John Dewey and Cultural Evolution

What I see in John Dewey’s Instrumentalism is a compelling theory of how the evolution of culture can be consciously guided. Dewey’s ideas about directing the further development of culture rest squarely on his understanding of objects as things with meaning and his understanding of meaning as always pointing to some future utility. For Dewey a thing, be it physical or mental, was meaningful when it was understood that it could be used to achieve some future outcome. A baseball, for example, is for playing the game of baseball. The object, in this case a baseball, can be seen as an instrument that could be used to bring about a specific end, in this case a game of baseball. Another way to understand this is that an object is a sign that points toward a possible future, a base ball points toward the possibility of a baseball game.

When a group of people share the same understanding of the meaning of an object, which means they share the same understanding of the future the object is pointing toward, then the presence of that object among those people will tend to make the future the object is pointing toward more likely to come into being. (Try reading that 10 times fast.) Using our example of a baseball one more time, imagine a playground full of children. If there is a baseball on the ground in that playground the possibility of a baseball game being played will be greater.

Culture is the collection of understood objects, or signs, that are shared by a group of people. The existence of these objects will tend to direct the flow of human energy and activity toward the possible futures that the objects point toward. This means that the people within a given culture will tend to act in ways that follow in the general direction that the objects (signs) of that culture are pointing.

Cultures are exceedingly complex and contain many physical and mental signs that all point toward different possible  ends. Baseballs toward ball games. Chairs toward sitting. Democracy towards forms of governance. Capitalism towards ways of regulating commerce. etc. Some objects are physical and some are mental, some are small with minimal influence in the overall direction of a culture, some are huge with massive influence over the general direction that a culture will develop in.

To guide culture in this model you need to be able to do two things. You need to educate people to be able to correctly interpret the meaning of objects, and you need to strategically place objects, physical and mental, in the culture so that they will guide the development of culture in the direction you want culture to go. Dewey spent his professional career as a philosopher studying education theory and the big ideas, institutions and social structures that have the largest impact in directing the flow of human energy and activity in society.

There is of course one huge hole in this theory of conscious cultural evolution: how do you decide what direction cultural should follow. Think of Adolf Hitler. He was masterful at educating a population toward a shared understanding of the meaning of objects, and at filling his culture with the objects that  would direct the flow of energy and activity of people  in the direction that he wanted to manifest. Unfortunately the results of his efforts were monstrous.  The lack of a clear moral foundation for Pragmatic thinking was a problem that occupied all of the three founders of Pragmatism.

Charles Sanders Peirce came to believe that morality was an inherent part of the universe in the form of a force he called Agapism or “Evolutionary Love.” This force was a pull and preference for that which was most evolutionary and it dictated the direction of highest moral good. Of the three founding Pragmatists William James was perhaps most preoccupied with the question of morality and he developed an updated version of John Stuart Mills Utilitarianism stating that moral goodness was always in the direction that brought the most good to the most people. John Dewey, as I have written about in previous posts, realized that the process of evolution only rewards the potential for still greater evolution. Progress in any other direction would ultimatly become an evolutionary dead end and so Dewey believed that the moral good was in whatever direction led to the greatest possibility for further growth and evolution.