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The Emergence of John Dewey

As I think more about the way John Dewey was seeing the world I can only think in terms of emergence. Dewey seemed to see the world emerging constantly as an interconnected whole, not as separate pieces. He saw each moment as the eruption of a total affair, a total event. The world is a constant and singular interplay of energies that we label as this and that, then and now, only after the fact.

To try to understand this I have to start with the deep sense of an unknown mystery that I believe you find in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James as well. Dewey was influenced by these thinkers as well as by the Hegelian school in which he was first taught, to see that before the world of human understanding appears a mysterious world beyond understanding unfolds. This mystery pours itself forth as the evolving universe and we are each a part of that pouring forth, as is every object, thought, emotion or anything else that exists.

The pouring-forth is one ongoing process of creation. It is a one whole not a succession of parts and pieces and relationships. Only after it has appeared does the human mind wraps ideas and thoughts around it all to create the world as we experience it. From the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and emotions that arise, we look back, even if after only a fraction of a second later, and label everything. This thing is first. This one second. This is a house, this is a dog and this is a plant. This is me, this is not me. This is pain and it came after I cut my leg. This is my lost pet and it preceded my joy at finding it.

Our experience isn’t really chopped up in this way, at least that is what I believe Dewey would contend. It is all one emergence. The seemingly separate parts and pieces of this moment do not appear before me one thing at a time, they are here all together and at once. Then we draw all the lines. Make all the distinctions and circumscribe the boundaries.

Try for a moment to see things this way and watch all of your protests. “No,” your mind will say, “that is not the way it happens.” Things appear in order, one thing follows another, some things are causes and other things effects of those causes. 

I don’t believe that Peirce, James or Dewey would disagree, at least not entirely. They would say yes of course, those assumptions are true. But they are not true because they are an accurate and unshakeable representation of reality. They are true because believing them to be true proves the best guide for activity. You can and must bet your life on them, but hold on to them lightly because they may stop serving you tomorrow or the next day. Every truth is on trial and must prove itself with each act of faith that rests upon it. If you hold on too tightly to the notion that what you believe is actually true, you may find yourself holding a false idea long after you should have traded it in for another.

The idea that the Sun goes around the Earth each day probably helped millions of people rest securely each night knowing the sun would come up tomorrow. Many felt certain that the world was flat, that leeches could cure disease and that a pocket full of posies would ward off the Bubonic Plague. Don’t you think that many of the ideas that we believe are true and currently see as absolutely accurate reflections of the way things are, will look equally primitive to our children’s, children’s, children in the future? Do you know which ideas these future beings will laugh at and wonder how we could possibly have gotten along believing in? Are you holding on to some of those too tightly right now? If you let go of them just enough to know that tomorrow you may throw them out altogether, can you still get along today?

I believe that this spirit of betting your life on what you know, while at the same time holding everything with an open hand, is the psychological and spiritual attitude that John Dewey and the other Pragmatists were calling us to. It is an evolutionary attitude, born in the recognition that change is the rule not the exception. It means leaning forward, rushing through life slightly off balance, but ready to change direction at a moments notice.

To me Dewey was always pointing toward the future. Seeing the universe emerge as a swirl of interactive energies he wanted to know not what objects and ideas represented in the present moment, but where they were taking us. How was the flow of energy being affected by objects and ideas? How was it being guided, accelerated or blocked? And was the flow of energy taking us in a direction that would lead us to more growth and expansion?