As with any important philosopher, Dewey needs to be read and struggled with in his own writing rather than through secondary sources or through the views of others. In 1918, Dewey delivered a series of lectures at Stanford which became the basis for his important book, "Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology" (1921) which offers a point of entry into his thinking, particularly his ethics. In his short Preface, Dewey summarizes the aim of the book as "seriously setting forth a belief that an understanding of habit and of different types of habit is the key to social psychology, while the operation of impulse and intelligence gives the key to individualized mental activity. His primary claim is that ethical thinking needs to be based upon human nature and that prior thinkers, both secularly and religiously inclined, have failed to do this. His thought is what philosophers critical of him might call "psychologistic" because it tends towards the blurring of boundaries between philosophy and scientific thinking. It is naturalistic in that Dewey sees human behavior as part of the natural, scientific world rather than in inhabiting some form of separate, perhaps supernatural or subjective realm in which the finding of the natural sciences do not apply. Dewey sees ethical or moral thinking come into play over a broad range of human activities -- whenever there is a choice of conduct to be made. Dewey writes that "morality is largely concerned with controlling human nature" in matters of choices. As the book proceeds, Dewey becomes more insistent upon the importance of the social sciences as providing a means for directing human action. He sees and rejects claims that using the social sciences as a means of legislation and social control will invade individual autonomy and choice and constitute a form of "social engineering".
Coming out of the age of Darwin, Dewey acknowledges biological nature by noting the obvious (e.g., where "body organs" like hunger and sex are involved), but then moves to his real point, which is that culture forms our human nature in the way that it really counts. "A plastic human nature" he says, "takes form because of its social environment." Nature provides the raw material for human nature (impulses) but impulses and character are formed by culture and habit, which are the "ways of using and incorporating the environment." As biological beings, we all have impulses, but the specific form these take is determined from the outside. Dewey dismisses the overarching "end" of survival as a determinant of behavior, as if all of the day-to-day "ends" of eating, working, socializing and sex are void of survival value. Practically, Dewey is likely right in asserting that "activities of existence" determines most of our behavior, but this doesn't mean that we should not examine the value-laden assumptions that are implicit in any assessment of consequences. These concerns about Dewey's theory matter as any "social engineering" approach that does not recognize individuality can have a significant, adverse impact on an individual's psychological health.
Perhaps I just haven't read enough philosophy, but I'm surprised that this book isn't heralded as a key moment in American philosophy, if not Western philosophy altogether. My one criticism is that, at times, Dewey borders on making blank slate arguments.
What he really objects to is any disturbance of his own vested securities, comforts and privileged powers." "What makes the difference in each of these cases is the difference between a self taken as something already made and a self still making through action.
I'm a fan of Jackson's work on repair, and was curious about how his ideas connected back to Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct. I've been slowly reading it, savoring each chapter on bus rides to work since then.
John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism and of functional psychology. In 1859, educator and philosopher John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont.