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?
Excellent blog, Jeff. Your words are becoming ever more relevant, clear and rooted in an ongoing inquiry, as well as thrilling in terms of their implications. What will become of us, as we hold fast to the useful patterns of predictability and causality while also opening to the extraordinary potentiality of the newly emergent?
I was struck as if by a arrow of revelation by these words in your engaging post: “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.” These words awaken in me at a deeper gut level to the realm of spirit and its omnipetence and realness. This world beyond can also be characterised, based from my experience, as the overarching context within which we human beings live our lives. The mission of the human… Read more »
Hegel was a major influence on many of the American thinkers. During the time that Emerson was in Concord the St. Louis Hegelians were active in Missouri. The St. Louis Hegelians published a magazine called “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy” that published some of Emerson’s work and was still around to publish Peirce, James and Dewey decades later. These Hegelians would come to Concord for 10 weeks in the summer to have a conference with the transcendentalists. Peirce outspokenly agreed with Hegel’s view of Absolute Idealism. James battled over Hegel’s notion of the Absolute, but had more similarities with Hegel… Read more »
Thanks Jeff. I am intrigued to hear about your position on the manifestation( if any) of Hegel’s philosophy on today’s American culture. The Hegelian relationship with Andrew Cohen’s evolutionary philosophy appears on the surface to me to be strong although possibly indirect ie via James and possibly other transcendentalists. The interesting aspect here is I sense that Andrew Cohen maynot have in fact read any( or very few) of Hegel’s works which would make both their philosophies so much more real and true , with both men having arrived at similar positions from what to me appear to be different… Read more »
It was only in my adult years that I learned about Dewey’s learning-by-doing and came to realize that I was the fortuitous beneficiary of being in a public elementary school in a part of Honolulu of working class families. My father had come to Hawaii when he was 14, my mother was born in Hawaii but spoke English as a second language. All my 4 siblings went to that elementary school where I thank my lucky stars I got the kind of early education that instilled in me the love of learning reinforced by Chinese respect for eduacation. In the… Read more »
Frank thank you for the description of your time in a Dewey school.
Jeff, which of our truths will seem primitive to our descendants? Let’s take a stab at answering that. How about eating cooked animals, emitting CO2, coins, no school in the summer, nations, even war?
I agree with these, but they are behaviors, not ideas. What are the ideas that we hold behind these behaviors – not honoring all life, not recognizing the interconneted nature of reality, etc…
As if ideas were not behavior…….?
But this is not a duel, and there is an important point.
The evolution of ideas, and of consciousness, really is the evolution of behavior.
So the key to understanding the evolution of ideas, and of consciousness, is in the natural science of behavior.
I realized that you were making a good point – it was also a clean hit. 🙂 My travels to a recent philosophy conference helped me better understand Skinner’s behaviorism and gain more appreciation for his integrated and holistic view of reality. Still I don’t completely understand what point you are getting at. Are you saying that the best way for us to evovle consciousness and culture is to learn the pronciples of behaviorism and practice them? Or is there something else that you are trying to get at?
This morning I read an interesting article in the newspaper, which I immediately connected with your blog of being totally open towards the future; it was called ’Einstein really did not think about the Tomtom when doing his research.’ The article talks about the negative effect of ‘wanting proof of the effectiveness of scientific research IN ADVANCE, while groundbreaking discoveries are never planned: ‘science is a journey through terra incognita, an erratic path without a preselected destination. Real investigation is taking risks, failure is the norm. Scientific facts are mostly discovered by accident and IN TIME they will be of… Read more »
Nice post, thank you. I like this expecially: “…
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.”
beware the self serving critiques my good man
Jeff, I’ve been busy and not checking in. But my point, as you asked a couple of comments ago, is that instead of speculation about what all of this experience might and might not BE, which I do not believe we will ever be able to know anyway, it makes more sense to me to understand how it WORKS. That can be understood in a very clear way by means of natural science experimental methodology, the scientific method that Skinner created. When you talk about “behaviorism” that is really a philosophy. What I am pointing to is what is called… Read more »
Hello Carl, Your thoughts are always welcome here and in fact I find them very valuable. I guess I would be interested in taking this thread of discussion to the next level. I am not so sure that this investigation is binary – in that I mean that either behavior science is the way forward – or – philosophical/spiritual speculation is the way forward. I think that both types of inquiry offer something very different and both will at least for a time play a valuable role in moving forward. At least that is what I believe. Recently I was… Read more »
Spirituality is to science as poetry is to prose.
Carl, I would like to make excuses for my narrow idea of behaviorism. I got very interested in pragmatism and what I learn is –as you say- the big difference between the philosophy and the day-to-day meaning the word has. Just as for lay-person behaviorism is ‘Pavlov’, the word ‘pragmatic’ as read it in the newspaper, means that it is ‘practical’, that we immediately want to see results, or that we know the result we want and look at it in that way. In these blogs it is often used in this way, but what Jeff is explaining now about… Read more »
Another very interesting blog followed by deep comments ! the magic for me when I write a comment is that I feel my head is full of inspiration and I know it is time to pour them in a writing, but I have no clue how or what will come out. About “ pouring -forth, the ongoing process of creation”. There is one aspect of this emerging Force which seems missing [ or it is me who didn’t feel it between the lines ?] it is that this Force of Evolution is Alive. This force is precisely the Force of… Read more »
In the philosophy of Evolution of Andrew Cohen, I find very little reference to Steiner. Even in the magazine, I dint’ find many serious papers about him. Right now, I am completely falling in love with Steiner’s Evolutionary Spirtuality. My judgement is that he is a giant of the caliber of Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin. He is so universal that he make the links between, mediation, alchemy, biology, Goethe. I feel it would be fruitful for any serious s evolutionary spirituality to integrate the five Basic books of Rudolph Steiner. Here is the first one, a philosophical book about… Read more »
Dear Catherine, I just called a friend who has been very much into Steiner. She read all his books. I asked her to respond to you because she had quite something to say about it, but she said that because she is not part of his organization (even though she has a friend who is) she might be wrong, things might have changed. What she said is that Steiner´s practices are so many, so endless -he says it is reachable for anyone- but in the end nobody is able to reach his state, which is that he has a sense… Read more »
Hi Lisbeth ! yes I agree with your friend. What I saw of the followers of Steiner never gave me the wish to read him. And that’s a pity that I got this prejudice since he is a real giant ! To be a follower is a difficult thing really. When one looks at what happens to followers of greatly inspired teachers, only very few are shining of independent spiritual Force. Christ , Bouddha and Ramakrishna somehow succeeded to have the first generation of shining followers but that is all. Disciples completely destroyed the Aurobindo and Mother heritage [ to… Read more »
Catherine, I was just traveling and suddenly saw how stupid my post was (as I often see after posting). I read the word Steiner and only thought about my friend instead of really reading what you said. This points to something which I think connects very much to Cohen’s teaching. I only see what I am interested in instead of really responding to what is investigated. And that is what his teaching is about. Real investigation, finding out something new about what is investigated through autonomous thinking. The only way to learn to investigate is to learn not only to… Read more »
Hello Catherine, it is always a pleasure to read your posts here. I totally agree with you about the fact that the process of evolution is alive. Although I may not have conveyed that well, it is definately in John Dewey’s thinking. Dewey was initially schooled as a Hegelian and as such he definately had an organic veiw of reality. In fact it was in reading a book about biology that he had his own insight into the fact that life is the primary metaphor for reality. This also puts him in the Romantic tradition of thinking as was Hegel.… Read more »
Then I recommend the first one; the Philosophy of Freedom. To a follower asking him what will stay of his work after his death, Steiner answered -“ Nothing, except this first book. But, he said, everything an be found again when one understand this book.” Actually since it is very close to the other authors you are studying and Steiner’s philosophy indeed follows Hegel [ but maybe even more Goethe], that would be really great to put him into context. I feel he is as well completely original and poorly understood, but maybe here, it is juts my lack of… Read more »
I am fascinated about Steiner because his awakening occured, from my understanding, during a time when he was charged with cataloging the scientific works of Goethe. Goethe also had a huge influence on the American Transcendentalists and many see Ralph Waldo Emerson as a direct continuation of Steiner’s work in America, some have even told me that Steiner predicted that his work would move to America.
Hi Catherine, re:
“What is the seed of a Thought ?
What is the seed of an action ?
What is the seed of a behavior ?
Can we say that seeds are the germ that contains the potential for the full development of any phenomena. First comes the germ that develops into a seed and then the manifestation of a thing if the seed falls on fertile ground and then grows and hopefully flowers and fruits. ??
Hi again Catherine, re: “…if a spiritual teacher didn’t transmit the Sacred Fire to you in a few years, why stay ?” It may be true that the teacher has little to say to you personally but even if after staying for a while where you become restive, guard against the kind of impatience that expects quick answers that may be too urgent an expectation of a kind of whamo results. If a teacher can still inspire questions and the feeling of mystery that promises “answers”, there still may be value in staying on. Like in love affairs, if there’s… Read more »
Hi Jeff re: “I totally agree with you about the fact that the process of evolution is alive.” I was so impressed with Ken Wilber’s assertion that the omega point of evolution (which of course continues till the end of human existence and of Creation) is Enlightenment of humanity. Evolution of our physical bodies may or may not continue but the morphing of our interior beings is certainly going on, IMO what with our development of tech tools. Perhaps at some point even our physical beings may become radically morphed. Hindus see our enlightened state as simply points of light,… Read more »
Catherine, I just talked about Steiner in the break at my work and there where two people confirming that Steiner actually was ‘wrong’ during the 2nd world war, that he had very weird ideas about Jews.. This is one of the big riddles in life for me, just like priests in the way they are now in the news: how is it possible to be so much in contact with higher consciousness, to know the importance of how one lives a life and than do things that are so completely totally opposite to what one would expect. I agreed with… Read more »
My accepting the critique of my colleagues towards Steiner yesterday, without checking it myself was definitely an example of how ‘untrue stories get into the world’. Checking it just now, I did not find that he was wrong in the war. Instead I found that Adolf Hitler in person blew the horn starting the campaign against Steiner, in denouncing anthroposophy as a “Jewish method of destroying the normal state of mind of the peoples”. There is a lot to be found on the subject on Internet, in very different ways, it is a study in itself. Steiner wrote things like… Read more »
Dear Lisbeth, I just would like to clean a bit Rudolf about the accusations of anti-semitism. Steiner died in 1925, so I feel that he is safe about accusation of being an anti-semite during the 2nd world war…. So I have no clue where those rumors come from. In the biography of Gary Lachman, [ who is himself a Jew] there was nothing of the kind. Gary was more concern with Rudolf’s apparently very long celibacy, the allegations that “he didn’t like women”. But then again, he is one of the very few to have met a complete soul mate… Read more »
Sorry Lisbeth I didn’t see this last blog, and yes you are right, I forgot that the Nazi hated Steiner. His philosophy is everything they could hate. It is incredibly tolerant [ and at the same time elevated].
To Frank, sorry to answer so late. You are right of course to caution me against impatience. You saw it right; it is one of the keys in me. I am getting too greedy [ impatient]. For the contemplation of “what is a seed”. What fascinated me is that not “everything” has a seed. You can pour water as much as you want on a rock it will never grow. This looks trivial, but the question fro me are “ what are the seed in me for my development”. More generally, “what are the seed of development of the human… Read more »
Hi Catherine, I checked it with my friend and she said he was a great man and that they are often misused by people who take words from them and put it in a different context. She said he expressed ideas that that might have been abused by people: that different groups of people should develop in different ways. The guys at my work said later that his words where misused in the war. I have philosophy of freedom here next to me and look forward reading it. I am very inspired by what I read from him and I… Read more »
you will not be disappointed. It is a life changing book… are you ready for a great adventure ?!
I first wanted to end Whitehead, but you convinced me to first read Steiner. I still want to make excuses for the things I have said, I am ready now, lets go…