Communication and the Mind

I still have a few more thoughts about John Dewey’s profound book “Experience and Nature” to develop in this post and the next before I get to explain what hit me while I was reading a week or so ago. In the philosophy of Dewey communication was analogous to the Thirdness described by Charles Sanders Peirce and also “the world” as Martin Heidegger used the word. Dewey defined communication as both the exchange of words and ideas between people and also the inner dialog through which we “communicate” with ourselves through the process of thinking. The ability to communicate liberated experience from time and place and made it portable so that it could be shared with others. Dewey considered the sharing of experience to be the highest human good.

As he describes it, prior to the development of communication reality is composed of a never ending succession of encountered events. Let’s use an example to try to illustrate this. Imagine that you are a primitive human with absolutely no language faculty (if that was ever the case) that means no ability to label any part of your experience with a word or symbol that could be remembered. Now imagine that you are walking in the woods and then you encounter the experience/event of being thirsty. You walk further and you encounter the experience of hearing rushing water. If you had the ability to use language you might communicate to yourself by thinking in words that,  ”The sound of water means that there must be a river nearby and if I walk towards the sound I will be able to drink.”

Since we are imagining that you don’t have the ability to use language you can’t think anything. I suppose that doesn’t mean you don’t have a memory. So maybe the sound of the river triggers an encounter with a memory of that last time you drank out of a river. That might trigger you to run toward the sound and you might come across the river and get a drink. Without the ability to communicate the experience of being is a succession of events, encounters with circumstances as they arise. There is no way without the use of language to guide events, to generalize experiences so that it could be brought to bear in other circumstances. It is at this level of being that I imagine the laws of Behaviorism would be most effective at predicting behavior.

Now let us suppose that the same thing happens when you do have the ability to communicate. You are thirsty and you hear the rushing water. You think, “That must be a river.” Now the ability to communicate with yourself means that you can generate multiple possibilities for the outcome of the experience of hearing rushing water, possibilities that you would have no way of generating without language so language becomes a tool for creating new possibilities for response to circumstances. You might think, “I should run to that river and get a drink.” Or you might think, “I should run back to the village and get a bucket so that I can go to the river get a drink and bring water back with me as well.” Or you might think I should go back to the village and share my experience of hearing the rushing water with others so that we can all come back to the river with buckets.”

The last option illustrates how communication liberates experience from time and place and allows it to be shared. With language you can go to the village and share your experience verbally without needing to bring everyone back to the circumstance of the original experience so that they can experience it as well.  In this way Dewey saw that communication expands the possible outcomes of experience by creating opportunities to reorganize experience and project different possibilities into the future. Sharing experience allows human beings to work cooperatively and achieve higher coordination of activity between different individuals. The ability to share experience creates a shared space for human interaction which is very much like Heidegger’s “world.” Dewey saw education as the means through which experience was shared and he dedicated his life to improving the human ability to share experience through teaching and learning.

Dewey saw the shared space of communication as the source of what we commonly call mind. He did not believe that the mind was something limited to the human brain or even to a single human individual. Mind was an emergent collection of new possibilities for human interaction that arose with the advent of communication and language. The mind was not something inside of us it was the field of new shared experience and the universe of new possibilities that arose in that field and was shared between people who could communicate together.