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Good Habits:

Establishing a contemporary pragmatic praxis from the writings of John Dewey

Phillip Quintero MA Seminar October 2011 Professor Deva Woodly

Society, as a real whole, is the normal order John Dewey, Ethics of Democracy1

In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey is moved to identify what he sees as a troubling trend in American politics. He argues that the public has been eclipsed, and that what we now think of as democratic practice is in fact a far cry from what we mean by Democracy. In what follows, I clarify several points about Deweys analysis, specifically in terms of the characteristics of American Pragmatism.

Deweys Pragmatic Diagnosis

I. Consequentialism

I find it useful to understand Deweys diagnosiswhat he calls the eclipse of the publicin two distinct but related registers. The first, and where we should begin, is in the world we can observe. In this approach, traditionally associated with social pragmatism, we are obliged to start from observations about what constitutes the political

Ethics of Democracy in The Early Works of John Dewey 1882-1898. Ed. George Axtell and Jo Ann

as it is articulated through practice. Here we find Deweys unique perspective on the very familiar lament that democratic politics in the United States have, in modern times, fallen into disuse and atrophied.2 Exemplifying visible manifestations of this general unfitness of the public, Dewey cites diminishing voter participation. Dewey writes, in 1927, the number of voters is steadily decreasing the ratio of actual to eligible voters is now about one-half.3 The importance of voting to the functional model of democratic polities is hardly in need of explanation: Besides the important formal role a ballot plays in carrying the will of the peoples to their representative government, we can look to the large energies devoted to the study of electoral processes. Understanding and forecasting the winds of voter participation constitutes a large part of contemporary thought about American political practice.4 It was a preoccupation of Deweys from his earliest work. What is important for the pragmatic perspective is that we think of the role of voter participation both as a consequence and, when it is taken note of by political actors, as having consequences of its own. This consequentialism is the hallmark of Deweys writing about social facts. In The Public and Its Problems, he goes on to lend the same perspective to phenomena like the rise of private interest in political decision-making, the reliance on extra-legal intermediary

Boydston. (Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale) v.1, page 232 (hereafter ED) 2 It would be an illuminating project to place Deweys diagnosis of modern democracy among those similar thoughts put forth by Tocqueville, Lippmann, Arendt, and Habermas, for example. 3 John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Athens: Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, H Holt 1927), 117. (Hereafter P&P)

groups to conduct politics, the corruption of elected officials, the inefficacy of the three branches of government to work together, and other observations which make it hard to say that the public, in any meaningful way, is empowered to govern itself. The theoretical commitment here is that the worth of an action, institution, or practice is to be judged in light of the consequences it has. Consequences here are broadly understood as results that affect people. This means that a priori investigations, such as formal logic, will always fall shortparticularly in considerations of achieving a desired outcome. Consequentialism leads Dewey to reject many classical notions of the political. Dewey makes a point, for instance, of calling out theorists who conceive of a social body as a mere mass of individuals. This liberal-individualist interpretation of human political behavior is equivalent to the destruction of society.5 This (conceptual) destruction is a result of the reification enacted by dealing with groups of people as numerical aggregates,6 in that the nonsocial individual is an abstraction arrived at by imagining what man would be if all his human qualities were taken away.7 A philosophy like that of Hobbes, for example, struggles against a false problemit tries to bestow some rational order (or rationalization of apparent disorder) where associated activity has, for human history, always simply been the case.8

Census data suggests that there was a further decline in voter participation starting in the second half of the Twentieth Century, leading scholars like Michael P. McDonald to problematize the figures that document this apparent rise and decline. 5 ED 232 6 Dewey refers to the work of Sir Henry Maine and theories of the rule of the many, which he associates with Hobbes as well as with a misreading of Aristotle (ED 229). 7 ED 232 8 See Nature, Life and Body-Mind from Experience and Nature. Source: The Essential Dewey v.1 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 136.

Deweys vehement resistance to positing causal explanatory powers does not imply that his observed phenomenalike the diminished voter turnoutare irreducible, arcane, or conceptually inert. They share a common thread, according to Dewey, in that they are all consequences of a broader trend by which the power of the public has been eclipsed. In this sense, they provide a useful way at examine the changes in associated activity over time. Dewey provides the most elegant defense of such a perspective in the words with which this paper opens. He considers this a historical point of view, but is quick to qualify that, In taking the distinctively historical point of view we do not derogate from the important and even superior claims of democracy as an ethical and social ideal (P&P 83). This leads to the second way in which I propose to understand him.

II. Democracy as Ethical Ideal

This second way in which we should address Deweys diagnosis of such consequences resonates in the register of ethics. Deweys ethics begin from the simple assertion that that humans are, by nature, social creatures:
Conjoint, combined, associated action is a universal trait of the behavior of things. Such action has results. Some of the results of human collective action are perceived, that is, they are noted in such ways that they are taken account of. Then there arise purposes, plans, measures and means, to secure consequences which are liked and eliminate those which are found obnoxious. Thus perception generates a common interest; that is, those affected by the consequences are perforce concerned in conduct of all those who along with themselves share in bringing about the results Now follows the hypothesis. Those indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil

form a group distinctive enough to require recognition and a name. The name selected is the Public.9

In light of this passage, we can see that it is only through the consequentialist point of view that we can see the ethical principle involved in the notion of humans as inherently social. Deweys ethics are radical in the ancient sense of that wordthe root of human experience is one of community, and the question of proper nature is the same for the individual as it is for the community. This too, reflects the idea of a social organism, where the parts and the whole are interdependent. The basic insight here is that of common interest. The good for the individual, defined as any kind of desired outcome, is always already intertwined with the interests of someone else. One notable consequence of the fact of common interest is that societies care for children. In Deweys eyes, this supports the organic model of society and the inherent sociality of the individual. This ethical ideal is not simply the acknowledgment of something like social mechanics of inertia and chain reactions. Common interests must me managed, or the community (and therefore, in a way, the individual as well) will dissolve. Humans are capable of just such a system; this is how Dewey understands the concept of the state. He proposes that the perception of consequences which are projected in important ways beyond the persons and associations directly concerned in them is the source of a public; and that its organization into a state is effected by establishing special agencies to care for

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and regulate these consequences.10 The state, then, is simply a name given to the institutionalized management of the interests of a public. A state is democratic when the institutions and structures of the management of consequences of shared interest are established and controlled by the public itself. This is the great notion of democracy that pervades the rhetoric of the founders of the American republic. This rhetoric is still with us, but, as we see in The Eclipse of the Public, what we call democracy today fails to qualify as an institutionalized system of managing the consequences of community life which is intelligently designed and implemented by the public to realize those consequences which are deemed desirable.

III. From Technology to Habit

The democracy that can be found today, however, has inherited all of the rhetoric, most of the formalities, and little of the pragmatic sensibility of the original American democratic polities. Unfortunately enough, the imagination of the founders did not travel far beyond what could be accomplished and understood in a congeries of selfgoverning communities.11 This, I believe, is Deweys way of saying that the formal democratic institutions of the founders were not and could not have been planned or intended to work in the modern context. The increasing scale of society has led to a system of governance based on oncedemocratic forms that no longer represent the ethical ideal that the community should

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govern itself according to common interests. English political habits and pioneer conditions had consequences of their own. Local association and town center politics were the format exercised in order to meet community objectives when communities were small and social structures less complex. Dewey uses for his example the Electoral College. This, he tells us, is an institution that achieved its intended effect of vetting candidate through the deliberations of entrusted representatives, because there was a high degree of familiarity and community among the parties involved. Now, by Deweys lights, the same institution cannot produce the results for which it was originally implemented. It is an impersonal registering machine. The same could be said for the system of political parties, or any of the other institutions Dewey mentions in diagnosing the eclipse of the public. It is much harder in a modern society to discern common interests and realize mutually desirable outcomes. The pragmatic approach would thus demand that such institutions be regularly and critically assessed as to the efficacy with which they achieve desirable consequences. We should not be afraid of radical reform! Why has such reform not taken place, or at least been insufficient to call modern political institutions properly democratic? If we think, with Dewey, that the eclipse of the public is a consequence of the anachronistic role that the original institutions of democracy play in todays society (which, I argue, Dewey does), we should also ask if the continued existence of these institutions can be understood as a consequence of something else. I want to ask of Dewey: Why has our society clung to


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the ill-fitting trappings of a much younger, smaller, and simpler democratic republic, and how, in all of our growth, have our state institutions not yet burst at their seams? Under Deweys own analysis, if our contemporary political institutions are relics of a different time, we might come to expect the dissolution of republic. Indeed, this was very nearly the case during the American Civil War. The history of the United States of America is one in which these fissures always seem to get patched up and smoother over. There is some (and somewhat astonishing) capability of the American state to hold the American community, formally, together. Dewey argues that modern political society has adapted to its own unprecedented growth and development in a way that is distinctly apolitical. Rather than intelligently responding and adapting to create systems and practices whose consequences will be in line with common interests, we humans have held on to the institutions and habits that fulfilled these roles in the past, hoping they would continue to do the trick. In fact, the American polity has continued to cohere, for Dewey, due to the consequences of technology employed so as to facilitate the rapid and easy circulation of opinions and information, and so as to generate constant and intricate interaction far beyond the limits of face-to-face communities.12 This is the answer to the how question I mention above. The idea here is that rather than rethink the model of the pioneering community managing its affairs through township government, we have devised ways to treat the expanding community in the same way that founding Americans treated the


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township. This would seem to be the explanation one might give to early critics of popular government as they scratch their heads over the trend of global democracy. This assessment seems to portray political technologythings like highways, parcel delivery infrastructure, cargo transport capabilities, and telecommunications technologyas something of a life support system inducing a wheezing polity to continue respiring. I wonder, however, if there is not more to be said here if we hold Dewey to his own standard by invoking a hard-minded look at the importance of consequences. Dewey is not here saying that the development of capabilities like teleconferencing, rapid transit, and the wonders of digital informations technology have caused the cohesion of the state in the face of its expanding scope of operation. Such an argument is too naturalistic and reductive to pass through pragmatic scrutiny. If we reduce technology to an adhesive forcelike the gluten that allows a loaf of bread to expand in the oven without breakingwe have mystified away the role of the human being. The risk here is of trying to explain away a perceived phenomenon by positing a causal power, which, like an invisible hand, guides the course of history. But, alas, as Dewey reminds us, the public has no hands except those of individual human beings.13 Technology, broadly conceived, is the howthe capability through which American society has been able to maintain its aging political institutions. The next question I want to ask, knowing that this trend issues forth from the hands and minds and mouths of individuals, is why. Why have these institutions not been overhauled where they are ineffective? Can we understand the continued insistence, for instance, of the


perfection of the American Constitution, as a consequence of something else? I believe Dewey has already answered this question in his notion of habit.14 Habits arise as certain techniques are emulated so as to reproduce desirable consequences. Imagine, for a moment, the advent of a technology like assembly-line manufacturing. This new capability produces a desirable outcome for those who implement it, namely, increased material production and profit. The implementation of this technology becomes a technique, or way of doing something. This technique was wildly successful, and individuals recognized this success. Thus, the technique spread until it became habit, that is, the usual way of doing things. Dewey writes, Habits economize intellectual as well as muscular energy. They relieve the mind from the thought of means, thus freeing thought to deal with new conditions and purposes. Moreover, interference with a well-established habit is followed by uneasiness and antipathy.15 Habit-following in this way is a behavior with a notable degree of uncritical thinking. This is what Dewey wants to illustrate with his discussion of the continued reliance on political institutions that were conceived to address a particular set of circumstances that are no longer the case. Institutions are habits. Habits have, however, even more staying power than this sort of inertia. They can be so crucial to the way that conduct is managed, and thus so valuable, that they become customs or tradition. In this

P&P 82 The insight about the importance of habit and custom for this paper is thanks in part to James Campbells essay Deweys Conception of Community in Reading Dewey ed. Larry Hickman (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 23-42. 15 P&P 61
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case they accumulate a certain value of their own, divorced from the original value that caused them to be adopted as habits.16 To review, technological capabilities present the opportunity for new techniques. Certain techniques are recognized as beneficial, and are then emulated to the point of becoming habit. Certain habits carry such weight in the managing of consequences that a community must engage in that we consider them in a special light, as customs and traditions. Understood in these terms, Deweys critique of contemporary American political culture is that we have not been critical enough of our customs and traditions, and as such they no longer serve the common interests of the communities. Instead, they have been appropriated by other interests, such as the goals of bureaucracy, corporations, and individuals of power. In contrast, the customs and traditions of a vibrant community that can effectively achieve what is desirable for all requires customs of association, interaction, shared action, and shared values. We must stop aiming to just get along. Habit, however, is not just Deweys explanation for what has gone wrong in America. Habit-formation, rather than being mindless (like that habit of biting ones nails) is the result of intelligent self-reflection, and is exactly the kind of process through which individuals as members of a public have agency for the future well being of that public. It is well within the power of the community to imagine alternatives to our political culture, but these alternatives will only be realized if they are put into practice, proven effective, and solidified as habits. That is to say, they will not be realized through more or better philosophy.

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The purpose of this essay, it turns out, has been to clarify a pragmatic praxis. As must be the case with such a project, we must conclude that there is further work to be done. Dewey agreed, it would seem, as we can see in his later focus on educationboth as a theorist and as an active member of the public community. I propose to continue this project with an eye towards contemporary techniques and habits. As these are prescribed by the technology that opens up the imagination to conceive of new alternatives, the next step is to look, with a Deweyen lens, at the information technology of today and its political consequences.