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.
Great! And great drawing 🙂 This can really make our old ways of thinking shake. It reminds me of the mystery of how we can see everything – including all things we do and say – as one big process, things that push other things, one long chain of reactions. Then where is will? where is choice? Then everything is destiny. But we can’ t accept that, cause we feel like we really can choose. It seems so. But even choosing can be seen as just a part of reactions. All we then can think of as an influence on… Read more »
I find Dewey’s ideas so intriguing and couldn’t really argue with his point of the ‘me’ being a social construct of habit and ideas. That’s why change is so so possible.
My question is: does Dewey have a concept of the ultimate Self, of God. The one Self that decided to know itself by posting the manifest into existence?
Wondering what he thought about the ultimate cause of all that is? And whether he thought that this ultimate cause had a will, empty of anything yet.
Happy New Year!
It is nice that I can now take up William James’ book and look what he says about the ‘consciousness of self’ . The remark that I would have myself on your blog is that the idea people have of the ‘I’ Jeff is influenced by the social group themselves and that influences you ‘I’ perception of course. James is talking about the warmth and intimacy of our own thoughts and feelings that nobody can share..this warmth and intimacy is also there when sharing consciousness in a group, but than people outside the group do not share in this intimacy.… Read more »
Much appreciate the distinction that you’re making Liesbeth about the experience of consciousness itself versus contents of consciousness. Interesting life to bring that realization into the life of everyday interactions. 🙂
Yes, that is great what you are saying, Liesbeth, and I think that what you call experience ( the inner dimension, both as I and as we) is relating to what I meant when I wrote that we have to realize something more true. We can do it alone or together, but it is something we can only share the words of, not the actual insight of – unless the one we are talking to can grasp it for themselves.
Jeff’s posting and the resultant conversation are enlightening and enlivening. I’m thinking that it fits in with what we shared in the virtual women’s retreat – how deeply we are affected/formed by culture and by one another. While reading the article, I had a moment of humor when I realized (again) how wrapped up we humans are in a self/culture-created self that has little to do with our authentic selves and stands in the way of us bringing our gifts into the world and into our consciousness. On a practical note, I have someone in my world who consistently reflects… Read more »