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The Self and the Social Organism

In my last post I explained that John Dewey believed that our self identity is a learned habit of identification that does not necessarily indicate the existence of any actually existing entity that could be called “a self.” We first learn to act and then we learn to identify those acts with an entity that we call me. The self is a mental construct – a collection of habits of behavior and thought. 

This discussion initiated with an inquiry into the nature of the social world. The American philosophy of Pragmatism developed as an understanding of the self not merely as a personal habit of identification, but also as a socially held mental construct. As individuals we have developed a strong habit of associating our actions with some entity called me. When I act I habitually assume that some entity that I call Jeff decided to initiate the action. This is the notion that Dewey was challenging with his concept of “the stream of activity.”

 

But, not only do I habitually assume that my actions are originating with an entity called me, but everyone around me also assumes that my actions originate from an entity called me. When I do something offensive the people who are offended will hold some imagined entity called Jeff responsible for the offending action. They will assume that “I” did something offensive and they will respond to me from this assumption. When I do something that makes people happy they will thank me as the originator of the action.

 

In this way our identity is not only personally, but socially held. Everyone we meet will treat us as if we are a choosing, deciding entity. This will constantly reinforce this perception. Those who know me personally will not only treat me as an entity, but also as a particular entity named Jeff that has unique characteristics. They will expect me to act in certain ways and when I act out of character they will respond to let me know that I am not acting like “myself.”  

My identity as Jeff is a habit of identifying certain thoughts, feelings and actions as belonging to an imagined entity that exists somewhere inside me. This habit is something that I personally hold and that others hold about me. John Dewey was developing a vision of human culture as an organic whole. Where individuals and the ideas they hold about themselves and others is in a constant state of interaction with other individuals and their ideas. This constant interaction results in certain behaviors. What fascinated Dewey was the creation circumstances that would continually expand the range of possible responses for each member of society.

 

This vision of a social organism raises some important questions about individual will and responsibility, as well as the relationship between the individual and society. These questions we will continue to explore in future posts.