatist’s view of life. All of the founding American Pragmatists, Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey emphasized the relentless ongoing flux of reality. Everything to them was in a state of transition between what has been and what would or could be. Nothing is fixed or settled, everything is constant movement and evolution.

John Dewey called this embrace of the transitory nature of reality “the source of philosophic enlightenment.” The reason we don’t see reality this way according to Dewey is because it is simply too unstable, insecure and scary. Throughout history human beings have always celebrated “ends.” After the hunt there is a feast to celebrate its completion. The ends of affairs give us a sense of stability. In a universe of constant flux we want to find some fixed objects that we can anchor to. The ultimate fixed anchor throughout human history has been the belief in a static and unchanging god. No matter how crazy things got there was always god up there in the sky, never wavering and helping us feel safe.

Dewey felt that even in his time (and I would extend that to us today) people give too much weight to ends. Nature is a collection of histories and these histories do come to ends, but every end is also a beginning. The need to find security by identifying fixed objects in a sea of unending change remains with us and manifests as our habit of defining reality in terms of fixed objects and the ends of histories,. In doing this we are missing the fact that every fixed thing is also a transition to something else and that reality ultimately is one unending continuous stream of change.

I have a butcher block table in my kitchen. That table is the end of a long history. That history started with a tree that was cut down, hauled to a saw mill and cut again into boards. The boards were hauled to a lumber yard where they were displayed and then purchased. The boards were sent to a factory where they were turned into a table that was boxed and shipped to a store. The box sat in the store until I bought it, brought it home and put the pieces together and placed the table in my kitchen. Once that was done I stood back and admired my new table. In effect, I was celebrating the end of the history that brought me the table.

To my way of thinking, what Dewey was getting at is that this perception of the table as an “end” is a distortion of reality because it is not the whole story. The table is an end of the history that I described, but it is also the beginning of the histories of all of the meals that I am going to prepare using it. Seeing the table not only as the end of a history, but also as a means to other ends was central to Dewey’s conception of Pragmatism. Dewey referred to this perception as seeing the “instrumentality” of the table and he called his version of Pragmatism, Instrumentalism.

Dewey, like Peirce and James before him, was trying to articulate a new perception of reality. He was trying to peal human attention off of immediate ends, off of the illusion of fixed objects and put it on the instrumental and transitory nature of things. Everything is not only an “is” it is a “becoming.” When I walk in to the forest and see a tree, I am going to habitually see it as the end of a history that started with a seed, but the tree is also the start of a history that will end as a butcher block table in someone’s kitchen.

The transformational insight of Pragmatism is the fundamental shift in awareness from seeing predominately only the present state of things to seeing the future possibilities of things. When we embrace that everything is in a constant state of flux, a relentless transition to what will be, we begin to incorporate more of the future’s possibilities into our immediate experience of the present. This is also the fundamental shift in perception that evolutionary spirituality supports in people. The result of this shift in perception is an increase in the ability and effectiveness with which we can adapt and change. I believe that in a world such as ours, in which so much change of such enormous magnitude is called for over such a short period of time, this perspective is invaluable.