The Habits of John Dewey

The American philosopher John Dewey described social institutions, customs and norms as habits that develop in society over time. He is quick to point out that habits are not merely passive boundaries that limit activity to certain well worn grooves. Habits he insists are energetic, they drive us to action. Anyone who has ever struggled to quit smoking cigarettes will be able to relate to the energetic drive of a habit.

Dewey was a Pragmatist and Pragmatists are process thinkers. His view of reality as a singly continuous process leads to an amazing view of social structures as habits. Typically, as I mentioned earlier, we relate to habits as constraints on our behavior. We are the active agents who do not want \ to smoke, but the force of habit keeps us from quitting. Dewey was taking a different view. He stressed the fact that it is the habits of society that are the active agents not us. We are not acting according to habit. Habit is acting itself out through us. As he saw it, human society is a collection of habits that are continuously acting themselves out in human form. As society develops it is not people that are developing, it is the habits themselves that are developing. Human beings are the medium, not the artist.

This might sound nonsensical to you. Habits don’t seem like active agents; we experience ourselves as the active agents that develop habits. Even if our actions are being molded by habit, it is still us that is deciding to act. Dewey refutes this by pointing out that the idea that we are acting agents is itself a very strong human habit. We think that we are an agent that acts on intentions, but that perception he describes as a retroactive explanation of reality.

Let me illustrate what I think Dewey is getting at with the example of the common custom of saying “hello.” Many people are in the habit of saying hello when they meet someone. If you ask them why they do it they will say that it is the polite thing to do. Essentially they are saying that they are a polite person and so they say “hello” because that is what polite people do. But how did the habit of saying hello actually develop in most of us as young children in the first place. Probably our mother, father or other caretaker repeated the word hello to us over and over again at different times. One day we imitated what we heard and said hello. At that point we probably had no understanding of what we were saying, or even that we were saying anything. We were only imitating the act of making a particular sound.  When we mentioned to imitate the sound clearly enough some adults probably started pouring over us with affection and attention. Through repeated reinforcement of this type we started to develop the habit of saying hello to everyone we saw.

Only later, once we had some mastery of language, did we learn from adults that saying hello is polite and that we should be polite. The idea that there are polite people, and that polite people say hello, and that therefore we should say hello, all came after the development of the habit of saying hello. And every child learns to do many things through imitation long before they are taught to identify themselves as the active agent who is choosing to do certain things because they are or want to be a particular kind of person. Eventually the child learns the habit of always identifying themselves as the active agent who chooses to do all of the things that they do.

We all have a very strong habit of seeing ourselves as an active agent choosing to do things in the world. That habit has developed through the history of human society. In this way Dewey is making the point that the self is actually a habit of identity that human society has developed. When culture evolves it is not human beings that evolve, it is habits that do. Habits that are advantages to society live on; those that are detrimental die out. But it is not human beings that evolve it is society itself that is developing. And one of the habits that evolved is the habit of seeing ourselves as active agents that are choosing to act in the world.


(Note: This is not the end of Dewey’s social philosophy, he does see a role for human agency, but an explanation for that will have to wait for another post.)