John Dewey and Cultural Evolution

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 5 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Ok, so since capitalism points towards more commerce, then there must be a mixing of ..hmmm a type of egocentric greed ? (I call it facism in the true sense) that develops in the collective consciousness of the major corporations that works against the cultural good…or as Dewey might like the continual drift toward constant evolution (the dynamic spiral, yes as in Spiral Dynamics). It seems clear to me that there is a force trying to keep the culture at odds with itself, so it thinks that we are going somewhere when in fact we are going nowhere..fast! But that… Read more »

Shizuka Mori
Shizuka Mori
11 years ago

To Jeff I’m goose bumped. A. “Culture is the collection of understood objects, or signs, that are shared by a group of people. “ I ‘m thinking, may be 1. the reality =culture 2. Culture (reality) doesn’t exist without sharing the same understanding of the meaning of object. B. “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.” As far as my observation and experience, I agree with you and it make perfect sense how we are able to create the reality. C. “How… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

So what would culture look like without money?
see Zeitgeist Movement.

Money and relationships, are they not push/pull objects of influence? So perhaps it goes back to some form of laws of attraction?
And I always have a struggle with great posts (blogs) such as these because generally they always seem to be a chorus being sung by the same choir. There is just no way certain sectors of culture would ever see these posts…probably the ones that need it most.

Thanks

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Jeff, On human morality: Humans are animals which are highly social. All social animals need behavioral rules (which can be innate or learned) in order to get along with one another. Humans cannot become fully human except in the context of human society. Thus we can achieve our highest individual “self”-expression only within the context of human society. But we are also individuals as well as social animals. Thus there is a never-ending tension of individual and/or social animal. This tension can and does drive many humans crazy. We seek a perfect balance of self-as-individual and self-as-group-member. Such a perfect… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hello all, re: “understanding of meaning as always pointing to some future utility”

To be proven in the marketplace of things and ideas is a rather reliable way of verifying the truth of those things and ideas. It’s a democratic and pragmatic dynamic, where a majority of thinkers and consumers rule. In time, this hegemony may be invalidated by change and new info. This is how we advance, lurching toward “enlightenment”.