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Human Nature and Conduct Paperback – January 1, 2012
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[NOTE: page numbers below refer to a 336-page hardcover edition.]
He wrote in the Introduction to this 1929 book, “Man’s nature has been regarded with suspicion, with fear, with sour looks, sometimes with enthusiasm for its possibilities but only when these were placed in contrast with its actualities… Theologians have doubtless taken a gloomier view of man than have pagans and secularists. But this explanation doesn’t take us far. For after all these theologians are themselves human, and they would have been without influence if the human audience had not somehow responded to them.” (Pg. 1)
He continues, “Morality is largely concerned with controlling human nature… moralists were led, perhaps, to think of human nature as evil because of its reluctance to yield to control… But this explanation raises another question: Why did morality set up rules so foreign to human nature? The ends it insisted upon, the regulations it imposed, were after all outgrowths of human nature. Why then was human nature so averse to them? Moreover rules can be obeyed and ideals realized only as they appeal to something in human nature and awaken in it an active response. Moral principles that exalt themselves by degrading human nature are in effect committing suicide. Or else they involve human nature in unending civil war, and treat it as a hopeless mess of contradictory forces.” (Pg. 1-2)
He states, “One might as well suppose that the man who is a slave to whiskey-drinking is merely one who fails to drink water. Conditions have been formed for producing a bad result, and the bad result will occur as long as those conditions exist. They can no more be dismissed by a direct effort of will than the conditions which create drought can be dispelled by whistling for wind. It is as unreasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning… The fire can be put out only by changing objective conditions…” (Pg. 29)
He suggests, “All life operates through a mechanism, and the higher the form of life the more complex, sure and flexible the mechanism. This fact alone should give save us from opposing life and mechanism, thereby reducing the latter to unintelligent automatism and the former to an aimless splurge… Mechanism is indispensable... Nevertheless the difference between the artist and the mere technician is unmistakable. The artist is a masterful technician. The technique or mechanism is fused with thought and feeling… We are confronted with two kinds of habit, intelligent and routine. All life has its élan, but only the prevalence of dead habits deflects life into mere elan.” (Pg. 70-71)
He argues, “Why do this act if I feel like doing something else? Any moral question may reduce itself to this question if we so choose. But in an empirical sense the answer is simple. The authority of that of life. Why employ language, cultivate literature, acquire and develop science, sustain industry, and submit to the refinements of art? To ask these questions is equivalent to asking: Why live? And the only answer is that if one is going to live one must live a life of which these things form the substance. The only question having sense … is HOW we are going to use and be used by these things, not whether we are going to use them… In short, the choice is not between a moral authority outside custom and one within it. It is between adopting more or less intelligent and significant customs.” (Pg. 80-81)
He points out, “The conservative who begs scientific support from the psychology of instincts is the victim of an outgrown psychology which derived its notion of instinct from an exaggeration of the fixity and certainty of the operation of instincts among the lower animals… He is ignorant that instincts in the animals are less infallible and definite than is supposed, and also that the human being differs from the lower animals in precisely the fact that his native activities lack the complex ready-made organization of the animals’ original abilities.” (Pg. 107)
He notes, “The evil of checking impulses is not that they are checked. Without inhibition there is no instigation of imagination, no redirection into more discriminated and comprehensive activities. The evil resides in a refusal of direct attention which forces the impulse into disguise and concealment, until it enacts its own unavowed uneasy private life subject to no inspection and no control.” (Pg. 165-166)
He points out, “Reason, the rational attitude, is the resulting disposition, not a ready-made antecedent which can be invoked at will and set into movement. The man who would intelligently cultivate intelligence will widen, not narrow, his life of strong impulses while aiming at their happy coincidence in operation.” (Pg. 196) Later, he adds, “We may indeed safely start from the assumption that impulse and habit, not thought, are the primary determinants of conduct. But the conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that the need is therefore the greater for cultivation of thought.” (Pg. 222)
He proposes, “When a sense of the infinite reach of an act physically occurring in a small point of space and occupying a petty instant of times comes home to us, the MEANING of a present act is seen to be vast, immeasurable, unthinkable. This ideal is not a goal to be attained… It is the office of art and religion to evoke such appreciations and intimations; to enhance and steady them till they are wrought into the texture of our lives. Some philosophers define religious consciousness as beginning where moral and intellectual consciousness leave off… But they have falsified the connection by treating the religious consciousness as something that comes AFTER an experience in which striving, resolution and foresight are found… But there is a point in EVERY intelligent activity where effort ceases; where thought and doing fall back upon a course of events which effort and reflection cannot touch. There is a point in deliberate action where definite thought fades into the ineffable and undefinable---into emotion… The religious experience is a reality in so far as in the midst of effort to foresee and regulate future objects we are sustained and expanded in feebleness and failure by the sense of an enveloping whole. Peace in action not after it is the contribution of the ideal to conduct.” (Pg. 263-264)
He acknowledges, “Is the conclusion to be drawn a conviction that our wider social interests are so different from those in which intelligence is a directing factor that in the former science must always remain a belated visitor coming upon the scene after matters are settled? No, the logical conclusion is that as yet we have no technique in important economic, political and international affairs. Complexities of conditions render the difficulties in the way of a development of a technique enormous. It is imaginable they will never be overcome. But our choice is between the development of a technique by which intelligence will become an intervening partner and a concealment of a regime of accident, waste, and distress.” (Pg. 276-277)
He says, “To say that the welfare of others, like our own, consists in a widening and deepening of the perceptions that give activity its meaning, in an educative growth, is to set forth a proposition of political import. To ‘make others happy’ except through liberating their powers and engaging them in activities that enlarge the meaning of life is to harm them and to indulge ourselves under cover of exercising a special virtue.” (Pg. 293)
He argues, “The question is not what are the antecedents of deliberation and choice, but what are their consequences. What do they do that is distinctive? The answer is that they give us all the control of future possibilities which is open to us. And this control is the crux of our freedom. Without it, we are pushed from behind. With it we walk in the light.” (Pg. 311) He adds, “We do not use the present to control the future. We use the foresight of the future to refine and expand present activity. In this use of desire, deliberation and choice, freedom is actualized.” (Pg. 313)
This is one of Dewey’s most important works, and will be of keen interest to anyone studying his philosophy.