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The Ego is Not the Cause of Action

The American philosopher John Dewey was against the notion that there is any entity that could be called an ego that is the cause of our choices and actions. Activity happens as a response to the changing environment not as a consequence of decisions made by a willing agent. As I explained in my last post, Dewey recognized that our identification with some entity called “myself” as the willing agent of the actions that occur through my body is merely a habit of identification.

Dewey was perplexed with William James’ strong libertarian belief in freewill especially since James himself had dealt some of the “hardest knocks” to the notion of “the self” with his own theory of the stream of consciousness. James essentially said that there is no “self” that is the perceiver of our experience. There is just an unending stream of experience. Parts of that stream are the awareness of objects and parts are the experience of being aware – which, as James reminds us, is itself an experience. There is no transcendental ego that exists outside of the stream of experience that stands separate and apart from that stream in witness of it. There is just a continuous stream of experience and because that stream includes experiences of being-aware-of we presume the existence of an ego that is the being-aware-of agent.

In the same way Dewey is formulating a conception of a stream of activity. Human action as I described in my last post is explained by Dewey as the enactment of habits. There is no doer that is guiding action; there are just habits that have been learned or developed for ways of acting in response to our encounter with circumstance. As we continually engage with the environment, that encounter stimulates habits of action and habits of thought and emotion. As long as there is no disharmony between the environment and our habitual ways of acting, thinking and feeling we remain essentially unconscious.

Think of how we all get up out of bed, make coffee, take a shower, get dressed and leave the house in the morning without really being aware of it all happening. The whole process is simply a manifestation of habit. What happens if just before we leave the house we reach into our coat pocket and realize that we don’t have our car keys? At that point we become consciously aware of ourselves and the circumstances around us. There is a disharmony between the environment and our habits – something is out of place and we need to consciously engage to return to the harmonious union of habit and environment.

The awakening to consciousness that occurs in the face of disharmony Dewey sees as the impulse of life itself. The impediment of the harmonious enactment of habitual ways of being generates an awakening to life as an impulse of urgency, immediacy and directionality. It is directed toward the future and compelled to restore the harmony between habit and environment. This impulse in human beings will initiate a process of thinking. Thinking is the mental rehearsal of the predicted outcomes of different courses of action. When a course of action imagined in the mind seems to promise the satisfactory restoration of harmony that action manifests in the physical body. If harmony is restored we merge again into the stream of activity. In the case of having lost our keys. We will immediately start to  review thoughts about places we could look for them and then try out the places that are most promising. Once we find our keys we walk out the door and continue on unconsciously until our next encounter with disharmony.

Dewey’s point is that all of this can happen without any need to imagine that there is any “ego” or “self” that is a willful acting agent that makes decisions and spurs activity. Life is simply an impulse that continually seeks to maintain the harmonious union of habit and environment. Human beings are a living form through which life continues its quest for harmony.